Earth-friendly beef: How sustainable grazing practices can protect soil, water, and biodiversity

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock
I wasn’t one of the lucky kids who got to grow up on a ranch. No one back then would have expected me to work on livestock production and grazing lands. We lived in the suburbs, and I come from a family that had mostly worked in factories, not farming. I was even a vegetarian in my teenage years, on the grounds that I didn’t want to eat an animal if I didn’t know and feel good about how it was raised (which is still true).

My love for the outdoors and need to be near nature led to my early career as a botanist and restoration ecologist. Through my early jobs and in my graduate school research in grasslands and on ranches, I learned two key things about land stewardship:

  • Livestock is one of the best tools available for managing land to benefit soil, water, and biodiversity. Essentially, good grazing management in the right places is good for native plants and wildlife; grazing animals can help manage fire risk, and strong rural economies rooted in ranching help slow urban and agricultural sprawl.
  • Ranchers are deeply committed to protecting the natural resources that make their livelihoods possible. This is true of ranchers in California, the Great Basin, the Dakotas, Florida – all across our country. For example, Meredith Ellis, a second-generation rancher in Texas, uses soil health and sustainable grazing practices to help sequester carbon, withstand extreme weather events, safeguard water quality, and provide consumers with beef they can feel good about buying. You can check out her story here.

Those early years spent studying grasslands and working on ranches instilled a deep appreciation in me for the people who dedicate their lives to producing food and the many—often overlooked—contributions they make to land management.

Now, through my work with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), I’m lucky enough to partner with local ranchers to promote the conservation value of grazing lands and advance sustainability goals across the complex beef supply chain.

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By partnering with family-owned cattle operations to test new on-ranch practices and collaborating with food companies to source sustainable beef products, we’re working to mainstream livestock production practices that actively restore and regenerate nature—practices that are good for ranchers and the environment.

To get there, we must first understand the value of what’s at stake, acknowledge the challenges that stand in our way and define a clear path forward.

The vast footprint of working wildlands

More than 770,000 cattle operations span the United States, and 90% are family-operated. The ranches and grazing lands where beef cattle live most of their lives total about 775 million acres nationwide. That’s the size of Alaska, Texas, California, and Montana combined.

These incredibly diverse lands include native grasslands—the least well protected habitat type on earth— like the iconic prairies of the Great Plains as well as the rangelands of the Great Basin and desert Southwest, savannah of California, and pastures in the Southeast.

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This part of the U.S. agriculture system contributes $76 billion to our economy. But these private, public, and tribal grazing lands provide more than economic benefit and food. These “working wildlands” also provide wildlife habitat, secure freshwater, and help mitigate climate change by drawing more carbon into the soil.

Farmers and soil health practices are a big part of the picture, too, since most beef cattle are finished on grain after spending a large part of their lives on grazing lands. In fact, as much as one-third of the 90 million acres of corn grown in the U.S. ends up as feed.

There’s too much common ground between ranchers, farmers, and conservationists to not work together toward mutual goals. The people and families who care for these valuable lands are the backbone of rural economies and essential to a world where nature and people thrive.

Challenges and a path forward

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has worked for decades with farming and ranching communities to collaboratively advance conservation. We have supported numerous voluntary conservation easements, partnered with local organizations, supported federal funding for ranch stewardship and protection, and used our own lands to research and demonstrate how livestock can help regenerate nature.

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While successful in many ways, those efforts have yet to ensure long-term conservation across these vast and varied lands and communities. In fact, many grasslands and rural communities that depend on these lands are experiencing greater challenges and risks than ever before: land values that outpace profitability from livestock grazing, more droughts and floods, and market shocks like we saw in 2020 due to COVID-19.

In recent years, TNC has expanded our work to engage more deeply with initiatives and companies in the beef supply chain, engaging and advancing robust sustainability programs.

Given its importance economically, and strong influence on natural resources, the beef industry—from farmers and ranchers to restaurants and retailers—is uniquely positioned to help safeguard and steward nature, while benefitting producers, rural communities, and consumers.

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So, what can the beef industry do to ensure a healthy environment, while ensuring ranchers and farmers sustain their livelihoods and deliver quality food products? A seemingly simple but essential first step is for leading companies to recognize that healthy, functioning ecosystems and thriving agriculture operations are the foundation of a secure and equitable food system. That then needs to lead to committing to improving the environmental and socio-economic sustainability of their supply chains, setting robust goals, and investing in implementation, including tackling climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It also includes working diligently with civil society, producers, and other companies to define and identify a path to environmental and socio-economic sustainability, for example by actively participating in the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

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Collaboration is key

Several companies are making significant commitments. Last year, Walmart U.S. and Sam’s Club U.S. announced new aspirations to source fresh beef products more sustainably by 2025, with a focus on grazing management and soil health across an additional 12 million acres. This announcement came after TNC worked with Walmart to identify opportunities and actions to improve sustainability in its beef supply chain to help improve soil health and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

In collaboration with TNC and the University of Minnesota, McDonald’s analyzed their beef and chicken supply chains to identify climate mitigation opportunities. Based on this work, McDonald’s is now building programs with their suppliers to meet their company’s ambitious 31 percent greenhouse gas reduction goal.

Our work with McDonald’s and Walmart led to the development of a Roadmap for a Sustainable Beef System, which is helping more companies identify opportunities and take action to make improvements within their supply chain while tracking progress toward their environmental goals.

In essence, we’ve created a science-based approach that can help companies create solutions that are environmentally beneficial and economically favorable for producers while delivering a product that meets consumers’ expectations.

Sustainability needs to be the business-as-usual approach in the U.S. beef industry in order to ensure long-term food supply, economic security for ranchers and their communities, and a healthy environment for us all. Taking that a bit further, the food production process needs to actively restore and regenerate nature, and there’s no time to waste. Seeing two of the world’s largest purchasers of beef take proactive steps to achieve sustainability within their supply chains signals tremendous momentum in that direction.

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But much more needs to be accomplished, quickly, and we can only get there by working together.

Sasha Gennet, Ph.D., leads The Nature Conservancy’s Sustainable Grazing Lands strategy in North America, a role that relies heavily on her 20+ years of experience in natural resource management, research, planning and policy. Sasha leads an interdisciplinary team of science, conservation, policy, and communications experts to achieve widespread adoption of conservation management practices on U.S. grazing lands, as well as protection and conservation of working lands. Find Sasha on Twitter @SashaGennet

A version of this article was originally posted at Dirt To Dinner and has been reposted here with permission. Dirt To Dinner can be found on Twitter @Dirt_To_Dinner

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