Really Local Diets: Where the UN Gets it Wrong

A newly produced UN Report rightly points out, among other things, that the western model of meat and dairy production simply won't work on a planet of 9 billion people. The report, which quantifies the basic unsustainability of affluent societies and the challenges facing us in satisfying needs we've spent a century creating and can't possibly actually fulfill, is generally a good one. But I do want to take issue with the underlying assumptions in the report, including the ones that lead the UN to the most controversial and media-attention gathering claim - that we need to move towards a universal vegan diet.

The problem with this report, as with many analyses, is that it doesn't take the realities of fossil fuel and resource depletion fully into account - the underlying assumption is continued world economic growth and expanded resource use. Now I'm the first person to observe that there's nothing in peak oil that can save us from climate change - energy resources are peaking, but not fast enough to prevent us from pushing the climate past critical tipping points or beyond climate sensitivity - we know this to be true, and it is important to restate this, because some irresponsible elements of the peak oil community have in the past felt that the way to draw attention to peak oil was to minimize the potential risks of climate change.

That said, however, resource depletion and its economic effects are likely to reshape our future dramatically, and while I think that assumption ought to be used to reconsider the report as a whole, the point I think most needs critiquing is the idea that we will have the energy resources we need to put into agriculture, and thus, that we will not have to rely on localized diets. A prescription for a particular universal animal product intake assumes that we can offer a universal dietary prescription.

Now let me also reiterate that I believe that most of us will need to eat vastly fewer animals products. With the exception of extremely impoverished diabetics who cannot control their blood sugar any other way and cannot afford too choose sustainable alternatives, there is simply no excuse for any person who cares about the planet to eat CAFO meat. If it comes on a styrofoam package in your supermarket, don't eat it - period. For some people this may mean vegetarianism or veganism, for others, a small to moderate amount of locally produced, grass-fed and pastured animal products.

As the UN report articulates, the largest impact of meat comes from feeding animals grains that could also feed human beings, along with the clearing of forested land for export animal agriculture. And all of us who care about the well being of others should be striving to minimize grain-fed animal agriculture by our purchasing choices and by our actions if we raise animals, and also to seek out local sources not raised on rainforest. The reality of feeding the world is going to have to focus on making sure that we are not feeding human food to animals. But that's not quite the same thing as saying we should end animal agriculture or shift to a vegan diet.

Let me also make clear that for those who choose a vegetarian or vegan diet, this is a good and honorable choice. I'm not in any way diminishing the value of that choice, or suggesting people should seek out meat - discussions of diet are like discussion of religion and they get heated. But realistically, meat has always been a high value luxury food that many people will choose to eat, and finding a relationship to meat that we can live with is more likely to be effective than asking everyone to eschew all together. Moreover, if we are facing a relocalized agriculture, there are places and cultures where a sustainable food system will have to depend on animal agriculture, done very differently than in the present situation. Local food systems cannot begin from one single seet of assumptions, because local agricultures are always site-specific.

What is a small to moderate amount of meat? With a few exceptions, most of us should be eating meat no more than one main meal (plus whatever leftover meals you get off of it) per week. We should also be limiting our consumption of dairy and eggs - in fact, dairy may be a more critical factor in some cases - in cold climates, most dairy produced during winter involves a large amount of purchased grain, and even if high spring and summer, grass fed dairy means eating less of it, because cows and goats and sheep all produce less milk on grass alone than they would with the addition of grain.

Indeed, often in these discussions we focus on meat, and ignore dairy products and eggs, which is a mistake, because while it is possible to raise most major large meat ruminants - sheep, goats, cows, etc... on pasture alone for their meat, making use of grass, a resource humans can't use, it isn't possible to produce large quantities of eggs or milk without some supplementation. That supplementation usually involves grain, although as I'll talk about in a second, there are exceptions and ways to shift this.

The UN report rightly addresses an existing globalized society, but wrongly assumes that we'll have the ability to keep shifting food around the world and around regions, and that we will never have to rely for even a substantial portion of our calories upon local production. This, I think is unlikely - even if the rate of fossil fuel decline is much lower than projected, we have several examples of reductions in fossil fuel import of 20% or less that resulted in widespread failure of industrialized agriculture - in Cuba, Argentina and the Soviet Union.

Moreover, during the 2008 food crisis, a rise in oil prices up above $100 barrel led to rise in input and transport costs all over the developing world that led to food supply constraints. Despite high grain prices, farmers in the developing world were unable to plant because of the high initial cost of inputs, or transport food to market. In the American Great Depression, a purely financial crisis where food supplies were ample, we saw that farmers couldn't afford to transport their food to market, so urban dwellers went hungry while crops rotted on the ground. So we know that both energy depletion itself and the economic consquence of energy supply constraints or related economic crises can result in major food supply constraints, and that it is probably not wise to assume that we will always be able to import food or move food freely around the globe as we do in at least much of the world today.

Intuitively, it seems obvious that we would prioritize oil and other resources for agriculture, but in fact what seems to happen in energy supply constraints is that there are so many competing priorities that the attempts often fail. Every nation knows that the food insecurity of its people is a recipe for political unrest and has a deep investment in keeping people fed, but that doesn't necessarily translate into the ability to do it.

In a world where energy supplies are much more constrained that most international agencies assume, where peak oil and other energy supplies are limited, it may well be possible to move dry grains around in some measure, although for whom and in what measure is an open question. But it is almost certain that refrigerated shipping will be too costly and energy intensive for many people - thus, the industrialized and centralized meat industry that we've created is not likely to be a long term success.

Let me reiterate - this is not an excuse for trying to end it sooner than peak oil does it anyway - the CAFO industry is reprehensible in any number of ways, from lack of humane treatment of human workers to mistreatment of animals, the the risks posed by heavy antibiotic use in animals in close quarters to the problem of manure processings, to the fact that they tend to be giant conglomerates, the climate impact, the impact on world grain prices... I could keep listing reasons, but you all get the point. Confinement animal raising is unethical, unsustainable and doomed, and the more we support them now, the more disastrous the impacts over the long term.

But the assumption that the industrial world is likely to continue in the long term to raise animal products in precisely the ways it has been is probably not justified. So is the assumption that animal agriculture must involve the consumption of human food, or land suited to the growing of human food.

If we take as a basic principle that the goal is to feed as many people as possible with as small a climate and ecological impact as possible, we find that small scale animal agriculture is actually a vital part of that, and that a small amount of animal products - varying by place and environment, will probably be a part of many diets, and some localities, including the arctic and dry savanna regions of the US, Canada, Asia, Australia and Africa will depend heavily on animal products by necessity, because those soils cannot be tilled in the drying conditions we are likley to see due to climate change. Only by grazing animals carefully and sustainabily on those soils can human food be extracted from them.

In addition, there are regions of many nations that include cold, steep areas unsuitable for tillage and urban areas where human food waste is a substantial ecological problem, and where small scale animal production, living on that food waste (and alongside real attempts to reduce wasted food) could provide much needed dense proteins in areas otherwise highly dependent on more fertile and less populous areas for food.

Moreover, because it is already infeasible to move manures over long distances, the need for an integrated animal agriculture in a small farm system becomes more acute if you cannot assume the affordability or ready availability of mined and synthetic fertilizers. That bag of 10-10-10 is both resource intensive and has a significant climate and ecological impact. We have seen the ways that the price of mined fertilizer inputs rise during times of high energy prices, and can reasonably assume that mined Potash and Phosphorous, as well as synthetic nitrogen will experience substantial price fluctuations - and because most of the mined minerals and centralized and Haber-Bosch nitrogen depends on natural gas supplies, we may find the cost of moving them around becomes untenable for many people. We are going to have to include livestock manures, wisely handled (and on a manageable scale) in our plans - or work out better ways to treat and make use of human manures.

