beef

Agricultural Ecosystems

This is another reprint from my weekly column at BrattonOnline.com, to which I recommend you subscribe, especially if you live near or love Santa Cruz California and want to learn more about what’s happening.

I was going to write this week about a native plant community, but someone made a comment recently that led me to change course, to focus rather on a very dominant ecosystem in our area: row crop agriculture. They said, ‘There are no animals killed in making a meatless burger.’ The statement took my breath away. Apparently, it is time for me to put my thoughts into writing on this subject, long stewing on my back burner.

Sacrifices for Veggie Burgers

Meatless burgers contain agricultural products grown on farms that have killed and are killing animals as an inherent part of their practices. The original clearing of agricultural land caused the greatest outright slaughter of animals. Many animals were crushed by the first land-clearing bulldozers or burnt alive when the natural vegetation was ignited. Some furry critters fled at first only to starve later when they were driven from one already-occupied territory to the next. Perhaps a few lucky larger quick and mobile vertebrate refugees survived. The many smaller, less mobile animals not outright crushed or burned were eventually chopped up with the plough.

After the clearing, crops are planted every year thereafter, and farmers trap, poison, or shoot ‘pests.’ In some cases, farmers fence, net, or otherwise ‘deter’ pests…sometimes entangling animals but always driving wayward animals onto roads or into the mouths of smart predators that take advantage of deterrence methods with their hunting regimes. Farmland becomes a hazard for wildlife, effectively removing agricultural lands from anything classifiable as ‘wildlife habitat.’

Yummy Bananas

Many of us have heard the tropical horror stories related to agricultural expansion. Giant farms have been expanding, destroying tropical forests, the most diverse of ecosystems, especially to produce soybeans and palm oil. Many areas have already been cleared, and the ongoing tropical agriculture is regularly killing thousands of species that are dwindling by the day. A friend told me of his first job on a tropical banana farm in the 1970’s. As a teenager trying to earn money to support his family, he took the closest job he could find as a laborer on one of the giant banana farms in Central America. His supervisor gave him small plastic cups to suspend from the banana trees and told him to fill the cups with a viscous liquid poured from a large bottle he was told to carry with him. He was told to return each day to refill the cups. Returning to those cups, he clambered over piles of a diverse array of dead bats that had ingested the poison liquid he was placing in the cups. This method of reducing the fruit pollinating bat claw marks (just aesthetic damage) on the bunches of bananas has since been replaced by covering the bunches with protective plastic bags impregnated with pesticides. But banana farms are still sprayed with deadly chemicals and are devoid of even the shadow of the tropical life found in natural systems.

Shade Grown

Even though we might turn to purchasing organic bananas and even certified organic, fair trade locally roasted coffee, those organic crops are grown on lands where tropical wildlife is largely obliterated. Organic coffee and bananas are grown in full sun, the rainforest cleared to make way for the farms. “Shade grown” coffee certification is largely a sham without defensible standards for conserving tropical forests and associated birds, except for the Smithsonian’s bird friendly coffee certification which is effectively unavailable in stores in Santa Cruz and so must be ordered over the internet.

Ranching to Vineyards

Locally, the story is little different. Agriculture is expanding in our area mostly from conversion of grazing land to vineyards, a process that does not trigger environmental review because both activities are considered agricultural. Oak woodlands and old growth grasslands that supported free-roaming wildlife and sequestered carbon are being converted to vineyards where wildlife is commonly fenced out and wildlife inside the fences trapped and killed. Tilling the converted grazing land releases long-sequestered carbon, adding to global warming.

The Local Veggie Farming Slaughter

Once agricultural land is in production, routine practices actively kill or deter wildlife and passively degrade wildlife habitat. Driving through the Pajaro or Salinas Valleys, look for the upside-down white plastic Ts at the field edges: those are poison bait stations with poison designed to kill small animals that venture into the fields. Traps or poisons are used to kill any animals once they find their way further into fields. Organic farmers often use traps for gophers with regular trap patrols as part of their daily operations. Passive forms of wildlife killing may seem a little less aggressive. In both conventional and organic agriculture at any scale, the mowing and tilling of crop areas leaves mutilated (hopefully quickly killed) critters in the wake of tractors: snakes, toads, frogs, lizards, salamanders, birds, mice, moles, shrews, and voles are all decimated. Polluted runoff from both organic and conventional agriculture is another issue. Agricultural irrigation runoff into Elkhorn Slough has the highest levels of fertilizer in the US, equivalent to dumptruck load of fertilizer a day, causing terrible contamination of the state’s second largest estuary.

Ranching Conservationists

In contrast to the impacts of these cropping systems, I look to coastal prairie fed, pasture raised cattle that are managed in such a way to restore local ecosystems and provide food for those who would eat it. I’m not arguing against the need to reduce the amount of meat the world’s population eats: clearly, there is a lot of animal agriculture that is terrible. However, many ranchers locally are doing a world of good for wildlife and plant diversity with their coastal prairie stewardship. Globally, ‘abandonment’ of grazing in Spain, France, Britain, and other places with diverse grasslands has caused species loss and ecosystem degradation. Humans have been learning how to manage livestock to mimic evolutionary disturbance regimes that maintain wildlife and keep grasslands diverse and healthy. Most ranchers I know are enthusiastic about the wildlife they steward; many are working with conservationists to co-manage for biological diversity. This situation makes the contrast between veggie and beef burgers a little more interesting.

Wildlife Friendly

There is real potential for cropland management to be more sensitive to wildlife. One day our lettuce won’t come with such a legacy of wildlife displacement and death. There are only two wildlife-friendly food certifications that I know about: the Smithsonian’s certification of Bird Friendly Coffee and the relatively new Audubon Society’s certification for bird friendly beef. Taking its normal laudable step beyond the Federal guidelines for organic standards, Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) requires its certified members to maintain a conservation plan to address habitat stewardship. But CCOF lacks an ecologist to review or advise on such plans, so this effort mostly falls quite short of what is needed. Let me know if you know other attempts to address these gaps! Meanwhile, what are we to do? 

Ask a Farmer

The thing to do is ask the farmer who you support about their conservation practices. Already you probably understand the importance of supporting farmers directly by shopping at a farmer’s market. When you buy from them, you might ask how they take care of wildlife on their farm. The answer should take longer than either you or the farmer wants to take; shorter answers are probably insufficient and will be quick evidence that the farmer isn’t practicing wildlife friendly agriculture. Sensitive management of irrigation, runoff, ponds, hedgerows, cover crops, fallow fields, roads, and non-crop areas should almost all be part of any wildlife-friendly farmer’s skill base. And, they would have to explain a little about what ‘sensitive management’ means in each case – the stories aren’t too complex if someone knows their stuff, but the telling will take a little time. We need those stories. We need those conversations. Future generations will depend on farmers who integrate nature with their crops.