Contemplating cows

Feeding ruminants any substantial quantity of grain or soya remains environmental madness, but I am persuaded that there is also a strong argument for a limited number of grass-fed livestock as part of a sustainable agricultural system.

I wake most summer mornings to see a herd of South Devon cattle, our local breed, grazing on the slopes opposite; the land is too steep for veg, so I rent it to my neighbour.

Two years ago, influenced by reports that livestock contribute more to climate change than all ships, trains, planes and cars combined, I planted 1,000 trees on the steepest part of the field. I also made myself pretty unpopular in this livestock-farming area by publicly concluding that meat eaters should try to reduce our consumption from around 1,500g per week to 600g, to give us a chance of feeding ourselves without destroying the planet.

I acknowledge the strong environmental arguments for going further – but as I don’t know how we would grow organic veg without grass-clover leys and manure from grazing animals to fertilise our soil, it seems hypocritical to advocate veganism. I’m also reluctant to condemn something that feels so right even if the numbers say it is wrong.

The numbers aren’t all they seem, either. It turns out that the methodology used to assess the climate change potential of methane produced by ruminant livestock (grazers: cattle, sheep and goats) has over-estimated methane’s impact relative to CO2. It has also become more widely accepted that pasture, managed to increase root and mycorrhizal biomass, can sequester large amounts of carbon (not yet convincingly quantified), protect soils, and enhance biodiversity.

Feeding ruminants any substantial quantity of grain or soya remains environmental madness, and there are other good reasons for reducing consumption of meat, dairy and eggs (especially intensively produced), but I am persuaded that there is also a strong argument for a limited number of grass-fed livestock as part of a sustainable agricultural system. As Patrick Holden of the Sustainable Food Trust argues, a sustainable diet should be defined regionally. With so much of the UK’s land unsuitable for growing crops, there is a place for grazing livestock.  

For a fuller, more convincing version of the argument, see ‘A Convenient Untruth’ by Simon Fairlie. I highly recommend subscribing to The Land, ‘an occasional magazine about land rights’. It’s a radical read with its roots somewhere near the 17th century Diggers or the 19th century Tolpuddle Martyrs, but always original, well researched, and a refreshing counterbalance to Farmers Weekly.


Leave a Reply

  1. I’m shocked you were stupid enough to fall into this fake trap that animal husbandry is killing the planet. How could an organic farmer believe that animal manure and grassland protected by grazing animals is not a backbone of sustainable agriculture. How can any UK farmer not recognise much of the rich landscape is not arable? The ridiculous call to plow the countryside for more kale crops comes from those totally disconnected from the real world of land use children who are being brainwashed by the processed food industry of “organics” made of lab produced fungus and the plantation mentality of growers around the world who are ripping out trees for the palm oil, coconut, avocado and almond crops that will save the world. Very disappointed to see this in a Riverford publication. Do I need to mention an article on which “fake meat” is better under the Riverford name?

    1. Hello Jenni,
      I am shocked that you consider it is ok to call people stupid, to suggest that people who don’t eat meat are somehow brainwashed. you hold some very strong views that are no longer seen as the norm or credible and you seem to be convinced you are right and it is the only way. perhaps it is you that needs to see the change, not least in your approach to talking about these issues. Chris

    2. Isn’t this part of the problem that beliefs and ignorance are so ingrained in the me,me,me society that civil comment by some is beyond them.

  2. Whilst reading this I’ve received a tweet from climate expert David Reay (Edinburgh uni) who writes: “I’ve been doing a bit of research on using seaweed mulches (I have tonnes washed up on our shore each month). Seems pretty good in high rainfall areas as the sodium is rapidly leached away. Thanks
    @AlysFowler! – and he sent a link to this:

    He was responding to me saying I made a small contribution to a project promoting fruit trees and other perennials on marginal land – normally deemed only suitable for grazing – to fight climate change – (I was saying I would prefer replacing plastic matting under young trees with a more eco-friendly mulch):

    This is to show that that manure from livestock and grass-clover leys are not the only ways to fertilise soils – as shown by Iain Tolhurst and many others, such as this US farmer for instance:

    I remember Guy’s fairly recent enthusiastic post about compost (versus manure). As the sea isn’t too far from Dartington, seaweed might be one new ingredient to consider for composting? Perhaps arguments about the perceived beneficial role of ruminant farming – other than “it feels so right” – might continue fading away?

