Slate Piece on Earth Day

» April 22nd, 2013

It has been a long-running quest of mine to debunk the myth of “rotational” or “holistic” grazing. Allan Savory’s recent TED talk drew fresh attention to the issue in a way that seemed to evoke rabid salivation in those who think they can eat animals as a way to ameliorate climate change. Savory’s talk went viral, foodie environmentalists everywhere started sharpening their steak knives, and I leaped headlong into the fray with this piece, published today in Slate, a venue that—to its everlasting credit—is fearless about taking on the status quo. If you are so inclined, express your opinion about the article there. It helps.

The underlying premise that renders moot all efforts to graze animals holistically is the fact that humans cannot, no matter how eloquent they are, create ecosystems that replicate the shifting relational matrix that we call nature. It almost seems absurd that this limitation would even have to be pointed in the first place, but every time I look up there seems to be another old white man claiming that he has the key to capturing and mimicking the infinite complexity of global ecosystems. These people call themselves environmentalists, but their approach to the ecosystem is as arrogant and aggressive as that of any corn-growing, GMO-using monoculturalist. The best thing we can do to any ecosystem (he said on Earth Day 2013) is leave it well enough alone. Back off, human.

Removing domesticated animals from the planet is the best way we can do this. Livestock emit more GHG emissions than cars. They use more water than any other aspect of agriculture. They trample potentially healthy land into hardpan. They take up one third of the globe’s arable land. They are a menace to the environment and no amount of theorizing about how herds and predators once kept carbon-sequestering grasslands safe and healthy will rectify the reality that the reason those grasslands are no longer safe and healthy is because humans domesticated animals to eat them.

The complexity of the earth is beyond us. What we need on Earth Day is a recognition of this reality. Some call it humility.

21 Responses to Slate Piece on Earth Day

  1. Sailesh Rao says:

    “The complexity of the earth is beyond us. What we need on Earth Day is a recognition of this reality. Some call it humility.”


    Happy Earth Day to all!

  2. Taylor says:

    Livestock “take up one third of the globe’s arable land.”
    I think it’s worse than that. The one-third is just feedcrop production. According to the FAO report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow” (p. xxi), “The total area occupied by grazing is equivalent to 26 percent of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet. In addition, the total area dedicated to feedcrop production amounts to 33 percent of total arable land. In all, livestock production accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the land surface of the planet.”

    Another point, one that I raised in response to an earlier post on this blog, and which received no reply at the time: I don’t fully understand the claim made in the Slate piece about “Cheating the nutrient cycle at the heart of land regeneration by removing the manure-makers and grass hedgers when only 10 percent of their ecological ‘value’ has been exploited….” Since removed animals are constantly being replaced by new animals, what difference does it make? Is the only problem with replacing animals when they are still young the fact that there are no carcasses left to rot? And couldn’t that particular deficiency be rectified simply by grazing more animals to generate more manure? What am I missing here? (I see that one commenter at the Slate site has said, in response to James’ claim: “It’s hard to take the rest of the article seriously when it contains an absurd statement like this.” Unlike that commenter, I do take the article seriously, but I don’t understand this particular part of it.)

    • Lori says:

      “Dr. Sylvia Fallon of the Natural Resources Defense Council has shown, symbiosis between grazing herds and grasses has historically worked best to sequester carbon when the animals lived the entirety of their lives within the ecosystem, their carcasses rotted and returned their accumulated nutrients into the soil, and human intervention was minimal to none.”

      Taylor, I’m guessing “accumulated nutrients” have something to do with the answer.

      • Taylor says:

        “Accumulated nutrients”. Hmmm. Whatever that means, it just could be the answer. Or not. I think the claim about the ecological benefits of letting animals live out their whole lives (instead of just substituting one young animal for another) needs to be clearly explained, at least for ignorant people like me. if part of an argument looks problematic, it detracts from the force of the whole.

        • Lori says:

          Taylor, I tend to agree. And I too would like to understand the concept better. One can certainly understand it on an ethical level, but I’m not sure about an ecological level.

          I can imagine though that breeding and birthing takes more energy from an animal and would probably require much more food and certainly more management. The shipping of an animal off to a slaughter house, the energy to “process” the animal and then further energy to package and ship to consumers seems to make the process inefficient environmentally at the least. Especially if we are talking about the use of large herbivores specifically for the purpose of improving ecosystems and carbon sequestration.

          I’d say that having animals that live out lives and then decompose or feeds predators occasionally, seems “naturally” more efficient, but as for “accumulated nutrients,” I’m not sure.

          • James says:

            Lori writes:
            “I can imagine though that breeding and birthing takes more energy from an animal and would probably require much more food and certainly more management. The shipping of an animal off to a slaughter house, the energy to “process” the animal and then further energy to package and ship to consumers seems to make the process inefficient environmentally at the least. Especially if we are talking about the use of large herbivores specifically for the purpose of improving ecosystems and carbon sequestration.”

