The Unequal Distribution of Waste

» August 27th, 2012

Advocates of sustainable animal agriculture routinely tell us that animals are required for environmentally responsible food production. It’s not uncommon for these advocates to go so far as to argue that animal agriculture will substantially mitigate global warming. Despite the inherent wastefulness of raising animals for food, these supporters argue that eco-correct farming demands animal waste to fertilize fields to grow the grasses that improve soil respiration and sequester carbon. They portray rotational grazing as a self-sustaining system that’s more in tune with the rhythms of nature. The way they spin the narrative, it appears to be an appealing solution to the environmental horror of industrial animal agriculture (speaking of which, check out the video I posted today in “Of Interest.”)

Rotational grazing, however, is anything but self-sustaining. In fact, it requires intense management skills, skills that the vast majority of farmers lack. Even the best rotational grazers, however, face what I see as an insuperable problem. Indeed, As I research this increasingly popular system of raising animals (for The Modern Savage), I’m coming to the new conclusion (new, at least, for me) that organizing cattle on pasture is marked by an inherent contradiction with unsustainable environment consequences.  I reach this conclusion after reading scores of rotational grazing manuals published by university extension agencies.

The tension centers on animal waste distribution and grazing capacity. Pastures that are sparsely packed with cattle are pastures that suffer poor waste distribution. Cattle pee and poop around water supplies, under shade trees, and outside the gates of their enclosures. They do not evenly distribute their waste. Not even remotely. The field is thus not properly fertilized. The main way to mitigate this problem is to pack cattle with greater density, thus improving nutrient distribution. This decision, however, quickly leads to what called “pugging”—the transformation of soil around watering spots into muck that can be 18 inches thick—and overgrazing in the center of the pastures. Pugging and overgrazing counteract the benefits of nutrient distribution because the soil is less able to absorb the waste.  The rotational grazer is thereby trapped.

I suppose diehard rotational grazers will say it’s all about finding the sweet spot between these two countervailing trends. But from what I’ve read, that’s a very tough sweet spot to find, leaving me to conclude that, pragmatically speaking, the environmental benefits of rotational grazing are more theoretical and rhetorical that real. Just another way the food movement seeks to justify the suffering they cause with the supposed environmental benefits their way of eating claims to bring us. As always, it still seems the best solution is to leave animals out of the equation altogether.


14 Responses to The Unequal Distribution of Waste

  1. John T. Maher says:

    Animals should not be left out of the equation — animal agriculture should. Animal intervention, such as eating brush, soil surface alteration through scratching, producing fecal matter and spreading pollen and seeds is necessary in any eco system. Animal Ag is a disaster and the sort of muck around the water hole that JMAC describes is a clear example f the tragedy of the commons, in many cases subsidized by your government

    by the way — nothing is “sustainable” and this term is nothing more than a fraudulent label used to sell hope and happy feelings to consumers

  2. Rebecca says:

    As John said – animals should not be left out of the equation. However, it is not necessary to kill the animals at any time, since they graze and produce waste their entire lives! Something those “sustainable” meat-eating advocates conveniently forget.

  3. Keith Akers says:

    Both George Wuerthner and Jeff Burgess have critiques of the rotational grazing ideas, which are being pushed by Allan Savory in the form of “holistic management” or “holistic resource management.”

  4. Nadine says:

    From my understanding, soil and land destruction are a direct result of animal trampling and overgrazing. Using specific cow pasture management techniques seems ridiculous. It would be far more logical to get rid of the problem in the first place. Unfortunately, unless you adopt a vegan approach, the other logical option would be isolating animals from the environment; hence factory farms.

    The animals always lose in the resource management game, it’s better to take them out of the equation entirely and focus on plants. Plants can and do provide an abundance of materials.

    On a side anecdote, my husband and I were remarking how our small plum tree provided over hundred pounds of fruit and yet, its base takes up less than a foot of our yard, it’s foliage provides shade to a small garden patch below and its blossoms provide sensory enjoyment in the spring. Tent caterpillars were particularly strong this year and ate most of the early foliage, yet the tree still came back. Contrast the plum tree to the life cycle of a pasture cow and the end result…

  5. carolyn z says:

    And let’s not forget how far the issue goes beyond rotational grazing.

