In January 2019, an article in National Geographic stated that in order to save the climate, we must reduce meat, sugar and dairy production by 50%. Predictably, the food and dairy industries protested this statement.
Of course, you say. It’s because the industry’s survival is at stake. Right?
Not so fast, I say. While food production and consumption around the world are inextricably tied to climate change, simple answers are far from clear. Let’s take a look at an actual farmer in west-central Minnesota.
In the 1970s, Mark Erickson began crop farming on rented land. After years of planting, fertilizing, spraying, digging and plain-old hard work, Erickson had experienced his share of crop failure, soil erosion, and worn out machinery. He began to explore other ways of farming. Specifically, he started to consider turning the land over to livestock as a way of recapturing his viability as a farmer and returning his soil to a more nutrient-dense and less vulnerable condition.
In 2009, Erickson took the four families that owned the land he managed on a hay ride. He showed them the dramatic changes he felt needed to happen in order to continue farming the land.
After hearing the full story, and trusting Erickson’s judgment and investment on the land, the landowners were sold on the idea. So Erickson began the process of converting the land to rotationally grazed pasture.
Now, a decade later, he grazes up to 320 animals on 450 acres. The organic matter in his soil has grown from 3% to, in some cases, up to 6%. This soil is less vulnerable to the intense rain events that have become more frequent. Erickson can get out on his land when his neighbors’ land is underwater, or when they can’t go out into their fields without getting stuck.
In short, livestock has made Erickson’s farm productive again.
In my last column, we discussed the barriers we humans tend to erect when change is in the air, even when that change makes sense. They were a lack of awareness, delayed gratification, habit and infrastructure. The same barriers faced Erickson, but he attended workshops, invested in the long term health of the land, changed his habits, convinced the landowners to trust him, planted grass and built fences and water lines. (For the full story, go to the “Land Stewardship Letter” at landstewardshipproject.org).
He is ahead of the curve — just how far ahead will be determined in the next few years.
This is not just a story about farming. It’s a story about food. Grass-fed cattle trample their own waste into the soil, fertilizing land that is not necessarily tillable. These same cattle feed on (carbon-absorbing) grass that humans could not eat, converting it into protein.
Note: this system is more akin to the bison roaming the plains than to the current feedlots where cattle are prepped for market today. Not all meat is created equally, just as not all plants are grown equally. Livestock raised properly on the land give more back in carbon sequestration than they take with their breathing and digesting.
Which brings us to a complicated question. What is worse: the tofu, processed from pesticide and fertilizer-grown soybeans from Brazil, or the cow that came from a field in Brimson?
Rather than arguing amongst ourselves about what types of food we should all eat, let’s move the conversation toward how our food is produced, and what we are willing to pay for food that comes to us in ways that will continue to feed humans for centuries.
We live in a time when food in general is under duress. Big-grain crop yields are shrinking from drought, flood, unpredictable seasons, rising temperatures and depleted soil.
The benefits of small grass-fed livestock farming are becoming apparent, and when it comes to climate, we need to find solutions wherever they are.
Katya Gordon is a volunteer for the Citizens' Climate Lobby and a Two Harbors resident.