Animals Are Essential To Sustainable Food

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As Senior Attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance, Nicolette Hahn Niman sought to improve conditions at livestock operations. Today she and her husband Bill, founder of Niman Ranch, raise grass-based cattle, heirloom turkeys, and goats. She is the author of the book Righteous Porkchop.

A chorus of impassioned criticism has been rising against meat and dairy consumption. Many of the critics identify themselves as environmentalists. Their vehemence has been stoked by several reports, most notably one from the United Nations, documenting that animal farming is contributing to climate change, depleting and polluting groundwater, and poisoning rivers and streams. These reports are timely and necessary. But they cannot rightly be used to bolster arguments that farm animals should be scrubbed from our landscapes. The data indict only inappropriate practices in raising animals, not animal farming per se. The prevailing industrial methods differ radically from traditional land stewardship and animal husbandry. The most environmentally sustainable food production mimics nature in all its complexity – and animals are an essential component.

Today’s debate over livestock is characterized by oversimplified rhetoric. In one corner, agribusiness implacably (and ineffectively) defends the status quo; in the other, vegan activists urge total abolition of animal farming. Their fervent advocacy echoes prohibitionists at the dawn of the twentieth century, some of whom attacked apple trees with axes because they were the source of hard cider.

Like the prohibitionists, activists against meat are fueled by the excesses of the day. The number of animals slaughtered in the United States has grown substantially over the past century: It’s doubled for cattle; increased seven-fold for swine; and skyrocketed fifty-fold for chickens.

From an environmental perspective, the concentration of animals is more problematic than the total number. America’s farm animals were once widely dispersed, living in moderate herds and flocks, their manure effectively recycling nutrients, an invaluable part of the farm’s economy and ecology. Today, they are densely concentrated in massive populations, often far from where their feed is grown. The average hog herd, for example, has gone from 15 in 1900 to 766 in 2002. Many modern chicken and hen flocks number over a million birds. In this setup animals are separated from the land and crops, creating soil infertility and erosion on the farm and air and water pollution at industrial animal operations. Taking animals off the land and confining them in buildings has caused inhumane conditions and a food system wildly out of balance.

This imbalance is what aggravates global warming. The UN report blames 18 percent of global warming on livestock. But very little of that has any connection to well-managed traditional, grass-based animal farming. For starters, 48 percent of it is from land-use changes, mostly clearing of forests (for grazing and growing feed crops) in Brazil, India, Indonesia, and other developing countries. The United States, however, is not expanding croplands. In US farming, most CO2 releases come from fuel burned for vehicles, equipment, and machinery. Smaller, traditional American farms have low CO2 emissions because they keep their animals outdoors on pasture and use little machinery.

Livestock farming also plays a role in nitrous oxide emissions – about five percent of US greenhouse gases. But more than three-quarters of agriculture’s NO2 emissions are from manmade fertilizers. Thus, animal farming that doesn’t need fertilized crops creates little NO2. Using animal manure mitigates the need for commercial fertilizers.

As for methane, there are two types. Much methane caused by animal farming comes from manure lagoons at industrial facilities. Other methane (“enteric emissions”) is generated from animal digestive tracts, particularly of ruminants like cattle, and can be reduced by dietary supplementation and rotating grazing pastures.

It’s important to note that there were plenty of animal enteric emissions in this country long before the arrival of cattle. Prior to European colonization, enormous herds of large ruminants covered the continent, including an estimated 10 million elk and as many as 75 million bison. “The moving multitude…darkened the whole plains,” Lewis and Clark wrote of bison in 1806. The total number of large ruminants was surely greater than the 40 million mature breeding beef cows and dairy cows in the United States today.

And we shouldn’t forget that all food has global warming impacts. Wetland rice fields account for almost 30 percent of the world’s human-generated methane. Researchers in Sweden discovered that the carbon footprint of a carrot varied by a factor of 10, depending on how and where it was produced. Singling out meat’s climate impact makes no sense.

Traditional animal farming also has environmental benefits. Recent studies show that pasture and grassland areas used for livestock actually lessen global warming because their vegetation and soils effectively act as carbon sinks. Converting croplands to pasture sequesters significant amounts of carbon. Perennial pastures can decrease soil erosion by up to 80 percent and improve water quality, according to the Minnesota Land Stewardship Project. Even the UN report notes, “There is growing evidence that both cattle ranching and pastoralism can have positive impacts on biodiversity.”

The Kansas-based Land Institute agrees. The institute has presented the Obama administration with a 50-Year Farm Bill that proposes increases in perennial crops and permanent pasture. “We see future herbaceous perennial grain producing polycultures being managed through fire and grazing, just as the native prairie was ‘managed,’” Institute President Wes Jackson told me. “The large grazer on grassland has always been an integral part of the system here in North America.”

Solving what ails agriculture must entail reducing the total number of animals raised and returning animals to the land, where they belong. A study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research concluded that with moderate reductions in Western meat eating, we could easily feed the world in 2050 using grass-based, humane farming methods.

Environmentalists are rightly angry about the industrialized livestock sector. But eliminating all animal husbandry is like taking axes to apple trees – it wouldn’t work. Worse still, it would make the most environmentally appropriate farming impossible.

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