Grass fed cows, your health and climate change

cowphotoGrass fed cows….it’s trickier and not quite as simple as it seems…

Clearly and intuitively, it seems like it would be better for us and for dairy and beef cattle to live their lives on open pastures, grazing on grass. This assumption would seem to apply, both from the perspective of how the cows live their lives, and also from a health and climate perspective regarding both beef consumption and the consumption of dairy products from grass fed cows. We are going to try to unwind some of the tricky parts for you and also help you ask the right questions so you can find the right places to look for answers.

As our Climate Mamas and Papas know, we talk a lot about the need to move quickly ways from our addiction to fossil fuels, which is the primary driver of human induced climate change. We speak less often about an equally important driver, the agricultural industry where large scale factory agriculture is producing huge amounts of methane gas (from animals and waste products) as well as from the unhealthy treatment of soil. This disrupts an important role that soil can play in slowing down climate change through a process called carbon sequestering. As well, we know that pesticides and fertilizers cannot only have harmful impacts on our health and the foods we eat, but also contribute to climate change; so many stories to tell and a lot of dots to connect. We are going to only focus on a few of these dots in this post.

We work from time to time with Stonyfield, a company we are happy to be affiliated with as we feel they really do “walk the walk” on sustainability. Occasionally we are asked to review a new product or take a second look at an existing one. Recently we were given the opportunity to sample Stonyfield’s 100% grass fed yogurt. We listened to two experts Stonyfield introduced us to: Dr. Drew Ramsey who spoke about the health benefits of yogurt from grass fed cows; and Tim Joseph, chief farmer, owner and operator of Maple Hill Creamery, whose cows supply all the milk used to make the Stonyfield 100% grass fed yogurt. We learned a lot. We want to share some of Tim and Drew’s wisdom with you, as well as some initial thoughts about the climate impacts of grass fed cattle yogurts.

used with permission: Maple Hill Creamery/Stonyfield

used with permission: Maple Hill Creamery/Stonyfield

First things first, until recently there was no certification or standards program help a consumer feel confident that they were purchasing 100% grass fed dairy products. In 2013, Tim and Maple Hill Creamery set out to create a standard that would recognizes all the critical steps that were being taken on farms like Maple Hill Creamery, to ensure that 100% grass fed really meant what it said. Tim worked with Pennsylvania Certified Organic (POC) to create a standard that took a traceability model used in organic labeling all the way through supply chain, beginning with farm and up through the processing facility all the way to the shelf, working to unify this in dairy case. When you see the POC label, you will know that this is a choice they can feel confident about and one that has taken important steps to bring you a healthy product.

Used with Permission: Maple HIll Creamery

Used with Permission: Maple HIll Creamery

We also learned that until this POC labeling, the certification process for organic and grass fed only meant that the cows needed to graze in pastures for 30% of their diet. That leaves a lot of 70% of what they eat to come from other sources, like corn, soy or other non grass fed supplements. This is important not only from a health perspective of the cows, but also of the dairy products that they produce. This means that even in the northeast, where you clearly cows aren’t just grazing in pastures in the winter, they still need to consume grass in the winter, which requires careful planning by the farmer. Needless to say, it clearly isn’t as simple as it seems.

Dr. Ramsey pointed us to a February 15, 2016 New York Times article that highlights a new study on grass fed organic dairy products and how they compare to non grass fed products. The main show that milk and milk products are significantly different, with the grass fed products containing higher quality fats, 40-80% and more omega 3 then others, which are all essential to human brain health.

On to the climate impacts, which are equally complicated and require much more research, thought and understanding then we have time to delve into here. Here are a few facts. We know that methane gas, a greenhouse gas, is 34 times more potent then carbon dioxide over 100 years and 86 times more over a 20 year period. That’s one of the reasons that natural gas, which is mostly methane, is proving to be a false choice as an alternative to coal. Cows and farm animals produce methane, from both ends of their bodies, when they burp and fart. It may sound funny, but in the huge numbers we are raising these animals and consuming their meat and dairy products, this is a significant driver of climate change. At the Paris Climate Conference in late 2015, reports put this number between 15-20% of all human induced climate change. Also though, factory farms animal waste, often relegated to huge waste pits, releases huge amounts of methane into the air too. So grass fed should be better right? Not so fast.

Recent studies suggest that grass fed animals may burp more, creating more methane. However, does that mean that grass fed animals are worse for climate change? It depends on a lot of things – on the amount of real grass they eat, how the fields they graze on are managed, and on things like the number of cows in a herd. Grass fed herds by the very nature of the space they require to graze on, are managed in smaller numbers then animals found on factory farms. From what we have read, the benefits of grass fed seem to out way the negatives. In fact, Judith D Schwartz, in her book, ‘Cows Save The Planet’: Soil’s Secrets For Saving The Earth shows us how proper management of soil could solve a long list of environmental problems….including reducing carbon emissions that are drivers of climate change. More research needs to and is being done on this. Clearly, what we do know is that there is too much meat consumption taking place in many countries, with the USA topping that list. Clearly it’s complicated and one simple fix is to reduce or eliminate meat consumption entirely. We hope this has generated a lot for you think about, to research, and to discuss with the kids in your lives.

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 5.08.32 PMGetting back to the new Stonyfield 100% grass fed yogurt, which is where we started, we want to let you know we loved it! We tried 4 favors – vanilla, plain, strawberry and blueberry. We ate them out of the container, in smoothies and used them in recipes. For so many reasons, starting with taste and down the line to quality, health and climate, we loved these yogurts and highly recommend them to you!


Climate Mama

P.S. ClimateMama is being compensated for this post. As well, we did receive grass fed yogurt samples at no cost from Stonyfield. However, the views and opinions expressed in this post are entirely our own and were not in any way influenced by anyone.

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One Response to Grass fed cows, your health and climate change

  1. Web Designer says:

    I think the largest issue regarding climate and food is the consumption of meat, which is responsible for massive pollution, water usage, and land usage. Just from the food that cows in industrial agriculture are fed, we could feed 10 Billion humans. By far the best thing one can do to reduce their personal carbon footprint is to stop eating meat, or reduce their meat consumption dramatically. See Cowspiracy documentary for more info.

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