An Environmentalist’s Case for Beef

Forget “fake meat.” Why eating grass-finished cows is best for the planet.

By Kevin Van Tighem

“…If you knew how meat was made, you’d probably lose your lunch. I know; I’m from cattle country, and that’s why I became a vegetarian. Meat stinks, and not just for animals but for human health and the environment.”

That was Alberta singer-songwriter k.d. lang, in a 1990 television spot for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She grew up in Consort, a small farming town in the Special Areas of Alberta. Until lang bit the hand that fed her, her unique brand of cowboy punk had enjoyed a loyal following in Alberta ranch country. That ended abruptly.

Lang moved away from Alberta and on to greater accomplishments. Although she later expressed some regret for that anti-beef campaign, her sentiment lives on and not just among the vegetarian fringe. In fact, vegetarians are no longer the fringe. Anti-meat has gone mainstream.

Even Wall Street International magazine now offers reasons for people to shift to vegetable-based substitutes. “The best thing that most people can do for their own health and humanity is don’t eat meat,” author Robert Smith asserts in a recent article. He argues meat not only clogs our arteries but spreads antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “More importantly,” he adds, “mass-produced meat damages the environment and contributes more to global climate change than any other factor.”

Cows burp and fart methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Feedlots and other concentrated production systems produce more cows than natural land could support. Too many cows; too much methane. Industrial meat production also puts out lots of CO2 because it involves trucking heavy animals to feedlots, heating giant barns and applying fertilizers, water and other inputs to the fields that grow animal feed.

But human health and the climate crisis are not the only reasons why so many people—as many as one-quarter of British women under the age of 25—are quitting meat. Most supermarket meat comes from factory farms and feedlots where overfed, overmedicated animals die ugly deaths. Bargain prices almost always are a product of animal suffering.

Manufactured foods are the product of ecological violence—zombie soils kept productive by massive amounts of petroleum and chemicals.

Still, each Canadian consumes, on average, roughly 70 kg of meat every year. It can be hard to abandon the texture and taste of meat. That’s why a growing market for highly realistic vegetable-based counterfeits now makes it possible to give up meat while pretending you didn’t.

If you believe conventional rhetoric, our health, environment and very souls all demand that we give up meat. But like many popular truisms, it’s not true. In fact, grass-finished beef from range-raised cattle is a far better choice—ethically, environmentally and health-wise—than either feedlot beef or the vegetarian alternatives.

 Southern Alberta was bison country before European immigrants showed up and started turning wilderness into farms. Today, grid roads criss-cross plains checkered with fields of grain, canola, peas, corn and other row crops. Domestic cattle crowd sprawling feedlots whose fetid odour sours the prairie wind. And change continues; the family farms that used to line those grid roads have been increasingly replaced by sprawling corporate farms pouring potatoes, pulses, oilseeds and grain into massive factories to be processed into commercial food products.

In the past century and a half, especially in regions served by irrigation infrastructure, the land has gone from ecologically diverse prairie, to small mixed farms, to agro-industry monocultures. At each step we’ve lost natural diversity and human community. Most native prairie wildlife is now classified as at risk.

On a still summer afternoon it can seem like even the ghosts have abandoned irrigation country. Genetically modified crops grow on deadened soils kept productive only by constant addition of chemical fertilizers, frequent applications of pesticides that kill weeds and bugs, and water pumped from dying rivers. Alberta’s whole system of food production increasingly runs on oil, electricity, chemicals and ecocide.

Fake-meat boosterism comes from companies that profit by forcing land to mass-produce commodities—nature be damned.

It’s not a pretty picture. But if you believe that only plant-based diets can save us, it’s a picture of the future. Big business, environmentalists and animal rights advocates rarely find common ground, but they seem united by the idea that we should eat lower down the food chain.

It’s worth noting, however, that the most fervent fake-meat boosterism comes from multinational agribusiness companies that profit by forcing land to mass-produce those commodities—nature be damned. Their con job could end up costing us not only what remains of Alberta’s native prairies but also one of our best bets for storing carbon safely away in the soil.

