To beef or not to beef

In my years of studying geography, my courses have been plagued with cynicism, despair, foreboding, and just a general sense of doom and gloom. Poverty, social inequality, urbanisation, food insecurity, deforestation, gentrification, pollution, extinction, access and safety, and the big one, climate change, have been but a few of the rather depressing topics we cover.

To constantly hear about irreversible damage and loss and death is a bit disheartening, to say the least.

Original comic from Poorly Drawn Lines, meme from Geography Memes For Edgy Teens Facebook Page

Coming across an uplifting story, one that gives hope and inspiration, is rare. Hearing Tim Flannery speak is one of those rare occasions – the way he gave comfort, consolation, and reassurance, was truly a highlight.
So here is another story that will help you not feel like absolute crap about the state of the world.

Remember last year when Leonardo DiCaprio released a documentary and it did the rounds on the internet? Before the Flood told the harrowing tale of climate change, but it did have hopeful elements that made it seem like it was possible to still make a meaningful difference. One of the messages in the film encouraged people (in the developed world) to give up eating beef.

For those who study in this area, the impact of farming beef on CO2 emissions is one taught as almost lore. And it’s pretty easy to understand why. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (or CAFOs) are intensive agricultural production schemes that rely heavily on fossil fuels, pesticides and herbicides, water, deforestation, and other agricultural inputs that could instead be used to feed the population with a plant based diet. Basically, the grain we feed these animals could feed humans, and creating this feed puts a huge strain on the environment. Add into the mix the methane emissions ruminants create in huge amounts, plus the ethical aspect of animal welfare, and the picture looks grim. Beef is the most intensive of these animal products, as raising cattle requires vast quantities of inputs.

CAFOs – EPA via Wikimedia Commons

Beef production in Australia is a little different to the CAFOs we see in the US. The majority here are run on open land, grazing on grasses that humans cannot consume. And this is how it should work – to feed animals food we could eat ourselves is pretty nonsensical. Now this isn’t to say that suddenly all the issues are solved, as many of these cows are ‘finished’ on grain, but it is a small step towards creating more sustainable meat sources.

But of course then comes the issue of overgrazing and how it impacts the environment – namely in regards to desertification. Desertification is an interesting process – land degradation occurring when already dryish land like grassland becomes completely arid like a desert.

Desertification – UNIDO via Flickr

For a long time everyone thought to reverse desertification you had to remove the animals that were living and grazing there to rejuvenate the soil and bring back plant cover. But long term studies have now shown that this is folly. In fact, grazing animals, in herds, moving constantly over the land, can completely reverse desertification in degraded grassland landscapes – this is because it mimics how these grasses developed over millennia with herding animals that moved constantly due to predators.

Holistic resource management describes the mimicking of natural processes to produce agricultural products whilst simultaneously regenerating growth in the landscape. Allan Savory – ecologist, environmentalist, and farmer – developed holistic resource management as a systems approach to managing agriculture. He delivered a TED Talk in 2013 outlining how misunderstood desertification was, and how holistic management can help solve many of the issues. I highly recommend giving it a watch when you have a spare 20 minutes.

Now while some have misinterpreted the message to mean that it’s okay now for everyone to eat beef, the point of this approach to management is to use land effectively with minimal to no inputs. In this manner, soils are able to capture carbon and methane, grow diverse ecosystems, sustain animals, and create healthy environments. It is by no means saying we should all eat beef – instead it is saying we have an opportunity here to restore landscapes so that their full potential in providing ecosystem services can be realised. People in the developed world definitely need to consider a beefless life – the sheer amount of deforestation, fossil fuels, water, and other inputs necessary do not make for a sustainable source of meat. Without demand for the product, producers will have no choice but to reconsider their processes. Of course, it is not as simple as this, but it is a step forward a lot of us have the power and privilege to make in the developed world.

When a TED Talk features so much hope on potential ways of combatting climate change, you can’t help but feel like there is a way forward for the planet, and that people and the environment can be saved.


One Response to “To beef or not to beef”

  1. Jack Simkin says:

    Hi Tharaka, I’ve been having this debate with a few friends lately. Thanks for the link to the TED talk! I’m a fan of the holistic resource management, but hadn’t come across Allan Savory.