Commentaries by Joann S. Grohman
(Click on Commentary links below)
Commentary 1 - Denial, we're in it. Notes on Mary Pipher’s essay on the anatomy of denial entitled: Our world is dying and we’re all in denial
Thank you, Mary. This may be the best thing yet written on the anatomy of denial. I especially appreciate that you avoided specifics as to which personal actions are the greenest.
I just came in from milking my cow. I brought in two gallons of life supporting nourishment produced by my cow Fern. Fern translates the sun and rain that falls on my small acreage into milk. With superb efficiency she borrows the energy in cellulose (think grass, upon which humans starve) and reinvests it into a food more perfect than anything in the supermarket. No mangrove swamps or rain forests were destroyed in the manufacture of this product. No water to float a battleship was diverted for her purposes. No grain that might otherwise have been cracked into ethanol or bargained to the starving was apportioned to her use. Her daily eight gallon drink of water was given back as milk, exhaled into the atmosphere to fall as rain or peed onto the pasture to encourage the grass. Fern accomplished this feat without burning any gas miles. She did this through the magic of wild fermentation in her rumen, the same process employed by cabbage worms and everything else that lives by splitting cellulose. Right now is the moment to abandon the fiction that cows are high on the food chain. The only things that live lower on the food chain than cows and caterpillars are bacteria. It’s sun-grass-rumen fermentation-complete protein-milk, your one stop food factory; the cow did all the work and tomorrow she will do it all over again.
Fern’s predecessor, old Helen Hefferlump, finally got so arthritic that we knew making it though another Maine winter would be a painful hardship and we needed to end her suffering. Should we wait until she broke her hip on the ice? The options were burying her (impossible in frozen ground) or putting her into the freezer where she would feed many people for a year. Why would Helen prefer to be wasted? Our local butcher said he and his family were raised on aged dairy cows and the meat would amaze us. He was right. And it needs to be made crystal clear that avoiding meat in the belief that one is taking strain off the planet is an urban myth. Something eats everything. Life and death merge. Taking animals out of the equation just leaves a vacuum to be filled by insects. Our prevailing livestock production system is grotesque but at its worst does not remotely approach the waste attributed to it; those mega water requirements and fossil fuel demands attributed to livestock are scary memes, their numbers too vast for mental arithmetic. Efforts to discover any research basis for these beliefs will founder because none exist. Food policy based on fictional numbers is doomed. Pursuit of an anti-meat agenda will delay effective investment of our energies much as creativity has been squandered on the falsities of corn-based ethanol. Because the choice is not between “getting over the meat habit and freeing up grain for hungry multitudes.” and never will be. A plant-based diet depends on stoop labor or fossil fuel. Apart from animal traction, there is no other way to achieve it. Equitable distribution of either sweat or petroleum based crops depends entirely on who owns them. Is there a government somewhere – anywhere – you trust to distribute food without fear or favor, now or ever?
The real waste in our existing food production system comes from pulling food out of the loop between soil and eaters, commodifying it, bashing it around to its nutritional detriment, and selling it back to consumers who have already paid for it once with subsidies and then will fork over at the cash register and will pay again at the doctor’s office. The assumption that glues together the corporate food system is that you and I will not and should not be bothered with home or strictly local food production. I have spent most of my eight decades living the real food truth that yes, you can produce your own food without any help from agribiz and with minimal dependence on fossil fuel, or none. Not only can you do this but it is a source of satisfaction, even joy. You always know you are doing something worthwhile. But why should you believe One Cow Granny in Maine? If you doubt my facts read the essays at www.real-food.com. The small local farm including animals is the only reliable land-based food production unit. It is a microcosm of the natural world. It creates no environmental debt. It is safe. And you will own it.
Commentary 2 - Why it is ethical to eat meat - an essay by Joann S. Grohman
In the 1950’s, nutritionists, reflecting the anti-breastfeeding zeitgeist, assured us that formula was fully equal to mother’s milk. In fact one prominent Berkeley expert theorized that cows’ milk was superior because human milk was too low in calcium. Mothers were made to feel guilty for breastfeeding, hearing “You’re starving that child!”
Mother’s milk and meat are two foods upon which humankind has flourished since the year Dot. As with breast milk, the fact that we now need defend the ethics of eating meat presupposes that there is a fully reliable, even superior, alternative. If there is, vegans may safely invite meat eaters to join their party, enticing them not merely with a cleaner conscience but with better health. If meat does not support better health, then meat eaters must make their ethical case under the vegan threat of meat-induced illness, perhaps maintaining that damaged health is the price for expressing solidarity with the habits of ancestors.
There is plenty of precedent for such self sacrifice. Many people have chosen to pay a high price for sticking with an awkward ethical position. Often children must bear the shibboleth for parents’ ethics, be it nudism, free love, political or religious extremism, veganism or for purposes of this example the gratifications of eating meat. Shall I compel my children to eat meat when vegans have declared it a stain on the soul, a threat to personal and planetary survival and lacking in dietary importance? Or is it vegans who are injuring their children by imposing their dietary choices? If either group is injuring their children the ethical position must be reconsidered. As someone who has observed first hand the effects of the above listed enthusiasms, I wish to defend the children.
Take it as a given that children should be nourished in a manner that optimizes their chances of reaching their potential for growth. While nobody is tracking overall outcomes, vegan kids are clearly under stress. What else am I to think after 50 years of observing the dear things’ pale skin, easy fatigue and often desperate craving for meat? Compare this with the rosy cheeks, cold hardiness, strength and stamina of children on a diet of milk, eggs and meat.
The environmental impact of meat raises an equally compelling ethical concern. If any of the accusations against meat, that it causes ill health, unbalances CO2 or methane, competes unfairly for finite resources, had the smallest basis in Natural Law, herbivorous mammals would have been Darwined out long ago. Yet the allegations against meat perpetually pile on and are believed by people so innocent of biological reality that if we were discussing babies, they’d be seeking them under cabbage leaves.
Now that we have killed the buffalos, the patient cow at the bottom of the food chain living on grass has become the indispensable converter of cellulose, Earth’s largest crop, into food digestible by humans. Do we allow them to die and leave them to vultures or do we eat their uniquely valuable meat? The ethical choice for ourselves and our children is to eat it and thrive.
There is an additional consideration. We know that a diet founded on animal protein is successful. Historically, we do not find any long term breeding population of vegans. Veganism as practiced today remains experimental. By definition, the burden of proof is on the experimenter. If a vegan diet can neither support reproduction nor prove sustainable, as is doubtful (see Holy Shit by Gene Logsdon), it must resign its claims to ethical sovereignty; eating meat will take its place by default.
Commentary 3 - Meat: a benign extravagance - a review by Joann S. Grohman
Meat: a benign extravagance by Simon Fairlie Chelsea Green publishing
Foreword by Gene Logsdon A review by Joann S Grohman An abridged version was published in the MOFGA paper (Maine Organic Gardeners and Farmers) quarterly in December 2011.
“It’s surprising just how often common assumptions — by both scientists and the media — are wrong,” says Howard S. Friedman, distinguished professor of psychology. (1)
Consider the belief that grain should be fed to people, not cattle, because this means more people can be fed. Has anybody examined this premise or it is one of those beliefs that appear so rational, so clearly a math problem with an unassailable answer, that Yes is the only possible conclusion for grownups?
Math is important, and Fairlie provides enough of it to satisfy anybody’s daily requirement, but farming is not a math problem and Fairlie is also a farmer. A number of beliefs about livestock that now enjoy favored nation status do not survive Fairlie’s witty yet exacting scholarship. Using sources available to anyone who cares to go to the not-inconsiderable trouble of tracking down elusive references and equipped with a nose able to recognize manure when he steps in it, Fairlie offers six farming options designed to permit direct comparison of the productivity and sustainability of: 1) Chemical farming with no animals (The agribusiness and vegan model) 2) Chemical farming including animals (The agribusiness omnivore model) 3) Organic farming including animals 4) Organic vegan farming He also includes two Permaculture designs, one with livestock, one vegan. Permaculture is an integrated design for living that includes food production, water management, home building, income generation and more.
His task is made manageable by using a discrete area, the agricultural and forested land area of Britain (22,206 million hectares) and its current population of 60.6 million people, allotting them a standardized number of calories (2,767/day) including fat and protein, two essential values which are omitted from most projections. Fairlie’s conclusions are based on recognized standards of agricultural productivity and are broadly applicable everywhere. He is at pains to give every possible advantage to vegan (stockfree) agriculture, causing mixed farming to fight for every point, presumably to avoid charges of slanting his results towards animal production.
There are practical considerations to be met within each farming model. Addressing these is a particular strength of this book. For instance, in the organic vegan model a source of non-chemical fertility must be found to replace animal manure available to the farm that includes livestock. This is accomplished by planting a green manure crop, usually a legume, to be plowed under each year. One acre of every three must remain fallow, which must be factored into calculations of farm productivity: for a sustainable projection, the crop yield of the farm must be reduced by a third. In addition, energy must come from somewhere to till the fallow ground. Nonetheless, strictly in terms of calories, production on the vegan organic farm slightly exceeds that of the organic farm with livestock (One hectare of arable feeds 8 people whereas one hectare of arable plus pasture required for grazing feeds 7.5 people – more land feeding fewer people).
The vegan organic farm might further enhance its productivity by composting biomass. For instance, Will Bonsall’s, Khadighar farm harvests and composts ramial wood. Ramial wood is brush and branches from deciduous trees less than 4” diameter; these can be run through a chipper and composted or used as mulch. (3) It is a readily available resource.
If the farm includes livestock, they will put the manure where it is needed – on the pasture – although seldom quite enough. Every four or five years a section of pasture will need to be plowed up to add green manure for a subsequent crop, with a section of arable land (grain or potato) then reverting to pasture. But you get meat or milk along with your crops of wheat, potatoes and beans. The necessity to reserve land for pasture means there is less spare land available for other purposes such as forest, biomass crops or rough grazing for sheep. But that’s alright because there is in fact no shortage of land even in Britain, one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. It should also be noted that steep or rocky land unsuitable for tilling is often well suited to pasture. This adds important resiliency to the farming enterprise, as grass will usually grow and animals continue to graze even when unfavorable weather causes arable crops to fail.
All of Fairlie’s models include the option of dedicating part of the land to growing biomass for energy generation, but he offers no provision for restoring fertility to these acres. Perhaps Fairlie added the biomass option as a sop to contemporary enthusiasms, believing as I do that using cropland to grow biomass is a big fat waste of resources unless we are talking about woodlots to provide smallholders with their firewood.
The stockfree chemical agricultural model is by far the most productive strictly in terms of calories, providing nearly three times what may be expected from the organic/livestock model. As for sustainability, I guess this depends on your faith in technology and unlimited fossil fuel. Fairlie does not explore this point but remarks that stockfree chemical agriculture “is the ideal farming system for any society wishing to reduce the number of its farmers to a minimum, to grow wide areas of biofuels, or to support large urban populations – all main objectives of modern social policy. With industrial processing of pea, bean and grain protein into artificial meat and milk, a semblance of an animal-based diet could be provided for about 200 million people (in Britain, using the same land take as the other models).”