Peas are the magic ingredient in phony meat. Agri-food corporations combine peas with other vegetable products to create convincing facsimiles of not only meat but also fish, eggs and dairy. Fake foods are no fad; investors are excited. According to a 2019 Bloomberg business report, shares of Beyond Meat—which markets plant-based meat substitutes to fast-food chains and supermarkets—tripled in value on the company’s first day of public trading. Global pea production is projected to increase fourfold by 2025, with Canada making up 30 per cent of that growth. Almost half of that will be in Alberta. Cargill—a global agro-industry conglomerate—is among companies ramping up pea production in expectation that consumers will abandon real meat once they taste the facsimiles. Ironically, Cargill is also one of Alberta’s biggest meat processors; they win either way.

Peas and other plants used for fake meat are grown as monocultures on cultivated soil. That soil, originally built by living prairie, now contains far less organic carbon. Trucks bring synthetic fertilizers from distant factories and then farmers use machinery to apply them to the depleted soils. In the drier parts of the province farmers also pump massive amounts of water out of prairie rivers to irrigate the fields. The native fish and floodplain forests of the lower Bow and Oldman rivers are now as endangered as the wildlife that used to live where those crops now grow. Irrigation runoff restores some water to the rivers, but it arrives full of fertilizer, herbicide and insecticide residues.

Vegetable-based non-meat appeals to consumers who care about their environmental impact. Ironic, then, that those manufactured foods are in fact the product of ecological violence—zombie soils kept productive by massive amounts of petroleum, chemicals and water.

There is an alternative: real beef. Like bison, domestic cattle produce meat by grazing plants we can’t digest and converting them to protein. No ecological violence required. In fact, most native prairie grasses actually need animals such as bison or cattle to graze them. By cropping growing grasses, responsibly managed cattle herds constantly stimulate plants to grow new material both above and below ground. This sustains both native biodiversity and living soils. Living soils store carbon and water. In a world facing catastrophic climate disruption, that’s important.

Rachel Herbert was a vegetarian for 18 years—which is surprising given that her great-grandfather founded Alberta’s historic OH Ranch back in 1883. Rachel’s mom inherited some of the family land in the Porcupine Hills around the same time as Rachel fell in love with a cowboy and they decided to make a life together in agriculture. The growing season in the Porcupines is too short for row crops, so livestock was the only option. But the Herberts quickly decided they couldn’t be part of a system that forces weaned calves into feedlots.

“I was a vegetarian not for health reasons but because I love animals,” Rachel Herbert says, “so I thought: If you love animals, you can’t eat them. But… we need to nourish ourselves and look after the land, and what way can we do that that fits with this environment? Raising beef on pasture is actually an amazing way to feed our family and… a lot of other families.”

Rachel and Tyler Herbert now operate Trail’s End Beef. The ranch’s top priorities are livestock welfare and range health. They finish their cattle on grass, not grain, and slaughter them on their home pastures rather than in a crowded meat factory. They sell the meat directly to consumers, many of whom bring their kids when they drive out to Nanton to pick up beef orders. Helping urban consumers connect with family-based agriculture has proven to be one of the most rewarding aspects of their business model. Rachel Herbert sees each customer as a partner.

“We try to express to them that just as the land is important and the water is important, their role as a consumer is another part of that full circle that keeps the ranch going around from year to year. They’re integral… they’re part of the ecosystem.”

As a former vegetarian, Rachel respects those who choose that lifestyle for ethical reasons. “Personally, I’m still vegetarian unless I’m eating meat that I know the source of,” she says. “It makes you so much more conscious of the meat you do eat if you’re considering the family and the land that raised it for you.

“Consumers are right to have valid concerns about our industrial agriculture and food system,” she adds, “but I don’t think Beyond Meat is the answer; it’s really just another piece of the same problem.”

Alberta farmers annually  harvest crops from an estimated 25 million acres (10 million hectares) of cultivated land. The soil that produces those crops was originally rich in organic carbon stored in the roots of native plants. Native prairie can contain as many as 100 different plant species, all rooted at different depths. Some roots reach almost four metres deep. As those roots die back each winter and are replaced in spring, they fill the soil with organic carbon. Cultivation kills the native vegetation, leaving that organic material to decompose. The carbon escapes back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Soil researcher Eric Bremer did a peer-reviewed study in 2008 to see if livestock production—by stimulating plant growth—could help return that carbon to the soil. He estimated that, depending on the ecological region, decades of cultivation released between 33 and 40 tonnes of carbon per hectare into the atmosphere. In theory, based on his numbers, restoring most of Alberta’s farmland to prairie could sequester well more than 330 million tonnes of carbon.

That won’t happen. Farming is economically important. Crop agriculture is here to stay.

Even so, many thousands of hectares of shallow soils or dry land ought never to have been broken, and now produce only marginal returns for farmers. Turning them back to cattle production could be part of a wise climate strategy. It would also restore wildlife habitat.

“I live in the Special Areas,” says Colleen Biggs. The Special Areas lie north of the Red Deer River where early settlers tried to crop the land but failed during the Dirty Thirties. Land repossessed for unpaid taxes reverted to wild prairie. As a result, many of Alberta’s endangered prairie wildlife species still thrive there. “We’ve only got half an inch of topsoil on most of the ranch,” says Biggs. “It’s not arable land. That’s why beef is important. There are so many marginal soils, especially on the Great Plains, that should never have been farmed.

“Think about the petrochemical inputs and water that are required to farm in soil that isn’t arable—basically, it’s an artificial environment, it’s devoid of life… If you can convert that land back to livestock production, those costs are gone and the soil can start storing carbon again and we could get back some of the biodiversity we’ve lost.”

Colleen and Dylan Biggs own the TK Ranch (“Ethical By Nature”) near k.d. lang’s childhood home. Their rural community is united in defence of agriculture, but not everyone agrees on everything. One point of contention is water. The lack of reliable water is one reason that the Special Areas were so designated in the first place. In fact, four years into the latest drought, TK Ranch is struggling financially because of the scarcity of local hay for winter feed.

Municipal governments and community boosters want to pipe water from the Red Deer River to area communities and farms. Besides providing better domestic water, the proposed Special Areas Water Supply Project would irrigate an additional 3,240 acres (1,311 ha). But cultivating that land would release more carbon to the atmosphere and destroy critical wildlife habitat. Use of chemicals and fossil fuels would increase too—in fact, most of the project’s ongoing costs would be for energy to power water pumps.

Diverting river water might make life better for the area’s scattered farm and ranch families, but it would further impair two of the world’s most threatened habitats: native prairie and riparian (river-bottom) ecosystems.

That’s why Colleen Biggs opposes the proposed water project. She was an ecologist with the Alberta Wilderness Association when she met Dylan, a young rancher who had embraced holistic range management. Today the health of the native prairie and nearby watercourses matters as much to them as the well-being of their animals. They encountered the dark side of industrial farming when they established a sales outlet in irrigation country closer to Calgary.

“I love the ranch and I’m so committed to protecting that ecosystem,” she says. “I built our little farm store [east of Calgary] five years ago and it was just devoid of life… I remember sitting on the front deck here and thinking ‘This is just so quiet. It’s really terrible.’ And people around here, they don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like. The cacophony of sound [birds, frogs, insects] back at the ranch—literally, I have to get up and close my window at night.”

The same intensive agriculture that silenced so much of the natural music near TK Ranch’s farm store could soon bring that same stillness closer to their home ranch if irrigation proponents get their way.

And it’s not just the Special Areas where native grassland and prairie rivers are threatened by proposals for irrigation expansion. Farther south, farmers want a new irrigation dam on the Milk River. Existing irrigation districts east of Calgary and Lethbridge, having found ways to use less water, don’t want to return the extra to overexploited prairie rivers; they’re looking for new land to irrigate too.

Now peas are in demand for fake meat. That makes the prospect of more irrigated cropland even more appealing to some. Little wonder many Alberta ranchers and prairie conservation advocates are worried.

Profit of margins for beef production are thinner than for most row crops. Grass-finished beef is even more challenging. Where a traditional rancher can ship 18-month-old animals to a feedlot to be fattened on grain and then slaughtered, it can take as long as 26–29 months to finish cattle on grass. The cost of feeding and caring for them through two winters means ranchers like the Herberts and the Biggses have to charge higher prices for meat. Unfortunately, some consumers don’t care if their meat is from miserable, over-medicated feedlot calves whose feed comes from biological deserts—just so long as it’s cheap.

Still, many consumers want to eat responsibly. The same considerations that can make principled shoppers vulnerable to the greenwash claims of purveyors of fake meat can also lead them to buy ethically raised meat from the Trail’s End Beefs and TK Ranches of the world. Market forces may seem poised to replace what remains of our native prairies with chemical-saturated pea fields bleeding carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but there’s also a social cross-current flowing back to beef and wild prairie.

Rachel Herbert suggests marginal farmland should be restored as cattle range. “Perennial grasslands are one of our best carbon sinks,” she points out, “and in terms of wildlife habitat, regeneration and soil health, there are just so many advantages. We hear about people who want to save the Amazon, when we have this disappearing grassland ecosystem in our own backyard. We’re never going to get those native grasslands back—but any type of perennial grassland system would be better.”

Respected Alberta botanist and environmentalist Cheryl Bradley agrees, but she says wild prairie, once gone, is almost impossible to restore. Bradley credits ranchers for helping the province hang on to what little remains of our native prairie biodiversity. “Some ecosystems simply aren’t very appropriate to grow vegetarian food, because the inputs are so high for whatever outputs you get. The foothills, for example, aren’t suitable for cultivation, so they’re not going to feed vegetarians. Raising livestock… is the highest and best use of this land.”

Irrigation expansion schemes that replace responsibly raised beef with crops used for plant-based ersatz meat leave Bradley cold. “It’s completely inappropriate to say all meat production is bad. Because it is happening on landscapes that can sustain it if managed well, and we’ve got all the biodiversity besides, and the carbon storage… a whole lot of values come from this land.”

With regard to restoring cultivated fields to prairie, though, Bradley says the moister grassland types may be lost for good. “I think it’s feasible in some areas, but it depends a lot on the ecology of the area. So the dry, mixed grassland can be restored, it seems, and I think that’s mainly because fewer invasive, non-native species thrive in those arid, low-carbon soils. But when you get to the mixed grass prairies farther west and the fescue prairie, our experience is that we don’t have much success in restoring them.”

Few consumers want to be complicit in the destruction of endangered native prairie and river ecosystems. Most would likely prefer agriculture that stores carbon in living soil rather than pours it into the atmosphere. But animal welfare is also critical to many debating the merits of meat. And while many Alberta ranchers do an exemplary job of protecting prairie biodiversity and soils, most still send their calves to feedlots to end their lives bloated with grain, knee-deep in manure. Those feedlots rely on cultivated crops no less than fake-meat burgers do.

And our health matters too, after all. The white fat that marbles feedlot-finished beef is as dangerous for humans as hydrogenated oils.

All of which leads back to ranchers like the Biggses and the Herberts who offer a third choice: grass-raised, grass-finished and ethically cared-for beef. Like other ranchers, their business model protects grasslands and stores carbon safely underground. But by finishing their animals on grass they also keep those animals out of unhealthy, stressful environments. And the yellow fat in grass-finished beef is healthy for humans.

The Audubon Society’s Conservation Ranching Program promotes US ranches that meet the same high standards as Alberta’s grass-finished cattle operations. More than 40 retail stores and 11 online sales outlets now sell meat carrying the Audubon label, reassuring buyers that their meat helps sustain nature. But it’s only for American ranches. Colleen Biggs hopes to develop a similar program in Canada, for Canadians.

In the meantime, we all need protein in our diets. That means we have choices to make. Choices come with consequences.

We can keep buying meat from animals raised or finished under inhumane conditions and fed grains or other feeds they were never meant to consume. At the very least, we can comfort ourselves that buying Alberta beef at the supermarket helps ranchers sustain the wild prairie habitats where their livestock graze—before being shipped to the feedlot.

Or we can shift to engineered meat substitutes produced at the cost of sickened soils, more carbon emissions and lost biodiversity—marketed to well-intentioned consumers by greenwashed multinationals who could not care less about native grasslands, prairie rivers, endangered wildlife or the growing climate crisis.

Either choice makes us partners in the mass commodification of food and the continuing degradation of Alberta ecosystems and soils for row-crop farming.

Or we can put true conservation on our tables by buying grass-finished beef and free-range pork and chickens from the growing number of Albertan ranch families working to produce ethical meat. That choice costs consumers more. But it costs the land, and the future, far less. And by bringing consumers and ranchers together as partners in a food production model that keeps wild prairies intact, treats animals with respect, and improves the ability of soils to store both carbon and water, its ultimate value might be priceless. 

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest books are Heart Waters: Sources of the Bow River and Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta. Feedback: letters@albertaviews.ca.

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