Guest on GRID

A Meat-Eater’s Rumination

With the rise in popularity of free-range, grass-fed beef, the choice to go organic is about more than meeting consumer demand. As it turns out, what’s good for us is good for our local farmers, as well.

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On a field somewhere in the Philippines, a cow is grazing. Tied to a nearby shade tree by a long rope, she ambles across the field in a slow, haphazard radius, stretching her neck to get at the youngest, sweetest shoots that always seem to be just out of reach. With each greedy tug of her massive head, she tears off the choicest grasses, but her chewing is rhythmic, almost patient. For herbivores, the business of feeding oneself is a daylong affair. Just like the time and energy it took to grow this grass, rumination, the cow’s process of eating and digesting, cannot be rushed.
 
It’s a sight that can be seen across most of our seven thousand or so islands, and yet strangely, the meat and milk that show up in our grocery stores and supermarkets are almost entirely imported.
 
Where did all the cows go?
They have gone the way of the rest of our country’s agriculture. The reality behind the idyllic image of the Philippine countryside is not one of abundance. As of 2010, we were the biggest importer of rice in the world. We even import more fish than we export, despite our island nation spanning more ocean than it does land. In a sadly ironic turn of events, it’s become easier and cheaper for us to do so than to grow and raise our own food. In a land with some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet, people go hungry. What’s more, because of our taste for foreign-style beef like Angus or Wagyu, commercial farmers tend to favor expensive imported breeds over local heritage stock. As it turns out, that seemingly ubiquitous native cow grazing in a field is an endangered species. 
 
It’s true elsewhere, too, with a third of all farm animal breeds facing extinction around the world, from the H’Mong cattle, able to thrive in the isolated mountain regions of Vietnam, to the Chiapas sheep of Mexico’s highlands, bred for wool but considered sacred and never eaten.
 
Even as the Philippine government brings in produce such as rice, corn, coffee, and milk, the majority of the Philippine people are still subsistence farmers or fishermen. Smallholder farms make up 85% of the world’s agriculture, providing more than 80% of the food consumed in the developing world. They’re also the most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, making them a population that urgently needs more support and protection. Should anything happen to the countries we rely on for produce in these increasingly volatile times, our own food security would be in danger.
Photo by Cru Camara, as featured in Iss. 15.
The big picture may be overwhelmingly dire, but things become simpler once we go small againback to the grassroots level, literally. Let’s return to the cow grazing in a field. Let’s put that field at the feet of the Kitanglad Mountain Range, and let’s make that cow a Southern Yellow, a native crossbreed that traces its bloodlines to pre-colonial times. Thanks to a successful initiative by Nicolo Aberasturi of DowntoEarth, this cow will actually make it to a market, and turn a decent profit for the family that raised it. DowntoEarth partners with smallholder farmers in Bukidnon and all over Mindanao to supply free-range, grass-fed beef to consumers in Metro Manila. “The family farmers we work with only have one to three heads of cattle,” says Aberasturi, whose own family has a long history of cattle farming in the province. “We provide the families with a cow, and once it is of slaughter age, or gives birth to a calf, we divide the earnings or take turns in getting the new calf.”
 
Demand for free-range, grass-fed beef is rising as people start to seek more humanely produced meats and to learn about the significant health benefits of grass-fed beef. Beef from native, grass-fed cattle is low in bad fats (omega 6 fatty acids), high in good fats (omega 3), is free from antibiotics and growth hormones, and is rich in antioxidants (vitamin C, E, and beta-carotene). These cuts of beef are also leaner, with the same meat-to- fat ratio of wild game. (It’s hard to keep track of which fats are the good fats, these days, but try to remember this: omega-3 could set us free; omega-six is making us sick.)
 
The truth is, going organic isn’t just about meeting consumer demand.
On the grassroots scale, the most sustainable way for smallholder farmers to raise cattle is also the cheapest and easiest. Aberasturi explains how: “The families use these cattle to work the farm, tilling the soil and clearing grass under coconut trees and along their perimeters. All their lives the cows live in open pastures, which are abundant in the Philippines. The grasses in those fields are suitable to our local climate, and help to build up the cows’ immune systems against local diseases. This does away with the need for antibiotics, steroids, or hormones. The families raise the cattle tamed, so there’s no need to dehorn or castrate them, and they can easily be moved around with minimal stress.”
 
It’s a simple set-up that benefits everyone, drawing inspiration from a traditional means of dividing the responsibility, cost, and profit of raising cattle known as the paalaga system. “Here in Bukidnon it’s known as paiwi,” he adds. On top of marketing their cattle, Aberasturi also provides the farmers with regular training, helping them plan their land to make it more productive and sustainable.
 
But not any kind of livestock can be released into a pasture and be expected to thrive. When it comes to free-range, the most suitable breeds for a particular place are the ones that belong to it. 
“What is happening in the free-range movement is they are taking industrial-bred animals and putting them out in pasture. They were not bred to be there,” insists Aberasturi. “These are genetically engineered animals bred and patented abroad for maximum weight gain in a confined environment.” Such imported hybrids require extensive care, such as high-protein, grain-based feeds (which are, of course, imported), antibiotics for their weak immune systems (also imported), and, because they weren’t made for the hot and humid tropics, sometimes even air-conditioning. A subsistence farmer ain’t got time for that. Nor money, for that matter. 
 
