Cultured meat and the lifeless world

By attempting to avoid animal suffering, are we depriving them of life? Is lab-cultured ‘meat’ enlightened environmentalism, or just another attempt to cheat limits to growth, divorcing us further from the natural world? Gaia Baracetti reflects on her sheep, her fields, food culture and the moral pitfalls of seductive new technologies.

by Gaia Baracetti

Cows grazing on the hillside. Photo: Enrique

Many people do not understand how farmers – or shepherds, or ranchers – can claim to love their animals, but still kill them.

Some of you who are reading this article are parents, or want to be. When we decide to have a child, the only thing we can be entirely sure of about them is that one day they will die. And yet, knowing this full well, we still consider life the greatest, the most magical of gifts; the ultimate act of love.

This analogy might not seem to go very far, because parents don’t usually kill their children; if anything, they would be willing to give up their own life to prolong their offspring’s. But the inevitability of death could turn the gift of life into a poisoned chalice; indeed, many people and philosophical movements throughout the ages have made this sort of argument. They have always been a minority: in its joys and sorrows, triumphs and disappointments, eternal principles and constant uncertainty, we mostly feel that life is worth living even if it inevitably hurts, decays and ends.

Not all parents are good parents and it’s certainly true that not all farmers care about the well-being of their animals. A good shepherd – I try to be one –not only takes care of their animals, but will also partake in their life and in their joy at being alive. When I watch my sheep, their bellies finally full, lying next to each other on the grass, serenely chewing their cud, their faces facing the sun with their eyes closed, I feel their peacefulness and contentment as my own. When I see them run and frolic down the field, or finally get whatever they’ve been relentlessly baaing for and silently enjoy it, or nurse their young, protected from predators, I believe that I am doing a good thing worth doing. That some of them will be killed is not so important; in this moment, they do not know that any more than they know it in their whole precarious, perennially alert existence as natural prey animals. I certainly do not enjoy it – I dread it, even, but as there is no life without death and no other way to do this, I accept it; claiming pastureland for sustenance seems to me actually more morally justified than to subtract it from the wild for mere personal pleasure while getting food from elsewhere.

What does terrify me, in shared moments such as these, is rather the thought of synthetic, lab-grown, cultured meat. As I look around at meadows covered with wildflowers and dotted with trees, where wagtails hop and herons visit and magpies feed and skylarks hide and pheasants call, rich with butterflies of different hues for every month and crawling with little things only the chickens can see, I worry about all of it disappearing to make room for yet more concrete and yet another lab. This is where cultured meat, after all, would be made.

As we replace horses and oxen with cars and tractors, wool and silk with synthetic fabrics, fields and forests with mines, dirt paths with paved roads; as our houses become bigger and cleaner and we build over natural environments for the sake of comfortably getting close enough to visit them, what we are actually doing is erasing life from the planet. All of it: not just domesticated life, but also whatever life form independently chooses or manages to thrive by our side. In the name of protecting it from death – an impossible feat – we are actually preventing it from living.

Cars queuing to the Firehole Swimming Area in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: NPS/Jacob W. Frank

The same way we know that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, we should have figured out by now that the opposite of life is not death, but non-existence. That a lot of our supposedly cruelty-free production is actually life-free. Our arrogance as humans is such that, unable to accept the laws of life that existed way before us on this planet, we want to cancel life itself because we cannot tolerate its inseparableness from death.

More than anything, life needs space. We are taking all of that space and covering it with inert materials. Often in the name of the “environment”. Or of “animal rights”.

Why are we so unwise?

Why is being an environmentalist, nowadays, synonymous with being on a mission to erase any interaction between humans and animals that isn’t watching them from a distance or trapping them inside our houses to be our pets?

Animal abuse is very real. We should strive to eradicate it in all forms. That includes a serious reflection on our obsession with pets, who often lead much more miserable lives than the animals we work with or eat; and hard questions about the necessity of zoos and animal-based entertainment; and the lifting of the veil of respectability and unaccountability that hides most of our scientific experiments with animals. Abusing animals for food isn’t worse than abusing them for the sake of company or knowledge. And killing creates only a moment of suffering, maybe not even that if done carefully, while imprisoning, torturing, isolating can cause a lifetime of hopelessness, which is infinitely worse.

