Skip to content

Month: January 2019

Environmentalism by Abandonment

Posted in Food for Thought

Herbivores, and especially livestock have been blamed for ruining the environment. Environmental scientists claim that overgrazing by livestock, namely cows, has resulted in desertification (land turning to desert.) It’s true that mismanaged livestock has caused environmental damage, but this does not mean that livestock itself is to blame.

For decades, the official policy to protect and restore land in national parks and elsewhere was to eliminate livestock. This policy has not been proven to work. Land in national parks is no better than it was before, much of it is worse. Nature doesn’t abandon land, she fills it with animals.

Grasslands developed over millennia with large numbers of herbivores. Huge herds of buffalo, elk, gazelles, zebras, and other even larger herbivores that have gone extinct. These animals lived in tight herds to protect themselves from pack hunting carnivores. A large herd of herbivores would quickly defecate all over the ground and their food, forcing them to move to fresh ground. This prevented them from overgrazing the grass.

What Happens When We Abandon Land?

Grass, once it is fully grown, must decay or be removed before the next year’s growing season. If it’s not, the grass and soil begin to die. If grass cannot decay biologically, it shifts to oxidation. This is the brown grass you see in pasture that’s not been grazed recently. Oxidation can take up to 60 years to complete in drier environments. Meanwhile, this dead grass smothers new growth, leading to a shift toward woody shrubs with bare ground in between.

Bare ground cannot hold water and is easily eroded. In my article, The Conventional Food System is Fragile, I wrote about how erosion has affected cropland. In America, we’ve lost as much as 30% of our topsoil in the last 200 years.[3, 5] That’s the power of erosion.

Fire is another hazard created by abandoning grassland. Dead, dry grass is very susceptible to fire. Just look at california. Not only is fire dangerous to humans and wildlife, it’s dangerous for the environment. French research has shown that a one and a half acre grassland fire releases more carbon dioxide than 3,694 cars per second and more nitrous oxide than about 1,400 cars per second.  Biomass burning accounts for 40 percent of C02 production annually.[2]

One of the reasons, that desert stays desert is because the ground cannot hold water. Soil needs organic matter to hold water. It needs plant matter to protect it from the hot sun and it needs organic materials to hold onto water. Without these two things, water runs right off and evaporates within hours after rainfall ends.  

Grass Wants to be Cut

When a plant, such as grass, reaches maturity, it stops growing and begins to die off. This is the brown grass you see in many pastures. The life cycle of a grass plant is short, only a couple months. When grass reaches the end of its life, it wants to be pruned off so it can start over. Without that pruning, the leaves are left to decompose on their own.

You might think that animals trampling and eating grass would kill it. But that’s not true. Grasses are specifically designed to lose significant parts of itself, yet thrive afterward. Think of cutting the grass in your lawn. That’s a violent endeavor. You’re taking a fast spinning sharp blade and cutting the top few inches off the plant. Imagine if someone came along and cut your arms off. Would you thrive afterward? No. But grass does. Grass loves to be mowed, weeds do not. This is grass’ competitive advantage.

How Do We Maintain Billions of Acres?

Your first thought might be to use large lawn mowers, also known as brush hogs. It makes sense at first, homeowners use lawnmowers. Why not use them on grasslands? Well, for one, there’s over 12 billion acres of dry rangeland that needs to be cared for. Does anyone really think that mowing 12 billion acres is realistic? Even if we only mowed 1 billion acres, who’s going to pay for it? To put this in context, 1 billion acres would be like mowing every single acre in Alaska, Texas, and California.

Not only would this be expensive in terms of dollars, it would burn up a lot of fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels in the name of carbon sequestration. Sounds like a recipe for success to me. So, i’ll consider that a no for the majority of grasslands.