A few years ago, a Cornell University study (Peters, C. J., N. L. Bills, A. J. Lembo, J. L. Wilkins, and G. W. Fick. Mapping potential foodsheds in New York State: A spatial model for evaluating the capacity to localize food production. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 24(1); 72-84.) was released that suggested that New York State could feed about one third of its population using its existing agricultural land - and more interestingly that it could feed slightly more of its population when it included a small quantity of animal products in people's diets. The assumptions of the study, of course had to begin from what we were planning to eat, and did not assume a renewal of victory gardens or transformation of the acreage of New York lawn into food production, so I suspect the number if rather low, but the Cornell study usefully illustrated how small animal inputs could actually increase the number of people fed. The results of the study were important mostly because they showed the enormous difference in land carrying capacity based on how you chose to eat - New York state can carry five times as many people with a small amount of animal products integrated as it can on a conventional American diet. The study concluded:

"[W]e conclude that the inclusion of beef and milk in the diet can increase the number of people fed from the land base relative to a vegan diet, up to the point that land limited to pasture and perennial forages has been fully utilized."

And again, this study left out a number of things that might have increased this number. For example, looking at nations in the Global South one sees that one of the things that cities are able to do well is produce small scale meat and eggs - rabbits, pigs, chickens and guinea pigs among others live on food scraps, grasses and weeds from land margins, and other sources, producing dense calories in areas that simply can't grow their own grains. Many nations in the Global South produce as much as 20% of their meat within city limits, and using only food that would otherwise go to waste. The study asserts that New York city could produce only a very small percentage of its food locally, but that number could change were the millions of pounds of food wasted annually to be fed to chickens and other animals.

Unfortunately, given fewer resources, no one size-fits all diet is available to anyone. What you eat has to depend on three things:

1. What does your region produce successfully, and with the least ecological damage? How do you use all the land in your region optimally?

That means here in upstate New York, my rice habit doesn't make much sense - so my family is switching as much as it can to potatoes, with corn and barley and oats that do well here and are now grown mostly for livestock. We will eat small - to - moderate amounts of seasonal meat and dairy in season - taking advantage of the fact that much of my land is too steep to till and too wet to grow crops well, but grow grass extremely well. I can produce an excess to sell to neighbors in the high season, and some to preserve as cheese and meat for winter, but realistically, I'm not going to be eating many chowders in February in upstate NY, since my goats wouldn't be giving much milk without a lot of supplements.

An urban New Yorker might want to rely heavily on beans and grains, but local produce, but if they eat meat and eggs, to work on expanding in-city production using food scraps from restaurants and stores for rabbits and chickens - less beef, more bunny.

A person living in the American heartland could easily eat a wholly vegetarian diet with an emphasis on soybeans, but they might want to ask where the soil fertility to suppor that corn and soy rotation is going to come from in the long term.

2. What can you produce using things that would otherwise go to waste - whether the grass on your neighborhood lawns or the food you let rot in the kitchen, or that stores throw away.

Making full use of the food capacities we have is going to be essential - that means making use of land and resources that are underused, such as food scraps, or space for street trees that could be replaced with fruit or nut trees to provide free high value foods. It means making full use of available crops that go to waste now, such as the olives that are planted as street trees in many warm climates. It will mean

3. What do you produce that *also* creates habitat for wildlife - in a world struggling to feed human beings, dual purpose areas that feed wild creatures and humans simultaneously are essential unless we want our experience of nature to be limited to squirrels, pigeons and raccoons that live off our wastes.

Forest crops and woody agriculture (and the animals and other crops compatible with this) and permanent pastures have the advantage of providing more wildlife habitat than a field of soybeans or a suburban neighborhood of lawn. The ability to both feed peopel and support biodiversity is a good measure of a successful small scale agriculture.

The UN's basic recommendation to reduce meat, dairy and egg consumption is a good one - the 167 grams of animal products the average American eats per day is ridiculously high. That said, however, with the exception of those who choose that diet, I suspect the future is not largely vegan, but involves complex shifts in how we raise and feed animals.

The emergence of truly relocalized diets will have to begin with consumers - farmers don't have the ability to lead the way, growing what they think people should eat. Until local consumers educate themselves about what grows well in their region and begin to focus on those foods, developing a truly local food culture, there will be a long lag time in developing an agriculture that can do more than provide seasonal produce, but can actually feed us if we need it.



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Wow. It kind of blows my mind that the UN could grasp the fact that our way of eating isn't sustainable, but totally miss the issue of transporting food around the world.

