Can “Free Range” Be Sustainable? Eating as Though the Earth Matters Column

By Judy Carman
I was driving down Highway 5 in California when the smell hit me.  It was somewhere near Coalinga.  The suffocating odor hits first, sifting past closed car windows—and then the sight of it all comes into view–thousands of cows crammed together in strings of feed lots being fed antibiotic and pesticide laden, genetically modified “food.”  The smell is nearly unbearable, even though I am a good thousand feet away from the cows forced to wade through layers of wet feces while the acrid ammonia burns into their lungs–a horrifying, undeserved purgatory that precedes the hell of the slaughterhouse.  There is nothing left of nature here—no trickling streams, no clean air, no trees, no flowers or butterflies.
Growing up in the 1950’s, I remember well the stench of the Kansas City stockyards.  If you’re too young to remember, you might be astonished to learn that people actually ate at the Golden Ox restaurant which was located in the stockyards—right there beside the awful smell and the cows waiting to be killed.
City stockyards disappeared eventually.  Instead factory farms began cropping up in more rural locations and getting bigger—and bigger.  Environmentalists and animal protection activists began to document what was happening to the animals, the earth, indigenous peoples, forests, and water sources and reveal the facts to the public.
As a result the menace of factory farming (also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations CAFO’s) has become fairly well known among caring people.  Big Ag’s enormous and disastrously destructive footprints all over the planet have not escaped our notice.
In recent years, there have been three major shifts in eating habits as people have become more and more horrified at the environmental devastation and cruelty caused by factory farms.  Some have adopted a completely plant-based, vegan diet in order to reduce their personal impact on the earth and animals through their food choices.  Another group has opted to eat significantly fewer animal products.  Their combined actions have resulted in the reduction of animals killed for food in the U.S. dropping from 10 billion per year to 9 billion.
The third group has declined to reduce their consumption of animal products, but they have severely limited their purchases of factory farmed animals and instead opted to buy meat, eggs, and milk from farms that claim to be  “humane,” “free-range,” “grass-fed,” and\or “antibiotic-free”.  Some folks have even decided to raise and kill their own animals.  Because of the growing popularity of this third option, I want to dedicate this “Eating as Though the Earth Matters” column  to this one question—if we eliminate factory farms and instead eat only animals, eggs, and milk from “humane” farms, will that practice be sustainable or will it be just as destructive as factory farms?
To put it simply, there is not enough land to raise the number of animals that are currently raised for food unless they are confined.  According to USDA statistics, only 1% of all the 9 billion farmed animals are freely ranging on pastures in the U.S.  Depending on climate and land quality (which continues to degrade for many reasons), pastured cows can each require 2 to 30 acres of land, according to Dr. Richard Oppenlander, author of Comfortably Unaware: Global Deception and Food Choice Responsibility.  He estimates that it could require as much as 2.52 billion acres just to raise the current number of pigs and cows (giving each of them an average of 15 acres).  Yet the U.S. only contains 2.26 billion acres, and that includes mountains and deserts that could not sustain these animals.  His figures do not include the space needed by chickens, turkeys, sheep, dairy cows, etc.  But it doesn’t make much difference since we’re already .26 billion acres short.
We are talking about 9 billion land animals needing more acreage than even exists in this country.  Most of those animals are “owned” by Big Ag.  The World Preservation Foundation estimates now that 60 to 80% of all cleared forest land is used for pasture and feed.  Any plan to give more space to all farmed animals would accelerate that destruction.
How many more wolves and other wild animals and birds would lose habitat and lives to the huge demand for pasture land?  A 2002 USDA estimate stated that over a billion acres is already being used for pasture, range, and cropland.  How many more acres would be degraded by animals who cannot range freely as they would in the wild because they would still be confined by fences.  Free range isn’t free.  The cost to all of us, the earth, the poor, and the animals is way too high.
We’re all concerned about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO).  Several estimates I found state that 93% of soy, 88% of corn, and 95% of sugar beets are now genetically modified in the U.S.  Most of this GMO stuff is fed to animals that people eat.  GMO alfalfa, used to feed dairy cows, was recently given the green light in the U.S.  What is this doing to the animals people eat; what is this doing to people who are eating it directly as corn, etc. or indirectly in the bodies of animals?  And what is it doing to all those who are working hard to keep their organic crops safe from contamination?
