The 9 Most Important Techniques In Regenerative Agriculture

These are some of the most effective and important Regenerative Agriculture techniques. They can dramatically improve most farming and ranching operations. Most of them can increase profits, if applied correctly. And they are almost all guaranteed to regenerate land.

Mark Shepard's Regenerative Farm.
Mark Shepard’s Regenerative Farm.

1. Holistic Decision Making (a.k.a. Holistic Management)

  • Holistic Decision Making is a method managing complex systems (like farms, families, nations, companies, etc). This decision making framework has been tested on thousands of farms and ranches around the world for decades. It works. Holistic Decision Making takes into account the financial, environmental, and social aspects of every decision. It also offers methods for changing decisions that aren’t going as planned. And it is simple enough for farmers in rural Africa with absolutely no education to use. This is #1 on my list because most farms and land managemers fail because their decisions do not adequately address the social and financial and environmental aspects of their situation. Holistic Decision Making is a basic prerequisite to long-term sustainability. Read this article for a more detailed explanation of Holistic Management.
  • Holistic Decision Making cannot easily be explained in a short blog post, so I encourage you to read the foundational book: “Holistic Management: A New Framework For Decision Making” by Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield.

Bunched Bison

2. Permaculture Design

  • Permaculture is a philosophy, a design science, and a global movement (read this article to understand those three aspects of Permaculture). The design science of Permaculture is an invaluable tool for farmers and land managers. It is basically landscape design, but unlike most landscape design it is tailored to the needs of agriculture, and it also takes into account the principles of ecology. A Permaculture farm will tend to be more efficient for the farmer, it will tend to have better functioning ecosystems and water cycles, and it will tend to be beautiful as an added bonus.
  • Permaculture Design, like Holistic Management, cannot be easily explained in a single blog post. I encourage you to read the founding text “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual”, as well as more contemporary guides to Permaculture like “Gaia’s Garden”, “Restoration Agriculture”, and “The Resilient Farm and Homestead”.
Ben Falk's excellent Permaculture Farm.
Ben Falk’s excellent Permaculture Farm.

 

3. The Soil Food Web

  • The Soil Food Web is not a farming technique, it was not invented by anybody. It is simply the natural process which allows plants to grow when chemical fertilizers are not around (ie. for the past hundreds of millions of years). Elaine Ingham has been the soil scientist who has done the most to reveal the critical importance of the Soil Food Web. The Soil Food Web refers to the microorganisms in the soil (bacteria, fungi, nematodes, etc) which extract nutrients from the soil and provide these nutrients directly to the roots of living plants. Elaine Igham has shown that by managing the the Soil Food Web on your farm carefully you can dramatically improve your plant growth in very short periods of time. This usually entails a one-time application of well-made compost or compost tea, followed by a change in management to protect the health of the soil organisms in the long term (no-till, organic, perennials, etc).
  • For a brief intro to the Soil Food Web watch this inspiring video. The book “Teaming With Microbes” is probably the first book you should read on the subject, followed by Elaine’s more technical guide to making compost “The Field Guide For Actively Aerated Compost Tea”.

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4. Properly Managed Livestock

  • Only recently have we begun to understand how to manage livestock in a sustainable manner. The key is to mimic the behavior of wild herds in nature. In nature large, heavy herbivores bunch together into herds in order to avoid predators. This bunching behavior has several side effects: the animals move constantly, and do not return for a long time to the same piece of ground.
  • To keep this article short I have written a separate article with more in-depth information about managing livestock sustainably, including some external resources for those of you who have livestock. Read it here.

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5. No-Till Crop Production

 

  • “Tilling” refers to any major physical disturbance below the surface of the soil (plowing, cultivating, roto-tilling, etc). Tilling is the most damaging thing that you can do to soil organisms. It is even worse than applying pesticides, fungicides, or other chemicals. With new methods for controlling weeds (like well timed succession crops, pasture cropping, livestock, mulch, etc) and planting seeds (no-till seed drills) farmers have begun to transition to no-till production. When a piece of land is not tilled the soil organisms are able to establish a healthy soil ecosystem. This has tremendous benefits: looser soil (decompaction), increased nutrient availability and soil fertility, fewer soil-borne diseases, faster water-infiltration rates (ie. less soil erosion and flooding), etc. A healthy soil will actually increase in depth each year.
  • To learn about no-till watch this inspiring video about no-till farming… whether you are a farmer or a consumer, it offers tremendous hope for our future. If you are interested in applying no-till techniques on your farm the “No-Till on the Plains” website is a great place to start.

 

Blue Dirt farm. Using cover crops, livestock and no-till to produce corn.
Haase Family Farm. Using cover crops, livestock and no-till to produce corn.

 

6. Perennial Crops

  • Perennial crops ensure that there are living roots in the soil 100% of the time. This prevents soil erosion, reduces compaction, feeds the soil food web, and pushes the soil profile lower (creates soil).
  • Perennial plant roots can grow very deep over time, allowing the plants to access nutrient and water stores that annual plants never can.
  • All trees are perennials. Tree crops provide many environmental benefits including wind reduction, temperature moderation, wildlife habitat, etc.
  • To Learn more about how to viably transition farms to perennial based crops read the excellent book “Restoration Agriculture” by Mark Sheppard. 
The roots of a perennial variety of wheat.
The roots of a perennial variety of wheat.

 

7. Polyculture

  • “Polyculture” refers to growing many different species of plants (and animals) in one area. Traditional agriculture employs “monocultures”, which means only one or two plants are grown in a given area and all other species are relentlessly exterminated.
  • Monocultures are not found in nature, they create a very unbalanced ecosystem which leads to countless problems: plant diseases, insect imbalances, reduced soil fertility, reduced wildlife habitat, reduced crop resilience to drought, heat, etc.
  • Plants growing in a polyculture with many other plants are more healthier and more resilient. Watch this video for some very clear evidence about the benefits of polyculture cover crops. These books are excellent resources for those of you wishing to apply polyculture yourselves. This article and this article also have some excellent information about polyculture-based agriculture.
The Eden Project in Cornwall England.
The Eden Project in Cornwall England.

 

8. Thermal Compost

 

  • Most agricultural soils have lost a huge percentage of the microbial soil life which is necessary for a healthy soil food web. In the absence of these microbes plants develop nutrient deficiencies, are susceptible to disease, and are more vulnerable to stress like drought and insect damage.
  • Dr. Elaine Ingham, and others, have achieved tremendous results on large scale farms by applying carefully crafted “thermal compost” to the soil in order to replenish the missing microbe populations. A one-time application of compost or compost tea is usually all that is necessary as long as destructive farming practices (tilling, fertilizing) are stopped.
  • Elaine has an excellent introductory video to the benefits of thermal compost here. The book “Teaming With Microbes” is a good introduction to the practice of making compost. The Rodale Institute also has some excellent in-depth material, as does Elaine’s website. 
Pasture on the left has had a one-time compost application to restore the soil food web, no fertilizers. Pasture on the left has been grazed several times, pasture on the right has only been grazed once.
Farm on the left reduced fertilizer costs by $120,000/year by applying compost extract to the soil.

