Regenerative Agriculture: In Defense of Ruminants
This article originally appeared in the RidgeCrest Herbals 2021 Almanac, page 38.
If you want to be part of saving the planet, you may have heard that the only way to do so is to become vegan, which can be hard. But what if that isn't entirely true? What if making ethical choices in your meat consumption was just as good - if not better?
It's no surprise that cattle have taken the negative brunt of the eco-friendly and climate change initiatives. It's easy to point a finger to mass meat production and blame them for their contribution to global warming. It's easy to point the finger at ruminants and argue they're destroying the land. Science and research, however, acknowledge a more nuanced story.
There are facts we know: it is true that meat production yields almost 1/5th of global greenhouse gas emissions. Ruminants indeed emit methane. However, it's not true that methane gas's impact on the climate is more devastating than carbon (methane has a 10-year half-life compared to the hundreds of years of carbon, and methane is being produced at about the same rate that it disappears or less than). It's true that the soil used to be 20% carbon. Currently, the soil is at 5% carbon and even down to 1% in many areas, yielding 15-19% more carbon, the more damaging particulate, in the atmosphere. It's true that with imaging and field scientists, we can see that desertification, the process by which fertile land becomes desert, is running rampant in the US and globally. This is rendering land useless for crop production. And this isn't a comprehensive list.
How do ruminants play a role in all this? First, let's define a ruminant: ruminants are mammals with a stomach with four compartments designed to digest tough materials. It includes cattle, sheep, goats, elk, giraffes, antelopes, buffalo, camels, and others (but not pigs and chickens). These animals get their nutritional needs from grasses and leaves, which are inedible to the vast majority of mammals. That's a critical note: ruminants can take otherwise indigestible material and turn it into food, milk products, and meat. When grazing naturally, they also leave behind fertilizer and plant material, which reinvigorates the land by retaining water.
Allan Savory, ecologist and founder of the non-profit Savory Institute, said, "because the fate of water and carbon are tied to soil organic matter, when we damage soils, you give off carbon. Carbon goes back to the atmosphere." Plant litter and ruminant waste provide the soil with the organic matter it needs to sequester carbon and hold onto the water when appropriately managed. Quite literally, ruminants reduce the carbon in the atmosphere by trapping it in the plant litter, only by walking over the land and pooping on it. Or again, as Allan Savory would say, "...large herds dung and urinate all over their own food, and they have to keep moving, and it was that movement that prevented the overgrazing of plants, while the periodic trampling ensured good cover of the soil, as we see where a herd has passed."
The solution here, then, isn't universally meat-less. In fact, we cannot survive without the existence of ruminants. They are integral to our ecosystem's success. The solution is well-managed animal agriculture. We're missing the simple act of movement of ruminants in the ecosystem. Holistic management of ruminant herds is what is changing the impact of carbon on the climate. We often think about the destruction of the rainforest as one of the most critical global factors in these moments. In actuality, our grasslands have a more significant impact on our climate because they make up the majority of the Earth's landscape. This is where desertification is causing the most harm - harm that makes it impossible to grow crops.
Current science is starting to realize the devastating trajectory desertification will have on our existence. Even if we were to remove all fossil fuel pollution, it wouldn't be enough to save the planet. We need vast herds to reinvigorate the land and soils and remove carbon from the atmosphere. Meat production doesn't need to go away entirely to save the planet. It needs to be re-employed in efforts towards holistic agriculture. How do you help? If it is within your means to do so, you buy from farmers who employ these or similar methods. When you buy from a local farmer, you're supporting efforts that improve our climate. You're also benefiting in other ways, especially your health. Shae wrote a great article on this topic (see Sourcing Sustainable Meat), so go check that out. And If you're meatless, you can donate to support these initiatives.
If you want to learn more about this topic, go visit the Savory Institute at savory.global. They are investing in actual and real change in the environment by using ruminants to reduce carbon in the atmosphere and restore our soil health. You can also watch Allan Savory's very inspiring TedTalk on YouTube.