Biodiversity: where's the beef?

This article first appeared in the Puget Consumer's Coop Sound Consumer.

In a designated wilderness, I met a hiker on the trail. Horseback, I was the natural target of his wrath at seeing a couple of cowpies back down the trail. The sight had ruined his experience of the landscape. From what he had read, and from camping once on an overgrazed streambank, he knew that cows were bad.

The grandfather of the man who owned the cattle had killed the last wolf in the county. He knew that wolves were bad.

The warfare between these two positions has been tragic. If we can see beyond the animals themselves to the way they function in larger cycles and wholes, real and creative possibilities open up.

Cattle in the market

In the United States, cattle are bought and sold largely on the basis of their ability to turn corn and barley into a more marketable food. Young castrated male cattle, not fully grown, with hormone implants and some "backgrounding"--a habituation of their ruminant digestive systems to a high-energy, high-protein ration--command the best prices. The reason is that in the feedlot, these animals will achieve the cheapest gains in the most valuable portions of their carcasses.

For years the marketing of beef has mainly been the promotion of fat, juicy, well-marbled steaks that take a lot of corn to produce. The marketers of corn-fed beef have been notoriously unresponsive to changing consumer tastes because they are primarily marketers of corn, not of beef or of grass. Feed grains in turn tend to be a way of selling nitrogen fertilizer made from natural gas, as well as other petrochemical inputs. The majority of American beef is a vehicle for the sale of oil and gas.

The demand for lean beef and quality leather is often met by imports--with devastating consequences for some tropical forests to the south.

It doesn't need to be this way. Particularly in the western states, many cattle are raised primarily with solar energy captured by the photosynthesis of a diversity of grasses and forbs. Yet most western producers deliver their cattle into a marketing system that was intended to sell feed grains. When ranchers Connie and Doc Hatfield started the Oregon Country Beef cooperative, they sought to provide an alternative and to seek a return on their investment in land as a means of solar production.

Cattle in the ecosystem

What is surprising in view of the controversies about grazing is that until fairly recently, there has been basic agreement among the Sierra Club, the land-grant universities, and even cattle producers. The grass consumed by cattle was assumed to be a cost to be borne by grassland. The existence of grazing fees--as well as prevailing styles of management--reflect and reinforce this assumption. The argument was and still is over the level of forage harvest and the ability of the land to recover from it. But most agreed that grazing was damage, and that fewer animals meant less damage.

Our experience as a westward-seeking nation seemed to bear this out. Before us was an ocean of abundant grassland. Behind our herds was a lot of dust.

Since 1980 a Rhodesian wildlife biologist, Allan Savory, has challenged our assumptions about grazing, particularly for the arid grasslands that cover most of the earth's land surface. During his career-long struggle against desertification, Savory was forced to conclude that periodic disturbance by herds of grazing animals plays an important ecological role in these environments.

There is little debate about the mechanism of this disturbance. Hooves chip or break the surface of the soil, compact the soil, and knock down old and dead plants. Mouths prune plants, often severely. Stomachs, molars, and intestines reduce and recycle the forage into dung.

If this disturbance is properly timed and controlled--if it is used as a tool--Savory has found that it can benefit biodiversity on dry grasslands, where decay, soil formation, and ecological succession are slow. In the American plains and the African savannas, the grassland evolved under periodic disturbance by large herds which were often kept tightly bunched by predators. Many species of perennial grasses cannot thrive without this disturbance.

In the arid grasslands, the four basic ecosystem processes--the water cycle, the mineral cycle, solar energy flow, and ecological succession--can all benefit from this kind of disturbance. Large herbivores help cycle vegetative carbon back to the soil. Hoof impact puts litter on the ground. The compaction assists germination of seeds, and breaking the crust can help rainfall penetrate the soil. Recovery periods are necessary.

Whether the hoof or mouth belongs to a "native" or "domestic" species has little relationship to what is actually happening. Much depends on management--itself a relatively new concept--and often grazing is managed poorly by those who do not recognize it as a tool in arid grasslands, leading to overgrazing, lack of disturbance, and loss of biodiversity.

For seeing grazing animals as a tool, and as part of larger ecosystem cycles, Savory has been regarded as a traitor by all parties to the agreement that grazing is a cost to be borne by grassland. Environmental activists have accused him of being an advocate for more cows. Cattlemen's organizations see him as an advocate for more wolves. The range-management profession has viewed his thinking as dangerously subversive of the structure of knowledge.

