Is it true that livestock grazing is harmful to the environment?
—Paul Howe, Athol, MA
Most scientists and environmental experts view livestock grazing as an ecological disaster. For starters, cows and sheep are indiscriminate eaters and tend to remove every piece of grass and shrub in sight, thus eliminating shelter and food for birds and other wildlife, leading to their decline. In drier regions, landscape used extensively and repeatedly for grazing eventually turns into barren wasteland not even suitable for the livestock themselves. Further, the significant amounts of waste that livestock animals leave behind play a key role in the pollution of our freshwater supplies.
Today, cattle and sheep ranchers lease roughly 300 million acres of public land in 11 western U.S. states. George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson, in their book Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West (Island Press), document the enormous destruction caused by livestock grazing: “The combined area is as large as the entire Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Florida, with Missouri thrown in,” they report. Indeed, as much as 90 percent of Bureau of Land Management land and 69 percent of U.S. Forest Service land is leased to livestock producers. Federally leased public land includes numerous national parks, wildlife refuges and other nature preserves.
Welfare Ranching charges that livestock ranchers are heavily subsidized with tax dollars, routinely leasing public lands for grazing at well-below market prices. They cite the fact that the federal grazing fee is “often eight to 10 times lower than fees charged on comparable private grazing land.” In addition to dirt-cheap grazing fees, livestock ranchers are also the beneficiaries of low-interest farm loans, and taxpayers support them with emergency bailouts and other state and federally funded programs.
Stephen Leckie of Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) says the problem is not limited to the U.S. He cites a 1997 report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) showing that 20 percent of the world’s land is used for grazing, while only around 10 percent is devoted to growing crops. In Central America, for example, more than a third of the forests have been cut since the 1960s, while pastureland has increased by 50 percent. Meanwhile, in India, free-roaming cattle and goats pose a serious threat to tiger reserves and national parks, and are jeopardizing re-forestation efforts (by eating young shoots of new plants) that are trying to help mitigate global warming.
Vegetarians have long insisted that raising livestock is one of the least efficient ways to feed people. FAO research, for example, indicates that farm animals are extremely inefficient converters of plants to edible flesh. Studies show that livestock in North America are fed about six times as much corn and other crops as the amount of edible meat they produce. Meanwhile, Overseas Development Council analysts estimate that if North Americans were to reduce their meat consumption by just 10 percent, it would free up 12 million tons of grain annually for humans to eat. And a study by the non-profit Worldwatch Institute found that one pound of steak from steer raised in feedlots costs five pounds of grain, 2,500 gallons of water, the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, and about 35 pounds of eroded topsoil.