Why we don't eat grass? An optimistic journey of transformation

We don't eat it and can't eat it even though there is a lot of it around. It's not poisonous and doesn't even taste that bad! But Cattle and sheep and other 'ruminants' can.

Let's look at evolution. Understanding evolution guides us to farm and eat for a better environment.

Herbivores like cattle eat grass

 

Does it matter that we don't eat grass?

It's all about our relationship with our environment which has been a  slow evolution over the last 300,000 years. That's when we are first identified in the fossil record as a distinct species from our immediate hominid predecessors: But there has been a spectacularly fast evolution in only the last 200 years. Actually, I'm not sure that we can call the last 200 years an 'evolution'; Change has been so quick there is little sign of adaptation, just extinctions and collapsing ecosystems.
The human species rapaciously takes more and more in spite of the many environmental signs and signals of degradation (principally climate change).

Why have we evolved to eat what we eat?

As an evolving animal species, we emerged out of an African savannah grassland habitat. Having dwelt there for a few millennia we migrated very slowly across our planet, our diets evolving to the offerings of the many habitats we encountered as we stayed or slowly kept moving. Meat from the animals we encountered has been part of our diet and that of our ancestral predecessors for some 2.6 million years ...that's a very long time.

Now, one of the habitats we survived in (and very well by all accounts), was grasslands.  The broad consensus among scientists (including Charles Darwin), is that we have been a predominantly grassland/savannah inhabiting species.

But if we can't eat grass how did we survive so well and for such a long time? And what is it about grasslands that they are considered to be the spring-board of our evolution to the most adaptable and widely dispersed animal known to science?

Grasslands in Human History

Grassland habitats have been around for longer than us and our human ancestors (500 million years); and they have supported herbaceous plants other than grass and animals other than humans !  All of which have co-evolved and co-produced with the grasses and with each other.   We are essentially a grassland species like our co-habiting herbivores.

Grassland and developing with it! Enjoying a romp in the grass.

Have We Co-evolved with other Animals?

Yes we have and do co-evolve with other living things in shared habitats.  This is a precious bond. As we've evolved and dispersed so have grasslands and grazing animals.  Our early grassland habitats were teeming with grazing animals which have adapted like us and in response to us and we have to them.  We didn't need to evolve to eat grass - much quicker to survive on sources of food that had !  It would have taken many more millennia to increase the size and numbers of our stomachs (and our body shape !), to breakdown grass fibres and not to mention our teeth having to adapt to the high levels of silica in grass that would erase the enamel away. Adapting to life on the plains while unable to live-on grass meant the development of tools to kill and skin animals and fire to cook the meat produced by them.

Nothing like a scratch between the shoulder blades; Angus with one of our cattle. Photo credit: DWAgency

What's in a Ruminating Herbivore?

The magic combination of photosynthesis (plants capturing the suns energy to provide food energy), and fermentation (enter microbes), via the guts and rumens of grazing herbivore's is the transformational energy-generating power of evolution and pathway to our habitation of this planet.

One of Peelham's bulls grazing naturally with his herd

The ruminating descendants of those ancestral grasslands, cattle and sheep, gain as much energy and nutrition as efficiently as they can from grass by digesting it a few times over in their large and several stomachs (we only have one small one !).

If you've ever observed a beautiful dark khaki coloured cow-pat, you will see how well the grass has been digested.

Beautifully digested grass cowpat!

Of course, the cows and other ruminating mammals (including goats, camels, deer), don't do this on their own. In fact they have a super-efficient, super-evolved, super-sized army of microscopic microbes doing it for them which have also co-evolved over the millennia with the ruminating herbivore and each other.

 

The army of quadrillions

An adult Beef rumen is a bubbling (literally) 49-gallon cauldron of 'high industry' with many quadrillions of different biota (with an estimated one quadrillion in one millilitre!), bacteria, protozoa and fungi. It is one of the richest and most dense microbial habitats around and meticulously evolved to graze and digest grass. The cow itself doesn't contribute at all to the digestion of its own food - it is all done by its gut friends - All of it!

With the help of their quadrillion friends, ruminants transform grass to human edible and nutritious food in the form of meat, marrow and blood.  The microbes whilst working away at their own nutritional needs, produce the enzymes which generate the fermentation which extracts the energy for the ruminants from sugars in the grass.  They don't do this for nothing though!  They are deriving energy and nutrients from the grass for their health and survival through the process of fermentation and they produce methane ..... ah!

Evolutionary co-operation to Ecosystem Collapse?

This final co-product (methane), of an ancient and meticulously co-evolved process which has been part and parcel of our own biologically successful evolution (to-date), has been identified as one of the villains in climate change. The current level of human-intensive production of ruminating animals to feed us is eliminating biodiversity and contributing to ecosystem collapse.  The magic combo of photosynthesis and fermentation is apparently falling apart!

