The Macro View

In the northern SF Bay Area, foodie culture would have us believe that sinking one's teeth into an heirloom tomato or sipping biodynamic wine can be lifechanging. I don't really dispute the possibility for some, but I do contend that for all of the "connection to nature" rhetoric we small-scale food producers and groupies espouse, luscious leafy greens only go so far to move the needle towards a more conscientious culture.

Don't get me wrong - I'm definitely not knocking fruits and veggies. Besides grazing cattle, I'm a fruit grower and a former veggie farmer. It goes without saying that nutrition is essential and, long term, full bellies are not enough. We must be truly nourished. 

But veggies shouldn't be doing all of the heavy lifting when it comes to calibrating our connection to ecosystems that support us. Worse, emphasizing the value of veggies over and above the sources of macronutrients creates an illusion of purity that subsequently allows mechanized and monocultured ag to run amock. 

For me, this is as much a social issue as ecological one. For one, I think this kind of rhetoric creates a lot of shame surrounding animal fat, animal protein, and calories from annual crops. We lambast "industrial agriculture" for its grain monocultures, yet we still depend on those products to keep us alive. We literally ARE the corn fields in Iowa and the wheat fields in Kansas. The soil and atmosphere of distant lands have been woven into our physical fabric. 

And I'm no different. My fridge may be full of tomato and zucchini, and my freezer is practically overflowing with grassfed beef. But open the cupboard and you'll see bags and bins of rice and beans. That righteous BLT I had today was held together with bread. It my be organic, and that's the best I can do for now. Yet the best I (or we) can do is far from the direction US agriculture must be marching. And if we're not honest about that, we're not going anywhere. 

Well-grown veggies can nourish and inspire. But where we get fat, carbohydrates, and protein has the most to say about whether we can be sustained by our climate and our ecosystems. Besides... it's really hard to change one's mind on an empty stomach. 

Eat more meat*

Conservation organizations are beginning to allow that some animal agriculture can be benign if not beneficial for the environment. Still, many continue to advise the public to avoid eating much meat, citing the common concerns surrounding industrial meat production--inefficient land use to graze animals or grow their feed, methane production from ruminants, destruction of rainforests for grazing land, inhumane practices in the industry, and so on. 

The idea is that if one is to offer a directive to wide swaths of the human population, an overly nuanced one runs the risk of over-complicating things for the inconsiderate public. Better to have them eat less of it than to think that meat is OK. 

I contend this is deeply misguided and may produce the opposite results of what is intended. Worse, it misses an opportunity to create ecological change at a meaningful scale. 

Don't get me wrong, I am sympathetic to the cause. I want nothing more than to discourage people from eating meat borne of bad practices. But I don't think encouraging people to eat less meat actually achieves net ecological health. 

What's taken for granted is that it's somehow appropriate or useful for a large organization to offer simple dietary guidelines to people living in vastly different and unique agroecosystems. The problems with this are manifold.

For one, it's absurd to tell people in (for example) the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, with its mild winters, abundant summers, and year-round precipitation that they should eat less meat because of what the beef industry does with itself. Industrial agricultural economy involves millions of acres and often international trade agreements and more often than not are irrelevant to the question of any given person's dinner plate. Systems that can easily support multispecies grazing, leader-follow systems, silvopasture, etc. can produce meat in almost completely closed loop systems that bear no resemblance to chicken, pork, and beef raised within the commodities sector. By responding solely to the offenses of industrial agriculture rather than the rancher down the road we usher in the very agrodystopia we seek to avoid. 

Secondly, telling the public to consume less of anything frames that item as a guilty pleasure, and thereby exempts it from the standards to which we hold our staple foods.

For example, I consider beer an indulgence--always an afterthought, more akin in my mind to a treat or dessert. So I don't give it as much consideration as I give the foodstuffs I rely on to form the bulk my nutrition. While I insist on organic eggs raised in complex agroecosystems, I rarely buy organic beer. (If I honestly reckoned with how often I "wound up" drinking beer every week, perhaps I would make better choices).

Animal agriculture is land and resource intensive, in the sense that it's impactful. A single 1,000 lb cow will consume 2 - 3% of his or her body weight per day (in dry matter, so many more lbs of wet grass than this). That adds up to a lot of land. They drink on average 10 to 20 gallons of water a day, depending on bodyweight and weather.

Where people often get this wrong is that what goes in must come out; the forage eaten and water consumed is not necessarily wasted. The inputs into an animal's digestive track can become the source of renewal for the very land it came from, or not, depending on management. So even a few ounces a week of animal flesh has tremendous capacity to improve upon its resources or to degrade them depending on the animals' relationship with those resources, and thusly, on our relationship with that animal. How much land it takes to raise an animal, then, is not a meaningful metric until management is considered. Eat less meat ignores management.

Hence, eat less meat comes at tremendous opportunity cost, and I believe it's time we held this suggestion accountable for this. Because suggesting to the omnivorous public that they should eat less of something means fewer farms working with animals to improve ecosystems. I say this as someone whose sole compensation for grazing animals in an ecologically restorative context is beef sales. 

Despite its good intentions, eat less meat means greater dependence on synthetic or imported fertility for their vegetables, less carbon stored in their soil, less effective cycling of water, less efficient use of sunlight to create calories. It means broad acres of pasture land is valued not for the habitat it offers to wildlife above and below ground, but as real estate for development. It means people eager to work with plants and animals are without the economic opportunity to do so. It means abundance unrealized. It means bellies unfed. 

Because ultimately, there is no "too much" when meat comes from a dynamic and responsible production system. If we want people to consume meat raised within its environs, the carrying capacity issue will by definition sort itself out. But this all the more requires that we sanction eating meat for ecological reasons, rather than shaming it, sending our meat-eating habits into the shady corners where our higher-minded selves don't visit. 

The thing about regenerative agriculture is that somebody has to do it. And for us to do it, somebody has to pay for it. And for it to be paid for, it must be valued. Not as a guilty pleasure, but as a dietary and ecological staple.

There's one more problem with eat less meat, and it's this: it uses the same over-simplified logic to try to improve our planet that has wrought so much damage to begin with. The modus operandi of agriculture since its inception has been to codify, commodify, command and control. Agriculture has been a tool for warfare, and the justification and fruit of it t'boot. To rely on reductive rules-of-thumb to try to restore a vitality and health to agroecosystems worldwide, we simply cannot use the same thinking that created the problem to begin with. 

So what do we tell people instead? Short of a heady articulation of the role of the human eater in the global food web, or a romanticized appeal to the role of stewards in a bioregional biology, how can we compel people to turn their attention away from dubious meat and direct their attention instead to the animal agriculture that improves their land and watersheds nearby, without turning meat into something considered an occasional treat or guilty pleasure?

I don't know. What do you think? Leave a comment.