How Animals (Will) Save the Planet

April 01, 2004
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By Joanie Blaxter

photos by Carole Topalian

Industrialized humans have become so disconnected from the act of producing what we consume, we not only have no practical idea about how to do it, we have no understanding about who and how many must die so we may eat—even a vegan diet.

Anyone who has gardened or farmed organically knows it inevitably comes down to the same choice. Manure and mulch can nurture your soil only to a limited degree. Ultimately either you must supplement with (vegetarian) artificial fertilizers, in which case you are also forced to use pesticides because otherwise your (unhealthy) plants will be consumed by insects or… you must nourish your soil with animal byproducts (blood, bone, etc). Why? For a simple reason: Such a cycle is what most closely mimics how enrichment happens in nature.

Realistically, how can one nonviolently feed starving soil? Let predators do the killing for you and then steal their food to put on the garden? When the slugs and gophers take all your produce before you can get to it, does it become OK to kill them? If your organic produce is purchased in the store, does that mean no animals died to produce it or were spread on the soil to enrich it? Dying happens—all the time, all around us, invisibly. Dying must happen in order for our life, all life, to be supported. The most we can claim is we didn’t put an animal (one we could see) in our mouth and chew.

In 2006 the UN Food and Agriculture Organization released a now well-publicized report stating that 18% of the world’s manmade greenhouse gas emissions were attributable to livestock production. Shockingly, that is more than the total produced by all forms of transportation combined and has recently led to a call from the UN for a global reduction in meat consumption. There is one major problem with this data, however. These figures represent the effects only of large-scale feedlot operations, not livestock living naturally on grass. Animals living healthy lives on local, small, diversified farms are not included in these figures.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, clarifies: “Much of the carbon footprint of beef comes from growing grain to feed animals, which requires fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides and transportation.”

Eliot Coleman, author of The New Organic Grower and host of the TV series “Gardening Naturally,” hits the carbon emissions ball away from livestock and squarely back at the petrochemical industry. “The culprit is not meat eating but rather the excesses of the corporate/industrial agriculture. The UN report shows either great ignorance or possibly the influence of the fossil fuel lobby with the intent of confusing the public.” And he adds, “If I butcher a steer for my food, and that steer has been raised on grass on my farm, I am not responsible for any increased CO2…A vegetarian eating tofu made in a factory from soybeans grown in Brazil is responsible for a lot more CO2 than I am.”

Joel Salatin, farmer/rancher and author of seven books on sustainable pasture practices and animal husbandry, goes a step further. Since plants remove carbon from the air and fix it in the earth, he argues that animals living on pasture improve soil quality with their manure, thereby actually reducing carbon emissions.

Thomas Harttung operates the world’s largest community supported agriculture (CSA) program through his Aarstiderne farm in Denmark, where he grazes 150 head of cattle. “With proper management, pastoralists, ranchers and farmers could achieve a 2% increase in soil-carbon levels on existing agricultural, grazing and desert lands over the next two decades.” This is an astounding claim when some experts estimate that only a 1% increase in soilcarbon is necessary in order to capture the total equivalent of all the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

If Harttung’s figures are correct, then proper management of livestock grazing is a powerful tool for reducing carbon emissions globally. Furthermore, it means the consumption of locally produced, pastured meat, dairy and eggs actually improves our environment by fixing more carbon into the soil than is emitted in the process of producing these foods.

When humans support animals to do what they’re designed to do—herbivores eating grass, chickens eating bugs, pigs rooting in open fields, farm animals basically living healthy, protected lives on open pasture—it appears this may very well have a more positive ecological impact than not just factory farming, but also than eliminating animal products from the diet.

This perspective comes as no surprise to indigenous peoples. The native tribes of this country, for example, have always seen killing for food as a necessary part of their stewardship of Mother Earth. In fact, there are no reports of any indigenous peoples ever voluntarily eating only a plant-based diet, only tribes that were forced into starvation mode.

That the death of one being leads to the birth of another is seen as sacred beyond words and to be welcomed, not resisted. Martin Prechtel describes this perspective through the Mayan concept of kas-limaal, which he translates as “mutual indebtedness, mutual insparkedness” in his book Long Life, Honey in the Heart. A Mayan elder in Guatemala explains to him, “The knowledge that every animal, plant, person, wind and season is indebted to the fruit of everything else is an adult knowledge. To get out of debt means you don’t want to be part of life, and you don’t want to grow into an adult.”

In other words, in this culture in particular, we need to revive the tradition of honoring every blessing we receive with the recognition that we then become indebted to the giver. You cannot step out of the cycle of life and death in order to avoid this indebtedness.

To believe that you can is the essence of immaturity. All you can do is embrace it with humility by honoring your debts.

Someone recently said to me that she had just acquired two chickens as layers and, through observing them, she feels she could never eat them. I wonder if her hens are free to roam? Because if so then surely she must have observed her own chickens eating bugs.

Biologically related to vultures, chickens are carnivorous. They eat anything that moves. Or anything that doesn’t. If they get the chance to feed on a kill, any kill, they will. You can always tell if a hen has been force-fed a strictly vegetarian diet. Her yolks are a pale yellow, not the robust orange of an egg rich in omegas, and her whites (the protein) are flat, not full.

And then there’s the matter of the two roosters that were born alongside those two hens. Chickens breed in a 50/50 ratio. For every hen acquired for laying, a rooster somewhere has been killed. And what about when her layers die of old age? If the owner won’t eat them, her remaining chickens would love it if she gave the old girls to them. The chickens would be healthier for the feast, as would be their eggs.

To believe that you are able to stand outside killing is to attempt to “not be indebted,” as the Maya would say, to refuse to grow into an adult. Beyond asking if what I put in my mouth “has a face,” the deeper question is “What are the broadest consequences of all my eating choices?” And for that we must look at the long-term effects on the whole ecological system and sentient being that is Gaia.

The quick answer is—the 10,000 years that humanity has been raising crops has wreaked more ecological destruction than the previous 10 million. Why? Because whenever a plow is put to the ground, the soil is degraded. Plowing exposes the earth to sun, rain and wind and allows precious topsoil to wash into the sea. There are, of course, various parts of the globe where wise farmers have learned to imitate the cycles of nature rather than work against them. However, not enough. Desertification directly due to 100 centuries of unsustainable agriculture now blankets large areas of the globe… and continues to grow. As always, the earth provides the direction we need. The key lies in looking at how life has successfully evolved over millennia. That picture has always included humans, animals and plants in a mutual stewardship of our home which puts more fertility back into the earth than is removed in the harvest. To presume to be able to somehow remove one’s self from that natural order could be described as the height of arrogance— or ignorance. But isn’t that exactly what westernized humans have been (disastrously) attempting to do for centuries now?

As much as you can, grow your food. There is no more humbling nor exacting education. It will change you, forever.

Joanie Blaxter is the co-leader of the Ventura chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation and member of the Ventura Ag Futures Alliance. After raising her daughter by herself in a small town in Vermont, she moved to Ojai where she daily enjoys a year-round growing season and snow-free driveway. She gratefully acknowledges The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith and highly recommends reading it as a way to get the inside of your head scrubbed out and re-arranged. To learn more about thriving through eating sustainably and the worldwide similarities of the diets of healthy indigenous peoples please see Contact Joanie at joanieblaxter@

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