Our second method to maintain grassland is to burn off the dead vegetation, to make way for new growth. The forest service has used this method to restore land and to prevent wildfires. I’ve already established how polluting a grassland fire is. Not to mention how big a threat it is to wildlife and people’s homes. I’m going to say that burning is not the solution. Just ask any californian if they’d like more grassland to burn.

We Need Livestock to Mow Grass

The third solution would be to use animals. Animals don’t run on fossil fuels and don’t cost money to run, other than management costs. The idea behind abandonment is to let the wildlife return to haw they grazed hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately, we simply do not have the numbers of wildlife required to maintain grasslands. Not only do we have too few animals, but the prairies in north america and other countries has been divided up by human settlement. People live there. That interrupts the natural migration patterns of wildlife.

If we can’t rely on wildlife, then how about livestock? Using electric fence, livestock can be managed in a way that mimics the wild herds that built prairies around the world. Now to make the animal rights people happy, let’s suppose we run these millions of herbivores for the sole purpose of mowing grass, letting them die of old age or predators. Okay, who pays for it? We end up with the same problem we had with mowing.

When you run a herd of livestock without harvesting any of them. They become recreational. Someone has to pay the ranchers to manage these herds. They can’t manage themselves. But, when you allow the ranchers to sell their animals, suddenly this becomes a business that can pay for itself. It’s sustainable. It doesn’t need a check from the government or a non-profit.

Don’t Blame the Cow

One of the hurdles to using cows to maintain grassland is that cows produce methane during digestion. Because of this environmentalist and vegans want cows to be eliminated. This is a problem that can be overcome with proper management. Methane production is aggravated when livestock eat poor quality grass.[4] This happens with continuous grazing where the pasture quality declines over time.

Yes, it’s true that cows produce methane. However, when managed properly, their carbon sequestration more than offsets their methane output.[6] Research at the University of Louisiana has demonstrated that enteric methane emissions can be notably cut when cattle are regularly moved on to fresh pastures.[4]

Cows have also been unfairly blamed for ruining the environment by overgrazing land until it turns to desert. As if cows have a personal vendetta against the climate. This is simply not true. Cows are a tool, they can be used to restore the environment, or misused and end up destroying the environment.

As an example, let’s use a kitchen knife. Knives can be very useful. They can turn a pile of vegetables and meat into a delicious stew. But that very same knife can also be used to murder someone. That’s not the knife’s fault. No one blames the knife for a stabbing.

In the same way, no one should blame the cow for harming the environment. The ones to blame are the ranchers who leave them to overgraze, and the environmentalists who remove them only to find the land degrades even faster with zero grazing.

Livestock Can Sequester Carbon

“A growing body of research shows that livestock grazing can enhance biodiversity.”

Ecosystems of California – university textbook

Since I’ve established that livestock are the only viable option in maintaining land, let’s talk about how they can also help to fight climate change. To understand this, you should understand a little about how grass grows. Grass goes through roughly three stages as it grows. The first is when it’s small, either a seedling or just been mowed. The second is the growth spurt on the way to maturity, this is when most of the carbon sequestration happens. The third stage is maturity. This is when grass stops growing and will eventually go dormant.

As you probably concluded, we want to keep grass in the growth spurt stage a much as possible. The only way to do that, is to keep mowing it. And the best way to mow it is with livestock.

Data collected from the Michigan State University proves just how beneficial managed grazing can be. The cattle raised in feedlots averaged over three times as much carbon emissions per kilogram as cattle raised in managed grazing.[6] Their carbon sequestration vastly out weighted any slight increase in methane production. In April 2014, Seth Itzkan published a 34 page paper where he concluded that holistic managed grazing could sequester between 25 and 60 tons of carbon per hectare per year.[7]

Effective sequestration isn’t just about growing more plant matter. Carbon sequestration means putting carbon into the soil. This is how the fertile soils of the midwest were formed. Carbon is sequestered in a cooperative process between plants and mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. A protein called glomalin holds the carbon, making up 15% to 20% of the organic matter in the soil.