 

8. S.T.U.N. Breeding

  • A lesser known technique, but incredibly powerful. STUN is an acronym for “Sheer total utter neglect”. Basically the idea is to breed plants which will produce food without needing to be constantly cared for and babied by the farmer.
  • Mark Shepard is definitely the pioneer of this technique (he coined the acronym). His book is a great resource. However, if you don’t want to read an entire book you can also get some excellent information in this articlethis podcast, and this podcast.

sheer_total_utter_neglect

9. Keyline Subsoiling

  • A potentially very powerful technique. I am not as familiar with it as other Regen Ag techniques, which is the only reason it is at the bottom of this list. Basically it is a method for cheaply capturing water that would otherwise run off a piece of land. It also is able to increase the depth of soil very quickly. It is a non-destructive practice, unlike most plowing, and does not destroy the soil food web or existing plants growing in the area. The plowing is usually done in a very specific pattern in order to spread water evenly across the landscape.
  • For more information I would recommend reading this excellent article first. Then you can dive into the book which started it all: “Water For Every Farm”. When you are actually ready to implement Keyline on your property I would highly recommend getting some professional advice as the process must be done just right in order to work (The Yeoman’s Plow company is probably the best place to go for advice).
These are our choices.
Results of Keyline Subsoiling on the right.




Why The Slate Article About Allan Savory Is Dead Wrong

If you Google search for “Allan Savory” you will find two articles on the first page which seem to discredit Allan’s work.

The first article is by George Monbiot of The Guardian, entitled “Eat more meat and save the world: the latest implausible farming miracle”.

Hunter Lovins has already written a response to that article in The Guardian: “Why George Monbiot is wrong: grazing livestock can save the world”

The second article that you will find, “Why Allan Savory’s TED talk about how cattle can reverse global warming is dead wrong” by James E. McWilliams, has not been responded to, as far as I can tell. So I have decided to respond to it here.

The main push of James’s article is that there is no evidence to support Allan Savory’s claims and that there is actually evidence discrediting Savory’s claims. Both of these assertions are “dead wrong”.

My post “Evidence Supporting Holistic Management” might have cleared things up for James if it had been around at the time.

This issue is very important to me, so I am going to examine James’s article point by point. Here we go…

A POINT BY POINT RESPONSE TO JAMES E. MCWILLIAMS

*Read James’s full article here. 

After a few paragraphs outlining Savory’s TED talk James’s counter points begin….

Part 1

“Well, not so fast. For all the intuitive appeal of “holistic management,” Savory’s hypothesis is beset with caveats. The most systematic research trial supporting Savory’s claims, the Charter Grazing Trials, was undertaken in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe today) between 1969 and 1975. Given the ecological vagaries of deserts worldwide, one could certainly question whether Savory’s research on a 6,200-acre spot of semiarid African land holds any relevance for the rest of the world’s 12 billion acres of desert.”

We’ll discus the Charter Grazing Trials in more detail later on. But the point James is making here seems to be that proving something works on 6,200 acres is not good enough to prove that it works all around the world. A valid point.

But there is a huge problem with this argument: Holistic Planned Grazing is currently being used on over 40 million acres worldwide. It is not just a theory based on a single trial done decades ago. It is being used by thousands of producers all over the world with great success:

Part 2

Extrapolation seems even more dubious when you consider that a comprehensive review of Savory’s trial and other similar trials, published in 2002, found that Savory’s signature high-stocking density and rapid-fire rotation plan did not lead to a perfectly choreographed symbiosis between grass and beast.

Instead, there were problems during the Charter Grazing Trials, ones not mentioned in Savory’s dramatic talk. Cattle that grazed according to Savory’s method needed expensive supplemental feed, became stressed and fatigued, and lost enough weight to compromise the profitability of their meat. And even though Savory’s Grazing Trials took place during a period of freakishly high rainfall, with rates exceeding the average by 24 percent overall, the authors contend that Savory’s method “failed to produce the marked improvement in grass cover claimed from its application.” The authors of the overview concluded exactly what mainstream ecologists have been concluding for 40 years: “No grazing system has yet shown the capacity to overcome the long-term effects of overstocking and/or drought on vegetation productivity.”

The extension of Savory’s grazing techniques to other regions of Africa and North America has produced even less encouraging results. Summarizing other African research on holistically managed grazing, the same report that evaluated the Charter Grazing Trials found “no clear cut advantage for any particular form of management,” holistic or otherwise. It noted that “more often than not” intensive systems marked by the constant rotation of densely packed herds of cattle led to a decline in animal productivity while doing nothing to notably improve botanical growth. “

*See my post in the comment section for a great analysis of the Charter Grazing Trials by one of the scientists involved.

This section is based entirely on the article “Short Duration Grazing Research In Africa”. So let me address the flaws in that article itself:

  1. The article referenced has already been discredited several times. (reference)
  2. Allan Savory’s grazing methods have been adapted and improved over time. The version most commonly used today (called Holistic Planned Grazing) was only developed in the late 1990s. So the grazing method Savory used during the Charter Grazing Trials (called Short Duration Grazing) was inferior to the one he now advocates.
  3. Savory’s goals during the Charter Grazing Trials were to “double the stocking rate …. improve the land and make more profit”He achieved all of those goals except “improve the land”. The land stayed the same (see below for an explanation). Had he been trying to reduce feed inputs or maximize individual animal performance he could have done so, but that was not the purpose of the study.
  4. The supposed “other African research on holistically managed grazing” is no such thing! Anyone with even a basic knowledge of “holistically managed grazing” will instantly recognize that the methodologies referred to in the article do not even remotely resemble “holistically managed grazing”. Rotational grazing is not Holistic Management. 
  5. Despite the fact that Short Duration Grazing is inferior to the methods that Allan Savory was advocating in his TED talk (Holistic Planned Grazing), the article actually found many benefits with Short Duration Grazing… something James failed to mention:
    1. ” During the 7 year study ranchers would have averaged 6% more total income per year with the Richman Savory and 26% more income per year with the Poorman Savory than the controls.”
    2. ” Some form of rotational grazing is essential to obtain maximum production.”
    3. ” Beef production per acre was 40% higher for the Richman Savory than Control 1 and 29% higher for the Poorman Savory than Control 2.”
    4. The lack of change in rangeland quality was because the rangeland was already very healthy: “This [study] possibly does not pertain in severely degraded veld (rangeland).” (“severely degraded” is exactly the type of land Savory is talking about in the TED talk)

Not only is the article referenced by James severely flawed, but to take it as the final word on Holistic Management would be to ignore the vast majority of the relevant evidence which overwhelmingly supports Savory’s claims.

Part 3

“A 2000 evaluation of Savory’s methods in North America (mostly on prairie rangelands in Wyoming, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico) contradicted Savory’s conclusions as well. Whereas Savory asserts that the concentrated pounding of cow hooves will increase the soil’s ability to absorb water, North American studies, according to the authors, “have been quite consistent in showing that hoof action from having a large number of animals on a small area for short time periods reduced rather than increased filtration.” Likewise, whereas Savory insists that his methods will revive grasses, “the most complete study in North America” on the impact of holistic management on prairie grass found “a definite decline” of plant growth on mixed prairie and rough fescue areas.”

This section also relies on a reference article which has been thoroughly discredited here. 

