I’m a fourth-generation cattle rancher. I’m also a vegetarian.

I wasn’t traumatized into becoming a vegetarian. But I was truly worried about the health of our planet.

Photo by John Kakuk on Unsplash

I grew up on a small cattle ranch in southern Arizona. In 2015, when veganism had just started to become “trendy”, I decided to give up meat.

I wasn’t traumatized into becoming a vegetarian — I’m the daughter of a third-generation cattle rancher, and I’m very proud of my family’s ranching background. But I was starting to notice a disparity between the way my family and other ranches raised our cows, and where these cows ultimately ended up.

I had watched my father and grandfather strive to be good stewards of the land and animals they were entrusted with. They rotated grazing pastures, closely monitored our wells, and routinely provided the cattle with salt and minerals. Our cows led a good life, but a ranch is a business just like any other, and so eventually we shipped our calves to the livestock sale. Here, they were bought by feed lots and packed in with thousands of other cattle to spend the remainder of their days carb loading.

While vegetarianism is gaining ground with scientists, doctors, and political activists, ranchers are coming under fire as resource-hogging, atmosphere-clogging conservatives. However, my experiences as both a rancher and a vegetarian have shown me that these two identities are not mutually exclusive. In fact, you can easily be both.

Photo by Kendall Ruth on Unsplash

My father, and my grandfather, and even my grandfather’s father all grew up ranching cows, unseen cogs in the massive American meat machine. I didn’t get to decide if I wanted to work on a ranch; I was born into it. I grew up eating greasy, sizzling Rocky Mountain oysters on the tailgate of a pickup truck after a long day of branding. I learned how to brand, castrate, and ear-tag calves — all activities likely to bar me from an annual PETA membership.

And yet, ranching afforded me with many opportunities to love and care for animals as though they were my own family. Truth be told, ranchers are some of the most compassionate people I know. I’ve bottle-fed orphaned calves, rescued bulls who got locked off water, and delivered truckloads of lifesaving minerals to cows struggling to survive the dry season. To quote the FFA creed, I’ve known “the joys and discomforts of agricultural life,” and loved it all the same.

Nevertheless, my love for agriculture does not blind me to the fact that our farms and feedlots are placing the planet in critical danger. Every square acre of land devoted to farming or feeding contributes to nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere.

The truth is we need that land dearly to feed our own families. Nearly 93 percent of the calories we consume come from land-based agriculture, whether that’s the carne asada in a burrito or the corn syrup in a bowl of Fruit Loops.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in 2019 detailing the full extent of the climate crisis we’re barreling into. By 2050, the number of mouths to feed, the number of acres needed to feed them, and subsequently the emissions of greenhouse gases are projected to increase by nearly 50%.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Cows are an easy target, but they aren’t the problem. For the last millennium, cattle have existed on earth without poisoning the atmosphere and sending the human race into a tailspin. Modern developments such as artificial reproduction, intensive farming, and growth hormones have created an unnatural imbalance between man and beast, resulting in an overpopulation of livestock and more CO2 than the planet can cycle through.

The CO2 emissions aren’t just hurting the environment — they hurt the cows too. Extremes in temperatures outside of an animal’s optimal functionality range lead to reduced productivity and compromised health. Abnormal weather events and unpredictable weather shifts are a key indicator of climate change. Ranchers across the world face extreme challenges in trying to cope with unpredictable water supplies and irregular weather patterns. When your livelihood literally depends on the health of the planet, climate change becomes a very tangible threat.

Photo by Kyle Mackie on Unsplash

If we want a group of people to point fingers at, it should be ourselves, the consumers. People want to complain about the inhumanity of factory farming and the enviro-cide the meat industry is brazenly committing, but at the end of the day, that $1.99 package of lunch meat ends up in someone’s shopping cart.

I’m not trying to propose vegetarianism as the silver bullet for fixing our climate crisis. It is not that.

It is, however, one move in a very limited arsenal of actions we as individuals can take to improve our planet’s chance at survival. According to the IPCC’s report, if everyone ate like the average American, by 2050 we would need the land space of two Earths just for food production. The planet simply cannot support another 40 billion people eating at our current rate. If our global society doesn’t choose to start moving towards a plant-based diet, we will eventually be forced to.

The climate crisis wasn’t singlehandedly created by the people working in the agriculture sector, and it can’t be solved by them either. We each play a part in the survival of this planet and it’s time for us to stop blaming each other and step up.

Reducing our meat consumption will alleviate a huge strain on the available water and land, which will allow us to better adapt to the upcoming shifts in climate and natural resources. There are some facts of the impending climate shift we simply cannot escape — we need to eat, and thus agriculture will always be an environmental burden. But the expected increase in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture is primarily from the livestock sector, which is something we can directly change.

No one is expecting an entire nation — or even an entire city — to give up meat overnight. Let’s face it, the government can’t even convince Americans to eat their daily serving of fruits and vegetables. But each person can and should start by becoming an informed consumer.

Fossil fuel emissions, not cow farts, are the number one producer of greenhouse gases (despite what vegetarians and vegans will try to tell you).

Fossil fuel emissions, not cow farts, are the number one producer of greenhouse gases (despite what vegetarians and vegans will try to tell you). Buying meat from a local butcher or food co-op will cut down on the fuel expended in cross-country transportation. And if it’s grass-fed beef, even better.

Allow me to put in a plug for ranchers — The IPCC report states that cows can have “positive ecological effects (species diversity, soil carbon) if they are fed extensively on existing grasslands.”

Extremes got us into the mess we’re in today. To put it simply, there is much to be said for the time-honored maxim “moderation in all things.” If you eat meat at every meal, try swapping in some vegetarian meat options. If you’re driving to work every day when you could just as easily walk, bike, or ride-share, it’s time to switch things up.

As I said before, I didn’t get to choose the ranching lifestyle I was born into. But I do get to choose to be a vegetarian. Ranchers, engineers, taxi drivers — we’re all part of the problem. And now we have the opportunity to be part of the solution, to restore the decades of destruction dealt by the generations before us. We owe it to the future to leave this planet a better home than we found it. We still get to choose what we eat — our children might not.

Freelancer from Arizona, USA. I write about health and wellness, agriculture, science, travel, and lifestyle.

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