You are the Imaginative Ones. You are the Hope. The Revolutionaries.
After it was reported earlier this week that an extensive study determined all past studies of the ill-effects of red meat on the diet "low-quality", there is renewed and passionate opinion about the horrors of the industrial livestock system. Again, the reading public must be flogged with the data concerning cattle's carbon footprint, methane contributions to global warming, and animal welfare woes- just to name a few. I've had several emails asking me to comment, or submit an op-Ed, and so I'm up early and cloistered in the basement office before leaving town for a week, to attempt sorting my thoughts.
First, the recent study that overturns conventional thinking about the harm of a diet including red meat is a study using different methods to measure dietary impact. Since this isn't an op-Ed, I don't have to go into great detail, but regardless of where you stand on which study method you choose to guide your health choices, I will say that the assertion over the way we measure things is an interesting way to start this conversation.
Science, and the media, and politics, and conventional opinion have routinely ignored farmers, and have ignored them disproportionately as well, according to a stack of unjust social norms. Farmers working outside of the business model that supports that status quo, which is to say farmers valuing soil and the well-being of the living system of their farm, continue to find a gigantic disconnect between what science, education, technical support, and public opinion is available and obvious to them, and what they might be experiencing on the ground. Why is this? Why is it that ranchers and farmers and eaters and even scientists are steeping daily in the hope of a landscape so thoroughly alive and thriving, birds and bees, and soil and trees and livestock all in harmony under the sun and moon, yet little seems to come of it on a mainstream scale, even as this cohort of earth-tending, hardworking, serious and devoted farmers continues to grow?
My friends, we are at the very edge of a blinding unraveling.
When people come to me with arguments about how many gallons it takes to raise a pound of beef, or how many cow burps it takes to make the sky fall, of course I have responses and counter-questions for all of their concerns about the only type of farming that is reliably and consistently measured, which is not the type of farming within the ethos of ethical meat. It is important to keep communicating, even when you are blue in the face and your children need you, and the donkeys are bellowing and you've not yet had supper. Unraveling must feel blindingly redundant to the thread, which weft throughout warp was made into one intricate thing, and now row by ancient row must trod back over the same path, only as quickly as the cloth will give way.
The status quo depends on the willful ignorance of many. That you are ignored is the surest sign that you're revolting. When science refuses to acknowledge your contributions, it is precisely because science either can't (doesn't have the capacity), or won't. If politics and money and justice refuse to back you up, it's because it is entirely against the interests of those in power. History shows us this over and over again, from the refusals of Galileo and Descartes and the squashing of Kepler to the careful cloistering of women who made the first rockets exit Earth's atmosphere.
Peer reviewed research has shown that grass (and many types of grass accompanied with other diverse forage species), when grazed by ungulates like cows, bison, and even elk will have a greater number of lateral stems upon re-growth , as well as a broader leaf surface, which translates into greater photosynthetic potential. This is partly due to beneficial enzymes in the saliva of the grazing animal, the benefit of their hoof impact on soil crust, and the addition of the animals’ dung and urine on the ground.
Anywhere from 40-70% of the photosynthetic product-- sugar-- is sent down into the soil via plant root exudates, which feed the web of life within the soil-- the soil microorganisms. A diverse a healthy soil food web, via its feeding, metabolizing, and dying forms humus, the stable form of organic carbon in the soil. This is the pathway by which grassland ecosystems can sequester carbon and thereby provide sinks to mitigate global warming.
The research on how to reliably maximize carbon capture in the soil is actually quite new, in the scheme of things, and because of wide climactic variability as well as the vast heterogeneity of soils worldwide (both laterally across land parcels and vertically through the soil strata) there is a lot of mixed opinion about the legitimacy of global soils' capacity for carbon capture, where to focus energies, and how. For now, fairly solid examples and ongoing research point to perennial crops with roots in the ground, minimally disturbed soils, and trees incorporated into the systems as the top ranking scenarios, and when animals are added the potential is even greater--especially in humid tropical and subtropical climates. Discrepancies within the community of scientists working on these studies include contrasting methodologies for measuring carbon, length of study, and the confounding habit of our science to measure everything in pieces, and not wholes. Naturally, this posits challenges and setbacks, which is a very compelling reason indeed for the status quo to divert energy and attention. But not a reason to stop working on it.
