[Last month, the New York Times put out a call for essays to answer the question ‘Why Is It Ethical to Eat Meat?’ My effort didn’t make the cut, alas, so I’ll post it here. If you like it, please feel free to share it – CW]

Some years ago, a rancher in Montana stood up at a rowdy meeting with environmentalists and defended his livelihood this way: “If God didn’t intend for us to eat animals,” he said, “why did he make them out of meat?”

Ethically, in other words, the issue was largely out of his hands.

As a meat-eater, I thought his rebuttal pretty much ended the argument with vegetarians until I came to understand that not all meat was created equal. Which meat did God intend for us to eat – the pastoral, grassfed variety of biblical times or meat from manure-infested feedlots, industrialized by growth hormones and anti-biotics?

Not too long ago, meat-eaters didn’t have much of a choice. Ninety-nine percent of the nation’s beef produced after World War II came from feedlots, where cattle are fed corn and other annual grains that Nature – or God – never intended them to consume. “All flesh is grass,” the Bible’s Book of Isaiah reminds us. Not “All flesh is corn (or animal) byproducts.” Herbivores are designed to graze or browse on grass, forbs, weeds, sedges, rushes, bushes, even young trees. God did not intend for them to eat other animals. That choice was ours. 

There is an old saying in organic agriculture that ‘Nature never farms without animals.’ From herds of microbes in the soil to bands of wild elephants criss-crossing African savannahs, the eating, defecating, and disturbance caused by grazing creatures is integral to the health of ecosystems worldwide – and has been for millennia. Organic farmers understand this, which is why so many of them integrate domesticated herbivores – cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, even horses – into their operations, albeit under careful management. Call it the ‘bison principle’ at work.

To paraphrase the Montana rancher “If God didn’t intend for the earth to be grazed, why did he make so much of it out of grass?”

Which brings me to another reason to consider meat: it can help fight climate change.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) can be sequestered in soils via photosynthesis and green plants for long periods of time. Plants peal the carbon (C) away from the oxygen (O2) and send much of it into the soils through their roots. The carbon content of soil can be increased three main ways: the establishment of green plants on previously bare ground; deepening the roots of existing healthy plants; and the general improvement of nutrient, mineral, and water cycles. Herbivores can help a lot if properly managed, especially the domesticated varieties. By controlling the timing, intensity, and frequency of animal impact on the land, a “carbon rancher” can improve plant density, diversity, and vigor. It’s all about getting the Earth’s great carbon cycle functioning properly.

And there’s a very good reason to try – more than one-third of the planet’s land surface is grassland, which means the potential for increased carbon storage in soils is huge, with a correspondingly huge depletion of atmospheric CO2.

That’s why when I hear people say that an answer to climate change is to eat less meat I respond “No, eat more meat! But eat it from a carbon ranch.” Or an organic farm. Fortunately, today we have choices.

Whether God meant for us to eat animals or not is secondary now to the larger issue at hand: our future. All flesh is grass, and all grass is carbon, which means all meat was originally a gas – carbon dioxide. What we do next is up to us, but I think it is entirely ethical to eat CO2.

As fast we can.

Restored grasslands on Tom Sidwell’s ranch, near Tucumcari, NM: