Our Impact on Food Choices and Grassland Environments
In 2013 the University of Maastricht’s, Dr. Mark Post and his team created the first lab grown meat patty. This event could alter the way we humans consume protein. It is more than likely that this technology will become cheaper and more available to the public as companies like Mosa Meat improve their technology.
Many people consider the consumption of meat immoral and damaging to the environment. Might this be the solution? Unfortunately, I think the an answer to a question that complex isn’t as nice or as neat as we would like.
For those of you hoping I’m going to show you there is a winner in this discussion, I am going to disappoint you. There is no one answer to questions as complex as the environmental impact of our food systems. For 15 minutes I invite you to question your own assumptions, and most of all, to question mine. I am not a scientist, but I am a concerned citizen who loves the environment as much as anybody else.
For the sake of the argument, expect that Mosa Meat makes the production of their in vitro meat as cheap and as widely available if not more so as beef is today. And presume it tastes as good and is as nutritious as the best grass fed, grass finished meat (or grain fed) on the market…Well, that’s the end of the argument, right? It doesn’t consume as much water and doesn’t emit methane as cow burps and farts! How could it go wrong? Let’s dive deep.
As of January 2020, there was a total of approximately 179.8 million animals (cattle, hogs, sheep, and goats) in the US alone according to the USDA. Assume we all love in vitro meat and refuse to eat anymore live animals. What do we do with 179.8 million animals? What do the people who care for and raise those animals do?
I am not an economist, and lack the knowledge to even speak to the American agriculture market, but the value of U.S. livestock production in 2015 was just a hair above $350 BILLION. If that disappears there is likely to be some serious political consequences and disturbances from what many folks have deemed “fly-over country.” For me, I hope that designation comes from ignorance rather than something else. Careful thought must be employed in order to avoid social and political disaster if large disruptions occur in rural economies.
First, let’s look at the history of wildlife, ungulates, in North America. Depending on which figures you want to take, there were about 100 million to 150 million ungulates in the US before European settlement. That includes bison, elk, all species of deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and wild horses. North America teemed with wildlife and populations would vary depending climate patterns. These animals moved across the landscape in tightly packed herds for further protection from wolves. Imagine wildebeests, water buffalo, or zebras in response to lions, hyenas, and wild dogs on the African Savannahs. Precisely the same thing was occurring on large swaths of the US and Canada before European settlement.
This is what the environment was naturally doing before large scale settlement of the Americas. Enormous amounts of animals drank water, emitted methane, and consumed grass and shrubs. Ungulates had to keep moving in order to avoid being cut down by wolves and other predators. There may have been occasional overgrazing, but with the animals in such tight proximity for safety against predators, they would urinate and dung all over their food and couldn’t stay for long.
Such behavior allowed grasses and forbs ample recovery time before the animals next return visit. The manure they left would provide nutrients for soil biology and insects which would provide food for larger insects, in turn providing a food source for bird populations. This was a functioning environmental and efficient transfer on energy from the sun to organisms. This self-regenerating system lasted for millennia, and was far more robust during the Pleistocene era(lasting from about 2.5 million years to 12,000 years ago). But that is a conversation for another day. I will go into the science of how this works in a later article.
Returning to Mosa Meat and the hypothetical end of traditional meat production. The potential impact widely adoption of artificial meat consumption on grassland and livestock is significant. Assume the decision that is made is to put these animals out to pasture, and live out their lives. In my opinion, that would be the humane option. However, there has been much clamor about animal husbandry and overgrazing. This is a legitimate concern. Animals not under pressure from predators on grasslands tend to spread out and be more selective with their diet. They tend to eat plants they prefer. When in a herd and constantly moving, they don’t get this luxury. Animals change their behavior when in a close herd to select a larger variety of plants. Relate this back to the herds of animals on the plains before humans. We could reintroduce livestock in place of the millions of animals that are now absent due to their removal, herding them using modern technology like mobile electric fences and modern stockmanship. Returning these environments back to the bison, elk and wolves would be ideal, but that would be an enormous task due to separate property rights and the fact that many people feel uncomfortable with predators wandering around their homes. While that may be too complex for the near future, moving livestock in an attempt to mimic nature may be the next best thing if we adopted artificial meat with open arms.
