Recently, I’ve been learning about the connections between climate change, livestock agriculture and human health. Farmers all across the world are experiencing multiyear droughts that are devastating the quantity and quality of crops and pasture. Others experience dramatic rain events and flooding.
The good news is that there is something we can do about it, while also doing well for ourselves. The answer is so simple that it’s difficult to understand why there isn’t more focus upon it. The answer is right under our feet – it’s the grass. Grass is good for the environment, and good for us. In fact, it may be essential for our sustainability.
A thorough report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations lays out the significant impact that farmers can have on mitigating climate change through increased pasturing. Grazing land and pasture management practices that increase soil carbon stocks can significantly mitigate CO2 emissions and may present opportunities for profitable investment in mitigation.
Organic Valley farmers are innovating and developing strategies for coping with current and anticipated changes to their local climates and water supplies. Increasing soil organic matter, reducing dependence on off-farm feed and fertility inputs, and adapting cropping tactics are all viable solutions. You can see what a couple of these farmers are doing on their own farms in Virginia and Minnesota.
Poorly digestible feeds cause livestock to produce higher enteric methane emissions per unit of ingested energy. By improving the quality of forage, we can reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions by dairy animals. A report from The Organic Center, found that in terms of total methane emissions, organic dairy farms produce one-third to one-half less total methane per unit of milk, compared to conventional diaries.
So pasturing can help sequester greenhouse gases, while also decreasing the amount of gases that are produced by livestock in the first place. What about the impact on human health?
Cheryl Baldwin of Pure Strategies, a sustainability consulting firm, summarized the findings of ground-breaking new research, led by Washington State University, about the role that pasture plays in milk quality.
Over 380 whole milk samples were tested to compare the omega fatty acid content of organic and conventional milk. The organic milk had 62% more omega-3 fatty acids and 25% fewer omega-6 fatty acids. This resulted in not only more desirable omega-3s in the milk but also what some consider a more preferable proportion of omega-6 to 3 fatty acids for better health.
This pattern has consistently been repeated over the years that Organic Valley has been testing their products. The amount of pasture or forage in the cow’s diet directly impacts the level of the omega fatty acids and higher quality forage elevates the omega-3 content even higher. Taking care of land and animals will produce better food and a healthier consumer.
Research continues to come out on the issue of livestock and climate change impacts. At Organic Valley, we are proud to see that pasture can play a significant role in mitigating those impacts, but we are also anxious to learn about how we can continue to improve.