While I generally believe that everyone should have the right to eat according to their personal beliefs and preferences, I don’t think that makes it okay to cloud important issues with propaganda based on such beliefs, which is what Dave Osborn’s opinion piece “Food as medicine for us and the planet” did in last week’s Light. I understand why some people decide to become vegetarian or vegan; some folks don’t believe it’s right to keep animals confined or to kill them for food. I also agree that consumption of animal products high in saturated fats contributes to a host of health problems that plague those of us who consume too much of them. But after reading Mr. Osborn’s piece, which initially just struck me as silly, I felt compelled to offer a different point of view about grazing, which is an important part of meat production.
Mr. Osborn poses this question: “It only makes sense that foods proven to be bad for your body would be bad for the planet—right?” No, actually. I’m sure analogies can be made, but human bodies are not at all similar to “the planet,” and what’s bad for one is not necessarily bad for the other.
I have been exposed to grazing and grassland science for nearly 30 years, and though it seems counterintuitive to many people, I can attest to the fact that a large body of scientific evidence exists that shows livestock grazing to beneficially affect some ecosystems. Grazing is essential to maintaining our threatened coastal California grasslands that are home to many rare plants and animals. This is a complicated topic that cannot be comprehensively addressed here but, needless to say, scientists have studied grazing effects on grasslands and other habitat types for decades, and the resultant numerous scholarly papers are available to those interested in learning more. Loss of grassland due to livestock removal is obvious in many locations in West Marin where former grasslands have been type-converted to coyote brush scrub or forest.
To those of us who understand and appreciate the habitat and other values of grasslands, the trend toward the removal of grazing from grasslands due to apathy on the part of public and non-rancher private landowners is bad enough, but adding sensationalized anti-grazing propaganda to the mix is disturbing. The very generalized “statistics” provided by Mr. Osborn related to energy required to produce animal protein, water used to grow wheat versus meat, and water and air pollution contributed by animal agriculture may have some basis in fact, but appear to have been cherry-picked from non-scientific publications, including a cookbook and books by nutritionists and anti-animal agriculture activists. Each of these issues should be carefully evaluated relative to site-specific conditions to be meaningful.
It is true that a relatively large percentage of the earth is used for grazing. As is the case in West Marin, most grazed land supports that use because it is too steep or shallow, and lacks adequate water supply, to produce higher-value row crops such as fruits, vegetables and grains. If we all stopped eating animal products, a vast majority of these lands could not be used to produce other foods—and would we really want them to be? I question whether it would be a good idea to have even a small part of the earth’s grazing land plowed up for production of plant-based proteins. Here’s a question for Mr. Osborn: do soybean or peanut fields provide habitat for the Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly, the Sonoma spineflower or California red-legged frog?
Some of my best friends are vegan and vegetarian. I respect their right to eat or not eat what they believe is best for them, but do I want them providing advice on important land-use issues based on evangelical personal beliefs instead of science? Absolutely not. To all of you who prefer to eat tofu, seitan and tempeh and not meat—have at it, but please don’t use propaganda based on your personal beliefs to mislead the public about livestock grazing.
Lisa Bush is a retired rangeland management specialist with an M.S. in rangeland management from the University of California, Berkeley. She lives part-time in Italy, where loss of grazing in the Alps and other mountain areas due to the retirement of ranchers threatens grassland ecosystems.