Prairie land around the world is fast disappearing, but demand for the meat products of large ruminants keeps growing. The vast grasslands where American cowboys, Mongolian nomads and Argentinian Gauchos alike tended large herds of cattle are being taken over by industrialized agriculture, hydroelectric dams, mines, urban sprawl and creeping desertification.
Many have raised the battle cry for a shift to a plant based diet, eschewing the meat industry largely because its clear links to environmental destruction, unethical treatment of animals and greenhouse gas emissions. But the proposed alternative of relying on grains and legumes almost exclusively also creates destructive pressures on landscapes and communities, and is likely not the solution that many might idealize it to be.
Among the problems created by planting enormous fields of annual crops is quickly degrading soil fertility leading to further desertification. In the United States alone, millions of hectares of native prairie have been destroyed to make way for vast plantations of corn, soy and sorghum which all rely on on intensive chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, turning the iconic prairie paradise into what is essentially a nutrient strip mine. While it is true that a large portion of these grains go to animal feedlots, which are major contributors to greenhouse emissions, groundwater contamination and environmental destruction, the mass production of “meat alternative” grains and legumes is no different.
The world cannot be fed sustainably through concentrated animal feedlot operations, but it is also questionable whether 8 or 10 billion people can rely on mass industrial farm production without devastating what forest and prairie ecosystems we have left.
Human societies have evolved and organized around a diversity of food sources, which include hunted, gathered, farmed and pastured nutrients. Almost invariably throughout history, large ruminants and grassland ecosystems have been a part of our cultures and diet. In addition to grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, ready access to pasture or prairie, and the animals in them, have been essential to our development. Studies of paleolithic anthropology even suggest that our large brain development is directly linked to the availability of concentrated protein in the form of meat.
In the same way that the forests of the world have been tended to and used by human groups in sustainable ways during thousands of years, so have the prairies, steppes, savannas and grasslands of the world – organized around management of animals that roam and graze. Industrialized animal farming is wasteful, cruel and environmentally destructive, but this does not mean that abandoning our millennial relationship to grazing animals and their ecosystems is a solution to out current ecological crisis.
A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), recognizes the importance of diversified farming practices for climate change mitigation. The report highlights the need to meet human dietary requirements with sustainable and low-emission technologies, and recognizes the important role of sustainable pasture and livestock within these integrated systems.
In this case, technology does not mean more tractors and designer chemicals, but rather a re-evaluation of traditional and sustainable farming practices, as well as ongoing research and integration with regenerative techniques that can sustain the varied dietary needs of our still growing population.
Currently, agriculture is one of the largest contributors to climate change. This is mostly due to a focus on scaling and industrialization of food production. If instead we focus on scaling integrated, diversified and regenerative farming methods – ones that don’t focus on single cash crops but combine food forests, annual and perennial crops, farm animals, grassland ruminants and nitrogen fixing forage – farming could become one of the most effective tools for carbon capture, in addition to feeding the world.
Even on large farms, grazing animals can be incorporated to produce not only meat and dairy, but also manage soil fertility, control pests and even provide gas for cooking and powering motors.
And what about those rapidly disappearing expanses of prairie, savanna, and grassland? Restoring these ecosystems is a major challenge for our future, but the science is clear: a rich and healthy grassland captures more carbon, cycles more nutrients, retains more water and is more drought resistant than pretty much anything aside from a mature and diverse forest. In many cases, restoring degraded environments to pasture or prairie is a necessary first step towards regenerating a forest, but as has been demonstrated in the great American prairie, stable grasslands can harbor rich biodiversity and be important carbon sinks in and of themselves. Large ruminants play an essential role in maintaining the ecosystems and the myriad species that within them.
A large scale shift towards regenerative agriculture is the challenge we now face, integrated farms must replace industrialized mono cropping, and vast expanses of restored prairie must be managed collectively to allow for herds of bison, yaks, or whatever ruminants are native and appropriate to an area, to roam and cycle through the territory in managed ways.
It will not suffice to sit in our urban environments and think that by choosing a processed meatless burger we are in any way contributing to climate change mitigation or environmental restoration. We must become involved in our food production systems, and understand there is no on-shot solution.
If we are to restore balance in our relationship to nature, the prairie, as well as the forest, must return to its central role in our productive lives, livelihoods and culture; There will not be a significant grassland restoration unless it contributes to meeting an essential human need. The valuable nutrient concentration, as well as the environmental services, that ruminant herds provide are the key for grassland ecosystems to once more become a priority.