Ethical Beef, Part 5: Agriculture Benefits from Grazing Animals

When compared with the other ways of producing food, keeping grazing animals on your farm or homestead is the most environmentally benign.


| November 2014



Grazing Animals

“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.”


Photo by Fotolia/Vincent

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?”

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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.





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