What would really happen if meat went away

Meat and animal agriculture keep getting targeted by environmentalists and animal rights activists. But those people are forgetting about a lot of points in their effort to improve the world.

Cattle serve a valuable purpose in making it viable to keep land in grass. (Shelby Chesnut / Grand Vale Creative LLC)

You might have heard that online website Epicurious will no longer provide recipes containing beef or that a fancy New York restaurant is dropping meat from its menu .

The push for less meat, or no meat, as the case may be, seems to come from the angles of animal rights activists, environmentally conscious people who believe the hype that animal agriculture is a major polluter, and people who think meat is a dietary risk.

If people don't want to eat meat, I'm not going to force it onto anyone's fork. That's their business. But I do wonder sometimes whether people are thinking through these stances and the possible unintended consequences if things go their way.

Let's take cattle, for instance, because it's the species I am most comfortable talking about. There seems to be a misconception on the part of some people that cattle are kept confined from birth to the time they are taken to slaughter and are fed nothing but grains. I assume some people see large-scale cattle operations much in the way they see smoke-belching factories.

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In reality, most cattle spend large portions of their life on pasture, even though most are finished on a feedlot. Whether that pasture is some of the little remaining native pasture or if it has been replanted to grasses and forages, it is land that remains covered in grass all the time. It is not plowed under or altered from year to year.

Those grasslands do more than feed cattle. They shelter wildlife and birds. They capture carbon. They remain some of the last remaining wide-open spaces. So, from the environmental standpoint, what happens if everyone stops eating meat?

Well, if there is no market for meat, there would be no market for cattle. Ranchers like my family would almost certainly get rid of the cattle and sell the land. I have watched the land change in the area I grew up, outside of Billings, Mont. Land that used to be fields and pastures now has been developed for oversized homes, yards and roads. It's tough to find native pasture around that area. If my family got out of cattle, the little chunks of pasture they still own or rent almost certainly would become subdivisions.

In the area I now live, in rural central North Dakota, without cattle, pasture likely would be plowed up to be used to farm row crops. Maybe having thousands of acres of grassland plowed up doesn't seem like a big deal to you. If that's the case, I'd recommend doing some research on the Dust Bowl. Many of the acres of land that are used for pasture are not suited for farming; that doesn't mean they wouldn't get farmed if that is the economical decision.

Landowners, whether they are ranchers or people who rent their land to ranchers, are able to keep their land in grass only because of the income generated from cattle. Simply put, if there are no livestock, the grasslands across the country would be greatly reduced.

Now look at it from the animal rights perspective. If there is no market for cattle, we're not just turning them out to live in some blissful life in the wild. They wouldn't be kept as pets. They'd go to slaughter. And then, there simply would be few cattle left.

And finally, from a dietary perspective, meat plays an important role in providing protein and nutrients. Our bodies were made to use it. Meat in moderation remains a healthy part of a diet; that's coming from experts like North Dakota State University's Julie Garden-Robinson .

We live in a society where animal agriculture does and should play a role. Should we all strive to work in a sustainable and responsible way? Absolutely! Are there improvements that can and should be made to how we do business and how we eat? Again, absolutely. And we should have those conversations. But simply saying we should do away with meat and animal agriculture is horribly short-sighted.


Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at or 701-595-0425.

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at or 701-595-0425.
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