Livestock is the only farming method to achieve this. When you till soil, the mycorrhizal fungi are injured, reducing carbon sequestration. The UK Soil Association found that plowing up grazing lands in the UK results in 1.6 million tons of carbon releasing into the air every year.[1]

Support Sustainable Farms, Fight Climate Change

One of the most effective ways for you to fight climate change is by changing your eating habits. The UK soil association found that organic farming increases soil carbon levels. And not just a little bit, the average carbon levels were over 20% higher than non-organic farming.[8]

Sustainable farming doesn’t pollute. It doesn’t stink up the neighborhood. It doesn’t truck its food all over the world. Sustainable farmers try to leave the environment better than they found it. They feed their cows grass instead of grain. They grow their crops with little to no tillage. They raise animals outside, a revolutionary idea nowadays.

There’s yet another reason to buy food from a sustainable farm, economics. When you buy grass finished beef instead of feedlot beef, you’re voting with your dollars. Buying from a small sustainable farm means a lot more than buying from a billion dollar food company. While a huge food company will hardly notice your lost purchase, your small farm purchases may mean the difference between that farmer needing a day job and being able to go full-time. That’s why local farmers are so grateful to their customers.

 

References

  1. www.soilassociation.org/media/4954/policy_soil_carbon_full_review.pdf
  2. www.savory.global/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/climate-change.pdf
  3. Food, Energy, and Society, David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, 2007
  4. Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Niman, 2014
  5. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Montgomery, 2012
  6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agsy.2018.02.003
  7. http://planet-tech.com/upsidedrawdown
  8. https://www.soilassociation.org/media/4954/policy_soil_carbon_full_review.pdf

The Conventional Food System is Fragile

Posted in Food for Thought

Many people think that growing food the conventional way is the only way to feed the world. After all, that’s what they’ve been told for years. Conventional farming practices have created a system that is fragile because it relies on many outside factors to continue functioning. The failure of any one of these could lead to higher food prices or worse, the failure of millions of acres of crops or widespread death of livestock.  

Reliance on Drugs, Pesticides, and Herbicides

When an industrial farm crams thousands of animals into a building, they create an ideal environment for pathogens. The same goes for cropland. When you have thousands of the same plant in a relatively small area, pests that target that plant have a virtually unlimited supply of food.

In confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs) this requires the use of antibiotics. The overuse of antibiotics has led to antibiotic resistant bacteria. Herbicide resistant weeds are showing up in croplands. Nature abhors a monoculture and is fighting back against these unnatural farming practices. Nowhere in nature will you find only one species of plant or animal. Nature thrives on diversity.

The question is, what happens when we run out of effective antibiotics? At our current trajectory, it’s not a matter of if, but when. Most confinement operations feed antibiotics on a continuous basis. Some of these antibiotics are not even necessary. Some operations feed antibiotics to speed growth. Others to prevent disease. All the while, bacteria are reproducing and mutating.

According to the CDC, overuse and misuse of antibiotics leads to bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics.[4] Once that happens, this bacteria quickly become the dominant bacteria since there is no other competition. It’s unclear how many drug resistant diseases were developed in factory farms. Some undoubtedly came from us. After all, livestock farms are not the only ones abusing antibiotics.

In 2013, the CDC published a report outlining the to 18 drug-resistant threats. Among them were: Clostridium difficile which causes 250,000 infections each year and 15,000 deaths. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) causes over 80,000 infections each year and over 11,000 deaths. Streptococcus pneumoniae is the leading cause of bacterial pneumonia and meningitis in the United States with 1.2 million infections and 7,000 deaths.