There are many problems with the reference article. But the most glaring problem is that the article is, once again, not an evaluation of Holistic Planned Grazing but an evaluation of Short Duration Rotational Grazing. An entirely different way of managing livestock. Allan Savory is vocally opposed to Short Duration Rotational Grazing, especially when it is used in Brittle Environments. 

Part 4

“It’s no wonder that one ecologist—who was otherwise sympathetic toward Savory—flatly stated after the TED talk, “Savory’s method won’t scale.””

If you read the source article for his quote you will find that the statement “Savory’s method won’t scale” is actually the author’s summary of the following quote from FinchJ:

“Like it or not, industrial man has wrecked havoc upon the biosphere. [Savory’s holistic management] is not the only option, globally, for combating climate change. But it is the best option we have to restore the grasslands of the world. It is not appropriate everywhere, but the principles can be applied even in humid regions (see the Salatin’s Polyface farm). We cannot magically increase the population of wild ruminants to their pre-decimation levels over night. Even if we could, the process of removing man from the land we have taken would take even longer than breeding them! While I am all in favor of returning much of these grasslands to their former, pre-livestock condition, I think it will take time.

Implementing HM globally is just one of many steps along the way to patching up this biosphere with the parts we have yet to eliminate.”

Hmmm, “won’t scale” isn’t exactly what I think the original author was trying to say. Not to mention that the statement is backed up by exactly zero evidence.

Savory’s methods are currently being used on 40 million acres worldwide. All of that has happened in roughly 30 years. How is that for scale?

Part 5

“Even if Savory’s plan could scale, foodies would still have to curb their carnivorous cravings. The entire premise of any scheme of rotational grazing, as Savory repeatedly notes, is the careful integration of plants and animals to achieve a “natural” balance. As Dr. Sylvia Fallon of the Natural Resources Defense Council has shown, symbiosis between grazing herds and grasses has historically worked best to sequester carbon when the animals lived the entirety of their lives within the ecosystem, their carcasses rotted and returned their accumulated nutrients into the soil, and human intervention was minimal to none. It is unclear, given that Savory has identified this type of arrangement as his ecological model, how marketing cattle for food would be consistent with these requirements. Cows live up to 20 years of age, but in most grass-fed systems, they are removed when they reach slaughter weight at 15 months. Cheating the nutrient cycle at the heart of land regeneration by removing the manure-makers and grass hedgers when only 10 percent of their ecological “value” has been exploited undermines the entire idea of efficiency that Savory spent his TED talk promoting. “

Hard to know where to begin with this paragraph…

I think James is confused about the mechanisms through which cattle can regenerate landscapes and store carbon in the soil (I have talked about these mechanisms here and here).

The dead carcasses of cattle are not necessary to regenerate land and reverse desertification. All of the grassland restoration being done on millions of acres worldwide is being done by working ranchers. All of them are selling their livestock for meat, because they have to. This is clear evidence that ecosystem restoration can happen even when the nutrients contained in the bodies of dead livestock are removed from the land.

The ‘ecological “value”‘ of cattle is not determined by their lifespan, it is determined by the number of living, trampling, grazing cattle on a given area and by the quality of their management.

A cow will produce 5-6% of her body weight in manure every day. So a 1000lb yearling being transported to market at 15 months old has already deposited about 20 times its body weight in manure on the land. The nutrients contained in the bodies of cattle are insignificant compared to the other ecosystem services provided by cattle.

Part 6

“Further weakening Savory’s argument for the wholesale application of holistic management to the world’s deserts is his distorted view of desert ecology. There are two basic kinds of deserts: genuinely degraded landscapes in need of revival and ecologically thriving ones best left alone. Proof that Savory fails to grasp this basic distinction comes when, during his talk, he calls desert algae crust (aka “cryptobiotic crust”) a “cancer of desertification” that represses grasses and precipitate runoff.  The thing is desert algae crust, as desert ecologists will attest, is no cancer. Instead, it’s the lush hallmark of what Ralph Maughan, director of the Western Watersheds Project, calls “a complete and ancient ecosystem.” According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “Crusts generally cover all soil spaces not occupied by green plants. In many areas, they comprise over 70 percent of the living ground cover and are key in reducing erosion, increasing water retention, and increasing soil fertility.” Savory, whose idea of a healthy ecosystem is one with plenty of grass to feed cattle, neglects the less obvious flora—such as, in addition to algae crust, blackbrush, agaves, and creosote—that cattle tend to trample, thereby reducing the desert’s natural ability to sequester carbon on its own terms. “It is very important,” Maughan writes, “that this carbon storage not be squandered trying to produce livestock.””

There are two points worth addressing here. First James asserts that the hard “crust” on desert soils is preferable to the grassland that could exist otherwise. Then he asserts that “the desert’s natural ability to squester carbon” is more important than what can be achieved with livestock.

Grassland or "cryptobiotic crust"?
Grassland or “cryptobiotic crust”?

 

The Value Of Desert Algae Crusts Versus Grassland

No scientist can tell us whether a algal crust is more valuable than a grassland. It depends on what we value most. Here are some reasons that replacing “cryptobiotic crusts” with grassland might be a very good idea:

  1. Grasslands sequester carbon in the soil, reducing global GHG levels. (reference) Algal crusts do not increase the carbon stored in soil and store less carbon in their biomass than grassland.
  2. Grasslands produce food for humans, as well as for wildlife. Algal crusts do not.
  3. Air temperatures fluctuate more dramatically over a crusted surface than over a grassland. Over a large enough scale this effects regional air temperatures. (hotter summers and colder winters)
  4. Algal crusts do not permit most new seeds to grow. Seeds which fall on to the surface of a crust are excluded from the nutrients and moisture of the soil, which they require for growth. Over time, a lack of seedling growth leads to loss of plant life.
  5. Grasslands contain more biodiversity than areas dominated by cryptobiotic crusts (in terms of number of species). Biodiversity is essential for ecosystem resilience and stability.
  6. Algae crusts do not permit the infiltration of rainfall into the soil, whereas grassland soils absorb rainwater readily. (reference)
    1. Rain that does not infiltrate the soil travels over the surface: causing erosion and flooding downstream.
    2. Rain that falls on an area with algal crusts is not stored in the soils of those areas, depriving the ecosystem of life-giving water reservoirs.

Part 7

“Savory’s most compelling and controversial assumption—one that’s absolutely central to his method—is that humans can viably “mimic” (a word he uses about a dozen times in the TED talk) “all of nature’s complexity.” This is a stunning claim. The conceit of mimicry as a virtue of Savory’s technique is challenged in part by the fact that not all deserts rely on the presence of herd animals for their ecological health. In many desert ecosystems, desert grasses evolved not alongside large animals but in concert with desert tortoises, mice, rats, rabbits, and reptiles. It’s difficult to imagine how a human-managed ecosystem such as Savory’s—dependent on manipulating the genetics of livestock, building sturdy fences, manufacturing supplemental feed, and exterminating predators—is more representative of “nature’s complexity” than a healthy desert full of organisms that have co-evolved over millennia.”