Savory has helped many food producers see beyond the type of thinking that regards wholes as little more than the sum of their parts, and problems rather than goals as the basis for decisions. An Argentine rancher observes, "Once I was able to view myself as a part--and only a part--of larger wholes, all the tenets of conventional management began to fall one after another: nature as a passive object; engineering as a godlike endeavor; species divided into 'good' and 'bad'; weather as a problem; technology as the paramount solution; my family and my personal life as something apart from the way I make my living."

On the 12,000-acre Bowe Ranch in New Mexico, holistic decision making has reduced runoff and raised the water table, increased the number of species and abundance of native grasses and wildlife, tripled the production per acre of beef, and doubled the number of families the ranch supports. According to conventional nonholistic thinking, this sort of thing can't happen--if one "output" is increased, the others must decline.

The Bowe Ranch and others like it demonstrate the possibility of food production on an extensive scale that actively supports and invests in a healthy ecosystem, rather than merely being a cost or load, whether heavy or light, on its "carrying capacity." Instead of an economics of scarcity, we have an economics of potential abundance based on human creativity working with and making direct investments in ecosystem processes. This is a radical and far-reaching shift.

Making decisions

A small minority of food producers--some of whom have ties to the permaculture movement, regenerative agriculture, and community-supported agriculture--have been in the forefront of this shift. What distinguishes them is not only a practical and visionary awareness of creative possibilities, but the way they make decisions. They have made a conscious choice to change their behavior, and have followed through with commitment.

Most of us, Savory has observed, make decisions on the basis of multiple goals, problems and opportunities, peer pressure, expert opinion, research results, laws and regulations, short-term gain, or even single criteria such as sustainability. Holistic management begins when a management whole--whether individual, family, or larger group--commits to a single goal that begins with deeply held values, and harnesses the considerable power of human creativity toward the achievement of these values through careful testing of decisions against the goal, proactive planning, and cultivating a vivid awareness of what is actually occurring on the land and in human relationships. It has been described as the management of process rather than events.

Conventional decision making--even when the object is to preserve an endangered species, or to raise food without synthetic chemicals--typically regards the ecosystem processes as secondary considerations. In this type of decision making, losses of the biodiversity that sustains our economy and society are unintended but frequent consequences.

The producer-consumer relation

"Conventional marketing," observes Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, "augments the factionalism that currently exists between producers and consumers. Farmers curse 'those stupid city people' while urbanites think they can legislate--and that they deserve--clean water, food and air, while their buying habits and lifestyles patronize the opposite." The consequences of this kind of consumer-producer transaction surround us.

Let's suppose that we change our decision making, and the basis for this transaction. We no longer have the convenience of sorting things into good and bad according to single criteria, and making choices accordingly--sometimes for years or decades after the underlying situation has changed.

Yet the holistic decision-making process is simple enough. We make our choices according to our core values, and focus on how we would like to see the larger cycles and wholes function, such as markets, communities, and the ecosystem processes. Expert opinion is seldom necessary--and in too many instances, expert opinion is paid to conceal or confuse basic connections and trends.

Most of us will want to support food production that keeps the soil covered year round, preferably with a diversity of living plants. Similarly, we no longer support the production even of nutritionally superior or otherwise favored foods at the expense of topsoil. Nor do we support large monocultures, whether of feed grains or organic broccoli. We prefer seasonal, local, and artisan production of food in diverse polycultures over distant industrial production relying on socially destabilizing labor arrangements.

We develop a taste for the variety and character inherent in this kind of food, and so do our children. We no longer view health as something within the body. We gladly engage in the varied physical labor of food production. Food is not only fuel for our bodies, but a complex, creative, and rewarding series of relationships with other people and with larger cycles and wholes.

On the drier grasslands that make up so much of our land area, raising grazing animals on pasture is a form of food production that can help create and invest in healthy ecosystem, market, and community wholes. The Plains Indians knew this. When the buffalo disappeared, many who could became cattlemen.

Oregon Country Beef rancher Jack Southworth remarks, "To satisfy our social needs in a healthy environment, and produce food, is a fascinating thing for us to do now. If we didn't have that complete, rich picture to strive for, I don't think it would be any fun at all to ranch."

"Now we're managing for things, for these healthy perennial plants, for this quality of life. Before, we were managing against so many things: against low weaning weights, low cattle prices, sagebrush, coyotes. And that's a different mindset. I feel like I have the freedom to bring about these desired results."