Sandeep [00:00:52] When it comes to climate change, our food system is directly responsible for 25 percent of our annual greenhouse gas emissions, making it one of the top contributors to a warming planet. The worst of the worst offenders is cattle.
Sandeep [00:01:04] One of the most common suggestions to eat a more climate friendly way is to give up dairy and meat, red meat in particular. That's because we now know how bad the whole industry is for the environment. At least the way it's been run up until now. Animal agriculture is the second worst contributor to greenhouse gases worldwide after fossil fuels, and cattle are by far the biggest part of that. It turns out that cow burps are another huge issue.
Sandeep [00:01:31] I know what you're thinking. What does a burping cow sound like? They sound just like you thought they would. Every time those cows burp, they release methane. When it's released into the air, methane acts like carbon dioxide. It warms our atmosphere by trapping the sun's heat. The difference is that methane traps eighty four times more heat than carbon dioxide, even though it doesn't linger in the atmosphere as long.
Sandeep [00:01:59] I find this all pretty ironic. As someone who grew up a Hindu like who would have guessed my people were right all this time? My parents never, ever had beef in our house and I've never eaten it in their presence. I honestly didn't know what it was until I was about seven years old. And one of my best family friends and his older siblings took me to McDonald's. They were stunned that I had never had a Big Mac. So they got me one. And I remember it being delicious. It was probably tasty because it was also really taboo. And since those fateful two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun, I've probably eaten beef another 15 times total in my life. I've tried it as an adult. Whenever my friends tell me I absolutely must. But if I'm being honest, no other time eating it really stands out the way it did at the Golden Arches of all the things in the world to eat. I would be fine never eating beef again.
Sandeep [00:02:56] So then that's the solution, right? Fewer cattle and boom, fewer emissions. Well, it's not that simple. First, just because I don't eat beef doesn't mean that you shouldn't. Pushing my taste preferences and food values onto you and your individual circumstances is against every fiber of my being. Second, there's a lot more to this emissions story. What if the way cows were raised and grazed could actually mean that they could have a net negative impact on emissions even while they go on burping methane? And what if it meant that we could shift our food system from being bad for the climate to one that actually helps us become more climate positive, meaning it removes more carbon than it emits?
Sandeep [00:03:40] Today, we're heading an hour north of San Francisco to Marin County, where a cattle rancher started nursing out about soil and how that could have big repercussions for climate change. But first, a love story because every good story needs a ‘meat’ cute -- pun intended.
Lisa [00:03:56] We met in college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Go Mustangs.
Sandeep [00:04:00] This is Lisa Poncia.
Loren [00:04:01] She seduced me at a bar called Tortilla Flats.
Sandeep [00:04:06] And that's Loren Poncia.
Loren It turned into a longer term relationship that became husband and wife, mother and father and business partners.
Sandeep Loren is the fourth generation of the Poncia, a farming family in the town of Tomales, rolling green hills, tons of open space, small little clusters of cows hanging out here and there. His great grandfather immigrated from Italy to California in the eighteen hundreds to become a dairy farmer. Loren's dad followed in his grandfather's footsteps.
Loren [00:04:34] Childhood on the ranch was like that was like a kiddy playground, way better than Disneyland. There's tons of things to do as a young boy growing up here in West Marin.
Sandeep [00:04:43] Loren had grown up thinking ranching was his true destiny and even studied dairy science in college. But when he graduated, he just couldn't see how he'd be able to make a go of it financially. Rising costs and environmental restrictions forced some Marin dairy farmers to close up shop by the late 1990s. So Loren ended up working in the veterinary pharmaceutical industry for 18 years, helping out on the ranch most weekends. But he never gave up on wanting to make ranching a full time reality.
Loren [00:05:09] And then right around my 30th birthday, I went. Lisa and I were living in Sacramento and I came home one weekend from working on the ranches, said we need to move back to rent and try and make this a real business. And if we don't do this, I'm not going to be fulfilled as a person.
Sandeep [00:05:23] The Poncia's leased land from Loren's parents and moved to Marin to work on the ranch. In the beginning, they had a pretty standard cattle ranching operation. They raised calves every year as soon as they were weaned off their mothers. The Poncia's would send them to feedlots.
Lisa [00:05:37] Whatever people were paying for calves on the day you went to sell them, that is how much money you made for the whole entire year. But that was the model that we knew we could not live with, and that we were trying to figure out, OK, how can we change this?