The profoundly tragic irony is that the species (us), which has evidently most benefited from the coupling of these two spectacular processes is responsible for their undoing.  We let the genie-out-of-the-bottle when we started extracting fossilised forests as a source of industrial energy (oil, coal and gas).  Arguably we did it even earlier when we started ploughing. These activities both releases the Carbon which has been locked into our soils and deep into bed-rock by aeons of life on earth.  Our forebears didn't know the consequences when they initiated fossil fuel extraction and ploughing. We now do. Understanding evolution guides us to better farming and to eat for a better environment.

Soil rich in biomass

Ecosystem Collapse to Earth Restoration!

So what has happened in the last 200 years that brings us to the dangerously precarious position we now find ourselves and our biosphere in?

In a nutshell, I think following the Age of Enlightenment (that busy period of science, discovery and invention in the eighteenth century),  it got easy for us to produce and to accumulate exponentially. It is only in the last 50-75 years that we have begrudgingly realised the impact.  A particularly profound impact is that our relationship with food is no longer determined by our immediate environment, as it has largely been for the last 2.6 million years!

Feeding cattle in Ireland with soya grown in Brazil for a Big Mac Burger eaten in Berwick-Upon-Tweed just doesn't feel right, does it?

Scale it up to the actual quantities consumed and wasted and envisage the global consequences. These go unrecognised and hidden.

Pasture-only fed cattle grazing the fields and producing close to the locality in which their meat is consumed ..... well that's a very different matter and it goes much further.

Understanding evolution gives us clues to farm and eat better for a healthy environment.

How Will We Get the Genie-back-into-the-bottle?

Agroecological farming at Peelham, Organic with Pasture-for-Life

 

Getting the genie-back-into-the-bottle is ambitious  -  But we don't have any other option.

Join us and other agroecological regenerative farmers in this dawning Age of Re-Enlightenment.  We know from our shared histories that we can co-operate with our natural co-producers in our shared, natural habitat for a solution.  It is taking imagination, adaptability and courage - all of which as a species we have in abundance!

Thirty percent of our precious planet's land surface is farmed (the rest is desert, has no topsoil or is covered in snow). 68% of this is grassland that only ruminants can utilise.  There is upto 5 times as much Carbon in our soils as in our atmosphere.  The sustainable solution for the long-term lies in how we manage land and our soils.

Carbon is not the villain, and methane certainly isn't.  Methane originates from the carbon which is already in the atmosphere.

Like me, you will probably know who and what the villain is!  Accepting this responsibility is the first step in clearly focussing on the solution.

The Power of the Quadrillions

Picture this:  Plants working with soil through their roots, and ruminants working through plant leaves, together with microbes in a multiplex of microscopic quadrillions!

Plants with sunlight and water, absorb carbon through their green leaves and down to their roots. Microbes working with the plants draw the carbon in organic matter into the soil. Actively growing plants with a young leaf 'biomass' or area absorb most carbon.

What are the environmental benefits of grazing beef?

Ruminants that are continuously grazing grass which is never either over or under-grazed results in grasslands that actively absorb carbon. This has incalculable collateral benefits.  Enriching the soil for a multitude of life; producing nutrient-rich food (meat) for all the animals unable to digest grass (including us);  enlisting the power of quadrillions of microbes to work mutually, together with the soil and with ruminating animals to transform grass.

The Peelham herd at dusk

Yes, grasslands are a  global solar panel plugged into the global carbon mat - absorbing carbon, enriching soils and enriching sustenance. Active grasslands are part of the suite of global habitats including oceans and forests which absorb the life-force of carbon from the atmosphere into soils.  As farmers, we manage grasslands with our farmed animals.

The Power of Collaborations to Transform

Getting the genie back into the bottle is taking a supremely collaborative effort harmonising Soils, Grasslands, Ruminant Livestock, Farmers, Producers and Consumers.

Collaborating with our grassland as the basis of agroecological farming. Photo cred: DWAgency

 

You see ... we cannot do any of this without you, the Customer.  You are essential to this enriching virtuous cycle in your role as a consumer of our agroecologically generated products.

With other agroecological regenerative farmers, we manage our ruminant livestock in a grazing pattern across our grassland pastures.

A Peelham organic and pasture-for-life sirloin steak

Our rotational grazing optimises the growing grass for them, their health and their welfare.  With our organic, pasture-for-life farming system we have a low Carbon footprint with high biodiversity and animal welfare.

The on-farm butchery shortens the food-chain and further reduces the Carbon footprint of the meat we produce. You know where your meat is coming from.  It is positively healthy for the environment, for the farmed animal and for you!

Setting the scene

This blog sets-the-scene.  We will share with you how we farm and produce meat in our farm-butchery doing what we can to keep Carbon in the soil.  We will demonstrate how we benefit the environment and will show you the evidence in what we write for you.

You are reading this in our online shop through which we sell our organic pasture-for-life certified meat products.  Even if you have had our products before, please pop-in to our beef section and have a look around .

You can also connect with us via Instagram and Facebook - we love chatting and helping you source the right food for your needs.