By BECKY GILLETTE
STARKVILLE — Before a recent interview for this article, Dr. Allen Williams had already answered emails from people in a dozen different countries.
“And that happens every day,” said Williams, a sixth-generation farmer who is a partner in one of the largest grassfed protein operations in the country, Joyce Farms Inc., and a founding partner of Soil Health and Grass Fed Insights, LLC. (see www.understandingag.com). “We consult across North America and the world. We consult in all phases of agriculture, not just animal ag, but row crop production, fruit and vegetable production, and nut production. We see agriculture globally as it exists and we see the issues that exist, as well.”
Williams said all phases of agriculture have work to do. With crop production, severe erosion and runoff issues resulting in things like the toxic algae blooms that closed Mississippi beaches this past summer, thus costing more than $4.1 million in lost tourism revenues. That closure was largely a result of row crop production, not animals.
“We have an agriculture-wide issue, not just an animal issue,” said Allen, a researcher and former professor at Mississippi State University. “If you are truly serious about solving the issues we face with climate change and ecosystem health, then we must be addressing all of agriculture. We must have agriculture to eat, and simply eliminating animal proteins won’t help, but will exacerbate that problem, causing even more runoff and more erosion, more leaching of chemicals, worse water infiltration problems, greater floods and more drought. We have to eat, we must have agriculture, so let’s see about solving issues in the whole of ag and not pick one and say this is the issue.”
Recently the United Nations came out with a warning that consumption of beef and dairy products must be greatly curtailed in order to prevent the most devastating impacts of climate change. There have also been arguments made that feedlot cattle produce less methane—a potent greenhouse gas—than grassfed beef raised on pasture. That is a jarring conclusion to people have turned toward grassfed beef as an alternative that is healthier for humans, more natural and humane for the animals, and a system that builds soil health.
Williams feels that research leading to those conclusions is based on faulty assumptions. Williams pioneered many of the early adaptive grazing protocols and forage-finishing techniques for grassfed animal production, and has consulted with more than 4,200 farmers and ranchers in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and South America on operations ranging from a few acres to over one million acres. He said the modeling that pins outsized blame for greenhouse gas emissions on grassfed beef is data based on theoretical modeling.
“I was on the faculty quite a while and still am a research scientist,” he said. “When you talk about theoretical modeling, you have to make certain assumptions. If the assumption is incorrect, then the output must be incorrect. That is exactly what is happening. Many assumptions are incorrect. I have thoroughly reviewed much of the research. People like me were never contacted; they never contacted real grassfed beef producers for our data. The vast majority of peer-reviewed grassfed research publications from universities have holes big enough to drive a freight train through.
“I go to conferences and hear presentations that don’t remotely resemble what we as practitioners do. We were never consulted to design and implement their research. Honestly, we look at their research and look at each other and go, ‘huh?’ You can’t do research on a practice that you yourself have no expertise in and then call it legitimate research. Bad data in, bad data out.”
Williams said the studies condemning grassfed beef chose the wrong breeds, the wrong genetics, and the wrong types of production showing the cattle being finished on monocultures and near monoculture pastures instead of the diverse mixtures of annual and perennial grasses and legumes that thrive on cow manure and build up soil quality while feeding the animals with a minimum of erosion and runoff of nutrients.
Cattle standing in feedlots are on dirt lots and dirt does not sequester carbon, Williams said.
“Ever seen any green growing plants in a feedlot?” Williams asks. “No. If anything tries to grow, the cattle obliterate it. What sequesters carbon? Dirt or living, growing plants? Feedlots don’t sequester carbon, they just emit carbon. In a pasture, I have carbon sequestration each day. I have active soil microbiology working for me every day. I have high levels of water infiltration so, when it rains, I don’t have runoff or erosion because I’m maintaining a high-quality pasture that can absorb rainfall.
“And when there is a drought, these soils retain moisture longer. You can’t do that in a feedlot. The number one greenhouse gas is carbon. We must capture more carbon, put it in the soil, and reduce emissions to positively impact climate change. Feedlots don’t do that; property grazed pastures do.”
Cattle are often pinpointed for climate change blame because of their methane emissions as methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. But Williams said in a well-managed grassland, Methanobacteria in the soil absorb methane.
“In well-managed grasslands that are actively grazed, we are actually removing methane from the atmosphere, not contributing,” Williams said. “None of that was accounted for in their assumptions and theoretical models about greenhouse gas emissions from grassfed beef. Methanotrophs are working for us.”
He also argues if methane is a significant issue and is significantly deteriorating our atmosphere and our climate, then that is a problem that has been occurring for millennia. There were once more wild ruminants on the plant than there are currently domesticated ruminants. Wild ruminants have been grazing and emitting methane for tens of thousands of years.
If domestic ruminants a problem, then so are wild ruminants, and to solve the problem you would need not to not only get rid of domesticated ruminants, but all the wild ruminants such as deer, elk, elephants, caribou and bison. Every wild animal that eats grass would have to slaughtered because they emit methane, as well.
“Is that an argument tenable to the population of the world?” he asks. “Absolutely not. No one would agree we have to slaughter every plant-eating animal in world. Therefore, properly grazed domestic livestock cannot be a problem. We have always had this methane issue and nature hasn’t been able to solve it? Of course, she has. Because of highly biologically active soil, methane is not an issue with wild ruminants.”
He points out that swamps, bayous, oceans, and lakes all emit methane. The staler they get with algae blooms, the more methane they emit. Rice fields when flooded emit huge amounts of methane to atmosphere. Rice production is a net methane emitter. Commercial fertilizer production is a net methane emitter. Row crop fields where the soils are anaerobic are a net methane emitter.
“The data coming out right now is not properly capturing what is happening overall with methane emissions from agriculture,” Williams said. “For example, the estimates of methane emissions from feedlot cattle don’t take into the account the amount of methane produced in making feed.”
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