The Electricity Cannot Go Out

This is mostly a problem for industrial animal operations. Namely pig and chicken farms. These farms use electricity for ventilation, distributing feed, and monitoring the operation. These buildings need constant ventilation to keep methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and other toxins from building up. If the fans stop running for even a few minutes, the pigs or chickens will start suffocating.[1]

A few years back, a wind storm blew through northern Virginia. Most of the region was out of power for over a week. Many confinement operations lost thousands of pigs and millions of chickens. Meanwhile at polyface farm, a pasture based sustainable farm, most of the animals had no idea the power was out. The only real damage was from the wind storm itself. Many pasture shelters were blown away, leaving the chickens to wonder what happened to their shade. These chickens were quickly herded up in temporary shelters until their individual shelters could be rebuilt. Very few chickens died at polyface, because they did not depend on electricity.

What if the Water Runs Out?

Conventional farming uses a lot of water. You may have heard about the struggle between Los Angeles and the farmers upstream on the Colorado river. Los Angeles claims that the farmers are using too much water leaving them with a water shortage. The farmers claim that they need the water or they’ll go out of business.

High yield corn does not mean that a corn plant produces more corn per plant. What it really means is that you can plant more plants per acre. More plants need more water. Whereas an acre of corn decades ago might have been able to survive on rainwater, a high yield acre of corn needs to be irrigated. Either from groundwater or rivers.

You’ve likely seen the round fields of the Midwest. Many round plots next to each other. You might wonder why they don’t make them square to use all of the land. The reason they are round is that they are using a center pivots to water the crops. A long arm rotates around a center which provides water to sprinklers. Most of these center pivots use groundwater. And they use a lot.

“Corn production in the U.S. erodes soil about 12 times faster than the soil can be reformed, and irrigating corn mines groundwater 25 percent faster than the natural recharge rate of groundwater.”[2]

David Pimentel, professor at Cornell University.

Cropland is Eroding Away

It may not surprise you, but bare ground is very susceptible to erosion. Without dense cover, rain and wind can easily break soil apart and carry it away. Think of grass like clothing. Grass is essentially clothing for soil. You wouldn’t go outside without clothes on, why should the Earth have to go without its clothes?

“Row crops are highly susceptible to erosion because the vegetation does not cover the entire soil surface.”

Food, Energy, and Society by David and Marcia Pimentel[7]

A project conducted by the Land Stewardship Project showed that pasture used for grazing can have up to 80% less erosion than cropland.[8] This is not a small problem. The estimated acreage for the four major crops, corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton is approximately 240 million acres.[10] This type of farming, which leaves its soil exposed for much of the year has caused the United States to lose as much as 30% of its topsoil in the last 200 years.[7, 9] Remember the dust bowl?

The saddest part about this, is that a majority of the corn and soybeans grown in the US are not necessary. Corn ethanol production is hopelessly inefficient. It takes more than a gallon of fossil fuel to make a gallon of ethanol. Feeding grain to cows is another waste. Cows are perfectly capable of living off nothing but grass, yet we burn millions of gallons of fossil fuel every year to grow and transport grain to feed them.

As disappointing as this is, it’s not surprising. After all, there are no subsides to raise cattle and conserve grasslands. All federal farm subsidies go toward grains, which require plowing.

Farmers are Getting Old

As of 2012, the average age of farmers in America is 58 years old.[6] This number has only been going up, and will probably continue to go up. Why? Because getting into conventional farming is expensive. To be a chicken farmer, you have to spend $200,000 to $400,000 up front to build the specialized buildings required by the poultry companies. Hog farmers face a similar situation.

Independence is being wrung out of modern farmers. Open markets have all but been eliminated. A hog farmer who doesn’t have a contract with a pork company will find himself getting even less money for his hogs at auction. Chicken farmers don’t even own their birds, so losing a contract means their expensive buildings sit empty, losing money with every mortgage payment.

Crop farmers have also faced the consequences of the USDA’s “get big, or get out” doctrine. With grain prices lower than the cost to grow the grains, farmers rely on subsidies to survive. Even with subsidies, many farmers still have to take on jobs to pay the bills.

