I have many fond memories growing up on my family’s cattle ranch in Sierra Valley. Prior to his passing at the age of 98 in 2008 my Grandfather, Attilio Genasci was the oldest working cattleman in California. My Grandfather understood, and my Father who still works the ranch today understands, the value of cattle to sustaining his livelihood, the ranch’s livelihood, and the livelihood and sustenance of millions of omnivores. The cattle have always held a special place in my and my family’s heart because they provide so much. I always look forward returning home to Sierra Valley and getting that first glimpse of cattle roaming the wide-open range surrounded by beautiful Sierra Nevada peaks. The beauty of Sierra Valley and the cattle’s calm presence cause the stresses of day-to-day life to dissipate in an instant. I also understand, however, that not everyone has the same reaction to the view, particularly when it comes to the subject of climate change.
Cattle have been roaming North America since they were brought over by Spanish conquistadors in the late 1400s. They have been an integral part of our rangelands and an incredibly nutritious source of protein that has sustained humans over centuries. Recently there has been much controversy over cattle, and the beef industry in particular, directly contributing to climate change. We must be careful when making such a broad assertion. There has been a significant body of research that suggests cattle in themselves are not inherently bad for the Earth. In fact, properly managed livestock play an essential role in maintaining grassland ecosystems by functioning as surrogates for herds of wild ruminants that once covered the globe. I recently read Defending Beef, a book written by Nicolette Hahn Niman – an environmental lawyer, vegetarian, and spouse of Bill Niman, former CEO of Niman Ranch. Using empirical scientific data and examples from around the world Hahn Niman builds a comprehensive argument that cattle can help to build carbon sequestering soils to mitigate climate change, enhance biodiversity, help prevent desertification, and provide invaluable nutrition.
The importance of cattle grazing in maintaining healthy and vibrant rangelands is a frequently overlooked aspect of the climate debate. The United States has about 770 million acres of rangelands, over half of those are owned by private individuals. These rangelands not only provide beautiful wide-open spaces for all of us to enjoy, but as Hahn Niman and many other researchers are finding out, rangelands with cattle also provide a supplementary benefit of sequestrating carbon. Two prominent organizations – The Savory Institute and Marin Carbon Project are demonstrating through on-the-ground projects that cattle are integral to healthy rangelands and key in the carbon sequestration process.
In the end, when it comes to raising cattle for beef production it’s important to keep in mind that, as with many things in life, there is frequently a trade off. If we stop eating red meat entirely, where will we get our necessary daily protein and nutritional intake? What are the environmental and human health trade offs associated with cultivating and consuming those non-red meat protein sources? The truth is not all aspects of the cattle industry are equal when it comes to climate change. I know the debate will continue, but on behalf of family cattle ranches across the nation, I urge you to look also at the many positives that cattle along with proper rangeland management can bring to the table in the fight to mitigate the effects of a changing climate.