Complexifying the connection between animal agriculture and climate change
In this post, I share a series of different articles (including a few other forms of media) that challenge the emerging narrative that ‘eating animals is bad for the planet’, calling for a deeper awareness of how animals interact with ecosystems and inviting in a broader recognition of the fundamental distinction between industrial scale, confined animal feedlot operations and properly managed, grass-fed pasture systems. My goal is to add complexity to a subject that is often over-simplified in popular discourse. I begin with a framing of the topic before sharing a list of links below.
As climate change intensifies, eliminating meat and animal products from the human diet is emerging as an increasingly popular societal response to our unfolding planetary crisis. Animals produce a disproportionate degree of greenhouse gases compared to other forms of agriculture, to the extent that livestock production is recognized as the second largest contributor to climate-change after fossil fuels. The sources of these emissions include methane produced by the ruminant digestive process, deforestation of land cleared for livestock, and the greenhouse gases associated with fertilizer production for animal feed crops like corn.
Much of these concerns about animal agriculture are valid and deserve to be named and addressed for their contributions to climate change. The horrors of Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFO, are real and morally reprehensible, both for animal welfare concerns and questions of social justice: in addition to providing appalling working conditions for laborers, pollution from such operations has been found to disproportionately affect lower income populations and communities of color.
At the same time, a growing chorus of farmers and activists is shouting from the rooftops that we need more animals in our food system to help restore degraded grasslands and regenerate eroded soils. As Allan Savory shared in his 2013 TED Talk, animals and their natural grazing patterns are critically important to ecosystem health, and may be among the best and most viable solutions for ecological restoration and climate change mitigation.
So what is to be believed? Is animal agriculture the second largest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, or is it the climate change solution we’ve all been waiting for? The reality is that both are true, and that the social and ecological footprint of animal agriculture is ultimately influenced by the style of management used to raise livestock. The concerns behind industrial animal agriculture are well-documented and to be rightfully opposed. The missing link is that blame is mistakenly placed on the animals themselves, when the true source of the problem is the corporate industrialization of our food system and the wrongful separation of animals from ecosystems.
In their natural habitat, herbivores share a mutually-beneficial partnership with grasslands as a result of millions of years of co-evolutionary relationship. The normal grazing behaviour of ruminants is to bunch tightly together to ensure safety against predators, a process which also stimulates vegetative growth and adds fertility from the faeces and urine left behind by the herd. This relationship builds soil fertility and ultimately leaves grasslands healthier than they otherwise would be without grazing animals.
In light of this, raising animals for food in a way that mimics their natural herd behaviour is a completely different paradigm from industrial scale animal production systems, and even a step beyond much conventional grass-fed operations. Often called management intensive grazing, raising animals while mimicking their evolutionary relationship with grasslands requires an additional degree of attention and expertise from graziers — unfortunately, this means that many ‘grass-fed’ operations might still miss the mark when it comes to managing their livestock with the particular grazing patterns necessary for optimal pasture health.
When such a state of animal-pasture symbiosis is achieved, properly managed livestock can enhance biodiversity, heal degraded landscapes, and build soil fertility while capturing atmospheric carbon and returning it to the ground.
Alternatively, livestock which are grazed on pasture in conventional systems that do not mimic natural behavior can have the opposite effects, and livestock raised in feedlot operations can be that much worse.
In short, animal agriculture (and indeed, all agriculture) exists on a spectrum of social and ecological health: the management system used to raise livestock is what determines whether or not animals contribute positively or negatively to climate change. Any conversation that does not make a distinction between industrial scale, confined animal feedlot operations and properly managed, pasture-based systems is simplifying a subject with multiple layers of complexity and nuance (not all of which are covered here).
To serve as an point of departure for continued exploration of this subject, I offer below a series of key resources from farmers, educators, and advocates committed to shifting the narrative about animal agriculture. By no means do I claim this list as the best or most exhaustive, but rather an informal syllabus for one’s own reading and research. If you have another resource or link which adds to the discussion, please share it in the comments below!