Additionally, healthy pasture systems have checks and balances to mitigate methane. This occurs through the action of methanotrophic bacteria in the soil food web, as well as photo oxidation of methane by the sun. One of the reasons that these pathways are so routinely ignored by research and media is because photo-oxidation has little meaning to the science and reporting that doesn't want to connect it to water cycling and the plant soil system in context, and because the type of methane consuming bacteria that lives in soil can not be cultured in a lab, and so it is not well researched. There are scientists attempting to isolate the methane-oxidizing bacteria in soils, and measure the impact of their metabolic patterns (see Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol, for example), however these researchers must usually find independent funding, which is harder and harder to come by. The methane consuming bacteria that can be cultured in labs is highly researched because it is used in man made systems like sewage treatment and landfills, but has less applicability outside of imbalanced systems. In related news, there are farmers and scientists testing forage plants that may minimize methane production (see fumaric acid forages if you're interested) however I would like to see more research on how these plants effect the ecosystem within the rumen, and not just its outputs...
This is a little window into it, at least. Some of the work that I am learning about and throwing my attention toward in the next year is that of resilience scientists who are attempting to apply mathematical models to measure dynamic systems- a new way of assessing ecosystems (and businesses for that matter) that co-exists with reductionist science but has the potential to provide more insight into highly diverse systems like small farms, where feedback and synergy must be measured as much as inputs and outputs.
For now, money and politics and biased science will keep the industrial farms going, and they likely aren’t going away any time soon. Even the science that is accepted about the harmful impacts of industrial livestock production haven't put a visible dent in the highly consolidated industry. The work we are doing is therefore even more routinely ignored and assaulted. But to anyone who will listen, here is what we are doing: Supporting small farmers to understand carbon farming- from soil practices they can implement to ensure stable farm ecosystems, to animal management that will eventually increase the animals performance in the system. We are striving for social justice and income equality so that as these farming systems develop we have a network that includes everyone. We are struggling to provide decent margins for food all the while, and mental health support for farmers so that farm families stay strong and individuals stay alive. We are trying to re-learn how to cook, and redesign dining experiences and restaurant business models to support real food systems. We are trying to save land. We are trying to safeguard the seed supply. We are doing SO MUCH. We are independently, without the support of the majority supplying food, equipment, energy, money, emotional support, and knowledge to build an infrastructure of conscientious citizens and small businesses all along the supply chain that can displace the status quo, not convince it of anything or invite it into bed.
For those readers who are looking for ways to plug in: There’s so much to do. It’s not just remineralizing soils and feeding soil organisms, it’s shoring up animal genetics, and discovering the best symphony of management practices that work for farms-- without dangerously asserting a one-size-fits-all model. Then there’s processing - making mindful slaughter the norm, educating butchers and packers, creating distribution and accessible sales channels outside of the vertically integrated agribusiness that dominates food as we know it. And of course, a scientific revolution would be nice, and social justice and income equality and on and on.
Media and politics that continue to ignore all this work and all these potentials is far more harmful than cows, at this point- when you consider what the planet faces. But, paying attention to this stuff and giving it credibility asks humans to literally consider taking apart almost every paradigmatic system upon which the most powerful cultures base their wealth and power. So it isn’t surprising, nor is it hard to understand.
Society and culture is engaged in a mega-sized unlearning. And as we unlearn, one of the most challenging things to do among the great battery of things we have to deal with, is this: we have to sustain every battle cry or whimper that reverberates from the status quo. Please, know that I am with you. It hurts, it sears, it salts the hot wounds sustained from a lifetime of work. But you are the imaginative ones. You are the hope. You are the revolutionaries. Thank you.
As you'll soon read in the new edition of The Ethical Meat Handbook: "It isn't finished. Think good thoughts. Think new thoughts. Keep going."