Anything Cows Can Do, Elk Can Do Better

Most sustainable food models rely on domesticated animals. They don’t need to—and shouldn’t.

Nassim Nobari November 21, 2018

(Photo by Rick Gordon/Flickr)

For oth­er per­spec­tives, read We Can Fight Cli­mate Change and Still Eat Beef” and Cli­mate Friend­ly Beef is a Myth. Don’t Buy It.”

As I’ve delved more into vegan organic farming, I’ve learned that domesticated animals do not contribute anything irreplaceable to farming or to ecosystems.

Eco­log­i­cal plant­based farm­ing is envi­ron­men­tal­ly ben­e­fi­cial and, I believe, eth­i­cal­ly imper­a­tive: The ani­mals exploit­ed for food are wor­thy of empa­thy and moral consideration.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, U.S. cul­ture tends to asso­ciate non­cor­po­rate farm­ing with a pas­toral ide­al that includes domes­tic ani­mals — think Old McDon­ald. Ranch­ing, in par­tic­u­lar, has gained pro­po­nents in the food move­ment, who claim that regen­er­a­tive graz­ing is cru­cial to sav­ing us from cli­mate disaster.

Adher­ents of this view argue that graz­ing sys­tems can mim­ic nat­ur­al ecol­o­gy and regen­er­ate erod­ed soils, allow­ing them to sequester car­bon. Native her­bi­vores (such as bison and elk) used to ful­fill a key eco­log­i­cal role in main­tain­ing healthy grass­lands, the argu­ment goes, and since they have dis­ap­peared, cows are our next best bet.

But to make the leap from her­bi­vores are nec­es­sary” to ranch­ing is nec­es­sary” is absurd. As ecol­o­gist George Wuerth­n­er points out, There are plen­ty of native her­bi­vores, though most ranch­ers either ignore them or are com­plete­ly igno­rant of their existence.”

Native her­bi­vores include not just bison and elk, but small­er ani­mals, such as gophers.

When ranch­ers are aware of them, they tend to pri­or­i­tize their own com­mer­cial inter­ests. In Yel­low­stone, there is a year­ly bison cull to pro­tect cat­tle from dis­ease and com­pe­ti­tion. Point Reyes Nation­al Seashore is the only nation­al park home to the native tule elk, yet local ranch­ers have lob­bied for a cur­rent bill that calls for culling the elk.

All this con­nects to our his­to­ry of set­tler colo­nial­ism. Alfred Cros­by coined the term eco­log­i­cal impe­ri­al­ism” to describe how Euro­pean set­tle­ment trans­formed the ecol­o­gy of the New World, as native flo­ra and fau­na were pushed out by farm ani­mals and oth­er species intro­duced by colonists. In the West, the gov­ern­ment hand­ed forcibly depop­u­lat­ed lands to set­tlers for cat­tle ranch­es, a lega­cy that has shaped our pro-ranch­ing cul­ture. It is time we acknowl­edge that Crosby’s eco­log­i­cal impe­ri­al­ism is ongoing.

As a long-time food activist and sup­port­er of ani­mal lib­er­a­tion, I increas­ing­ly found the food movement’s pro­mo­tion of ani­mal agri­cul­ture objec­tion­able. In 2015, I found­ed the annu­al People’s Har­vest Forum to pro­mote eco­log­i­cal farm­ing with­out com­pro­mis­ing my ethics. The goal is not to pro­mote veg­an­ism as the solu­tion to envi­ron­men­tal or social issues; rather, veg­an­ism sets the eth­i­cal para­me­ters of poten­tial solu­tions. We exclude cows and pigs from farm­ing the same way oth­ers in this coun­try auto­mat­i­cal­ly exclude cats and dogs; we can think of no valid rea­son to treat these ani­mals differently.

My orga­ni­za­tion shares a key demand with oth­ers in the food move­ment: agroe­col­o­gy. In its sim­plest def­i­n­i­tion, agroe­col­o­gy is the appli­ca­tion of eco­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples to agri­cul­ture, includ­ing, for instance, diver­si­fy­ing crops and recy­cling nutri­ents in clos­ed­looped sys­tems. In prac­tice, most agroe­co­log­i­cal farms inte­grate live­stock with crops, and some believe this is nec­es­sary. But agroe­co­log­i­cal tech­niques can be applied to plant­based farm­ing as well.

As I’ve delved more into veg­an organ­ic farm­ing, known as veg­an­ic,” I’ve learned that domes­ti­cat­ed ani­mals do not con­tribute any­thing irre­place­able to farm­ing or to ecosys­tems. Veg­an agroe­col­o­gists build soil fer­til­i­ty through plant-based meth­ods, such as green manures (made from nitro­gen-fix­ing crops), rather than through dung from domes­ti­cat­ed ani­mals; they also increase bio­di­ver­si­ty on their farms, pro­vid­ing habi­tat for help­ful insects and oth­er wildlife. A veg­an­ic farm is not a space with­out ani­mals, it is sim­ply one with­out com­mod­i­fied animals.

Even if it works, regen­er­a­tive graz­ing isn’t nec­es­sary: We can cre­ate veg­an­ic sys­tems that emit less car­bon, cre­ate less con­flict with wildlife and still regen­er­ate soils. A tran­si­tion to veg­an­ic farm­ing can also free up graz­ing and feed-crop land for rewil­d­ing and the pro­tec­tion of forests — which, don’t for­get, are valu­able car­bon sinks.

Far from mutu­al­ly exclu­sive, ani­mal lib­er­a­tion and eco­log­i­cal farm­ing are the build­ing blocks of a cli­mate-friend­ly food sys­tem. We can bring farm ani­mals” into our cir­cle of com­pas­sion as we grow food in har­mo­ny with our ecosystems.

For oth­er per­spec­tives, read We Can Fight Cli­mate Change and Still Eat Beef” and Cli­mate Friend­ly Beef is a Myth. Don’t Buy It.”

Nas­sim Nobari Is the cofounder and direc­tor of Seed the Com­mons, a grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion that hosts the People’s Har­vest Forum and that cre­at­ed the online resource cen­ter Veg­an­ic World.
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