Sandeep [00:05:50] Imagine having your entire livelihood depend on what happened on a single day of the year. Any business that relies so heavily on one day or one revenue stream will struggle to be resilient in the face of unforeseen circumstances. And the Poncia's, after working so hard, were hit with surprise out of left field. They were upset to hear that 30 percent of the calves they sent to feedlots were getting sick. Then they read Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and it led to a major shift in their business. Lisa remembers how it happened.
Lisa [00:06:22] Loren says, Oh, my gosh, you know, you have to read this chapter that I just read and the part that he wanted me to read was about how, you know, why are we feeding corn to cattle, because, you know, the way the cattle are and they're ruminants and the way their digestion works, it just doesn't make sense for so many reasons, for the growing of the corn, the harvesting of the corn, the feeding the corn to the animals.
Sandeep [00:06:46] They stopped feeding corn to cows and eventually stopped sending them to feedlots altogether. Their new goal was to produce grass-fed and grass-finished beef. I had heard of grass-fed before. Who hasn't? Cattle that eats grass. Although not exclusively. But grass finished? That was new to me. It describes meat from a cow that was not only fed grass, but fed grass exclusively for its entire life and was allowed to roam free. In this transitional phase of their business, they were also making adjustments to the way they managed their land. In an effort to slow and decrease erosion, one of the practices they implemented is rotational grazing, where you move grazing livestock through pastures.
Loren [00:07:24] And then we can basically mimic what happened in the Great Plains hundreds of years ago with huge herds of bison where they eat the grass in front of them, stomp on the grass below them and poop on the grass behind them.
Sandeep [00:07:36] They also develop their own water infrastructure, installing solar pumps. They planted greenery along open water called riparian zones. This created a five-mile habitat along the creek to help prevent erosion and increase water quality. Instead of selling to large retailers, they shifted to selling straight to local customers and restaurants around the Bay Area. Customers bought whole, half, or quarter cows and raved that the meat was the best they've ever tasted.
Loren [00:08:03] Our product tastes better, is better for the land, is better for the animals, and it's better for the people eating the products.
Sandeep [00:08:13] Then one day, about five years ago, they got a phone call from something called the Marin Carbon Project. It was just getting started.
Loren [00:08:20] And we're going to try and prove that by ranching we can actually help the environment instead of hurt the environment. We could actually could potentially be a different revenue source for you to sequester carbon and sell carbon credits. And I was like hmmm.
Sandeep [00:08:35] Loren was skeptical at first. But little did he know then how transformative the idea of carbon farming would be for their ranch.
Loren [00:08:41] And it's really opened my mind. And I used to consider us grass farmers and we would grow as much grass as possible. We would harvest it with the animals and we would sell the protein that was created. And that was how we'd generate revenue. And about five years ago, when we started the Marin Carbon Project, my focus totally got flipped, turned on its head. So now we’re soil farmers, we're trying to really make healthy soil.
Sandeep [00:09:05] This kind of flip is something IDEO seeks to uncover all the time. Until that moment, Loren thought he was raising cattle and growing grass. But then his focus shifted entirely to think about cultivating healthy soil with cows as the key component. It's like when the Ford Motor Company made the shift from being a company that sells you cars to a mobility company. Increasingly investing in mobility infrastructure like rideshares and bike programs. That little shift changes the focus of the business and opens up all kinds of new opportunities.
Sandeep [00:09:39] But back to the Poncia's flip. What is it about soil that is so important? For that, we need to leave the Poncia's and Stemple Creek Ranch for a bit and turn to Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe. She knows a lot about soil and says it has way more potential than most of us realize.
Asmeret [00:09:57] If you try to visualize how deep the earth's crust is and then think about the mantle and the core. Now realize that we're talking about thousands of kilometers. Right. But the soil system at best is something like six to eight foot. And it's this loose material that's very, very shallow compared to everything else that stands in the way between life and lifelessness and the earth system. And this is what distinguishes our planet and allows our planet to support life the way it does. We owe our existence to this very thin layer of soil that's covering the Earth's surface.
Sandeep [00:10:35] Asmeret is a professor of soil biogeochemistry at the University of California, Merced. She studies the soils role in storing carbon and how all of that links up to climate change. You've probably heard a little about this process. Carbon is drawn down into the soil. That's called sequestration and then becomes part of a larger carbon pool in the earth. Fossil fuels, for example, are just old carbon that has been stored in the ground for eons.
