The “eat less meat” movement is growing. Does it distort science? (Part 3 of 3)

Why ranches, cattle, and meat-eating may play a role in fighting climate change.

The following article by Lynne Curry originally appeared in The New Food Economy and is republished here with permission. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

The Future of Farming

Recently, a ranching family from my community in Oregon celebrated 100 years of raising cattle. Operating on about 200,000 acres of private and leased public lands over four generations, the McClaran family is accustomed to strong opinions on their way of life.

With the help of three daughters now back from college, Scott McClaran raises cattle on some of the most rugged and arid terrain in the west, where the animals forage on native bunchgrasses and invasive weeds 12 months of the year. “We produce a quality protein on lands that can’t grow anything else viably or commercially,” says McClaran.

On a cattle operation that predates industrialization, the McClaran family moves their cattle over the grasslands to avoid overgrazing. “We believe that the movement of animals allows the land to rest and recover,” he says. Out of cell phone range and working on horseback, the McClarans are carbon cowboys.

With no outside funding or financial incentives, farmers like the McClarans are practicing and sharing carbon farming techniques because they see how it improves the productivity and health of the land. “Grazing animals is as much about the process—how the animals interact with the soil, plants, water, and watershed as a whole—as the products we glean from them,” Greenwood says.

Photo: USDA / Flickr
Organic and grassfed cattle operation in Virginia

At Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, a non-profit educational organization with a farm and a partner restaurant about 30 miles north of New York City, farm manager Jack Algiere oversees a model grazing project utilizing the land, vegetables and animals in an interrelated system. The animals graze on pasture, providing manure for the vegetable fields and building soil, and sales of the meat support the farm’s labor and operations.

“The animal has such a huge value on the farm,” says Algiere. “It’s irreplaceable in the system.”

But critics of regenerative farming methods popularized by Allan Savory, the godfather of holistic management and founder of the Boulder, Colorado-based Savory Institute, consider the vision for sustainable beef production magical thinking. These “re-modernizers” insist that extensive farming systems are inefficient, resource-heavy and lead to higher methane emissions than factory farming, using far too much land to produce too little food at too high a cost.

McClaran acknowledges that his approach may sound too out-of-the-box, or backward, but he dismisses critics—and thinks the time has come for this idea to catch hold. “People just need to get their minds around it,” he says.

That’s a big leap, given recent history.

“We’re talking about systematic change,” says Stone Barns’ Algiere. “We live in an age where our agriculture for the past 70 years has been fundamentally based on an input-driven system,” Algiere says, referring to the chemical and synthetic fertilizers of modern agricultural practices. “It has forced us to do things like monocrop and specialize to the extent that we don’t care about the interactions and, in fact, try to avoid the interactions as best as possible because they take away from the almighty yield of that one particular crop.”

Farming advocates see livestock not as the great climate polluters, but as essential tools in a functioning agroecological system—ones that provide a highly nutritious, salable food product. “People have a very distorted view of the important role that animals play in human health and the sustainability movement,” says Rodgers, drawing on her experience as a nutritionist as well as a farmer.

“Animals have an integral role to play in a sustainable agricultural system, there’s no doubt,” says Katz-Rosene, political studies professor at the University of Ottawa and president of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada. “The question is of scale.”

One study theorized a sustainable farming system in the U.S. where all beef was 100 percent grass-fed. It found that there is enough pasture in the U.S. to support 45 percent of the cattle living on the land today, cutting carbon emissions by two-thirds and freeing up nearly 80 million acres for plant-based foods. Savory, along with Dr. Allen Williams, an expert on grazing methods and sustainable livestock consultant, contends the number of cattle the land can support is much higher.

Katz-Rosene says that reducing the “global herd” is necessary to reduce total emissions and pressures on the land. If that means first-world people consume less meat because it’s less available and more expensive, so much the better, even if it only leads to a one percent drop in domestic emissions.

While there is not yet a consensus on optimal herd size, practitioners of holistic management subscribe to a guiding concept: It’s the right amount of animals on the right amount of land for the right amount of time at the right time of year.

The authors of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) report on Land and Climate change released last month resisted the media’s pressures to prescribe a single sustainable diet. Many of them live in developing countries where livestock is viewed as essential, not only for food security and economic development, but for children’s cognitive development and women’s empowerment, as detailed in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The panel outlined the multiple challenges of current food production and land use, including food loss and food waste, overconsumption of food, over-harvesting of wood, and deforestation. The report highlighted plant-rich diets, along with sustainably sourced animal foods, as opportunities for lowering greenhouse gas emissions by restoring ecosystems they call “natural climate solutions.”

In proposing sweeping land-use changes, the report made a strong case for a declaration from the Rodale Institute, the venerable U.S. organic farming organization: “Regenerative organic agriculture can sequester carbon and reverse climate change.”

Environmental scientist Dr. Jonathan Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown, a climate-change think tank, has written about “good beef” versus “bad beef on Medium. “There is no single answer to addressing climate change, of course,” he wrote in “Farming Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis,” his response to the IPCC report. “No silver bullets exist. But silver buckshot does.”

Honorable Sacrifice

The allure of eating less meat may have more to do with how it makes us feel than with whether it makes quantifiable sense. With its air of noble self-deprivation, it evokes the Word War I slogan  “Food will win the war,” coined by Herbert Hoover, then head of the wartime Food Administration.

Photo: Library of Congress
Wartime slogan encouraging less meat, wheat consumption

In November 1917, over 10 million U.S. households pledged to reduce their consumption of meat, as well as wheat, sugar and fat. Meatless Tuesday and Wheatless Wednesday were the first nationwide call for Americans to change their eating habits voluntarily.

The campaign for what Hoover called the “spirit of self-denial and self-sacrifice” was so successful that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt revived it during World War II as Meatless Monday, which mobilized a network of home economists to educate citizens about the resources involved in the foods they consumed, and their impact on and benefit to local and global communities.

As a nation, we take pride in personal sacrifice for a larger cause—except that this time, skeptics say, it will not suffice. The problem’s too big for individual self-denial to work on its own.

“It’s not as simple as stop eating meat and being a vegetarian,” Gunther says. “It’s a system, not a product. It’s education, not a solution.”

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