Free-Range Is Not the Answer
After my last post, The Vegan Solution, there were several comments by readers indicating that ‘grass-fed’ or ‘pasture-raised’ beef was considered a viable solution to the problems of intensive animal farming. For various reasons, it seemed to me that free-range farming couldn’t provide a realistic solution to the many issues associated with the animal-based diet, including the well-documented environmental devastation that is beginning to be brought into the view of the general public.
There is significant evidence that the environmental destruction which occurs as a result of the wide-spread grazing of cattle, is much worse than the free-range PR leads us to believe. Grazing cattle pollutes water, erodes topsoil, kills fish, displaces wildlife, and destroys vegetation, more so than any other land use.1
In recent years, grazing animals have all but disappeared from sight on the landscape. This has occurred as a result of modern ‘agricultural’ practices that include intensive confinement of animals in factory farms that have become the focus of much criticism from advocates of animal welfare. But a return to widespread free-range grazing, especially as the human population continues to increase, would mean a return to the widespread damage that this grazing wrought on the land not so long ago. Following is an excerpt from a speech given in 1985, almost twenty-five years ago. The speaker is Edward Abbey, conservationist and author, addressing cattlemen at the University of Montana.
“Most of the public lands in the West, and especially the Southwest, are what you might call ‘cow burnt.’ Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of cows. . . . They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows and forests. They graze off the native bluestems and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheat grass. Even when the cattle are not physically present, you see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle.”
John Robbins is the author of the international bestseller Diet for a New America, The Food Revolution, and Healthy at 100. He is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on the dietary link with the environment and health. He is also the Founder of EarthSave International.
According to Robbins: “The price that western lands and wildlife are paying for grazing cattle is hard to exaggerate… widespread production of grass-fed beef would only multiply this already devastating toll.”
One of the problems is the sheer scale of the animal industry. The issue that leads me to question the benefits of free-range farming isn’t only the matter of more humane treatment, (which is grossly overstated, as explained below), but the matter of space. In order to farm enough animals to feed the collective appetite for flesh and other products of animal exploitation, we are already destroying our wild lands at a rate that is boggling to the mind. Since we have so many food animals intensely confined, it would be impossible to allocate sufficient land to pasture-raise them all. Without a significant reduction in the overall consumption of animal products, animal farming (free-range or not) is not an ecologically viable method of food production.
Robbins explains: “It takes a long time and a lot of grassland to raise a grass-fed steer. Western rangelands are vast, but not nearly vast enough to sustain America’s 100 million head of cattle. There is no way that grass-fed beef can begin to feed the meat appetites of people in the United States, much less play a role in addressing world hunger.”
Most environmentally-aware people are now familiar with the correlation between intensive animal farming and greenhouse gases. But that problem wouldn’t be solved by pasture-raising cows either:
“Next to carbon dioxide, the most destabilizing gas to the planet’s climate is methane. Methane is actually 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and its concentration in the atmosphere is rising even faster. The primary reason that concentrations of atmospheric methane are now triple what they were when they began rising a century ago is beef production. Cattle raised on pasture actually produce more methane than feedlot animals, on a per-cow basis.”2
According to an article on ScienceNews.org, Nathan Pelletier of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia says:
“We do see significant differences in the greenhouse gas intensities [of grass vs grain]. It’s roughly on the order of 50 percent higher in grass-finished systems.”3
Another serious concern, of which many people aren’t aware, is that commercial free-range grazing involves the eradication of wildlife, including threatened and endangered species.
“The USDA’s Animal Damage Control (ADC) program was established in 1931 for a single purpose—to eradicate, suppress, and control wildlife considered to be detrimental to the western livestock industry… In 1997, following the advice of public relations and image consultants, the federal government gave a new name to the ADC—“Wildlife Services.” And they came up with a new motto—“Living with Wildlife.”4
According to a USDA website, Wildlife Services “provides Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts and create a balance that allows people and wildlife to coexist peacefully.”
According to John Robbins:
“What ‘Wildlife Services’ actually does is kill any creature that might compete with or threaten livestock. Its methods include poisoning, trapping, snaring, denning, shooting, and aerial gunning. In ‘denning’ wildlife, government agents pour kerosene into the den and then set it on fire, burning the young alive in their nests.