The two Permaculture models (one with livestock and one vegan) differ from the other farm models in scope. Fairlie moves to the theoretical by imagining what Britain might look like if the entire country went Permaculture with a view to gaining complete food, textile and energy sovereignty. He envisions a patchwork of moderate sized farms serving nearby market towns. In his model more people have moved to rural areas (as indeed they are already doing) and city populations are lower. Unless chemical agriculture prevails, Fairlie does not assume the future existence of any huge farms. Quite apart from constraints imposed by fossil fuel shortages, this is due to certain inherent limitations with which we are likely to soon become acquainted.
Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the NPK seen on bags of fertilizer, are the principal soil amendments used in chemical agriculture. These nutrients are essential to all farming. Nitrogen (N) can be obtained on site by nitrogen fixing bacteria characteristic of leguminous plants; they take it from the air. Potassium (K) is widely distributed. It usually needs only tweaking and can be supplied by ashes. Although vital to plant growth, in most soils phosphorus proves to be a limiting factor. In natural or undisturbed systems where P is taken up by plants which later die and return to the soil or are grazed by animals and excreted onto local land, deficiencies are avoided. The plants and animals “borrow” their P and give it back to the same neighborhood where they found it. When plants or animals are harvested and sold off the farm it is essential to have a plan in place for restoring the P that accompanied them, later to be as Fairlie puts it, “flushed down the Thames”. For centuries before this specific soil nutrient was identified, farmers clearly saw the need to conserve and increase on-farm manure. Excellent ploys were found for rebuilding the P fund. Sending sheep and goats off to graze the hillsides, then bringing them in at night to fill the fold with droppings was one of the best and remains in practice in many places. All the old farms in Europe had pigeon cotes. Flights of pigeons went forth at dawn to raid the neighbors’ fields, returning at eve to feed their squabs and deposit the day’s leftovers in the loft. These are but two of many methods for restoring phosphorus to depleted land. They have the added charm that nobody had to raise a manure fork or fire up a tractor or buy anything. The animals did the work.
Fairlie describes other highly effective systems, now abandoned, including settling ponds which were flooded with manured water. The nutrient rich water was then pumped onto fields resulting in impressive crops of hay. Variants of this are still practiced in parts of Asia where flooded rice paddies are fertilized with human waste or by ducks and fish raised together with the rice, thus gaining three crops, rice, ducks and fish. Learning how to avoid bacterial contamination of crops grown under this highly effective system offers a fertile opportunity for problem solvers. Fairlie advocates strongly for an end to the mindset that views manure, human or animal, as something to be got rid of when in fact it is arguably the most indispensable component of a well fertilized future.
A cheap and convenient source of phosphorus upon which agriculture has relied for the last couple of centuries, not dependent upon animals, has been P bearing rock. Mines are now running out and as a result, the price of P is soaring. Mining continues in Canada but it looks like worldwide we have reached Peak Phosphorus. The greatest remaining reserve is in northern China and the Chinese clearly perceive their advantage. We will have to take a fresh look at manure, the natural resource we have been madly wasting. Already we are reading accounts of large commercial farms that have established feedlots with beef as the byproduct, manure for the cornfields as the urgent driver.
Crops are similar on all four of Fairlie’s farm examples. They include cereals, potatoes, sugar (I assume he means beets: he doesn’t say) vegetables and fruit. The “carnivore” farm includes milk and meat. The vegans get beans and rape (for protein and oil). He computes the land required in order to provide those 2,767 calories per day for a population of 60.6 million people on 18.5 million Ha of farmland. Here is how it works out: A farm including livestock and using chemicals divides out to feed 14 people for each 1 Ha of arable and an additional 1.5 Ha of pasture. The same area farmed organically will only feed 7.5 people; Fairlie assumes organic production to be only about 60 percent as great as orthodox production based on statistics provided by The Organic Farm Management Handbook. (3 ). I’ll get back to this. In the chemical vegan model one hectare of arable feeds 20 people, whereas organic vegan feeds eight as already noted.
Chemical-based commodity monoculture is vegan agriculture. Its advocates are self promoted as poised to feed the world now and seamlessly into the future, a disingenuous statement. It isn’t doing it now for reasons that are both political and avaricious. If history teaches us anything, these forces will not dwindle with time. Conversion of local agriculture into megafarms, as urged by all proponents of commodity agriculture, spreads hunger by forcing people off their land and into cities where they become a client population dependent on menial jobs and government handouts. No one is richer or better fed by this except the corporations which then own the means of food production. Since money is labile, when the initial investment ceases to be hot, it can be withdrawn overnight with a few keystrokes leaving nothing behind but exhausted land and dried up aquifers. This is superbly explained by Woody Tasch in Slow Money (4). The phenomenon is by no means restricted to developing countries. It has left the US with thousands of dried up farms, the main streets of formerly vibrant service towns now largely deserted.
Yet if we don’t opt for commodity agriculture, what about that additional 40% of corn, wheat and soy we are supposed to reap compared to organic? Dare we walk away from that? According to IFOAM (5), the world right now has 25% more food calories available for consumption than it needs. This food is money in the bank for somebody. It is held as a price-manipulating hedge not unlike oil reserves. Like oil products, that food is for people with money. But what if IFOAM is wrong and this reported food surplus does not exist? Lester Brown of Earth Policy Institute says that to get grain prices down to affordable levels we would have to increase production by 150 million tons, something that rarely happens and is certainly not predicted this year. (6) Whichever food audit proves correct, we still have to pay for it and nobody is predicting cheap food.
In point of fact, there is little reason to believe that either the profitability or production advantage of chemical agriculture over organic will continue indefinitely. Here’s how John Ikerd, distinguished agricultural economist from the University of Missouri, retired, rates the chances of our chemical based agricultural system: Ikerd has for years been urging a move away from the current system with its focus on short term profitability and towards a “sustainable capitalism” that includes social and ecological goals. Speaking at a conference on GMO foods (7), Ikerd stated that our total focus on the bottom line in agriculture has created a ‘carefully oiled machine’ that is incapable of functioning should some dirt get in the gears. ‘Take away government supports and the (big operations) will collapse’, he warns. He notes that awareness of the impact of industrial food upon human health is growing exponentially, with the market for ‘something different’ now three times bigger than the ability of farmers to supply it.” (7) The incentives claimed for industrial farming are further eroded when their owners are required to pay for collateral damage, which now exists as a public burden.
The difference between 7.5 and 20 (almost 3 times as many people fed by chemical agriculture) does not withstand scrutiny. Reports mount yearly of crops diminished by stress of hot weather and disease. Soils have reached their capacity to respond with increased yields to heavier applications of fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides. Some crops are so toxic that farmers are reluctant to enter their fields during the growing season. These practices result in a soil debt for future generations. Organic farming, with or without livestock, by its nature pays its debts in advance.
Not only are the advantages of chemical agriculture exaggerated but the productivity of organics is chronically underestimated. In an article entitled “Grazing Sheep in Vineyards Creates Big Savings in Fuel, Labor and Water Plus Adds Sheep Profit Potential” (8), Kelly Mulville, who designs and manages vineyards, shows how by adding sheep she reorganized an existing vineyard with dramatic results. Sheep have been winter grazed in vineyards for generations but were always removed just when most needed because of their particular fondness for grape leaves. Mulville designed an electric wire system that defends the leafing tops while leaving the trunks exposed for the sheep to trim out unwanted laterals and suckers and to perform a peerless job of keeping down grass and weeds, turning all of this biomass into high grade fertilizer. A typical vineyard requires 26 to 34 passes with a tractor to keep down grass and weeds, the higher number representing organic practice where cultivation is emphasized over herbicides. All this cultivation leaves bare ground to dry out. Mulville’s strategy reduced irrigation by 90% compared to a neighboring vineyard, a saving of a whopping 50 gallons per vine (5 gallons compared to 55 gallons) and kept the ground cooler. Grape yields increased by 1,245 pounds per acre. And the wine? Everybody said it was exceptional. The sheep were happy and brought an additional dividend. Thanks to Mulville’s strategy, for the first time it was possible to use sheep year around with a gain of $700 to $900 per acre.
Creativity and personal involvement enable the interweaving and layering of diverse crops with exciting increases in food production on soil that continuously improves. This includes grazing land. Rotational grazing of cattle in the Pantanal and Cerrado regions of Brazil is resulting in cattle that are 15% heavier with 22% higher pregnancy rates while permitting reestablishment of native grasses. A study appearing in the journal Tropical Conservation Science for March 2011 (9) reports these benefits and more. Besides improving gains, rotational grazing protects the wildlife of the area, home to jaguars, peccaries, giant anteaters and 720 species of birds, while reducing incentives to deforestation and uncontrolled burning. “Many areas… have already been converted to large scale non-sustainable ranching operations where native forests and savannahs were replaced by exotic grasses. While these techniques sometimes produce higher profits in the short run they leave behind an impoverished deforested landscape prone to erosion and drought…” Graziers all over the USA attest to the benefits of controlled grazing.
Fairlie’s farming models do not include nutrient estimates for extra food provided by pigs, poultry or sheep. The latter he finds to be a negligible food source, although valuable in other ways. Pigs and poultry he terms default food sources, providing enormous value on small farms where they compete for neither land nor feed; with a modicum of management they cost virtually nothing, thriving on stuff nobody else wants, as they have done for centuries. Sheep are a distinct advantage to the organic orchardist by keeping down grass which otherwise will choke the trees, a relentless competition. As previously noted, sheep do a grand job of redistributing fertility. And I don’t find mine to be a negligible source of meat. As for chickens, I can scarcely imagine how anybody gets along without them. They make a daily sweep of a couple of acres around the barn and front yard and keep us free of ticks and fly maggots. I see vegan farming as pushing nature uphill to make an uncertain point. Everywhere that nature or humans clear land for agriculture and let the sunshine in, grass immediately grows. Grazing animals turn grass into meat or milk and save you all kinds of work. The apparent advantage in calorie production seen in vegan farming is readily made up on the mixed livestock farm by this “default” animal production, which unlike the fruits of the vegan farm, is obtained with little physical labor.
The vegan farm inherently consumes more fossil fuel. Fairlie notes this and even suggests they be allotted extra fuel if any is to be had, because vegans must do everything either by hand or with power equipment whereas the farm with animals has them doing at least some of the work. Indeed, animals can do all the work done by machines. Fairlie suggests we do not scoff at animal power. Our ancestors were not so dumb. Take away the traction provided by cows in India and a quarter of a billion people will be displaced into cities with tragic results. Closer to home, there are efficiencies to be had from horse, ox or even cow-power that can be appealing as oil prices rise. Huge mono-culture fields are linked inextricably with oil and also with the availability of rock phosphate. Manure cannot be managed on a vast scale without heavy equipment. Without cheap oil, smaller fields farmed with older, lighter equipment or with animal traction, begin to look pretty good. Animal power advocates, of whom Fairlie is one, observe that your animal helper will produce its own replacement. Net income is often better on smaller farms using older, lighter equipment, animal traction and fewer inputs, a point persuasively made by Gene Logsdon, author of the introduction to Fairlie’s book, in his own recent book, Holy Shit. (10)
Fairlie has done an impressive job of designing realistic farms that enable meaningful comparisons among seemingly incompatible systems. Hopefully this will begin to dispel the unthinking repetition of unsupported “facts” about the indispensability of commodity agriculture along with some of the more extreme allegations against cattle and their ecological impact. Huge policy decisions are afoot. Planning for our agricultural future needs to be based on reality, not short term profits or the dreams of high-rise fabulists convinced they can trump natural law. Corporate leadership and others seduced by their claims might consider the words of Yukio Okamoto following the nuclear disaster in Fukashima. Speaking while slumped dejectedly in his chair, Okamoto, a diplomat and world leader, said “We were not humble enough to Mother Nature”. (11)
Fairlie is curiously dismissive towards nutrition. He repeatedly makes the statement that plant and meat protein are of equal value. I’d say he feels as many people do, including some I love dearly, that nutrition studies are confusing, irritating, and dominated by quibblers. Just show me some good farm food. Since key comparisons in Meat: A Benign Extravagance, depend on acceptance of the equivalence of animal and vegetable derived protein, more deserves to be said.