If we actually thought we could continue to eat the amount of meat currently being eaten by consuming only free range animals, where would the animals graze—on land formerly poisoned by GMOs, and how would the patent holders of GMO seeds react to such an intrusion on their profits?
Here in the U.S. and around the world, we have travelled down a dead end road.  Passing feed lots, smelling death, and counting corpses along that road, we now have to make some quick decisions as individuals and as a species.  As our human population continues to rise and one billion people still continue to starve, we have some life changing and lifesaving choices to make.
Clearly, the math alone tells us–eating free range animals is not sustainable–for the poor, for the earth, for us, and certainly not for the animals—the free ones and the ones who are confined.  There is simply no way to raise the number of animals people currently eat and use for dairy and eggs, in a way that allows each one “free range.”  If one chooses to locate and personally inspect a truly free range farm where the animals are not fed GMOs and antibiotics, what has been gained?  That one person and his or her family may be ingesting slightly less toxic meat, eggs, and dairy, but we certainly cannot say that person is contributing to sustainable eating practices or to mercy for the animals, because animal agriculture, no matter how it is practiced, is not sustainable and is one of the primary contributors to water and air pollution, deforestation, desertification, resource depletion, poverty, loss of wildlife, loss of the beauty and serenity of nature, wars, and world hunger.
So should we just leave all farmed animals in the deplorable conditions of factory farms so that they will take up less space?  Of course not.  The environmental destruction and massive cruelty caused already by these monstrous factories is a crisis which we must address swiftly and firmly.
As puts it, “If we wish to preserve our environment, avoid endless wars over energy and water, and if we do not wish to obtain our prosperity at the expense of the exploitation of others, if we wish to do right by those of future generations, the time has come to re-evaluate the role animal-agriculture plays not just in our own personal lives, but as a root cause of a number of planetary ills…
“ ‘Humane’ animal products are being sold to us as a means of doing something good while being able to continue living the same lifestyle that has brought our planet to the edge of ecological disaster.  While they may provide pleasure to our palate and a salve for our conscience, these products simply do not solve any of the problems that need to be addressed by our species if we are to live on this planet in a just and sustainable manner.”
I always like to end with good news, and even considering all this, there really is good news.  We can back out of this dead end road.  We can bring a gradual end to the cruel and unsustainable practice of animal agriculture, stop relentlessly breeding the animals, and learn the lovely, life-affirming art of plant-based eating.  Oppenlander estimates that 2 to 3 acres of land can produce from 5,000 to 60,000 pounds of fruit, grain, and vegetable combinations; whereas the same acreage can only produce 160 to 240 pounds of meat.  Now that’s math we like to see.  It is literally possible to feed the world and drastically reduce the amount of land used for agriculture.  We can each choose life and healing on a global scale by making this important choice.
From comes this lovely Split Pea Soup recipe:
“This is perfect comfort food with a cooking time that offers a good excuse to relax with friends.  To boot, it’s filling, packed with protein, brimming with fiber, low in calories and fat, and freezes well.”
4 to 6
2 cups (450 g) green split peas
6 to 7 cups (1410 to 1645 ml) water or vegetable stock
1 medium-size yellow onion, diced
2 creamy yellow potatoes (such as Yukon gold or fingerlings), diced
2 or 3 garlic cloves, pressed or minced
2 carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
1/4 teaspoon ground mustard
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke, optional
Salt and pepper, to taste
Rinse split peas, checking for any impurities, such as stones or residue.  Place all ingredients except salt and pepper in a soup pot, and bring to a simmer.  Cover loosely and cook until peas are tender, 1 hour or longer.  Check occasionally to make sure water has not completely evaporated.  Heat should be low-medium.
The resulting soup should be thick and creamy, with the split peas quite broken down and mushy.  Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve hot.
For creamier soup, puree in a food processor or blender.  This is also a great soup for a slow cooker; add all ingredients, and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours.
The liquid smoke (found near the barbecue sauce in your local grocery store) takes the place of the ham (!) that people have been known to add to their soup.  Because it’s the smoky and salty flavor that we desire (not pig!), the liquid smoke does the job perfectly!  (Yes, I needed to use that many exclamation points.)”
Excerpted from The Vegan Table by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau.  © Fair Winds Press 2009
© 2013, Judy Carman, M.A., Author of Peace to All Beings: Veggie Soup for the Chicken’s Soul, Co-author of The Missing Peace: The Hidden Power of our Kinship with Animals and owner of a truck and a car powered by used veggie oil. and

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