Cultured meat is not a solution to animal abuse, or a solution to anything at all except the endless appetite for profit of the investors who will become even richer, while small-scale farmers, such as myself, and self-sufficient communities will be crushed in the name of a misunderstanding of what ethical consumption is. It will not even spare animals entirely, as it is currently made from foetuses extracted from slaughtered cows. Most importantly, it will be yet another step in our relentless “progress” at the expense of the living natural world.

But animal husbandry, you might object, is not natural!

Let’s put aside the philosophical debate about what natural even means. The grazing of domesticated animals, or regular mowing for hay, create habitat types that are extremely rich in, for instance, plants and insects. Such land is much more biodiverse  than a field of soy or corn and, if well-managed, can sequester carbon. It also serves multiple functions and can provide different kinds of foods, shade, recreation, as well as precious trees and wood. When abandoned, these meadows might revert to forest, which sounds good, but can lead to the local extinction of the wildlife that had become dependent on them. Moreover, if food for humans is not produced anymore on this land, some other land elsewhere will have to be cleared or cultivated more intensely.

Why is cultured meat touted as a solution, then?

Obviously, some people stand to make a lot of money from it. Factory production tends to concentrate wealth and power, whereas anyone who has even just a back yard can raise a few animals and be a little more self-sufficient.

What’s more disheartening, however, is that well-meaning environmentalists are jumping on this bandwagon. The problem here is a deep and consequential disconnect between people who profess to love “nature” and people who make a living from it. If you farm, you must be aware of realities that will not go away however much you might wish them to – such as the inevitability of death, or the fact that you cannot allow animals to breed indefinitely on the same piece of land without culling their numbers (and that all animals really want to breed). If you are an expert in ecology, you should know this but might still look with disdain upon people who are taking up a lot of land to produce food (for everybody), and make it your life mission to reduce that amount of land at all costs in order to save it for wildlife, even if this leads to a dystopian nightmare of plastic greenhouses, lifeless high-tech food production, and urban dwellers who cannot tell a hen from a rooster. And the land you imagined would be set aside for “wilderness” may end up hosting condos or warehouses instead.

It is a source of dismay to realise that many well-known environmentalists seem to hate us animal breeders with Cain’s passion. They don’t know some of the things we know – but they do not want to learn from us. They just want us to go away forever.

I suspect however that the biggest reason why we’re tempted to put our hopes into cultured meat is that we do not want to feel guilt, while at the same time we do not want to give up anything we enjoy, or even have a little less of it. We are looking for the apparently easy way out of this – and that never ends well. Some of the utopian claims about cultured meat are already being debunked, especially by interest groups openly fighting back, but my objection here is first and foremost existential and philosophical.

The question lab-grown meat is supposed to answer is the wrong question.

“How can we keep growing in numbers and appetites and still get everything we want guilt-free?” We cannot.

That’s why there are so many cheap, ugly, low-quality products made by exploited workers flooding the market and cluttering our homes. This includes food, which – at least in wealthier countries – is available in enormous quantities but is often unhealthy and nutritionally poor.

In many circles overpopulation is a taboo, but so is not giving everyone, materially, what they want, such as an unlimited supply of meat. How do we make everyone happy, then, if “no more” is prohibited as an answer? With unsatisfactory surrogates, that’s how. Even if lab-grown meat is accepted to be an unpleasant reality, some such as George Monbiot still consider it preferable to telling people there are limits to how many humans can live on this planet and how much meat we can sustainably produce for them.

Of course we cannot satisfy the growing global demand for meat with happy, pasture-fed cows, sheep, chicken or pigs; even less so with hunted and fished animals that have lived the freest of lives until their last breath. This doesn’t mean we should look for some surrogate with yet-to-be-known side effects, as we have done with the synthetic fabrics and plastics that are now polluting everything from the oceans to our blood.

The key to the problem lies upstream, not downstream – in the appetite, not the food.

It gives me some reassurance and even pride that in my own country, Italy, cultured meat might be a harder sell than elsewhere. The biggest farmers’ union, Coldiretti, is running a public lobbying campaign against it; an organic food chain has promised its customers that synthetic and insect-based foods will not be sold there.