Protein quality is rated according to biological value. Egg is the gold standard with a value of 97 on a scale of 100. On a diet of egg a rodent can both grow at a standard rate and achieve tissue repair. All animal products except gelatin score in the 90’s. Plant proteins run from around 40 to 74.(12) Fairlie somewhat puzzlingly assigns to meat a biological score of 1.2 compared to plant protein, although 1.4 is more commonly used. By Fairlie’s measure you would need only 20% (rather than 40%) more plant protein to equal the same number of grams of meat protein. Already it’s looking complicated and by golly it is, although also rather entertaining when you think about all the arguing over protein that comes down to weighing mice.
But wait, it gets better. Amino acids! Where a protein appears on the spectrum of biological value, how fast the mouse repairs itself or grows, depends not merely on total grams of protein but also on the number and proportion of its amino acids, usually referred to as the building blocks of protein. Following the architectural theme, you might think of the New York City skyline with great tall buildings with names like lysine and methionine punching up into the sky but many other buildings taking part in the impressive display. That’s your animal protein. Then you could take the skyline of a charming fishing village like Rockport, Maine, with a more modest skyline furnished with a light house. There’s your vegetable protein. With this more modest pattern the mice won’t grow as fast unless (and this is vegan theory) you make up for that low silhouette by eating more plant protein and merging a selected group of other high points; you might think of it as overlaying the skylines of several charming villages with differently positioned light houses. When trying to make plant protein as powerful as animal protein both volume and configuration must be taken into account.
A configuration able to support growth and repair is what is being attempted with the concept of complementary protein. It’s a mathematical minefield. I have failed to find research evidence that it actually translates into growth and repair as effectively as animal protein. Feed manufacturers are little swayed by ideology and just go ahead and supplement grains with pure amino acids derived from GMO modified substrates. Dairy farmers choose amino-fortified soy milk replacers only for calves they don’t plan on keeping and it still takes nearly half again as much of this cheaper plant based formula to get growth comparable to real milk. For their own replacement heifers they use full fat milk protein formulas, notoriously expensive.
Animal protein is fully and completely digested. What you see is what you get. Not so with plant proteins. Unable to flee their predators, most plants contain toxins called anti- nutrients that reduce digestibility and they all contain carbohydrates. We love our carbs of course, but to obtain the embedded protein you have to eat your way through a lot of it.
The importance of protein in reproduction is no secret. It is of signal importance in maintaining a full term pregnancy and a baby of normal birth weight. A vegan diet is ill- suited to this task. Animals don’t need to be told this. Even the slow moving panda bear which lives most of its life eating nothing but bamboo shoots, in preparation for breeding finds a bird’s nest and eats the eggs.
Fairlie positions cattle as something of a loss leader; grow plenty of grain and you get to have a bit of beef. Based on their presumed inefficiency, he allots very little land to cattle. He accepts the popular belief that it takes 10 calories of grain to produce one calorie of gain in cattle, although by correcting for factors such as their early life on pasture and mother’s milk he gets some cattle down to a better ratio of around 4 to one and even a bit more favorable for a dairy cow. In Fairlie’s view, like that of most critics, cows are an extravagance, and perhaps they would be if: a) They did indeed require grain. Their natural diet is grass. b) There really was a shortage of land, which Fairlie says there is not and I entirely agree. The feeding of grain to cattle is an economic decision. Cattle are being compelled to compete for fast profits. Let’s now take a look at nature’s metabolic reality.
Feed efficiency or the feed conversion rate has become the current standard when comparing species of livestock for human food. Dozens of books, including Fairlie’s, and thousands of articles state as established fact that chickens are a better deal for getting more meat for a given amount of feed. Give three pounds of feed to your chicken and get 1 lb of meat. Give the same feed to a cow and get 1/500th part of a cow. Obviously cows are inefficient.
Well, hang on a minute. This is only if you are in a great rush for meat. Here is what you really need to know, and here we are going to use rabbits instead of chickens because cows eat grass or hay and chickens eat just about anything but prefer grain. So we will compare two grass eaters, cows and rabbits.
If you take 300 rabbits and one steer and give 1 ton of hay to your rabbits and 1 ton to your steer by the time they have all finished eating their hay you will have an equal increase in rabbit meat and steer meat, 240 kg of new tissue. The only difference will be that your rabbits will eat up their hay sooner, one month for the rabbits, four months for the steer. (Kleiber et al) (13)
How does this make rabbits more efficient? Not by a “better” feed conversion rate. Only by time. Only if efficiency = time = money are the rabbits more efficient. This may well be true for CAFOs where rabbits in/rabbits out is the measure of efficiency. The CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation or factory farm) system wants a warp speed return on investment. I am willing to wait for my return. If my time = money than I have a far greater return on my longer term investment because the work involved in getting quick rabbit meat is greater; tending 300 rabbits even with the best equipment will take 2-3 hours of intense labor every day (14). My steer eats his quota of hay or grazes his pasture without supervision. All I have to do is be sure his water tub is full. How is this inefficient?
Forcing cows into the Procrustean bed of dollar based feed conversion has resulted in a veritable cottage industry of cow bashing and has distracted attention from their incomparable value to the human race. Despite their “extravagance”, Fairlie does detail their many useful contributions which don’t stop with meat and milk but include hide and other parts usually viewed as by products. The above meat production truth is intuitively recognized in Fairlie’s discussion of pig rearing on scraps and rejects. He also makes the profound point that at all times animals provide resilience to farming systems. Large animals are the ultimate feed storage system for extra grain in favorable seasons. In less favorable seasons they can make it nicely on grass of which there is seldom a shortage.
Cattle convert grass, on which humans soon starve, into meat, milk and fat and they do it with an efficiency honed over fifty million years. And I didn’t list fat for nothing. Life without fat is neither pleasant nor even possible, and not merely to support hard work or as Fairlie asserts, personal indulgence. Fat is vital. I have a hard time endorsing the pursuit of fats that have to be imported from palm trees on the far side of the world or pounded out of laboriously tended seed crops when cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry are cheerfully piling it on in tasty layers from stuff nobody else has the remotest desire to eat. If you get too far ahead on your fat supply you can make soap, the lack of which is piteously mourned by people in times of hardship.
Fairlie lifts discussion of our food future from ill supported arguments of the apples and oranges sort and presents options based on established realities of land, energy and fertility. It turns out that there is more land available than many people suppose. The possibilities for adequate food production are much better than widely believed. What seems likely to be in shortest supply is energy, a factor which most people think of as fossil fuel or maybe biofuels. Fairlie suggests we would do well to take a fresh look at an energy source that most people are reluctant to discuss. As I heard one fruity voice on the BBC state archly during a discussion of food production options, “Who wants to get their fingernails dirty – I certainly don’t!” Fairlie boldly suggests we consider physical work. He says he enjoys it. So do I and so, I daresay, do a lot of readers, never mind our fingernails. In fact, for years I have nurtured a theory that if just 1 in 10 people actively farmed (14 ) we could grow enough food for the folks that prefer indoor activities. They can keep busy attending to desk work or keeping the dishes washed while one tenth of us stay fit weeding or shoveling the source of fertility. Fairlie assumes a future with more human labor. He notes that people on the land create energy whereas people in cities consume it.
Critics of organic farming and gardening have in common a virginal lack of personal experience and a dismissive attitude towards information not brokered by spokesmen for commodity agriculture. I suspect them of having been lulled by seductive views of endless wheat fields like Dorothy amongst the Somnifera poppies, making it seem that crops just happen when you leave it to the big boys. Currently this stockfree/vegan thinking has a powerful grip on both the theory and direction of our food producing future. Few demand proof of either its logic or its nutritional adequacy. It appears mathematically beyond challenge – until challenged. Meat: A Benign Extravagance ought to do a great deal to align some more fanciful proposals for the future of farming along more practical furrows.
The small farm model with animals has a history reaching into antiquity. It is a microcosm of nature with its successful interdependence between eating and being eaten while maintaining an unbroken circle of fertility: fertile soil, fertile animals, healthy people. No such precedent exists for the corporate vegan model. It is being proposed top-down on theoretical grounds and the math – not the practical experience – is being wrenched around to justify it. If Fairlie’s book does nothing else, it ought to shatter the dangerously false belief that eliminating or scrimping on meat and dairy products will aid the planet either directly or indirectly. Home reared or locally produced animal products are our best hope for a dependable, resilient and life supporting food future. Animals hold the small farm together.
“And we need to say something else, too: it’s time to stop letting corporate power make the most important decisions our planet faces” Quote from a Joint letter by Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, David Suzuki and others (15)
So what about the belief that more people can be fed directly with grain rather than feeding it to a cow to produce beef or milk? It’s a conundrum akin to asking which is more important, nature or nurture. It sets up a false dichotomy because you can’t take them apart. A comparison of feed efficiency based on grain is meaningless, since cows don’t require grain in the first place but profit from many of its byproducts. On a mixed farm of human dimensions there is room for both plants and animals; they thrive together just as they exist in all of nature.
Citation 1 University of California – Riverside (2011, March 12). Keys to long life? Not what you might expect. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 14, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com¬ /releases/2011/03/110311153541.htm
(2) Will Bonsall and Molly Thorkildsen, Farmington, Maine, have farmed veganically for 25 years
(3) Organic Farm Management Handbook 2009 Organic Farm Management Handbook (Lampkin, N, Measures, M and Padel, S (Eds). Aberystwyth University and Organic Research Centre Elm Farm, Aberystwyth and Newbury (2008) ISBN 978 1 872064 44 2.