Needless to say, many children of farmers are moving to the city to get higher paying jobs. And their parents aren’t necessarily upset. They would rather their children make a good living than struggle like they do every day.

Industrial Farming Needs Cheap Energy

Energy is cheap. In fact, energy is the cheapest it has ever been in the history of the world. Never before has it been so cheap to ship products across the country or the world.

It’s never been so cheap to farm. Tractors running on cheap fuel have revolutionized farming. An acre was originally defined as the amount of land a farmer with oxen could till in one day. One acre a day. Now a farmer can till many dozens of acres a day. All from the comfort of his climate controlled tractor.

This is only one small part of the whole system. The entire conventional food system relies on cheap energy. It needs cheap fuel to transport components thousands of miles. It needs cheap energy to run the factories. It needs cheap mining and cheap refining to provide cheap fertilizers.

If energy becomes expensive, several things happen. It suddenly becomes very expensive to transport food thousands of miles. Manufacturing of chemical fertilizer becomes expensive. Transportation costs turn cheap grain into not-so-cheap grain. All of this would lead to food prices going up, way up. The more processed a food is, the more cheap energy it needs.

We all know how volatile the price of oil can be. All it takes is a hurricane in Louisiana and the price of oil goes up by nearly $70 a barrel.[11] The more oil we pump out of the ground, the harder it becomes to find new sources. We’ve gone from finding oil literally spewing out of the ground to searching miles offshore in the ocean. Many experts worry that we will eventually run out of oil. If that is true, then say goodbye to cheap energy.

Sustainable Farming is Inherently More Resilient

When the electricity goes out on a pasture based farm, most of the animals wouldn’t even know. They’re all outside, or in shelters that don’t need electricity to operate. The small amount of electricity required to run certain parts of the farm can be supplied by generators until the power comes back on.

While cheap energy benefits sustainable farms like it does industrial farms, they don’t require it. Sustainable farms don’t need massive machines to operate. Many small sustainable farms don’t even have small tractors. With fuel usage so low, even a doubling in the price of oil would not significantly impact a sustainable farm. At Polyface farm, a sustainable farm in Virginia, Joel Salatin estimated that fuel cost only accounted for about 5% of their expenses. They could afford to pay 2 to 3 times as much for fuel and still be okay. Try paying twice as much for gas with a conventional farm.

Pests and disease cannot thrive in a diverse environment. When a chicken pathogen hatches out in chicken manure, it needs to find a chicken to infest. In a confinement farm this is easy. But on a sustainable farm, the chickens are moved everyday to new ground, leaving those newly hatched pathogens behind before they can infest a new host.

Water is another resource that sustainable farms do not need as much of, especially per acre. This is mainly because sustainable farms raise less animals per acre. Proponents of industrial farming would claim that this is less efficient, and that’s true. But is also easier on the environment. Nature is not designed to have thousands or millions of animals living on an acre in perpetuity.

Conventional farming may be facing a lack of new talent, sustainable farming is attracting a lot of folks who want to get out of the cubicle and help the environment. It isn’t even about the money for some, it’s about communing with nature. That’s the beauty of sustainable farming, not only is it good for the environment, it’s good for the farmers as well.

 

References

  1. Righteous Porkchop, Nicolette Hahn Niman, 2010
  2. news.cornell.edu/stories/2001/08/ethanol-corn-faulted-energy-waster-scientist-says
  3. www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/biggest_threats.html
  4. www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/community/about/antibiotic-resistance-faqs.html
  5. www.tesh.com/story/health-and-well-being-category/life-on-10-a-gallon/cc/6/id/12440
  6. agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Highlights/Farm_Demographics/#average_age
  7. Food, Energy, and Society, David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, 2007
  8. Defending Beef, Nicolette Hahn Niman, 2014
  9. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Montgomery, 2012
  10. usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/current/Acre/Acre-06-29-2018.pdf
  11. oilprice.com/Energy/Oil-Prices/What-Affects-Oil-Prices.html