Not All Meat Is Created Equal
Vegetarianism is touted as being green, eliciting notions of a moral person, someone who is eco-conscious, and cares for the planet and all those who dwell on it. Most people cut out meat on the grounds of animal rights, or to protect the environment, and they’re not wrong!
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN have found animal agriculture to be one of the top causes of greenhouse gas emissions globally, even surpassing that of the global transportation activities. Additionally, livestock are said to be ‘energy inefficient’, as it takes significantly more energy and water to raise animals than crops. To top it off, livestock production is also one of the leading causes of biodiversity loss and deforestation.
The question then, to veggies and meat-eaters alike, becomes – what exactly is a sustainable diet? How do we eat without contributing to this system and make conscientious consumer choices instead? One approach is to cut out meat and/or animal products entirely. Another is to simply be more aware of the processes lurking behind-the-scenes of your lunchtime sausage roll or summertime BBQ, and making informed decisions about the meat that we eat, should we choose to eat it.
Sustainable livestock systems are possible, and when done correctly, they create better overall farming practices, allowing us to be more thoughtful about our meat intake.
The current system for producing meat is broken – there is no doubt about that. We need to re-think how we raise our livestock, as animal products often form an integral part of farmers’ livelihoods. It just needs to be done in a more sustainable way. There are farmers out there with very innovative systems who are fighting back and proving sustainable animal production works. The most notable of all is perhaps Joel Salatin, with his intensive rotational grazing system at Polyface Farms in Virginia.
Here, we make the case for conscious consumerism – for livestock production as part of an eco-friendly world. Our thoughts are that becoming a veggie to save the planet is awesome, but there are also things that non-veggies can do to make a positive impact.
Livestock Provide Natural Fertiliser
When a farmer plants a field of wheat, it requires tonnes of chemical fertiliser input to keep it nutrient-rich and hyper-productive. For fertiliser application to be effective, the soil around the crops must be left bare. This leaves it susceptible to a devastating loss in topsoil and nutrients over time, spilling into nearby bodies of water (see algal bloom). The topsoil is where the majority of a soil’s microbiological community live. A loss of topsoil is a loss of soil fertility. The result? A significantly less productive system that only deteriorates over time and that would take several decades of dedicated, hard work to replenish.
This isn’t the way it has to be though. As it turns out, animal feces are actually nature’s perfect fertiliser!
Left: Infertile, unhealthy soil; Right: Dark, moist fertile soil
Raising a few animals in the same space as crops is one of the most resource-efficient ways to farm. Granted, this only really works on small-scale operations, and generally lends itself better to growing crops like fruits and veg, than fields of wheat. However, it can be scaled up to some degree using advanced technology and machinery to cut down labour costs, which are the highest input cost a farmer faces in his operations.
This raising of livestock and crops in symbiosis is a concept known as integrated farming. Also known as closed-loop farming, the basic idea is that doing so brings many benefits to both farmer and environment. One of the ways this happens is by closing the nutrient loop, a concept which is being touted as the future of sustainable animal farming.
The nitrogen cycle
Nitrogen is a mineral present in the soil which is necessary for healthy plant growth. As plants use up the nitrogen, it needs to be replenished. One way farmers do this is by spreading compost over the soil. Having a pig or two on hand to supply the excrement means farmers don’t have to rely on chemical fertiliser, which is expensive and very non-eco-friendly!
By implementing some principles of integrated farming, farmers can churn out some extra profits by selling eggs, dairy or meat in addition to the crops they were going to sell anyway, and do it in a sustainable way. Not only does this method of farming improve a farmer’s profit margin, it also maintains soil health using only internal resources. This couldn’t be achieved without livestock. And that’s without mentioning other benefits of having animals in a closed-loop system, such as weed suppression, pest suppression, wastewater management…the list goes on.
Livestock Maximises Land-Use
It is estimated that there are currently 17.6 km2 of arable land in the world – in other words, land that some kind of crop can grow on. That’s only 10.6% of the land of the world! Of that land, one-third is being used to grow feed for animals.
What about the other 89.4% of the earth’s land? Turns out, you can graze animals on what would essentially otherwise be wasteland and they’ll be perfectly happy. It is a great way to make use of otherwise unproductive land, and support populations where crops have difficulty growing, like the arid environments near the equator and the tundras closer to the poles.
The danger comes when we start clearing areas of biodiversity to cater for grass-fed beef. 70% of Brazil’s deforested land is being used as pasture. Generally, grass-fed cows require anywhere from 1 to 25 acres of land per cow. That’s a lot of land!
Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms came up with a way to solve this problem; well-managed, concentrated rotational grazing. He divides his pasture into sections and lets his cows graze in one section at a time. Surrounded by portable electric fencing, the cows forage at a sustainable level and trample their manure patties, ensuring good soil contact. The herd is moved daily from section to section, looking forward to their fresh “salad bar” every morning.
So What Does This All Mean For Me As A Consumer?
The laws of supply and demand dictate that where there is demand, it must be met with supply. Currently, the demand for animal products is only growing, especially from the developing world as standards of living improve and people experience higher incomes. As long as this huge demand exists, people will continue producing livestock in intensive factory farms, as economically, this is one of the most efficient ways to meet the demand.
So what can we as consumers do to promote sustainable farming practices and make conscientious choices? For all you veggies out there, keep fighting the good fight, if that’s what you believe in. For those who don’t want to cut out meat entirely, there are some simple things you can do to make a difference with your food choices. Buy as local as possible and always know where your meat is coming from. A good idea might be to go to your local weekend farmer’s market or butchers and just chat to the farmers about their practices. Learn as much as you can to make the most informed decision.
A Final Thought…
Vegetarianism is a highly-politicised subject, close to the heart of many. Whether it be for religious, health, or animal rights reasons that you decide to abstain from meat, more power to you. But for those who aren’t vegetarian, but conscious about their impact on the environment, there are choices you can make that make a real difference. In a society that has largely lost touch with where their food comes from, it is so important to stop and reflect on how our choices make a wider impact. Not all meat is created equal. Realising that the power is in your hands and that you can vote for the kind of agricultural system you want to see in the world based on what food you buy is incredibly empowering, and we have a duty to vote for what we think is right.