I’ve run across (in surprising places, sometimes) the argument that a vegetarian or vegan diet is more ‘environmentally friendly’ than an omnivorous diet that includes animals and animal proteins. I felt, more than knew, that this thinking was faulty (the documentary “Forks Over Knives” notwithstanding). I did know that there has been no successful or healthy people group (the world over, historically) who did not include animal protein in their diets. There were no indigenous vegetarians. πŸ™‚ Whether the Maasai who harvest blood and milk from their cattle (as well as eating some meat) to shellfish-eating islanders, caribou-eating northerners, fish-eating Gaelics, etc, no one ever subsisted (as a people group or civilization) without animal protein in their diets.

I have been listening to an audiobook, “Folks, This Ain’t Normal” by Joel Salatin, my favorite farmer, who first introduced me to the difference between factory foods and natural, and who has inspired me for years (even if I haven’t implemented much) towards producing food on our land. While this book covers a wide swath of subjects, there is one fascinating element that I’d never heard before (and I love nothing if not learning some new, interesting thing).

In a word, it is this: We need animals, specifically herbivores (that would be cattle, deer, moose, goats, sheep, etc),  to heal the earth – whether you mean air, water, or soil, doing without them would be terribly damaging to our environment. I’ll try to give a brief reason as to why that is…

Herbivores graze green plants, which are solar-powered protein – protein you and I cannot access – turning it into meat and milk (proteins we CAN access). Properly managed, herbivores on pasture add to the soil. Their grazing naturally suits the strengthening of perennial grasses and legumes (plants that return every year) and weakens the annuals and weeds (things that put out seed, but whose roots do not tend to deepen and widen yearly). Their hoof-pressure also helps aerate and loosen soil, breaks down decaying matter, and allows water to soak down and microbial activity to increase. Their manure is truly an essential element for returning fertility to the soil. This is part of why a rotationally grazed pasture will strengthen over time, reducing weeds and increasing fertility, while a continuously grazed pasture will help the annual weeds and weaken forage. Grass also sequesters carbon dioxide as well or better than trees, for those who worry about carbon overload in our air.

So, to draw the line between these subjects, well-managed herbivores add greatly to soil health and atmospheric balance. Were we to all eschew beef, venison, milk, etc, what would these pastures be instead?

Well, barring the idea of just abandoning them to weeds (we have to eat SOMETHING, after all), let’s assume we’re vegans and plant something appropriate to our new diet. This is going to require tillage, which exposes (what was) soil rich in microbial activity to the elements. This immediately reduces that biological activity. [we could use a no-till method, but that requires copious herbicide, which also has it’s downsides, obviously]. Next we will seed it with our crop of choice – usually soybeans (which have a host of reasons to NOT use as people food), perhaps a small grain like wheat or rye or barley or oats, or maybe even corn, amaranth, or teff? Kidney beans? Garbanzos? Pintos? The options are myriad, but one thing they all have in common… They are annuals. While a stand of grass puts a good portion of it’s solar energy into root development (which adds to the soil, when these roots die), an annual lives to produce its seed. The bean, the grain head, whatever. So all the energy it could spare, all the minerals we expect to find in that food, are pulled from its resources and put into that seed. Plant energy (from solar), nutrients and minerals (from soil). The next step is harvesting that (each of these maneuvers probably requires petroleum-powered tractors and equipment, keep in mind), processing, storing, and finally, eating. But then what? What do we do with the field? There may be some plant detritus (straw, if it were wheat or barley, etc) but we need to eat next year too, so what will we do? One might assume that we would plant again… But remember, a huge amount of that soil fertility was taken up into our crop.. That crop was harvested off the field, so with what do we replace it? We could add (using big trucks and tractors, again) expensive, transported loads of compost, but… compost is hard to come by, since we’re not raising animals for food anymore (and we can only support so many pets, right?). Barring that, we have to get some chemical (petroleum!) fertilizer to artificially prop up the plants. Keep in mind this field, were we to continue in this manner, would require more and more inputs (fertilizer, pesticides, etc) as the years go on, and our crop would be a little more deficient in trace minerals and nutrients, if it ever manages to produce as much as the first year.

Tell me which of these scenarios is better for the earth? Which adds to carbon sequestration, natural (not petroleum-based) management and fertility?

Joel goes into the historical practices, why pastures required five years of herbivores + grass to = one year of grain, why pork and chicken (omnivores, who often eat grains/seeds) are really less ‘environmentally friendly’ than grass fed beef (no one thinks grain-stuffed feedlot beef is good for any people or soil or air, right?), and how much we could restore to our earth (and ultimately our health), were we to shift away from grains and annuals (70% of grain produced is used for livestock food – much of it to herbivores which do not require it) and towards pasture-based animal production.

So the next time I run into the argument that veganism = environmentalism, I will want to find out if the person has considered this facet of it. I know I hadn’t.