    Grazing at all is arguably the most absurd and extreme thing humans have ever done to the planet. Pair it with the mass contributions of animal agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions, one can literally make this statement: Farmed animals are farting and stomping the earth to death.

    And that’s to say nothing of animal ag’s destruction and waste of the water supply. There’s no “sustainable” animal ag that even comes close to escaping these three issues.

    I’m a believer that almost all agriculture inherently harms the earth and is against anything that could be remotely conceived of as earth’s “natural” state. (I don’t use “natural” lightly here– I only mean the state the earth would take on if there were no human intervention). However, unless we support a mass human die-off as many primitivists explicitly or implicitly do, we need agriculture. And it is entirely in our ability to be minimally destructive with our farming practices.

    • James says:

      Would love you to dig up some explicit statements of desired die-offs by primitivists. Very eager to see that.

      • carolyn z says:

        I can’t go looking for exact quotes right now, but just off the top of my head, some resources: Lierre Keith (particularly in ch.5 of her book), is a bit implicit but admits that her paleo-primitivist utopia can only exist in a world of very few humans. Though I think she means well social justice-wise, she disregards the fact that this could only happen in an extremely violent and oppressive way, and that we can’t talk about– let alone advocate for, as justice-seekers– a population plunge w/out discussing privilege and domination. Same with Derrick Jensen who, in a sense, bases his entire ideology on this theme. In Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, he is quite explicit and unapologetic (albeit in charming language so it’s easy to miss) about the issue of how we must support a Malthusean population plunge in order to “return” to his primitivist utopia. Really, in any primitivist return-to-nature stuff, even amongst anarchists who fancy themselves super egalitarian, die-offs are at the heart of philosophy whether stated or otherwise. Because we can’t have “sustainable” world of foragers and/or hunters– a pre-agricultural-revolution world– with 7 billion humans. There are also many strands of this amongst deep ecologists.

        • carolyn z says:

          Quinn, actually, even believes that we should stop sending food aid to impoverished nations in order to allow things to even out and prevent famine. (?!!) He articulates this very explicitly as a central theme of Ishmael and The Story of B. A lot of primitivists (white euro-american, generally male) indeed cite him as a hero. Talk about needing a privilege check.

  6. carolyn z says:

    p.s. John, I agree on the word “sustainable”. That 7 billion humans, multiplied by capitalism, exist is an inherently unsustainable situation no matter how you slice it.

    I do want to point out however that veganic agriculture is a thriving and viable practice and does not involve animal wastes and many of the other things you discuss. In any farming system there will, of course, be involvement of non-domesticated animals (birds, insects, etc), and I don’t have an inherent problem using the waste or incidental “work” of rescued domestic animals. But it would be an unnecessary mistake to continue breeding and domesticating animals for the sake of agriculture and ecology.

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      I agree, Carolyn — animal waste isn’t needed for growing plant foods. The Vegan Organic Network shows us how:

      Domestication has been a profound misfortune for nonhuman animals, that has hurt us too. There’s no justification for continued breeding.

  7. Mountain says:

    Since this entire earthly enterprise is based on captured solar energy– which will one day end– nothing we do now is truly sustainable. But that is probably unnecessarily big-picture.

    I don’t know if there is anything inherently unsustainable about 7 billion humans– those are equations I couldn’t possibly gather enough information to even attempt– but it certainly is a challenge. I would imagine, at the very least, that a great deal of urban agriculture & vertical farming would be required– so, at minimum, a lot of urban zoning would have to change. And efficient capture of solar energy (from plants & solar panels) would have to improve greatly.

  8. CQ says:

    Sent to me recently by a friend:

    I hope The Modern Savage devotes a chapter to all the new and old ways to feed the world — indoor systems that don’t involve a single living or dead animal and outdoor systems that involve only free-living animals, who are helped but never harmed by our agricultural endeavors and who, as part of their natural cycle, help the growing process along.

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