Most livestock are predominately raised on grass the first half of their lives and put into feedlots when they are just under a year old. Feedlots are as far from a natural model as you can get with multiple layers of unsustainability. Subsidized fuel supports the production and surplus of subsidized genetically modified corn and soybean monocrops that require huge amounts of petroleum-based biocides (herbicides, pesticides and inorganic fertilizers). This becomes the primary feed for the concentrated animals. In feedlots, livestock are forced to dwell in their own excrement, getting sick eating something they were never designed to eat (livestock are not meant to eat grain, otherwise Nature would have given them beaks!) and being pumped with antibiotics so the grain-caused acidosis does not kill them before they go to market. And this is just the tip of the iceberg as I will not delve into the other ecological, economic and social ramifications of this model.
To be clear, livestock, even while on grasslands are usually poorly managed resulting in “unsustainable meat.” The problem is of course not the herbivore, who knows nothing about its impact on the land, but humans making decisions about how they are managed. Even though grasslands evolved and still depend upon herbivores, our livestock management fails to learn from and mimic nature.
So, how did nature sustainably produce meat before we meddled in the name of efficiency? Large wild herds of herbivores such as deer, caribou, and buffalo migrated over grasslands to find food and avoid predators. These herds grazed, defecated, stomped, salivated and yes, emitted methane as they moved, building soil and deepening plant roots. The life rich web of plants, animals and microorganisms in the soil would cycle carbon and methane and would lock down carbon in stable forms of humus.
This desert-like land dramatically decreases the effectiveness of rainfall because water evaporates or runs off instead of soaking into the soil. This increases the frequency and severity of both floods and droughts even with no change in rainfall. Worse, is this infertile, bare soil is unable to store carbon, thereby releasing it into the atmosphere.
We have additionally turned many biodiverse, healthy grasslands into croplands, devoid of biological diversity, producing more eroding soil than food. And because of the misuse of grasslands, we started cutting rainforests to raise livestock before they head to the feedlots where they will be fed grain produced on former grasslands.
Still, we continue to somehow defend the industrial model on “efficiency” criteria. Ironically, however, it is a system based on subsidies and is therefore by definition inefficient. We are poisoning ourselves and our life supporting systems and are justifying it through flawed, economic reasoning and manipulation of incomplete information.
However, humans can also make the choice to properly managed livestock by mimicking nature resulting in not only sustainable meat but restorative agriculture. What would happen if we:
• Cut all fuel, corn and soybean subsidies and added taxes to fuel used in agriculture?
• Imposed huge penalties for deforestation and grasslands conversion?
• Created strong incentives for properly managing livestock?
• No longer needed fire as a mineral cycling tool?
A one percent average increase in soil organic matter over 12 billion acres of grasslands would represent a net carbon sequestration of 135 gigaton of carbon which equals 67.5 ppm CO2 from the atmosphere. These restored soils rich in soil organic matter would absorb the rain to be used by plants and living organisms, and replenish dried up rivers. By properly managing livestock and restoring the underutilized grasslands of the world we may be able to produce enough healthy protein for the 2 billion undernourished people and the 2 billion yet to come. Of course, people would need to manage these animals – that means there would be pastoralists – from ranchers in the Rockies, to the Masai of Kenya proud and prospering by supplying sustainably raised meat to their neighboring cities.
So the myth is that we can’t realize a real, scalable solution to feeding ourselves and reversing desertification and climate change. Maybe even harder to grasp is that the solution is in the hands of pastoralists and hooves of properly managed livestock.
Daniela Ibarra-Howell co-founded the Savory Institute and became its CEO in 2011, bringing over 20 years of experience working on desertification and land degradation issues. Daniela has practiced and taught holistic management to successfully heal grasslands and meet economic and social goals in many different regions of the world, including the US, Argentina, Mexico, and New Zealand.