The ecological price of overgrazing

By Constance Taylor

When I first moved to the Bay Area 6 years ago I was mystified by the tracks that contoured the hills in the regional parks. From a distance it looked like a diligent landscaper was out there with a lawnmower, riding in circles around the hillsides and creating neat, concentric lines from the top to the bottom of the slopes.

After wandering around the East Bay Regional Parks and seeing lots of cow poo (as well as lots of cows), I finally figured out that the ‘lawnmower tracks’, officially called ‘terracing’, were made from cattle, who prefer to walk around and around in a spiral to get to the top of a hill rather than walk straight up the side. This, of course, led to more questions, like what effect the grazing and soil compaction have on the ecology of these areas.

There’s a decent amount of conflicting information out there about what cattle grazing does to the environment. If you do a Google search involving the words ‘cattle’ and ‘ecology’, wildlife biologist Allan Savory will pop up at least once in almost every set of results. For years he’s pushed his hypothesis of “holistic management”, in which grazing livestock mimics large groups of wild animals, such as buffalo and elephants, traveling through deserts and grasslands. The idea is that if ranchers carefully manage their herds, they can not only increase their numbers of livestock but also reverse the effects of climate change. Savory’s claims have been widely criticized by ecologists because of lack evidence supporting his conclusions, but the idea that managed grazing can have positive ecological impacts, including benefitting threatened species, is alive and well.

Sailesh Rao, founder of Climate Healers, has been educating people about the correlation between cattle grazing and climate change for 10 years. Though he works mostly in India on these issues, he also spends time in the Bay Area and works on parallel issues in the U.S. As we walked through Wildcat Canyon and watched the cows placidly laying under whatever shade they could find, Sailesh gave us a broad-strokes overview of how he sees things.

With a background in systems engineering, it’s in Sailesh’s nature to look for the most logical, efficient way to do things. “After looking at the issues of climate change, the biggest systems problem ever, it’s clear that nature is the best systems designer out there- far better than we are!”

Some general examples include intact, native ecosystems being better at carbon sequestration then heavily grazed areas, and plant-based diets being a far more efficient way to feed the 7 billion people on the planet. “It takes nearly a thousand gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of milk, about 45% of the earth’s landmass is used for livestock grazing, and animal agriculture is a major cause of habitat destruction, ocean dead zones, and species extinction… how is any of this sustainable?” Sailesh asked.

Sailesh was already a vegetarian before he began his work on climate change, but became vegan after studying the effects of free-range grazing both in India and in the U.S. “You see ‘free-range’ and ‘grass-fed’ on meat and dairy products, but what that really means is cows are out there eating everything and creating an ecological disaster zone.” For those interested in learning more he recommended watching ‘Cowspiracy‘, a well-reviewed documentary about animal agriculture with a focus on the beef industry. You can watch it on the Cowspiracy website, or after it comes out on Netflix on September 15, 2015.

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