Hog confinement, antibiotic resistance, climate change...We have been talking a lot in this blog about the evils of meat production.
So why not eliminate meat all together from our diets? If meat takes more water to produce, creates methane, and uses more energy than any other part of the food chain, why not take it out of our diets entirely?
It is true - eliminating meat is an option for humans. We can survive, and thrive, without meat in our diets. But from an economic, and even environmental perspective, NOT raising livestock is a hard sell for farms and farmers.
1. Animal’s pee and poop is free, natural fertilizer for farms
Without animals doing the doo on the land, farms have to purchase fertilizer, usually of the chemical variety (because it is often cheaper and more widely available than organic fertilizer), to feed plants. Buying nutrients then becomes an expensive necessity, especially when one factors in the communal cost of the nitrogen that runs off of the land and into neighboring rivers and lakes. In developing nations too, most farmers can’t afford to buy any supplemental fertilizer and therefore plants never really thrive.
Of course, it's the number of animals on a farm - or in a confinement facility - that matters. Too many animals, and the result is lagoons of poop that can end up as water and air pollution (when farms spray the waste water onto the land to deal with it). A few exemplary confinement facilities use this waste to also create energy to run the farm, but those are the exception, not the rule.
Small scale farms, on the other hand, turn animals out to graze and poop on the land. Recently harvested fields can be turned into stubbly cow buffets, making the most of the nutrients still left in the field while the animals leave nitrogenous droppings in their wake. Smaller scale chicken and rabbit operations also compost the nutrients left behind, and apply them to fields.
2. Likewise, animals can mean less chemical use for killing weeds and bugs.
Much as animal waste fertilizes the ground without chemicals, animals are living lawn mowers, keeping down unwanted plants and pests, without spraying. Goats keep weeds low, for example, and chickens can be put out on a pasture to eat fly larva. Animals help keep the farm ecologically sound with less pesticides and other chemicals.
3. Cows effectively convert sunlight (via photosynthesis) into protein
My dog has a terrible habit of eating grass, and subsequently throwing it all up. That is because most animals (including humans) cannot digest grass (we can eat grass seed heads once dried and usually ground into flour). But cows can do eat grass, and do it very effectively.
Actually, to be technical, it is not the cows that eat grass, but the microbes in their bellies. It works like this - the sun hits the ground, and the grass takes it in as food and grows more plant cells. Cows ingest the grass, and inside their stomach, microorganisms break down the cellulose that makes up the body of the grass. Then, when those organisms die, the cows digest those organisms as protein.
This means that otherwise inedible grasses are converted into edible proteins by cows and their symbiotic partners, microbes (mostly bacteria, but some other microscopic critters too).
4. Animals take natural prairie and grassland and transform it into economic security
Although open prairies, pristine forests and rolling meadows are a great thing, it is also hard to make a living with nothing on your land. But if grass and plants, worms and crickets grow in abundance on the land, then so can animals. If they are grazed well and do not overburden the landscape, livestock can then mean environmental harmony for the prairie and grassland, while spelling economic security for farmers. As consumers purchase meat raised on land that has been well taken care of, the more farmers are incentivized to take care of the land.
5. Animals are nutritious food for farm families.
When families raise animals, they usually keep one or two animals for their family’s consumption, a benefit many simply could not afford otherwise. Perhaps if there were more small scale farms (and therefore less landless workers) the extreme poverty rates of the Central Valley (where a quarter of the nation's fruits and vegetables are grown) would not translate into almost 30% of children also being "food insecure."
Internationally, raising chickens and other small animals also often means women and children have better nutrition and are more able to pay for household items, like school clothes and fees.
6. Livestock can mean lower ag-related greenhouse emissions.
Removing plants, tilling earth and soil erosion - all of these activities release carbon. But a recent study out of Iowa State University found that if humans stopped row cropping (corn and soybeans) and instead planted prairie for cattle to graze upon, we could reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture in the Midwest.
Responsible grazing on grassland would also have other environmental benefits, the study found. Less water pollution (and this in a state reeling from water contamination issues) would be another benefit of bringing back grasslands and grazing to Iowa.
In conclusion - yes, you can live without meat, and the world will be slightly better for it. But eating significantly less, but better raised meat also helps the planet and those on it.