Global warming: against the grain is good

Apart from grass-fed cattle emitting far less harmful greenhouse gases than grain-fed cattle, the beef of grass-fed cattle are also nutritionally superior. Wilma den Hartigh asked Graeme Sait, creator of the nutrition farming concept and CEO of Nutri-Tech Solutions, how farmers can adopt their cattle’s feed to benefit both their pockets and the environment.
Issue date 7 September 2007

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You question the sustainability of feeding grain to cattle due to the impact on the animal’s digestive system and the environment. Can you elaborate?
Livestock releases 70 million tons of methane worldwide each year and feedlots are the worst contributors. Animals with grain-compromised digestive systems flatulate and burp many times more than their grass-fed counterparts. Cattle were never designed to eat cereal grains. Cereal grains contain enzyme inhibitors which impact on digestion, and phytic acid which tends to lock up some of the minerals present in the food.
The cereal grains used in feedlot operations are incredibly acidified, compromising the animals’ immune systems and increasing the need for chemical intervention, usually in the form of antibiotics. Beef produced in feedlots is marketed as premier meat, but is actually nutritionally inferior to beef produced on grass. Its fatty acid profile is compromised and its nutrient density suffers.
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is considered one of the most potent anti-cancer compounds yet discovered, but it’s only found in grass-fed animals. When the percentage of grain fed to the animal exceeds 15%, CLA production declines dramatically and very little remains in the meat.
The acidifying effect on feedlot animals and other factory-farmed animals fed large quantities of grain is particularly evident when we look at the US dairy industry. I spent my childhood on a New Zealand dairy farm owned by my grandfather and we could expect 10 to 12 lactations per cow. Currently in the US, with their large percentage of grain feeding combined with Bovine Growth Hormone, we see 1,5 lactations before the cow becomes hamburgers.

Is there any other viable source of food we can use to fatten cattle in the feedlot?
There’s one tremendous food source which is infinitely superior to grain – sprouted grain, which boasts a host of benefits. Some 1t of cereal grain produces 7t of sprouted grain. The sprouting process miraculously transforms it. The enzyme inhibitors, phytic acid and acidified effect all disappear. Instead we have a massive release of enzymes and far higher levels of vitamins.
The sprouted food has no acidifying effect; it’s one of the healthiest foods you could ever feed an animal. Cattle love it, they easily gain weight and it’s slightly more cost-effective then feeding them raw grain. When we factor in the difference in the animal’s health, it becomes far more cost-effective.
I believe that grass-fed beef, fattened with sprouted grain, is the direction for the future. Sprouting sheds are an affordable technology which would allow most farmers to fatten their own cattle, rather than sacrificing this value-adding process in favour of the large feedlot companies.

Apparently there’s been a movement in the US towards raising cattle on grass. Do you think this indicates that farmers in some countries are recognising the problems of climate change?
There may be a slowly growing awareness. But I think the move towards grass feeding, which is now becoming a worldwide trend, is consumer driven. Consumers are seeking a less chemically-contaminated product that also tastes better. When I was speaking in the US last year the restaurants all featured grass-fed beef as a premier dish rather than the grain-fed alternative. It’s increasingly common to see restaurant billboards heralding high CLA beef often sourced from mineralised New Zealand pastures. This concept of marketing based on nutritional value is a trend we’ll see more often as consumers recognise the need to make their food their medicine.

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You said modern agriculture is responsible for 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, 60% of the methane gas and 80% of nitrous oxide. Where do these figures come from?
These percentages are commonly cited on several websites about greenhouse emissions. I believe I sourced this information from the Rodale Institute in the US. They’ve been working with sustainable agricultural techniques for the past 25 years and may be the forerunners in determining how much farmers should be paid in carbon credits for fixing more carbon in their soils, building humus.
The Rodale Institute has found they can reliably increase organic matter by 0,15% each year. They suggest this increase should be valued at US0/ha. We’ve found it’s possible to increase humus by up to twice that level each year, so this could prove quite a windfall for farmers who understand carbon sequestration.

Do these figures mean agriculture is the biggest greenhouse polluter?
Coal-fired power stations are actually larger polluters in terms of CO2 emissions, but in terms of all three greenhouse gases, agriculture is definitely the biggest culprit.

