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Ralph Loglisci, Slow Meat delegate

Like food, the word meat holds powerful connotations and can elicit a wide range of emotions. There seems to be a vast amount of conflicting information about the impacts of meat consumption and raising domesticated food animals.

Nutritionists argue that meat can be an important part of the human diet. Scientists say it was the act of eating meat that our distant ancestors were able to develop larger brains and evolve to the top of the global food chain. Conversely, research shows a high processed-meat diet can lead to serious health problems for the modern human being and that those who refrain from eating meat altogether are much more likely to live longer lives.

The many devastating health and environmental impacts of the factory farm system, which produces animals in concentrated and often inhumane ways, is well documented. However, there’s compelling research arguing that domesticated livestock may be the key to maintaining and restoring the Earth’s precious soil and combating climate change.

Instead of skirting these seemingly opposing issues surrounding meat production, Slow Food USA, which is part of the international movement to ensure food is good, clean and fair for all, is taking the issues surrounding meat head-on.

Last week, more than 100 ranchers and farmers, butchers, chefs, scientists, animal welfare experts, and eaters – representing both vegetarians and meat eaters alike – gathered in Denver, Colorado for the inaugural Slow Meat symposium. In typical Slow Food style, much of the convening and discussions took place over thoughtfully prepared meals and drink.

The end result? A menu of practical actions that Slow Food will use to encourage responsible and respectful meat production that considers the so-called five stages of field to fork – land & water use; animal husbandry; processing & distribution; marketing & healthy food retail; and consumption & child nutrition.

Can Livestock Save the World?

The provocative Zimbabwean biologist and environmentalist, Allan Savory of the Savory Institute, kicked-off the Slow Meat symposium with a thought-provoking keynote address. Though the stately academic with a congenial disposition was not afraid to stir the pot with statements about agriculture, such as, “I cannot picture a more destructive industry in the world,” he was quick to point out that casting blame is counterproductive.

Savory’s solution to repairing the damage caused by, what he calls, poorly managed agriculture is to disperse holistically managed livestock across the world’s grasslands. Savory argues that large herds of grass eating animals will replenish the soil, preventing and reversing desertification. Savory says that allowing the continuous roaming of these herds packs their nutrient-rich manure into the earth and promotes deeper root growth of grasses, which in turn leads to greater water and carbon dioxide sequestration and richer soils.

Savory’s presentation led Ted Trujillio, a rancher, lawyer and member of the Rural Coalition from northern New Mexico, almost to tears of joy. Trujillio and his fellow Latino and Native American ranchers are in a long-standing disagreement with the U.S. Forest Service, which is restricting ranchers from grazing their cattle on large portions of federal lands. Land, which their families had previously used to graze cattle for hundreds of years.

Trujillio said, “Allan’s lifetime experience and work is so appropriate to our situation in northern New Mexico, I couldn’t believe it.” Trujillio believes Savory’s findings validate his understanding, as a native rancher, of the role that animals play to protect the fertility of the lands and forests. Trujillio says the Forest Service is required to manage the forest under multiple-use schemes, ensuring the land can be used for recreation, timber, and wildlife habitat. (Trujillio was quick to point out that he believed protecting wildlife is very important.) He said the Forest Service saw grazing as using all the resources and decided to restrict cattle from many parts of the forest.

Trujillio says northern New Mexico stockman have gathered knowledge through several generations of grazing animals on the mountain region and its forests. “One of the things we always felt,” says Trujillio, “is that if your grazing isn’t thorough then what happens is your forest starts to close in on the open areas.” Water is scarce in New Mexico and Trujillio says open spaces, particularly in higher elevations, are needed to allow snow packs to collect. Without the accumulation, Trujillio says the snow gets caught in the tree canopies. When spring comes, instead of running directly into streams or rivers, Trujillio says much of the snow drops slowly from high branches, breaks up and evaporates faster than it should.

Trujillio says until the tensions between all special interests eases and each group can work together, a truly holistic land management policy will never be agreed upon. “I think there is a way to do it,” says Trujillio, “but they have to throw out the administrative procedures manual and start the conversation by asking – what is the realistic way to graze and bring these forests back to health?”

Savory ended his talk on a hopeful note. Instead of pointing fingers he said we must start uniting humanity around solutions. “We can unite around the idea that [agricultural] management needs to be holistic.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll continue coverage of our inaugural Slow Meat symposium. Upcoming topics include: Celebrating and Preserving Genetic Diversity; Better Meat, Less Meat; and There’s No Place Like Home: A Conversation with Mary Berry.