Cattle are a huge climate threat. Smarter ranching can help

Ranchers in Brazil are testing new and improved techniques that can lower the climate impact of beef production by using less land and curbing cattle’s burps and farts.
By Michael Grunwald

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a group of white, black and brown cattle in a verdant green field
A cattle ranch in Brazil (Michael Grunwald)

Canary Media’s Eating the Earth column explores the connections between the food we eat and the climate we live in.

PARANAÍTA, Brazil — Cattle are a huge problem.

They’re the No. 1 threat to biodiversity and the No. 2 threat (after fossil fuels) to the climate. Their burps, farts and poop are major sources of greenhouse gases — the atmosphere doesn’t care if that sounds goofy — but their main problem is that we use about a quarter of the earth’s ice-free land to graze them. When we eat the beef and cheese they provide us, we’re eating the carbon-rich forests and other habitats we cleared to provide for them.

That’s why Brazilian cattle are a particularly huge problem. They’re by far the main driver of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest as well as the Cerrado, a less famous but similarly biodiverse tropical savanna. As Brazil’s herd has more than tripled over the last half-century, pastures have replaced a Nigeria-sized area of the Amazon and a France-sized area of the Cerrado.

And that’s why I found myself at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida ranch on the Amazon frontier, watching a few dozen cows and bulls who, Laurent Micol told me, were almost ready to be steaks.” Micol started working with this sprawling ranch back in 2015, when it was highly degraded and extremely inefficient at converting cattle into steaks, and helped transform it into a remarkably productive landscape. It wasn’t sexy work, but making cattle less huge a problem should be one of the world’s top environmental priorities, and making ranching more efficient is probably the easiest way to do it.

a group of white cattle stand in a verdant pasture
The Nossa Senhora Aparecida ranch (Michael Grunwald)

Just as Willie Sutton robbed banks because that’s where the money was, people who care about nature and the climate should focus on pastures because that’s where the deforestation and emissions are. It would be nice if the world stopped eating beef, because beef production requires roughly 100 times as much land per calorie as grain or nuts, and cattle and other cud-chewing ruminants emit nearly a third of the world’s heat-trapping methane. But since all 8 billion of us won’t stop eating beef — I’ve stopped, but I relapsed in Brazil, because I’m weak — it will be vital to produce beef that devours less land and spews less methane.

A closeup of a dinner plate with sliced rare steak next to a fork
An exception to my no-beef diet (Michael Grunwald)

That’s what’s happening at Nossa Senhora Aparecida, a 4,500-acre ranch that now supports more than three times as many cattle as it did before Micol started improving it, even though two-thirds of it is still a forest reserve where jaguars and capybaras roam. If the beef-per-acre yields on all of Brazil’s degraded pastures were tripled, it could free up another Germany’s worth of land for rewilding.

The ranch’s improvements have also reduced the time it takes its cattle to reach slaughter weight from four years to less than two, which means they spend half as much time burping, farting and pooping pollutants. They also looked pretty happy, resting in the shade of a Brazil nut tree, unaware of their imminent fate. And we watched two red macaws and three blue-and-yellow macaws fly over them, a magical reminder that shrinking agriculture’s footprint can help expand nature’s.

Cattle graze under a very tall tree and a blue sky filled with wispy white clouds
Happy cattle under a Brazil nut tree (Michael Grunwald)

Unless you’re a livestock nerd, the actual improvements at Nossa Senhora Aparecida aren’t that exciting. Micol and his team ripped shrubs out of the pastures; replaced the existing grass with a dense, nutritious, fast-growing variety called Mombaça; periodically fertilized the grass; implemented a rotational grazing” system that moves cattle to new paddocks nearly every week instead of letting them wander around munching where they please; supplemented their diets with grain and an amazingly productive silage grass called capiaçu; and created a more intensive feedlot-style pasture where the animals spend the last few months of their lives.

A close-up shot of bushy tufts of green grass, with darker green trees in the background
Mombaça grass in the foreground, preserved rainforest in the background (Michael Grunwald)

What’s more exciting, though more challenging, is the prospect of expanding these kinds of high-yield cattle operations in order to significantly reduce deforestation and emissions. The climate movement tends to be anti-cattle, while meat and dairy interests tend to defend the status quo, but what the world needs is more efficient, less destructive cattle.

A man in a white polo shirt, white cap and jeans stands near a fence with his hands upturned
Laurent Micol on the ranch (Michael Grunwald)

We need lots of solutions, but animal protein is the big solution,” says Caaporã CEO Luis Fernando Laranja, Micol’s boss at a company (named for an indigenous god believed to protect the Amazon) working on restoring degraded Brazilian ranches. And it’s not rocket science: Better grass! Fertilize the fucking pasture! Feed the fucking cattle!”

