How 'regenerative farmers' help reduce greenhouse gases

Farmers say people can still take a bite out of climate change while eating red meat, pushing back against global headlines calling for major changes to the world's farming and eating habits. 

An age-old method for raising cattle can actually help reduce greenhouse gases, farmers argue

A grass-fed cow in a field south of Ottawa. So-called regenerative farmers say that raising grass-fed cattle can actually help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to combat climate change. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Farmers say people can still take a bite out of climate change while eating red meat, pushing back against global headlines calling for major changes to the world's farming and eating habits. 

A UN report released last week left people hungry to know more about what they should eat if they want to help curb the climate crisis. Although it stopped short of explicitly advocating switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended reducing meat consumption.

"It hurts my soul to hear that we're viewing red meat as detrimental to climate change," said Ottawa farmer Amber Payne. "I look at it as a solution to fix many global problems."  

Payne is one of a number of small-scale "regenerative farmers" who believe that raising grass-fed cattle can actually help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

"We use animals here as tools on the land to capture the carbon and store it in the ground," Payne said.

Carbon capture, as it's called, involves keeping plant life healthy so it can pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into the soil, trapping it underground. 

Amber Payne tends to her cows at her farm, Arc Acres, in Greely, south of Ottawa. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Her cows graze on grass in a large field by the side of a road in Greely, in the south end of Ottawa. 

Every morning and evening she moves them along to a new spot to let the grazed ground regenerate, promoting the growth of plants. She said that helps fight climate change.

Age-old method

It may be a convenient argument for a beef farmer to make, but there is merit to it, according to Ryan Katz-Rosene, a University of Ottawa professor who is the president of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada. He also lives on a farm that produces sheep for meat and wool. 

He said there are a number of ways grass can sequester carbon. He compares his and Payne's farms to the prairies before modern times, when grazing buffalo helped maintain the natural ecosystem and create carbon-rich topsoil.

"In a pasture or in a grassland, those grasses are pulling carbon dioxide out of atmosphere," Katz-Rosene said. But he conceded the million-dollar question is whether more carbon is being captured in that grass than is being emitted by methane-producing cows.

'Not a magical solution'

The person who might be able to answer that question is one of Canada's top experts in the field of agriculture and the environment. 

Dr. Raymond Desjardins is a senior research scientist at Agriculture Canada. He was recently appointed a member of the Order of Canada for developing techniques to quantify greenhouse gas emissions.

He said the amount of carbon currently being sequestered in most grasslands is relatively small — but the amount of carbon in the soil beneath that grassland is huge.

Dr. Raymond Desjardins, pictured in his office at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, was part of the IPCC team that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. (Jennifer Chevalier/CBC)

According to Desjardins, the question that needs to be asked is: What would that land be used for if cattle weren't grazing on it? If perennial grasslands where cattle now feed were turned into annual crops like canola or wheat, he said, significant amounts of that carbon would be released into the atmosphere.

"You can lose a lot of carbon if you shift from perennial crops to annual crops. So having cattle eating grass is good, but it's not a magical solution for solving the climate change problem."

He said consumers don't need to stop eating meat, but they do need to be aware of the emissions associated with the food they eat.

"Eating grass-fed beef might be better [than grain-fed beef] for the environment. However, there are a lot of things to consider."  

For instance, grain-fed cattle in traditional feedlots are more efficiently raised — meaning they grow faster — leading to less methane being produced per unit of feed they consume. Grass-fed cows take longer to grow, hence more methane is produced before they are slaughtered.

Know who grows your food, farmers say

Katz-Rosene agrees that so-called regenerative farms aren't a silver-bullet solution. It takes a lot of land to raise beef on a pasture — one of the biggest concerns of the UN group that released the report, he said. 

"It's a serious limiting factor."

Payne moves her herd to a new spot every morning and evening to let the grazed ground regenerate, promoting the growth of local plant life. (Laura Osman/CBC)

But, he said, there's no guarantee your plant-based protein is being grown in an environmentally sustainable way.

"They could be in Kansas or something, and producing some massive mono crop of soy using glyphosate [chemical herbicide] and synthetic fertilizers and enormous amounts of diesel," he said. "Is that ecologically beneficial?"

Payne, who said she's dedicated her life to nutrition and sustainable farming, said the first step for most people is to simply become more conscious of where their food is coming from, no matter what they're consuming. 

"What are their practices? What are they putting on their soil?" she said. "Get to know the people that grow your food."

How small farms can act as 'carbon sinks'

4 years ago
Duration 1:25
Amber Payne, who runs Arc Acres farm near Greely, Ont., says smaller farms are often beneficial for the environment, trapping carbon in grass-covered soil.