25.What About Cows on Grass?

I hope my previous posts have explained in adequate detail why factory-farming of livestock is a disaster for the environment, for the animals, for human health in regard to both healthy eating and preserving the usefulness of antibiotics, and last but not least for the prospects of ending hunger (since it takes many pounds of human-edible crops to produce just a few pounds of animal food).  But what about raising animals on pasture?

Many arguments have been made in favor of pasturing livestock.  It is much more humane, because it enables the animals to live comfortably and behave naturally (until they’re slaughtered).  Where row-cropping is not possible due to inadequate rainfall/ irrigation or steep slopes, pasturing is a way of turning grass that people cannot eat into meat, dairy, and eggs that we can.  Arguments have been made, and in some cases apparently borne out, that grazing animals on pasture can sequester carbon and restore degraded land.

On the other hand, when animals trample stream beds it causes serious ecological damage and water pollution.  In many parts of the world, overgrazing is rapidly turning grassland and scrubland into desert — or has already done so.  And in a world in which water scarcity is growing, livestock need to drink a lot more water than is needed to grow plant crops.

I recently read a couple of contributions to the controversy.  The March/April 2017 Sierra magazine (a Sierra Club publication) examined the claims of Allan Savory, whose observations of African conditions led him to believe that cattle improve soil by stirring it up, and that carbon-sequestering bacteria thrive in their hoof prints, so that the more cattle are on the land the better the land becomes — whether in well-watered regions, or in arid and semi-arid ones.  The writer’s report of his interview with Savory makes clear that the man believes in his thesis passionately and sincerely.  Yet the article also shows that scientific examination of the facts do not quite support Savory’s beliefs.  For Savory insists that any number of cattle can be grazed on land as long as they’re moved about enough to avoid degrading it — but he ignores the facts that a great deal of just such degradation has been well documented, and that at least in arid and semi-arid areas, where ruminant herds were not present until people introduced them, it’s not really possible to move them far enough and fast enough to avoid very serious degradation and desertification.  Bison only worked well as part of the prairie ecosystem because grass grows well there and they had the whole one million square miles of the Great Plains to move about on.

I have read of The Nature Conservancy working with ranchers to use controlled grazing as part of the ecological restoration of their spread.  I’ve read of people like eccentric farmer Joel Salatin (especially as reported by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) who have successfully used pasturing of livestock to restore degraded land.  And I read this week (March 5) in the New York Times Sunday Review section (p.4) an essay by Englishman James Rebanks who herds sheep in England’s Lake District in accordance with traditions that date back over 4000 years.  He works within a local and ancient communal grazing system in that very hilly region which must, in order to have lasted this long, have worked out a set of practices that match flock size to the land’s long-term carrying capacity.

It would therefore seem that raising livestock on pasture can in certain circumstances be sustainable and appropriate.  But it must be made very clear that it only works when animals are kept away from stream banks, and moved about very frequently, and maintained in numbers that are limited enough to avoid degrading the land.  Arid lands probably cannot sustain grazing;  and semi-arid regions can probably only be grazed sustainably through nomadic practices that move constantly over very large distances.  Even where grass grows lushly, regenerative pasturing requires limiting the number of animals and moving them constantly from one part of the pasture to another.

There are indeed places where grazing livestock makes sense as part of ending hunger.  Where the land is so damaged that only grass will grow, or so steep that row-cropping is not feasible, or in the future on the Great Plains after the Oglalla Aquifer is depleted, grazing may be the best (or only) good agricultural use of those lands.  But the constraint of limiting the numbers of animals to what the land can sustainably support means that such grazing will never supply the huge amounts of cheap meat that are currently in demand.  For cheap abundant meat the way factory farms now produce it is simply neither sustainable nor compatible with enabling all seven-point-something billion of us to be fed.  And Earth has not got enough pasture land for grazing to match the numbers of animals now raised in factory farms.

Conclusion:  pasturing livestock can be part of feeding the world over the long term — but only in sustainable numbers and in particular places.  This would indeed provide some meat, dairy, and eggs for human consumption — but a lot less than we are currently used to, and they would cost significantly more.  Learning to enjoy low-meat diets is really the only way to go if we truly want to end human hunger.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley