It is easy to look onto the horizon at an endless stretch of grasslands and to think, ‘there’s not much going on here, its just grass.’ Grasslands, to be fair, do look like giant one-dimensional carpets, but actually nothing could be farther from the truth. Grasslands are some of the most vibrant and productive ecosystems on Earth. Not only are they home to very rich and diverse ecologies, they are also exceptionally good at sequestering carbon, building soil, and absorbing water.
Here are a few simple facts that, in a nutshell, illustrate nicely what the key differences are between annual monocrop agriculture and perennial landscapes, and why animals are important within these systems. And, for the purposes of this exercise, let us define perennial landscapes as areas with naturally occurring perennial grasses, plants or trees that can also serve as habitat for animals.
First off, water. With conventional monocrop agriculture, natural systems are removed and soil is bared to make way for the homogenous planting of one crop. The best way to understand this is that soil is the flesh of the earth, and perennial groundcover is the skin that protects it. When that skin, grasses, plants and trees, is removed, the flesh is exposed and left vulnerable to drying out and depleting nutrients. What is lost also is the soil’s ability to retain water. The removal of perennial groundcover causes run-off, where the lack of root systems from grass and plants that normally act as a sponge to hold water in the soil causes much of the water to be lost.
Where regenerative farm systems are present, or simply wild perennial systems, plants build soil by sequestering carbon, and grazing, browsing and foraging animals fertilize the land with their poop, and stimulate plant and grass growth through rhythms of disruption, rest, and repair. Regenerative farms also should boast extensive compost and soil building programs. The result of all this soil building is that every 1% of organic matter added to the soil equals 20 to 25,000 more litres of water absorbed into the soil per acre, per year.
By contrast, some areas of the Midwest growing corn and soybeans—an archetypal example of conventional North America agriculture—are seeing the depletion of five tonnes of topsoil per acre, per year. The natural regeneration rate is half a tonne per year, which means that in an average year soil is being lost at ten times the rate of replacement. This is due to industrial monocrop agriculture being extremely nutrient and water intensive, yet it is also simply due to the fact that the soil is not protected. And, if only 1% increase of organic matter in the soil can hold tens of thousands more litres of water per year, one can only imagine how much water is being lost with the loss of five tonnes of topsoil per acre, per year. This means, simply, that building food systems that nurture grasslands and perennial landscapes is of primordial importance, and that honoring the natural role of animals within those systems is imperative if we wish to protect soil and water. Grazing animals make healthy grasslands and pasture, and healthy grasslands build and protect soil.
Part of the problem culturally, I believe, is that because of the parasitic nature of industrial farming, we’ve come to think of farm animals as artificial features cast onto the landscape in a relationship of linear, one-directional drawing of resources. Most of the farm animals here today are not native to the Americas, but their grazing and foraging functions are the same as the buffalo, deer, and other grazing animals that were here prior to settler-colonialism. On a practical level then, how do we put this into practice? And how, and why, do animals come into play?
If you’ve been a plant-based eater for some time the answer can be, in part, to welcome the possibility of meat eating back into your life, but meat that comes unequivocally from sources that preserve water, protect ecosystems and biodiversity, build soil, and sequester carbon. And, if you are someone who is already eating meat, the answer might be to eat less meat, but most importantly, to revise where your meat comes from and how it is produced.
Grasslands are also particularly important in northern climates because, ecologically speaking, animals are our native source of fat. This passage explains well the ecological and bioregional importance of grasslands and pasture:
“Until the twentieth century, most fat was of animal origin in places like the United Kingdom that are largely unsuitable for producing pressed oils. The further away from the equator one goes, the more difficult it is to produce pressed oil locally. As Fairlie remarks, “animals grow a layer of fat to keep warm, whereas plants contain oil to keep their seeds from drying out; therefore animal fats are found mostly in cold climates, while vegetable oils are abundant in warm climates. There are exceptions such as linseed and rapeseed, but until recently they were regarded as inedible and used only for industrial purposes. In the north, animal fats are local foods–the rise of vegetable oil is a symptom of globalization.””
The unseen dilemma with plant-based foods, then, is that the avoidance of animal products leads to global south ingredient alternatives, which pushes us further into dependence with globalization and foods emanating from global-industrial agriculture. The boycotting of industrially farmed meat from industrial cattle ranching and CAFOs is entirely justified and grounded in solid ethical and ecological concerns, these operations absolutely must be shut down. However, just as industrial agriculture is not the only way to do plant-based, the industrial method is not the only way to raise animals, and the ecosystemic services that are lost in the outright rejection of animal farming are vast.
The practical aspect, primarily, is to understand that it’s not about eating meat, or not, but rather about understanding in what ways foods are in relationship with the land. The services and contributions of animals are as necessary to the land and the soil and the insects, as the soil and the grasses are to survival and well-being of the grazers, browsers and foragers. “The grass to the grasshopper, the grasshopper to the sparrow, the sparrow to the fox, the fox to the vulture, and the vulture (along with remnants of them all)” to the soil.” If we remove symbiotic relationships, the land dies. Our food systems moving forward will have to be ones that honour those relationships.
Undoubtedly some will say that this vision is simply nostalgic, out of touch and antiquated. One can understand this critique, while at the same time understand that a vision such as this one can be both inspired by the appeal of nostalgia, while also grounded in sound ecological principles. Rather, it is an existential matter when it comes to the question of our continued relationship with the Earth. If we wish to continue this relationship with the planet, then we must steward her blood, her flesh, her lungs, her organs, her brain and her synapses; that is, water, soil, the biosphere, jungles and forests, and the myriad complex and symbiotic relationships of biodiversity that are ecosystems. All this to say that appealing back to a time when herds of grazers hundreds of thousands strong roamed the plains is not a romantic and idealistic wish, it is a grounded and necessary vision. It is far more responsible to dream the “impossible” then to shut down possibilities before they even arise. The narrow lens of anthropocentric thinking, that is, the limits that we impose upon our imagination and creativity through the ‘feed-the-world’ shackles, make innovation and forward movement impossible. If the human-centric ideological inflexibility continues to be an impediment to ecosystem, soil and water protection, then, incidentally, we have no chance at continuing to be able to feed ourselves. We must shed the barnacles of binary thinking; it is not a matter of choosing one or the other. We can feed humans while also building soil and protecting water and ecosystems.
We must strive for foods that preserve water, protect ecosystems and biodiversity, build soil and sequester carbon. On a practical and actionable level on the ground, as consumers I encourage you to demand from farmers and producers that they produce foods that address these ecological priorities.
The importance of animals, then, is not the animals per se, it is not about having farming animals because we want to eat meat, but rather because they are the saints in communion with perennial landscapes, the partners of grasslands and semi-forested areas in the sacred ecological cycle of disruption, rest and repair. When we see or hear of farmers rotation-grazing their animals on grassland, for the animals to get what they need, to maintain the health and quality of the pasture, and to sequester carbon and build soil simultaneously; when they do this it is this process of disruption, rest and repair that they are imitating. They are imitating the wild horses of Mongolia, the antelope and wildebeest of the great grasslands of Africa, and the masses of Buffalo millions strong that used to roam the plains and prairies of North America. We will need to shed our fear of the past in order to move into a healthy future.