Written by Alex Heffron, this article expands on how agricultural management is ultimately what influences the social and environmental footprint of all food, be it livestock, grains, legumes, or vegetables.
A popular piece of writing from grazer and dedicated grazing advocate Ariel Greenwood, which responds directly to the popular sentiment that meat is bad for the environment. Greenwood shares on the managerial nuances of grazing animals from her own experience as a rancher in California.
Can Dirt Save the Earth, Moises Velasquez-Manoff for the New York Times
Written by Moises Velasquez-Manoff for the New York Times, this story features the work of Peggy Rathmann and John Wick with the Marin Carbon Project, a California-based initiative to research and demonstrate the viability of carbon farming — a suite of agricultural management practices which includes animal grazing and is specifically focused on carbon sequestration.
Instagram: Diana Rogers, @Sustainabledish
Diana Rogers is a licensed nutritionist and outspoken advocate for the important role that animals play in our food system, both nutritionally and ecologically. Active on Instagram, she is the host of the Sustainable Dish Podcast, and is currently working on a film called Sacred Cow. As a Dietitian with authority on food and health, Rogers is also committed to making the nutritional case for animal protein in the human diet.
Podcast: Down to Earth, Quivira Coalition
This podcast features on-the-ground efforts from farmers and practitioners committed to transforming the food system and using animal agriculture for social and ecological benefit. It is produced in part by the Quivira Coalition, a New Mexico based organization founded on the premise that “well managed working rangelands and forests are two of the most effective, efficient, and immediately viable paths to remedy the devastating impacts of climate change.”
Produced by Peter Byck, Soil Carbon Cowboys features a group of ranchers working to implement properly managed grazing systems on their farms. The film falls under the umbrella of a larger, multi-stakeholder research project on Adaptive Multi-Paddock grazing (or AMP) and its affects on land restoration, biodiversity, and soil carbon sequestration.
Hawthorne Valley Farmers Reflect on the Future of Regenerative Agriculture, Field Guide to a Regenerative Economy
I wrote this piece as a profile of Hawthorne Valley Farm, a 900 acre biodynamic farm in New York’s Hudson River Valley. I include it here because it details the unique perspective that biodynamic agriculture has on the role of animals in the nutrient management of farm systems (in line with Firth’s post below), as well the important economic benefits livestock can have for diversified farm operations.
Here Sheldon Firth makes the case that animals are essential for sustainable food systems because of the important role they play in bringing fertility to the soil food web. It provides an in depth overview of how animals support the nutrient cycle, and why grazing animals in particular are necessary for this process. Firth’s website is a robust resource for understanding the many nuances of what animal agriculture looks like when done properly.
Any post about the complexity of livestock and climate would be incomplete without tapping into the larger controversy of Allan Savory’s work, as touched on in this Slate article. Here, again, I cite Sheldon Firth, who actually wrote an entire post in which he catalogs the various rebuttals to common critiques of holistic management and planned grazing.
Proceed with caution: Firth’s post might lead you down a rabbit hole.
I culminate with this final link because I believe it taps into the place of deepest complexity in the conversation around animal agriculture and climate change. And I think actively bringing this complexity to light is really important for getting beyond our own echo chambers in the environmentalist movement.
As I named at the top of this post, my goal is not necessarily to convince people of one perspective over another, but to bring a higher order of thinking and nuance into a conversation I believe is critical to human and ecological health in the context of climate change intensification.
The bottom line is that agriculture is complex and multi-dimensional, and highly contextual to specific places and cultures. Literally every single farm is unique in the quality of management it deploys, which means we cannot always make blanket statements about whether this or that food is better for the planet (though certainly we can make informed generalizations). If you’re concerned about the footprint of the meat you eat, source it directly from a local livestock farmer who manages her land with an emphasis on ecology, sustainability, and animal welfare. Such a relationship may ultimately have more to teach you than anything you read online.