(4) Slow Money by Woody Tasch, Chelsea Green Publishing 2008
(5) Quote from Anne English, IFOAM, in The Financial Times, referenced in: A Compendium of Food and Agriculture News: Organic Matter, Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Page 8, March 2011
(6) Lester Brown The Great Food Crisis of 2011 http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/01/10/the_great_food_crisis_of_2011?print=yes&hidecomments=yes&page=full
(7) Ikerd Quoted in The Milkweed, an independent dairy industry news magazine, Issue #381, April 2011
(8) Grazing Sheep in Vineyards Created Big Savings in Fuel, Labor and Water Plus Adds Sheep Profit Potential: The Stockman Grass Farmer August 2011 Vol. 11 #4
(9) Donald Parsons Eaton, Sandra Aparecida Santos, Maria do Carmo Andrade Santos, José Vergílio Bernardes Lima, Alexine Keuroghlian. Rotational Grazing of Native Pasturelands in the Pantanal: an effective conservation tool. Tropical Conservation Science, Vol 4, No 1 (2011)
(10) Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind by Gene Logsdon Chelsea Green Publishing 2010
(11) New Yorker Magazine March 28, 2011; Letter from Japan; Aftershocks by Evan Osmos, p. 78
(12) Introductory Nutrition by Helen Andrews Guthrie: C.V. Mosby Company St. Louis 1967 Library of Congress Catalog Card 67-10507
(13) Kleiber, Max: Kleiber provided the basis for the conclusion that total efficiency of energy utilization is independent of body size. These concepts and several others fundamental for understanding energy metabolism are discussed in Kleiber’s book, The Fire of Life: an introduction to animal energetics published in 1961
Former rabbit producer Ann Bledsoe provided the following information based on 500 rabbits: The PMRA (Professional Meat Rabbit Association) says that 500 rabbits constitute a “full-time” job — not only does it take up the time, but if done correctly, generates a “full-time” income. With a large, commercial rabbitry manure has to be dealt with daily. Feeding is done twice daily, breeding is done daily, as is palpation, placing nestboxes, kindling, and weaning. Ann B Thursday, January 27, 2011 .
(14) Sarah and Garin Smith operate Grassland Farm, a certified organic dairy and mixed vegetable farm in Skowhegan, Maine. They are committed to a goal of food self sufficiency for their locale. Based on her experience, Sarah believes that this would require that one in three people be personally involved in food production. cookingupastory.com
(15) Joint letter by Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, Danny Glover, Maude Barlow, Tom Goldtooth, James Hansen, Wes Jackson, Naomi Klein, George Poitras, David Suzuki, Gus Speth posted Jun 22 Yes Magazine online in opposition to Keystone XL pipeline.
Commentary 4 - Elite Food Security
This TALK was given by Joann S Grohman at the MOFGA fair SEP 23 2011 with edits
A New Yorker story (August 2011 GRUB) promoting entomophagy – insect eating – asks us to consider: Where is the logic in trying to fight hunger in Africa by assisting farmers to pour insecticides on crops to kill locusts that are more nutritious than the crop being defended? Insects provide complete protein; crops do not. This seems unassailable logic. Borne along on his wave of enthusiasm the author, Dana Goodyear, proceeded to bolster his position with further claims, to wit:
Insects eat cellulosic materials (plants); these are cleaner than food eaten by warm blooded animals
Insects don’t compete with humans for food (the author has not met my Japanese beetles).
They have a low carbon footprint and don’t contribute to greenhouse gas levels (GHG) or pollute water sources.
And again: insects provide complete protein.
Predictably, the author declared that insects are far more efficient converters of feed to product than cows. It’s not true. I will explain shortly.
I wrote to the New Yorker and told them that I have somebody out in my pasture that meets or exceeds all these claims and more: my cow Jasmine.
Cows eat grass, their natural food, a stringy cellulosic material for which humans will never compete.
Cows on pasture have a zero carbon footprint. They sequester carbon by trampling grass and dung into the ground. If it is an organic farm there will be dung beetles which quickly bury the manure underground where it builds fertility.
Cows on pasture are nitrogen providers so farmers need not buy it in. Nitrogen is vital to fertility. It is provided by manure and re-enters the life cycle; it is not wasted or nor does it become a pollutant as occurs in confinement operations.
Cows do not contribute to GHG levels in the atmosphere because they are part of the short term carbon cycle. This is carbon (CO2) that is breathed in and out by animals and taken up by plants and recycled productively. This is equally true of methane (CH4) from enteric (rumen) fermentation. Because methane is produced anaerobically, by definition it cannot be a product of manure dropped on pasture in the open air.
The New Yorker story described a soirée at which promoters and celebrity chefs offered a variety of insect dishes. A hesitant guest said he supposed he had better get used to them because bugs are the food of the future.
Those unready for locust burgers will be interested to know that dairy products and beef are also complete protein produced by bugs, the “bugs” in this case being rumen bacteria. Insects derive their complete protein the same way it’s done by cows, from amino acids built by internal bacteria that break down cellulose. Using energy provided by sugars released in the splitting of cellulose and by adding nitrogen from any available source, bacteria compound the essential amino acids. Bacterial synthesis creates complete protein. Complete proteins are the essential building blocks of body tissues.
There are three reliable sources of complete protein. Either you have a rumen or comparable organ like a cow, and are a primary producer. Or you eat other animals. Or you eat eggs and milk. Since cows eat neither other animals nor eggs or milk, they are directly dependent on their own rumen bacteria to provide the complete protein that builds their massive muscles and goes into their gallons of milk. The only things lower on the food chain than cows are bacteria. This claim is equally valid for herbivorous insects. But in the case of the cow you end up with milk or meat instead of grasshoppers and caterpillars. You also get higher quality protein and more of it. The value of protein is measured on a scale of 1 -100 based on standardized growth in rodents. The high quality animal protein in egg, milk and red meat scores 90 to 99 whereas the protein in Acridids (Locusts) is 60 to 66.(1) Fish is 50 to 55. Soy scores about 48 and is not a complete protein.
The New Yorker article further recommended insects on the grounds that they are cold blooded and thus able to make more efficient use of food than warm blooded animals do because they needn’t waste energy keeping warm. That claim won’t survive the first hard frost, following which the grasshoppers will be dead but Jasmine will keep on producing. When an insect is below its functioning temperature it is not growing. When a mammal is in full production, the heat it produces exceeds its own requirements, so over a wide range of temperatures a growing or producing animal is by no means wasting energy staying warm. This is true also of bumblebees and moths, tuna and some other fish, all of which are able to maintain a constant body temperature because they produce more heat than they need and can control heat loss.
Cows have become suspect creatures, the object of unkind slurs. Their alleged feed consumption, water requirements, and contributions to pollution are passed back and forth among investigative reporters, environmentalists, scientists from all disciplines and the entire vegetarian community in a self reinforcing closed loop, all agreeing, “As by now everybody knows…” without troubling themselves with fact checking. These surely well meaning folks have one thing in common. They don’t raise their own cows. I know this about them because if they did raise their own cows there would be no niggling over whether it takes 1400 or 2100 gallons of water to produce one steak or gallon of milk. They would know perfectly well that beef cattle don’t use any more water than a pony of the same weight and probably less than a showering teenager. Dairy cows are thirstier, but they give it back the next day as milk. Here is an entertaining parable:
Camping with the Lone Ranger and Tonto
The Lone Ranger and Tonto go camping in the desert.
After they get their tent set up, both men fall sound asleep.
Some hours later, Tonto wakes the Lone Ranger and says, “Kemo Sabe,
look towards sky, what you see?”
The Lone Ranger replies, “I see millions of stars.”
“What that tell you?” asks Tonto.
The Lone Ranger ponders for a minute then says, “Astronomically
speaking, it tells me there are millions of galaxies and potentially
billions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me that Saturn is in
Leo. Time wise, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three
in the morning. Theologically, it’s evident the Lord is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What’s it tell you, Tonto?”
Tonto is silent for a moment, then he says,”Kemo Sabe, you dumber than buffalo. It tell me that someone has stolen tent.”
If you are considering getting a cow, you may prefer to jump right in based on common sense like Tonto. You may agree with our friend and haying partner Ted who shared his perception of the future: “Anybody who isn’t giving serious thought to food self sufficiency hasn’t been paying attention.” Next spring Ted plans to convert his horse pasture to a crop of wheat. All kinds of food production are important and I may put in some wheat too. But nothing beats the dairy cow. What are the simple facts behind the crazy numbers? You’ll want to know them before investing in this “extravagant” beast. Before I give you the math, which you may be as relieved as I to discover is remarkably simple, here are a few of the benefits you can expect from a cow:
She gives you milk to support peak health and physical development.
She provides the raw material for butter and cheese
She gives you a calf every year to raise as her replacement or as meat for your freezer or to sell.
She provides skim milk and whey, the complete protein essential in the diets of pigs and chickens
She provides manure for your garden and her own pasture and does it without causing pollution or adding CO2, methane or nitrous oxide.
She sequesters CO2 and is a net improver of air quality (atmospheric green house gas levels).
She accomplishes this on local feed – grass and hay augmented by whatever else you have – pumpkins, comfrey, making her the ultimate locavore’
She is immune to early blight, late blight and market swings
She cheerfully works all day at her job of grazing, converting the inedible into the richly edible, freeing you to do other things. Like all grazing animals, she gladly uses rough pasture unsuited to any other crop.
She doesn’t care what is happening in the rest of the world. In his classic book Goat Husbandry, Scottish writer David McKenzie described the aftermath of a WWII bombing raid that destroyed a house along with the fence around the vegetable garden. When the smoke cleared, there was the family goat calmly eating the cabbages. There’s sustainability for you, not to mention resilience and milk for your tea. It could as well have been a cow. For year round food security in war and peace, you can’t beat the dairy cow.
What about all the trash talk against cows?
What about all the bad things we hear about dairy cows and beef critters, their competition for world grain supplies, vast water requirements, diabetes, heart disease and cancer laid at their door and now charges of elitism directed at their owners? Start with elitism, now a frequent charge against those who go out of their way to secure organically grown food for their families. Is the fact that many others are unable or simply unwilling to go to the trouble and expense of obtaining top quality food really a reason for you or me to eat inferior food? Does anybody pursue this reasoning with housing or education? The charge of elitism is used as a way to put down others. It puts us on the defensive where we don’t belong. “Elite and proud of it” may be the best answer, along with inviting them to join us. More substantive concerns about food security and health care costs will soon overtake charges of elitism, a puzzling accusation in any case against one who pitches manure.
I asked my daughter-in-law Mitra who keeps a milk cow along with pigs and meat birds what she thinks of the statement that farm animals cause 18% (or some say 28% or even 40% (2) of GHG emissions, more than transportation? Being a hands-on woman it is obvious to her that such numbers don’t apply on her farmette. She said, “Maybe they are talking about factory farms.”
Actually… not. Those numbers are not true anywhere. They come from the summary to the 2008 WHO paper, Livestock’s Long Shadow, which was apparently as far as anybody read in the report and are not supported by the facts within the body of the paper. A refutation was published within days by Frank Mitloehner PhD, an air quality specialist speaking at a meeting of the American Chemical Society (3), but who wants to read that sort of thing? The misstatement resonated with established prejudice against livestock, cows in particular, and remains little challenged. What Mitloehner pointed out was that when assigning GHG levels to transportation, the report estimated only what takes place in traffic whereas for the livestock sector it counted embodied fossil fuel inputs right back to the tractors that plowed the grain fields as well as chemical fertilizer and herbicides used on the crops and even energy used in food processing. Not fair.
Here are figures from my article Why We Need Cows and Should not Worry about Their Carbon Footprint or Methane Contribution See: The Maine Organic Farmer’s and Gardener’s Association June 2010 issue.