Personally, I've cut down quite a lot on my meat consumption in the past year and now eat a lot of vegetarian meals and only buy local, humanely raised beef, chicken, & eggs. Dairy is another problem entirely for me... love my yogurt and cheese. At least the cheese is locally made. Hm.

I have never understood how anyone could say we could feed our planet if we all moved to a vegan diet. Around 40% of all arable land in the world is suitable only for raising grass. To go to a vegan diet would mean that we would stop producing food on almost half of the land that can produce food for people.

The other thing many people do not understand is how little grain actually goes into producing beef and lamb in the US. Around 95% of all nutrients in the production cycle of lamb come from forages. Around 85% of all nutrients in the production cycle of beef in the US comes from forages. I do not know the figure for dairy. However, due to the biology of chickens and pigs, it is hard to feed them without directly competing with the human food supply.

"I have never understood how anyone could say we could feed our planet if we all moved to a vegan diet."

Frankly, it's going to be hard to feed the planet regardless of diet. Even if we had the arable land, will we have the fertilizer and the energy for mechanization to work it and transport the finished product?

If we expect to utilize humanure (the way Sharon wants) how are we going to get that waste from the point of consumption (let's say New York City) to Kansas where the grain is grown? How will you even get it over to the hinterlands of NY to satisfy a new-urbanist utopia?

If that's not in the plan, what's left of our depleted topsoil won't last very long when it's no longer being constantly pumped full of chemicals.

The most sustainable agriculture requires people live in close proximity to where the food is, in order to close the nutrient loop. I don't see that happening without relocating huge numbers of people, and upsetting land ownership in the process. If we don't relocate, we will eventually wind up with "stranded" arable land that either underproduces food due to input shortages or is too expensive for most to afford.

My other issue with veganism is that it is hard for vegans to maintain optimum nutritional status, long-term, without taking vitamin supplements of some kind. This is probably a major reason why hardly any populations, worldwide, are voluntarily vegan. Popping supplements is not particularly "natural" and remains economically out of reach for most poor people (which may mean you and me, soon enough).

From a transportation POV, it makes more sense for me to cut back on grains rather than meat. I buy local grass-fed beef, chicken, pork, lamb. I eat local eggs from chickens that forage, soon we will have our own chickens and feed them grass, our own worms and garden scraps. We grow most of our own veggies and in 2 yrs or so fruit as well. I buy local grass-fed milk, butter, & cheese from an amazing farm, they were just featured in the latest Mother Earth. I buy rice and grits that are VERY expensive, but grown a mere 3 hrs from me. I try to limit our fruit to local and or only Florida. Apples are my biggest problem, but recently found a local guy who sprays very little. Our bees are producing honey for us now and we make our own yogurt from the milk we buy. I'm actually getting very close to a 50 mile radius for 80% of our diet.
So Sharon, why do I need to eat less meat? I need to grow more beans to dry and cut out pasta and wheat: two things I can's get local at all.

It's very strange that the UN report obscures the pretty obvious and common sensical point that relying on animal products makes sense, right up to the point where they begin consuming resources that would otherwise be available for humans. I have trouble believing that the UN scientists couldn't account for that. Maybe they thought they needed a more crystal-clear anti-meat message in order to counter the huge inertia that currently is driving animal protein consumption up?

great article, Sharon. I'm having a very hard time imagining arctic populations on vegan diets, when what they've traditionally (and quite sustainably) done is an almost all-meat diet.

my own personal food-problem is that in order to maintain my weight, i had to cut out the vast majority of pure starches (baked goods, potatoes, rice) from my diet, and replace them with proteins (mostly eggs and cheese); I'm already on the verge of obesity, and switching to a diet that's more sustainable but less healthy for me is not very appealing at the moment.

maybe when I have my own garden and therefore spend more time burning calories this will be less of an issue...

Ed Straker above mentioned using humanure to restore soil fertility, as the Chinese have done for 40 centuries. But a problem with that I've not seen mentioned anywhere is that many people are on drugs - pharmaceuticals. My wife has Parkinson Disease and is on several drugs. I have heart disease and am on a half-dozen drugs. Do we want to apply our fecal and urinary wastes to our garden land, laden as it is with the byproducts of our drug consumption? Millions of people in this country are on profit-maximizing (and hopefully life-saving) drug regimes. Is using humanure a realistic possibility then?