Sufficient land for this nature mimicking activities is out there and potentially available for use. There are about 90 million acres under cultivation for grain feed in US. According to the USDA, approximately 10-20% of that is exported out of the country. A large portion of that 90 million acres is used to grow food to feed livestock in confined animal feeding operations. Most of the acres are in the heartland of our country where bison, elk, and other ungulates once dominated. 90 million acres is the equivalent of 140,000 square miles. Montana has a land area of 145,000 square miles. If we began eating artificial many of those acres will either need to cultivate something else, leave them fallow, or allow them for grazing.
Some argue for protectionist measures, not allowing any management and turning it back to nature. That does work in highly non-brittle environments such as rainforests and where humidity is evenly distributed throughout the year. However, in brittle environments such as grasslands and deserts, you only receive moisture during a portion of the year. This is where we have found large native herds of ungulates, and that environment is dependent on those animals to cycle nutrients. This can be seen in this article.
As a side note, I believe plant based meats from outfits like Beyond Meat, are not a great choice to feed our world because they still rely heavily on monocultured, chemical input laden farming. The conventional way of raising monocrops (like soybeans) to produce large quantities of plant based meat can decimate local insect life and soil microorganisms. Granted, there might be a new way of raising soybeans that is regenerating ecosystems and soils, but am unaware of it.
Many folks say we ought to leave land protected from and untouched by livestock. As the points above demonstrate, grassland environments prior to human encroachment, had enormous amounts of grass eating animals. It would be both beneficial to the land ecology and an eyesight to have massive herds of bison and elk return, but in reality many of these gorgeous beasts need endless seas of grass to run and are difficult to manage without pack hunting animals. Very rarely do we find that type of environment anywhere in our country these days. Cities and towns dot the landscape and the land has been divided up through human expansion and residential development.
Now I’m going to address methane, water, and other environmental concerns about traditional animal husbandry. Unfortunately, due to our social climate it is very difficult to agree on facts and figures. So, I invite you to do your own research and come to your own informed conclusions as opposed to giving your authority over to me. First, we will deal with Methane(CH4). Methane is natural in our ecosystems. Wild ungulates emit it through gasses given off during digestion. In wetlands where conditions are met for anaerobic bacteria to survive, methane is given off by their digestive tracts. Natural methane emissions also are caused by termites and natural processes in the ocean. Without proper knowledge on the subject, humans have exacerbated the issue. Methane is simply a natural cycle of our planet.
Carbon dioxide(C02) is typically the first gas we think about when it comes to greenhouse gasses. Methane is one of the more potent greenhouse gasses along with nitric oxide, and the much lesser discussed, water vapor. Human beings have caused greenhouse gasses in unprecendented ways. These sources are from oil and natural gas production, transportation, landfills, livestock, rice agriculture, and biomass burning. Livestock, do indeed emit methane gas in the form of burps and flatulence, however this planet has been seen larger amounts of ungulates in the past that do the same thing and not many complain that those creatures created methane just like our livestock. On healthy soils there are organisms known as methanotrophs that consume methane. That’s beside the point. My complaint is how our livestock are managed. Factory farmed animals never see anything like the environment they evolved to thrive on and unfortunately, factory farming carries the majority of the industry. Large ungulates are meant to be on grasslands in a cycle that constantly replenishes both vegetation and the animals.
In closing, I honestly have no quarrel with folks who either choose not to eat meat or prefer artificially grown meat. I admire their attempt to consume with a minimal amount of violence. But the way food is managed and perceived in our country interlinks deeply with our local environments and ecosystem. I do believe that our animals can be managed to regenerate degraded landscapes if done properly. Our civilization is growing crops on massive plots in order to feed animals in feed lots. Those animals could be on that land grazing and restoring the grasslands that were plowed under for corn and soybeans. It’s more management; it’s more work; it’s still a challenge. There are no easy answers when it comes to our food and how we manage our environment. If anything, I hope this opened your mind to how complex our world and environment is, and how removing one aspect from it may have larger consequences than we think. Be gentle, and hold your convictions lightly.
Conflicts: the author is an Accredited Professional of the Savory Institute which advocates for Holistic Management of grazing in order regenerate grasslands and landscapes that have been degraded.