Why I want to be a cowgirl when I grow up

I was raised by vegetarian parents and I was never into horses as a little girl.Little Sarah on a pony I have rocked cowgirl boots for years while hugging trees and advocating for Fair Trade coffee, organic farming and sustainable logging. Now, in my late twenties I have become convinced that eating meat and becoming a cowgirl will help save the world. Maybe it was there from the start; don’t I look like a natural on this pony?

I have been wanting to write on this topic for awhile, especially since watching this TED talk by Allan Savory: “How to fight desertification and reverse climate change.” Savory’s story of working for conservation in Africa is a bit heartbreaking, but his findings offer hope for the entire planet. I recommend watching the video, but in short, Savory’s research demonstrates how the rotational grazing of herd animals can help restore the soil’s fertility and rebuild biodiversity in the vast deserts that we have created. This is a profoundly important and optimistic perspective on climate change; the technology is simple and available and the results are miraculous. I used to think I was looking for cowboy, now I’m just looking for a horse.

I decided to blog about this today after listening in on a live conversation as part of International Permaculture Day. Before I get to the meat issue, I want to say that I am a trained permaculturist and I love growing and eating plants and totally agree with Michael Pollan that we should all eat a lot more of them. And, I love my vegetarian parents a lot. I completely understand that some people are simply unwilling to kill another being for food for ethical reasons. However, I have some problems with the black and white discourse about raising and eating meat from an environmental perspective, and I think we should be looking at the issue in a more nuanced way.

Today’s conversation was between Craig Sams (founder of Green and Black’s Organic Chocolate and Chair of the Soil Association) and Satish Kumar (Editor of the Resurgence & Ecologist magazine and founder and Director of Shumacher College, International Centre for Ecological Studies and The Small School). Kumar began by explaining the three fundamental principles in his approach to ecological design and permaculture: soil, soul and society. I am totally with them as they discuss the complex beauty of soil science, the need to work from the soul and the importance of coming together as a community to garden and restore the earth.

Soon the conversation turns to the fact that we live in a predominantly meat eating and meat raising society. Kumar asks Sams to describe a sustainable diet from a permaculture worldview. They are both vegetarians, and they believe that reducing the amount of meat we eat as a species is critical to halting climate change. I completely agree that we must stop using 80% of the world’s arable farmland to grow corn and soybeans to feed to animals; the planet simply cannot withstand the strain from industrial agriculture. The masses need an absolute reduction in the amount of meat we consume and an increase in the amount of plant-based foods on our plates.

Sams explains that, “Trees can do a lot more to help the climate than sheep, or goats or cattle.” This is true if we’re talking about the industrial livestock system, but, there are other models where animals are part of a vital ecosystem. Then he goes on to quote Bill Gates’ endorsement of pursuing meat alternatives such as soy. Referencing Bill Gates doesn’t earn him any points here, as the Gates Foundation has championed a “Green Revolution” in Africa which unconscionably follows the same course which tragically failed India. Additionally, we have learned that soy isn’t actually a health food, especially in highly processed faux meat forms.

I’m way more interested in how we’re going to create localized food systems which actually work. Sams mentioned Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement which has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya. She is one of my personal heroes and her advocacy is so impressive because her organization mobilized rural women to manage the land with their own hands to ensure access to water and food security in their communities. To me, this is what the permaculture perspective on sustainable food should be based upon. When discussing what we eat, I think it’s most important to consider ecologically responsible management of natural resources over any one dietary preference. This is what Savory has also found in Africa. In the great conservation debate, the people vs. nature battle was being lost until people were taught how to work with nature’s balance to rehabilitate the land so that they could farm it once again.

In the case of animals, I think it’s far more important that we look at the conditions in which livestock are being raised, slaughtered and transported around the world and choose options which feed, rather than destroy, the earth.

The soil is the skin of the earth and we are currently destroying topsoil at a fatal rate. Every farmer’s crop depends on the vitality of the soil, and the most efficient and sustainable way to maintain soil fertility is by integrating livestock into the farm and using their manure to build the soil. Show me an organic farmer who isn’t depending on animal poop to keep the soil rich. Nothing makes more sense than shoveling your own nitrogen right on the farm, rather than using bat guano or bonemeal harvested & processed somewhere far away and delivered by petroleum-fueled trucks.

If you’re ok with eating animals, I don’t think you need to become a vegetarian to save the world. My perspective is that the best thing we can do for the planet is get deeply intimate with all of our food sources. For the omnivores among us, I think the most important issue is to consider how our meat is produced, and get closer to the source. Some people advocate Meatless Mondays to challenge the obsession with meat. I completely appreciate the significance of encouraging people to go without meat one day of the week. Personally, I like to celebrate Meatball Mondays.  I say, eat your meatballs, but know your meatballs. By choosing the meat we eat more carefully, we will automatically reduce our meat consumption and lessen the negative impact on the earth.

In the last 4 months, Gowan and I could tell you where every single thing we ate has come from. This is probably the most impressive part of this endeavor to me. We can argue about the widespread scaleability of our approach when we look at the challenges in the modern food system, but I never said the solution would be easy. The good news is that everyone can participate in some way, starting right now.

