Does COVID-19 Show Us How Meat Can Save The World?

Belcampo farm in northern california

Oh, the controversy! Seriously though, meat is one of our best chances at saving the world. How? A little something called regenerative agriculture. As COVID-19 puts cracks in the walls of the factory farming model, regenerative agriculture is thriving. This is prime time to switch to a system that provides healthy meat that also helps the planet. 

In the face of the pandemic, many of America’s largest meat processing plants have shut down for fear of transmitting Covid-19. Meat prices have skyrocketed and purchase limits are being enforced.

Yet local, organic, and regenerative style farms appear to be thriving. Butcher shops that partner with local agriculture have not had to raise prices, are seeing booming business, and see no shortage in sight. What’s the deal?

The deal is that factory farming is not sustainable. The system is expensive, inefficient, bad for the environment, and yields unhealthy products. The only reason it is able to run at all is the result of government stipends that put the financial burden on you, me, and the farmers who are actually doing things right.

While the president issues executive orders to keep processing plants open, I see this as an opportunity to instead shift towards regenerative agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture, unlike factory farming, is sustainable and actually improves the environment by restoring soil environments and removing carbon from the air. 

The key component? Animals! Livestock is the driving force behind these benefits! So yeah, meat can literally save the world (even if you don’t eat it.)


What COVID-19 Tells Us About Factory Farming

Cows in a factory farm setting

You might have noticed that your local grocery store is out of meat, and when you do find the rare sirloin, it’s $3 more expensive per pound. This is because Covid-19 has devastated the meat supply chain. The factory farm infrastructure is too multi-modal and too distant from the shelves of our stores.

From government stipends to large scale infrastructure, factory farming is the 2-ton gorilla in the boxing ring. Usually.

In the face of the virus, however, the massive inefficiencies of the system have begun to show. Tyson Foods, which processes 1/5 of the meat in the nation, have stated their pig processing has been cut in half. Many of the U.S.A.’s largest slaughterhouses have closed down. Of those remaining, some are only in operation because the president of the united states has issued an executive order.

Factory farming relies too heavily on large slaughterhouse operations that are often unsanitary and already deal with issues of contamination by E.Coli and other pathogens, not to mention Covid-19. 

Meanwhile, regenerative agriculture is thriving. The massive shortages in the meat supply have created booming demand. Butcher shops and farmer’s markets can team up with local farms to supply meat that is far higher quality and does not rely as heavily on the already strained national transportation system.

I have read countless accounts of butchers with booming businesses around the U.S. and few of them are concerned about a meat shortage. This Berkeley butcher shop, for example, has no concerns about running out of meat despite lines that run out the door daily.

Typically factory-farmed meat is much cheaper than grass-finished meat, but because of the pandemic, you can now often buy a grass-finished steak for around the same price as a low-quality grain-fed one. Might as well support the higher quality regenerative farms, at least during the pandemic. 


What is Regenerative Agriculture, and Why Is It Meat?

Cow in field in front of Mt. Shasta

This all brings me around to what I really want to talk about in this article: Regenerative agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture is a method of farming that restores the environment and fertilizes the soil. 

Unlike factory farming, regenerative agriculture is carbon negative, meaning that when all resources are factored in, it removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it adds to it. 

Here’s the most interesting part: It’s animal-based. Sure, there are ways to be regenerative while focusing on crop production alone, and many people choose vegan and vegetarian diets in order to help the environment.

Loosely speaking, regenerative agriculture uses livestock to imitate the soil restoring effects of how Bison and other wild animals once grazed the land. 

As the animals feed, they poop. Poop acts as fertilizer that creates a rich soil environment that feeds robust plant life. This plant life pulls carbon from the atmosphere, improving the environment.

Done properly, this process restores topsoil to a deep level, making robust and fertile lands. The plants that grow in this soil then pull carbon from the atmosphere, and good regenerative agriculture ends up removing more greenhouse gas emissions than it contributes. 

The net result? Truly sustainable farming practices. What is especially interesting is that animals are the key component of the process. Plant-only agriculture has not been able to replicate these results. 

But wait for a second Keenan, I thought cows were the leading cause of pollution. Surely the solution can’t be cows?

While it is true that factory-style meat production contributes to gas emissions, it seems that the numbers are conflated. The Food & Agriculture Organization states that livestock contributes 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, roughly equal to transportation.

However, scientists such as Dr. Mitloehner of The University of California-Davis have pointed out that these figures are miscalculated. At the end of the day, the figure is much closer to 4%.

It also seems to be the case that the cows themselves are not even the biggest contributor of GHG emissions within the livestock system. Instead, machinery used to farm crops to make feed, as well as the extensive worldwide transportation chain, contribute significantly.

Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, does not rely on polluting machinery. The cows feed off the land directly. Furthermore, since most regenerative farms supply locally rather than globally, there is less carbon emission involved in the transportation of goods. 

I mean think about it, if cows themselves were the leading contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, then the 30 to 60 million bison roaming the plains in the 1500s should have kicked off climate change long ago. 

Maybe you don’t believe climate change from gas emissions is a big deal. Sure, I can see the argument for it. After all, times, when the earth had greater carbon in the atmosphere, were abundant with life. Humans didn’t exist, and we’re not necessarily adapted to such a world, but life was quite abundant. 

We still need regenerative agriculture. More important than reducing GHG emissions is the need to restore soil environments. Big, mono-crop agriculture is steadily destroying fertile land. 

According to Professor John Crawford of The University of Sydney, if we do not change our agriculture methods, we have about 50 years of healthy topsoil left. If we do not change our methods, food production may drop by 30% in the coming decades. 

John goes on to state that we need to move carbon from the atmosphere to the soil in order to feed the micro-organisms that make the soil fertile for plant life. Sound familiar? 

I could keep beating this horse to death but here’s the deal: There is a form of livestock agriculture that removes pollution from the atmosphere and restores topsoil. I don’t think it’s a matter of if we’ll switch to this style of agriculture but when. 

That’s the 10,000-foot overview of regenerative agriculture compared to factory farming. I strongly recommend reading more about this topic. Dr. Mark Hyman’s new book The Food Fix is a great resource, as are pages such as this blog post by Joyce Farms. 

I know I know, it’s all well and good to suggest supporting these farms, but the meat is far more expensive. What if I told you that’s not actually true? At the end of the day, factory farming is far more expensive, but it dumps that economic burden on you and me (the taxpayer) and on the few farms doing things right. 


The Stipend Issue

Right now because of COVID, meat from regenerative farms is comparable in price to meat from the factory system. However what about when the pandemic ends? It can be pretty hard to justify paying $8 a pound for beef from regenerative farms when you could get it for $3 a pound at Walmart.

What if I told you that factory meat is actually more expensive? If that’s true, why do we, the consumer, have to pay more for regenerative meat?

The problem has to do with government stipends. As we mentioned earlier, growing crops in order to feed cows is expensive. It involves machinery, depletes the soil which then requires artificial fertilizer, and relies on a large transport chain.

However, the factory farming system dumps a large amount of that financial burden on you and me (the taxpayer) and, ironically, on the few farms actually doing things right. 

Since the great depression, the government began paying farmers subsidies and stipends to grow certain cash crops on their land. These grains, such as corn and wheat, are used extensively as feed even though they are not good for cows.

Unfortunately, over time the livestock economy evolved around theses stipends. Rather than acting simply as extra cash, now the local farmer must often rely on their stipend just to stay in business.

So, the reason that grass-fed meat is more expensive is that these farmers do not use their land to grow grains and get their stipend. Instead, the regenerative farmer must go it alone in an industry where supply and demand are built around government stipends. 

In short, grass-fed farms shoulder the economic burden while factory farming gets a big fat check for destroying the environment, promoting a globalized economy that makes it harder to be a local farmer, and provides you with the meat of sick animals.

If the factory farm system did not have stipends and had to shoulder the economic burden themselves, I think you’d see that meat from these sources would be just as expensive if not more so than regenerative agriculture. 

So, yes, grass-finished meat does cost more at the store, but in the long run, it is probably less expensive. We just pay the price of factory-farmed meat with our taxes. 


The Health Benefits of Grass-Finished Meat

Happy cow grazing in a giant grass field

There is much debate as to whether meat is healthy or not. The vegan movement is as strong as ever, yet simultaneously the carnivore diet has emerged in, of all places, the functional medicine space.

Personally, I believe humans are biologically evolved to consume meat as a staple in our diet. There are nutrients that are simply not easy to get on a plant-only diet (creatine, vitamin K2, B vitamins, etc.) that are very easy to garner from meat. The liver is the most nutritious food on the planet, and meat is more bio-available than most plants. 

As far as research, most of the research saying meat is unhealthy is epidemiological, meaning it is based on surveys. Meat is not properly isolated as a variable. Correlation does not mean causation, and the consistent findings that meat correlates to lower health outcomes may be the result of unrelated variables like the healthy user bias. 

For the time being, I believe that meat is a healthy component of human nutrition. However, I think that the quality of the meat you eat matters greatly.

Regenerative agriculture yields meat from animals that live active lives feeding in a natural environment. Although there is debate about whether the nutrient content of grass-fed is better than grain-fed, I believe that meat from regenerative agriculture is much healthier for us.

Animals from factory farming are given copious antibiotics. Some research supports the idea that these antibiotics can affect us if we eat these animals, resulting in drug resistance in humans and greater susceptibility to disease.