            This taps into the issue. If your goal as a farmer is to use animals for manure and hoof action to regenerate land, you’d well advised to use the animal for the course of his natural life. The cost of replacement–breeding, medicated feed, vaccinations, etc—is enormous, financially and in terms of energy usage. But the reason ranchers replace, of course, is that they do not primarily want to regenerate land. They want to profit from value added beef. An analogy: it’d be more efficient to purchase a car to drive from A to B for 20 years than (assuming no drop in performance) to purchase a car, drive it for a year, sell the parts, and buy a new car.

            (Also it’s important that readers understand that I simply cannot, as much as I would like to, answer every question readers ask. This applies to the e-mails I receive as well. Please keep in mind this is literally a one-man operation!)

          • Mountain says:

            “Folks, I’m telling you,
            birthing is hard
            and dying is mean-
            so get yourself
            a little loving
            in between.”
            ? Langston Hughes

            Point being, the beginnings and ends of life are the hard parts, the expensive parts– whether from an emotional, energy, financial, or nutrient point of view.

    • Rudy Steffen says:

      It may even be worse than that:

      “Livestock systems occupy 45% of the global serface area…”

      This is coming from the International Livestock Research Institute who would be more liable to be conservative with such statistics.

  3. Mike says:

    Planet Earth cannot support 7 billion carnivorous apes. For the sake of the planet and its inhabitants, including ourselves, we need to switch over to a plant-based diet.

    • Marc says:

      As James McWilliams points out, livestock grazing is a bigger cause of climate change than fossil fuels. But an even greater cause than either is overpopulation. Planet Earth cannot support anywhere near 7 billion of us, even if all humans suddenly and permanently switched to a plant-based diet.

      • James says:

        Not sure anyone would disagree. But dare I ask: what do you propose to do about the global human population?

        • James says:

          Sorry. I meant the above comment to be addressed to Mike.

        • Ruth says:

          There are a number of organisations dedicated to the over-population issue, including “Population Matters” in the UK. Unfortuneatly, the larger environmental NGO’s don’t address this issue, as, on the whole they don’t address the meat and dairy issue in relation to the environment. (although I would prefer if people became vegan—or at least vegetarian for the sake of the suffering animals). Population issues are more difficult to address, although becoming a slightly less taboo subject, than promoting veganism.

        • Mountain says:

          Why do what zoonosis can do for us?

      • Sailesh Rao says:

        I respectfully disagree with this assessment as it is based on assumptions that can be easily falsified. At present, more than 91% of all human consumption is caused by the top one-third of humanity, while the bottom one-third are living on less than 2.5% of the resources and the middle one-third are using around 6.5% (UN HDR).

        Such talk of human “overpopulation” usually comes from a member of the top one-third who cannot imagine living like the middle one-third, much less the bottom one-third. And the unfortunate consequence of such talk is that good people become resigned to mass starvation and such blights on human society as “inevitable” and even “necessary”.

        We (vegans) operate on the paradigm that every life is sacred, which necessarily includes every human life as well.

      • Ruth says:

        Quite agree, but it would be easier, and I’d rather a vegan world for the sake of the animals, but there should still be a stabilisation of population, leading to a reduction to an optimum agreed level per country.

  4. Lori says:

    James, so glad you are taking on this issue. There are so many varying factors involved with figuring out the carbon sequestration causes, correlations and contributing factors of an ecosystem, much less, to figure out one that has grazers managed and slaughtered by humans added to it. For anyone to claim that adding and managing herbivores to an area will automatically “help” the ecosystem and “suck up” carbon is absurd. Add the ethical and human health issues onto this debate and it quickly degrades. I’m convinced that this is an effort by misguided environmentalists who want to feel good about eating meat and a meat industry’s nefarious attempts to confuse the public about the detrimental environmental effects of raising animals for meat.

    To mention again Peter Byck’s bold and ridiculous claims on the Bill Maher show about this issue was very telling when he told Bill Maher that he could feel good about eating that steak. He didn’t even bother to differentiate between regular beef and beef that is supposed to be “sequestering” carbon.

    • Ruth says:

      Yes, they are just trying to find the flimsiest of reasons they can think up so they can justify to themselves the continuation of their diet simply because they like the taste.

  5. Mr. Jhc Tabucur Lyrette says:

    How Does Eating Meat Affect the Earth?

    Today’s factory farms leave behind an environmental toll that generations to come will be forced to pay. Whether it’s excessive water use or contamination, excessive soil use or erosion, excessive resource use or air pollution, America’s meat addiction is steadily poisoning and depleting our water, land, and air.

    Consider this:

    In an effort to conserve water, you might install a water-saver on your kitchen faucet, saving up to 6,000 gallons of water per year. Most of those savings would be lost if you consumed just one pound of beef (which requires 5,200 gallons of water per pound to produce—compared to only 25 gallons for a pound of wheat). Raising animals for food consumes more than half of all water used in the U.S. A totally vegetarian diet requires 300 gallons of water per day, while a meat-eating diet requires more than 4,200 gallons of water per day.

