An open letter from a Conservationist to a Vegan Activist
MFL 396 'Montgomery'
I’m a conservationist and I believe you need to understand the concept of a ‘trophic cascade’, but first I’d like to introduce you to Montgomery. He’s a 6-yr-old Plains Bison herd bull, one of 11 herd bulls on our ranch and one of about 325 bison of all ages, that call our ranch home.
They can call our ranch home because most of it had not been converted to crop production by mainstream agriculture. The 20% of it that had been used for cropping has been returned to a more natural state over the last two decades. No wheat, barley, peas, lentils, beans or canola grows on our land and it is our goal that they never again will. Instead, our ranch lands grow annual, biennial and perennial polycultures. The last grain crop planted on our land was in 2005 and that was also the last year synthetic fertilizer was used on our land.
6 years ago, I gave up a well paid career as a senior military officer to return to this ranch because 24 years ago my father made the decision to leave a lucrative conventional agriculture industry position as a highly respected purebred cattle producer, instead choosing to enter a fledgling industry raising bison and pursuing a more natural and ecologically sound form of rangeland agriculture.
The largest low diversity plant culture (fewer than 4 species) on our land was replaced by an 8 species annual polyculture in 2017 and now has a plant polyculture consisting of 7 perennial species plus 3 annual species. Over the coming years, regenerative techniques will be used to reintroduce the vast array of plant species which make up the Northern Aspen Parkland ecosystem found on the rest of the ranch. The goal is to effectively ‘re-wild’ the ranch’s plant ecosystem.
The the last remaining low diversity polyculture, a relatively small field, was replaced by a 7 species polyculture in 2018 and will also be steadily returned to an increasingly diverse perennial polyculture over coming years.
The effort to return this formerly farmed land to its natural state, and the effort to restore ecosystem health to the native rangeland that has been steadily depleted by 100 years of ‘modern rangeland science’ will take a few years.
Without returning herding ruminant megafauna to the landscape in their ‘keystone species’ ecological role, this wouldn’t be possible, but when these herd animals are managed in a manner that not only ensures their health and wellbeing, but also facilitates their ability to ‘manifest instinctive behaviour patterns’ and reassume their natural symbiotic relationship with the ecosystem they built, the earth begins to heal. Life returns and balanced ecological cycles return. Depleted soil begins to recover, and atmospheric CO2 and methane are converted into biologically accessible soil carbons.
Long story short, we are in the business of Conservation Agriculture. Conservation Agriculture is a combination of ‘Game Ranching’, the ranching of native wild species instead of domestic livestock; and regenerative agriculture, in this case Holistic Planned Grazing (or Adaptive Multi-Paddock Grazing).
The benefits of Conservation Agriculture are the preservation of native wildlife and the restoration of the natural ecosystem. By carefully managing the impact of the keystone grazing species, the bison, a diverse ecosystem that supports natural plant and animal biodiversity can be restored and maintained. As the ecosystem recovers, the productivity of the soil and plant ecosystem returns and the same land will support 2-3 times the bison population, plus vastly increased numbers of other species of wildlife.
In fact, on at least one regenerative farm in Virginia, the forage production has reached 5 times the county average without a single drop of synthetic fertilizer, herbicide or pesticide. In the process, a severely degraded soil ecosystem with a soil organic level under 1% has been replaced by a thriving soil ecosystem with soil organic levels over 8%. The jury is still out on whether that farm has even reached the limit of it’s biological production potential. If this farm’s practices were repeated on the area of the US covered by only current domestic lawns, golf courses and recreational horse pasture, enough food would be produced to feed the entire US population and on regenerating topsoil that is a net carbon sink. Every other current farm and ranch in the US would be producing surplus to the needs of the US population.
The problem with Conservation Agriculture is that natural grassland ecosystems favour deep rooted perennial plant species that do not provide human digestible nutrition in significant quantities. Most human digestible plants are annual species, selectively bred over the last 4500 years until they bear almost no resemblance to their wild forebears.
Of critical importance is the fact that we’ve taken plants that our bodies are adapted to digest as seasonal and emergency food sources, consumed for very limited periods of time, and made them available all year. In selecting them for resistance to predation by microbiology, fungi, rusts, insects and other pests, we’ve maximised the content of toxic proteins and other compounds in these ‘foods’. Aside from providing mankind with the foundation compounds for chemical weapons, these toxins are now producing an epidemic of human health failures with allergies, intolerances and autoimmune diseases. Having my wife and three children afflicted by Celiac Sprue and having had two sisters diagnosed with cancer, I have become very aware of the long-term human health consequences of encouraging people to consume greater and greater quantities of these ‘natural’ poisons.
In addition, we have fed greater and greater quantities of these unnatural plant-based products to domestic animals. Corn and other grains are now the main ingredient of many dog foods, with the result being an epidemic of arthritis, respiratory disease and cancer in dogs. Grazing herbivores, adapted to eating a diverse diet of natural green forage, are being force fed the same junk we’re poisoning people with. In order to do this, we put them in ‘confined feeding operations’ where pathogens become rife and animals, their immune systems compromised by a nutrient deficient ‘junk food’ diet, become dependant on a cocktail of pharmaceutical ‘cures’. These antibiotics and other treatments end up leaching into the surrounding environment, damaging soil microbiology and ending up in rivers, lakes and streams.
From an ecological function standpoint, as annuals, they are ‘early succession’ plants that thrive in a ‘disturbed’ ecosystem. Their role in nature is to act as a ‘bandaid’ after a traumatic event (fire, flood, mechanical destruction, etc) damages the ecosystem. They rapidly produce a green canopy of above-ground biomass to armour exposed soil against the ravages of temperature extremes, erosion from rainfall, etc. Then, as the ecosystem heals, they are replaced by new perennial species.