Another difference between grass-finished and grain-finished beef is its fat composition. Grass-finished animal fat has better omega ratios than grain-fed. 

Furthermore, fat is one of biology’s toxin storing organs. Antibiotics, heavy metals, and other toxins may accumulate in fat on animals that are raised in factory environments.

I know that personally when I eat too much beef fat from grain-finished sources, I sometimes get headaches or feel queasy. However, I’ll eat grass-finished beef fat or suet with no issue. 

In short, I do support eating red meat for health. However, I follow the “you are what you eat eats,” principle, and stick to grass-finished sources. 


Finding A Regenerative Farm

I think the best way to source healthy meat is to look for a regenerative farm. However, there are also many labels that can help. You may have noticed I’ve been using the term “grass-finished meat” to refer to meat from regenerative agriculture. However, this is partially inaccurate.

Grass-finished means that an animal has fed on grass for its entire life. Many animals that are labeled grass-fed, but not grass-finished, are given grains at the end of their lives to fatten them up. However, this is enough time to change the composition of their fat and lower the health benefits for you and me. 

Grass-finished is a great way to identify good red meat, but other animals are not always labeled this way. Chicken, ducks, pigs, turkeys, etc. are all animals that are raised on regenerative farms that do not necessarily eat only grass.

For these animals, you’re more likely to see the term “pastured” or “free-roaming.”

Unfortunately, you can use these terms to describe animals that are not raised in a regenerative manner. Animals that have a small yard but are still given feed can be labeled as pasture-raised, for example

So in short, Grass-finished is a good way to identify beef from more regenerative sources, but pasture-raised and other labels you may see don’t necessarily mean anything. This is why, again, I recommend identifying a farm and then just sourcing your meat from there.

The top regenerative agriculture farms I buy from are:

Belcampo, who is now partnered with The Ready State

White Oak Pastures

Joyce Farms

These three all provide some of the highest quality meat from animals that are pastured, grass-fed, etc. in the truest sense. You can also find grass-fed beef using sites like eatwild, which acts as databases for local grass-fed farms. 

Another tip, if you’re trying to lower the price massively, try to buy in bulk. You’ll need a meat freezer, but I’ve seen deals for a quarter or half cow that run close to $6 a pound. These packages include many choice cuts like ribeye that normally run closer to $20 a pound. 


For My Vegan Friends

If you’ve made it this far without closing the tab, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. All-in-all, I respect veganism. As a former Buddhist, I understand the moral reasons behind veganism, and most adherents of the diet want to make the world a better place. 

As you already know from reading, I believe it is better for our health to eat meat. As a health writer who once suffered from chronic disease, I have no personal reason to pursue this belief. I like meat, sure, but at one point I needed to do anything I could to get my health back. 

I personally felt worse when I tried veganism and felt better when I included quality meat. I may be genetically partial to such a diet though. I am of Nordic descent and it is likely my ancestors relied more on meat for their nutrition due to the harsh winters of their lands.

With all of that said, I’d like to make one argument in defense of this article, even if you are vegan.

Statistically speaking, humans are not likely to stop consuming meat any time soon. While this is the case, I’d rather my meat come from farms that restore the environment, feed animals food that does not make them sick, and yield healthier products.

Even if we did all switch to a plant-based diet, it would behoove us to include grazing livestock on our farms in order to keep restoring topsoil and remove carbon from the atmosphere. Whether we like it or not, It is definitely easier to economically justify this type of agriculture when these expensive animals feed the population.

That’s all I really have to say here. I humbly thank you for reading this article despite our difference in opinion. I am always open to other views and I’d love to discuss with you in the comments or via private message. You can reach me at [email protected] or by sending me a message on my website: keenanerikssonfitness.com.


Conclusion

Regenerative agriculture uses animal grazing to remove carbon from the atmosphere and restore soil ecosystems. It addresses two of the biggest problems facing humanity right now: climate change, and degraded soil environments. 

As Covid-19 creates the first cracks in the walls of the factory farming system, I believe this is prime time to switch our focus to regenerative farms that do just about everything better.

Is it more expensive? Yes and no. Factory farming only produces less expensive food because of government stipends, but the system is overall far more expensive; It just doesn’t have to pay those expenses directly (we do.)

By voting with our dollars, we can have regenerative farming as our primary system instead of factory farming. With farms like Belcampo in California leading the charge, the future can be one of healthy food, humanely raised animals and a restored environment.

Even if you are a Vegan, a regenerative agriculture system is far better than continuing to support the factory farming system. Though you may prefer people to stop eating meat entirely, the regenerative practices that are most effective involve animals. Since, based on statistics, people are not going to stop eating meat any time soon, the source might as well be one that also saves the environment. 

Regardless, thank you so much for reading and I hope this information helps you further improve your ready state.

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