According to USDA figures for 2007, the latest year for which numbers are available, the entire agricultural sector accounted for only 6 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Out of this 6 percent, 24 percent was from enteric (rumen) fermentation by cattle (excluding manure management). So 6 percent x 0.24 = 1.44 percent. If all cattle were killed, then 100 – 1.44 = 98.6 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions would still be with us. If you exclude methane from manure lagoons, the methane contribution of cattle is negligible and is entirely enteric in origin (methane belched from the rumens of cattle, erroneously referred to as farts). Methane (CH4) from this source is part of the short term methane cycle. Less is produced by modern livestock than was produced by indigenous ruminants in ages past. It is not rightfully an issue at all.
Simon Fairlie, author of Meat: A Benign Extravagance, which I reviewed in the MOFGA issue for December, 2011, points out that Henning Stienfeld, author of the much read summary to Livestock’s Long Shadow, is closely allied to corporate agriculture and a supporter of what is called “intensive livestock production”, in other words CAFO’s or factory farming of animals. He is thus making a stealth case against “extensive” production, known to us as grazing. The point here is clear enough to agribiz enthusiasts though not necessarily to the rest of us: thanks to manipulation of the ruminants’ natural diet, confined animals produce less methane. This then becomes a talking point in support of CAFO methods. Opponents of animal agriculture together with those just after a snappy headline have found this 18% claim, however groundless, to be irresistible.
The most persistent charge made against meat production – meaning beef – is that beef demands wasteful feeding of grain. Four-color bar graphs enliven an endless stream of books, articles and blogs in support of this belief. “It takes 10 pounds of grain to produce one pound of steak” is the feed conversion rate most often stated although Wikipedia makes it seven.(2) Sometimes it is stated not as feed but as calories: 10 calories of energy to get one calorie of steak. This is then compared to chicken or pig feeding, always to the detriment of cattle, which are described as hopelessly inefficient. Two points must be considered.
Firstly, feed constituents vary according to price and availability and results vary accordingly. Labor costs and time are also factored into the estimate as these are impossible to avoid. The 10 to 1 ratio is a moving target. More meaningful to producers is IOFC (income over feed costs). The feed conversion ratio of 10 to 1 is then used to prove that cattle are inherently less efficient producers of animal protein because they are bigger and take longer to grow, eating all the while. They are being held accountable for trophic loss, another way of describing the food chain. The food chain works like this:
It takes a whole lot of mice and little birds to support a small population of hawks. And the mice and birds need a lot of seeds, roots and insects. And the insects need a lot of plants. There is a 20% loss of energy with each step up the chain or trophic level. So if the hawks could be persuaded to eat plants, perhaps intermediate life forms could be dispensed with leaving more unblemished plants for the hawks to share.
Does this make sense? I didn’t think so either, but it is the basis for the reasoning behind Diet for a Small Planet. When imposed upon cattle, perching them at the top of the food chain, the discussion loses all credibility, at least I think it would to Tonto. Because cattle are not at the top of the food chain. They are at the same level as grasshoppers eating plants as anyone observing them graze can plainly see.
The easy math
Now for point number two, which brings us to the math I promised you. It is called Kleiber’s Law. Max Kleiber and his colleagues put many decades into creating a theory immune to ideology. What he gave us is a charmingly simple feed conversion rate. It forms the basis of metabolic studies. It goes like this:
If you give one tonne (2200 lbs) of hay to 300 rabbits and one tonne of hay to one steer, at the end of one month the rabbits will have eaten up their hay and there will be 240 kilograms of new rabbit tissue. The steer will take four months to finish off his tonne of hay at which point he will have gained 240 kilograms of new tissue. The rate at which living things convert food energy to tissue is exactly the same for all, from the largest animal that ever lived right down to single cells and even applies to plants. The formula is R= M ¾ .All are equally efficient if by efficiency you mean how much energy is required for growth. (4)
Note that Kleiber’s example uses two herbivores. The grain to beef ratio of 10 to 1 is additionally weakened, in fact becomes meaningless, when you take into account that cattle are not evolved as grain eaters. Their natural diet is grass. Poultry and hogs, the meat animals to which cows are always compared, have a gut designed to thrive on high density feed such as grain. Try turning those comparisons around by asking poultry and hogs to fatten on grass, and then see what the bar graph looks like. This in no way conflicts with Kleiber’s Law, which can only tell us what to expect from calories that make it across the gut wall into metabolism.
The inexact ratio of 10 to 1 is really all about time. As I explained in my review of Meat: A Benign Extravagance, if I am a CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation or factory farm) my objective will be speed of turnover, or rabbits in/rabbits out.
For the CAFO, it is a matter of finding feed that is cheap yet digestible so that the animals can maximize their potential and reach market weight fast. Chickens are well suited to this because they only need reach about 8 lbs before they enter the value-added phase of their careers. If I have the grass or hay and prefer to let my steer eat in peace while I do something else with my time, from my standpoint nothing is lost. Of course not all feed energy goes into growth. Some goes into urine and dung. For a large animal like a cow that takes longer to grow, this can make quite a pile. From Nature’s perspective this is not waste, it’s recycling fertility and I value it, but from the current marketing perspective it is wasted energy.
If we are talking about a dairy cow, things are even better. Here is where you truly get to have your cake and eat it too. Your dairy cow will provide milk every day, animal protein of the highest possible quality and a calf every year and you still have your cow.
In deep water
“Of all the statistical clichés about livestock that are passed like a relay baton from one article or website to another, there is one that stands out in it enormity. George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian, tells us that ‘every kilogram of beef we consume, according to research by the agronomists David Pimental and Robert Goodland, requires about 100,000 litres of water to produce.’ But it’s unfair to single out Monbiot because the 100,000 figure pops up all over the place, as often as not preceded by the word, ‘staggering’.” (5)
These are the opening words in Simon Fairlie’s chapter entitled Hard to Swallow. There follow a series of quotes from other distinguished names in environmental, climate, sustainability and other professional disciplines, all making virtually identical statements. To give it context, Fairlie applied these figures to his steer, Bramley. This would require Bramley, an Angus Jersey cross, to consume 12,500 long tons of water, the equivalent of an acre ten feet deep on each of the 500 days of his life. Fairlie is a witty writer as well as a scholar and I recommend you read his book. He then took the trouble to pursue every water use reference he could find. The water use writers quote each other or cite unavailable sources. The trail of references finally petered out like the Colorado River in the sand before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico.
Ideal time to get a cow
Since you are here, I assume that you are more interested in exploring the cow pathway to elite food self sufficiency than in insect farming, which I certainly don’t hold in contempt. But it should be understood that the cow already does it all and a whole lot more without anyone having to invent new terms for what they are eating.
Right now is an ideal time to get a cow if you don’t already have one. Commercial food is getting steadily worse and more expensive. The value of everything your cow provides is increasing in value relative to other foods. If you have the land, this is also true of the grass she eats. It costs the same as it always did. If you have a spouse or partner, this may make it possible to live on a single outside income. One of you can work at home as pasture god or goddess and maximize the value of the dairy products by making lots of wonderful things like butter and cheese. Then first thing you know the chickens will be laying more eggs on the clabber they get. What about a pig? It doesn’t take much of any more work or feed to raise chickens and a couple of pigs. A pig by himself gets picky so two are better than one. A few sheep may fit in well. They share pasture peacefully with a cow. Talk about elite eating!
Q: Do you feed any grain? How much?
A: I feed some grain most of the year. I know zero grain feeding has become an ideal for many people. The cow is unquestionably best evolved for grass but this does not mean her health will be compromised by the addition of pumpkins, apples, comfrey, corn stover, mangels .. or grain. All these foods except grain will probably be free. So why do I feed grain? Because I don’t live on an ideal farm. I am not always a perfect manager. I can’t always count on top quality hay. And above all, I don’t want my cow to get too skinny.
A cow’s impulse to produce milk varies by her individual genetics, stage of lactation and other factors. Some cows on a restricted diet will “milk off her back”. Unless you adequately support her production she will become a rack of bones. Some people deal with this by attempting to suppress lactation. There may be occasions for this. My preference is to feed the cow better so that she has enough nutrients to support both herself and her milk production. I don’t consider this to be pushing. I consider it humane management.
A herd that becomes selected or adapted to grass- and hay-only over a period of years will balance things out and be healthy but less productive. She or her daughters will adjust production downward, assisted by your choice of sires. This is the norm in New Zealand. I think it is best to feel your way in this direction, putting your cow’s welfare first and idealism second, reserving “grass only” as a goal. I have seen a number of cases where the ideal is imposed too vigorously, the cow becomes emaciated, and the owner finds that she won’t breed back.
Q: Are more people getting back into farming?
A: New small farms are on the increase. They are the only farming segment doing so. At YES Magazine, an editor remarked that “Every young person I know wants to farm.” Most want a mixed farm with animals. Animals complete the circle of sustainability and add hugely to resiliency. They give you more high quality food for less work than vegetable crops do. As one of my cow owning forum members said recently, “If our family had to make it on the vegetables we grow ourselves, we’d starve.”
To whatever extent one’s animal husbandry or food choices include eating meat or dairy, be clear that animals are not in conflict with human needs, they are key supporters. They do not add to planet stress, they relieve it. To suggest that the world does not have enough grass for pasturing cattle is disingenuous. The biggest irrigated crop in the US is lawns.
I hope that I have corrected some of the disinformation about farm animals, especially cows, that currently warps so many peoples’ views of their role in farming and in life.
(1) Locusts as protein source
International Journal of Poultry Science 7 (7): 722-725, 2008
© Asian Network for Scientific Information, 2008
(3) Mithloener says: Eating Less Meat and Dairy Products Won’t Have Major Impact on Global Warming, Expert Argues
ScienceDaily (Mar. 22, 2010) — Cutting back on consumption of meat and dairy products will not have a major impact in combating global warming — despite repeated claims that link diets rich in animal products to production of greenhouse gases. That’s the conclusion of a report presented at the 239th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Francisco.
Air quality expert Frank Mitloehner, Ph.D., who made the presentation, said that giving cows and pigs a bum rap is not only scientifically inaccurate, but also distracts society from embracing effective solutions to global climate change. He noted that the notion is becoming deeply rooted in efforts to curb global warming, citing campaigns for “meatless Mondays” and a European campaign, called “Less Meat = Less Heat,” launched late last year.
“We certainly can reduce our greenhouse-gas production, but not by consuming less meat and milk,” said Mitloehner, who is with the University of California-Davis. “Producing less meat and milk will only mean more hunger in poor countries.”
The focus of confronting climate change, he said, should be on smarter farming, not less farming. “The developed world should focus on increasing efficient meat production in developing countries where growing populations need more nutritious food. In developing countries, we should adopt more efficient, Western-style farming practices to make more food with less greenhouse gas production,” Mitloehner said.
Developed countries should reduce use of oil and coal for electricity, heating and vehicle fuels. Transportation creates an estimated 26 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., whereas raising cattle and pigs for food accounts for about 3 percent, he said.
Mitloehner says confusion over meat and milk’s role in climate change stems from a small section printed in the executive summary of a 2006 United Nations report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow.” It read: “The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents). This is a higher share than transport.”
