In the arena of sustainability, we often hear a lot about cows – most of it extremely negative. There is a broad tendency to vilify cattle, and imagine that they are to blame for all that is wrong with our agricultural industry.
Yes, we should all think very carefully before eating meat. And understand exactly where that meat comes from. We cannot continue to consume meat globally at the current excessive scale. So if you do choose to eat beef – eat it occasionally, not every day. And make sure you choose it from a local, sustainable source.
Whether you believe it is ethically wrong to eat meat or not, in sustainability terms, it is how we keep the cattle that is the problem – not the cattle themselves.
The problem is that livestock has become, in many parts of the world, de-coupled from arable production. Plant crops are grown over here – cattle in intensive factory farming situations over there… Fields and fields of tilled, degraded land are given over not just to keeping the cattle, but to growing the food to feed them. And of course this has led to immense amounts of deforestation, pollution, and other strains on the land.
But the crucial thing to remember is that when grown in integrated, holistic systems, which put soil healthy and biodiversity at their heart, cattle can actually be a very good thing. When managed properly, grazers like cattle – large ruminants – can have an ecologically beneficial effect. They don’t just fertilise the soil, they also help maintain plant life on a site. Savannah lands in particular can be enriched by their presence, rather than destroyed. And silva-pasture approaches often work wonders in temperate climes.
So, without making any ethical statements about the rights and wrongs of eating meat, we should all recognise that cattle, though they have become part of the problem – can also help us regenerate, and put things right.