First lets deal with the criticism that Savory’s methods do not adequately “mimic” nature:

Of course Holistic Planned Grazing is not a perfect replication of the natural order of things before humans arrived. No one, including Allan Savory, is claiming that it is. We are simply pointing out that Holistic Planned Grazing is a whole lot closer to the natural order than the land management practices which are currently being employed over most of the world’s drylands (either conservation land management, or agricultural land management).

The proof is in the pudding. Holistic Management regenerates landscapes. Its not perfect, but its the best tool we have right now by far.

Second, lets talk about the claim that “not all deserts rely on the presence of herd animals for their ecological health”:

Unfortunately James did not directly provide a reference for this claim, but I found the same statement in a previous article he referenced (here) so I assume that is where he got the information. Too bad the referenced article does not include any evidence either!

Despite a complete lack of evidence, they may be right that some “desert grasses evolved not alongside large animals but in concert with desert tortoises, mice, rats, rabbits, and reptiles”. However, this does not say anything about desert grasslands (large areas of land covered mainly with grass plants). Grassland landscapes cannot exist in Brittle Environments without the trampling and grazing action of large herbivores. (reference) 

Part 8

“In 1990, Savory admitted that attempts to reproduce his methods had led to “15 years of frustrating and eratic [sic] results.” But he refused to accept the possibility that his hypothesis was flawed. Instead, Savory said those erratic results “were not attributable to the basic concept being wrong but were always due to management.” In a favorable interview with Range magazine in 2000, Savory seemed unconcerned with the failure of his method in scientific trials: “You’ll find the scientific method never discovers anything. Observant, creative people make discoveries.””

Well there is not much to discuss here any more. I have already provided plenty of solid evidence supporting Savory’s methods. And yes, the vast majority of supposed studies of Savory’s methods are not actually studying his methods at all. Read his book and it will be abundantly clear how his method differs from other grazing methods like rotational grazing, short duration grazing, cell grazing, etc.

Part 9

“In the meantime, the evidence continues to suggest what we have long known: There’s no such thing as a beef-eating environmentalist. “

Although James certainly wants this to be true, it is not. Eating factory farmed beef is certainly bad for the environment, but eating meat produced with Savory’s methods is actually necessary for global sustainability.

Evidence Supporting Holistic Management

Holistic Management is the most powerful tool I have encountered for regenerating landscapes. I have compiled a list of all of the best online evidence supporting Holistic Management. Hopefully we can soon stop doubting Holistic Management and start implementing it, we need it desperately.

The best way to know for yourself whether Holistic Management works is to go visit a Holistically Managed farm or ranch. This directory of Holistic Managers should give you a place to start as you look for a Holistic Manager nearby.

RESPONSES TO ANTI-HOLISTIC MANAGEMENT PROPAGANDA

Refer to this post: “A Collection Of Rebuttals To Cowspiracy And Other Anti-Holistic Management Propaganda”

Peer Reviewed Articles On Holistic Management

Talking Points Regarding Savory (A discussion of the relevant peer-reviewed articles and their relationships to each other

  1. Why Scientific Studies Are Failing To Match The Results Reported By Ranchers
  2. “Evaluating the ranch and watershed scale impacts of using traditional and adaptive multi-paddock grazing on runoff, sediment and nutrient losses in North Texas, USA”  Surface runoff, sediment and nutrient loads were 31–39% lower with [Multi Paddock Grazing] than [Heavy Continuous] grazing.
  3. Desertification and livestock grazing: The roles of sedentarization, mobility and rest” inclusive planning processes focused on better managing the spatio-temporal aspects of grazing (animal impact and the duration of grazing periods) are one step toward improving rangeland ecosystems through the use of livestock as a solution to the problem of land degradation

  4. GHG Mitigation Potential of Different Grazing Strategies in the United States Southern Great Plains
  5. Effect of grazing on soil-water content in semiarid rangelands of southeast Idaho” Holistic Planned Grazing results in higher soil water content and more litter (mulch), compared to other grazing methods in Southeast Idaho
  6. Grazing management impacts on vegetation, soil biota and soil chemical, physical and hydrological properties in tall grass prairie” Multi-Paddock Grazing superior in many ways to continuous grazing and no grazing
  7. “From the ground up: holistic management and grassroots rural adaptation to bovine spongiform encephalopathy across western Canada” Canadian Holistic Managers adapted better to BSE crisis than conventional managers
  8. “The Holistic Management of the Landscape of Ethnic Communities Will Reduce Climate Change and Promote Its Sustainability”
  9. “Steps toward sustainable ranching: An emergy evaluation of conventional and holistic management in Chiapas, Mexico” Sustainability Index doubled under Holistic Management, more wildlife and biodiversity under Holistic Management, more tree cover, 66% lower calf mortality, etc. 
  10. Managing The Grazing Landscape: Insights for agricultural adaption from a mid-drought photo-elicitation in the Australian sheep-wheat belt
  11. “Comparing The Effects of continuous and Time-Controlled Grazing systems on soil characteristics in Southeast Queensland.” Results showed an increase in soil organic carbon and nitrogen in the areas with favourable soil condition compared with continuous grazing. There was also an increase in ground-litter accumulation over time and no compaction in TC grazing. Nitrate and extractable P concentrations were reduced by increased grass growth under TC grazing, which in turn decreased the contamination potential for downstream water bodies.
  12. “Emerging land use practices rapidly increase soil organic matter” Well managed livestock sequestering carbon “within a decade of management-intensive grazing practices soil C levels returned to those of native forest soils”
  13. High impact grazing as a management tool to optimize biomass growth in northern Argentinean grassland
  14. “Biodiversity as an organizing principle in agroecosystem management: Case studies of holistic resource management practitioners in the USA” Interview study of ranchers using Holistic Management. 95% report an increase in biodiversity, 80% reported an increase in profits, 91% reporting improvements in quality of life.
  15. “Rotational Grazing Effects On Rangeland Vegetation At A Farm Scale” In conclusion, rotational grazing promoted functional groups composed of high forage value species and reduced bare soil through the accumulation of litter. These changes indicate an improvement in rangeland condition and in carrying capacity.
  16. “Grazing Lawns: Animals in Herds, Plant Form, and Coevolution”
  17. “Rotational Stocking and Production Of Italian Ryegrass on Argentinean Rangelands” reported an almost 2-fold increase in stocking capacity with rotational grazing compared to continuous grazing. 
  18. Ecological consequences of Late Quaternary extinctions of megafauna.”
  19. “The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America” concluded that to ensure long-term sustainability agricultural production should be guided by policies and regenerative management protocols that include ruminant grazing.

*Caution: Many of these studies use grazing systems like Rotational Grazing, Multi-Paddock Grazing, etc which are a step in the right direction and can work in non-brittle environments, but these systems inevitably fail in brittle environments. Only Holistic Planned Grazing has proven successful in brittle enviromnents. 

*Also see this “Compilation of Holistic Management Comparison Photos”  (also available as a video here) from Holistic Managers all over the world.

