I’ll state this upfront: nowhere in this article am I going to argue that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs, more commonly known as feedlots) are environmentally beneficial (or even neutral) or humane. As far as my research goes, they’re not. I haven’t seen an article or any evidence-based, non-lobby research that claims otherwise. When “people” or “they” talk about how awful meat is, that is the operating paradigm they’re talking about. But that is not the only way to raise animals for meat.
I will also steer away from nutrition and my philosophy of meat-eating. Those are different subjects for different posts.
Meat is a controversial subject. Those of us at all interested in where our food comes from have certainly read books and/or blogposts, or clicked on videos that illustrate the damages meat does to the environment. And certainly CAFOs are a cruel system.
But CAFOs aren’t the only way. The alternative, and what is necessary, is to raise animals on pasture (grass).
While there are some who will hold that a vegetarian/vegan diet is the only environmentally beneficial one, I heartily disagree. To make that assertion is to have a lack of understanding of the principles of nature, starting with the nutrient flow in eco-systems and how animals are essential to that process.
To give context to the following posts, I’ll first review the nutrient cycle. It’s probably been awhile since high-school biology for most of us! Then I will talk about how that cycle–and specifically animals–help to build our soil, a precious resource that we’re quickly depleting.
As we move up the chain I’ll then talk about grass, and the difference between a diet based on annual, shallow-rooted grasses (like wheat and corn) and a diet based on grass-fed meat which promotes native and deep-rooted grasses (think prairie grasses before modern mono-cropping).
Finally, pulling from a few different sources I’ll talk about how animal meat, managed properly, is essential to the recovery of degraded ecosystems.
The Cycle of Nutrients or “You can’t have your cake unless you eat it, too.”–Dan Dagget
Our air is made up of 72% nitrogen–atmospheric nitrogen. However, it is “free” nitrogen that has to be fixed (turned into ammonia and/or sometimes further into nitrates) in some form for plants to be able to use it. Nitrogen fixation can happen in a number of ways, biological and not.
Biologically, nitrogen is fixed to the soil by various microorganisms and the legume family of plants (beans, alfalfa, buckwheat, etc). Also, when animals eat plants (and other animals eat those animals) they excrete nitrogen through urine and feces. When animals and plants die, their bodies decay and as they decay release ammonia, which can also be converted into nitrates. Plants can then use both ammonia and nitrates to grow. If you visit your local organic garden store, they will most likely sell blood-and-bone-meal as part of their fertilizers and soil-builders.
Nitrogen can also be fixed from the atmosphere to the earth by lightning and industrial processes, mainly the Haber-Bosch process that converts nitrogen to ammonia. The Haber-Bosch process is what gives us ammonia-based fertilizers that sustain a large part of industrial mono-cropping (and home gardens, too).
There are other cycles that affect the environment besides nitrogen: the water (hydrologic) cycle, by which water cycles through the atmosphere, oceans and earth and the carbon cycle, by which carbon is exchanged from rocks, plants, petroleum and the oceans. A fourth cycle is trace minerals.
Whew! So! What does all of this have to do with dirt? And further, what does this have to do with meat?
The answer: everything. These are the substances that are contained in soil. Decay. Rot. Blood. Piss. Manure. Rocks. Minerals. Water. Mulch. Leaves. Fungi. Bacteria. In other words nitrogen, carbon, minerals, water. Add together all of these ingredients and you have soil. Living, breathing, beautiful soil and dirt by which our plants can grow and be nourished, nourish animals, nourish us. These are the cycles by which we live and die.
These are the cycles by which animals, raised for meat, operate within.
As animals move through their ecosystems they eat their food. They then defecate. That excretion is filled with beneficial nutrients that the dirt needs. That excrement adds to the topsoil, amending it with nitrogen and, in the case of animals like cows and horses, carbon.
As the feces/urine breaks down into the soil the vegetation grows healthier root systems, able to suck up more water and trace nutrients from the soil. The grasses and leaves then provide sustenance for the herbivores. The herbivores provide food for the predators–in the wild wolves, lions, etc. In domestic husbandry, we, the humans, are the predators.
We’ve all heard about it; it’s basic biology. Life moves through a cycle, and life means nutrients. Carbon, nitrogen, minerals and water. Animals–our meat–exist and are essential to that cycle. We, humans, are a part of nature and thus are essential to that cycle. As we consume range-fed meat we are playing the part that nature intended. We are doing our job: raising and tending the meat so it can live its life of mutual dependence on the land–and then we eat it. Just as the animals eat the grass. Just as the grass eats the animal that decomposes.
The next post will be about the co-evolution of grasses and animals, and why roots are so important.
WikiBooks: Ecology/BioGeoChemical Cycles
Dirt!: Dirt! The Movie Website (also available for streaming on Netflix)
The Nitrogen Cycle: WikiCommons
Elements of Ecology, Fifth Edition by Robert Leo Smith and Thomas M. Smith
Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections and Solutions by Scott Spoolman