Column #224

Scores of researchers, commentators, reporters, politicians, and consumers are demanding that we get rid of livestock and use the land they grazed for growing crops. That tells me what they don’t know about ranching and farming would fill most of the agricultural books both new and old. Here’s why.

There are reasons why for millions of years humans ate mostly meat. There are also reasons why after inventing crop farming 10,000 years ago humans domesticated certain animals and continued to eat meat. The reasons have to do with the nutrition people require and the soils, climate, and topography where people live. All animals and plants rely on light, water, temperature, and nutrients which are conditions that can vary considerably even within short distances.

Why do some people advocate no meat and promote only plant-based foods?

A good example of their reasoning can be found in “The Opportunity Cost of Animal Based Diets Exceeds All Food Losses” by Alon Shepon, et al. His team thinks that, when all animal-based products are eliminated in exchange for nutritionally similar crops, more people can be fed at a lower cost. Deaths will be prevented by replacing red meat consumption with plant-based foods. Methane gas production will be reduced too.1

Of course the authors of that report do not know that saturated fats and cholesterol are not the killers many believed they were 100 years ago. Scientists have recently discovered that our bodies manage those fats and other factors are more critical such as the balance of Omega-6 and Omega-3 essential fatty acids which our bodies can’t manage. It’s also an unequivocal fact that grass-fed meats provide every known nutrient humans require for optimal health and in a better balance than plant-based foods. Even highly processed plant-based concocted foods have a hard time comparing favorably with meat. So the authors’ nutrition arguments are bogus.2

There are a staggering number of factors and repercussions involved in ending the meat trade. For starters, there’s a lot of people who like meat. Some of them like it because they know it’s the healthiest food they can eat. Therefore, most of them won’t go along with the vegetarian insanity. And for economic reasons ranchers aren’t about to stop raising livestock and start raising crops.

My big concern about the authors’ take on nutrition is that all plants produce antinutrients. That makes eating plants more problematical than eating animals most of which do not have antinutrients. There are 391,000 plant species and only 20,000 (5.1%) are edible of which some are only edible after processing. Vertebrate animals (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) number about 51,000 which is 3% of all living animal species. More than 95% of the vertebrate animals are edible. Even most of the other animals are edible. Of the edible plants most are nutritionally deficient or out of balance for mankind. The most all-around nutritionally perfect edible plants are the dark green leafy plants such as kale, spinach, beet greens, and such. But the human digestive system can’t handle the volume of leafy material that’s required to survive.3 4 5 6 7

There’s no easy, low-cost way to change livestock operations into crop farms. Every agricultural endeavor is a different enterprise. Various species of livestock can be combined on the same ranch, but they can’t be managed the same way. Grazing techniques, breeding seasons, climate tolerances, equipment, fencing, doctoring, markets, and transportation requirements differ for each species.

Farming is also highly specialized. Every plant-based crop from asparagus to zucchini requires a whole host of plant-specific requirements to be profitable. Those requirements involve their market prices and equipment requirements along with a farmer’s particular combination of soil (rocky, sandy, silt, loam, clay, and peat) and climate (temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, wind, and precipitation). But it’s far more complicated because the 12 fundamental soil types can be broken down into hundreds of subclassifications. On my small ranch in Texas there are seven soil types with different capabilities. When the climate is added to the equation, crop selection becomes even more complicated.

The complexity of growing crops is also impacted by local infrastructures. This involves the volume needed to be economic and how that product is transported from farm to market. For instance you don’t want to raise 5,000 acres of wheat if there aren’t any local grain buyers with mass transit connections such as rail and barges.

For all of these many reasons one can see why certain regions of America are famous for growing various crops. There are also regions that are famous for growing livestock and no crops.

The natural fertility of my ranch’s soils is best for scrub trees and old oaks. That’s good for raising pecans but not economically viable for most other crops. Yes, with enough inputs (think expensive fertilizer) many crops are possible because of generous rainfall and a 240-day frost free growing season. But across the road in the Red River flood plain the soils are naturally twice as productive. Many different crops can grow there at a lower cost. Better soils always produce greater yields with less fertilizer which translates into better net cash flows.8 9 10

Poor quality soils will grow grass, trees, shrubs, and forbs. That’s the kind of land most often used for raising cattle. When I first started raising cattle, it was in western Oregon on land that was best for growing grass or Christmas trees. Then I moved to Fallon, Nevada, high desert country where if it wasn’t for flood irrigation the only crop was sagebrush. Fallon’s average rainfall is five inches per year.

The rangelands of the west and the pastures in the east consist typically of lower quality soils and/or less favorable climates. Primarily land like that is used for raising livestock because the livestock convert uneconomic plant-based “crops” into very high quality, nutritious, and valuable meat. Raising crops on poor quality land would likely be more expensive than raising livestock. Therefore we must face the reality that most of the land in the United States is actually better suited for raising livestock than it is for growing crops and play the hand we were dealt.11

The pictures provided are of typical range and pasturelands that are not suitable for raising crops. And the livestock that graze them are coexisting with the land the same way animals have for millions of years. In the process they are turning a plant-based food that’s unfit for man into the most nutritious food man can eat. From this perspective one can see that if humans follow through with their plans to end meat production they do so at their own peril.12 13 14 15


To your health.

Ted Slanker

Ted Slanker has been reporting on the fundamentals of nutritional research in publications, television and radio appearances, and at conferences since 1999. He condenses complex studies into the basics required for health and well-being. His eBook, The Real Diet of Man, is available online.

For additional reading:

1. The Opportunity Cost of Animal Based Diets Exceeds All Food Losses by Alon Shepon, et al.

2. Is Red Meat Less Healthy than Other Kinds of Meat? by Georgia Ede MD from Diagnosis Diet

3. Just Eat Meat by Michael Goldstein

4. How Many Plant Species Are There in the World? by Shreya Dasgupta

5. Edible Plants from Plants For A Future

6. List of Poisonous Animals from Wikipedia

7. How Many Animal Species Are There? by Bob Strauss

8. Soil Types by Dave Lindbo, North Carolina State University from Soil Science Society of America

9. Soil Surveys from USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

10. Soil Surveys by State from USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

11. Here’s How America Uses Its Land by Dave Merrill and Lauren Leatherby from Bloomberg

12. Rotational Grazing - Desert Land and Livestock Video

13. Adaptive Grazing Management to Optimize Cattle Performance and Rangeland Bird Diversity and Abundance by David Augustine with Rangeland Resources Unit within the USDA

14. How Can We Really Teach Consumers about Ag? by Amada Radke

15. Stop this Foolish War on Meat! Eating it Could Help Save the Planet by Tom Parker Bowles