Growing grain for cattle — who eat grass, not grain — is one of the worst idea humans have had. Picture: 123RF/DOLGACHOV
Growing grain for cattle — who eat grass, not grain — is one of the worst idea humans have had. Picture: 123RF/DOLGACHOV

The ongoing destruction of the globe’s rainforests has been brought into devastating focus by the Amazonian blazes. One of the chief mainstream responses has been: “Stop eating meat.” 

On the face of it, that’s an understandable response. Much forest destruction is caused by agriculture, mostly livestock farming. About 80% of Amazonian soya grown is for cattle feed. About 60% of the cleared land is used for pasture. Horrendous. But “Stop eating meat” is a simplistic response that ignores the bigger problem: destructive agriculture.  

We’ve been increasingly dividing diets into plant vs animal. It’s a split that fits nicely into social media virtue-signalling and current (insanely misguided) nutritional advice. It’s an ideological division. Viewing this sort of compartmentalising through the prism of rainforest concerns highlights its unhelpfulness.

There’s no debate: growing grain for cattle — who eat grass, not grain — is one of the worst idea humans have had. Clearing forest to grow this grain is a disaster. Growing this grain using industrial methods is worse. Taking down trees to make pasture? Not the best idea either.

Does that mean meat is a disaster? No, it means that destructive farming is — whether we’re talking grain for cows or for humans; coffee, chocolate or rice.

It’s not so much about what we farm. It’s about how and where. That holds true for the maize supplying the abominable livestock feedlots and the seed oils grown for the abominable “plant-based” burgers. And it’s why agriculture per se is not destructive to the Amazon. Some very good mixed agroforestry, which supports biomass and is self-fertilising, is practised in the Amazon.   

Livestock farming on grasslands that require almost no external inputs and regenerate land shouldn’t even be spoken of in the same breath as the beef originating from grain-dependent beef farming: they are chalk-and-cheese scenarios.

By the same token, a homogeneous view on “plant-based” foods is ludicrous. We mean well, but only our urban ignorance could allow us to entertain the notion that a glass of almond milk from fossil-fuel dependent, pesticide-driven farming that has resulted in the death of everything from bees to topsoil and water is a “green” food item. Land degradation, biomass loss and climate change are intertwined, whether in the Amazon or a savannah. Emissions are so wildly different in these scenarios that nuts and grains can outstrip meat in their CO2 production.   

Polarities will always be problematic, but if we really need to split things up simplistically, I vote for that of destructive farming versus regenerative farming. Or just Good Farming versus Bad Farming. Forget about plant-based versus animal-based: that’s as helpful as zombies versus aliens.

We should support and demand food of all kinds that’s grown without chemical fertilisers and pesticides, routine antibiotics, forest clearing or water contamination.

Let’s not confuse ideology and ecology — there is no time for that anymore.