It is not enough to simply stop feeding this diet to livestock. In order to grow these plants as crops for human consumption, we must continue to disrupt this natural healing process, artificially maintaining a ‘damaged’ ecosystem with the long-term consequence of biodiversity loss in the soil ecosystem. Maintained for any length of time, the cropping of annual monocultures results in soil depletion as soil biomass is lost through leaching, runoff, wind erosion and direct oxidation into the atmosphere. At present rates of soil loss, the world has only around 60 harvests left on it’s topsoil reserves.
In addition, very few species of the soil microbiome, or species of wildlife, can survive on a plant monoculture. Where they can survive for a short period, the lack of dietary diversity results in nutrient deficiencies, depressed autoimmune function and depressed reproductive rates. Slow decline to extinction still results in extinction. In sum, most wildlife species die out when their polyculture habitats are replaced by agricultural monocultures.
Where domesticated plant species are grown in polycultures, some semblance of ecosystem health can be restored. However, as annual plant species are relatively shallow rooted, their restorative power is relatively limited. The deepest rooted common grain plant, a wheat/rye hybrid called triticale, only puts down roots to around 4ft (1.2m). By contrast, healthy native prairie grasses average 15-25ft (4.5-7.6m) and the deepest rooted perennial grasses can get root depths to 40ft (12m), a full 10x deeper than the triticale. Where the plant root goes, the soil microbiome can thrive and soil carbons can be sequestered in biologically valuable forms. There isn't enough technically accessible carbon in the earth's crust to exceed the ability of healthy grasslands to absorb it.
Which brings me back to Montgomery. In order for him and his fellow bison to survive on our ranch, along with three species of deer, one species of bear, three species of canine predator, three species of feline predator, dozens of species of small animals and birds, thousands of species of insects and millions of species of bacteria, archea, fungi and other microbiology, a diverse and natural plant polyculture must be maintained. The loss of the grazing megafauna from grassland ecosystems, the most productive ecosystems on earth, results in a 'trophic cascade'. This means the ecosystem, dependant on moving, mobbing and mowing natural 'pruners' of grassland vegetation, suffers a ripple of ecosystem failures that eventually leads to a collapse of biodiversity. It's this loss of biodiversity that is defined as 'desertification'. Most of the world's desert areas have come as a consequence of humans removing grazing megafauna from their 'keystone' ecological role of 'grassland pruners'.
To return 40% of the earth's terrestrial surface to ecological health and biological abundance, humans need to stop screwing with nature and return to it. We need to eat a diet provided by the natural ecosystem and stop destroying it to grow a bunch of ‘frankenveggies’ that provide excess energy, nutrient deficiencies and overwhelm our healthcare systems with autoimmune disease.
If you choose to continue down the ‘plant based’ dietary path, Montgomery and all the other megafauna of the world lose their habitat and die. In 60 years, when their soil building ecosystem function will be desperately needed to save the world, both humans and animals, from starvation, they will be gone. One last great irreversible trophic cascade will destroy what remains of our natural ecosystem because humans chose irrationality over science, shallow compassion over love.
Of course, there is another path. It’s called ‘actually giving a damn instead of pretending to give a damn’. It requires us to stop fighting nature and trying to force her to bend to our will. It requires us to manage the ecosystem in accordance with natural ecosystem processes in all their complexity and, above all, it requires us to eat only what nature provides, not what we want her to provide.
What she provides when the ecosystem is healthy is a seasonal paleolithic diet dominated by animal-based nutrition and supplemented by small quantities of naturally occurring and seasonally limited plant-based nutrition.
The clock is ticking, because if we haven’t gotten away from ecologically destructive plant-based diets in the next 60 years, climate change won’t matter; we, the bison and all other complex life will be fighting one last desperate battle for the last bit of food being grown on the last acre of soil.
40+% of the earth’s terrestrial surface were perennial grasslands and gave us the topsoil we are currently mining to produce ‘plant based’ foods for human consumption. These grassland soils are dying because we, humans, removed the hundreds of millions of grazing animals that created and sustained them during the Miocene and early Pleistocene.
I, for one, am going to fight for Montgomery and all the other species that rely on his species’ capacity to repair the damage humans have done to our natural world. I’m going to fight to return bison and other grazing megafauna to the centre of the human food chain, because that will enable all the farms and ranches of the world to return the healing influence of these animals to their land.
We’ve already killed off over half the megafauna of North America, please don’t keep destroying the habitat of the rest of them just so you can pretend to be virtuous among the ecologically ignorant patrons of some city café where one will ever enjoy the passing of a moose, bison, deer, elk or wolf.
Carnivore or Seasonal Paleolithic Diet - most effectively produced by encouraging a natural ecosystem to thrive, taking only what human nutrition is needed. Regeneration of degraded ecosystems is symbiotic and complimentary to these diets. Sustainable for millennia and adaptable to all climatic regions and foreseeable climatic changes.
Vegan Diet - produced by ecologically erosive agriculture. Most plant-based proteins and other nutrients are produced by monoculture cropping, killing all other 'undesirable' species. Powered by the 'morality of distance', where the consumer pretends to have 'minimised harm' while consuming a food produced by sterlizing the ecosystem of life. Sustainable for about 60 more years until the world's reserves of topsoil are depleted. Veganism, if it succeeds, will likely be replaced by cannibalism by the year 2100.