Sunday, February 15, 2009

Reducing our carbon footprint

In the January-February issue of Audubon, Mike Tidwell offered a viewpoint entitled “The Low Carbon Diet.” In his article, he lays out his reasons for becoming a vegetarian, despite his love of meat. His essay argues that our consumption of meat wastes precious resources while contributing mightily to our collective carbon footprint. By choosing a vegetarian diet, he suggests, we can reduce greenhouse gasses, improve access to food in developing countries, and live healthier lives.

As a small-scale rancher in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, I have a slightly different take on these issues. We raise and market grass-fed lamb – most of our customers live within 30 miles of the ranches we lease. We also graze cows for other ranchers. Certainly the industrial model for meat, milk and egg production is incredibly flawed and incredibly damaging (to the earth, to the animals, and to the people who are doing the actual work of production). However, I do think there are very sound reasons (economic and environmental) to eat locally produced, grass-fed meats, eggs and dairy products in moderation.

The “cowboy” definition of rangeland is land that is too hot, too cold, too steep, too dry or too “something” to produce a crop. These lands do produce biomass, however, in the form of grass, forbs and shrubs, which most of us humans find neither very palatable nor very nutritious. Ruminant animals have the miraculous (in my opinion) ability to convert this biomass into protein that we can digest (and that I find delicious). Not that we need to produce food on every square inch of the earth, but it seems to me that we should look for ways to produce food responsibly on land that might not be productive cropland.

Indeed, these rangelands evolved with (and perhaps because) of the presence of ruminants and other hooved animals. Deciduous trees lose last year’s dead leaves; grasses rely on grazing animals to remove last year’s leaves. The consumption and recycling of this biomass is critically important ecologically. Grazing animals cycle solar energy, nutrients and water through the system. Our operation is an example of this – we are currently grazing on vernal pool habitat. The cows and sheep that we manage consume undesirable (from an ecological standpoint) grasses and forbs, which allow the native plants to better compete. We’ve also used sheep and goats to reduce dangerous fuel loads, in turn reducing the potential for catastrophic wildfire. Our local Audubon representative, Ed Pandolfino, feels that grazing animals are essential to preserving important habitats for raptors and other birds. Part of this habitat preservation is related to preventing these lands from converting to houses. Eating locally produced meats (from within our own “foodshed”) will encourage local farmers and ranchers to keep these habitats intact.

Mr. Tidwell also expresses concern about the climate changing effects of the methane that ruminant animals emit. From an emissions perspective, I’m curious as to whether anyone has evaluated the number of ruminant animals prehistorically versus today. Ruminants are animals with multi-compartment stomachs that allow them to breakdown cellulose – the stuff of grass – and convert it into muscle and fat. Cows and sheep are ruminants; so are deer, elk and bison. Certainly our concentration of ruminants in feedlots is a relatively new development, but our rangelands have always supported grazing animals. What’s changed drastically in the last 100 years is our total reliance on fossil fuels for everything we do.

In terms of world hunger and poverty, I believe that we have inappropriately used food as a political tool. We have distribution problems and local capacity problems rather than supply problems. Given our limited resources of arable land (to paraphrase and build on Will Rogers’ statement – they’re not making any more farmland), local production of livestock (throughout the world) is an important tool in reducing hunger. Rather than divert more of the grain grown in this country to reducing international hunger (which, by the way, would take enormous amounts of fossil fuels), I prefer the perspective embraced by Heifer International and others. We should help the people (rather than the governments) in developing countries learn to produce their own food (which should include livestock, for many reasons).

I do agree with Mr. Tidwell that personal choices are critical in our efforts to reverse global climate change. The problem is so huge that many of us are paralyzed. Furthermore, we want to solve the problem without changing our habits. We are waiting for government to come up with a solution (a new energy source, for example). These “big” solutions may be important, but I believe individual choices are even more important. To me, one of these choices is the decision to be more connected to my food supply. The other choice that we’ve made on our farm is to partner with our animals – draft animals, grazing animals, herding animals, and guardian animals – rather than rely on technology. The carbon involved in our production system (like many local producers) is relatively minimal. Our lambs, from conception to consumption, travel less than 200 miles total (including the trip to the processor). If we could process our animals more locally (which we cannot, thanks to federal meat inspection regulations), our carbon footprint would be even smaller. The most significant energy source in our production system is the sun – we convert foliar solar panels (grass leaves) into protein. We do rely on summer irrigation water, but one of the benefits of being in the Sierra Nevada foothills is that this water is moved by gravity rather than by pumping. We don’t use any grain, and we’re hoping to entirely eliminate our need for a very small amount of hay.

The issues raised by Mr. Tidwell are critical for us to discuss within our own communities. Others might choose a vegetarian diet for a number of reasons, but the connection between vegetarianism and carbon emissions is tenuous at best. From my perspective, trying to buy my food from local farmers will have a far greater benefit for our environment than changing my diet. Locally produced, grass-fed meats, eggs and dairy products are an important part of any community food system.


  1. Dan,

    Tidwell misses the main need in terms of greenhouse grass reduction. There will always be a place in a Climate Change solution for animals, it's just a matter of determining what that proper place is. Keep on thinking, you are on the right track.

    A. G. Edwards

  2. Great blog Dan! Although I primarily eat a vegetarian diet (for various reasons), I have enjoyed trying the local meats offered at the market. Because local meat is the only type of meat I plan to buy, I look forward to all the offerings you and your fellow farmers provide. I am really looking forward to your poultry!

    I really admire your commitment to the type of sustainable farming you practice and market.

    See you at the market!