After my last post, The Vegan Solution, there were several comments by readers indicating that 'grass-fed' or
of intensive animal farming. For various reasons, it seemed to me that
free-range farming couldn't provide a realistic solution to the many
issues associated with the animal-based diet, including the
well-documented environmental devastation that is beginning to be
brought into the view of the general public.
There is significant evidence that the environmental destruction which occurs as
a result of the wide-spread grazing of cattle, is much worse than the
free-range PR leads us to believe. Grazing cattle pollutes water,
erodes topsoil, kills fish, displaces wildlife, and destroys
vegetation, more so than any other land use.1
In recent years, grazing animals have all but disappeared from sight on the landscape.
This has occurred as a result of modern 'agricultural' practices that
include intensive confinement of animals in factory farms that have
become the focus of much criticism from advocates of animal welfare.
But a return to widespread free-range grazing, especially as the human
population continues to increase, would mean a return to the widespread
damage that this grazing wrought on the land not so long ago. Following
is an excerpt from a speech given in 1985, almost twenty-five years
ago. The speaker is Edward Abbey, conservationist and author,
addressing cattlemen at the University of Montana.
“Most of the public lands in the West, and especially the Southwest, are what
you might call ‘cow burnt.’ Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in
the American West you find hordes of cows. . . . They are a pest and a
plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest
our canyons, valleys, meadows and forests. They graze off the native
bluestems and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of
prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti.
They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested
wheat grass. Even when the cattle are not physically present, you see
the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general
destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American
West stinks of cattle.”
John Robbins is the author of the international bestseller Diet for a New America,
The Food Revolution, and Healthy at 100. He is widely recognized as one
of the world's leading experts on the dietary link with the environment
and health. He is also the Founder of EarthSave International.
According to Robbins: "The price that western lands and wildlife are paying for grazing cattle is
hard to exaggerate… widespread production of grass-fed beef would only
multiply this already devastating toll."
One of the problems is the sheer scale of the animal industry. The issue that
leads me to question the benefits of free-range farming isn't only the
matter of more humane treatment, (which is grossly overstated, as
explained below), but the matter of space. In order to farm enough
animals to feed the collective appetite for flesh and other products of
animal exploitation, we are already destroying our wild lands at a rate
that is boggling to the mind. Since we have so many food animals
intensely confined, it would be impossible to allocate sufficient land
to pasture-raise them all. Without a significant reduction in the
overall consumption of animal products, animal farming (free-range or
not) is not an ecologically viable method of food production.
Robbins explains: "It takes a long time and a lot of grassland to raise a grass-fed steer.
Western rangelands are vast, but not nearly vast enough to sustain
America’s 100 million head of cattle. There is no way that grass-fed
beef can begin to feed the meat appetites of people in the United
States, much less play a role in addressing world hunger."
Most environmentally-aware people are now familiar with the correlation
between intensive animal farming and greenhouse gases. But that problem
wouldn't be solved by pasture-raising cows either:
"Next to carbon dioxide, the most destabilizing gas to the planet’s climate
is methane. Methane is actually 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas
than carbon dioxide, and its concentration in the atmosphere is rising
even faster. The primary reason that concentrations of atmospheric
methane are now triple what they were when they began rising a century
ago is beef production. Cattle raised on pasture actually produce more
methane than feedlot animals, on a per-cow basis."2
According to an article on ScienceNews.org, Nathan Pelletier of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia says:
“We do see significant differences in the greenhouse gas intensities [of
grass vs grain]. It’s roughly on the order of 50 percent higher in
Another serious concern, of which many people aren't aware, is that commercial free-range grazing
involves the eradication of wildlife, including threatened and
"The USDA’s Animal Damage Control (ADC) program was established in 1931 for a single purpose—to
eradicate, suppress, and control wildlife considered to be detrimental
to the western livestock industry… In 1997, following the advice of
public relations and image consultants, the federal government gave a
new name to the ADC—“Wildlife Services.” And they came up with a new
motto—“Living with Wildlife.”4
According to a USDA website, Wildlife Services "provides Federal leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts and
create a balance that allows people and wildlife to coexist
According to John Robbins:
"What 'Wildlife Services' actually does is kill any creature that might
compete with or threaten livestock. Its methods include poisoning,
trapping, snaring, denning, shooting, and aerial gunning. In 'denning'
wildlife, government agents pour kerosene into the den and then set it
on fire, burning the young alive in their nests.