  3. On reading this I recalled the work of Peter Andrews, an Australian livestock farmer with a long family history in horse, cattle and sheep farming. His life mission has been to restore Australian farmlands destroyed by inappropriate European farming practices that have led to desertification, erosion and soil depletion.

    The aspect of his work that I thought interesting is the role of livestock in mobilising nutrients in the landscape. Peter points out that rainwater tends to introduce small quantities of salt that can accumulate over time because the rain washes everything down and leaves nutrients in places where water evaporates. This can be a problem in the harsh dry climate of Australia – less so in the well watered landscapes of Europe. But the common factor is that the nutrients tend to be carried down away from high lands. What carries nutrients up? Animals – both wild and domesticated. This is why he recommends always leaving stands of trees on the tops of hills to attract birds and wild animals that will collect nutrients from the landscape and deposit them on the hilltops – ready to be washed down again for the benefit of plants growing below. The alternative is for farmers to spend money, time and fuel carrying the nutrients and distributing them.

    The other interesting point that came to mind was the impact of hoofed animals on flood plains – a particular problem in dry Australian landscapes. Herds of hoofed animals tend to compact the soft soils of flood plains. This prevents them from absorbing the rain and recharging the acquirers that feed streams and sustain the herbage through dry spells. Compacted flood plains ensure that heavy rainfall events cause flooding and erosion that overwhelms downstream water courses, and eventually results in more erosion and desertification during dry spells. It is a vicious cycle that destroys soil and productive capacity. The solution is to restrict herds of hoofed animals to the highlands for most of their time. Here they help to break up rocks and deposit nutrients where they can wash downhill to feed the plants below. Cows and sheep can provide a transport service that would otherwise be required to be paid for by the farmer. With this knowledge, I wonder that we do not mandate that all animals be housed high on hillsides so that their manure runoff can be better distributed to the fields below and the exercise of climbing can help them to grow bigger muscles.

    Perhaps these are lessons that only apply to the dry landscapes of Australia. But then I recall that Peter Andrews’ investigations of his family archives that went back to the first days of European settlement revealed that the Australian landscapes that we now know as dry and dusty were well watered and highly productive when Europeans first arrived. It is hard to resist the conclusion that European farming practice has contributed to or caused the desertification.

    In the 30 years since I first came to England from Australia, I have seen the rainfall patterns change from almost constant soft drizzle to flooding rains and long periods with no rainfall. Perhaps English farmers can learn something from the mistakes of Australians.

    You might find these interesting:-
    1,. A documentary seen on ABC television about Peter Andrews and his work
    2. “Back from the Brink” by Peter Andrews
    3. “Beyond the brink” by Peter Andrews
    4. Peter Andrews talking about the role of weeds in soil fertility

  4. I can’t pretend that I have indepth knowledge of the amount of arable land in the UK,but I certainly know the difference between what I tasted 50 years ago and the tasteless food I have bought in supermarkets. When there was far less choice available the pressure on the land was less severe and that extends to the demand for meat.
    Whose statistics do we believe when it comes to assessing the damage caused by raising more cattle and clearing land for more animals to graze. Surely instead of the bizarre swop shop type arrangement where we salve our conscience by planting trees we should attempt to reduce our consumption significantly of meat generally and pricing food at a point where it is more realistic to produce quality over quantity would be a starter.
    I often go months without ever eating meat so will allow myself a well sourced piece of meat when I do eat it and the same goes for fish. I cannot help but feel that we have lost the appreciation of what our land and sea provides as it has become devalued over the decades.
    We are an odd nation where people will gladly pay huge sums for watches, smartphones, ipads, leased cars yet will baulk at the cost of their food, child care, medical treatment, public transport,all of the things that make our future, environment and health important. I believe that Riverford has around 50k customers and if you then add another 30ok for the other veg box providers it is a paltry number considering the number of households in the UK.
    While the supermarkets rule the roost and generally dictate our food polices, which is ironic given the tax subsidies by way of the tax credits many of their employees received due to low wages, we will never see the change so desperately needed.
    We need balance.


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