“Among the animals Wildlife Services agents intentionally kill are badgers, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, gray fox, red fox, mountain lions, opossum, raccoons, striped skunks, beavers, nutrias, porcupines, prairie dogs, black birds, cattle egrets, and starlings. Animals unintentionally killed by Wildlife Services agents include domestic dogs and cats, and several threatened and endangered species.
“All told, Wildlife Services, the federal agency whose motto is ‘Living with Wildlife,’ intentionally kills more than 1.5 million wild animals annually. This is done, of course, at public expense, to protect the private financial interests of ranchers who wish to use public lands to graze their livestock.”
Dr. Mike Hudak is an environmental advocate who is a leading expert on the harm to wildlife and the environment caused by public-lands ranching. He is the founder and director of Public Lands Without Livestock, and the author of Western Turf Wars: The Politics of Public Lands Ranching (2007). Since July 2008 he has been chair of the Sierra Club’s National Grazing Committee.
In his article, Public Lands Ranching: The Scourge of Wildlife, Hudak elaborates:
“How extensive is the carnage that ranching inflicts on wildlife? One reasonable measure is the number of affected species that are either (1) federally listed as threatened or endangered, (2) candidates for federal listing, or (3) the subject of petitions for federal listing. By that criterion, ranching’s victims number 151 species in all: 26 species of mammals, 25 species of birds, 66 species of fish, 14 species of reptiles and amphibians, 15 species of mollusks, and 5 species of insects.”
As we can see, the growing popularity of ‘grass-fed’, ‘pasture-raised’ or ‘free-range’ beef, far from being the solution to the damage caused by animal farming, represents just another side of the devastation caused by the animal industry.
Those who profit from the promotion of free-range animal products exploit the ethical motivation of conscious consumers, caring people who rightfully abhor the horrific practices that occur on factory farms. The free-range PR creates the false impression that consuming free-range products is an effective way of boycotting animal cruelty and environmental destruction.
The desire to avoid participating in acts of cruelty is the other (perhaps more common) reason that many choose free-range over factory-farmed animal products. But are grass-fed cows really treated more humanely than their factory-farmed counterparts?
As John Robbins concludes:
“The lives of grass-fed livestock are more humane and natural than the lives of animals confined in factory farms and feedlots, but their deaths are often just as terrifying and cruel. If they are taken to a conventional slaughterhouse, they are just as likely as a feedlot animal to be skinned while alive and fully conscious, and just as apt to be butchered and have their feet cut off while they are still breathing — distressing realities that tragically occur every hour in meat-packing plants nationwide. Confronting the brutal realities of modern slaughterhouses can be a harsh reminder that those who contemplate only the pastoral image of cattle patiently foraging do not see the whole picture.”
In light of this information, and the questions that arise as a result, I am very curious to hear from advocates of environmental conservation or animal welfare who believe that ‘free-range’ or ‘pasture-fed’ is indeed an ethical or sustainable alternative to factory farming. Is it really ‘grass-fed’ that is going to make the difference that we need? At a time when the human population is approaching seven billion, is it realistic to expect to continue feeding ourselves on animal flesh, milk and eggs? Or do we need to make preparations for a future where there simply aren’t sufficient resources to support the inefficient methods of animal-based food production?
For those who seek a way to avoid exploitation and cruelty, the choice doesn’t have to be between factory-farmed and free-range. There is another option, a truly ethical alternative that does not require us to sacrifice our moral standards for the satisfaction of our appetites and our taste buds.
As can be seen by the growing number of people, from all walks of life world-wide, who abstain from animal foods, it’s really a lot easier than many people think. The essential first step toward the vegan alternative is a change in perception. Once that is achieved, with the wealth of information and the ever-increasing number of products that are now available, making vegan choices is easier, and more rewarding than it has ever been.
(For more information about how to make vegan choices, feel free to contact the author.)
1 Robbins, John What About Grass-fed Beef?
3 Raloff, Janet The carbon footprints of raising livestock for food