The most damaging farm products are not regenerative beef & lamb, George Monbiot.
It’s half-baked, over-simplifications of nature’s complexity and our increasing disconnection from the rest of the living world.
I was recently made aware of this article by author, George Monbiot, damning organic, pasture-fed beef and lamb as the world’s most damaging farm products.
This statement alone reveals a misunderstanding of global ecology and an ignorance of how essential livestock is to 1.3 billion people.
First, let’s address the sweeping assumption that all animal impact causes a negative impact around the world.
Monbiot references a dated figure that 28% of the planet’s land is used for grazing. A recent article in Nature by Jinfeng Chang and colleagues estimates that of the nearly 5 billion hectares of grasslands in the world, only 1.6 billion hectares are grazed by domestic animals – that is only 12% of the world’s land area, less than half of the area claimed by Monbiot.
Additionally, he omits that much of this land either 1) is only suitable to graze livestock and 2) co-evolved with animal impact.
80% of global agricultural land is grassland and over half of that area cannot be converted to cropland. In the UK, 65% of agricultural land is unsuitable for crops. This means, contrary to his position, that livestock are most often using land that couldn’t be used for crop production - without it, the land could not produce food or other goods like wool, leather or other valuable farming by-products.
Furthermore, not only are most of these “grazing lands” carbon-storing grasslands that need large animal impact to be healthy, but well-managed, domestic livestock are also needed to mimic extinct herbivores in order to rewild and restore these natural ecosystems.
In fact, over 40% of the planet is classified as drylands. These savannas, grasslands, and shrub lands cannot develop into the lush, high growth forests Monbiot eloquently describes…or at least not for a long time or without extreme intervention, which would include animal input of some sort.
So using the 28% figure as proof that pasture-based, organic grazing animals should be eliminated globally is myopic, naive, and dangerous for the ecosystems and communities that depend on these animals.
Throughout the article, he belittles livestock farmers as delusionally working to restore and regenerate ecosystems via holistic grazing, and over-relies on cherry-picked meta-analyses as evidence against livestock grazing entirely.
Not only are there countless measured and observed examples of the manifold benefits of regeneratively grazed livestock on certain ecosystems, the very same meta-analysis he references concludes that in many environments, continued, managed grazing is a required technique to support native biodiversity.
Even in his own backyard, regenerative farmer and author, James Rebanks, provides counter-evidence:
Numerous times he notes that pastured meat only represents 1% of the food supply. Again, he cites a reference to position these animal products negatively, yet that same reference concludes that their numbers are inherently imprecise and excluded the nutritional, economical, ethical, and cultural implications of eliminating grazing animals.
Animal foods are not only nutrient-dense and an essential part of the food supply, but they also play a vital role in livelihoods around the world, human development, and power relations between genders.
Those who have never grappled with food insecurity, poor health, or an inability to own personal property shouldn’t shame people into eating a diet that relies on foods that aren’t native to the region nor culturally appropriate.
And in fact, traditional and Indigenous farmers have proven to be sustainable and adaptable over millennia. Transhumance, silvopastoral systems in the Mediterranean, ruminant agriculture of Western Europe, Aztec chinampas, and Hopi farming are just a handful of farming methods that show that sustainability “was so self-evident that people did not even need a word or a theory for it” in the words of environmental historian, Joachim Radkau, in Nature and Power.
We can farm in harmony with nature. We’ve been doing it for centuries, but we’ve become so disconnected with nature that we’ve forgotten that we are a part of it.
In a final stroke of irony, Monbiot states:
“We live in a bubble of delusion about where our food comes from and how it is produced. We’ve been dealing in stories when we should be dealing in numbers. Our gastroporn aesthetics, embedded in bucolic fantasy, are among the greatest threats to life on Earth.”
Reading this is reminiscent of the days when he actually favored regeneratively raised meat over veganism, yet it’s actually a call to action to remove even the best meat from our diet in favor of passive rewilding and a techno-food solution that relies heavily on conventional farming inputs.
Is this the way forward? A smokescreen for patentable Big Food or the fossil fuel industry? Or just another example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
Whatever the case, I’m not convinced that saving nature by removing ourselves from it while simultaneously eschewing our best land and livestock stewards is free of devastating consequences.
What do you think?
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Interesting article, though I have to say I question your statistic that in the UK "65% of agricultural land is unsuitable for crops" - would you provide a source for this, as living in the UK, it just seems incorrect! I do think meat reduction is necessary, we are eating more than ever, and we now have other ways to get the same nutrients from plant based whole foods and natural supplements that are much friendlier to the planet. However, I do think it should be factory farmed meat (which is actually 85%+ of worldwide supply) that should be cut first - so maybe a first step is to go back to how it used to be where people would eat meat once a week and where people are prepared to pay more for meat, so that we can at least reduce the bulk of animal suffering, then concentrate on reducing animal suffering across the board in a slow and sustainable way.