Factory farming made veganism seem like the obvious choice: but pasture-raised livestock and rotational grazing showed me how meat can heal.
I have always been an animal lover. As my parents will testify, at the age of eight I was torn between my love of outer space and love of animals — the natural solution was, of course, that I would become the first veterinarian on the moon. While my desire for inter-stellar travel has dwindled over the years as I have fallen more deeply in love with my own planet Earth, my affinity for the furry and feathery kinds has remained.
You can imagine my horror then, when as a teenager I first began to learn about what happens on a great many livestock farms. I began to understand how the chicken sold at the grocery store did not come from a pastoral, happy-looking place like the image of a farm generated in childhood, but rather from large, concrete-swathed facilities where the daylight was blocked out and animals were crowded together so intensely that both their physical and mental health was greatly compromised. Their waste ran off into streams and rivers, causing toxic algae blooms and depriving other forms of life of vital oxygen. How could someone with an interest in the welfare of animals and the environment possibly support such a thing?
The natural solution was, of course, to not support it — to cut out animal products from my diet entirely.
I did gain something very valuable from my time as a vegan: and interest in nutrition and a desire to learn how to feed myself for health. When switching to a plant-based diet, one’s interest in vegetables naturally comes to the forefront. Where my food came from and what it had done before it got to me became my primary interest — this, of course, led me right into the hands of plant agriculture as a way of better exploring the full cycle.
At first, I was delighted in digging my hands into the dirt and the aweing power of creating life seemingly from nothing. But after years of work, and the learning that goes alongside it, it became clear to me that there were several large pieces of the puzzle missing when it comes to eliminating animals from the food system: fertility, erosion, and ecosystems.
A vegan diet required a lot of one thing: plants. The idea of this was quite appealing, thinking of our ancestors taking fruit or nuts from the tree on a walk through the woods, or picking wild greens as they passed, but the reality is a little less picturesque. Most of the plant calories we consume does not come from fruits, greens, or vegetables: it comes from annual grains and pulses, such as wheat, rice, peas, and beans. These foods are a dense source of macronutrients and calories, which we require a lot of, hence our love and desire for them in our diets. However, their major failing is part of their very definition: annual. These are crops that must be re-planted from new seed every year. Typically, that means that the soil where they are grown is tilled and worked on a frequent an ongoing basis. Their roots are shallow, being concentrated in the top 8 inches of the soil — this means they dry out easily, and they are thirsty for water. Producing a high-calorie grain is heavy work — as a result, these annual plants are themselves hungry for nutrition, easily taxing the soil when grown year after year. Where do those soil nutrients come from, and how are they replaced? Most often, either petro-based fertilizers or livestock manure-based fertilizers (hmm, that wasn’t very vegan) are used to add nitrogen back into soil. However, lack of sufficient vegetative cover on the soil means the nitrogen is highly mobile, a portion of it dispersing into both the air and the water before the plants have a chance to absorb it.
Compare this to environments such as pasture grasses and woodlands. While we humans can’t turn cellulose material into calories, certain types of livestock can (such as cows, sheep, goats, and rabbits), and in turn become a source of high-calorie and nutrient-dense food for us. A good pasture is a mixture of both annual and perennial plants — perennial grasses are soil-forming rather than soil-depleting, with deep roots that can reach down 8-12 feet. They can tap sources of moisture and nutrients unavailable to annual plants at such depth, making them more hardy and resilient to drought. Livestock don’t need to harvest an entire field at one time in order to get what they need — in fact, it’s best if it’s left partially unharvested, allowed to regrow, and returned to again in the future. Returning each season with increased vigor, these perennial plants live for many years, and preclude the need for replanting on a constant basis. Soil erosion is reduced rather than increased, and the livestock grazing the plants leave behind a source of nutrition for the soil in the form of manure, which the plants and soil can use to regenerate themselves. When applied to soil covered in vegetation rather than partially bare ground, nitrogen can be uptaken swiftly and utilized efficiently, rather than leaching into the air and waterways.