The fact is that pharmaceuticals and other pollutants are _already_ winding their way back into our drinking water. Large amounts of energy are spent to try to filter this out of waste streams. The least we can do is try to make use of the solids.

The energy footprint of waste stream disposal (or recycling) is just as important as the energy footprint of the incoming food stream.

Municipal water supply and treatment is also vulnerable to collapse. Breakdowns of the water/waste infrastructure is an underpublicized risk-factor. I'm reminded of the incident in Gaza a while back where they were literally flooded with raw sewage.

Waste is a part of the food cycle and it will HAVE to be tackled.

Going local round where I grew up would mean less veg and more sheep/beef. The area I come from only has a short growing season so veges were only available for a short time from the garden.

The rest had to be imported along with pretty much all starches. There was a lot of canning/preserving done with fruit too and most had a glasshouse for tomatoes etc. Otherwise you just wouldn't have them.

I'm not sure I'd like to go back there (I now live in a coastal area) but saying go vegetarian in that area is just silly.

viv in nz

By knutty knitter (not verified) on 10 Jun 2010 #permalink

The assumption in the article is we should maximize food production to allow unlimited population growth. The problem with this approach is any efforts to increase food production pale in comparison to the food requirements of an ever growing population.

Our focus should be on population control and not on encouraging people to alter their diets to promote unlimited population growth. For those who think controlling our population must involve Draconian measures consider that the best way to limit population growth is to educate people. Well educated populations grow much slower than do poorly educated populations. Therefore rather than focus on limiting meat production and consumption we should focus on schools.

By Nerissa Belcher (not verified) on 10 Jun 2010 #permalink

The UN says we should all become vegan? I can't wait to see what the black helicopter crowd is going to make of that... How sustainable is popcorn?

Something else that is often overlooked is that in some places, game can provide a significant food resource with very low inputs. Here in Scotland, we have deer the way dogs have fleas. (Or at least, we did up until last winter...) We need to regularly cull the damn things to try and prevent them from destroying crops and grazing out the forests we're trying to regenerate, so we might as well eat them while we're at it. It kinda helps that they're absolutely delicious...

We also have huge areas of rough grazing, but less really good arable land. The Scottish economy used to be based almost entirely on beef cattle raised on that rough grazing, but the breeds that once thrived there have mostly been lost... They've been replaced with sheep, which don't seem to be particularly economic at the moment - although they might be when it's no longer viable to ship lamb over from New Zealand. (Which is about the stupidest thing I've ever heard - the country's full of sheep no-one can sell, and we're shipping lamb in refrigerated containers over from literally the other side of the world? Genius!)

Out of interest - how much land does it take to provide grain feed (plus supplements) for raising any given animal as compared to the same amount of grassland to raise the same animal - I'm attempting to find the info myself, but figured it might be more likely that someone here has already done the math (so far I'm working on an assumption that you can pull about 5-8 tons of hay off of a well managed grassland, as compared to approximately 11 tons of corn grain off of a well managed corn field (~200Bu/Ac) but that's as far as I got)

Reading about it appears that ~1Ac per cow is good, although whether this is with or without supplemental grain isn't shown, so taking a running average of ~100 million head of cattle you'd require ~1/4 of all US cropland just to grass feed cattle (about 400M acres of ag land was cropped in 2007 according to the USDA, although as another 400M acres was pasture this suggests the 1cow/Ac number may be very location specific) (assumptions here will be a little out - clearly some of the herd is on pasture land already, the 1cow/Ac is tentative)

Given these numbers it would appear to me that it could be possible that retaining grain feeding with relatively centralized feed operations (perhaps local to a few farms, such that manure is easily transportable directly to the fields where needed) while massively reducing meat consumption may actually prove to be a more efficient use of land than using the same land for grass feed - although this is just a first look and by no means a concrete proof or even opinion - just something which may need more exploration, or may have been explored by others already and I've just missed it.

