Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Big Picture

It’s almost time for the Ancestral Health Symposium. I’m looking forward to seeing friends, meeting lots of folks, and listening to so many of the people I’ve been learning from these past few years.  I’ll be presenting a poster on Saturday, August 6th. A marvelous way to celebrate my birthday!

The title of my poster is “Grass Based Health: The Big Picture.” My take-home point is that a human diet based on animal products – particularly those from ruminant animal – is far more “sustainable” than plant based diets.

As we consider this topic, we need to understand that our perception of “wilderness” and “nature” has been as distorted as our understanding of what constitutes a “healthy diet.” I find the following quote by D. F. Lott extremely helpful:
“When Lewis and Clark headed west … they were exploring not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for Native Americans” (Lott, 2002). 

When Europeans first arrived in North America, they found anything but a primeval landscape. Instead, they encountered a land significantly altered by humans through the use of fire, sophisticated agricultural techniques, mining, and road and mound building (Mann, 2006).

“At the time of Columbus the Western Hemisphere had been thoroughly painted with the human brush. Agriculture occurred in as much as two-thirds of what is now the continental United States, with large swathes of the Southwest terraced and irrigated. Among the maize fields in the Midwest and Southeast, mounds by the thousand stippled the land. The forests of the eastern seaboard had been peeled back from the coasts, which were now lined with farms. Salmon nets stretched across almost every ocean-bound stream in the Northwest. And almost everywhere there was Indian fire.”

“The virgin forest was not encountered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” wrote historian Stephen Pyne, “it was invented in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” Far from destroying pristine wilderness, that is, Europeans bloodily created it. (Mann, 2006)

With that background as introduction, here is the text from my poster.

Forage plants are those plants eaten by animals directly as pasture, crop residue, or immature cereal crops, those cut for fodder, and conserved for later use as hay or silage. These diverse crops vary widely in their adaptation and feed quality. They are typically low in fat, high in fiber, and not utilizable by humans.
Grass, clover, and forbes pasture. This plant material is high in moisture, crude
protein and fiber and low in fat. It's also not directly utilizable by humans.
While forage crops can be grown on ground incapable of producing feedstuffs that are utilizable by humans, greater yields can be achieved on better arable ground. These crops have limited economic value until converted into meat, milk, and fiber. Three quarters of the feed consumed by the United States’ beef cattle is forage.

The symbiotic relationship between the ruminant animal and the microbial population in the rumen permits these mammals to thrive on a low-fat, high-fiber diet. This production of high-quality protein and animal fat is the truly sustainable form of agriculture.
The ruminant and it's associated microbial population convert this
material that cannot sustain humans into products that can -
high quality protein and animal fat.
Aspects of sustainability:

Population: The archeological record and anthropological research demonstrates that the human diet was based upon animal products. Research confirms that the modern diet ought to be, too. The mistaken belief that the healthy diet is a plant-based one, one based upon carbohydrates, has produced an epidemic of chronic disease in the United States. The costs of this epidemic are unsustainable. Diets based upon animal products produce improvements in a wide variety of chronic diseases. These diets are more sustainable – people stay on them – as compared with low-fat and semi-starvation diets.
Grass-fed ribeye steaks. Grass-fed is NOT low fat!
Ecology: Grasslands, including sown pasture and rangeland, are among the largest ecosystems in the world. The proportion of the earth's land area covered by grasslands in 2000 was estimated at 3.5 billion hectares (8.6 billion acres), representing 26% of the world land area and 70% of the world agricultural area. There are 255 million hectares (630 million acres) of pasture, pastured woodland, pastured cropland and public grazing lands in the US. Less than 9 percent of the cropland is pasture.

Perennial forage crops increase soil organic matter,  fixing more carbon than woodland. Pasture crops reduce soil erosion, improving the infiltration of water into the soil profile and surface water quality. Without managed grazing or periodic burning, many grasslands will not remain grasslands. Ecological succession results in encroachment by woody, less productive species.
The following image is a close-up from the middle of this picture.
Grass grows naturally in a wide variety of sites, making it an
ideal crop. It's always better to work with nature!
Economic: Forage-based livestock production systems are fundamental to the global economy, and are more economically sustainable than annual cropping systems. Grasslands contribute to the livelihoods of more than 800 million people, worldwide. They are a source of food and forage, energy and wildlife habitat. The single greatest source of new wealth (the conversion of natural resource into a salable commodity) in the US is the conversion of grass into beef.
Pasture-based agriculture produces increased wealth while requiring fewer non-renewable inputs than annual crops. Biological nitrogen fixation by forage legumes and efficient nutrient cycling via the grazing animals’ dung and urine reduces fertilizer requirements. Managed grazing of adapted pasture mixes reduces pesticide use. These perennial crops require less tillage, cultivation, and harvest than annual crops, meaning less equipment is needed, and less petroleum used.

The key to farm sustainability is lowering the cost of production, rather than achieving maximum production. Well-managed pasture-based production systems are the means of achieving the lowest cost of production of animal products.

Achieving an acceptable profit at lower levels of production means more farmers can remain in business or begin production. More farmers means healthier rural communities.

Our grasslands are not widely appreciated, nor are they close to achieving their potential. Important research and demonstration is needed, as well as adoption of suitable practices from other countries that have better developed grazing industries.

The adoption of diets based upon animal product instead of cereal products is the sustainable choice!


Bureau of Land Management. 2011. Fact Sheet on the BLM’s Management of Livestock Grazing. Accessed July 19, 2011. 

Food and Agriculture Organization. 2008. Are grasslands under threat? Accessed July 21, 2011. 

Heath, M. E., R. F. Barnes, D. S. Metcalfe, eds. 1985. Forages: The Science of Grassland Agriculture. Iowa State University Press. Ames, Iowa.

Lott, D.F. 2002. American Bison: A Natural History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Mann, Charles C. 2006. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Vintage.

United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. 2011. State Fact Sheets. Accessed July 18, 2011.