Italy is famous not just for its food, which is actually quite simple and relies entirely on the quality of the ingredients, but for a certain attitude towards life. We like it to be pleasant. We enjoy good food, beauty of all kinds and quality relationships, to the point we might sacrifice other things for their sake. We are famous for creativity and small-scale artisanal production, and the many daily or yearly rituals that give structure and flavour to human life. We might not have much wilderness left, unfortunately, and have lately made a mess of our country, but still, our cities are small, sometimes surprisingly green, and surrounded by easily accessible countryside. We are proud of our traditions; we take a pleasure in making and a pleasure in consuming. Such pleasures are threatened by products that are too industrial and synthetic – such as cultured meat.

Not more, but better, should be the guiding principle of consumption above subsistence. Knowing what it takes to produce meat, I eat very little of it myself. But when I do, it has to be the right kind. The kind that comes from fully living beings that have the capacity to care for each other, to think independently, to enjoy sitting on the grass on a sunny day.

Sheep resting in the sun. Photo: Gaia Baracetti
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27 thoughts on “Cultured meat and the lifeless world

  1. And into all of this must be brought the NEW MEDICAL UNDERSTANDING that the low-meat, low-fat diet advocated in the 1990s, led–as my daughter was taught at her first day of medical school at U.C. Davis–to the largest epidemic of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and arthritis in world history! Doctors (those who stay current) are backing off the “low fat” craze of the previous century, so fast they’re leaving skid marks, with me hastening to add, Big Pharma-owned media continue to portray the MYTH of the benefits of eating low-fat, low protein!

    What has been learned, via research on the human microbiome, is that PROTEIN and FAT (rather than causing heart disease or being inflammatory) stabilize blood sugar and it is that, or rather, surges in INSULIN LEVELS that are the driver of inflammation! And what causes those surges?
    Answer: Sugar and high-sugar foods like pastas, with a reminder that back-in-the-day people with diabetes were told NEVER to eat sweets!

    And of note, while Italy is referenced in this article (Italy, incidentally, where CELIAC is now becoming common in their population and obesity if a growing problem!) it is Greece where the “blue zones” exist, or areas where people commonly live to be well over 100 and are well while getting there! (In contrast, Greece does not consume the huge amounts of GRAIN-BASED pastas and breads that Italy (or the U.S.) does, with pastas replaced by more fruit and vegetables!

    And, yes, it is foolish to think we can kindly and compassionately provide meat for 8 billion people, so again, the imperative that to have a healthy, kind world (where animals don’t have to endure industrial farming practices), we are delivered, yet again, the massage of how much the world would benefit from fewer humans!

    1. Italy also has a “blue zone”, in the island of Sardinia.
      I’ve heard that the high number of people with coeliac disease might be related to the quality, rather than quantity, of grains consumed (super-processed, white, industrially produced…). I don’t think that Greek traditional food is that different from Italian, although Italy probably has a greater variety due to being much bigger and probably having more diverse geography overall. If you look at what people traditionally eat in the North, it’s mostly completely different from what you’d imagine traditional Italia food to be.

  2. Thank you for this very different take on an important subject. I am a vegan and became so for a variety of reasons, animal treatment being one. However, a couple of very good friends, also lifelong vegans, have a daughter who works for Impossible Foods in Berkley, Calif. This will be an interesting topic for them and I will solicited their opinions. A new book “What Your Food Ate” showed how present (and past) farming practices have destroyed much of the arable land and tilling is one of the worst. We need to use more and more fertilizers and herbicides to make the land produce food and these practices only make things worse so it’s become a vicious cycle. In the end the book claims, “We already use between a third and a half of our planet’s, ice-free land for cropping and grazing. So what happens on farmland will shape biodiversity and the future of nature, including humanity.”
    In my opinion. it will only be by the majority reverting to being vegetarian that will offer any hope.

  3. I actually feel guilty most of the time I consume animal products that I haven’t produced myself or visited the farm they come from, since I don’t like how production of most of them is done. I feel guilt when I eat butter and cheese (I used to make them myself with sheep milk but only for part of the year), since I don’t like that the calf is taken away from the mother right after birth – which is standard practice even though there are alternatives. I had dreams of contributing to a reform of the system, but bureaucracy, low food prices and a lack of help will probably push me out of business before that happens! And that’s one of the main problems: producing anything ethically is most of the time impossible. Whatever that thing is.