Mitloehner says there is no doubt that livestock are major producers of methane, one of the greenhouse gases. But he faults the methodology of “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” contending that numbers for the livestock sector were calculated differently from transportation. In the report, the livestock emissions included gases produced by growing animal feed; animals’ digestive emissions; and processing meat and milk into foods. But the transportation analysis factored in only emissions from fossil fuels burned while driving and not all other transport lifecycle related factors.
“This lopsided analysis is a classical apples-and-oranges analogy that truly confused the issue,” he said.
Here is a link to an article that repeats some unsupportable allegations.
(2)It is an interview with Jonathan Foley — lead author of the study and director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, as well as a member of The Nature Conservancy’s Science Council advisory board — to find out what it would take to make these recommendations a reality. Jonathon Foley, U of Minnesota, is lead author of a new study in the journal Nature which claims it takes 33 lbs of grain to make 1 lb beef.
Here is a Grist release about the Nature article followed by a commentary I wrote for the In the News section of the www.keepingafamilycow.com forum.
Solution to world hunger? Eat less meat, new study urges
MONTREAL — A newly published blueprint for doubling the global food supply includes a key suggestion about how everyone can contribute to this increasingly pressing ambition: eat less meat.
An international team of researchers has developed solutions to respond to what it calls one the greatest challenges of the 21st century — boosting food production while slashing the environmental impact of agriculture.
The research, which will be featured on the cover page of the Oct. 20 edition of the journal Nature, comes as international concern grows over how the planet will feed the rapidly expanding human population.
With the world’s population expected to climb from 6.9 billion to 9 billion by 2050, the issue of food was put at the top of this year’s G20 agenda. The study, published online Wednesday, says there are already a billion people who don’t have enough to eat.
McGill University’s Navin Ramankutty, one of the team leaders on the paper, said the research is the first of its kind to quantify both food production and ecological consequences in the same analysis.
He added that it’s also the first study to examine these factors while considering the specific environmental characteristics of different regions of the planet.
Ramankutty said limiting meat consumption is one of several ways to increase food production.
He estimates that simply dedicating prime cropland to growing food for humans — rather than growing biofuels or feed for animals — could spike the global output by nearly 50 per cent.
The study says that three-quarters of the world’s agricultural land is devoted to raising livestock, either for grazing or for growing feed.
Ramankutty added that beef is the most resource-intensive animal product of them all.
“That doesn’t mean we all have to become vegetarians and vegans, but even if you… eat meat one or two days less a week, you can hugely contribute to the amount of food that’s needed,” Ramankutty, himself a meat-eater, said.
“It would have a huge impact, but this also happens to be one of those things where people are much more personally attached to it.”
He said that scientists in his field rarely raised diet as an issue in the past because they didn’t want to infringe on a person’s right to choose.
But Ramankutty said fewer researchers are staying quiet on this subject, particularly when the consequences have global environmental impacts.
Changes to the human diet are only one component of the study’s strategy to double the global food supply.
The research also calls for improved crop management to increase yields; an end to deforestation to make way for farmland; and a cutback on food waste, which accounts for as much as half of the planetary food production.
The catch? Ensuring these strategies are adopted on a global scale.
Ramankutty laughed when asked about the likelihood of these tactics being implemented in his lifetime.
“To be honest, I’m probably pessimistic about it, but I always think that optimism is the only choice we have,” the geographer said.
Any time I hear celebrity cooks, and other non farmers, in this case a geologist, Navin Ramankutty, announcing his answer to world hunger, I sigh deeply. In this case I have read only the above article. I await the pleasure of seeing the original publication. But I can state right now, eating less meat has no bearing on the issue of world hunger any more than supposing that if I spend less money there will be more money in the pockets of the needy. Neither meat nor money works that way and when you see these feel-good pronouncements, look behind the door for who profits. Alternatively, find a high minded soul who doesn’t do his homework.
Here are some of the weaknesses in the eat-less-meat argument. I will have to compress my remarks so if I don’t make myself clear, questions are welcome.
People are starving right now and there is food available from a number of sources. It is not equitably distributed partly because somebody had to pay for that food and whoever now owns it will not part with it without recovering his investment either by selling it or by gaining political advantage. This is not new. The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt did business this way. Are we to delude ourselves that those in power in the year 2050 will distribute food without fear or favor?
Geologist Ramankutty claims that this is the first major report which attempts to quantify ecological damage parallel with agricultural projections. This is by no means true but maybe this one is illustrated with impressive new bar graphs. I appreciate the criticism of biofuels, which I am able to support only if the biofuel is carefully harvested from managed woodlands by small holders. Growing corn as fuel I find completely indefensible.
The complaint that feed is being grown for animals, coulda shoulda been grown for people, and consequently is a wasteful use of land and grain has now been repeated so often that most people don’t question it. If you read it real fast and don’t have the on-farm experience to picture what is really happening, the flaws in the argument may pass unnoticed. Firstly, it is actually a restatement of the belief in equitable distribution, the hypothesis that if 10 million acres of corn were not in biofuel nor was fed to animals, then it would be planted to food crops and fed to humans. Is there some evidence anywhere at all that this would occur?
Small farms are not included in this social engineering.
In the real world of small farming, we have rotations of crops, some of which go to humans and some to animals to mutual benefit. There is little competition between people and animals; they share a productive web.
As farming is now being managed, megafarms, which are investment opportunities, provide grain for the highest bidder. Or increasingly the land and crop is owned by a vertically integrated holding which includes animals, a further investment opportunity. If a grain crop is fed to pigs or chickens they grow well and provide a rapid return on investment. If fed to steers, it is declared to be a waste because unlike a chicken, the steer does not double his weight every two weeks. On a small farm the steer spends most of his life after weaning grazing on the world’s cheapest food and may or may not get some grain. He does not compete for food with the family, my goodness no, he is the food. Neither is he competing with the pigs and chickens. Just try turning the situation upside down, making the chickens and pigs live on grass, then see who looks inefficient. Cattle are being forced into an unnatural comparison. But let’s also be fair to the pigs, chickens, sheep and goats, if any. They aren’t competing either. The chickens and pigs get mostly stuff nobody else wants and the sheep and goats graze land nobody else needs.
Sweeping statements about the use of land worldwide for feeding animals are meaningless and intended as propaganda unless a distinction is made between arable and grazing land. Mostly the two acreages are combined into a grand total with animals, chiefly cattle, being accused of using too much land. In few instances is grazing land wanted as arable, consequently grazing animals are its highest and best use. Taking beef cattle out of their natural environment, feeding them an unnatural diet and then declaring that they are the most resource intensive livestock is a statement possible only to the willfully ignorant. Why should I believe anything else they say?
The authors of the new McGill study being published in Nature speak of “improved management” and “global”. It is here that we cut to the chase. This is the same stealth language used in the report, Livestock’s Long Shadow, which groundlessly accuses animals of contributing 18% of greenhouse gas (GHG). The case is then made that if you will please get out of the way and let the big boys manage worldwide agriculture it will be a lot more “efficient”. How? By getting all the animals off the land (Oh goody, less ecological damage) and into CAFO’s (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) and then planting the animal-free lands of Africa, the US, India and China and everywhere else to GMO crops.
In 2007, the last year for which statistics are available, US agriculture accounted for 6%* of US greenhouse gas emissions. Out of this 6%, 24% was from enteric (rumen) fermentation by cattle (excluding manure management). So 6% x 0.24 = 1.44%. If all cattle were killed, then 100 – 1.44 = 98.6% of US agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are still with us. Omitting methane emanating from manure lagoons, the methane contribution of cattle (called enteric) is negligible. The real source of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are manure lagoons and the petrochemical inputs to plant crops. All declarations about environmental damage by cattle are based on our current unsustainable animal husbandry practices involving CAFO’s. Even so, it is still no 18%, in fact is less than 6%.
*Mithloenor, an air quality specialist, gives the contribution of GHG attributable to agriculture as 3%.
(4) Full quote from Why We Need Cows and Should Not Be Worrying About Their Carbon Footprint:
“If you take 300 rabbits and one steer and give 1 ton of hay to your rabbits and 1 ton to your steer by the time they have all finished eating their hay you will have an equal increase in rabbit meat and steer meat, 240 kg of new tissue. The only difference will be that your rabbits will eat up their hay sooner, one month for the rabbits, four months for the steer. (Kleiber et al)
How does this make rabbits more efficient? Not by a “better” feed conversion rate. Only by time. Only if efficiency = time = money are the rabbits more efficient. This may well be true for CAFOs where rabbits in/rabbits out is the measure of efficiency. The CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation or factory farm) system wants a warp speed return on investment. I am willing to wait for my return. If my time = money than I have a far greater return on my longer term investment because the work involved in getting quick rabbit meat is greater; tending 300 rabbits even with the best equipment will take 2-3 hours of intense labor every day (14). My steer eats his quota of hay or grazes his pasture without supervision. All I have to do is be sure his water tub is full. How is this inefficient? Quote is from Joann S Grohman’s review of Meat: A Benign Extravagance in MOFGA newspaper December 2011. A detailed explanation of Kleiber’s Law may be found at universe-review.ca
Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie: Chelsea Green Publishing. My review of this book appears in the December 2011 eddition of the MOFGA paper.
Title of the above talk given September 23, 2011 at the Common Ground Fair (MOFGA) was: Your Family Cow : Elite food security.
Commentary 5 - Why we need cows and should not be worrying about their carbon footprint or methane contribution
The cow, that enduring nursery icon, has been losing fans lately due to serious misinformation being spoken in the highest places. Some of this character damage may be deliberate; much is due to city dwellers having become so distanced from cow reality that absurd statements fly by without a challenge. Example: It takes 2500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. I see that in print pretty often. If I said it takes 2500 gallons of water to produce a pound of dog I believe I would be asked for references. Flesh is flesh.
Along about 1996 when reporters got wind of the fact, no secret to biologists, that cows emit methane, they presumed this gas left by the rear exit. So entertaining was the concept that efforts to correct the story met with considerable resistance. In fact the humor value of this popular interpretation did not exhaust itself for some five years at which point it was grumpily replaced with another untruth: “So alright, cows belch out the front end, but they’re causing global warming.” The earlier myth remains at home in vegan discourse, a territory where it continues to prosper.
Cow digestion is so different from our own that it is not surprising that misunderstanding of how it works is widespread. It’s all about cellulose. Herbivores from caterpillars to elephants have all got specialized organs for dealing with cellulose, the basic structural support of plants often referred to as fiber. In cows this organ is called the rumen, so cows are “ruminants”. Cows are designed to process long stringy plant material such as grass. Ruminants do not have a requirement for grain, thus the idea that they are in competition with humans for grain is groundless. This belief must be relinquished before sense can be made of the role of cattle either as a food source or a factor in global warming. Feeding grain to cattle is an economic choice. Its profitability is dependent upon continued agricultural subsidies.
Buffalo (American bison) once roamed the US in numbers exceeding that of the entire current US cattle herd. Buffalos are ruminants. Like everything that breathes, buffalos are part of the short term carbon cycle (carbon that circulates in living things) and neither add nor subtract from atmospheric balance. But in addition the former herds, by trampling prairie grass into the ground, sequestered carbon, removing it from the short term carbon cycle. As a result they built what was perhaps the finest topsoil the world has ever known. Cattle at appropriate stocking rates do exactly the same thing. Farm activist Joel Salatin puts it this way: America has traded 75 million buffalo, which required no tillage, petroleum or chemicals, for a mere 42 million head of cattle. Estimates of buffalo numbers vary around Salatin’s figure but the point remains valid. Buffalo may be 6 ft high at the hump and the bulls reach 2000 lbs. Their production of greenhouse gasses will have been proportionately greater than is the case from an equal number of cattle on grass. In addition to the buffalo herd, there are estimated to have been 100 million deer, antelope and elk and countless small herbivores such as rabbits and prairie dogs all doing their part.
