What's Missing From The Debate About Eating Meat

written by

MoSo Farm

posted on

December 12, 2023

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What is often missing from the debate about whether to eat meat is the important role that animals play in cycling nutrients. Nature has this figured out. The nutrient cycle, simply put, is when nutrients are transferred between the soil, atmosphere, plants, and animals.

Nutrients are absorbed from the soil and atmosphere by plants, then again as plants are eaten by animals, and then deposited back to the soil and atmosphere through manure and decomposition.

Let’s translate this to a farm. A farmer’s primary job is to manage nutrients across the land.

On our pasture-based system, cattle graze the pastures and ingest nutrients from grasses and forbs, then poop those nutrients out across the fields. This is why we move our animals regularly, to ensure that they are depositing manure evenly across the pastures. Manure is our most powerful fertilizer on the farm.

Even on a produce farm, animals often play an invisible role of returning nutrients to the soil. Every time a crop is harvested, nutrients are taken from the soil. Let’s take carrots as an example. After a farmer harvests those carrots, the nutrients that have been absorbed from the soil into the carrots are then sold off the farm. Those nutrients are exported, leaving the soils depleted. So the farmer has to put something back into the soil, hence the term “inputs.”

What are some common inputs? Compost, manure, blood and bone meal, or synthetic fertilizers.

Compost - While it can be made up of mostly plant material, the reason that our vegetable peels turn into rich soil is because of…animals! The decomposers that make compost are earthworms, snails, beetles, bacteria and many other microorganisms.

Manure - Manure is a common input, even on vegetable farms. One farmer friend I spoke with who grows produce as well as livestock told me that she uses her animals to add fertility regularly. She composts livestock bedding and manure to add to the garden. And she grazes her livestock through the rotation of garden beds so they can graze off the old plants and deposit manure.

Blood and bone meal - Two common inputs that come from animals! Blood meal is primarily used to add nitrogen, while bone meal primarily provides phosphorous to the soil.

Synthetic fertilizers - Instead of relying upon animals, these fertilizers are created synthetically in factories. This process uses minerals that are mined in other places, natural gas, byproducts of the petroleum industry, and lots of fossil fuels. This is an extractive system versus a closed-loop cycle. Furthermore, the runoff from synthetic fertilizers create algal blooms and dead zones in our Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. (Fun fact: chemical fertilizers dramatically increased after WWII when the ammonium nitrate production used for making bombs was redirected into agricultural use.)

So even on vegetable farms that may provide for a vegan or vegetarian diet, many of them  still rely upon animals to cycle nutrients back into the soil. While it may be possible to create an animal-free agriculture using synthetic fertilizers, why change what nature already has figured out?

In our mission statement, we say that we aim to use “nature as measure,” a phrase from Wes Jackson at the Land Institute which asks us to use nature as the standard against which we judge our farming practices. If we can come close to mimicking nature’s almost perfect systems, then we’re on the right track.

I wish that people worried less about the simplistic question of whether or not to eat meat and more about eating meat that regenerates the soil.

As founder of the organic farming movement Sir Albert Howard said, “Mother nature never tries to farm without livestock.” After all, can you think of an ecosystem that doesn’t include animals?

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Produce grower, Lindsay Klaunig, who regularly uses her livestock to add fertility to her garden beds in the form of manure and composted bedding.

What I'm reading...

Nourishment - Book by Fred Provenza - “Animal scientists have long considered domestic livestock to be too dumb to know how to eat right, but the lifetime research of animal behaviorist Fred Provenza and his colleagues has debunked this myth. Their work shows that when given a choice of natural foods, livestock have an astoundingly refined palate, nibbling through the day on as many as fifty kinds of grasses, forbs, and shrubs to meet their nutritional needs with remarkable precision.”

What’s Eating America - Article by Michael Pollan - “Corn is one of the plant kingdom’s biggest successes. That’s not necessarily good for the United States.”

What I'm listening to...

Fall Playlist - I’m still listening to my fall playlist and adding new inspiring songs before making the switch to my winter playlist. Take a listen to the tunes that have been filling our days.

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