|Healthy Grazing and Grasslands|
published in the Pacifica Tribune January 2020
No Meat for You!
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced NYC’s New Green Deal and his plan “to save our earth”. He stated NYC will reduce beef purchases by 50% and phase out ALL purchases of processed meat by 2030. It’s not clear how he defines processed meats, but the World Health Organization defines it as "meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation."
Processed meats evolved before the era of modern refrigeration for good reason. Salting, curing, fermenting, and smoking meat increased the shelf-life of a limited food supply and thus increased human survival. But now processed meats are demonized. Certainly, some chemical additives are unhealthy, but demonizing all processed meats is just wrong. With good labeling people can freely choose what foods they trust.
But de Blasio’s edict would mean any institution run by NYC will no longer serve chicken nuggets, hotdogs, sausages, bacon, pastrami, ham, baloney, salami, pepperoni, corned beef and jerky. Fresh beef meals will be cut by 50% to “save the planet’s climate” from cow farts. How far will these government actions go? Dairy cows fart too. Will milk, whip cream, cheese, yogurt and ice cream be next on the hit list? Will they later extend their ban to all of NYC? What if Mayor de Blasio ever became America’s president? Fortunately, de Blasio’s authoritarian actions are why so many Americans rightfully argue we need limited government!
There is no place for authoritarian diet control. We all experiment with our best personal diets. I went vegetarian for a few years. I liked learning to make tastier vegetables. But eventually I reverted to carnivorous ways. Most studies suggest our bodies evolved to eat both plants and meat, so I resent those who try to shame me for naturally eating meat. However, one PETA article did argue if you see dead animals on the side of the road, but are not tempted to stop and snack on them, you are naturally a herbivore. Really?
Nonetheless, vegetarians make a very valid point. Over-grazing has been bad for the environment. Studies of temperatures in Arizona and Mexico determined lost vegetation from overgrazing caused soils to dry, raising regional temperatures by as much as 7°F compared to un-grazed adjacent lands. Over-grazing converts biologically diverse grasslands into barren deserts. But counter-intuitively, without grazing animals, grasslands still convert to deserts. Grasslands benefit from natural grazing and “holistic grazing” has been shown to prevent “desertification”. Unfortunately, overzealous radical vegetarians don’t understand - holistic grazing is a win-win for the environment and meat eaters.
Grasses do not decompose immediately. Nutrients get locked up for years while the accumulating “thatch” blocks the sun and inhibits the growth of new grasses. Accumulating thatch also enhances wildfires. Grazing animals not only remove thatch, their manure freely fertilizes the soil and promotes next year’s growth. Holistic grazing has demonstrated if we mimic the natural migrations of huge herds, as in Africa’s Serengeti, we can prevent desertification. Overgrazing typically happens when herds are confined to small pastures, too small to support the cattle’s needs.
I encourage everyone to google Allan Savory’s hope-filled TED talk titled “How to Fight Desertification and Reverse Climate Change”. Savory is originally from South Africa. There, cattle were removed from lands destined to become National Parks and Savory was charged with studying the results. His studies revealed the park’s grasslands continued to degrade into desert despite removal of all cattle grazing. The “only” remaining explanation pointed to elephants. Regretfully he recommended culling elephants to sustainable levels. Such a recommendation was blasphemous, so government experts initiated another study. Unfortunately, government experts agreed. Too many elephants were ripping up vegetation. So, thousands of elephants were slaughtered. The result - the land continued to degrade from grassland to desert.
Savory eventually understood holistic grazing was the only solution. If cattle were managed to imitate natural grazing, the land could be restored because cattle grazing would remove thatch, freely fertilize the ground, and supply a protective layer of moisture-holding mulch. Holistic grazing reversed desertification and stopped excessive warming of surface temperatures caused by overgrazing. And holistic grazing increased the storage of carbon in the soil.
The anti-meat-eating crowd often argues eating meat is a shameful, immoral and inefficient use of calories. They argue meat provides only a small fraction of the calories we would otherwise obtain by directly eating the grains fed to cattle. But that is a narrow perspective. By raising cattle holistically on grasslands, we efficiently obtain calories and protein that we could never acquire otherwise from inedible grasses. Globally there are huge swaths of land unsuitable for growing edible plant food, and where human populations must totally rely on grazing animals for survival.
So, feel no shame! Meat eating is not the ticket to climate hell! Holistic grazing is a win-win for meat eaters and the environment.
Jim Steele is director emeritus of the Sierra Nevada Field Campus, SFSU and authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism.