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 details the enjoyment an individual can experience from working and living on a cattle ranch, is from the section, “Final Analysis: Why Eat Animals?”
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Still, I initially had some uneasiness about moving to a cattle ranch. Although I supported it in principle, I wasn’t sure I’d be comfortable living day after day in the midst of an active operation. Would I find it upsetting to be surrounded by animals I knew would one day be sent to slaughter? And even more to the point, would it make me feel guilty to know that our living came from their deaths? I figured I’d keep myself at arm’s length to avoid any potential discomfort.
What happened instead was just the opposite. For exercise and to take in the area’s natural beauty, I took long walks nearly every day through our land. Almost by accident, I began regularly spending time in the company of our cattle. I saw our mother cows ambling as they ate, socializing with their sister herd members, congregating around the water trough, calling their babies, licking one another’s necks. I watched calves frolicking in the grass, racing around after one another at twilight, running to their mothers for a long, warm drink of milk. I saw the bulls and cows nuzzling each other in courtship before and after mating. It was easy to see that the lives of these animals were well worth living. The more I meandered our meadows, the more I sat on our fences observing, the more I valued and appreciated what was happening in my midst. Everywhere I looked I saw animals living well and well-cared-for land.
After a few months, I told Bill I wanted to learn to do everything on the ranch. This surprised him a bit (he, too, had expected his vegetarian wife to want to keep some distance from ranching operations), but he readily agreed. Soon I became the wide-eyed, unskilled, displaced city-dweller ranch hand, helping him and our ranch manager with whatever needed to be done each day. Occasionally, this involved fixing a fence or a water trough (although my role was usually tantamount to holding the tools). In the dry season, it meant bringing our cattle some hay. Daily, it meant taking my pocket-sized notebook and walking or riding on horseback through the herd, making sure each animal was healthy and accounted for. Over time, I came to know each herd member individually, learned some things, and was given more responsibility.
Eventually, and for several years following, I became the primary labor on our ranch. I loved doing physical work, outside, being among the animals, and the challenge of problem solving, the constant companion of every practicing farmer and rancher. I especially enjoyed being useful to the animals, like when I’d reunite a mother with her new calf who’d slid beneath a fence, or when we’d successfully graft a spare twin calf onto a mother whose calf was stillborn.
A lot of my time was spent watching and interacting with wildlife, as well. I became daily witness to nature’s beauty, its force, and its cycles. A mother bobcat stealthily stalking her prey; an osprey cruising silently overhead with a fish clasped in its talons; a wake of vultures feasting hungrily on a deer carcass. Grasses and wildflowers sprouting, blooming, drying, dropping their seeds, dying back. Life-giving rains coming and the cycle beginning anew.
For me, these experiences reinforced that all life is connected. Living in Manhattan, as I had for nearly five years just before moving to the ranch, it had been easy to see myself individually, and humanity collectively, as isolated from the rest of the natural world. Working every day out on the ranch, maintaining such a view was impossible.
It became increasingly plain to me, as well, that even the most conscientious agriculture is a major disturbance. No matter how well done, it will invariably have profound impacts on wild creatures and plants, soils, and water. Our expectations of farmers and ranchers should not be zero environmental impact, which is unattainable. The goal, instead, should be food production done as harmoniously as possible with natural elements existing in the wild.
Now consider crop cultivation. Especially if done using typical farm machinery, but even with non-motorized plows, it represents an enormous interruption to naturally occurring vegetation and animals. Plows scrape, cut, and chop up the earth’s surface and whatever is growing there, tearing up complex communities of everything from symbiotic microorganisms to rabbits and snakes. In the developed world most plows are dragged behind enormous, heavy tractors, which is followed later in the season by huge harvesters that crush and shred every plant and animal in their path. These machines are Armageddon for billions of soil-dwelling creatures along with every form of wildlife that resides in or on the ground. There’s no avoiding the reality that crop farming is the most disruptive of all agricultural acts.
At the start of his beautifully photographed and eloquently written The River Cottage Meat Book, British chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall poses the questions: “Why do we eat meat? And is it right, morally, that we do?” In answering, he starts by noting that no matter what we do, it’s a fallacy “to maintain that we can live in complete harmony with the rest of animal kind.” The actions of all animals, he points out, whether intentionally or not, will affect others: “The undeniable fact is that any species’ pursuit of its interests will always have an impact on the rest of the planet’s life—the fox impacting on the chicken population, the flea on the cat, the beaver on the forest, and the sheep on the grass.”
