desert to grassland
Desert to grassland through managed grazing.

Comment: See the first Part, Grassland Ecology 101, here.

This post follows up on Grassfed Ecology for Vegans and Synthetic Meat Marketers. Let's take a look at common vegan calls to action. We'll see how the agricultural community responds to them, and make some suggestions about how to open better conversations.

In the first post, I described how our global grasslands co-evolved with ruminant herds. Grazing herds spur regrowth of grass, break down the grass into nutrition and fertilizer. Together grasses and grazers grow the topsoil on which life in general, and veganism in particular, depends.

Calling for the end to ruminant livestock husbandry overlooks global grassland ecology. Calling for an end to concentrated animal feeding makes more sense. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) do not allow animals to graze for the last part of their lives. Instead, high-calorie cattle feed is grown on vast acreage using GMO seeds, synthetic fertilizers derived from fossil fuels, and toxic herbicides. These large monocultures often intentionally remove all biodiversity of plants, wildlife, and soil biology. The soils cannot generate their own nutrition, they do not hold moisture well, and they create the perfect environment for invasive weeds.

The animals live in crowded conditions and often receive hormone treatments to increase their weight faster and antibiotic treatments to offset unhealthy conditions and also add body weight. Manure and urine are collected in putrid lagoons, sprayed with more chemicals to control insects and fungus, then sprayed back onto the fields where the feed grain was grown. Antibiotic resistant genes develop in CAFO systems, end up in manure lagoons, and enter the ground water that may affect human health.

In short, the industrial livestock system has unsolvable systemic problems for the treatment of animals, the outcomes for the environment, and the threat to human health. But this single point of view reduces the problem to a very deceptive solution: stop eating animals.

There are thousands of rural farm families that depend on this system. When you say Stop Eating Animals, you are demanding ranchers abandon their business, their livelihood, and their identities. Try that on for size: imagine being told to walk away entirely from your profession and your community. No job, no paycheck, no prospects.

Not to assume, but you might push back, too.

Most of America's farmers and ranchers are living on the edge. They have thrown in every last dollar to stay in business one...more...season. The system they must work in extracts wealth by design. The market for cattle offers one buyer at one price, take it or leave it. That price is often below the cost of feeding and caring for the animal. In a good year, they can pay off their bank loans. Every family depends on at least one off-farm job to make ends meet. Medical care and the kids' education are luxuries best avoided. The foreign firms that control the livestock system, and the agri-chemical firms that underpin it, reap the profits while leaving nothing at the farm gate.

You might think this abusive predatory economic system should end: Stop Eating Meat. If your life is dependent on the system, this advice is either incomprehensible our just offensive. You might think the steer bloated on corn feed and standing in his own manure and piss for months on end would just as soon not have been born, but we'll never really know.

There are alternatives to CAFOs. Managed holistic grazing serves the needs of grasslands and ruminants. By moving herds through pastures fast enough not to destroy the vitality of the grasses and soil, ranchers build healthy topsoil without synthetic fertilizers, GMO feed crops, or toxic herbicides. No antibiotic resistance. No medical residues seeping into the human environment.

The barriers to changing from centralized corporate-dominated industrial livestock systems to localized grassfed operations are access to land, access to credit, access to processing, and access to markets. Animal welfare activists, including vegans, can be far more effective by addressing how to breach these barriers than by haranguing ranch families to abandon a lifestyle they love and a system they are dependent on. The livestock community is a latent ally that should be embraced, not disgraced.

Grassfed ranchers need access to county-level slaughter and packing facilities. They need to bring animals to full market weight and capture as much of the retail price as possible for themselves. Grassfed ranchers need retail distribution where informed consumers will buy their meat at a higher price, knowing that animals, humans, communities and the environment are better cared for. Ranchers need affordable credit and land. Usury and inflated land values are another way wealth escapes our rural communities.

Whatever you think of eating animals, become conversant in these critical issues. Listen to our ranchers' stories. Read about their history. It's often ugly and always complicated. Dive in and understand well enough to stand toe to toe and engage in a meaningful conversation. You'll make a friend and gain an ally.

Slaughter? That's what it is. We are raising animals to kill them so we can eat and pay the bills. The least we can do is raise animals in environments where they can act as they should, without crowding, fear, panic or the pervasive pain of rotten feet, inflamed joints, and bloated stomachs. And the people who do this work for us? They deserve humane treatment too.

I understand the strategy of Don't Eat Meat. What we mean at a minimum is don't eat meat from animals raised in abusive ways. And, don't raise animals to kill them. Don't ignore the degradation of animal lives by imagining the piece of muscle under plastic wrap was not attached to a feeling being. But to be effective, Don't Eat Meat has to be based on an understanding and appreciation of proper livestock husbandry that supports the land, the rancher, our rural communities, the environment and human health.

So, if we all need livestock on grasslands, what if we still demand that we all Don't Eat Meat? That's the question we need to think about. Most cattle are killed at 36 months, even though they can live for at least another ten years in good health. Their eventual deaths by disease or predators is still their death. Is a clean shot to the head more or less humane? Whether we eat their flesh or not?

A few of us can afford to dodge this ethical dilemma of killing animals by blindly trusting synthetic proteins made with artificial biology - as long as those novel ingredients don't kill us. The kids at Freakonomics bashfully call this stuff, whatever it is, "the magic of plant engineering", but refuse to disclose what's really happening in those fermenting vats tucked away in secure bio-hazard lab facilities. We unthinkingly embrace the comforting ideology that technology will solve the problems technology creates.

The rest of us have to acknowledge that we share the earth with animals that we depend on, fundamentally, and who now also depend on us.