by as published on , The New Republic
The purveyors of “grass-fed” beef want you to believe that it solves meat’s environmental problem. But this is merely a branding exercise, not a climate solution.
When foodies sink their teeth into a slab of cheese from one of the historic dairy farms in Point Reyes, California, their minds probably run to grass-fed cows ranging free on the lush green oceanside hills of Marin County. Over 5,000 dairy cows and beef cattle roam the Point Reyes National Seashore National Park in full view of visiting tourists. Unlike the many dairy and meat companies that slap happy animals on their labels while sourcing their product from hellish factory farms, the dairy and beef farms at Point Reyes represent an agrarian ideal of ecologically and ethically sustainable animal agriculture.
“Pasture-raised” and “extensive” or “regenerative” grazing have been watchwords in the American foodie community since at least the 2000s, when celebrated food writer Michael Pollan presented sustainable, nonindustrial practices as a way out of the ethical morass of the American food system in his award-winning bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Everyone from progressive agrarians to libertarian ranchers to multinational food companies, and even conservation NGOs such as the Audubon Society, has thrown their weight behind the idea of replacing mass-produced meat, from chickens to ungulates, with a holistically raised alternative. While some environmentalists reject beef altogether for its contribution to climate change, pollution, and deforestation, proponents of free-ranging beef have rallied under the motto, “It’s not the cow; it’s the how.” They argue that, done properly, pasture-raised cattle can replace the ecological functions of wild ruminants like elk and bison, produce food on “marginal” land that would otherwise be wasted, and eliminate beef’s carbon hoofprint (since well-grazed land can sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide). This would mean consumers could stick it to Big Ag, fight climate change, and help imperiled animals and ecosystems without actually changing their diets too much; they’d just need to eat a bit less meat and pay a bit more for the grass-fed option.
Whether these promises hold up under scrutiny is a subject of fierce debate. And in recent years, a series of lawsuits have argued the opposite thesis: that even “regenerative” cattle imperil the very ecosystems proponents claim they will “regenerate.”
This past June, the Harvard Animal Law and Policy Clinic, on behalf of the Animal Legal Defense Fund and a number of individual plaintiffs, filed suit against the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, which manages Point Reyes National Park, alleging that cattle ranching is endangering the iconic tule elk.* It’s not the first such lawsuit that has been filed over the past decade against the NPS to stop alleged environmental damage from Point Reyes cows.
The National Park Service leases parkland to a number of “historic” cattle and dairy farms, which it has done since the park’s creation in 1962. The elk, native to the region but driven to near-extinction by hunting and human activities such as ranching, are protected by a 1976 federal conservation law and were reintroduced to the park in 1978. But to keep the elk from competing with cattle for forage and water, the NPS erected fences that confine the elk to select corners of the park with limited water and forage. This confinement has proved fatal during droughts. Drought in 2013–2014 led to 254 elk deaths. A current drought has already killed over 150 elk, a third of the once 445-strong herd that inhabits Tomales Point, all just a stone’s throw away from thriving commodity cows. Ranchers have even pushed for the right to cull elk outright to keep their populations in check, in part because they have also killed off the natural predators that would do so in a healthy ecosystem. The Harvard suit alleges that “the Tule elk are continuing to die horrific and preventable deaths” in clear violation of federal law.
Prior to the twentieth century, the tule elk were an important part of the Pacific coastal ecosystem and a major component of the diet of the Coast Miwok tribe, the native peoples who lived there. In fact, the NPS concedes that the region’s characteristic hilly grasslands were “the byproduct of burning, weeding, pruning and harvesting for at least two millennia by Coast Miwok and their antecedents.” These grasslands made a juicy target for white settlers arriving in the middle of the nineteenth century. They brought cattle with them, plundered the Coast Miwok lands, hunted large predators and elk to near-extinction, and then grazed their cattle on the hills instead. The intertwined processes of colonial and ecological displacement have continued into the twenty-first century: In 2015, the NPS balked at a proposed “Indigenous Archaeological District” that would have protected Coast Miwok heritage sites from damage from ranching. Even as it did so, it quickly approved a “Historic Dairy Ranching District,” over and against Miwok protests. Today, many Coast Miwok are opposed to the rancher-backed plan to fence and further cull the elk. “The Park Service proposal to shoot indigenous tule elk and promote ranching that harms wildlife, water and habitat is a travesty and contrary to the traditions of our ancestors,” Jason Deschler, dance captain and headman with the Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin, wrote this summer in a statement opposing the cull.
The cows at Point Reyes don’t just compete with the elk. They also defecate about 130 million pounds of nitrogen-rich manure a year, which leaches into the soil and streams and ponds of the area. An NPS-funded study suggested that removal of the cows would benefit numerous native species, including butterflies, seabirds, frogs, and salmon. And yet the same study recommended the expansion of ranching. As a damning investigative report into the issue in the Marin County Pacific Sun suggests, the ranchers and dairy farmers have urged pliant politicians, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, to “pressur[e] the Park Service to prioritize the preservation of private ranching profits over environmental concerns.”…(CONTINUED)