I agree with Fearnley-Whittingstall’s implicit suggestion that no human endeavors, and certainly not farming, can be done without enormous impacts on other life-forms. The notion that we can “eat cruelty-free” by avoiding foods derived from animals is nonsensical if we really look at agriculture, especially crop farming used to produce plant-based foods. Cultivations of soy, grains, fruits, and vegetables are all highly altering of habitat and have immediate and ripple effects on literally billions and billions of creatures of all types.
What I’m looking for is agriculture that respects all life and follows nature’s model. Answering the question: Am I eating food derived from an animal? tells you very little about the impact production of that food has had on nearby animals and plants. All farming, and especially crop farming, necessarily kills a lot of animals of all shapes and sizes. The more meaningful question is: Has this food been produced as nature functions? And for me, it is clear such farming embraces animals.
The great Sir Albert Howard, a godfather of modern organic farming, viewed animals as inextricably linked to ecologically sound food production, calling them “our farming partner.” Howard said: “In Nature animals and plants lead an interlocked existence. The connection could not be closer, more permanent, or more crucial. We can observe this partnership in operation in the forest, in the prairie, in marshes, streams, rivers, lakes, and the ocean.” Howard’s point, I believe, is that nature’s way of converting water and sunlight to energy, in the form of food, is a complex, multi-stage process in which no part exists in isolation. Each component—every ray of sunshine, every drop of water, every clump of soil, every plant, every insect, every grazing animal—has many and varied roles and effects. The more farming systems reflect such complexity, the more they are ecological.
One of the most thorough and thoughtful explorations I’ve seen of why we should farm with animals is in Simon Fairlie’s book Meat: A Benign Extravagance. Fairlie’s perspective is informed by his diverse experiences, which include environmental writer, farmer, and former vegetarian. He believes farming ecologically involves animals. His book describes an optimal food system where cattle and other grazing animals convert non-tillable lands into contributors to the food system and omnivorous animals like pigs and chickens make good use of farm by-products and food scraps. He also discusses at length the value of manure for post-fossil-fuel fertility.
Additionally, Fairlie points out that “wherever there is livestock there is the opportunity to garner and concentrate fertility from the wilder environment...” This is especially the case for grazing animals. More efficiently than machines, Fairlie notes, grazing animals “move nutrients from where they are not needed to where they are required.” This is particularly true for phosphorus, which, unlike nitrogen, cannot be obtained from the air. “[P]lants cannot extract phosphorus from the atmosphere, so the role of animals in importing surplus phosphorus from outlying areas could be crucial,” he argues.
Fairlie also points out that domesticated grazing animals have taken the place of wild herbivores in keeping a balance of open spaces with wooded areas or, as he puts it, light with shade. The balance, he argues, would massively shift without the presence of grazing animals:
Only livestock can engineer the balance that any society seeks between the realm of light and the realm of shade on any scale beyond the arable. Even in a full-blooded fossil fuel economy, JCBs, timber harvesters and other wheeled monsters are fighting a losing battle with nature unless they enlist the help of quadrupeds. Where livestock are allowed to roam they bring grass, and where they are excluded trees grow, and it is a relatively effortless matter for humans to calibrate their performance to our will or whim.
In a related vein, the university textbook Soil and Water Conservation describes the value of livestock for managing fire risks on a broad, landscape scale. “When livestock graze these fire lanes, forest roads, and forestlands in general, they reduce the fire hazard by removing vegetation that is flammable when dry.” The way that cattle manage vegetation, holding back the spread of woody plants and keeping open spaces open, is something few of us pause to consider or appreciate. The look and functionality of our landscapes would be radically different without them, and in many ways for the worse. In short, humanity needs grazing animals.
We hear a great deal about the planet becoming crowded and harder to feed. All too often we hear that livestock are part of the problem. Because it doesn’t fit neatly into the advocacy narrative for vegans and environmentalists, though, we rarely hear about crop cultivation destroying agricultural land, which is actually the greatest threat to humans’ ability to feed themselves in the future. In Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David Montgomery tells the history of societies failing to properly steward their soils, to the point where their lands are no longer usable for crop cultivation; and this continues at an alarming pace today. Food, Energy, and Society notes that, worldwide, more than 50 million acres of agricultural land is abandoned annually because of soil erosion and salinization from irrigating crops. “During the past 40 years, about 30 percent of total world arable land has been abandoned because it is no longer productive,” the book notes. It is estimated that about half of the land currently under cultivation will be unsuitable for food production by the middle of the 21st century.
Individuals and groups are rightly concerned about adequate food supplies for the future. But they would do well to focus their attention on this imminent crisis, and on the way livestock are managed on the land, rather than on the absolute number of livestock, which has little significance. Properly managed grazing animals are an important part of the solution to feeding the world in the future.
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 5: Agriculture Benefits from Grazing Animal Herds
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.
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