    I never try to convince vegans because I believe we should respect each other’s choices and some of their claims are valid. Also, we definitely cannot all eat animal products at average Western or Chinese levels, and that includes fish as well. It’s unsustainable given how many of us there is and how much productive land we’ve wasted.
    However, there are many counter arguments; for example, since as you say agriculture takes up so much of the land already, removing animals entirely from that land would mean having large animal-free ecosystems, which is unnatural. Animals have different benefits to agriculture, as well, for example providing fertilizer, fibers, doing some work for you, eating weeds and pests, stocking food (in their bodies) you can consume when you have a bad year, and much more.
    Paradoxically, it might even be better from an animal rights perspective to support ethical animal husbandry than to not eat animal foods at all (unless you truly object to killing animals per se). Except that requires a lot of trust and a lot of knowledge, and you might never find a system that is “good enough”, in the real world. For example, due to foxes I cannot let my hens roam all day unattended and feel bad about that. I’ve heard that some organic farms secretly kill predators. No idea if it’s true, but it’s plausible. I wouldn’t do that. But I’ve chased foxes away and ended up being outsmarted by them, as you would expect. And being preyed in the wild is actually a worse death most of the time.

  4. I was disappointed to see this article by TOP, essentially defending needless exploitation and violence, speciesism and human supremacism. No, we don’t need ‘cultured meat’ any more then we need to eat the flesh of other animals. As a vegan of 20 years, I do not support ‘cultured meat’ (a capitalist endeavour) as a solution. It’s time we moved beyond the mentality and the archaic and barbaric culture of ‘meat’ eating (and consumption of other animal body parts and secretions). In many ways, many of us have moved beyond the lifestyles and behaviours of our ancestors, yet persist in exploiting and killing other animals, not for survival, but simply for taste, habit, convenience, tradition, profit, and (violent) culture. Part of the human overpopulation problem by extension, is the number of other animals bred by humans to be exploited and killed, which is having a huge environmental impact, and is unsustainable. So we also have a sheep, cow, pig, and chicken overpopulation problem. And let’s not forget that humans breeding humans creates a death sentence for humans, so by giving birth to them , we create the cause for their deaths, which by definition, is killing. Breeding humans for our use is not so different after all from breeding other animals. Perhaps the main difference, is that humans are aware of their mortality, which creates added fear and stress to our existential situation.

      1. Actually, I did read it, and it’s reinforcing the humane myth and human supremacism, the idea that there is some kind of “right way” to do the wrong thing. There is no need to breed (sexually exploit) other animals to kill them. It’s unethical and and inefficient way to produce nutrients for humans. It’s time we evolved beyond the violent human supremacist mentality and culture of needless violence.

  5. A beautiful and thoughtful piece of writing, Gaia. Thank you.

  6. I welcomed the mention of pet animals and the miserable lives many of them have with us. I agree: far too many people buy an animal for their own benefit, and do not understand or provide for the animal’s needs.
    Then there is the enormous consumption of meat by cats and dogs in particular, and the pollution of land and waterways from their excrement. Environmentalists seem to be scared of this issue, and I have yet to see overpopulation issues include the overpopulation of our pets. It is self-indulgent and often sentimental nonsense, people talking about “my boy” or being a “furby mother” etc etc. I’m sure pets will always be with us, as will feral cats and dogs, but we should limit their numbers.
    I am now standing by for a torrent of abuse!

  7. Not from me: I full agree! And we are not the only ones:
    Keeping birds in a cage is extraordinarily cruel: that we do it because we “love” them shows how messed up humans can be. Same with fish in bowls. Whenever I pass by a bird in a cage my heart literally breaks. You see some of them trying to get out, and failing…
    Pets are also bad for wildlife (dogs scare birds, cats eat them, etc) and take up a lot of space that could be wild instead. Horse paddocks can cause the worse erosion you’ve ever seen.
    And it always amuses me that so many vegans have cats and dogs. Cat and dog food has industrially produced meat that has probably been tested on other animals… but that’s ok?

    Finally, I think that our obsession with pets shows two major imbalances in our society. One is the disconnect with actual nature, which brings people to treat animals as if they were people as well as to ignore the environmental systemic dimension (e.g. being against culling wild animals even if that means they will over breed and starve, or will need to be locked up somewhere). Not to mention that thinking that animals are people and enjoy/need the exact things we do leads to animal abuse. I’ve had so many arguments over this… people who think the horse is abused because she catches some rain, ignoring that isolation and confinement is much worse for a horse, even if they are warm and dry…
    The other is our inability to treat humans as humans, and animals as animals. When I see people treating their dogs and cats as people or children, and say they are even “better”, I think that they don’t know how to be human and deal with other humans, and love pets because they can’t disagree with them! (Or can, but they can’t read the signs)
    You need to learn how to be a human first, and then how to understand a horse as a horse, a dog as a dog, a chicken as a chicken and wild animals as wild, not pets…

    1. Well, horses and dogs are domestic animals. I think we can have mutually beneficial relationships with these animals. It is true that their needs are different from ours, but that does not mean we cannot know those needs and meet them to some extent.

