Meet Your Environmentally Beneficial Meat, Part 2: Grasses

A part of the Lamar Valley Herd in Yellowstone National Park

If you grew up as a kid in the United States you probably learned something about the buffalo (rather, American Bison) that populated the Great Plains long ago.

You’ve probably seen images of the massive herds, heard tales of how they would thunder in front of wagon trains for hours. They were the keystone species not only for the ecosystem, but for the indigenous people living in the plains as well. As an American school child you might have even learned of tall-grass prairies. Settlers moved through the plains brushing against grass as tall as their hats.

There are many types of grasslands. Located just east of the Great Plains is the tallgrass prairie, which, as its name suggests, is home to an ecosystem of tall grasses. Some species routinely reached six-feet in height, sometimes upwards of eight and nine feet! More common are the mixed-grass prairies and they cover most of the Midwest. Short-grass prairie is mainly located in the arid western regions of the Great Plains, in the eastern regions of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.

The roaming animals of the Plains (bison, pronghorns), the grasses and forbs evolved together, as all ecosystems do.  They co-evolve and form relationships of symbiosis and mutualism.

The relationship between grazing animals and the native grasses goes like this:

As bison munched the tops off of the grass, the grass sloughs off the bottom portion of their roots because there isn’t enough energy (from the grass blades capturing sunlight–see photosynthesis) to sustain the root system. The root mass stays in the soil, developing a large carbon sink that holds water and adds nutrients to the soil. However, as the grass grows back the root system grows even deeper. {1} Thus, you have the complex root systems of the Great Plains. It is estimated that 75-80% of the biomass of tallgrass prairies, for example, lays below the surface. {2}

Why does this matter? Because this complex root system also held together some of the deepest and most fertile topsoil in the world. During floods the roots would absorb the water and store it, making floods less devastating. During droughts the deep roots were able to reach water that had been absorbed by the carbon (leftover roots) in the soil. Because of the root systems the rich topsoil wasn’t exposed to soil erosion.

Until settlers arrived in the 19th century.

Wheat Roots and Perennial Grass Roots

The 19th century brought devastation to the prairies in the way of settlers. With pioneers came their own livestock that carried diseases that killed some bison, but their guns finished off most of the rest. Settlers used plows to till into the fertile soil, and never seeing soil so deep just kept going and going. In less than a century of intensive farming without crop rotations, cover crops,  fallow fields or other practices to ensure soil health the farmers managed to destroy an entire ecosystem. The farmers plowed up the native grasses and planted in their wake shallow-rooted wheat and corn, grasses whose thirst for nutrients left the soil barren. Wheat and corn were also unable to withstand the semi-arid conditions of the Plains without intense irrigation.  A drought hit in the late ’20s and early ’30s, and with the combination of poor agricultural practices turned into one of the worst environmental disasters of the twentieth-century: the Dust Bowl.

Dust Cloud, Texas

The Dust Bowl began because of a convergence of factors: poor agricultural practices, drought and the annihilation of the native ecosystem. Two hundred thousand migrants headed Westward, unable to make a living off of their degraded land (hello, The Grapes of Wrath.) {3}

Now, ninety-nine percent of the tallgrass prairie biome is under cultivation or development. Because of the loss of topsoil the farmlands are much less absorbent, making floods potential disasters. The intense farming has also brought about a loss of soil fertility, making it necessary for farmers to use more and more fertilizers. Because of the loss of absorbency, when it rains those fertilizers wash into the rivers, seep into the groundwater and generally make their way out to sea. After the Dust Bowl the U.S. government enacted several topsoil conservation programs, but now they are being pushed to the wayside for ethanol production {4, pg. 301}.

So we circle back to the question: What does this have to do with meat?

Grasslands, especially grasslands that evolved with grazers (bison, deer, pronghorns, horses, sheep, goats, etc.) need those animals to keep their ecosystems healthy, vibrant and diverse. Don’t misinterpret: not all applications of livestock are healthy. But it is folly to think that we can somehow restore ecosystems to health without the use of grazing animals. That’s what these ecosystems are designed for.

One could argue, I suppose, that we could use the herds but not eat the meat. But logic fails there: soon, there would be too many animals, especially since most predators farmers and ranchers now consider to be nuisances (like wolves and bobcats). Humans are predators, too (is that hard for us to think about?). Ranchers and cowboys herd cattle like big predators (pack-hunters) do, and ranchers cull the herd like pack-hunters do as well. Then, we, the ranchers, farmers and other consumers eat the meat. It all goes back to acknowledging that we, as humans, are a part of the cycle and not outside of it.

Online Resources:

Mother Earth News: The Amazing Benefits of Grass Fed Meat

Conservation Magazine: Greener Pastures

National Biological Information Infrastructure: Prairie Habitat

Landscope: Tallgrass Prairie | Prognosis for the Future

Wikipedia: Great Plains

Wikipedia: Buffalo Commons

Books:

The Gardeners of Eden by Dan Dagget


Meet Your Environmentally Beneficial Meat, Part 1: A Disclaimer and Dirt

A Disclaimer

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.

Overview

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.

First

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.

Sources

Web:

WikiBooks: Ecology/BioGeoChemical Cycles

Film:

Dirt!: Dirt! The Movie Website (also available for streaming on Netflix)

Images:

The Nitrogen Cycle: WikiCommons

Books:

Elements of Ecology, Fifth Edition by Robert Leo Smith and Thomas M. Smith

Living in the Environment: Principles, Connections and Solutions by Scott Spoolman

Project Update

Hey all! I wanted to share a quick update about The Meat Project.

First, I’m pushing back the ‘due date’ to Lughnasadh. I think it will be a good way to celebrate the ‘harvest’ of a summer’s worth of work. Also, to be honest, I need more time. Due to sickness and travel I haven’t been able to work on it as consistently as I’d like. So August 1st it is!

Also, for those of you’d who would like to check out some of the sources I’m using I have an interesting book that I’m just now getting into.  The title is Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie. It’s pro-meat and anti-industrial, which makes a lot of sense to me. It’s also pretty thick in the research department.

Well, off I go to keep working. Hope you’re all having a good Tuesday!

Announcing a Project

Hello my dear readers!

Today I am announcing a project. Why? For accountability. And because announcements are fun.

After I wrote the Food Philosophy: Seasonality post I referenced that the argument vegetarians/vegans put forth about theirs being the more environmentally friendly way to eat was ‘not quiet right’. In the comments I was asked for more information.

Well, I’m going to meet (meat, hah) that challenge. I love to write. I love to research. I was that weird kid who looked forward to essays with a glint in my eye and a bit of saliva drooling down my chin. Yeah, that kid. So, I’m going to answer this question dissertation style. What I’m thinking is that I’ll write a whole thesis or whatever (however long it turns out to be), condense it to a blog post and link to the full size PDF.

This will take a few weeks. More like a couple of months, most likely, but I’ll keep you guys up to date on my research, sources, thoughts and ask for input. I’m not sure of the complete content yet as research itself has a way of sorting that out for you…but so far looking at some books/journals is proving very promising. I do love a good project.

I’m shooting for a must-be-done date of early July. Hopefully sooner than that, but I have a few trips scheduled, as well as my best friend giving birth which I’ll be involved in.

I’m doing this for several reasons. One, because I think that it will be good for me to put that argument to rest in my own head. Two, I think it’ll be interesting to generate discussion. Being vegan/vegetarian and Pagan is linked in many people’s heads, and I want to probe at that some. Three, I think research/dissertations are fun. Plain and simple. Why am I not in graduate school?

I hope you’ll join me for this. I can’t wait to get started!