Also wanted to comment on this statement (multi posts symptomatic of need to respond before finishing article, case of tl;dfr rather than tl;dr)

. What do you produce that *also* creates habitat for wildlife - in a world struggling to feed human beings, dual purpose areas that feed wild creatures and humans simultaneously are essential unless we want our experience of nature to be limited to squirrels, pigeons and raccoons that live off our wastes.

Forest crops and woody agriculture (and the animals and other crops compatible with this) and permanent pastures have the advantage of providing more wildlife habitat than a field of soybeans or a suburban neighborhood of lawn. The ability to both feed peopel and support biodiversity is a good measure of a successful small scale agriculture.

I'd argue that this depends entirely on how biodiversity responds to even low impact agriculture, in

Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature
Rhys E. Green, et al.
Science 307, 550 (2005);

a good mathematical model suggests that under certain responses it is far better, in terms of overall biodiversity, to utilize farming methods which produce more allowing the saving of space to go truly wild, than to use low impact methods which give the illusion of increasing biodiversity but in effect reduce it by utilizing more land for the same output.

If method (A) generates all you need in 1 acre and has a 50% reduction in biodiversity, and method (B) generates all you need in 3 acres and reduces biodiversity by 30%, then it is probably better to utilize method (A) to generate what you need as you lose 50% biodiversity in your 1 acre but preserve 100% biodiversity in the other 2, whereas in method (B) you remove 30% of biodiversity across the whole 3 acres.

Of course it entirely depends how exactly biodiversity reacts in relation to productivity of the lan, but I'd argue it's more important to have more biodiversity that we don't necessarily see, than less biodiversity overall but a little more in the areas we live - pandering to 'our experience' may still be a harmful approach.

Given these numbers it would appear to me that it could be possible that retaining grain feeding with relatively centralized feed operations (perhaps local to a few farms, such that manure is easily transportable directly to the fields where needed) while massively reducing meat consumption may actually prove to be a more efficient use of land than using the same land for grass feed

The whole point is that you don't use the same land. You use land that isn't suitable for producing grain.

Ewan- I'm a serious un-fan of mathematical models, and your numbers illustrate why. No offense. :-)

Out here in corn and bean land; the real numbers are : corn and bean agriculture result not in any paltry 50% reduction in biodiversity; but in at least a 98% reduction; including soil organisms. If you leave the soil fauna and flora out- it's 99.99%.

And Iowa has vast stretches where the land is entirely in corn/bean ag- except for roads, farmsteads, and towns- which contribute very little to biodiversity.
It's also not a matter of taking virgin lands, and deciding whether to use standard row-crop ag, or a more sustainable path as you convert them to agriculture; in the 1st World, virtually all tillable land is already being tilled; right now; and the great majority of forests have been highly disturbed by logging and grazing, with drastic reductions in biodiversity already established; for so long we don't even see it; and our grandparents don't remember it.

Measurements also belie your assumed numbers; the only really good comparative studies I'm aware of on biodiversity have been done on coffee. Yes indeed, coffee IS now grown like corn, in many places- tilled black dirt between straight rows of trees. 99% reduction in biodiversity. Shade-grown coffee, by meticulous measurements by many different scientists now, show biodiversity nearly equal to undisturbed forest. (Be very careful about coffee labeled "Hawaiian!"; Kona coffee is shade grown; and tastes fabulous; "Hawaiian" is sun grown on old sugar or pineapple land- and to my palate is horrible.)

Gets to be a very long conversation. :-)

The whole point is that you don't use the same land. You use land that isn't suitable for producing grain.

Looking at the USDA numbers my guess would be that this would already be in use as pasture (~400MAc cropped ~400MAc pasture), if you're going to grass feed the non-pastured herd where do you get the pasture from?

Greenpa - my numbers may illustrate why you aren't a big fan (they're generated by pulling them out of my ass to simplify the concept rather than in terms of being meaningful), however looking at the model it does appear that you have to consider whether you have a precipitous drop the instant you start farming, or whether you only see a small drop initially getting progressively worse with intensity - the model includes modelling for drops essentially as precipitous as the 90+% numbers you state and shows there is still the capacity for high impact farming to actually be better for overall biodiversity in a given area (and for a given amount of overall production) than low impact farming dependant on the shape of the curve - which I'd guess varies by crop and region - monocropping any given area and weeding is clearly going to send biodiversity into the tank regardless (single plant species, loss of insects etc which specialize on other plants, particularly loss of insects if you follow any sort of insect control protocol) so despite the shade grown coffee being nearly equal to undisturbed forest I don't see this playing out well in any food crop.

