How We Can Make Beef Less Terrible for the Environment

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Author: Eric Toensmeier | Published: May 30, 2018

When I began investigating how to capture carbon dioxide to fight climate change a decade ago, I had no way of knowing which tool would have the greatest potential. Years later, in 2015, when the environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken hired me to work for Project Drawdown to help model the impacts of 23 land-based climate change solutions, many on our team were surprised when a relatively unknown solution called “silvopasture” emerged as the most powerful agricultural production practice — the ninth most powerful method overall.

Silvopasture systems combine trees, livestock (ruminants like cattle, sheep and goats) and grazing. Ranchers and pastoralists plant trees or manage the land for spontaneous tree growth. The trees provide shade, timber and food for livestock. In most silvopasture systems, the carbon captured in soil and trees more than makes up for the greenhouse gases (methane and nitrous oxide) that ruminants emit through belches and flatulence. One study of intensive silvopasture in Colombia found that emissions from livestock were equal to a quarter to half of the carbon sequestered in soil and biomass.

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