Photo by Eloise Ambursley on Unsplash

WeWork’s Meat Ban: A Missed Climate Opportunity

By Deborah Loomis, with Aleta Davies

WeWork recently announced that the company will no longer allow meat at employee events or reimburse employees for meals that include meat. While I applaud WeWork’s commitment to the environment, the company could achieve more for that mission by supporting farmers and ranchers who raise meat in a way that helps reverse climate change, protects watersheds, and embraces animal welfare.

I am not a rancher. I am a naval officer, an environmental attorney, and a mother who believes that climate change is an existential threat to our security and our children’s future. In my search for climate solutions, I’ve seen the power of regenerative grazing to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil. And I have come to know the ranchers who are on the front lines of the climate fight.

Regenerative agriculture’s potential to reverse our climate calamity challenges everything we think we know about how to heal the planet.

First, the obvious: Ruminant animals have existed for millennia in far greater numbers than exist today, yet methane emissions and environmental degradation were never an issue. The environmental impact of today’s industrial livestock is a result of human management, not the animals. As nutritionist Diana Rodgers puts it, “It’s not the cow, it’s the how.”

Industrial agriculture has a huge carbon footprint. Fertilizers and other chemical inputs emit greenhouse gases, and kill microbes and insect populations. Without these vital organisms, our soils no longer absorb water effectively and our food has fewer nutrients. Meanwhile, in feedlots, animals stand shoulder to shoulder on concrete or dirt, often in their own manure. They are fed mostly grain, which they are not adapted to eat, and given antibiotics even when they are not sick.

WeWork must also consider the environmental impacts of the food that will replace meat on its menus. The water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and deforestation caused by growing monoculture soy, corn or wheat using synthetic inputs are also highly destructive.

There is a better way.

Photo by adam morse on Unsplash

A small but growing group of ranchers and farmers has learned that if managed as nature intended, livestock can regenerate degraded lands and watersheds, increase biodiversity, and build habitat for birds, insects, and pollinators, all while drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it deep in the soil. These practices are known as “regenerative” because unlike the extraction model of industrial agriculture, they bring degraded land back to life.

Regenerative ranchers and farmers are often called “carbon farmers” because they take carbon out of the atmosphere and build carbon content in soils. Their work is essential in the fight against climate change because, as the United Nations Environment Program points out, even if every nation fulfills its Paris Agreement commitments, that would deliver only one-third of the emissions reductions needed to prevent runaway climate change. To close this “emissions gap,” we must draw carbon out of the atmosphere.

At White Oak Pastures in Georgia, Will Harris’ land is sequestering 2.9 million pounds of CO2 every year; many regenerative ranchers are achieving similar results. WeWork estimates that it will prevent 89 million pounds of carbon emissions per year by banning meat. The company could match those results by supporting the transition of just over 4,100 acres to regenerative practices — which would require less than a handful of ranches. General Mills, Patagonia, the National Audubon Society, and others are already working with ranchers to implement regenerative practices on hundreds of thousands of acres.

Will Harris on his farm in Bluffton, Georgia. Photo by Angie Bennett Mosier

Regenerative grazing is also vital for restoring water quality and imparting drought resistance because healthy soils absorb, filter, and retain water. Gabe Brown’s ranch in North Dakota went from being able to absorb just a half-inch of rain per hour — before he switched to regenerative grazing — to more than eight inches of rain per hour, creating deep reserves that make his pastures resilient to drought.

WeWork estimates that its meat ban will save 3.34 billion gallons of water per year. That sounds like a lot. But on Brown’s 5000-acre ranch alone, his switch to regenerative practices saves more than 1 billion gallons of water during a single eight-inch rain event, compared with what his land used to absorb. So WeWork’s impact would be easily surpassed, again, by transitioning just a few ranches to regenerative practices.

WeWork’s mission is to “create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living.” At White Oak Pastures, Harris is doing just that: Before, he employed four people at minimum wage; now he employs 150 people at double the county’s average wage. Regenerative producers are small business owners who create desperately needed good jobs in rural communities.

Properly managed grasslands and livestock are important and powerful tools in the effort to reverse climate change and environmental degradation. At WeWork’s next retreat, rather than just infinitesimally reducing demand for industrial beef, the company should use its market power to support these visionaries in the climate fight — the regenerative producers who are healing ecosystems and helping to reverse global warming, one pasture at a time.

The opinions expressed herein are my own and do not represent the position of the Department of Defense or Department of the Navy.