It is a while since I came across Nicolette Hahn Niman; hers is a name that should now be familiar to every grass-fed cattle farmer everywhere. She and her Defending Beef [the title of her book] team are patiently and continuously explaining why grazing ruminants are vital to human nutrition and food security and, still surprisingly for those wed to our current limited carbon-accounting methodology, saving our planet. When one adds in the determination of the anti-animal farming lobby to pursue a single issue regardless, it is an advocacy that is far from easy.
Nicolette lives and works States-side. She is not alone and there is a growing network of farmers; researchers and farmer-researchers who have worked out what Regenerative Agriculture is. This side of the Atlantic, one can name the Sustainable Food Trust, the membership of the Pasture for Life Association and many others who have chosen to advocate a more organic, natural and holistic way. Interestingly they are now being joined by writers and researchers who have a ‘eat real food’ perspective. There is a loose but powerful alliance forming.
Defining a sustainable food system is a challenge I find myself addressing. I have been seeking to keep an open-mind and to join the dots. Over recent weeks, the Agriculture and Rural Convention has kindly published a four-part series I wrote. It was not peer-reviewed as I am not funded to allow me to go down such a route, but I had reached a point where I deemed it necessary to bring together my thoughts derived from reading; thinking; experience and training.
A sustainable food system
Personally, I now feel comfortable drawing conclusions about what a sustainable food system looks like. For me, it was focusing upon soil health that brought it all together. And it was shocking to realize that I am only 75 years behind the times; farmers and researchers clearly knew what a sustainable food system was before we had our ‘green revolution’. Then it was about soil fertility and humus. They well knew that the Dust Bowl was created by mining [releasing carbon] millenniums worth of naturally built-up soil fertility for crop-plant production. The green revolution has only allowed us to delay the inevitable day when the wheels fall off our chuck wagon.
Sadly, as many others state, we have ignored the lessons of history, that whole civilisations decline and fall with their soils. Once we fail to regenerate our soils at the same rate we exploit them, we are in trouble. And we are. On a broader note, if there is one, it is the mining of soil carbon, in conjunction with burning fossil fuels, that has created the climate-change crisis that we now face. Hence, soil restoration must also be a major part of resolving that crisis. It is that simple.
The lynch-pin to the arguments for grazing livestock [not just ruminants] is that they can live within the context of natural cycles. With increased research and investigation, it is becoming clearer that there is a massive difference between keeping the animals that we exploit divorced from the land that feeds them and keeping them with their feet firmly upon the ground that sustains them. In the right environment, animal life is part of Nature’s circular economy. It is an animal-based economy that built the very soils that we have mined and exhausted in our pursuit of cheap plant-based foods. To an early 20th Century soil scientist, this was blindingly obvious. In our arrogance, we have forgotten. And they also knew that regenerating and maintaining farmed soils requires animals.
I would now say that a major barrier to us achieving true food sustainability is the development of a carbon accounting system that does not yet fully account for some animal farming’s ability to rebuild our soils and, hence, soil carbon levels. In doing so, we can begin to address the soil carbon loss contribution to atmospheric CO2 rises. A more nuanced accounting system is needed so that we can fully recognize the difference between different animal farming systems and, hence, make informed choices about what we eat. It is, not by chance, that single-issue, anti-animal farming activists, choose to deplore such a suggestion, it provides clarity where they would prefer there to be none. That said, there are many liberal-minded animal-welfare organisations that have worked out just how important it is to differentiate between the good, the bad and the ugly.
So where does this leave Irish grass-fed farming?
For Irish agriculture this news should be grand, specialising as it does in the production of nutrient-dense, cattle-derived foods. It is therefore surprising that so little advocacy for cattle farming is to be traced back to the Emerald Isle. The explanation is to be found within its laurel-sitting position derived from believing that it is a world-leader in carbon-efficient cattle-farming. In the context of lop-sided carbon-accounting, it may well be. The danger is, nevertheless, that the accounting, laurel-awarding, rules will change, and Irish systems may yet be found wanting. And if your entire marketing is built upon telling the world that you are the best and then someone changes the what-is-the-best key-performance-indicator, serious trouble lies ahead.
My expectation is that as society becomes more aware of our food systems, and we will, that Ireland’s laurel-sitting position will become distinctly uncomfortable. It will happen, and it will happen, perversely, because the World’s cattle farming advocates are drawing more and more attention towards what regenerative agriculture is and how cattle [and grazing livestock] fit in. I also do not doubt that we are reaching a tipping point whereby the wider audience is beginning to recognise that we must have a food system that works and works for all and everything that resides on our planet. And the key to such will be the welfare of the greater part of the World’s animal life, that which lives within the soil; the very creatures that regenerate it, naturally.
I am not going to go into the detail here but we in Ireland need to take a step back and reevaluate our country’s own cattle farming systems. For now, I will just say that our ‘grass-fed’ needs to become much more naturally regenerative. We need to critically evaluate how we farm and to do so swiftly. If not, we will find ourselves on the wrong side of the line, and that will not be a good place to be given how we promote ourselves as the greenest around. The debate about what is sustainable food is evolving fast and there is no room for complacency, otherwise, our laurels will turn to thorns. For Irish farmers, it is vital that they and theirs fully engage in the debate otherwise the grazing-cattle world will move on without them. And believe me, it is.