Can meat eaters be green?

I’ve been an omnivore all my life. Although I’ve wrestled with the idea of vegetarianism at various times, I’ve never found the arguments particularly convincing.

We come from a long line of hunters and eaters of meat. Cut marks on almost 3.4 million year old animal bones tell us so, as does the tooth enamel of our distant hominin ancestors. Hunter-gatherers are so called for good reason. We have evolved on a mixed diet that includes meat, and some of the essential nutrients our bodies require, including vitamin A, vitamin D and the amino acid tryptophan, are exceedingly difficult to find in plant sources.

In recent years, however, vegetarian and vegan activists have added a new charge against us carnivores: you can not consume meat and also claim to be an environmentalist. The main culprits behind this claim are cows.

Cows, the argument goes, are fed grains like maize and soy which are grown on huge tracts of land – some of which used to be Amazon rainforest – with massive inputs of fossil fuels and water, and since they also belch voluminous quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, they have monstrous carbon hoofprints. A 2006 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation revealed that 18% of the world’s anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions – more than what’s generated by all of transportation put together – comes from livestock.

So does this spell the end of my meat eating days? Well, no. It turns out that there are cows and there are cows, and not all of them eat grains or contribute massively to climate change.

Good cow, bad cow

Let’s start with the “bad” cows. After the Second World War, the so-called Green Revolution was driven mostly by the large-scale production of artificial nitrogen fertiliser using huge amounts of cheap oil, gas, coal and electricity. This allowed the farming of livestock animals including cows, which had previously been integral providers of soil fertility on farms through their manure, to be separated from the production of grains.

Grains were now grown industrially, on big, state-subsidised, monocrop factory farms with nutrients provided by synthetic fertilisers, resulting in major surpluses during the second half of the 20th Century. Crammed into high-density “feedlots”, cows could be fattened and brought to market in record time on a diet of this cheap grain, while being responsible for criminal levels of greenhouse gas emissions and noxious effluents by the pond full.

And then there are the “good” cows. Cows that are allowed to graze on pastures of mixed grasses, their natural diet. Cows that are part of agricultural systems that carefully integrate animals and perennial polycultures and mimic nature’s cycles, rather than being production units in disaggregated food factories generating pollution and waste and demanding constant inputs of non-renewable resources. Cows that are carbon-neutral or perhaps even carbon-negative.

On his Polyface Farm in Virginia, pioneering family farmer Joel Salatin, for instance, rotates cows and chickens on pastures of mixed perennial grasses which are neither plowed or artificially fertilised nor sprayed with pesticides and also host foraging pigs, turkeys and rabbits. Over a period of more than 45 years, Salatin, who only sells his produce locally, has been able to raise the carbon content of his pasture soils by 6.5%.

Soils contain about two-thirds of the planet’s carbon reserves – more than forests, oceans and the atmosphere put together – and while industrial farming of annual monocrops depletes soil fertility and leads to billions of tonnes of soil erosion annually, Salatin’s roving bovines continually fertilise their pastures and sequester carbon in the soil they help to build.

It has been estimated that system’s such as Salatin’s, which combine appropriate livestock and mixed, predominantly perennial crops, are capable of removing substantially more CO2 from the atmosphere than they emit.

None of this should be an excuse to relax and enjoy another bite of your rump steak though. If we want to be environmentalists and eat meat, too, it’s our responsibility to find out where our meat comes from and how it was produced. It’s our duty not to eat grain-fattened, factory-farmed meat, and to support local farmers who raise good old pasture-fed, soil-building, carbon-sequestering, sustainable cows.

Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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