Meat of the Matter: Prairie Politics

Nothing gets activists as excited these days as bashing livestock production’s environmental impact.

Sure, there are still plenty of single white females willing to cover themselves in fake blood, sit half-naked in a cage or march around with “Meat is Murder” placards at some anti-industry demonstration.

But what really gets the contemporary crowd of animal rights people fired up isn’t so much the (alleged) abuse and suffering endemic — so they say — to the profession of animal husbandry, but instead the data that seems to keep piling up regarding the overall carbon footprint of global meat production, and thus its contribution to climate change.

Every movement, from Meatless Mondays to alt-meat marketing to the hardcore veganism, leads with the same accusation: eating meat is killing the Earth.

Those damning data previously referenced, however, are always calculated on the basis of accumulating the carbon footprint of the entire life cycle of feed crops, coupled with the energy consumption involved with concentrated feedlots, plus the total impact of harvesting, butchering, processing, cooking, packaging, distributing and marketing the meat and poultry products 90-plus percent of Americans put on their dinner tables each week.

Then, the advocates of meatless analogs, test-tube shamburgers, and various veggie alternatives to conventional meat, egg and dairy products conveniently forget to account for the millions of tons of additional greenhouse gases that would be generated if the trillions of calories of animal foods were to be replaced with whatever substitute consumers could be conned into buying.

And there’s one other factor rarely acknowledged: much of the negativity associated with global meat production comes from calculating the impact of deforestation, which is only happening overseas. Nobody in the United States is clearing wooded forests to make way for cattle herds.

That was true back in, oh, the 1750s, but not today. Who wants to chop down trees just to raise livestock?

A New Perspective

There’s one other corollary to the debate over livestock’s actual impact on the North American ecosystem, and that is the role of rangelands, where millions of cattle and sheep are being raised, and where millions more could be raised, quite frankly.

There is a fascinating take on that subject in a recently posted online chapter from the book, “Managing the Livestock–Wildlife Interface on Rangelands,” by authors Johan T. du Toit, PhD., from Utah State University’s Department of Wildland Resources; Paul C. Cross, of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center; and Marion Valeix, a wildlife biologist and researcher at the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

The authors make the point that in contemporary perspectives, both socially and scientifically, grasslands and prairies are now seen as more than just treeless stretches of land that may or may not have grazing animals present.

In a chapter titled, “Managing the Livestock–Wildlife Interface on Rangelands,” the authors noted that “[There is] increasing recognition of the value of rangelands as providers of ecosystem services, broadening the traditionally focused view of rangelands as areas for the production of commodities from free-ranging livestock. It is also a time in which ecologists are calling for conventional production-maximizing management approaches to be transformed into a ‘resilience framework’ for the stewardship of social-ecological systems.”

Translated from textbook-ese, the point is that the vast grasslands of North America (and elsewhere in the world) must now fulfill an eco-friendly role, but in an era where “natural” environments are virtually non-existent.

“We are living in the Anthropocene epoch, and have been for quite a long time already,” the authors argued, referring to the notion that humanity has moved past what scientists have labeled the Holocene Epoch, which began 11,700 years ago at the end of the last major ice age.

According to that viewpoint, the last few centuries, basically coinciding with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the world’s population has “unwittingly changed just about everything on our planet, including the climate, the three authors wrote.

As a result, if you buy the Anthropocene Epoch theory — which I do — then the nation’s rangelands need to serve a larger purpose than just pasture for food animals.

And guess what? If those more complex and valued contributions of the millions of acres of grasslands could be articulated, and implemented, it would be the best possible counterargument to the meat-eating-is-murdering-the-environment mantra.

“In this time of self-awareness of our environmental responsibility, rangelands provide a stage on which new approaches to natural resource management can be developed and implemented,” the authors wrote.

Just what do these new approaches involve? One key is an approach with which many producers might disagree, but it’s one that appears to be well-warranted, given the undeniable eco-impacts of significant wildlife displacement, decimation of predator species and introduction of invasive plants that have marked humanity’s impact on North American prairielands.

“Conserving wildlife bolsters the adaptive capacity of a rangeland by providing stakeholders with options for dealing with environmental change,” the authors wrote. “As rangelands undergo irreversible changes caused by species invasions and climate forcings, the future perspective favors a proactive shift in attitude towards the livestock-wildlife interface, from problem control to asset management.”

That needs no translation.

Protecting, in fact, enhancing, the health of the grassland ecology, both flora and fauna, is critical for the future.

And it’s equally important if the industry wishes to engage an effective pushback against its critics who claim that eating meat is destructive, both on a personal and a planetary basis.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.


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