"Natural Resources Conservation Service." Grazing Lands | NRCS. USDA, Nov. 1995. Web. 30 June 2017.
“Crop Production and Natural Resource Use.” FAO, FAO, www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4252e/y4252e06.htm.
Elementa’s Agroecological Systems Study
Really, the question all agriculturalists are trying to answer is how to produce the maximum amount of food with the resources the earth provides. Vegans boast that less room is used to grow a potato than to grow a cow, and this is definitely true. So wouldn’t the logic follow that we get more food out of the land when we plant crops instead of maintaining pastureland? This conclusion is too black and white because it doesn’t take into consideration that we can’t grow crops on most land. A study published by Elementa Science of Anthropocene did take this fact into consideration, and found that the diet that actually uses the least amount of land is a lacto-vegetarian diet, or one that incorporates plants and dairy. Here’s what the researchers had to say:
“Carrying capacity was generally higher for scenarios with less meat and highest for the lacto-vegetarian diet. However, the carrying capacity of the vegan diet was lower than two of the healthy omnivore diet scenarios. Sensitivity analysis showed that carrying capacity estimates were highly influenced by starting assumptions about the proportion of cropland available for cultivated cropping.”
Did you hear that? A diet with meat in it feeds more people on the same amount of land than a diet of only crops. And a plant-based diet that incorporates dairy uses the least amount of land.
In other words, we can’t rely only on the small amount of crop-sustaining land to feed the world. We would need to produce more food on a finite amount of ground. This removes the options of crop rotation, which is extremely beneficial, and forces producers into multi-cropping, or using the same piece of land for multiple types of crops, one right after the other, never giving the ground a break in between. In the long run, this strips the soil of its nutrients and structure, diminishing the quality of future harvests.
Beyond just nurturing better food for humans, cover crops also help the living environment surrounding them. Intensive crop production reduces biodiversity of surrounding native plant species, and all of the field activities and chemical applications take a toll on wildlife populations. Cover crops give the land an opportunity to recover from all this. Giving the land this “time off” is one of the most effective ways of helping the surrounding wildlife populations.
What’s the point? In the crop-only model that plant-based activists claim would be more environmentally-friendly, cover crops wouldn’t be an option because, to replace the calories we get from livestock, we’d need to double the use of crop land by using it all year round to constantly produce grains we can eat. Inedible cover crops would be abandoned because they don’t directly grow our food supply. Planting alternative, energy-draining crops back-to-back would stretch the soil’s growing ability thin, jeopardizing harvests of the future.
Livestock Grazing Is The Answer
The obvious solution is to utilize farm animals to produce food outside of these select few areas that are able to sustain crops. Reasons that crops can’t be grown in these regions include a rocky ground, harsh climate, steep topography, or the soil just not having the right properties. What’s cool is that farm animals have the ability to graze the native grasses on these lands-- ground that has no other use by humans, and turn it into usable calories.
By having this alternative source of calories, less pressure is placed on the land that can sustain crops, allowing farmers to give it breaks between harvests.
Barren Land Would Be Dangerous
A point that I always try to drive home while on this issue is what would happen to the non-crop-sustaining land if there were no livestock animals to graze it. A vast majority of the human populations prefer to live in close proximity to coastlines where the climate is temperate, whereas pasturelands are typically located inland. This means that, if livestock were removed from these lands, the chances of them becoming residential are not likely.
Instead, these lands would sit empty and ungrazed. The native grasses, which evolved to be “conditioned” by grazing ruminants, would grow rank. This means their photosynthesis cycles would be disrupted, and they would quit fixing carbon, no longer removing the massive amounts of greenhouse gases that they do now.
Grassland prairies stretch hundreds upon hundreds of miles and can remove tons and tons of CO2 before it reaches the ozone layer. However, with no livestock, the grasses would not do this anymore, and more damage would be done to the atmosphere.
Diamond, Joel M, et al. “Effects of Targeted Cattle Grazing on Fire Behavior of Cheatgrass-Dominated Rangeland in the Northern Great Basin, USA.” International Journal of Wildland Fire, vol. 18, 2009, pp. 944–950.
Menke, John W. “GRAZING AND FIRE MANAGEMENT FOR NATIVE PERENNIAL GRASS RESTORATION IN CALIFORNIA GRASSLANDS .” A Journal of the California Native Plant Society, vol. 20, no. 2, 1992.
Strand, Eva K, et al. “Livestock Grazing Effects on Fuel Loads for Wildland Fire in Sagebrush Dominated Ecosystems.” Journal of Rangeland Applications, vol. 1, 2014.