Asmeret [00:11:02] Every time plants photosynthesize, they take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use that to build biomass or their bodies. And upon death, the plants or even the animals that consume the plants, all of them. Their bodies return it to the soil. And so that carbon that's in their bodies then enters the soil system.
Sandeep [00:11:24] Over time, she says, with that circular process, a lot of carbon accumulates in the soil.
Asmeret [00:11:30] So when I say the soil system stores about 3000 billion metric tons of carbon, it's important to realize that that's twice more than the carbon that exists in all of the world's vegetation, plus the atmosphere combined. And then twice over.
Sandeep [00:11:47] Let me just repeat that for a minute. Soil stores more than all of the carbon in all of the world's trees and plants, plus all of the carbon in the atmosphere combined, times two. In this way, the soil plays a crucial role in holding carbon and preventing it from releasing all at once into the earth's atmosphere. But soil health and its ability to keep carbon levels in balance is compromised by deforestation in agricultural practices that constantly till the soil. For this cycle to be healthy, though, it's all about balance, and Asmeret that says that the balance is way off.
Asmeret [00:12:22] What we're dealing with right now is that there's way more carbon that's being released from the soil back into the atmosphere and contributing to the climate change crisis. And because the soil system stores so much more carbon compared to the atmosphere, a very small change in the rate at which carbon is released from soil to the atmosphere can make a huge difference in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the maintenance of the Earth's climate system.
Sandeep [00:12:51] This is why farming with an eye towards soil health can be so impactful. Healthy soil stores carbon and keeps it from being released into the atmosphere where it contributes to greenhouse gases that can cause climate change. If we treat our soil the right way, Asmeret says, it could help absorb some of that excess CO2 in the atmosphere.
Asmeret At the very least, healthy soil management practices could be making a difference that is equivalent to a third -- reduction of a third of the current emissions of fossil fuel-derived carbon.
Sandeep [00:13:23] And that brings us back to Lisa and Loren. And what they've been doing is Stemple Creek Ranch.
Loren So this is our fenceline. That's not my property. This is my property.
Sandeep [00:13:32] At the ranch, Loren points to the very obvious difference in the pasture on his land versus his neighbors.
Loren [00:13:38] It goes down to that, see where, there is a T in the fence like that and the other side. This is Stemple Creek. All these trees. This area. That's all wooded. That's all our property.
Sandeep [00:13:49] It's really clear where his pasture starts. It's vivid with green grass.
Loren [00:13:54] Right here where you see heavily grazed. A lot of bare soil. That's a different property. So my neighbor's not on board yet with the way that we manage and taking care of the environment in this way. If you look, you can see a dramatic difference in management.
Sandeep [00:14:13] So let's go back to what exactly the Poncias are doing to their land that is so different. They've committed to a whole range of regenerative practices that aim to draw carbon down into the soil and keep it there. They move grazing livestock between pastures. They plant vegetation along the creek to prevent erosion -- those riparian zones I mentioned earlier… and they plant legumes and native grasses that pump organic matter into the soil and help it store water, something that can make or break the soil’s health in a state like California. We'll go deeply into regenerative agriculture and its indigenous roots in our next episode. For ranchers like Loren, these practices have changed everything.
Loren [00:14:54] And that is one reason why we have green forage in our fields right now. We haven't had rain in six months because we still have good carbon levels and there's still moisture in the soil that's stored in that carbon. My whole goal is to look at our pastures like a sponge, like a carbon sponge.
Sandeep [00:15:12] They spread a thin half inch layer of compost over their soil. It's a mixture of woodchips and an iconic Northern California-grown ingredient.
Loren [00:15:20] Grape pomace from the wine industry that would normally go into a landfill or get fed to cattle. We take that and we compost the wood and the and the grape pomace and we add some manure to it. And it makes this amazing, beautiful, rich compost that's full of life and wakes things up and then we get great results with it.
Sandeep [00:15:43] When we interviewed Loren and Lisa, I swore he said ‘grape hummus.’ I was so confused why anyone would mix chickpeas and grapes, but I assumed it tasted so bad that they just put it on their soil. Turns out that wasn't quite what he meant. Grape pomace is actually the solid remains of grapes after pressing. It contains the skin, the pulp, the seeds and the stem of the fruit. They're also seeing really great results that have come from another unexpected source.