Would you say this is one of the biggest challenges for agriculture?
Climate change and peak oil (the point of maximum global petroleum production) are two massive challenges facing modern agriculture, but they also represent an opportunity to address sustainability and improve the efficiency and profitability of farming enterprises. It’s suggested that sometime in the next 12 to 18 months we’ll be halfway through our global oil supplies. In the history of economics there has never been a commodity whose price didn’t soar dramatically once its supply reached the halfway point. Oil will certainly be no exception, as this is a commodity in more demand than any other in history.

What can farmers do to remedy the situation?
Problems always increase in direct response to the decline of humus in the soil. At present it’s accepted that we’re locked into a 3ºC rise in temperature over the next few decades because it’s assumed we can’t turn the situation around. This isn’t the case. Agriculture can single-handedly solve this problem. If farmers were to be paid carbon credits for building the level of organic matter in their soils, they would be motivated to undertake this incredibly important task. This is an absolutely urgent imperative which must be embraced by governments and agriculture immediately.

How much impact has the mismanagement of nitrogen had upon CO2 emissions from agriculture?
It’s the primary cause of the loss of 3,5% organic matter in soil over the last few decades. There are several management strategies which should be adopted. These include the spoon-feeding of nitrogen into light soils and including sulphur in nutrition programmes to ensure nitrate conversion and amino acid production.
High magnesium soils should be balanced because these soils always require far higher inputs of nitrogen. Cover crops are essential to capture nitrates and other nutrients at the end of the crop cycle and to prevent the leaching of these nutrients. Split applications of nitrogen have proven far more effective than single large applications. Humic acid and/or zeolite should be included with all nitrogen applications to stabilise and reduce losses.
Perhaps the best strategy involves finding out “how low you can go” on your particular farm in terms of nitrogen requirements. Nitrogen is obviously important but many growers apply much more than is necessary to achieve their yield targets.
I’ve just returned from speaking at a university in China with 35 000 students, which is principally involved in biological agriculture.
It’s not something we hear about in the West but the Chinese are well and truly up with the game.

What are some of the ways we can reduce nitrous oxide release in agriculture?
There is research to suggest that nitrous oxide is as much of a problem as CO2. Nitrous oxide is 310 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Governments should immediately legislate to prevent the irresponsible use of nitrogen. Practices like topdressing urea onto pastures are absurdly wasteful and won’t be permitted in the near future.
The bacteria which feed upon nitrogen have to satisfy their 5 (carbon) : 1 (nitrogen) ratio. When carbon isn’t included with nitrogen fertilisers the bacteria have little option but to consume organic matter to balance their bodies.
The over-application of nitrogen, without carbon, can directly contribute to CO2 release via the associated decline of humus. Poor management of nitrogen doesn’t only contribute to a loss of humus but it can also increase the need for toxic chemicals. Nitrates taken up into the plant with water dilute nutrient density. This encourages insects and magnifies the need for toxic rescue chemicals.
These chemicals, in turn, compromise
cellulose digesting fungi responsible
for humus building.

What gains are there for agriculture if we improve our management of the three key greenhouse gases?
It presents a unique win-win situation.
If we manage methane with the introduction of sprouted grains, we’ve improved the lot of “concentration camp” animals and improved the food base for the community.
If we learn to manage our massive release of nitrous oxide, we’ll save on nitrogen applications, reduce nitrate contamination of our waterways and food, and we may finally rediscover how to access atmospheric nitrogen. This free fertiliser can be accessed from the 74 000t of nitrogen gas which hovers above every hectare.
It’s CO2 that offers the greatest win-win situation for farmers and the planet. CO2 levels in the atmosphere have never exceeded 280 parts per million in the 600 000 years we’ve been able to monitor, but in the last hundred years we’ve accumulated 380 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. In that same time organic matter levels in our soils have dropped from an average of 5% to 1,5%, an average loss of 3,5%.
This has contributed some 70t of CO2/ha to the atmosphere. If we multiply the total number of cultivated hectares on the planet by 70t, we have a significant contribution to the extra hundred parts per million of CO2 creating this blanket warming effect.
Cuba was forced into oil-less agriculture some 17 years ago due to the US led oil embargo. Since that time they’ve mastered atmospheric nitrogen fixation to the point where they regularly out-yield the rest of the world with crops like sugarcane. |fw