Un paio di settimane fa ho letto sul Guardian questo articolo di George Monbiot, un giornalista inglese che si occupa di ambiente, in cui sostanzialmente auspicava la fine totale dell’allevamento degli animali. Ci sono tante cose di cui si potrebbe discutere, ma questa al momento mi sta molto a cuore. Gli ho scritto e ho provato a scrivere anche al Guardian, che è più difficile di quanto si potrebbe pensare; siccome come immaginavo non ho ricevuto risposta, ho deciso di mettere la lettera sul blog. Ovviamente è in inglese.
When I read George Monbiot’s claim that raising animals on pasture is not just inefficient but “stupendously wasteful”, and then his argument for a plant-based diet coupled with rewilding, it made me wonder how he, one of the most well-known environmental writers of our time, actually understood ecology. I wanted to reply right away as if he had attacked me personally. I did not dare because I am not well-known, but I dare now: please hear me out.
Of course pasture is more inefficient than industrial farming. That’s because it’s not as destructive. In pasture lands, plants and animals can live even if they are of no use to us. Healthy pasture has much more biodiversity than a cultivated field: it has more types of plants, insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, undisturbed by pesticides, herbicides, or crushing machinery. It can be used for a short time for grazing, and then be just left there, open and free, for the rest of the year. Intensify the use, make it less “wasteful”, and biodiversity declines.
As far as I know no one has said this better than the English poet John Clare. He knew his countryside so well that he understood what its change meant not just to people, but to nature too; at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, he saw the common lands enclosed and turned into fields that would, among other purposes, serve to feed a growing population – the kind of thing that, if I understand correctly, George Monbiot would have us do. Clare saw a free land, open to all, human or not, suddenly fenced, claimed, ploughed, enslaved just as its people were about to be. Life was in free grazing, commonality, unboundedness; efficient agriculture was tyranny and death. An interesting twist on a dicotomy that we assume to be the other way round.
Surely the “wilderness” would be better even than pastures, though? Should we not eat only vegetables and give the land back to the forest, as Monbiot suggests? Things, once again, are not so simple.
In the Northeastern Italian Alps, where I live, as pastures have been abandoned and are reclaimed by the forest some wild birds who had adapted to our mixed land use are losing their habitat. Some see humanity as a pest on this planet, but we are still a part of it; some species have followed us along in the changes we’ve made, and thrived as a consequence. Some are domesticated, others live in the environments we have cultivated. Should we stop keeping animals or pastures entirely, as we are now told we should, many species would be lost forever.
Not all land, not even all agricultural and grazing land, can be rewilded (unless we all die). Many communities would object to being too close to the forest. As romantic as it may sound in theory, in practice most people don’t want to live in the woods – it’s too dark, dangerous and inconvenient. With our current levels of population, consumption, and intolerance for early death, we could not live just off the forests even if we wanted to. Especially if we refused to kill animals.
I do believe we should give some of the world “back to nature”, even that we have an obligation to do so, but I do not believe there would necessarily be less killing or even suffering as a consequence. Death and suffering are part of the natural world, whether it suits us or not: as the lynx, the bear and the wolf come back to the abandoned mountains, they chase, maul and tear apart animals we could kill with a sudden gunshot or a very sharp knife. It’s true that wolves and bears have no other choice. At any rate, that’s what they do.
But let’s go back to pastures.
In our valley, which has been inhabited by humans for thousands of years, villagers still fight to keep away the forest that is closing in around them. After I moved here, for months I watched them cut the grass they used to give to cows they don’t have anymore, and burn it or throw it off the mountain. The fragile soil becomes poorer, the air more polluted, just so that the bush, followed by the wood, and all its animals, is kept at bay. They think that this will discourage the roe deers and the boars from coming and eating all the vegetables. Some people cannot grow beans or corn anymore, because the forest is so close.
I saw the thick, white smoke of burned hay rise from the slopes like an accusation, or a challenge. Surely, if you do not raise animals but cut the grass and burn it or let it decompose, you still emit greenhouse gases while getting no food out of it at all. That is the flaw of many of the attacks against animal husbandry: the alternatives can be hard to fathom.
So I decided to raise sheep. At least, I thought, all this hay will not go to waste. My sheep will eat it and give back wool, meat, milk, and manure for the fields; they will make food for us with things we cannot eat that grow on land that is too steep or fragile to farm. In return I will give them as much freedom and protection as I can, and I will have them killed only when necessary and with as little pain and stress as possible. I will not let them overgraze; I will let them reproduce naturally and raise their young. I will give them as long a lifespan as I can. This way, I will not get many “calories” out of them, but the improvement in welfare – theirs and ours – will be worth it. I am an animal too, and this lifestyle is better for me than living in a crowded city or giving up the culture and flavours of our husbandry-based traditions. Or being like many in the West, inside and outside the cities: knowing very few animals if any at all, and keeping them trapped just to have them around. Or living in the plains of industrial agriculture, where you sometimes won’t even hear birds chirping.
Between eating too many animal products and none at all we can have this: eating less, but better.
I work very hard for this – and of course I am not the only one here, nor the biggest: in spite of the competition from tasteless, cheap, efficient, industrial milk, some still raise their cows, sheep and goats on fragrant Alpine grass. Some do it more ethically than others; we need consumers to watch us closely and support the best of us. We need laws against or discouraging the worst practices.
This is why I am so upset with George Monbiot, and all those that sabotage our biodiverse effort at husbandry because it is “wasteful”. By whose standards? Yes, it cannot feed many people, but it can feed some, and then leave some more nutrients for whatever happens to live on this land we share. If the human population keeps growing forever, nothing we do will be efficient enough, not even only eating plants, and we will end up killing each other instead of animals; if we accept the idea of an optimum and stable population, then inefficiency by human standards can become the most ecological of principles.
Is it necessary to eat as much meat as we do? No. But it’s also unnecessary to wear so much cotton, drink so much tea, or alcohol, read so many books, take so many trips, or indulge in any of the many other land-consuming, ecosystem-destroying activities of our time. We could choose to demonize just one, or rather suggest moderation in all.