      1. Philip, of course.
        (I have an unfortunate habit of ranting assuming people already know exactly what I’m referring to… I’ve just had a very unpleasant encounter with one of those “animal lovers” that attack you based on complete ignorance and disrespect of both you and your animals (the horse especially, in this case). I’ve caught people feeding my animals in secret and someone called the vets on me because I keep animals “outside” (where else are they supposed to be?). And much more.
        Dog walkers keep walking all over my pasture, and are sincerely surprised when I tell them that prevents the grass from growing and sheep genuinely need to eat grass, not packaged rabbit food (yes, I got that too). Sometimes the dogs chase away wildlife or even my chicken, or scare the sheep by barking in their face, or soil the pasture with their excrement, so I’m losing patience with a lot of dog owners, too.)

        Anyway, I was just observing that a lot of people think their animals’ needs are the same as ours and coincide with ours, and that’s not true.

        I have a personal conviction that the only justification for keeping domestic animals is if we have something for them to do, whether that’s for food or other useful purpose of which there are many, and mere company doesn’t qualify, unless it’s actual therapy. I know that’s the opposite of what most people think; I hope to make a convincing case for this one day 🙂

  8. I’m disappointed to see this article published on TOP. Livestock population is growing much faster than human population and, through its huge land and other resource use, is the top driver of biodiversity collapse (together with hunting and bushmeat: ), as well as being responsible for some 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions (

    And for what? Some 2 million deaths/year are attributed to the consumption of meat and dairy – mostly in richer countries, and “more plant-based diets could prevent up to 11.5 million diet-related deaths annually and substantially reduce the risks of zoonotic diseases” (

    Everything positive about livestock from the point of view of nutrition, plant foods can do, mostly better. Everything positive about livestock from the point of view of ecology, wild animals can do, mostly better, without continuous extraction. Yet wild animals on Earth represent only 4% of the total mass of mammals, with livestock accounting for 60% and humans for 36% (it’s in fact even worse now as the data is getting old but the trend continues

    Like some others who have commented here I have been vegan for a long time (39 years). It’s very clear that people in middle and high income countries do not need animal-based foods for health. For an increasing number of people like myself, key reasons to adopt plant-based diets, besides avoiding harm to animals, are to free land for more rewilding, for more biodiversity, for more beauty, more of the carbon capture we so urgently need, more weather control via forests, more flood defense, more drought mitigation, less greenhouse gas emissions, less air and water pollution and less water use – among other reasons.

    We would love others to understand the cobenefits of such dietary shifts, but they are not happening fast enough to address our existential crises, so the advent of plant-based, precision fermentation and cultured meats is welcome to speed up the transition away from meat, dairy, eggs and fish. If we want a habitable planet for all species, such diet shifts are essential. The perverse subsidies that have been propping up livestock farming in most countires need to be redirected to the preservation of ecosystems that farmers could be paid to oversee. Gaia’s job could potentially be far more satisfying if she was paid to look after a landscape full of plants and animals that do not need to be extracted and killed, but encouraged to flourish, under their own terms. A less anthropocentric and more ecocentric work…

    1. Annie, like the other commenter who was “disappointed” that TOP published this piece (doesn’t mean they fully endorse it), you do not engage at all with the points I make.
      I often feel this frustration when trying to discuss my point of view with vegans: I don’t want to convince them to change their mind on their dietary choices, only to consider aspects of the issue they might have not known or thought about. But every time I say something, they say, as you do here, the exact some things they would have said if they hadn’t heard me at all.
      A lot of the things you say I have already discussed and tried to refute in my article; you are free to disagree, but in that case you should say why specifically, otherwise it’s impossible for any conversation to move forward, if we just repeat the same things over and over.

      And no, I absolutely do NOT want to look after any kind of landscape for its own sake: wild nature can look after itself. I want to produce nutritious, sustainable, ethical food for fellow humans. That’s what we do and we want to keep doing.

