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Going Green

Meat Doesn't Grow on Trees

by Angela Lovell 15 Oct 2011
Meat Doesn't Grow on Trees

Beef cattle via Shutterstock

Marginalisation of farmers and their role in food production has been the result of an increasing number of largely urban consumers in the industrialized world that are completely disconnected from their food supply and expect it only to be cheap, tasty and available in the local grocery store. Organic and local food movements are progress, but don't go anywhere close to keeping the endangered species of family farmers on the rural landscape.

Economic pressures on conventional farmers are tremendous, and until the global food system is adjusted to reflect not only its production costs but also its environmental and human costs as well, they will continue to be pressured into making decisions that first satisfy their bankers. And those decisions, and the factors that cause them, aren't going to feed hungry people or sustain the planet.

A recent WorldWatch Institute report details the rise and projected growth in global meat consumption and its environmental impact.

"Worldwide meat production has tripled over the last four decades and increased 20 percent in just the last 10 years," says the release. "Worldwide, per capita meat consumption increased from 41.3 kilograms in 2009 to 41.9 kilograms in 2010. People In the developing world eat 32 kilograms of meat a year on average, compared to 80 kilograms per person in the industrial world."

The piece emphasizes the role that factory farming of livestock has on greenhouse gas emissions and land and water pollution. Whilst there is no disputing the negative environmental effects of congregating large number of livestock in feedlots, or the human health and animal welfare issues that go along with that, there are other factors that have driven our food production systems to this extreme that need to also be addressed if it is to change.

But there is hope that we can begin to make small changes that will have a significant impact long before we persuade the behemoth of agri-business to change its ways.

The WorldWatch piece points to a more pastoral method of livestock production as a better alternative to intensive livestock production. Quote:

"Eating organic, pasture-raised livestock can alleviate chronic health problems and improve the environment. Grass-fed beef contains less fat and more nutrients than its factory-farmed counterpart and reduces the risk of disease and exposure to toxic chemicals. Well-managed pasture systems can improve carbon sequestration, reducing the impact of livestock on the planet. And the use of fewer energy-intensive inputs conserves soil, reduces pollution and erosion, and preserves biodiversity."

This is all true, and yet there is still a problem. Pastureland accounts for a lot of land. According to Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada, there are over 52 million acres of agricultural land in Canada used primarily for grazing livestock. Only around 15 million acres of that pasture land is in natural vegetation.

Good management of that pastureland is a huge piece of the puzzle that many of our pastoral livestock producers are missing. Established grazing practices are often not the most productive in terms of soil and plant health, which means that productivity is not maximized and animals do not gain weight as quickly as they could or the land base being used to feed them is not supporting as many animals as it could.

Many livestock farmers have seeded their pastures to non native species such as alfalfa and they remove a couple of cuts of hay from it and then turn the animals out to graze the field before the plants have had the chance to regenerate themselves to the point where they will give maximum nutrition. So the animals need a larger tract of land in which to graze to obtain the food they need than they would if the farmer employed more intensive grazing methods.

In winter the animals are usually moved to a corral area where the accumulation of manure becomes a costly problem to be dealt with in the spring, and which has the potential to leach out into waterways as the snow melts. That manure pile also releases methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere and virtually all of the valuable nutrients that are contained in the urine are lost.

I give as an example a farmer near Redvers, Saskatchewan, Blaine Hjertaas, who has been using holistic farming techniques for over a decade and has increased the carrying capacity of his land by 50%. In other words he can graze twice as many animals on the same patch of land as he used to when he employed more traditional grazing methods or he can use half as much land to feed the same number of animals as he used to.

He uses techniques such as rotational grazing, where he sections the pasture off into small paddocks using portable electric fences and rotates the animals through them every couple of days. This allows for maximum re-growth of vegetation before the animals return to the point where they started the rotation many weeks later. He has restored the pastureland to native species that are better adapted to the local climate and therefore grow more quickly.

In addition all the nutrients contained in the animal waste remain on the land as natural fertilizer and return to the soil quickly and he maintains that benefit right through the winter by bale grazing his animals out on the pasture, rather than gathering them all together into a corral. The amount of greenhouse gases released is drastically reduced, and the fact that the land itself is perennially covered with more diverse native species adds to the amount of carbon sequestered in the land, with an overall net effect of it becoming a carbon sink.

This is just one example (and there are many farmers here on the prairies of Canada adopting similar methods), just not as many as we need if we are to contribute to increasing the productivity of our soils, maintain biodiversity and still practice animal husbandry effectively to help feed people.

Most of the land used for grazing is "marginal" or not suited to the production of food crops such as wheat and barley. It's another oft quoted reason for not making the best management decisions about how to use that land. But even marginal land can be used more productively for less conventional production like agroforestry, which has huge benefits for both the farmer and the environment. Here is an excerpt from the Government of Manitoba's Climate Change Connection - A Guide to Creating Climate Friendly Farms in Manitoba - Crops Edition.

"Alley cropping mixes trees, planted in single or grouped rows, with agricultural crops grown in wide alleys between tree rows. This is not commonly practised in Manitoba, but it has potential for both diversifying farm incomes and increasing on-farm carbon sequestration. It may also reduce soil erosion, decrease nutrient loading and protect watersheds.

Fast growing woody crops, such as hybrid poplar trees, provide environmental benefits with high rates of nutrient uptake and large amounts of carbon storage over rotation lengths as short as 15 years. Biomass from trees can also be used as an alternative fuel (bioenergy). Carbon dioxide emissions from a unit of electricity generated from bioenergy are 10 to 20 times lower than from fossil fuel - based electricity production."

It all comes down, in the end, to making the best use of the biological resources that we have to maximize their productivity without jeopardizing our future ability to continue to do that. And that means not only questioning the long-established ruts of tradition we have fallen in to but also developing strong, globally accepted social, economic and environmental policies that make sure no one has to make the needed sacrifices alone.

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