"Among the animals Wildlife Services agents intentionally kill are badgers, black
bears, bobcats, coyotes, gray fox, red fox, mountain lions, opossum,
raccoons, striped skunks, beavers, nutrias, porcupines, prairie dogs,
black birds, cattle egrets, and starlings. Animals unintentionally
killed by Wildlife Services agents include domestic dogs and cats, and
several threatened and endangered species.
"All told, Wildlife Services, the federal agency whose motto is 'Living with Wildlife,'
intentionally kills more than 1.5 million wild animals annually. This
is done, of course, at public expense, to protect the private financial
interests of ranchers who wish to use public lands to graze their
Dr. Mike Hudak is an environmental advocate who is a leading expert on the harm to wildlife and the environment caused
by public-lands ranching. He is the founder and director of Public
Lands Without Livestock, and the author of Western Turf Wars: The
Politics of Public Lands Ranching (2007). Since July 2008 he has been
chair of the Sierra Club’s National Grazing Committee.
In his article, Public Lands Ranching: The Scourge of Wildlife, Hudak elaborates:
"How extensive is the carnage that ranching inflicts on wildlife? One
reasonable measure is the number of affected species that are either
(1) federally listed as threatened or endangered, (2) candidates for
federal listing, or (3) the subject of petitions for federal listing.
By that criterion, ranching’s victims number 151 species in all: 26
species of mammals, 25 species of birds, 66 species of fish, 14 species
of reptiles and amphibians, 15 species of mollusks, and 5 species of
As we can see, the growing popularity of 'grass-fed', 'pasture-raised' or 'free-range' beef, far from being the
solution to the damage caused by animal farming, represents just
another side of the devastation caused by the animal industry.
Those who profit from the promotion of free-range animal products exploit the
ethical motivation of conscious consumers, caring people who rightfully
abhor the horrific practices that occur on factory farms. The
free-range PR creates the false impression that consuming free-range
products is an effective way of boycotting animal cruelty and
The desire to avoid participating in acts of cruelty is the other (perhaps more common) reason that many
choose free-range over factory-farmed animal products. But are
grass-fed cows really treated more humanely than their factory-farmed
As John Robbins concludes:
"The lives of grass-fed livestock are more humane and natural than the lives of
animals confined in factory farms and feedlots, but their deaths are
often just as terrifying and cruel. If they are taken to a conventional
slaughterhouse, they are just as likely as a feedlot animal to be
skinned while alive and fully conscious, and just as apt to be
butchered and have their feet cut off while they are still breathing —
distressing realities that tragically occur every hour in meat-packing
plants nationwide. Confronting the brutal realities of modern
slaughterhouses can be a harsh reminder that those who contemplate only
the pastoral image of cattle patiently foraging do not see the whole
In light of this information, and the questions that arise as a result, I am very curious to hear from advocates of
environmental conservation or animal welfare who believe that
'free-range' or 'pasture-fed' is indeed an ethical or sustainable
alternative to factory farming. Is it really 'grass-fed' that is going
to make the difference that we need? At a time when the human
population is approaching seven billion, is it realistic to expect to
continue feeding ourselves on animal flesh, milk and eggs? Or do we
need to make preparations for a future where there simply aren't
sufficient resources to support the inefficient methods of animal-based
For those who seek a way to avoid exploitation and cruelty, the choice doesn't have to be between
factory-farmed and free-range. There is another option, a truly ethical
alternative that does not require us to sacrifice our moral standards
for the satisfaction of our appetites and our taste buds.
As can be seen by the growing number of people, from all walks of life
world-wide, who abstain from animal foods, it's really a lot easier
than many people think. The essential first step toward the vegan
alternative is a change in perception. Once that is achieved, with the
wealth of information and the ever-increasing number of products that
are now available, making vegan choices is easier, and more rewarding
than it has ever been.
(For more information about how to make vegan choices, feel free to contact the author.)
1 Robbins, John What About Grass-fed Beef?
3 Raloff, Janet The carbon footprints of raising livestock for food
Read more: ecology, vegan, vegetarian, environment, sustainable, animal welfare, global warming, factory farming, animal rights, climate change, environment & wildlife, animal farming, free range, pasture raised, grass fed