Chances are that the cow you see grazing in a field is as local as the farmer that tends to it. “Real free-range animals come from old heritage breeds that have evolved in our country for centuries before commercial agriculture,” continues Aberasturi, whose own last name, originating from Northern Spain, means cattle farmer. 
 
Aberasturi explains that even the physiology of native cattle is different: “They feed less but often, generating less internal heat. Also, they have sweat glands that are twice the size of the European breeds, and more of them. Their skin has a dense texture, making it difficult for blood-sucking insects to penetrate, and they even have a well-developed subcutaneous muscle layer that makes it easier for them to shake off pests.” Whether it’s poor grass, drought, or extreme rainfall, native breeds such as Aberasturi’s favourite, the Southern Yellow, have seen and survived it all.
As much as we point fingers at the rear ends of cattle for their contribution of a third of the world’s greenhouse gases, it’s easy to forget that cows have been chewing their cud in pastures long before humanity came along, tied a rope around them, and started breeding them for their own purposes. The accusation leveled at the factory-farmed cattle of the world, gassy from a diet overloaded with energy-guzzling grains, is, of course, fair. But the simple paiwi system of raising cattle, passed down to us from our precolonial ancestors, reminds us that cows are as much a part of that ecosystem as the staggered flood plains of rice and the fluctuating populations of sardines, contributing so much more than greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
 
In fact, the well-being of a pasture depends precisely upon the grazing habits of cows and other ruminant animals. Michael Pollan illuminates the relationship between grass and cow beautifully in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Essentially, by biting down the tallest stalks, the grazing cow sets off a chain of events within the pasture: it boosts the grass’s growth, affords other kinds of grass more sunlight and more space to grow, and even enriches the soil with more nutrients. 
 
If cattle are carefully rotated so that each pasture is neither over- or under- grazed and receives the right amount of manure, the pasture becomes a nutrient-dense, biodiverse ecosystem, able to make the most of the sun’s energy, nourish cattle without fertilizer or pesticide, and at times create as much biomass as a forest.
Photo by Paula Zayco Aberasturi, as featured in Iss. 14.
A kind of “perennial polyculture,” extremely stable agricultural systems that make the most of the land’s ecosystem and energy cycles, such pastures can feed the cattle and their humans for generations to come. Healthy pastures even absorb carbon from the atmosphere, storing it in the soil humus beneath the grass. In fact, if all the cropland being used to feed commercial grain-fed cattle were turned into grazing pastures instead, in the U.S. alone that “would remove 14 billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of taking four million cars of the road.” Michael Pollan learned all this while observing small-scale organic farmers at work.
 
Farmers like Nicolo Aberasturi, have also come to similar methods through a long, patient process of trial and error. “We did our own trial of applying tropical perennial forest farming or agroforestry on a 1,000-square meter piece of land,” says Aberasturi. “We had about 50 varieties of fruit, vegetables, and medicinal plants in combination with chickens and rabbits. And we produced 2,000 kilos of fruit and vegetable in a year, 100 dozen eggs, 80 kilos of rabbit meat, and 10 tons of compost. That’s more than enough to feed a family of four.”
What the Philippine government has failed to understand, or at least has yet to act upon, is that our country’s food security is deeply, critically intertwined with the fate of our smallholder farmers. Money put towards growing their livelihoods instead of being sunk into imports that cut out a lot of opportunities in the supply chain, would go a much longer way in making us more self-sufficient as a nation. 
 
“If only one percent of Filipinos—about one million—did agroforestry, it would have a major impact,” Aberasturi continues. “It would give better nutrition to these households, generate jobs for people who have marginal skills, create new opportunities on small-scale manufacturing and processing, and it might even start a grassroots food revolution that our country badly needs.”
 
He says he wants a food revolution. In Aberasturi’s own words, “The aim is for consumers to rediscover traditional food and demand for it, so that more farmers will plant, propagate, and grow these varieties, which otherwise are endangered and lost to modern cuisine.” Not coincidentally, the free-range movement developed alongside the slow-food movement, as traditional, slow-cooked stews like osso buco and hearty soups like sinigang best highlight the flavor and texture of local beef. But local chefs and restaurants are quickly catching on, turning—or should I say returning—to overlooked, local fruits and vegetables, indigenous, heirloom grains, and traditional recipes to create a palette that is deliciously, undeniably Filipino—and, in turn, to help Filipinos rediscover our taste for the bounty of our own lands.
 
So, while the idyllic image of a cow grazing in a field may seem like a mirage given the current state of our agriculture, the story of the cow’s digestive tract—from the energy of the sun captured by the grass, eaten by the cow, and transformed into nutrients stored in the fat—offers a glimmer of hope. What’s good for our countryside is good for our country, and, ultimately, is good for us. 
 
When the story is told right, all of the stakeholders of the ruminant supply chain, including smallholder farmers and city-dwelling consumers, benefit. Even the cow gets her moment in the sun. At least until it’s time to go to the market.
 

Originally published in Volume 3.
Photo by Sonny Thakur as featured in Iss. 15