  9. Brave call, Gaia. As you know, soy is good, beefs and lambs are bad. The overarching United Nations imperative is, overlook the eight billion human lemmings, and nothing can go wrong.

  10. Tim, if you think that killing animals is wrong, that’s your prerogative and your choice to live life this way.
    If anything, though, I think that’s the prime example of human exceptionalism and arrogance, since killing is everywhere in nature, everything eventually kills something else to survive; why should we be exempt from the laws of nature?
    As for breeding being “sexual exploitation”… what? Animals breed because it’s their strongest instinct, sometimes even stronger than survival itself. They do it in the wild, they do it in captivity, they will do it no matter what and if anything it’s exploitative to keep them without letting them do so.
    Also, if you think that eating only plant-based food avoids killing entirely, I assume you don’t know much about agriculture. People don’t realise that all sorts of animals, from insects to large mammals, WILL take your food while you grow it or stock it, because it’s a concentrated source of nutrients and they want it as much as we do. Fencing everything is impossible, and ultimately useless. That’s why we hunt, use pesticides or other forms of pest control, or cull the numbers of animals that are too numerous around where we produce food. The fact that you yourself don’t do it doesn’t mean that there isn’t someone else who does it so that you can eat your plants.

  11. How sheep ranching spreads disease
    BY ERIK MOLVAR, 05/13/19, The Hill
    We have a major problem with domestic sheep diseases causing the demise of native bighorn sheep on our western public lands. Domestic sheep are carriers of the diseases Mannheimia haemolycta, which causes a deadly form of pneumonia that can wipe out an entire herd of wild bighorns from a single contact, and Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, a sort of HIV for bighorn sheep that attacks their immune systems and causes pneumonia in its own right. These diseases do not affect domestic sheep, which evolved with them. Yet, a single nose-to-nose contact between the species can wipe out an entire herd of bighorn sheep.

    Bighorns are naturally curious about their domestic cousins, and these diseases are the main problem preventing bighorn sheep recovery across the mountains of the American West. Contact and transmission can decimate existing bighorn herds and prevent their recovery in formerly-occupied mountain ranges.

    Even the possibility of bighorn sheep contracting domestic sheep diseases sometimes compels state agencies to kill off entire herds of bighorns, to prevent further spread of disease. Sometimes they do this through special trophy hunts, to gain the support of sport hunters who look upon bighorn sheep as that rare hunt-of-a-lifetime. This is a rather brilliant way to distract hunters from the fact that without domestic sheep roaming the public lands, bighorns might well be as common as elk or mule deer in our Western mountains, with hunting opportunities to match.

    The disease problems posed by domestic sheep to bighorns are only the beginning of the story. It turns out that chronic wasting disease, a prion-based brain disease currently spreading through deer and elk populations across America, most likely originated with the domestic sheep disease called “scrapie.” This disease, also caused by prions which are a twisted form of protein that infects brain tissue much like “mad cow disease,” is relatively prevalent among domestic sheep herds.

    Domestic sheep were housed in an agricultural experiment station in Fort Collins, Colorado, at a time when mule deer and elk penned up in the same facility contracted the first known cases of chronic wasting disease. It soon spread throughout elk and mule deer herds in Colorado, and now is making its way to the doorstep of Yellowstone National Park, one of the nation’s premiere elk-viewing locations.

    Researchers testing chronic wasting disease have documented its transmission from elk to monkeys through the consumption of infected meat. This has caused grave concern among hunters that the disease may be transmitted from infected elk and deer to humans, if it hasn’t happened already. Chronic wasting disease can take years of incubation before the first outward symptoms arise, making it difficult for hunters to be sure their quarry is disease-free, and also making it difficult to tell if CWD is already present in humans or not.

    The sheep industry has become adept at rhetorical gymnastics to cast doubt on their role as disease vectors on western public lands. Domestic sheep don’t spread diseases, they argue, they transmit pathogens (bacteria, viruses, and prions) and it’s the pathogens that cause the diseases, not the sheep. To untangle this rhetorical knot, we offer this logical proof: Sheep ranchers spread their livestock across the land, domestic sheep spread pathogens, pathogens cause disease and therefore domestic sheep (and the ranchers themselves) are vectors of disease.

    Perhaps it is time the ranchers took responsibility for hamstringing the recovery of bighorn on western public lands, and started taking preventative measures to protect our natural heritage. Such measures should include maintaining adequate separation — at least 10 miles, according to the “foray distance” of young bighorn rams seeking herds of females they might breed — between domestic sheep grazing leases on public lands and bighorn sheep herds.

