Ethical Beef, Part 5: Agriculture Benefits from Grazing Animals

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“I see the raising of cattle and other grazing animals on grass, which is inherently resistant to industrialization, as an essential part of a more locally and regionally based, more environmentally sustainable food system.”
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In “Defending Beef,” environmental lawyer and vegetarian Nicolette Hahn Niman debunks popular myths about meat consumption, arguing that, when done properly, the earth benefits from the production of meat from cattle and other livestock.

Is eating meat ethically wrong or right? In Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, environmental lawyer Nicolette Hahn Niman aggregates the research and personal insight to explain how eating meat is beneficial for humans and for the planet, stating that there is a need for meat to be produced the right way. This excerpt, which explains how grazing animals can positively impact the agriculture business and the environment, is from the section, “Final Analysis: Why Eat Animals?”

Buy this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Defending Beef.

Agriculture Benefits from Grazing Animal Herds

I may once have harbored a notion that by following a vegetarian diet I was choosing a path that ensured nothing would have to die for my meals. But no longer. The more I’ve become familiar with agriculture, the more that seems a gross oversimplification. As I’ve studied the globe’s hundreds of millions of years of change, it’s readily apparent that the earth was never assaulted on such a broad scale until the onset of crop agriculture, an effect that was greatly multiplied with the advent of mechanization. Pastoral animal keeping, however, mimics the functions of wild herds that covered the earth for millions of years. The impact of animal herds is a familiar disturbance to the earth, one that plants and animals can tolerate and actually need. Vegetation will be pruned and stepped on, as it has always been, allowing for a diversity of plants, and for perennialism. Compared with other ways of producing food, the keeping of grazing livestock, when done appropriately, is the most environmentally benign. The best lives for domesticated animals are on grass, and grass provides the most opportunities for wild animals of all shapes and sizes. Raising cattle on grass thus provides habitat for both the domesticated and the wild.

My primary mission this past decade has been helping, however possible, to build a more environmentally sound and humane food system. There is such a terribly long way to go. I don’t urge people to eat meat. But for those who do, I encourage them to seek meat that is well raised. At the same time, I don’t consider abandoning meat an effective strategy for positively affecting the food system. Instead, I believe the most important thing a consumer can do to change the way meat is produced is to buy meat from well-raised animals. In other words, to directly support farmers and ranchers who are doing things the right way, nearly all of whom are operating on extremely thin margins. In a nation where agribusiness, food, and pharmaceutical companies hold the political cards, I hold out little hope for any major policy reform. Consumers, however, have enormous power to make positive change in the food system.

I see the raising of cattle and other grazing animals on grass, which is inherently resistant to industrialization, as an essential part of a more locally and regionally based, more environmentally sustainable food system. Necessarily, livestock grazing is broadly dispersed, outdoors, and reliant on natural systems. It requires local people, out on the land, with knowledge of climate and ecosystem functions. This is why traditional livestock tenders still exist the world over while croplands have been largely co-opted by multinational agribusiness corporations growing commodities for the international market.

In the United States, I think this is what alarms agribusiness the most about the rising interest in totally grass-fed beef. The huge corporations have gained near-absolute control over the beef markets by buying, shutting down, and consolidating feedlots and slaughterhouses. Although American cattle ranchers remain fiercely independent, they are price takers, not price makers, because they control none of the infrastructure that turns cattle into meat and gets it to the end user. Yet the industry does not have, and probably can never have, similar control over cattle raised entirely on grass. This is the province of a growing number of independent farmers and ranchers scattered around the United States who mostly raise their own animals from birth and sell beef directly to consumers.

Making a Regenerative Food System with Grazing Animals

On another level, I support cattle ranching and farming because I believe humans’ age-old association with farm animals provides important intangible benefits to humanity. We are better for living alongside them. Those of us who have the pleasure of being around them every day likely benefit the most. We are taught in stark relief the lessons of nature—the inevitability of illness, injury, and death; the cycles of birth, growth, aging, and decline. We are constantly reminded of the fragility of life, of what it takes to be a good parent, of bravery, patience, loyalty. If we are paying attention, we are learning from them, constantly. Our own impermanence is clearer to us. They also bring unquantifiable yet vast pleasure to many of the people who see them, as evidenced by the frequency with which people slow down their cars or even stop and get out just to observe our animals. I have been told again and again by people in our community how much they enjoy seeing and being near them. “I love walking among your cows,” a neighbor told me once. “They make me feel so calm.”

Humans are strongly drawn to meat and other foods derived from animals. Research demonstrates that as people gain affluence, to a point, they increase the meat and dairy in their diet. This is happening today in Asia, where demand for meat is growing the fastest. Research also shows that about 75 percent of people who give up meat return to it eventually. I’ve never seen research on this point, but I strongly suspect the percentage would be even higher for people who’ve attempted a strictly vegan diet. I’ve met dozens of former vegans or vegetarians in my lifetime. Whether for reasons of culture, health, or convenience, the overwhelming majority of the world’s people eat foods from animals. Clearly, humans will be raising animals for food for the foreseeable future.

Our food system must regenerate itself as nature does, and treat animals as our partners, not as inanimate production units. We must restore the broken covenant we have with farm animals. Ridding the world of factory farms should be a priority. Industrial operations must be replaced with farming systems that recycle nutrients and continually feed the earth’s living blanket, the soils.

At the heart of this regenerative food system will be cattle and other grazing animals. We will manage their movements, help protect them from predators, make sure they have water and good forage, and attend to their needs. In return, they will help us by keeping our grasslands vibrant—covered in vegetation and teeming with carbon and life belowground. Our cattle will provide us milk and meat, healthful, nutrient-dense foods. We will appreciate and value them for all that they are and all they do.

Want to learn more about raising livestock and eating meat? See these articles:

Ethical Beef, Part 1: The Benefits of Eating Meat
Ethical Beef, Part 2: The Efficiency of Cattle Grazing
Ethical Beef, Part 3: The Environmental and Moral Concerns of Eating Meat
Ethical Beef, Part 4: The Pleasure of Raising Livestock

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, by Nicolette Hahn Niman and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014. Buy this book from our store: Defending Beef.