In a landmark 2019 report called Creating a Sustainable Food Future, the World Resources Institute warned that the world is on track to eat much more beef in 2050 than it ate in 2010, creating pressure to deforest another two Indias’ worth of land. The report urges a shift toward plant-based diets and investments in alternative proteins to cut beef demand, plus better manure management and investments in methane-suppressing feed additives to cut emissions from beef production. But it concludes that increasing the efficiency of low-productivity cattle operations will be even more crucial to feeding the world without much more deforestation. That’s why the report’s lead author, Tim Searchinger, was in Brazil observing ranches like Nossa Senhora Aparecida.

There’s no solution to the world’s land-use problems that doesn’t include tripling grazing productivity on more than 100 million acres in Latin America,” said Searchinger, a Princeton research scholar who is also technical director of WRI’s food program.

Three men in short-sleeved shirts and jeans stand with their backs to the camera looking out over verdant pastureland
Tim Searchinger, Laurent Micol and Luis Fernando Laranja surveying the Nossa Senhora Aparecida ranch (Michael Grunwald)

Before the trip, I assumed it would be hard to figure out how to improve productivity, but once that was figured out, relatively easy to get those practices widely adopted. Actually, the opposite is true.

The raging debates over agriculture and climate — they do rage, though well-adjusted people probably don’t watch them as closely as I do — tend to be ideological. Team Regenerative, which emphasizes farming in harmony with nature and restoring soil health, fights Team Intensive, which focuses on boosting yields (often by drenching fields in chemicals, crowding animals into feedlots and other unpopular industrial practices) in order to shrink agriculture’s land footprint and prevent it from overrunning more wilderness.

But the push to improve grazing in Brazil seems more practical than ideological, incorporating insights from both teams. The most efficient ranches use plenty of chemicals and industrial machinery, and their cattle aren’t purely grass-fed, but they also rely on regenerative practices beloved by anti-Big-Ag soil activists. A large part of ranching is grass farming, so it makes sense that the highest-yielding operations employ modern industrial miracle-growth technologies as well as ancient regenerative soil-nurturing strategies.

The most productive operation I saw was Fazenda Tropical, a 3,600-acre farm in the Cerrado that grows corn and soybeans as well as beef, and at first looked heavily Team Intensive. It had 520-horsepower John Deere tractors, a feed mill that provides daily grain for its cattle in their pastures, and a concentrated feedlot where they’re fattened before slaughter. A $350,000 irrigation project designed to supplement Mother Nature in the dry season was in progress. But there were also hallmarks of Team Regenerative, including rotational grazing designed to mimic the natural patterns of wild ruminants, no-till farming that reduces soil disturbance, and fully integrated fields that grow grass for cattle and cover crops for the soil as well as corn and soy for harvest.

Karen Van Den Broek, a 26-year-old graduate of the University of Nevada’s livestock program, manages 800 cattle on just 125 acres of pastures, a stocking rate another four times higher than Nossa Senhora Aparecida’s. At Fazenda Tropical, one well-managed field can produce a corn harvest near the U.S. per-acre average, then a soybean harvest above the U.S. average, then forage for cattle — all in the same year. A snowbound Iowa farm could never do that.

We make the most of this land,” she said. We make meat for people, and we return energy and organic material to the soil.”

A woman in a blue chambray shirt and dark blue jeans wearing sunglasses walks across a pasture. Black and white cows graze.
Karen Van Den Broek at the Fazenda Tropical farm (Michael Grunwald)

Brazil’s agricultural research agency, Embrapa, wants more landowners to restore degraded pastures by integrating crops and livestock. At Embrapa’s test fields in the Cerrado, animal scientist Roberto Guimarães Jr. showed me how synthetic fertilizers applied to crops help grass grow after the harvest; the grass then helps stabilize the soil for the next crops, while the cattle manure deposits additional nutrients into the soil. The result is more crops and more beef from less land, despite using less nitrogen fertilizer that’s expensive and destructive.

This is the magic!” he said. It’s like adding a farm to your farm.”

It’s not as easy as letting cattle roam free in their pastures. It costs more upfront, and the grass has to be planted at exactly the right time to avoid shading out crops. So far, livestock have been integrated with crops on less than 10 percent of Brazil’s pasture land — an area larger than England, but not nearly as large as Guimarães would like.

Sustainability spreads slowly. Fazenda Tropical’s feedlot finishes cattle from 39 other ranches, and Van Den Broek told me only two of them have adopted the practices she uses to boost yields and regenerate soil. Similarly, the ranches along the road to Nossa Senhora Aparecida were all cluttered with shrubs, weeds, termite mounds, bare ground, skinny cows and other signs of degradation, perhaps because the prep work required to upgrade it — shrub removal, extra fertilizer and fences, new tractors, troughs and water pipes — cost about $800 an acre.

The good news, since the world needs to reduce agricultural emissions by 75 percent by 2050 to reach the Paris Agreement climate targets, is that there’s vast potential for improvement in Brazilian pastures. The bad news is that it’s been surprisingly hard to get that low-hanging fruit picked.