    That wouldn’t account for risks posed by sheep and goats on private land, which suggests a mandatory test-and-slaughter program to purge diseases from domestic herds of sheep. But this goal may be unattainable: Some 85 percent of domestic sheep operations are infected by Mycoplasma alone, and more than half the sheep in infected herds were found to be carriers of the pathogen. If these measures don’t stop sheep diseases from threatening the survival of wildlife on western public lands, we could always stop leasing public lands to domestic sheep producers. This last solution might be the most humane and sensible option of all.

    Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife throughout the American West.

  12. Taming the Climate Impacts of Cattle and Sheep
    BY ERIK MOLVAR, Aug. 26, 2022,
    A number of recent climatological reports highlight that the livestock industry is a major source of climate problems. In part, this is due to the livestock industry’s heavy reliance on ruminants – herbivores like cattle and sheep that have a four-chambered stomach that enables them to break down cellulose (think paper or cardboard) and turn it into energy. The byproduct of these mobile bacterial fermentation vats is methane, a greenhouse gas that traps 28 to 84 times more solar heat than carbon dioxide. However, livestock producing 30% of the world’s atmospheric methane is only part of the story. Heavy grazing by domestic livestock destroys vegetation communities with deep-rooted plants that are excellent at sequestering carbon in the soil, and replaces them with weeds that die every year and give up all their carbon to the atmosphere.

    From the standpoint of federal policy, the obvious place to start solving this problem is on western public lands, most of which are currently leased to commercial livestock operations for grazing, and which are presently hemorrhaging carbon as a result of overuse. The desertification of western public lands due to excessive livestock numbers, and the conversion of these disturbed lands to flammable invasive weeds that store little if any carbon, is a real issue. Improving the ecological function of 250 million acres of grazed federal lands provides an opportunity to make a big difference in the nation’s carbon balance.

    In a natural state, sagebrush steppe is considered superior to coniferous forests for carbon sequestration. While western forests burn every 125 to 700 years (depending on the tree species), releasing the vast majority of their carbon, the carbon in sagebrush grasslands is sequestered underground, in the dense, deep root networks of shrubs and native bunchgrasses. Even when there is a fire, the majority of the carbon stays safely in the soil. One federal scientist has even argued that carbon banking is “the highest and best use” of sagebrush steppe habitats.

    Heavy livestock grazing destroys the native bunchgrasses of the sagebrush steppe, and facilitates the invasion of flammable weeds like cheatgrass. The ecology of these more fragile plant communities is now characterized under a “state and transition” model, in which bunchgrasses can only sustain modest grazing pressure until they lose vigor and die out, to be replaced by weeds like cheatgrass. The ecological switch that triggers the shift from healthy bunchgrasses between the sagebrush to flammable weeds is – you guessed it – the domestic cow. And cheatgrass continues to spread rapidly across western public lands under today’s livestock management.

    This downward spiral from healthy native vegetation to tinder-dry weeds is readily preventable. All it takes is limiting livestock densities to levels that the environment can sustain. While this sounds simple, land managers are under constant political pressure to maximize the number of cattle and sheep on western public lands. Instead of balancing multiple uses, range managers shift the focus to maximizing the bottom lines of the tenant grazers.

    On western public lands, ranchers are commonly authorized to graze off more than half of all of the vegetation that is produced for the entire year. That’s way more damage than native grasses can sustain and still survive (range science says livestock should never be allocated more than one-fourth), and doesn’t leave enough vegetation behind for the native wildlife. This chronic overgrazing for livestock also damages trout streams and the lush plant communities that border them.

    The first step to restoring an ecological balance and climate resilience across the West is to dial back this chronic overgrazing. Adding staff to provide rigorous monitoring, instead of the casual eyeballing of the past, will provide further accountability and speed vegetation recovery. With a warming climate and expanding fire seasons, we need to quickly restore cheatgrass-invaded lands to the native bunchgrasses that hold more moisture, and prevent the further advance of this flammable weed by keeping lands that still have some native grasses healthy.

    Each day of inaction makes the problem worse, and makes carbon banking solutions harder to achieve.

    Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.

    1. I don’t think there’s anything in my article that justifies overgrazing.

      As for methane, bighorn sheep and bison are also ruminants.