Endorsements

  1. John D Liu: world-renowned expert on “greening the desert” and director of the documentary “Green Gold”.
  2.  Dr. Elaine Ingham: world famous soil biologist, and lead scientist for the Rodale Institute. 
  3. Vandana Shiva: leader and board members on the International Forum on Globalization, philosopher, environmentalist, author, professional speaker, social activist, received the Right Livelihood Award in 1993, and numerous other prizes.
  4. Joel Salatin: word-famous farmer, lecturer, and author whose books include Folks, This Ain’t Normal;You Can Farm; and Salad Bar Beef.
  5. Hunter Lovins: president of Natural Capitalism Solutions, teacher of sustainable business management at Bainbridge Graduate Institute and at Daniels College of Business,University of Denver, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), Named a “green business icon” by Newsweek, a millennium “Hero of the Planet” by Time Magazine, etc.
  6. Chad Kruger: director of  WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research & Extension Center (NWREC), director of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources (CSANR), member of the Washington Department of Natural Resources Expert Council on Climate Change, board member for the Northwest Ag Business Center, and serves on the Advisory Board of the Northwest Environmental Forum.
  7. Dr. Richard Teague, Grazing specialist and Associate Resident Director and Professor at Texas A&M AgriLife Research
  8. Darren Doherty: cofounder and president of Regrarians,  farmer, developer, author & trainer and has been involved in the design & development of nearly 2000 projects across 6 continents in close to 50 countries
  9. Patrick Holden: founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust, former director of the Soil Association
  10. Dr. Jason Rowntree: Assistant Professor and Coordinator of two research farms for Michigan State University
  11. Dr. Kristine Nichols: current Chief Scientist for the Rodale Institute, Soil Microbiologist with the USDA, received the 2012 Conservation Research Award from the International Soil and Water Conservation Society
  12. Owen Hablutzel: serves on the IUCNs Resilience Task Force and as a director of the Permaculture Research Institute, USA.
  13. Ivan Aguirre: multi-generational rancher from Sonora, Mexico
  14. Jim Howell: co-founder of Grasslands LLC, the Savory Institute, and author of “For the Love of Land—Global Case Studies of Grazing in Nature’s Image”
  15. Seth Itzkan: futurist, CEO and founder of Planet-Tech Associates, with twenty five years experience consulting for municipal, state, and government agencies on climate change mitigation, technology, etc.
  16. Finian Makepeace: songwriter, producer at The Makes, and founder of Kiss The Ground
  17. Ronnie Cummins: member of the Organic Consumer Association, Holistic Manager in Costa Rica.
  18. Brittany Cole Bush: “modern day urban shepherdess” from California managing over 2,500 animals

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Books Supporting Holistic Management

  1. Holistic Management: A New Framework For Decision Making
  2. Geotherapy
  3. Planned Grazing: A Study Guide And Reference Manual
  4. How To Not Go Broke Ranching
  5. Defending Beef
  6. For The Love Of The Land: Global Case Studies Of Grazing In Nature’s Image
  7. Holistic Management Handbook
  8. Cows Save The Planet
  9. Gardener’s Of Eden: Rediscovering Our Importance To Nature
  10. The Soil Will Save Us

High-Density Grazing at B-C Ranch, SK, Canada

Video Evidence For Holistic Management

  1. The Power Of Holistic Management, In Pictures
  2. Allan Savory’s Lecture At Tufts University
  3. Occam’s Grazer: An In Depth Introduction To Holistic Management
  4. Ovis 21 Restoring Grasslands in Patagonia with Holistic Management
  5. Grazing Specialist Finds Most Success With Holistic Management
  6. The First Millimeter Documentary
  7. Tony Lovell, Large Scale Holistic Management Results In Australia
  8. Getting Results On The Land With Holistic Management
  9. Greg Judy’s Grazing Results
  10. Joel Salatin On Holistic Management
  11. Holistic Management At Work
  12. Holistic Management In Zimbabwe, Ministry Of Women’s Affairs
  13. John D Liu Talks About Holistic Management
  14. Seth Itzkan Talks About Holistic Management and Climate Change
  15. Patrick Holden On Holistic Management
  16. River Restoration In Zimbabwe

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Other Evidence Supporting Holistic Management

  1. Survey of 43 Ranchers in the Northern Rockies on the observed effects of Holistic Management, 87% have increased stocking rate, 68% have reduced soil erosion, 85% have increased biodiversity, etc.
  2. Well Managed Pasture Capable Of Absorbing Cattle Methane
  3. Evidence From Savory Institute
  4. Scientific American considers Holistic Management worthy of an article, no criticism either. 
  5. Why Properly Managed Livestock Are The Key To Stopping Climate Change
  6. Sound Management May Sequester Methane In Grazed Rangeland Ecosystems
  7. Communities in Landscapes project Benchmark Study of Innovators, University Of Sydney
  8. Soil Carbon Coalition, Change Map

Bunched Bison

 

Comparison Pictures Supporting Holistic Planned Grazing

  1. All of them can be found in these two infographics
  2. Holistic Results, fence-line photos in Australia
  3. Excerpts from Allan Savory’s Talk at Tufts University
  4. Report From Africa
  5. Pictures of Land Restoration With Holistic Management
  6. Allan Savory’s Ranch

big-herd-wildebeest

Letter To Vegetarians

Please note that this article is now outdated. I have updated this article, added over 120 peer-reviewed references, expanded it, added several chapters, and answered many more questions in the soon-to-be-released book with the same title: “Letter To A Vegetarian Nation“. If you are interested in this topic I highly recommend you read the full book. As an apology for inconveniencing you, I am going to give you a 20% discount on the book, just follow these instructions:

  1. Follow this link to the sales page
  2. Scroll down to the heading “BUY IT HERE”
  3. Choose option #1 (click “add to cart”)
  4. Enter the discount code “newandimproved” during checkout for your 20% discount

You can also read a preview of the book below:

 

And now, without further ado, the article you were looking for….

Overview Of This Article:

  1. Basic values:
    1. Improving the environment is good.
    2. Reducing animal suffering as much as possible is good.
    3. Developing a sustainable civilization is good.
  2. Agriculture is quickly transitioning to sustainable models
  3. It is not possible to produce food sustainably without large numbers of livestock.
  4. It is not possible to produce any food in Brittle Environments without even more livestock
  5. Therefore a sustainable civilization must include large numbers of livestock on all agricultural land and all Brittle land.
  6. These livestock will die.
  7. We should probably kill most of them.
  8. We should probably eat their meat afterwords.
  9. The ethics of lost potential.
  10. Climate Change
  11. Conclusion
  12. Resources

I have put much of the supporting information for these statements in separate articles to keep this article at a manageable length. I encourage you to read those supporting articles as you come to them. Especially if you want an in-depth understanding of the reasoning behind each of these statements.

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1. Basic Values

These are the values I hold, and the values that I believe most people (especially Vegans and Vegetarians) hold. I am not going to argue for or against these basic values in this article because they have all been discussed in great detail elsewhere.

  • The dietary choices we make have ethical consequences, they influence the environment, animal well-being, and the economic structure of our society. We should chose our food consciously.

  • The environment supports all life on Earth, including us, and so we should make sure that we are not damaging it. If we damage our life support system we are really damaging ourselves.

  • The suffering of animals should be reduced as much as possible. Factory farms probably represent the worst suffering large numbers of animals have ever had to endure. Factory farming should be stopped as soon as possible.

  • Our civilization should transition away from reliance on non-renewable resources. We need to be sustainable, by definition, or our civilization will fail eventually. (I am making no statements about how quickly or slowly this must happen)

Hopefully you agree with most, or all of those statements. If not, you should probably read this book. 