Cattle are solar collectors. Rod Heitschmidt, USDA rangeland scientist states: “Biochemical constraints determine that herbivores function as ‘energy brokers’ between solar energy captured by plants in the photosynthetic process and its subsequent use by humans. The inability of humans to directly derive caloric value from the 19 billion metric tons of vegetation produced annually in tropical and temperate grasslands and savannas provides the ultimate justifications for evaluating grazing as an ecological process.”
By “biochemical constraints”, Heitschmidt means cattle can make this conversion and we can’t. In other words, cattle are essential to the conversion of solar derived plant material, the principal component of which is cellulose, into human food. Specialized bacteria in the rumen accomplish this by fermenting cellulose, a function that can be accomplished only by bacteria* and not by human digestion. Using the breakdown products of cellulose, bacteria assemble the full spectrum of essential amino acids (othrwise known as animal protein). This function is possible only to bacteria. This newly constructed protein feeds the cow; she is not a vegetarian. She puts this newly minted protein into milk and meat. Within the cow, grass, inedible to humans, is converted into products of the highest biological value: milk and meat. Bacteria are the true authors of protein. The cow, her rumen and those specialized bacteria make an amazing team.
Methanogens, a life form smaller than bacteria known as archaea, do part of the work in the rumen.. Methanogens produce methane (CH4) when extra hydrogen is left over following less efficient fermentation of cellulose by rumen bacteria. This occurs when cellulose, a form of glucose, must be split Methane is also known as swamp gas or natural gas. If you cook or heat with gas you are using methane. Like CO2 from oil or coal, the methane we cook or heat with lies stored in the earth and remains inert until mined and released. Megatons, trapped following ancient fermentation, are now being released from tundra by melting permafrost. Oceanographers now describe vast belches coming up in the Bering Sea and South China Sea. In some places the sea is foaming like a shaken soda, the methane is emerging so fast. Anthropogenic (human derived) sources of methane are rice paddies and landfills, both of which emit more methane than does livestock. The rumen is a controlled fermentation vat and produces methane at a modulated rate.
Methane contains energy, as you know if you cook with it. The amount a cow’s rumen produces varies according to diet. As mentioned above, the rumen is designed to ferment stringy cellulose (grass, hay) not grain, consequently much of the grain a cow eats is passed unaltered to gut digestion similar to our own, and misses getting fermented. For this reason a diet high in grain results in proportionately less methane compared to grass or hay which always must be fermented in the rumen. Forbs (broad leafed plants) found in natural pasture assist with fermentation and boost its efficiency so that less of methane’s energy is lost to the cow. Like the buffalo before them and the deer in the woods, grazing cattle will always belch up excess methane. Ruminants produce more methane than other plant eating species because their large rumens are actively breaking down more cellulose, much to our benefit. This does not unbalance the universe and never has. It feeds us.
Cattle, whether beef or dairy, if eating diets high in grain, will as noted, produce proportionately less methane than do cattle on grass or hay because much of the grain fails to be fermented but is instead passed intact to the small intestine for standard carbohydrate digestion. However, the practice of collecting manure as slurry in vast lagoons produces methane by the ton. These lagoons are also the mode of collecting manure from swine and poultry CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations); thus swine and poultry, despite being non ruminants, also become responsible for methane production. Methane production is anaerobic (without oxygen). Manure lagoons crust over on top and the slurry does not circulate; these lagoons provide ideal anaerobic conditions. It is these lagoons, not cattle themselves, which are the chief source of methane now being attributed to livestock production.
Upon first consideration it might be supposed that if cows were out grazing on pasture the methane contribution from manure would be the same as in confinement, merely spread out over the countryside. This is not the case. Cow patties dropped in the open air on pasture result in no methane production. Cow patties in the open air do not support methanogens. They are consumed by insects, birds and aerobic soil bacteria.
Beyond its role as a greenhouse gas, methane remains an important energy source. Methanogens (the bacteria that produce methane) have many important roles. Archaea in the sea bed have been found to play a central role in the planetary nitrogen cycle on which all life depends.** Methane is at risk of becoming demonized before it is properly understood.
So why don’t we move cows out of feedlots and dairy barns and onto pasture where they can participate in the short term carbon cycle and carry on belching harmlessly like their ancestors? Quite aside from resistance from agribusiness which prefers things as they are, many well respected writers and scientists dismiss this as a practical impossibility. Insufficient land is the usual excuse. Comparisons of food calories per acre between animal and vegetable production are always mentioned. Academic studies consistently state that cows cannot be pastured locally on grass in numbers adequate to meet consumer needs. Until it has been attempted, nobody is qualified to make such a statement. Maine farmer and gardener Eliot Coleman, a national treasure, has repeatedly demonstrated that production from a vegetable garden is by no means finite and can be impressively greater than most people realize; the same is true with cows, no “pushing” required. Estimates of land requirements obtained by dividing the number of people into USDA stats for farmland acreage make it sound hopeless to depend upon local food production of animals or vegetables. These linear production models, seldom challenged, have formed the basis for assumptions about the potential for meat and milk production by virtually all environmental writers and researchers, few of whom have a cow in the back yard. But there is no linear relationship here. The upper limit for integrated local food production of plants and animals depends on dedication and imagination and is not known. When free market forces are allowed to operate, food production soars. We do not currently enjoy free market conditions. The very fact that so many local growers are already flourishing under stifling constraints hints at what we may look forward to in case some of the more onerous regulations are eased.
Coleman questions the assertion that animal agriculture has anything to do with global warming. He suspects that oil interests and corn/soy producers along with vegetarian cheer leaders are feeding us disinformation about the role of animal production as a factor in climate change. It is in fact plant crops that are responsible for displacing small farms in both the US and Africa and for deforestation of lands in South and Central America and in South Asia. Cattle are used as a quick cash crop before the land is dragged clear for corn, soy beans or palm oil. Statistics regarding the contribution of animal agriculture to greenhouse gas production are clearly being manipulated for somebody’s benefit. Here are US EPA figures from 2007, the most recent year for which information is available.
In 2007 US agriculture accounted for 6% of US greenhouse gas emissions. Out of this 6%, 24% was from enteric (rumen) fermentation by cattle (excluding manure management). So 6% x 0.24 = 1.44%. If all cattle were killed, then 100 – 1.44 = 98.6% of US agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are still with us. Absent methane emanating from manure lagoons, the methane contribution of cattle (called enteric) is negligible. The real source of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are manure lagoons and the petrochemical inputs to plant crops. . All declarations about environmental damage by cattle are based on our current unsustainable animal husbandry practices involving CAFO’s.
Sustainable local grassfed beef and dairy cattle, source of life giving food, are a big threat to somebody and it isn’t to us folks. Corn and soy are where the real money lies. These commodities can be stored and traded. They don’t have to be fed or refrigerated. They can have value added right down to the last molecule before being labeled “All natural” and sold in a package with a picture of a farm on it.
Where did we get the idea that without agribusiness and CAFO’s it is impossible to produce enough food for everybody? Where did we get the idea that a dispersed method of food production will make food too expensive? These beliefs did not start with local farmers. They have been pounded into us by agribusiness itself. Let’s look first at production.
Lately I have been reading posts on the Organic Consumer Association (OCA) site. They offered an opinion poll about a Cornell study that presented the daring finding that in an all out effort to feed the people of New York State it might prove efficient to dedicate a little marginal land to cattle grazing. A couple of ounces of meat a week might then be made available to New Yorkers. Prompted by this study, a poll invited readers to vote on the following propositions. (See the OCA review of the Cornell study below.)
Humans were meant to be vegans Humans were meant to be vegetarians It’s OK to eat a little humanely raised meat Eat all you want of lean meat
No option was offered for meat with a natural amount of fat, the choice of all our ancestors and my choice as well.
Our views in support of our votes were invited.
I live a sheltered life and wasn’t prepared for the incivility of the vegan responses. Reinforced by this study, they shifted ground. “Maybe now they’ll get it”, cried vegans and vegetarians alike as they rejoiced in a condemnation of meat supported by a WHO paper which declared that livestock contribute more to global warming than the transportation sector. They did not hesitate to describe themselves as more highly evolved and ethical than meat eaters and took the occasion to instruct meat eaters that their diet was identical to maggoty road kill. They did not make me feel as bad as they may have hoped because I know they are operating from a base weak on facts. When the cow is better understood her honor will be restored.
A more polite but no better informed position on meat and its role in global warming has been enunciated by Rahendra Patchouri, our US appointee to IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). In his public remarks he clearly states his belief that if everybody would eat less meat it would go a long way towards reducing green house gases and promises the bonus of improved health. As Dr. Patchouri must know perfectly well, wherever and whenever people get the means to do so, they eat more meat. I refer to the default vegans and vegetarians of the world, those whose diet is restricted by poverty, not choice. The demand for meat is growing in emerging economies at a rate far outpacing what top-down idealism is likely to achieve among meat eaters in the US and Europe. The meat industry itself predicts an increase of 21.3% by 2015. (add footnote to newsletter excerpt below) Patchouri’s suggestion to cut back on meat for the sake of global and personal health, made during a talk in London, prompted the Lord Mayor to declare his intention of going out for a steak. Patchouri will also be aware that it is meat produced by intensive methods (pork, beef, poultry and fish) that has the big carbon footprint. This meat is the product of a few powerful international corporations which have not shown themselves to be any more sensitive to global concerns than your average Wall Street bank. They are probably scary even to Patchouri. He may prefer not to prod this hornet’s nest. Urging well meaning, well heeled westerners to eat a little less meat strikes me as a tepid action. In fact, this reminds me of a local preacher who made it his business to stop in and tell me and other ladies that we were endangering our immortal souls by our choice of friends. He did not knock on the doors of big hairy wife beaters.
It is apparent that Patchouri has not done his homework on the relationship between meat eating and health or he could not make such an unqualified statement. I would guess that he was taking the opportunity to give a free ride to his cultural anti meat convictions. The subject is large and important and can’t be treated with justice in one essay let alone one paragraph. At present, anti meat rhetoric meets the definition of propaganda: a simplistic statement with no basis in fact which if repeated often enough comes to be believed. If one goes to the actual research on meat, what emerges is that where, as one example, cancer appears to follow meat consumption, the study fails to distinguished fresh meat from nitrate laden processed meats and just blames “meat”. Piling up hundreds of similarly skewed results does not constitute proof. I’m with the Lord Mayor of London on this: Patchouri’s views on meat eating do not belong in public policy. Whether Patchouri’s stance against meat is due to ignorance or ideology, one hopes that the rest of his advice on climate has a more defensible basis.
