The capitalist assumptions pervading these enterprises are clearest when regenerative proponents promise to be able to extract food from so-called “marginal” lands. Conventionally defined, “marginal land” is land that has little current agricultural or industrial value, often because of poor soil, water resources, or climate conditions. What ranchers mean is that grazing cattle can extract value, in the form of commoditized beef, from dry, rocky, difficult to access lands. Of course, such lands are only “marginal” from an instrumental, Lockean view that all land must be worked to create value. But from a biodiversity and ecosystem health perspective, so-called marginal lands can be thriving, biodiverse habitats for myriad flora and fauna, which can be disrupted by the introduction of grazers.
Historically, even land that is home to human beings has been deemed “marginal” if its value cannot be commoditized. As historian Joshua Specht shows, ranchers have historically been the spear tip of settler colonialism in the American West. They often used the pretext of “waste” and “emptiness” to violently uproot Indigenous lifeways and ecosystems and replace them with “productive” commercial ranching. The Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin linked that history of dispossession to the plan to cull the elk in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, describing it as “a travesty … that perpetuates a long legacy of harm inflicted on Native People by the National Park Service.”
The idea of converting “marginal” or unused land is basically a promise to produce something from nothing. All too often, that simply means that the costs are hidden. Increasingly, environmental research suggests that while introducing grazers to marginal lands can be economically generative for those who own the grazers, it is degenerative of previously existing ecosystems. A recent meta-analysis in the journal Ecology Letters, for example, found that excluding commercial agricultural grazers increases the abundance of plant and faunal biodiversity in most ecosystems. That’s because most livestock are managed at densities that dramatically exceed those of wild fauna. In fact, the Center for Biological Diversity recently won a lawsuit that will force the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect sensitive ecosystems within New Mexico’s Gila National Forest and Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest from free-ranging cows.
Over the past two decades, proponents of “regenerative” grazing have increasingly justified cattle agriculture by claiming their methods reduce ruminants’ contribution to climate change: Currently, the world’s cows, by belching out methane, contribute about 6 percent percent of all greenhouse gases. (Many note that cows “only” contribute 3 percent of U.S. emissions, but this is only because of America’s massive total emissions.) Regenerative ranching proponents claim, however, that by turning over and fertilizing the soil where they graze, free-ranging ruminants create healthy soil that can act as a carbon sink.