It’s all about money!” says Renata Bueno Miranda, the head of innovation for Brazil’s agriculture ministry. We won’t get people to adopt green practices by telling them about climate change. We’ve got to tell them they’ll get paid.”

A women with long dark wavy hair wearing a blue top speaks and gestures while sitting in a conference room
Renata Bueno Miranda of the Brazilian agriculture ministry (Michael Grunwald)

It’s an obvious point. Working land is more productive and more profitable than wild land, which is why most American and European farmers use land cleared long ago. If the world wants Brazilian farmers to stop obliterating the Amazon and Cerrado, the world needs to make it worth their while to leave nature alone. Miranda thinks consumers and retailers should pay premiums for sustainably grown Brazilian products. Direct government aid to sustainable Brazilian producers could help, too. So could carbon markets that reward climate-friendly practices.

Right now, none of that is happening at a scale large enough to matter.

Fifteen years ago, the international community pledged to reward Brazil with money if it reined in deforestation. The basic history is that Brazil did rein in deforestation for a decade, by enforcing a forest code that requires large portions of agricultural properties to remain forested, but the international community provided barely any money, enraging Brazilian farmers, helping to elect the nature-bashing President Jair Bolsonaro and ushering in a new era of increased deforestation. Now the Amazon-friendlier Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is back in charge, so international funders are again promising to reward sustainable practices, but to put it mildly, it’s still way more profitable for farmers and ranchers to cut down trees than leave them standing.

To put it even more mildly, Brazilian farmers doubt Lula will change that. Van Den Broek’s father Mario, the pioneer who started carving Fazenda Tropical out of the Cerrado back in 1985, showed us a hoe and sneered: Lula wouldn’t know what to do with this.”

A company called Produzindo Certo that tries to help producers get paid for green practices did broker a deal for Unilever to buy sustainable soy oil from Fazenda Tropical and 33 other Brazilian farms. But Unilever is barely paying a premium, less than 1 percent above the price for conventionally produced oil. Produzindo Certo also persuaded a major beef conglomerate to float a green bond” that financed efficiency upgrades at 14 ranches, but the profits dried up after interest rates soared, so there’s been no second bond. Charton Locks, the company’s COO, says the problem is simple: Everybody wants Brazilians to take better care of their land and leave more of their land alone, but nobody is willing to pay them.

The main input for a sustainable farm isn’t fertilizer or seed — it’s money,” Locks says. If you want to ask farmers to do more, you’ve got to make it work for them.”

black and white cattle stand and lie under a green tree with low branches
More happy cattle at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida ranch (Michael Grunwald)

This is the problem carbon markets are supposed to solve, by letting high-emissions corporations buy offsets from emissions-reducing farmers. Those offsets have often been revealed to be bogus, but even if the markets were regulated more effectively, there are at least two reasons Brazilian cattle would still fall through the cracks.

The first problem, which probably deserves its own column, is that most emissions-trading schemes aim to reward farmers for storing carbon, and it’s really hard to measure and monitor soil carbon. The United Nations, soil activists, anti-industrial celebrities, environmental groups, food conglomerates like Danone and General Mills, and carbon-market enterprises like Indigo Agriculture all seem to assume that regenerative practices can sequester carbon in farm soils, but for now, let’s just say the scientific jury is still out.

The second problem, which seems more fixable, is that carbon markets, and climate policies in general, don’t reward land-sparing productivity measures. By standard measurements, Nossa Senhora Aparecida’s emissions have actually increased since its improvements because it supports much more cattle and uses much more fertilizer. It gets no credit for reducing the pressure to clear thousands of acres of forests and releasing their carbon into the atmosphere. This is a gigantic problem that creates terrible incentives, and the scientific, agricultural, political and business communities need to come together and solve it.

There’s one more complication I hesitate to even mention in a column about the importance of productivity. There’s no doubt that in the long run, helping farmers make more food per acre will reduce how many acres they need to make food, but if you’re an individual farmer with fancy new toys and clever new tricks that increase your yields, you’ll be sorely tempted to clear more land in the short run. That means financial incentives to help farmers and ranchers boost their yields (which, to be clear, barely exist right now) could be counterproductive if they’re not directly linked to forest-protection measures. There’s a lot of rhetorical support for this produce and protect” model, but so far, there hasn’t been much financial or political support for it.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying Brazilian agriculture seems likely to keep following the lucrative path of European and American agriculture — the path of eliminating wilderness to make food. In Brazil, wilderness usually gets eliminated to raise cattle, so it ought to be fairly simple to use international aid, corporate-sustainability campaigns and carbon markets to help ranchers make investments that will improve their bottom lines as well as the planet. But it seems to be simpler to call for boycotts of Brazilian beef and investments in carbon-storing strategies that may or may not store carbon. It’s certainly simpler to complain about the cattle problem than it is to do the unglamorous work of making cattle less problematic.

Michael Grunwald is a bestselling author and award-winning journalist who was a staff writer for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Time magazine and Politico Magazine. He is writing a book about the race to feed the world without frying the world.