Not all livestock are capable of getting 100% of their nutrition from plants — monogastric animals like pigs and chickens need supplementation with grains, bugs, fruit, beans, seeds, or other higher-calorie food. But, a pasture-based system allows for significant improvements over a feedlot system. The amount of grains needed is reduced when these animals have access to sources of food on the pasture such as bugs (an excellent source of protein), windfall fruit from orchards and wild trees, acorns and other wild tree nuts, and seeds from mature pasture grasses. Raising these animals on pasture not only keeps the pasture out of continual annual-grain production, but as part of a system of combined ruminant and mono-gastric animals, can still help utilize food sources that we normally consider waste and improve on the factory feedlot system. Monogastric animals in particular are good for fertilizing poor soils, making them more suitable for ruminant grazing in the future.
Transportation and Local Food
I had been eating a vegan diet for six years when I came to a crossroads while working on an organic vegetable farm that also kept dairy goats. At the time, I was beginning to feel doubts about my total exclusion of animal products, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I was out watching the goats graze the pasture one morning.
In my refrigerator there sat a tetrapak of soymilk. Out in my front yard, there were those goats, munching away at the greenery and turning it into milk. I could see where that goat milk was coming from — where was my soymilk coming from? From hundreds to thousands of miles away and even possibly overseas, from beans grown in an industrial monoculture and undergone immense amounts of energy-intensive processing and packaging before making it to me. It was possible that manure from a livestock factory feedlot operation had been used as a source of fertilizer for those beans — and if not for them, then the corn that might follow.
That goat milk, on the other hand, came from those goats right there, and went straight into our refrigerator. Did those goats look miserable, crowded, or mistreated? No, in fact, they looked much happier about their life than most of the people I knew — these goats were not weekend warriors, they were living the dream in the great outdoors with their family and friends 24/7. I knew the person who milked them, and the level of attention and care they each received.
That evening, I went about making some yogurt out of that goat milk and re-entered the world of the omnivorous.
Ecosystems and Biodiversity
A field of grain monoculture is just that — one thing, for acres and acres, sometimes miles and miles. What it has to offer it has a lot of, but what it lacks, it lacks entirely. Rotating crops from year to year can help mitigate the effects of monocultural systems, but it continues to pale in comparison to the high-functioning ecosystem of a properly managed pastureland.
Tens to hundreds of species of plants, insects, and animals all work together, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, to make the most of what the land has to offer. There was no conflict between the bird’s nest and the combine out in the pasture. No need to clear out the oaks and the elderberry — they provide a shady respite from the summer heat, habitat for a great variety of wild animals, and sometimes even a source of food. In my efforts to improve one aspect of animal and environmental welfare through a vegan diet, I had neglected to see all of the other small consequences that played out from that singular focus, and how they might actually be working against my goal in the whole.
This is not to say that plant agriculture is patently bad either — on the contrary, a great many plant foods can be grown in harmony with the environment. I am friends with many vegetable and fruit farmers whose work I admire, and we even do a bit of vegetable and grain farming here at Horseradish Ranch! Plant foods also come in varying types of perennial, annuals, and varieties. No more does feedlot farming represent the entire scope of animal agriculture than does industrial monoculture represent the entire scope of plant agriculture. We focus on systems that reduce tillage and irrigation and increase root structure and depth, even for annuals. Strategies like cover cropping and inter-planting can give them some of the same advantages as other diverse systems. What I see in these successful systems is the understanding that the relationship between plant and animal agriculture is a harmony, rather than a battle. Plants feed animals, and animals feed plants — something is not created from nothing, but merely partaking in a cycle. Diversity and variety give the system resiliency and vigor.
For me, the most important lesson in my journey back to meat was the realization that I had become engulfed in a worldview that required me to see things in black and white terms. It wasn’t that animal agriculture was evil, or that plant agriculture was evil, but that one can create an evil from anything that they abuse and exploit rather than treasure and nurture with an eye on the long-term results. I discovered that some of the same things I found distasteful about industrial animal agriculture were true of industrial plant agriculture as well, and the solution was not to cast either off entirely, but to learn more about them and bring them both closer to home and to each other.