Factory Farming is awful and needs to stop.
Factory Farming is awful and needs to stop.

 

I have tremendous respect for Vegans and Vegetarians because you truly understand that what you eat has a huge impact on our world. Not only do you care, but you actually put your ideals into practice. It takes a rare kind of person to actually change how they live their daily lives solely for the benefit of the environment, and animals. Those admirable traits are the reason I have addressed this article to Vegans and Vegetarians. Everyone needs to hear this message, but Im starting with vegetarians because you are at the cutting edge of food activism. You are more likely to care about the facts I present, and act upon them.

I encourage you to read with an open mind. But I also hope that you will not accept my arguments unless they are logical, and ethically sound.

If you stick with me through this article I guarantee you will learn lots that you did not know before. If you read the supporting articles you will also leave with an excellent understanding of sustainable agriculture, proper livestock management, desert restoration, and more.

2. The Current Revolution In Agriculture

Full article: The Future Of Agriculture Is Regenerative

Over the past several decades new food production techniques have been developed which allow us to produce food while simultaneously regenerating the environment and local ecosystems.

Contrary to the mainstream narrative it is possible to “feed the world” sustainably, without destroying our soils, biodiversity, water quality, or health.

These techniques are spreading like wildfire. Sustainable agriculture requires livestock (which I will explain later) and so the fact that sustainable agriculture is quickly becoming dominant has major implications for the ethics of eating meat (also discussed later in this article).

Are you somewhere in North America, Europe, or Australia right now? If so, there is almost definitely a sustainable farmer within an hours drive of wherever you are.

There is no central database containing all the sustainable farmers in the world, unfortunately, so they can be hard to find. But I have created this list to help people find regenerative farmers nearby.

Mark Shepard's Regenerative Farm.
Mark Shepard’s Regenerative Farm in Wisconsin.

 

Why Is Sustainable Agriculture Taking Over?

The primary reason sustainable agriculture is gaining so much momentum is that sustainable farming is generally more profitable than conventional farming.

Why are sustainable techniques more profitable? (profit = revenue – expenses)

  1. Because they are just as productive, in terms of total calories, as conventional grain production. And because farmers can usually charge more for their products (equal or greater revenue).
  2. Because sustainable production requires little, if any, external inputs. Inputs (along with machinery and land) are the major cost on most conventional farms. Fertilizers are replaced by the soil food web. Herbicides are replace by mulch, healthy soil, and intelligent crop planning. Insecticides are replaced by birds, biodiversity, healthy soil. Fungicides are replaced by healthy soil biology. Additionally the healthy soil on sustainable farms are able to hold more water and more effectively use the rain that does fall. This means the farmer doesn’t have to spend as much money on irrigation and doesn’t lose as much income during droughts (lower expenses).

Note: If you have any doubts about the claims I am making about sustainable agriculture please refer to my post “Evidence For Regenerative Agriculture”. 

So, sustainable farming produces equal, or better, revenues while significantly reducing costs. This means more profit for the farmer.

A no-till veggie farm in California making $100,000/acre.
A no-till veggie farm in California making $100,000/acre.

 

So sustainable farming is the way of the future. It will take over because it is more profitable for the farmer. And it will take over because it has to (fossil fuels, the bedrock of conventional agriculture, will not last forever).

*Note: For ease of understanding I use the word “sustainable agriculture” throughout this article. But what I am specifically talking about can be better defined as “regenerative agriculture”. Some techniques often labelled as “sustainable” (like Organic farming) are not actually sustainable. Everything that falls under the label of “regenerative agriculture”, on the other hand, is  sustainable, that is where the distinction lies.

Full Article: Organic Agriculture In Comparison To Regenerative Agriculture

So in this new world of sustainable agriculture, should we eat meat? Lets take a look at that issue…

3. It Is Not Possible To Produce Food Sustainably Without Large Numbers Of Livestock

Full Article: Why Livestock Are Necessary For Food Production To Be Sustainable

A summary of the full article:

  1. A healthy soil food web is necessary for sustainable food production.
  2. Livestock are necessary to maintain the health of the soil food web.
To replace fertilizers we must feed the soil food web. This sustainable corn field is about to be grazed by livestock.
To replace fertilizers we must feed the soil food web. This sustainable corn field is about to be grazed by livestock.

 

1) A Healthy Soil Food Web Is Necessary For Sustainable Food Production

Supporting Article: The Foundation Of Everything: The Soil Food Web

In brief, the health of the soil food web determines:

  • the total amount of land needed for food production
  • the nutritional content of food
  • the amount of water needed for irrigation and the effect of droughts
  • the amount of pesticides needed for agriculture
  • the price of food

If the soil food web falls below a certain threshold of health it is actually impossible to sustainably produce enough food for humans on the Earth. Livestock are necessary for keeping the soil food web above this minimum threshold over the long term.

2) Livestock Are Necessary To Maintain The Health Of The Soil Food Web

Livestock maintain the soil food web through trampling and through grazing.

  1. Trampling covers the surface of the soil, protecting soil microorganisms, preventing evaporation, moderating temperature, providing food for the soil food web, and preventing erosion.
  2. Grazing causes plants to send out a lot of energy into the soil food web while they are regrowing. Every time this happens the soil food web becomes stronger and more soil is created.

Wild animals, or technology, cannot replace the trampling and grazing action of livestock.

Livestock are also necessary for sustainable food production because plants require the increased nutrient availability provided by animal manure. Wild animals can no longer fill this role, and technology cannot replicate it on the scale required for global food production.

Livestock are also necessary for moving nutrients from lowlands to highlands. A cow eats a plant from a valley, walks up hill (or is moved uphill by a human), and then deposits those nutrients on the hill when it defecates. If this ecosystem function is not provided all nutrients eventually move to the ocean. Wild animals can no longer provide this technology, livestock provide this service reliably and controllably.

The trampling action of properly managed livestock.
The trampling action of properly managed livestock.

 

The more livestock present, the more we will receive the benefits mentioned above (lower food costs, less land, less water, better nutrition, etc). So there are good reasons to maximize the number of livestock on our landscapes.

But, as vegetarians, you are probably wondering “what is the bare minimum number of livestock needed for sustainable food production?” The truthful answer is we don’t know for sure because no one has done the required research. However, if we look at the evolutionary principles that influence our ecosystems we can infer that we will need quite a lot of livestock. I have estimated a minimum of around 22 million cattle are needed on a permanent basis to maintain the basic productivity of the current cropland in the US and Canada in the absence of fertilizers. This is excluding the millions of cattle needed to restore the brittle landscapes in North America and the millions which are currently on grasslands and need to stay there.

Properly Managed Livestock: Livestock must be managed properly or they will degrade ecosystems instead of being essential for their basic health. Read What Are Properly Managed Livestock to find out what this means. 

Climate Change: Some of you may be concerned about livestock causing climate change. Please read this article entitled Properly Managed Livestock Are The Key To Stopping Climate Change.

4. It Is not possible to produce any food in Brittle Environments without predominantly livestock-based farms.

The effect of properly managed livestock on a Brittle Environment in South Africa.
The effect of properly managed livestock on a Brittle Environment in South Africa.