Very long conversations are good... keeps the brain ticking and makes those gels run faster/bacteria grow faster/corn take up nitrate quicker...

if you're going to grass feed the non-pastured herd where do you get the pasture from?

I thought it was pretty clear that Sharon's not talking about maintaining the total amount of livestock at current levels, she's just making the point that completely eliminating livestock means that you can't make use of that pasture.

Dunc - it appears in my haste to post something I may have misinterpreted what I was posting about - rereading the pertinent post I see that - I still feel that as it is highly unlikely that meat will be eliminated to the extent that may be necessary to only use pasture land for cattle production (particularly in areas where there is an abundance of good crop land and not much that is only good for pasture) there may be an arugement for utilization of grain rather than pasture, although this may still be me tilting at windmills in regards to the general conversation - perhaps these windmills are a tad closer to the conversation though.

As a for instance would there be a benefit to a farmer with a ton of non-pasture land, and very little pasture, raising cattle (or some other animal) on grain as opposed to pasture so as to utilize the manure generated in the production of other crops.

I have absolutely nothing to add regarding Sharon's logic. But. Big but. My question is this: having grown up in an area of small farms (most of which are big ag now) with a mix of cattle, goats, chickens, cereal crops and veggie gardens...the manure was essential for the fertility of the future crops. Which seems to me to be the model for most steady state societies over the centuries (industrialization throwing a big population wrench into that, of course). Industrially produced fertilizers are not going to be available, nor affordable, for most of the world. So. How, pray tell, does the UN suggest fertilizing these crops without some sort of fertility replacement?? I.E., animal (or human) manures?

Ewan - :-) sure, I'd have to actually be working with your model to truly critique it. My abyssal lack of enthusiasm for models has to do with their nearly non-existant ability to actually reflect whole systems; rather, they reflect the understandings and prejudices of the model makers. The salmon population models used to "manage" the salmon fishing industry are the easiest to look at. And one salmon population after another keeps collapsing- and they keep sticking bandaids on their old models. Which ecologists have been calling crap for decades.

Bah, humbug. :-)

Regarding yields- actually, Badgersett Research has numbers indicating that hybrid hazels could significantly outproduce soybeans, using their currently available genetics. And they use frogs and spiders for insect control-

Greenpa - have Badgersett got any peer reviewed data on their hazels at all or is it all internal - I say this not out of personal doubt, but because I was referencing an earlier discussion we had on this very blog about woody ag with a colleague (who generally knows his stuff about all things agricultural, to a spectacularly scary level) and he expressed pretty strong skepticism - although that may have been more with how I told the tale rather than anything else. Only question raised that I recall was 'yield per plant? Or yield per acre? I can believe a per plant basis, but per acre seems far fetched' (to paraphrase) - Also of interest with the hazels - as they're outperforming soy what sort of effect on biodiversity do you see, I'd assume that to outperform most row crops you'd pretty much be turning as much of the incoming solar radiation into yield as you possibly could, which in general doesn't leave particularly much to base any kind of food-web on, although I do recall you mentioning higher photosynthetic efficiency of woody species which may explain things.

The good(ish) thing about the model I'm discussing is that it could literally go either way - it's not really a rigid model on which to base decisions, more an illustration of how it is possible that high yield ag could, under certain circumstances, serve to increase biodiversity.

Ewan- the data is internal still; but two points; A) have you ever known a journal to actually check reported data? and B) Rutgers, the U of Nebraska, Oregon State U, the U of MN, and the U of Wis- all accept the data, and are basing their own hazelnut projects now entirely on Badgersett's work; and mostly on their genetics.

This data is per plant at this point, as they try to make clear; they are in the process right now of bringing it into full field, real world.

On solar capture- the fields move through stages; newly planted fields do not approach closed canopy until year 8 on cycle 1, year 5 on cycle 2; then they are coppiced; which leads to 4-5 years of shitloads of grass. They're working on grazing animals that can fit in there now. Best bet so far; feeder lambs. Adult sheep hit the hazels too hard; but the feeders seem to focus on the grass.

