Back Forty: The greenwashing of grass-fed grazers

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Photo by Lino Mirgeler/AP Images.

By Elizabeth Royte

With Common Ground, filmmakers Josh and Rebecca Tickell double down on the argument of their 2020 documentary Kiss the Ground, highlighting the potential for farmers to “reverse” the effects of climate change by sequestering massive amounts of carbon.

With busy graphics, heavy-handed music, and hushed, hyperbolic pronouncements (we are “in a race to extinction”), the film sprints through the environmental and cultural history of agriculture in the U.S., building a strong if heavily slanted case against the “ruthless” agrochemical industry, its “toxic products,” and their knock-on effects for farmers, which include crippling debt, chronic illness, and suicide. Common Ground’s antidote for this range of ills is regenerative ag, which employs cover cropping and eschews chemical inputs and tillage to improve soil health, water quality, and retention. So far, so good; we’ve been here before.

But gradually, and fairly subtly, Common Ground reveals another agenda: the promotion of grass-fed beef as a key component of regenerative ag. The munching of cattle encourages the growth of plants whose roots sequester carbon, we learn, while their manure fertilizes soil. But the film ignores the significant greenhouse gas emissions generated when cattle digest rough forage (studies show that grass-fed animals, because they take longer to reach market weight, emit more greenhouse gas emissions over their lifetimes than do feedlot cattle). And it says nothing about livestock displacing wildlife, polluting waterways, trampling streambanks and, on public rangelands, relying on taxpayer-funded USDA programs to destroy thousands of cow-hassling carnivores a year.

The film makes mincemeat of both plant-based meat — because it’s ultraprocessed and is often made with GMO ingredients — and cell-based meat — because starter cells come from living cows. “Where’s the feed coming from” for those cattle? asks celebrity doctor Mark Hyman, rhetorically. According to one recent peer-reviewed paper, culturing stem cells from donor cattle would allow a 400-fold reduction in the number of cattle required for global beef production — presumably reducing cattle feed by the same ratio.

Hyman endorses grass-fed beef for its health benefits: “Food is literally medicine,” he says. A public-lands rancher in Idaho endorses it as a conservation tool, claiming he’s restored tens of thousands of acres of public land by concentrating his livestock in much smaller spaces. But if removing domesticated animals allows native plants and animals — terrestrial, aerial, and aquatic — to return in full force, one wonders, why not remove all the cattle from degraded public lands?

The authoritative Project Drawdown considers a shift from meat-centric diets the second-most impactful action individuals can take, after reducing food waste, to lighten their environmental footprint. But you won’t hear that message here; nor will viewers learn that plenty of regenerative farmers build soil health through cover cropping and the application of minerals and green manures: no animals required.

Despite its truth-to-power framing, the film repeatedly ignores inconvenient truths: that grass-fed beef costs significantly more than meat finished in feedlots; that full-scale conversion to regenerative grazing in the U.S. would require more pastureland than the U.S. contains; and that for all their benefits, cover crops have been adopted on less than 10 percent of midwestern acres. Why? As large producers told a recent survey by Purdue University, cover crops are not profitable and they hurt yields of cash crops. Small producers, meanwhile, may not be able to afford the necessary specialty equipment, including seed drillers and roller crimpers, especially if they’re already carrying tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

What Common Ground seems to do well is shine a light on agribusiness’ stranglehold on our food system. Agrichemical companies spend more than $100 million a year lobbying Congress, according to the film, and in 2023 provided a full 60 percent of land-grant university funding — an astonishing figure, if true. (The film offers no source for this datum, nor does it specify whether this money goes only to ag programs.) We hear how agribiz, through doxing, influence peddling, and smear campaigns, quashes academic freedom and stifles the work of USDA researchers and journalists with whom it disagrees.

Common Ground would have benefited from a close edit (why mention gluten intolerance as a segue to the evils of the herbicide Roundup if the film doesn’t, ultimately, connect the two?) and a fact check (glyphosate is not “in most tap water,” as one on-camera source says, and agribusiness is not, by a long shot, the largest lobbying group in D.C.). And while it showcases farmers who have sequestered massive amounts of carbon, others’ mileage may vary. As soil science evolves, researchers are increasingly challenging the assumption that soil can draw down meaningful amounts of carbon and keep it in the ground.

The film’s production values are high, and its celebrity explainers (Laura Dern, Woody Harrelson, Jason Momoa, Ian Somerhalder, and Donald Glover) may attract an audience for whom many of these ideas are new. But the film misses a huge opportunity to educate viewers about the consequences of their dietary choices and other more promising ways to sequester carbon, like restoring peatlands and tropical forests and pressuring lawmakers to tie crop insurance and other federal subsidies to farmers’ adoption of conservation practices.

Watch Common Ground to learn about the power of healthy soil and to celebrate sustainable farming, but know that its principal informants are hardly neutral, and its “solution” for what ails ag is not as simple as it sounds.