October 3, 2022

Vegan style ranching? What could that mean? What could vegans produce by ranching that would be, well… vegan?

People choose to be vegans for a number of reasons. Not only do they believe it is wrong to slaughter and eat animals, they believe it is wrong to use them in any way purely to serve us humans — wrong to raise them to grow hair (wool) so we can shear it off and turn it into sweaters or socks; wrong to breed them to become pregnant to use their milk; wrong to raise them to lay eggs that we scramble and cook.

Vegans also believe not eating meat makes them healthier. According to the Vegan Society, ”Some research has linked vegan diets with lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.”

Last, but certainly not least, vegans believe that by not eating meat they help reduce the damage that raising livestock inflicts on the environment. The Vegan Society claims that producing the huge amount of grain and hay required to fatten livestock in feedlots results in deforestation, habitat loss, and species extinction. and world malnutrition. Malnutrition occurs when impoverished populations grow cash crops to feed animals rather than themselves. 

But how about raising livestock out on the land, in open country, instead of in feedlots? Many (maybe most) environmentalists including vegans maintain that pasturing livestock on the land is even more detrimental than raising them in feedlots. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), for instance, states that, ”The ecological costs of livestock grazing exceed that of any other western land use,” claiming that it wreaks havoc on riparian areas, rivers, deserts, grasslands and forests, diminishes wildlife habitat, endangers species (sending some to extinction), and disrupts natural processes in general.

”The ecological costs of livestock grazing exceed that of any other western land use.”  More than this? Cattle were removed from this area in the 1980s. A 1963 U.S. Forest Service photo shows the area grass-covered and un-eroded after a century of grazing.  Nearly 40 years of ”protection,” however, produced the ecological costs revealed in this 2016 re-photo. 

With all this in mind, what would vegans enlist a rancher to do in order to make his or her ranch a ”Vegan Ranch”?  Stop raising cows and turn their land into a preserve? ( A not uncommon event in today’s West.)

But what if the rancher doesn’t want to stop riding and herding and see their land turned into a preserve. What if he or she feels like what they are doing is positive, natural, beneficial and personally rewarding. Sounds like a dilemma in which there’s got to be a winner and a loser. In my experience (especially in 40-plus years of environmental activism) the solution to many dead-ends of this sort has turned out to be working together — an ”us plus them” sequence of events in which both sides get what they want to a higher degree than if they had engaged in an ”us vs them” and one or the other had won.

Is there a way in which this sort of solution is possible in the contemporary American West — a way vegans can work with ranchers and remain assured that they are healing rather than harming Nature, benefiting both animals and humans, and succeeding to a degree in which they can take pride and feel truly ”vegan” for doing so? If the ”us plus them” magnifier of collaborative action is actual it would mean that, by working with a rancher, vegans could make the land ecologically even healthier, more sustain-able and more natural than if they had got the cows off and turned the place into a preserve. (That would be quite an achievement. Some might even consider it impossible — a contradiction in terms)

For the ranchers, the ”us plus them” magnifier could mean being more rewarded, both economically and personally, than if they had overcome the opposition to grazing and continued raising animals for meat, making whatever money they could in the process.

Reaching back into my 40 plus years as an environmental activist, I’ve been involved in several instances in which much of what I have just described has happened.

Ironically, the majority of those successes involved the achieving of vegan/environmentalist goals by actions taken by ranchers. The latter adopted and applied grazing techniques that sustained riparian areas, grasslands, and watersheds; benefited wildlife species (some endangered); reduced and even reversed erosion and desertification, and increased the amount of native perennial grasses versus exotic annual invasives. What’s more, comparing these collaboratively grazed areas to nearby cattle-free areas where anti-grazers had won an ”us vs them” and caused the land to be ”protected,” has confirmed that environmentalist’s goals actually have been achieved to a greater degree in areas where they worked with ranchers than in areas where they opposed and even defeated them.

If you’ve been visiting rightwaytobegreen.com and clicking your way around, you have no doubt seen quite a few examples of this.

This area on an adjacent ranch, which is geologically and ecologically similar to the area in the previous photo, has continued to be grazed. Its condition appears to show that the ecological benefits of livestock grazing, where applied effectively, can exceed that of its chief competitor — ”protection.” Vegans take note.

Encouragingly, people within the vegetarian and environmentalist community have begun to notice these successes. One notable example is Dr. Mark Hyman, an authority on the topic of natural foods, including veganism. Hyman, a physician, founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center, director of the Cleveland Clinical Center for Functional Medicine, New York Times best-selling author, and columnist for The Huffington Post, recently published his book, ”Food Fix: How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities, and Our Planet–One Bite at a Time.” In his book he devotes a whole chapter to discussing the benefits of grazing designed to achieve both environmentalist and vegan as well as ranching goals. 

After pointing out a UN Food and Agriculture Organization that states,  ”livestock are responsible for 14.5 percent of human GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, more than all transportation emissions.” Hyman counters what he calls the apparent implication of this — That we should ”all become vegan,” with… 

”Not so fast.”

”Well-managed grazing,” he notes, ”actually removes more carbon from the air than it contributes.” This, he states, is in contrast, both, to raising cattle in feedlots, which contributes much of the GHG emissions noted above, and to plant producing agriculture, which also pumps carbon into the air, via tilling, fertilizing, irrigating and harvesting, 

”Turns out,” Hyman concludes, ”a cornfield is much more destructive (by pumping Climate Changing carbon into the air) than a grass-fed beef regenerative farm or ranch.”

A whole chapter of observations of this sort (with more scattered through the rest of the book) makes it apparent why Hyman kicked off this chapter of ”Food Fix” with the question, ”Is Grass-Fed Meat The Most  Vegan Thing You Can Eat?” It also makes it clear why he stated, ”I respect the moral choice of being a vegan, but the idea that it (veganism) is saving animals and the planet and even improving our health is unfortunately not true.” 

After referring to ”twenty-six papers documenting the benefits of the right kind of grazing and regenerative farming for restoring the environment, water retention, increased biodiversity, and soil carbon sequestration, among other benefits,” Hyman quotes a report in ”Greening Livestock” that these benefits are so great that ”payment should be made to farmers (and ranchers) for providing these services.” That, according to Hyman, would allow, encourage and convince more farmers (and ranchers) ”to transition to regenerative agriculture.” 

Or, in other words, to Vegan Ranching!

Similar statements have been made by other writers, including vegetarian rancher, Nicolette Hahn Niman, who has penned a number of articles for Atlantic Monthly citing ways in which grazing cows on the land can achieve environmentalist and even vegan environmental goals. In spite of this, in the collaborative groups in which I’ve participated, it was the ranchers who got the short end of the stick. Although they did receive credit and acknowledgement for restoring health to the land to a degree that surprised the environmentalists and vegetarians, that credit usually did not extend beyond the group participants. In fact, the environmentalists (and I assume vegans) in those groups kept sending their contributions and membership dues to organizations that continued to paint grazing in a negative light and continued to pursue actions to have it removed from or limited on pubic lands. So, although the ranchers may have enjoyed greater profit from the increased beef production that resulted from their restorative management, the involved enviros decreased that benefit by supporting their organizations’ anti-grazing campaigns.

Imagine how that would be reversed if some of the billions spent on de-ranching the land would be spent on green ranching instead. Imagine, too, how much more effective ”us plus them” would be if the greens participating in collaborative groups sent their contributions to the people who were regenerating their goals instead of to those who were degenerating them. 

Encouragingly, this, too, is beginning to happen in some notable cases. An article published by the National Audubon Society, entitled ”How Cattle Ranchers Are Helping to Save Western Grasslands and Birds,” states, ”The cows themselves are one of the best tools for renewing grasslands.” In light of that, Audubon has created a program, ”Conservation Ranching,” which it explains thus: ”By adopting regenerative grazing approaches (methods) that mimic the grazing style of bygone bison herds, cattle grazing can actually build soil, sequester carbon, reduce water runoff, and create ecosystems that are more resilient to drought.” And, since this ”will significantly benefit grassland bird populations,” Audubon has developed a means to support ranchers who ranch in this way.

The photo below shows an impressive result of the application of Audubon’s insight: “adopting regenerative grazing approaches (methods) that mimic the grazing style of bygone bison herds.” Here, cattle grazing in this manner has demonstrated that it can “actually build soil, sequester carbon, reduce water runoff, and create ecosystems that are more resilient to drought.” This photo shows the result of using those insights to restore an area that had eroded to a degree similar to that shown in the 2016 photo above.

And while we’re at it, let’s look at a photo that shows how effective regenerative grazing is at sequestering carbon (and thus fighting climate change).

The photo to the right was taken at a pile of copper mine waste in Arizona that was in the process of being restored to the ecological life of a functioning grassland  by regenerative grazing using cattle. The cows performed the function of restarting and sustaining the grassland via the synergy common to natural herds of animals like bison and elk and the prairies they sustain. The waste once was nothing more than a pile of millions of tons of sterile white talcum powder-like rock dust covering more than a thousand acres. In this photo, however, you can see the seasonally dormant grass on the surface above the subsoil which has been made brown by carbon pumped into the waste by the interaction of grazers and grasses —  eat… regrow, eat… regrow, etc..

As promising as this sounds, there are plenty of vegans (and enviros, too) who have trouble accepting the idea of green ranching. At a collaborative meeting on a preserve in New Mexico one of the participants asked: ”Why would I support ranching even if it is done in a way that doesn’t harm the land? I’m against eating meat!” 

To that, a rancher at the meeting replied, ”Well, once you train your workers, you don’t have to eat em!”

Nor do you have to herd them, at least not forcibly. (Remember, vegans believe it is wrong to force animals to do anything they don’t want to do solely to serve us humans.)

At a gathering of another collaborative group (This one named ”6-6″ (for 6 of ”us” and 6 of ”them”), one of the ranchers said. ”I’m going to have to move a herd of about 650 cows today. Anybody wanna help and see how it works?” 

A friend of mine replied, ”Well, I’ve got to get back home early, so if we’re going to do a cattle drive we’d better get started.

We climbed into the rancher’s truck and bounced down the trail to the gate that separated the grazed area (where the cows were) from the fresh, green area, where the rancher planned to move them. As we got close we noticed the herd was already gathered and standing at the gate. We stopped. The rancher got out and opened the gate. The large herd of cows trotted through, and, leaving the gate open for stragglers, the rancher said, ”Cattle drive over.”

In other words, you may not have to eat them, You may not even have to work very hard to herd them — After a while that becomes collaborative, too. 

You do, however, have to fund them.


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