The land is unusually hot and dry in the West right now. A wildfire burns a mile away along the banks of my local river, which is running so low and slow from drought that toxic algal blooms make it unsafe to swim in, while wild animals are thirsting to death. Not far away, cattle compete with native elk for water. In this arid landscape, we grow food for the nation. It’s time we do it in a better way.
California — a state ravaged by drought — is the biggest producer of water-intensive dairy in the country, turning out nearly one-fifth of the nation’s supply. Most of the water consumed in the state goes to pasture and alfalfa for livestock. And dairy production is on the rise, even while the industry disproportionately uses very limited water resources compared to other California food producers, including those that grow a third of the country's vegetables and two-thirds of the country's fruits and nuts. Meanwhile the United States overproduces dairy.
Cows require a lot of land for grazing and to grow their feed, and they’re a major source of emissions. Grazing deteriorates rangeland’s ability to store carbon, so the Center is battling agencies like the Bureau of Land Management that let millions of cattle eat on federally owned land for pennies on the dollar, despite the catastrophic cost to the climate. Cows also cluster in fragile riparian areas that wildlife needs to thrive, driving biodiversity loss. The sheer magnitude of production minimizes whatever benefits may come from an occasional biodiversity-minded producer.
In The Amazon is Burning: Biden Can Stop It, I discussed how cattle grazing is turning the rainforests of the Amazon to ashes. This region is critical to mitigating climate change, protecting biodiversity, and maintaining the health of life on Earth. The Center has called on President Biden to end U.S. complicity in the destruction of the Amazon with sanctions on Brazilian beef and soy until deforestation is stopped, with incentives that support a just transition for farmers and workers.
We need a just transition for agriculture here, too. The most marginalized communities and workers — the ones that work the fields and the factories, who are most affected by agricultural pollution and the climate crisis — are also the most harmed by nutritional insecurity and poor access to clean water.
A just transition would help small producers and farmworkers and shift the nation toward wildlife-friendly food consumption. Prioritizing biodiversity, water-smart agriculture, shelf-stable foods, strong supply chains, and resilient economies would preclude overproducing meat and dairy. These shifts would benefit consumers facing rising food costs, as well as small producers who are already having a hard time fattening animals for slaughter in highly consolidated, wrongly subsidized, unjust markets.
Approaching cattle-raising as an ecosystems issue intertwined with climate change can help us make better policies. Ecologically there’s no real place in western ecosystems for grazing nonnative cows and sheep on millions of acres — it exacerbates water waste, wildfire, climate change and biodiversity loss on a massive scale. These are problems that native wildlife like beavers and bison, and habitat like grasslands and mangroves, can manage far better than the industry. We must face the need for system-wide shifts in our diets and food production.
Save the date:
From Sept. 15 to 18, the Center will host its third virtual Food Justice Film Festival. In the September issue of Food X, we’ll share the sign-up link and talk more about our lineup of films and speakers. For now you can check out last year’s panel discussions.
Stay tuned for more news about food, wildlife and justice and write to me with your questions at EarthFriendlyDiet@BiologicalDiversity.org.
For the wild,
Jennifer Molidor, Senior Food Campaigner
Population and Sustainability Program
Center for Biological Diversity