    Producing just one hamburger uses enough fossil fuel to drive a small car 20 miles. Of all raw materials and fossil fuels used in the U.S., more than one-third is used to raise animals for food.

    A typical pig factory farm generates raw waste equal to that of a city of 12,000 people. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, factory farms pollute our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined.

    In December 1997, the Senate Agricultural Committee released a report that stated that animals raised for food produce 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population, roughly 68,000 pounds per second, all without the benefit of waste treatment systems. A Scripps Howard synopsis of the report (April 24, 1998) stated: “It’s untreated and unsanitary, bubbling with chemicals and disease-bearing organisms. … It goes onto the soil and into the water that many people will, ultimately, bathe in, wash their clothes with, and drink. It is poisoning rivers and killing fish and sickening people.

    Catastrophic cases of pollution, sickness, and death are occurring in areas where livestock operations are concentrated. Every place where the animal factories have located, neighbors have complained of falling sick.” This excrement is also generally believed to be responsible for the “cell from hell,” Pfiesteria, a deadly microbe, the discovery of which is detailed in Rodney Barker’s “And the Waters Turned to Blood”

    Of all agricultural land in the U.S., 87 percent is used to raise animals for food. That’s 45 percent of the total land mass in the U.S. More than 260 million acres of U.S. forest have been cleared to create cropland in order to produce our meat-centered diet.

    The meat industry is directly responsible for 85 percent of all soil erosion in the U.S., because so much grain is needed to feed animals being raised for food. In the U.S., animals are fed more than 80 percent of the corn we grow and more than 95 percent of the oats. Raising animals for food is grossly inefficient, because you have to put 20 calories of food into an animal to get just one measly calorie back in the form of flesh.

    The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people—more than the entire human population on Earth. According to environmental think-tank Worldwatch Institute, “[T]he easiest way to reduce grain consumption is to lower the intake of meat and milk, grain-intensive foods. Roughly 2 of every 5 tons of grain produced in the world are fed to livestock, poultry, or fish; decreasing consumption of these products, especially of beef, could free up massive quantities of grain and reduce pressure on land.”

    Each vegetarian saves one acre of trees every year! More than 260 million acres of U.S. forest have been cleared to grow crops to feed animals raised for meat, and another acre of trees disappears every eight seconds. The tropical rain forests are also being destroyed to create grazing land for cattle. Fifty-five square feet of rain forest may be razed to produce just one quarter-pound burger.

    Caring for the environment means protecting all of our planet’s inhabitants, not just the human ones. Animals suffer extreme pain and deprivation on today’s factory farms. Chickens have their beaks sliced off with a hot blade, pigs have their tails chopped off and their teeth removed with pliers, and male cows and pigs are castrated all without anesthesia. The animals are crowded together and dosed with hormones and antibiotics to make them grow so quickly that their hearts and limbs often cannot keep up, causing crippling and heart attacks. Finally, at the slaughterhouse, they are hung upside down and bled to death, often while fully conscious.

    There are a variety of books that address the environmental consequences of America’s meat-based diet, including:

    Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating by Erik Marcus
    Diet for a New America by John Robbins
    Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin

    • Gary Howie says:

      Your calculations and assumptions are fascinating. Neither of us like factory farms, so on that issue we are agreed. We actually raise beef, and raise it with grass and no grain. So, according to your contention, our animals consume 5,200 gallons of water per lb of beef. Let’s do a little simple math. At your rate of water consumption, a 900 lb steer would have consumed or at least required 4,680,000 gallon of water in its 24 months of existence. That figures out to 6,411 gallons per day rather than the 20+ gallons per day that they actually consume. And here may be another surprise—much of the water they consume comes back out in their urine. And yet another surprise—cattle do not need grain. They can thrive on grass, grass that is in areas that cannot be farmed or otherwise used for human consumption. Please feel free to express whatever opinion you chose to express, but at least try to not be absurd.

  6. Galen says:

    I’m a little hesitant to say this but in the majority of these comments I am hearing so much ignorance and pre-assumed ideas. I’m wondering how many of you have actually even been around a typical American farm, much less a holistic managed farm. Yes, agriculture in the US has been depleting the soil, contaminating water, and you name the rest. But that is the typical commercial farms that have no concerns except what their bottom dollar is even though they are robbing tomorrows dollar and depleting the soil. Nature runs in cycles and any time you try to manipulate it, there will be a hidden cost that will bite you (or those after you) in the bum. Allen Savory is not just rambling something he had dreams about one night after drinking all night. No, he has been doing this for decades and has before and after photos. There have been numerous others who have actually listened to EVERYTHING he says and then practiced it, coming out with very similar results.
    I recommend that before you go out and eliminate all livestock and say agriculture is evil, take a course in holistic management and then practice it for awhile. Everything of value has a counterfeit and it is no different with animal husbandry!

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