The assumption that more people can be fed on a given unit of land by growing plant products has been around for a long time and does not take into account the work involved in production. The issue is between agricultural productivity and agricultural efficiency. They are not the same thing. American farmland can be enormously productive if you have no need to count the cost of the inputs (fuel, chemicals, irrigation etc). The efficiency of a system is simply the ratio between the work or energy put into the system and the work or energy gotten out of it.
To provide a hint to the disconnect between productivity and efficiency (what you can get out of, let us say, an acre of vegetables with no help from fossil fuel or the machines that run on it) imagine preparing the ground by hand and carrying animal manure, planting the seeds, watering, weeding and harvesting all by yourself with only your own physical labor. I can’t predict your productivity, but you will not find this an efficient way to produce food. You will almost certainly put as much or more energy (your own) into it as you get out.
Food distribution theories based on calories per person ignore the fact that plant derived calories require huge inputs in terms of fossil fuel or human labor; right back to Egyptian times, this has primarily been slave labor. No matter how productive your efforts prove to be, you will end up with carbohydrate calories but no life supporting animal protein and fats.
So the more energy we get out of a given unit of land compared to the work or energy we put into it, the greater is the efficiency. Commercial agriculture as now constituted is productive but not efficient; in the case of many crops 10 calories of energy must be invested for each (1) calorie of food obtained. You may choose whether to expend these calories using fossil fuel or your own muscle. In the latter case, count on losing weight.
Suppose that instead of an acre of vegetables, I have an acre of pasture. An acre of land in good grass will support my 700 pound mini Jersey cow enabling her to produce four gallons of superb creamy milk each day while she cheerfully does all of the work by grazing which she enjoys and I do no work except milking her for 20 minutes twice a day. This is about the most efficient system you will ever find. This was so completely obvious to our ancestors that they would not have known whether to laugh or cry at claims that the cow is a waste of resources. The productivity of my cow or any cow depends on such factors as climate and grass quality and her breed. Her efficiency will remain quite constant.
An old fashioned integrated food production model is best. We call it a farm. Using some of the time liberated by my hard working cow plus some of her valuable manure, on an additional 1/8 acre, I am able to grow all the vegetables for a large family. Besides her dairy products, my cow raises a calf every year and there is enough skim milk and whey to raise a pig and chickens.
With cheerful help from my family I can readily produce more than enough vegetables for 15 people. This is on space that many people now devote to lawn. At present, US lawns comprise our country’s largest irrigated crop. My land gets better every year. All the people and animals that are fed by it are notably healthy. This is in cold and rocky Maine and I am over 80. Commercial agriculture cannot begin to match either this productivity or efficiency.
It is gratifying to find that the Cornell study takes at least a fairy step towards recognition that meat might deserve a niche in the human diet. It was especially rewarding to see a few responders to the OCA forum speaking up for meat and animal fat. People feel better immediately on any diet that cuts out processed food. But for sustained physical work either in the vegetable patch, in sports and (very importantly) to produce full term normal birth weight babies, there is quite simply no substitute for animal products.
While a medical student, my son Mark attended a seminar during which the discussion turned to meat quality and food production. A number of students were seriously interested in local food of better quality, yet many believed this to be an elitist choice. The assumption is that only agribusiness is capable of food production on a scale and at a price capable of feeding everybody, a belief much fostered by agribusiness itself.
When you examine the wastefulness inherent in the agribusiness production model you end up with something reminiscent of those $260 apiece carpenter’s hammers the Pentagon buys. No new studies are needed to demonstrate the efficiency and productiveness of small scale local farms and gardens. My own example is far from unique. Currently in the news is the model provided by Joel Salatin in Virginia. His farm is a stunning example of what one man with a few helpers and minimal inputs can produce in both crops (his main crop being grass) and meat while simultaneously improving the land. And as Eliot Coleman has demonstrated, even in Maine excellent vegetables can be produced the year around in a small space. Coleman also raises a steer for many of the same reasons that I do.
Food safety, food sustainability, reduction of greenhouse gases, reduction of food miles, freedom from the tyranny of imported oil, a lot more health and happiness, and above all food security, all are supported by a milk cow in your yard. And here is another significant point. We can’t get along without animal fat. That anti fat propaganda is not going to persist for another generation. Even now I don’t suppose it is a great stretch to accept that a diet devoid of fat is dull and barren. There is no need to distill rapeseed from Canada or ship coconut oil from Malaysia to supply your fat. Your cow will generate it right at home from your lawn clippings. It’s called butter. If you would also like some lard, your pig will oblige. How about some schmaltz? You want chickens too, don’t you? Well, there you go. Eggs! Chickens are champions at making do on very little. But I must point out, pigs and chickens can’t make protein out of vegetation any better than you and I can. They must be fed an animal protein source. Skim milk will do. It is ruminants that drive the cycle of life.
And yes, I didn’t promise food savings. So is local food and even home produced food going to cost more?
Local and home food production may indeed appear to cost more especially at first. This is because you with your tax dollars have subsidized commercial food production. For every $1 you pay at the supermarket you have paid at least an additional $9 hidden in taxes that go to subsidies. These are not just direct farm subsidies that make corn so cheap that people fuel stoves with dried kernels. Highway maintenance costs fall disproportionately on passenger vehicles, not long haul trucking. Property taxes of local farmers and homeowners are typically based on “Highest and best use” which means house lots: commercial farms in big farm states get breaks. University research supported by your tax dollars develops the seed varieties used by Monsanto as feed stock for GM foods. The list of helpful things your taxes have done to make food profitable yet cheap at the checkout counter is long indeed. Not least is the ease of low interest borrowing enjoyed by farmers growing USDA approved crops. For nearly a century our government has maintained a cheap food policy. The true cost of food is concealed. You and your local farmer can’t get out of paying these hidden costs of food production. So you may not save a bundle by buying locally or growing your own. But you will have food and it will be food worth having.
To call local food “elitist” recognizes that it is inherently superior even though often more expensive. To assume that this means that most people must make do with cheap commercial food is to cede the field to agribusiness and processed food, accepting their claim that only they can possibly provide enough for all. For this claim we have only their word. Many analysts consider current mega farming methods to be unsustainable and there is evidence that productivity is declining. Its cheapness is a fraud. We don’t know for sure how many people can be fed by local food but we do know that it is sustainable. Importantly, local production is empowering. Commercial food makes us into a client population dependent upon the whims and fortunes of governments and corporations.
By omitting to include methane generated in manure lagoons, meat producers operating cattle CAFO’s are able to accurately state that this method results in less methane production. The unnatural grain diet does not ferment to produce a normal amount of methane. The CO2 footprint and CH4 emissions of cattle living naturally on pasture belong in discussions on global warming only as an example of how to make better use of renewable resources by use of pasture. It is the inputs necessarily to commodifying livestock that must be addressed.
A man I once knew married a Japanese national who remembered World War II. Together they took a flight from west to east across the US. As she viewed the vastness of our country from her seat by the window she shook her head and said, “Whatever were we thinking?” Declarations that we don’t have enough land for livestock are disingenuous.
Livestock has been set up for us as an adversary in our quest for survival on our shrinking planet. In fact animals are our best allies. Our adversaries are to be found elsewhere.
* There are industrial methods of cracking cellulose involving acid and heat. **University of Washington (2009, October 1). Planet’s Nitrogen Cycle Overturned By ‘Tiny Ammonia Eater of the Seas’. *** The Cornell study doesn’t recognize the self-limiting reality of a vegan diet. Also, it presumes that “they” will produce food for “us”.
Commentary 6 - In Defense of Meat
As new regulations are proposed for what we should eat, it is essential that certain critical facts are well understood.
Vegetarian thinking pervades every aspect of public discourse to the point that alternative views have become invisible. Few voices are raised in public forums in defense of meat. There are constant assertions that “scientists agree” with various anti- meat statements, and these “agreed facts” go unchallenged. Most insidious of these is the statement that meat eating leads to cancer, supposedly according to “hundreds of studies”but such studies all lump fresh meat together with cured. The latter contains nitrates and other recognised carcinogens. No fresh meat studies have ever shown a cancer connection.
One questionable claim which is repeated endlessly is that Americans eat about a pound of meat a day. Where does this statement come from? It’s called the ‘disappearance figure’. The government collects growers’ best estimates of yearly production, and this is entered along with other information (such as imports and exports) on meat that is sold into the market and assumed to be eaten. This gives a fairly accurate figure for such animals as pigs and chickens reared in confinement (CAFOs). In the case of beef it is much more difficult as all dairy animals also eventually enter the stream but at a highly unpredictable rate. Other assumptions include recall numbers gleaned by interviewing consumers. The final numbers come from a committee and become agreed upon truth. There is no provision for the half of all food which is said to be wasted.
A pound of meat a day per US citizen is a lot of meat. I have been feeding a large family for most of my life, and other than teenage boys or nursing mothers I have rarely seen anyone eat this amount of meat on a daily basis. I say this despite the fact that I live on a farm and keep the freezer full of a wide selection of chicken, lamb, pork, beef and fish and serve them generously.
Are you keeping up with your quota?
For a long time now we have been chided endlessly for consuming meat which is said to be a menace threatening us on a variety of existential grounds, and this supposed threat now permeates every food discussion. Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman and George Monbiot, three popular and charming food writers unburdened by practical experience, are frequently at pains to spread the word that meat causes cancer. Not just any meat. It is beef that bears the blame, and indeed this is not surprising. Years of epidemiologic studies have been on beef, not lamb or chicken. Again, these studies have made no distinction between cured and fresh meat. More recent studies making this distinction have shown no elevated cancer risk for beef. Feedlot beef should be considered separately from grassfed.
Feedlot beef is safer than CAFO pork or chicken because calves nurse on their mothers and live outdoors on grass for most of their first year before they begin the artificial diet of GMO corn and soy. But basically the entire CAFO system is an abomination which truly qualifies as an existential threat to the planet. This is not a condemnation of meat eating itself; it’s a condemnation of an arrangement based on corporate greed to the exclusion of all other considerations.
Another major argument against meat has to do with efficiency of land use. I singled out the three named writers and mentioned their lack of practical experience because this is a pervading weakness in their environmental agenda and that of a generation of people arguing for a vegetarian diet. When you have never actually produced your own food it can seem self evident that feeding plants directly to people makes more efficient use of resources than could feeding plants to animals and then eating the animals or drinking the milk. I urge everyone to try it some summer. Here’s what you do: prepare the ground, plant the seed, tend and supervise it daily, keep it watered and protected from predacious crows and deer. Then harvest and process it, and if it’s a grain you will also have to thresh, winnow and grind it. By this time most people are pretty tired out and are looking around for slave labor. Slaves are getting harder to find so we have discovered the fossil fuel option which is itself now open to question. We have also discovered the no free lunch mandate.
How can we get this much food without exhausting the soil and ourselves? How about a cow? A stocker steer on grass will put on #150 in a season with little effort on your part while improving his pasture for next year. Better still, get a milk cow and get the benefits of animal protein and fat as compared with wheat, and get it all again next year as she replicates herself.
The great flaw in popular thinking on food production is failure to recognise the inescapable high cost of plant food production. Vegetarian thinking has it backwards. It is plant production that requires the high energy inputs. Grazing animals do their own work in producing food. As fossil fuels become more scarce and expensive this issue will become far more critical.