 

Brittle Environments are simply areas of the world where humidity is not distributed evenly throughout the year. Please refer to The Climate Brittleness Scale info-graphic for a better understanding of what exactly a Brittle Environment is and why it matters.

Full Article: Why Properly Managed Livestock Are Necessary In Brittle Environments

Have you watched Allan Savory’s TED talk yet? It is probably the best way to get a quick understanding of why livestock are necessary in Brittle Environments (for more in-depth information please read his book).

It is especially important for livestock to be properly managed in Brittle Environments. Read What Are Properly Managed Livestock to find out what this means. 

Just in case you are concerned about Climate Change and missed the previous link to this article, here it is again: Properly Managed Livestock Are The Key To Stopping Climate Change.

5. Therefore Sustainability Requires Large Numbers Of Livestock On All Farmland And All Brittle Land

 

images (5)
Brittle regions of the world circled in red.
world-map-of-cropland-and-pastureland-sage0
A map of global agricultural land.

 

Food production in Brittle Environments requires large numbers of livestock to be sustainable. Plant food production must necessarily be a small proportion of food production in these areas compared to livestock production. On all other productive land we also need large numbers of livestock, but probably not as many as in Brittle Environments.

 

6. These Livestock Will Die

Large numbers of livestock all over the world will die no matter what, if we develop a sustainable civilization.

7. We Should Probably Kill These Livestock

What is the most ethical and logical way for these livestock to die?

I am going to try to give you all of the information that has ethical consequences, and I will propose what I think the logical choice is. But really, this is an open question, and I encourage you to think it through carefully. It will be a real issue in the near future.

Animals which have died from starvation.
Animals which have died from starvation.

 

There are a few different ways that the average animal could die in a world filled with sustainable agriculture.

      1. Death without “intervention” (old age, disease, injury, poisoning, heart attack, etc.)

      2. Death via “natural predators” (coyotes, wolves, lions, bears, snakes, domestic dogs, etc)

      3. Death via “human intervention” (usually accomplished with an air-powered piston to the brain, or slitting the throat, or with a gun, etc.)

Let us examine all of these options to see what the most ethical choice might be:

Type Of Death

Pros

Cons

No Intervention (Cancer, Disease, Broken Limb, Starvation, Old Age, Poisoning)

Not as traumatic for the animal as being eaten by a predator. Allowed the longest possible lifespan. There is a possibility of the animal dying quickly and painlessly, but this is rare in nature.

Dying by disease, injury, or other internal physical ailment usually entails a great amount of suffering over a long period of time. Watch an animal die from an injury or disease without medical intervention, and you will have a vivid understanding of how horrible this type of death can be. (reference)

Natural Predation (Wolves, Lions, etc)

Suffering generally only lasts a few minutes to an hour. (Not as long duration as dying via disease, injury, etc.)

Being killed by wild predators is probably the most painful and terrifying death imaginable. (Reference)

Human Predation (air gun, rifle shot to the brain, slitting the throat, electricity, etc)

Suffering only lasts an instant or a few seconds at most.

Generally the animal does not know that it is about to die, it is usually not allowed to see other animals being killed.

Most abattoirs (slaughterhouses) in developed countries are capable of giving humane deaths to thousands of animals per day. (reference) But small scale abattoirs are probably a better option if you want to guarantee the most humane death possible.(link)

The humane-ness of the death depends on the decency and skill of the executioner. It could accidentally go badly on occasion. Animal may be afraid of the environment or the humans involved before death if it is not done carefully.

Death via wild predators.
Death via wild predators.
Cow about to be killed with modern stun-gun. An instant death.
Cow about to be killed with modern stun-gun. An instant death.
Small scale abattoir killing a pig. Also an instant death.
Small scale abattoir killing a pig. Also an instant death.

 

Clearly killing these livestock ourselves, with modern and humane methods, is by far the best way for them to die in terms of the amount of suffering involved. 

8. We Should Probably Eat Meat From These Livestock

The effect of coyotes on a dead cow. 12 hours after death.
The effect of coyotes on a dead cow. 12 hours after death.

 

There are only a few things that can happen to the body of an animal after it dies:

  1. Passive decomposition. (Decomposed by insects, birds, soil organisms, etc)
  2. Eaten by scavengers or predators. (Coyotes, dogs, wolves, etc)
  3. Buried by humans.
  4. Cremated by humans.
  5. Eaten by humans.

Lets examine the benefits and drawbacks of each option:

Option

Positive Result

Drawbacks

Passive Decomposition (soil organisms, insects, birds, etc)

  • Fertilizes a small piece of ground for several years.
  • Creates a potentially deadly bio-hazard for humans (multiplied by the millions of livestock which would be dying every year).
  • Can contaminate water sources.
  • Bad smell.
  • There is no economic incentive for the farmer to care for the animals well
  • Takes a long time to decompose
  • Bio-hazard and smell are much worse if all the bodies are transported to a central location
  • Could only be achieved by removing wild predator and scavenger populations from the area
  • Loss of potential meat-income reduces farmer profits which drives up food prices
  • Calories not used to provide for human needs mean that more total land is needed for agriculture (less total land can be devoted to wild ecosystems)

Eaten By Scavengers Or Predators (coyotes, dogs, wolves, ravens, etc)

  • A little fertilization of the soil.
  • Carcass gone quickly (less smell and bio-hazard).
  • Fuels the activities of the predator/scavengers for a few days
  • Still some bad smell and bio-hazard
  • There is no economic incentive for the farmer to care for the animals well
  • Loss of potential meat-income reduces farmer profits which drives up food prices
  • Calories not used to provide for human needs mean that more total land is needed for agriculture (less total land can be devoted to wild ecosystems)
  • On a large scale this would cause a huge increase in number of predators and scavengers, which would be dangerous and costly to modern human society.

Buried By Humans

  • A little fertilization of the ground.
  • No smell
  • Can pollute groundwater
  • Decomposes slowly, and anaerobically, releasing harmful gasses and chemicals
  • Requires costly machinery, fuel, infrastructure and labour
  • No economic incentive for farmers to give their animals good lives
  • Loss of potential meat income which increases all food prices
  • Loss of calorie production, means more land needed for agriculture and less available for wild ecosystems

Incinerated By Humans

  • No bio-hazard
  • Takes up less physical space than burial
  • Pollutes atmosphere
  • Removes nutrients from the ecosystem
  • Requires lots of money, energy, infrastructure and labor to do on a large-enough scale
  • No economic incentive for farmers to give their animals good lives
  • Loss of potential meat income which increases all food prices
  • Loss of calorie production, means more land needed for agriculture and less available for wild ecosystems

Eaten By Humans *

  • One cow provides all calories for one human for one year, at least.
  • Can potentially provide other products like clothing, fertilizer or tools.
  • Provides a better income for food producers, reducing food prices
  • Additional calories generated from land mean that less total land is needed for human food production, more land is available for wild ecosystems.
  • Provides a strong economic incentive for the farmer to raise healthy and happy animals (healthy and happy animals in this case will make the farmer more money than unhappy and unhealthy animals).
  • The carcass would have to be fresh and clean, probably requiring the animal to be killed prior to its natural death.
  • Older animals have tougher and stronger tasting meat, providing motivation to kill animals young
  • If some livestock are not reserved for wild predators and scavengers then their populations will fall, which will probably degrade the ecosystems they live in
A pig, after being butchered.
A pig, after being butchered.

