Does environmentally friendly beef exist and if so how do you rear cattle for conservation?
For 24 years, I’ve been a vegetarian. I’m deeply concerned about how modern agricultural techniques are destroying the diverse richness of natural habitats and contributing to climate change.
So I was more than a little uneasy when I was commissioned by BirdLife International to write a series of articles about conserving native grasslands in South America through cattle ranching.
I deeply respect BirdLife’s worldwide work that empowers local people to conserve nature, but was I about to discover that my concerns over meat consumption meant I could not work with them?
As I researched into their Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance, my worries completely disappeared while my views over cattle rearing became complex. Here’s why…
The threats facing the natural grasslands of Southern Cone, known as the pampas, is rampant
agricultural intensification – namely to grow soybean. This fertile land is being brought up by agricultural giants and the wildlife-rich, native grasses are being destroyed to create monocultures.
The pampas grasslands is now one of the most critically endangered ecosystems in Latin America.
Creating protected areas in the Southern Cone to protect its biodiversity is not a viable solution, as 95% of the land is privately owned and used for agricultural production.
Traditionally, this land was farmed by cattle ranchers who graze their cows on natural grasses. But this is rapidly changing.
Family farmers face great financial pressure to convert their native grasslands to grow crops and make a greater profit over the short term. Or they are tempted to sell their land to multinational companies and move to urban environments, where life is perceived as easier.
If farmers can no longer traditionally farm their land and make a profit, the reality is that they will convert, sell or rent it for financial gain, thereby destroying the integrity of this rich grassland ecosystem. Nicolas Marchand, coordinator of the Alliance, said:
“The aim is to show that the grasslands can be more productive when well managed, more profitable and friendly to biodiversity.”
The Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance is working across four countries – Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay – with over 400 gauchos, the iconic cowboys of South America.
The Alliance discovered that the gauchos’ cultural connection to the land is the key to saving it. Nicolas explained:
“The farming community want to continue rearing cattle here because it’s a deeply rooted part of their culture.”
The gauchos have been on this land as far back as the 16th century, when horsemen from Spain emigrated to the Southern Cone. They survived by hunting wild cattle but over time established farms and nurtured a rich culture of music, folklore and fashion.
The gauchos became greatly admired and renowned in legends and literature, portrayed as strong, brave and defiant. To this day, they play an important symbolic role in the nationalist feelings of the region.
Despite this, their cultural connection to the land is under threat and they are abandoning their natural grasslands. Nicolas said:
“We want to show farmers that there is an alternative. Regional research has shown that meat production yields can improve threefold solely as a result of good management practices.”
The aim is to ensure that the gauchos’ cattle can continue to control the grasses, doing the work that the region’s original herbivores once performed.
“We cannot save the grasslands without the gaucho farmers”, said Nicolas. “The farmers that we work with are the only reason that we have any grassland left at all. They are very proud of what they have and are fond of the land that they farm.”
In this kingdom of the gaucho, it is keenly felt that if the traditional farming culture is lost then the rich grassland habitat will be lost with it.
The Alliance has established an eco-label for its brand of bird-friendly, grass-fed beef that will command a premium price in South America and internationally to encourage more farmers to conserve their natural grasslands.
The challenge is to reverse the trend of feedlot beef that has captured most of the market and involves feeding confined cattle on soy and grain, much of which is grown on former native grasslands.
So the big question is: if I knew that the meat I was buying supported the conservation of biodiversity rich ecosystems, would I rethink my vegetarianism?… Food for thought (excuse the naff pun!).