Ranchers and Vegans Have Finally Found Something They Can Agree On
Advocating for the importance of holistic farming techniques has united two unlikely factions.
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For as long as there's been an environmental movement, there's been tension between the movement's largely vegetarian and vegan sectors and the agriculture industry — especially animal agriculture, and industrial animal agriculture in particular. The obvious split between these factions is that one opposes animal slaughter and suffering, and the other (supposedly) necessitates it. But some forward-thinking farmers realize that preserving the earth and its natural resources is of interest to their business — not to mention the interest of humanity at large. There's one area of interest that might serve to bridge this gap between pro- and anti-meat environmentalists: regenerative agriculture.
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No tilling, no synthetic pesticides, just vibes
Like "ethically sourced," "natural," and other words surrounding the future of food, there's no official definition of what "regenerative agriculture" (RA) actually means. And although it's used by different people and groups to mean a plethora of different things, there are some key points that come up most frequently.
The most common definition of and argument for regenerative agriculture is improved soil health. Agricultural practices like tilling (disturbing the top 6-10 inches of soil before planting), use of synthetic pesticides and even use of synthetic fertilizers can effectively strip soil of its nutrients and destroy its delicate microbial composition, ruining the fertility of the land for any future crops. RA seeks to not only avoid causing that damage, but to also actually leave soil better off than it was found.
Other common aims of regenerative agriculture include increasing biodiversity and, interestingly, carbon sequestration: a process wherein carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored somewhere else, often deep within the earth. Its primary aim is to mitigate climate change — an effort that simply cannot wait.
So, although animal agriculture has largely been the villain of the environmental movement, RA practices might be its redemption. White Oak Pastures and its fourth-generation owner, Will Harris, for example, utilizes ethically-minded practices that could change the role of livestock farming in the climate crisis. In 1995, almost two decades into his leadership, Harris changed virtually everything about the way the farm operated: He put an end to common industrial practices like the use of synthetic pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and synthetic herbicides, and he shifted the cattle's diet away from cheap, high-carb provisions like corn and soy. Harris essentially turned back the clock 100 years or so by diversifying its crops and livestock — in addition to cows, his farm now raises pigs, lambs, and chickens – and by reintroducing traditional practices that put the focus on the health of the land, the animals and the people in its community and beyond.
Now, decades later, it's been estimated that White Oak Pastures is offsetting its beef production-related greenhouse gas emissions by 66%, in comparsion to beef produced on factory farms. (It is worth noting that some food system advocates are skeptical of these findings, arguing that the study used questionable models, and that they are an outlier from other studies that find grass-fed beef generates more greenhouse gas emissions); they also point out that 2.5 times more land was required, a major concern given that human land-use is a primary cause of biodiversity loss.) As a beef producer, of course, animal slaughter is still a part of the business. But it's a far cry from the horrendous images of battery cages, untreated infections and needless violence that activists have uncovered at factory farms over the years. For these efforts, White Oak has earned animal welfare certifications including Global Animal Partnership and Certified Humane.
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But these days, even the industrial titans who have mostly been on the wrong side of the animal rights and environmental movements are taking a page from Harris' book. Just last year, Cargill, McDonald's and Target, along with The Nature Conservancy, signed on to a five-year project to support RA practices on Nebraska farms. The program aims to supply farmers with the financial and educational resources they need to implement regenerative and more humane techniques — a particularly helpful approach, as these techniques can be cost-prohibitive for small farms already struggling to survive among industry giants.
Greener pastures and cleaner air
But regenerative agriculture isn't exclusive to livestock farming. There are a number of vegan-aligned brands that source material exclusively from regenerative farms. Milkadamia, a plant-based brand known for its non-dairy milk products made from macadamia nuts, has publicly committed to regenerative farming. Not only does it use regenerative practices on its own property, like using compost as fertilizer and planting cover crops (crops planted to protect the soil rather than to be harvested), but it looks for similar commitments from the farms it partners with. Similarly, White Leaf Provisions uses only crops that are organic, non-GMO, regenerative and biodynamic to make its core product, baby food. These practices aim to raise not just healthy babies, but a healthy planet for them to live on.
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You're probably not going to change the minds of anyone who staunchly believes that it's inherently unethical to slaughter animals — a reasonable conclusion — but you probably won't sway the rest of the world into giving up meat overnight, either. Regenerative agriculture is a solution that can be (and in many places, is being) implemented right now, and it serves the interests of activists, environmentalists (at least on some metrics), farmers, vegans and the communities with which they interact. It doesn't require society to come to a philosophical consensus – an impossible goal – but it might be able to help mitigate the climate emergency, an issue that affects every last one of us.