      I started keeping sheep because where I lived the grass was cut and either burnt or left to rot, which still produced emissions, but no food. So I would say that in this specific case (of which there are many) the benefits outweighed the costs.

      Every situation is different and any activity is susceptible of abuses; you could list similar examples about anything we do, including clearing land to grow crops.

  13. Center For Biological Diversity
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  14. Things are pretty complicated in conservation management and farming. First, in the US, “wilderness” is an ideal (though it hardly exist, depending on definition), while especially in western Europe, the EU supports some traditional management (so-called semi-natural pastures) in the rural landscape – also supported by most people in biodiversity science, researchers who for instance often study birds. In an increasingly forested landscape, here the small patches if grazed land have been very species-rich. However, that changes, as the rare plants and insects tend to disappear – adapted to old specialized agricultural management. Surprises come – for instance, if you burn the pretty species-poor pasture, it suddenly can blooms with a variety of rare plants, biologists discovered. Maybe because the dense grass sword nowadays outcompetes the many herbs.

    I remember how I many years ago published a review of the Swedish reserve system, and also included (species-rich) farmland. A North American reviewer wrote that I need to remove that part of the analysis, because “farmland is not part of natural variety”. See the different perspective. But these habitats had been used by Swedish farmers for more than 6000 years. In addition, these guys also changed the Swedish forest quite a bit (and almost eliminated it in e.g. UK).

    Cows, sheep etc can be used in conservation management (and for some good food). This can co-exist also with national parks and forms of rewilding in larger areas in cases where the human population (hopefully) declines in the future. In places where there are not enough predators to control the increasing ungulates, hunting and eating e.g. deer is needed (great food, produced in the “wild”). Like Gaia, I think it’s also good to be vegetarian or vegan. The situation depends much on type of country, cultural factors, and how we maintain species-rich landscapes.

    1. The issue is definitely hugely complex and varies a lot from country to country.
      In Sweden, if you don’t eat animal products, I suspect you will need to store but more likely import a lot of food. Anyone who has seen what greenhouses have done to Spain and the sea around it cannot possibly think of that as a “solution”, even not considering food sovereignty and self-sufficiency. But if you live in a much warmer country, you have different options.

      Even when you bring science into it, there are unexamined assumptions or the problem of alternatives.
      There are so many questions we need to keep asking ourselves. Does it make sense to always treat human intervention as “unnatural” or intrinsically wrong? Is biodiversity always the most important goal (vs., for example, the abundance of a particular species, or other environmental-related objectives)? If we renounce certain types of food production, what are we going to eat instead, and at what cost? If this land isn’t grazed or farmed, what will become of it? If we don’t kill this animal, who/what will and how?
      I also wish we would look beyond food production: there are so many other things we do with farmland, why are we only ever talking about the meat?
      Just a few examples: fibers, energy, paper, construction materials, flowers, biofuels, pet food, pets in general, ornamental plants, drugs, perfumes, recreation… are all those things necessary in the quantities we consume today? Why is it always about the cows?

  15. Frank, I had actually noticed, in some mountain pastures I used to graze, that the vegetation had started to diverge from that of the neighbouring patches that were mowed for hay instead, and had more wildflowers and seemed to be more diverse.
    This created a dilemma for me: I wanted grazing to be good, and it did seem – based on observation alone – to increase biomass overall, but not to harm the very steep and delicate soil or to eliminate some plants. What’s more important: the fertility of the soil (high with grazing) or the variety of flowering species (probably better with mowing)?
    I had to leave that valley eventually, but I think that I would have found a balance like there used to be in the past. The old way of doing things, however, was too much work for me without help, because people used to mow, and fertilise every couple years or so, while the cows would graze further up the mountains in summer pastures called “malghe”. Moving all that hay and manure required everyone, including children, to help, and it breaks your body in the long run.
    I don’t know what my point is! Maybe that no equilibrium is final. A lot of people gave up that lifestyle as it ended up requiring too much work (population growth -> moving further and further uphill for hay) for too little. The forests rapidly grew back everywhere; more mushrooms, wildlife, wood, but people were feeling defeated and almost smothered by this vegetational change. (Not to mention, apparently the growth of darker trees increases the summer temperatures, or so I’ve read in a study) People wanted the new woods gone again, but I hope we will just find a new balance with a little bit of both (and modern technology such as electric fences, which allows rapid rotational grazing).

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