There has been a flurry of online articles recently about the role of meat in our diet and its effect on planetary health. We have people, like George Monbiot of the Guardian who are eagerly awaiting the viability of the artificial meat industry to address what he perceives as the tremendous waste of grazing. Then there is the “Grazed and Confused” article on the Oxford Martin School website that highlights the findings of a new report by the Food Climate Research Network which notes that all livestock are clear net contributors to GHG (greenhouse gases) and, therefore, not “climate saviors.”
In response to this report A Greener World notes that the original intent of that study was to help articulate the incredible complexity in defining sustainability, and it was not intended to determine if livestock could be “climate saviors.”
Likewise, in response to the “Grazed and Confused” study is an article, “Beef Isn’t to Blame,” on the Sustainable Dish website, which references numerous counter studies to the “Grazed and Confused” study. Diana Rogers also notes there are many issues contributing to the challenging question about what is the right diet for planetary health and that these noted articles do not include such issues as over population as we consider the question of what food to eat. Additional studies refuting “Grazed and Confused” are also noted in a previous HMI blog titled “The Science Behind Holistic Management Improving Soil Health.”
As I read and considered these articles and the issues they discuss, I noticed particularly the rhetoric in the Guardian article as yet another example of someone creating a false dichotomy that makes eating a zero sum game and smacks of reductionist thinking. Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the article is that “animal agriculture” is defined as inherently separate from “cropping,” with the author seeing livestock as only a source of human food instead of recognizing the evolutionary relationship between herbivores, plants, and soils.
At HMI we work from the premise that nature functions in wholes. Agriculture is part of nature and animals are a critical component of nature and agriculture. Nature has been engaged in symbiotic relationships long before humans walked the earth. As a keystone species humans have certainly demanded more than our fair share of resources. We have also fixated on technology as our “climate savior.” Yet we know that there have been many unintended consequences from our playing with all the tools at our disposal—fire, technology, rest, and living organisms (including animal impact and grazing).
Yet, there are incredible examples of people working in partnership with nature to create long-term solutions that don’t have dangerous unintended consequences because those people have learned how nature functions and worked with those key principles with their families, communities, and the ecosystem in mind.
Do I think that domestic livestock are “climate saviors?” I think that question is a red herring. Do I think domestic livestock can be used to increase organic matter thus sequestering more carbon in the soil? Absolutely. I’ve seen it happen on my property and talked to hundreds of people who have experienced the same thing. It’s not rocket science—it’s soil biology. Provide more food and habitat for micro-organisms and you can support more micro-organisms that do all the work of carbon sequestration and growing plants that are the conduit for that exchange.
Ultimately, I trust natural processes over artificial products made by humans any day. Humans can attempt to control nature, but ultimately natural law and processes prevail. Since we depend on nature, I’d rather work in a food system that attempts to partner with nature and reap the symbiotic benefits than one that is propped up on technology and companies we must trust to do what is right for us. The latter is a pretty scary proposition for me given the corporate track record to date.
I think many consumers have the conception that because the livestock industry requires the taking of lives (particularly mammalian lives) that it is somehow more vicious and questionable than crop farming which only requires the harvesting of vegetables, grains, and fruits (plants). But anyone who has farmed knows that “how” you raise a crop or an animal can have far more consequences than “what” you raise. I feel much better about eating a locally raised and slaughtered grassfed animal from a producer I know than I do about some commercially grown strawberries from a company in California whose workers are struggling with health issues because of the pesticide use on that farm (not to mention all the sentient beings that are also being killed by those practices).
I have used the holistic decision-making process as a way to help me make decisions about my food choices and how I can contribute to the health of the planet. That process has been a powerful tool to help me understand nature and the consequences of my actions. People may say my decision-making is faulty because they have decided to believe one study over another. But, I know that these natural processes—the ecosystem processes—upon which I view planetary health have been functioning quite well without human intervention and my goal is to support their health through my decisions. We ignore these ecosystem processes at our own peril and our well-advised to get in the game and partner with nature if we want to survive.
I also believe that regenerative agriculture is a means by which both the conscious consumer and producer can actively be a partner with nature. Wars have been won by everyone pitching in with rationing, creative recipes, and growing victory gardens, taking responsibility for making a difference. It wasn’t just the soldiers on the front lines that influenced the outcome. It’s not just agricultural producers who decide how farming is accomplished. Consumers out number producers 49:1 in the developed world. I think everyone has the opportunity to take proactive steps now with the planetary challenges we face by becoming informed on these issues and deciding what we each can contribute to the efforts being taken to leave the world a better place for the generations to come.
Because of the people I talk to on a daily basis and the results they have accomplished, I have great hope for what we can do to leave healthier soil and more productive lands for future generations. It all starts with recognizing we each contribute to the future—one decision at a time.
HMI has trained over 60,000 farmers and ranchers in the past thirty years. We have also reached out to thousands of consumers who want to part of the regenerative agriculture solution. Click here to download HMI’s free e-book on Holistic Decision-Making titled “Caring for our Planet – Holistic Decision Making for the 21st Century.”.
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