 

*Note: If the dead livestock are going to be eaten by humans the animal would need to be butchered and processes quickly after death, in a hygienic way. This would be most easily accomplished by killing the animal at some time before it died naturally (that could mean years or hours, I don’t know), instead of trying to find it after it died.  In the worst case scenario only the muscle meat will be eaten which will provide protein and calories for a single human for about 1 year (cow), about 6 months (pig, goat), about 1 month (deer, sheep), about 10 days (turkey), or 3 days (chicken) assuming they are only eating meat and are consuming 2000 calories per day. (reference)

Decide For Yourself

I have tried to provide a complete description of all the options available for the animals which we will need to raise for sustainable food production. I cannot tell you what the “correct” choice is because that will depend on your personal value system.

My Choice

If we are trying to maximize animal welfare,  our best choice is to:

  • allow the animals to live long lives
  • kill them humanely (before they die from disease, injury, etc)
  • eat their meat and use the whole animal (leather, bones, fat, etc)
  • allow wild animals to eat a certain percentage of the livestock, to maintain their populations and the ecosystems they support

My choice is only different from current sustainable agriculture practices in two ways:

  1. Currently, most livestock are killed at a young age, because they taste better than older animals. So in order to let them live longer lives we would need to learn to like the taste and texture of meat from older animals.
  2. Currently, most of the animal’s carcass is discarded (or not used to its full potential) during butchering. We should learn to eat, or use, the whole animal.
Ethical and sustainable meat (from properly managed livestock) is already widely available in many locations. (I do not receive any money from this picture)
Ethical and sustainable meat (from properly managed livestock) is already widely available in many locations.

 

9. ETHICS OF LOST POTENTIAL

From a Utilitarian perspective:

It is better for a happy animal to exist, than for no animal to exist.

 Do we have an ethical duty to allow an animal to exist on a given piece of land if it will be happy and if its existence will not harm the environment or other animals? 

Bunched Bison

The ecosystems of the Earth can support staggering numbers of animals, both large and small. Most of the Earth’s ecosystems are currently underpopulated with animals compared with what they could sustain. (reference) We have advanced enough in our understanding of biology and ecology that if any ecosystem on Earth is not supporting its full potential population of animals it is because we have chosen (either through action or through inaction) this fate for the ecosystem.

The three landscapes on Earth in which this is an especially big issue are cropland, urban areas, and brittle landscapes. Because of our management, these landscapes currently support only a fraction of the biodiversity and animal life they could support.

Doesn’t this have any ethical implications?

Don’t forget that increasing the number of livestock on most of the Earth’s surface will have many benefits for the environment and for people. (see Section 3 and 4 above)

The best way to maximize the number of intelligent animals living happy lives is to support farms with properly managed livestock. The best way to support them is to buy, and eat, their meat. By eating only plants you are reducing the numbers of intelligent animals living happy lives.

I encourage you to examine this issue carefully and figure out what value you place on the potential lives of happy animals.

Note: We should definitely be more concerned about the real suffering of the animals which are really alive in factory farms and inhumane conditions right now. Lets stop that crap! But sometimes our choice will not be between supporting factory farms and not supporting factory farms. Sometimes we will have the choice to support, or not support, the existence of happy livestock. So we should spend at least a little time thinking about this issue.

10. Climate Change

Due to the number of people asking about livestock and their relationship to Climate Change I have added this section to address that issue specifically.

Please read the full article here: “Why Properly Managed Livestock Are The Key To Stopping Climate Change”

Yes… I have seen the movie “Cowspiracy”. It does a great job at highlighting the destructive power of conventionally raised livestock and the lack of awareness about that issue. However nothing in that movie counters any of the points I make in this article.

Most of the crazy statistics you see about livestock causing tremendous environmental destruction are true… but these statistics are not talking about properly managed livestock! There is a huge difference!

In brief, properly managed livestock are methane neutral (possibly they even sequester methane in soils, research in this area is still hard to find) and are the most powerful and practical method for carbon sequestration known as of the writing of this article. (full references provided in the article link above)

Conclusion

Sustainable farmers must raise livestock, or employ the services of someone else’s livestock, in order to maintain their basic productivity. There must be relatively large numbers of these animals, especially in Brittle Environments. These animals will die eventually. The most humane death for any animal is to be killed by modern human slaughter techniques near the end of their natural life. Most of these dead animals should be eaten by humans to reduce the total land base required for agriculture, to ensure the animals are given happy lives, to reduce the problems associated with not eating them, and because humans can probably use the calories to do more good in the world than a pack of scavengers or soil organisms can. In my opinion the most ethical diet possible includes meat from sustainable farms. What do you think, now that you have read this article? Has your opinion changed from what it was when you started? Please comment and let me know.

Resources

If you want to learn more about sustainable/regenerative agriculture (including the role of livestock, and the soil food web) please visit this resource page with the links I have personally found most useful.

These books are great places to start:

  1. Restoration Agriculture
  2. How To Not Go Broke Ranching
  3. Gardener’s Of Eden
  4. The Soil Will Save Us
  5. Holistic Management

I have written more posts which are relevant to the issues covered here, but which were not previously listed:

  1. The 9 Most Important Techniques In Regenerative Agriculture
  2. A Response To Chris Clarke’s Misinformed KCET Article
  3. Evidence Supporting Holistic Management
  4. Why The Slate Article About Allan Savory Is Dead Wrong




Evidence For Regenerative Agriculture

The best way to know for sure if Regenerative Agriculture really works is to simply go and see it for yourself. There are literally thousands of regenerative farms out there, go visit the one closest to you. Ask the farmer questions. Ask them how much money they make. Compare what you see (wildlife, soil, vegetation, water, etc) on a regenerative farm with what you see on a conventional farm. Visit this page to find a Regenerative Farm near you.

If you for some reason cannot visit a regenerative farm in person then I would recommend watching videos taken of regenerative farms. Videos are much harder to alter than pictures, so they are actually a pretty reliable record. Visit this page for some excellent videos of Regenerative Farms.

For those of you who will not be convinced by those two forms of evidence, I have compiled a list of the best evidence supporting Regenerative Agriculture. Read it below:

Holistic Management

Holistic Management, and Holistic Planned Grazing, are a very important part of Regenerative Agriculture. I have created a separate page just to document the evidence supporting Holistic Management specifically, I highly recommend you check it out.

“Evidence Supporting Holistic Management”

Peer Reviewed Articles

Compendiums of Evidence For Regenerative Agriculture 

*These links provide hundreds of peer reviewed articles.

Individual Articles

  • A no-till veggie farm in California making $100,000/acre.

A no-till, regenerative farm in California making $100,000/acre.

Regenerative Agriculture Is More Profitable:

Regenerative Agriculture Is More Productive:

 

Regenerative Agriculture Really Does Regenerate Land:

 

These resources were compiled with help from Bill Busse, Jacob James Marty, Dan Grubbs, and Steve Diver from the Regenerative Agriculture Facebook Group.

If you want to learn more about the practical side of Regenerative Agriculture please visit my resource page.