Here are a few tips for getting intimate with your food:

  1. Eat out less, and choose restaurants that make an effort to source their ingredients locally and thoughtfully
  2. Shop at the Farmers’ Market. And say hi to Gowan on Wednesdays in Fort Bragg, and me on Fridays in Mendocino!
  3. Choose items that are in season when shopping (bananas are never really in season in North America…)
  4. When you are enjoying your locally sourced food, tell your family and friends where it came from and where you got it. Many people don’t even know that a local option exists.
  5. Arrange a visit a local farm. Most farms are delighted to have customers come visit, and this is by far the most fun way to know your food, and the people who produce it.
  6. If you want to eat meat, consider raising and slaughtering your own, or helping a farmer friend with their animals. I have raised chickens for meat and for eggs and it was an extremely rewarding process to be part of the cycle from raising baby chicks to putting them in the freezer. The closer we get to the food we eat, the more we value it, and the more accountable we are.

2 thoughts on “Why I want to be a cowgirl when I grow up

  1. Have you done an energy assessment (grain/feed/arable grazing acreage/water) for the quantity of meat you’ve been eating throughout? I’d be interested to see it, as I’m confident you’re both eating relatively low amounts of meat (compared to the average developed-economy diet), but I do still question whether it could ever feasibly scale to 7 billion people. Given how conscious you’re being about everything, I feel like you’d be a rare case of someone who could actually assess the energy-in of your total diet, with a breakdown by meat/non-meat, and it would be fascinating to see.

    My concern – far beyond the animal rights ethical concerns – has always been about privilege and scalability. If you’re grain feeding your animals, you’re getting a pretty bad return in terms of feed-in to beef-out (4.5:1 at close to the best). If you’re grazing your cattle, you’re talking about 2.5 acres:1 pound at about the best, and closer to 10 acres on global average. I’ve read a handful of books on the meat-as-permaculture debate, and I enjoyed all of them – I thought Simon Fairlee laid out the best case for it – but I still don’t feel like the scalability issues are well addressed. In general the case studies either seem to be about situations where it works with a) a very wealthy region where people can sustain normal levels of meat consumptions because of an abundance of arable land and feed water, or b) an incredibly low level of meat consumption that most Americans wouldn’t consider adequate (even when being eco-conscious) in more resource-strained areas, or c) outlier cases where you have a poor region with high meat consumption, that happens to have an excess of wild grazing land (Siberia, Tibet, etc.) and a relatively small population.

    Anyway, I’d be incredibly interested to know what your overall consumption is – I think you two incredible women are living a wonderful diet right now, and I’d love to know whether it could feasibly scale to the planet.

    Bravo on everything, and this blog has become an integral part of my weekly reading.

  2. Hey there,

    While we haven’t done an extensive energy assessment, (honestly, with way more than full time jobs apiece plus this project, we are seriously overclocked and welcome help with projects like that!) this question is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I think the fundamental question in my mind is; could the land the animals are being grazed and raised on be used to grow vegetables instead and would this produce more food and build healthier soil? In conventional farming which is heavily grain dependent its pretty obviously the case that the land being used to grow feed could be used more efficiently to feed people.

    But I think when animals are fed appropriately, (especially cattle which are not in any way designed to eat grain and should be grazed only) the question is a lot more complex. Herbivores build topsoil, and a managed, rotational grazing alternated with crops is in my mind a truly sustainable system, and meat and vegetable production are two sides of the same coin. The ten feet of topsoil in the midwest was built by migrating bison, after all, and destroyed in less than a hundred years of tilling without them. One of my favorite farms, Live Power Farm in Covelo, has four 4-acre fields that they rotate between grazing and crops, only planting one 4 acre block per year, and in that way they maintain their soil and also have the additional protein and income of the animals. Putting all the land into crops would produce more food short term, but strip the land of nutrients over time. To build non-manure compost to replace the constant fertilizer from the animals would take a large scale operation using machinery to turn and spread the material- the animals if carefully rotated are a much simpler and more elegant solution.

    That’s in a scenario where there’s plenty of available pasture to till for veggies or raise grazers on. In my case, and in most cases around the world that raise goats or pigs, (scenario C is really the vast majority of the world, since most land isn’t flat open prairie with accessible water) its not about choosing animals over crops, but instead about being able to use land that isn’t tillable to produce food.

    Goats can easily live on steep arid land and nourish themselves on plants people can’t eat. They build fertilizer in a much more useable and less “hot” form than cows, mature earlier, breed more easily, and produce many, many useable products. Goat has been my foundation animal for survival and I seriously hope it becomes more popular in this country. I raise my goats on land that I couldn’t responsibly farm- I would have to log and clear it first, and pump huge amounts of fertilizer into the clay soil. My goats eat primarily invasive species, they love scotch broom, gorse, and pampas grass. And they are the foundation of the compost that grows the vegetables. During pregnancy and milking I do supplement with some grain, but I’m starting to replace it with spent grain from the North Coast Brewing Company, which is a waste product. Except for the spent grain, my goal is to be totally grain free.

    My opinion is that we can’t maintain soil fertility without herbivores. Joel Salatin has some really great things to say about rotational grazing, and so does the above TED talk. To keep lands alive they need to be part of a functioning ecosystem, and ecosystems have animals. I think that less meat consumption is vital and that grain fed cattle are absolutely unnatural and terrible. But I also think that alternating grazing land with crop land, raising animals that can thrive on un-tillable land or forest like goats and pigs, and feeding them from waste streams is absolutely scalable.

    I don’t think 7 billion people could eat meat every day in this way, but I don’t think people should eat meat every day anyway, and I definitely think that 7 billion people have more chance to eat vegetables every day if the soil is being managed by healthy vibrant herbivores.



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