Human beings have already degraded 75 percent of the earth’s surface due to agriculture based on pesticides, ploughing, and intensive animal agriculture.
The significant difference we face now is that our food system is globalised. We are currently experiencing a worldwide degradation event that could feasibly wipe out human society in the next 70-100 years.
But it’s not all bad news. Consumers, farmers, and policymakers are increasingly changing their behaviour to regenerate soil and secure a climate-positive future.
For some people, this manifests as a transition to veganism, because they don’t want to participate in destructive animal agriculture.
For others, it means supporting regenerative farmers who are restoring natural grasslands while raising cattle for meat. So, which approach is correct?
Many vegans choose a plant-based lifestyle for environmental reasons. Driven by understandable passion, vegans often see animal agriculture as destructive in all of its forms.
Animal agriculture gets portrayed as a degenerative industry that acidifies our oceans and accelerates climate change. In the case of animal feedlots, this is overwhelmingly accurate.
But as much as I like a tidy narrative, the same can not be said for regenerative animal agriculture.
Instead of concentrating animals in lots and feeding them grain, regenerative farmers integrate livestock into natural landscapes in a way that genuinely heals the land and replenishes the water table.
While this doesn’t address concerns around animal rights, it does offer nuance around the environmental impacts of a meat or plant-based diet.
The truth is, both vegans and regenerative farmers have a meaningful place in the restoration of soils and healing the earth. So instead of hurling abuse at one another, it can be a lot more helpful to find common ground. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment, after all.
Some simple changes in the way we produce plant-based food can return carbon dioxide to the ground, increase plant transpiration, and reduce the heat island effect.
For example, we can stop ploughing, and we can cover all bare ground with cover crops. These two simple shifts mean agriculture absorbs and stores carbon dioxide instead of releasing it. And it reverses the heat island effect, which is accelerating global warming.
We can also choose organic food, which has not been sprayed with pesticides that kill soil microbiology, starting a negative feedback loop that ends in desertification.
There’s no doubt that industrial animal agriculture is an environmental disaster.
After all, less than one percent of cows slaughtered for beef live on grasslands. The staggering majority come from concentrated feedlots, which is why around 77 percent of all agricultural land grows animal feed instead of feeding humans.
In modern agriculture, that feed gets sprayed with vast quantities of pesticides and subjected to other land degrading practices, which are part of a downward spiral in ecological function, human health, and climate stability.
Not only do feedlots emit greenhouse gases, but the overconcentration of manure leads to toxic runoff that creates enormous ocean deadzones. And that’s not even getting into the animal welfare or the tremendous antibiotic use that makes us vulnerable to increasing superbugs and pandemics.
But regenerative grazing practices, where cows and sheep live on carefully managed grasslands, are among the cheapest and most effective ways to regenerate desertified land on the massive scale that we need.
Amongst other things, it is a farming approach that can put greenhouse gases back in the ground and restore water to ancient springs.
Modern agriculture, particularly intensive animal agriculture, is a threat to human survival.
But there are some things that all people can agree on:
- We want there to be enough clean water, so we don’t have to fight over it
- We want there to be enough nutritious food that we can thrive
- We do not want to eat food that causes cancer
- We do not want animals to suffer
- We do not want flooding and wildfires to destroy our homes
- We do not want our society to collapse
- We do not want to live in refugee camps
The solution to all those things that human beings universally desire is healthy, functioning soil. The tools to create that solution can be plant-based, or they can include regenerative meat.
Instead of wasting precious time and energy pitting vegans and regenerative farmers against each other, it’s time to focus on the future we want to see and start contributing to it.
We can reach the same destination by many different routes, but not if we waste our time dragging each other off the path.
Consumer decisions drive all industries, including agriculture. Every bite of organic chickpea burger or grass-fed steak can be a vote for the world we want to see.
Rachel Horne is a freelance soil regeneration writer and soil educator.