Vegetarians are bad for the environment

CO2 contributes to climate change, although it works in complex ways. For example, higher concentrations of CO2 helps plants grow. Trees require less water when there is more CO2, so can we expect MORE forest growth, a benefit of climate change? A more straightforward factor in climate change, and maybe a bigger factor, is land use. As grasslands turn to deserts, climate gets worse. An unusual solution might be MORE cows and sheep.

Watch this TED talk. Think about grasslands. Grasslands co-evolved with large grazing animals. It is easy to see how grazing animals depend on the grass they eat. It is harder, and maybe even counterintuitive, to see how grasslands depend on large grazing animals. In fact, years ago we were taught that grazing destroyed grasslands. But like everything else in nature, it was more complex than that.

Just as the difference between a lifesaving medicine and a deadly poison is often in the dosage, whether grazing animals destroy grasslands or save them depends both on the amount and on how it is done. Overgrazing makes semi-arid grasslands into deserts, but so does under grazing.

Alan Savory, the man featured in the TED talk, was surprised when he studied parkland that had been protected from grazing. As you can see if you look at the TED talk, some lands that were green and prosperous when a park was established and livestock was excluded, were in much worse shape thirty years later. Far from recovering in the absence of grazing, they degraded further.

Grazing good and bad

It is not a simple matter of finding the right number of animals to graze a field. More important is HOW they do it. I would think that a herd of animals spread evenly over a field would be optimal. They would nip off the top of the grass evenly, never trampling too much. But this is wrong. The grass needs to be grazed heavily and trampled down and then it needs to rest. The best thing to do is put lots of animals into concentrated areas but to move them around. Where the animals have been, it looks "overgrazed" and it would be if they stayed, but they don't. The grass gets a chance to grow back and when it does it is stronger.

It starts to make sense when you think of how you might work your own lawn. If you just let the grass grow w/o ever cutting, raking or fertilizing, the grass gets patchy and starts to die. Grass thrives best when it is clipped down and the resulting thatch removed. Grazing animals do this and provide fertilizer in the process.

The best thing about this method of grassland restoration is that it is sustainable and profitable. This means that farmers can use it, stay in business and benefit the environment at the same time. In the long run they can graze MORE animals on the same land because the method also restores and builds soils.

Soil is the basis of all our prosperity, but we usually just treat it like dirt. A healthy soil gives us many benefits. Besides growing better plans, healthy soil can absorb water better. Pastures with strong soils resist drought better. There is another advantage important today. Strong soils sequester carbon.

Before I finish, let me make a few points clearer. First, this grazing method is used for grasslands that don't get much rain or get rain in large doses, as in wet and dry seasons. In places where it rains all year around, such as in Western Europe or Eastern North America, you can let grazing animal just spread out. This is because the grass grows back quickly and, as importantly, the residue rots rapidly in the humid environment. Neither of these things happens in the drier places. That is why you need the grazing animals deployed in intense groups. Second, MORE animals can be grazed on the same land. It is a real win-win. Farmers and ranchers benefit directly by being sustainable. And finally, eating meat is good. In many of these drier areas, grazing animals are the most efficient makers of food. If the system is done properly, there were will more animals than the land can support. Some need to be removed and if there is not a strong market for them, farmers will be unable to support sustainability. Sustainable agriculture and strong markets are mutually supportive.

On a related topic, I saw on "Globo Rural" an article about a multiple land use with cattle. On a farm in the Brazilian state of Maranhão, they divide their land into five sections. Four of the five are planted in soy. The last one is corn with grass planted under it. After the corn is harvested, they put cattle on the land to eat the grass. They move around the fields, so that every five times the field is in corn followed by cattle. This increases profits on the farm, improves that soil and reduces inputs of fertilizers and pesticides.

We really can be sustainable w/o radically changing our ways of life. Profit is not only compatible with a good environment; it is a necessity. Strong markets and sustainability go together. And clearly meat-eaters are better for the environment than vegetarians.

Posted by Christine & John at July 14, 2013 12:00 AM
Comment #368127


I hope you are aware that much of the meat sold in this country comes from animals that are not grass-fed.

Posted by: Warren Porter at July 14, 2013 7:57 AM
Comment #368131


I know. This is a method of land management and improvement as a much as a way to produce beef.

You really need to have farm animals if you want to manage land properly. It is part of the holistic approach.

I was down in Appomattox, VA at the restored park there. The problem they had making it “realistic” was that there were no animals. This changed the reality. The ranger told me that they did not know how to care for the animals and that the visitors didn’t like the stink.

If you are referring to the title, I was just being provocative.

Posted by: CJ at July 14, 2013 8:32 AM
Comment #368134
If you are referring to the title, I was just being provocative.

Fair enough.

However, if we accept your premise that sustainable grazing is the best land-use for our grasslands, then we ought to do whatever we can to maximize the prevalence of this methods. Because most animals today are not grass-fed, I conclude that the proper incentives do not currently exist within the free-market. So this leads to my question: Is there a role government can play to guide us to sustainable land-use patterns? Or are we to simply hope and pray that the power brokers in the livestock industry figure things out on their own? Or maybe potential the benefits of grass-fed livestock aren’t worth the costs?

Posted by: Warren Porter at July 14, 2013 9:34 AM
Comment #368136


Not all land benefits from this sort of grazing. As I wrote, in humid regions, i.e. most of North America east of Kansas, this sort of thing is not particularly beneficial. It works in the drier places, places that under natural conditions would be grass or steppe.

In agriculture, very specific local conditions are important. Federal laws cannot capture this complexity. But Federal regulations of public land could be important. A lot of grazing is done on national forest lands. There have been some calls to limit grazing. Perhaps in these cases, they could experiment with this different method. I say experiment, because they need to respond to local conditions and change as appropriate.

There is a place for different growing regimes. Agriculture in the U.S. is highly innovative. Good techniques spread rapidly.

Posted by: CJ at July 14, 2013 9:59 AM
Comment #368138
Perhaps in these cases, they could experiment with this different method. I say experiment, because they need to respond to local conditions and change as appropriate.

But is this even possible within the context of the Federal Bureaucracy? Because the land exists within the public trust, the only way to manage the land is to define clear and strict rules, which excludes the possibility of any such experimentation.

Posted by: Warren Porter at July 14, 2013 10:46 AM
Comment #368142


It has been possible. The rules are flexible if the people using them want them to be. It is unlikely that the Federal managers could directly dictate the form, but they could study the effects of different grazing. As pastures were healthy, more animals could be permitted.

Re “the only way to manage the land is to define clear and strict rules …” This is exactly the way land cannot be properly managed. Land is like many other decisions, only more so. We need to keep our goals clear, but our methods flexible. Strict rules on land lead to degradation.

Posted by: CJ at July 14, 2013 11:34 AM
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