Loren [00:16:10] So if we put seawater, there's like 78 or 80 different types of micronutrients in seawater that we take and apply it to the pastures. And it actually jumpstarted the biology in the soil. And we can see it. And see where we put sea water and where we did not put sea water. There's a visual distinction of dark green versus light green or brown. I would have 100 percent considered seawater. Killing my plants 10 years ago. And now it's one of our most effective tools. And it's cheap and free. There's a lot of it.
Sandeep [00:16:42] Do you just take a bucket down to the bay or?
Loren [00:16:44] That's a...I can't tell you exactly how I harvest the sea water. That's a trade secret.
Sandeep [00:16:50] After five years working with the Marin Carbon Project, the results they've gotten are impressive.
Loren [00:16:56] The recent data shows that we're actually net positive on our carbon and we're actually, even, after all the cattle emissions and vehicle emissions…. We're actually sequestering more that we emit. So it makes us feel really good about that.
Sandeep [00:17:13] At the time of this recording, Loren says their current operations offset around 285 passenger vehicles a year, a number that keeps growing. But there are people in the scientific community who want to pump the brakes. They say that more data is truly needed to measure the long-term impact of sequestration practices on climate change. We don't yet know how long carbon is actually stored in the soil. Experts say that adding more carbon in the soil doesn't necessarily mean it will stay there, but for the Poncias the results they see on their farm are encouraging. And not just for them. Five years ago, there were only three carbon farms in Marin. Now there are over 35. Loren says with more incentives like those baked into the federal farm bill, even more ranchers like him could farm carbon.
Loren [00:18:01] I wish that the federal government would jump on board and basically subsidize carbon and carbon sequestration instead of corn and soy. And we would, in a very short amount of time, we'd have a lot of carbon.
Sandeep [00:18:15] He means that in a good way. A lot of carbon sequestered in the soil.
Loren [00:18:19] If beef could be a byproduct of carbon, like we could sell our carbon and beef as a byproduct. It's helping us make more carbon. That would be like unbelievable dream economically and environmentally that we can make that whole system work. I think it'd be it'd be amazing.
Sandeep [00:18:41] The Poncias and Asmeret are on to something. A potential shift in the way we understand our farming system, one that connects the dots between soil, agriculture, animals, emission and climate, one that goes from farming cattle to farming carbon.
Sandeep [00:18:56] So you might be thinking, what about me and what should I do differently? This shift offers up options for behavior change at the individual consumer level. It does make a difference if you eat less meat. The best-case version of this is eating grass finished red meat, if you have the privilege to afford it at eleven dollars a pound. Or trade one serving of conventional red meat for less climate damaging alternative like poultry, pork or seafood. Or for many of us, the most difficult and hard to imagine option, a nutritious vegetarian or vegan substitute that fits your culture, your way of eating. So the next time you're buying meat, think about how and where it's cultivated and what role it may have in helping or hurting the climate.
Sandeep [00:19:39] But changing systems means that we have to go way beyond you as an individual. We've been told over the years that individual action is enough. And lately we've been told that it isn't. We need structural changes. It's actually not an either-or situation. We need both, and we need them urgently. You choosing to eat grass-finished meat could in turn lead the biggest industrial meat processors, the ones with the most power, to change their production methods, having a huge impact on the health of our entire system. In doing so, we could help farmers, ranchers, policy experts, governments and even the financial markets reimagine the role that carbon could play in helping heal and revitalize our soil to fight climate change.
Sandeep [00:20:30] So here's the design opportunity: how might we mainstream a climate positive role for meat in our food system? If this gets your wheels turning and makes you excited to share ideas, thoughts or maybe even better questions? Visit ideo.com/food and help us keep working to create better food systems for everyone.
Sandeep [00:21:00] Thanks for listening. If you learn something and enjoyed this, please send it to a friend. And you can really help by leaving a perfect rating and a review. You know, the algorithms love that. I'm Sandeep Pahuja. This is Food by Design. The show was created by Sarah Cordaro and me. Today's episode was produced by Evan Roberts and edited by Julia Scott and Tina Antolini. Abby Madan recorded some of our interviews. Mark Henry Phillips composed our original music. Chris Hoff is our engineer. Special thanks to Lynda Deakin, Sarah Rich, and Judy Hsu.