Scepticism, incidentally, is the only reaction they get from academics- until they visit and see it in person. All the Universities listed above have done just that.

GP - hm well, on a per plant basis it's hardly unexpected, in a completely non-academic extrapolation how does the per plant basis look like it would equate to a per acre basis.

Perhaps I can get the evil behemoth of Big Ag interested and I can come see myself (and bring my colleague)!

GM hazel. Bwhahaha. Or something.

A bit of perhaps relevant animal news; Japan has a severe outbreak of hoof and mouth.

They've been exporting "wagyu" beef for some years- it can sell for really insane prices, the NYT quotes $38 for - 100 GRAMS. Big source of income.

But a highly artificial agricultural system, with decreasing genetic diversity. The many farmers whose entire crop is wagyu; are in real trouble.

Another example where "risk management" - is pure bullshit. The catastrophic failures are not managed. And they're really inevitable. Just rare.

Ewan- I'm sure you'd be welcome. About GM hazel- it's quite likely to be tried. Badgersett is mostly amused by that probability, though, given the track record of GM plants -if unsupported by huge chemical inputs.

The "potential yields" they give are highly academic, actually, and I know they publish the low estimates; not the high ones. Pretty different!

Track records of GM plants if unsupported by huge chemical inputs. Way to fail to disentangle the needs of hybrids and the needs of GM plants - absolutely no reason a generic GM plant would require higher chemical inputs than a generic plant - obviously if they're GMed to resist a herbicide then the chemical inputs are absolutely required - but if you can formulate a remotely good arguement as to why Bt, drought tolerance, improved nutrition, virus resistance etc would need high chemical inputs I'll give you a sticker. (a shiny gold one)

On solar capture- the fields move through stages; newly planted fields do not approach closed canopy until year 8 on cycle 1, year 5 on cycle 2; then they are coppiced; which leads to 4-5 years of shitloads of grass. They're working on grazing animals that can fit in there now. Best bet so far; feeder lambs. Adult sheep hit the hazels too hard; but the feeders seem to focus on the grass.

I want my gold sticker. :-)

I'm pretty sure we're using very different yardsticks. By my standards, ALL "conventional crops" require massive chemical (including petroleum) inputs.

And many many agronomists agree that situation is not sustainable. "Low input" really has to be the new norm, and GMs aren't; they're all aimed at industrial ag; high input by definition. MY definition, anyway...

We had three small fields we farmed with a team of horses. We figured out we were mostly raising feed for the horses. We sold the team and turned the fields back to pasture.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 11 Jun 2010 #permalink

Greenpa - first up, apologies for being overly snarky - I need to stop posting anything after the last cup of coffee of the day, particularly on a Friday.

Second - I don't know that we're using different yardsticks, I just look at GM, as a technology, as totally seperate from the crops that the technology is in.

It is true to say that most current crops, which utilize GM technology, are high input. It is not true to say that therefore GM technology is high input - using your hazel trees as an example - lets envision a future in which they are being used pretty widespread, and a virus emerges which is absolutely devastating to the crop - the USDA uses its prior work on virus resistant plum trees as a basis for a virus resistant hazel tree project, in what way is the new GM hazel tree a high chemical input entity when compared to the original hybrid?

I'd also disagree that all conventional crops require massive petroleum inputs. They currently require massive petroleum inputs to work profitably in the system we have, but given that all current conventional crops were utilized before we utilized petroleum inputs.

Ewan- I get the strong feeling that we really agree about almost all the stuff; we're just used to talking about it from different starting points.

"the USDA uses its prior work on virus resistant plum trees as a basis for a virus resistant hazel tree project"

That thought never entered my mind. I really want to stick with "real world; right now" examples. "It could be used in this fashion" has not proven a very good indicator of what actually happens next.

"I'd also disagree that all conventional crops require massive petroleum inputs."

"They currently require massive petroleum inputs to work profitably in the system we have"

Ah. That's what I'm talking about. Current reality only

"but given that all current conventional crops were utilized before we utilized petroleum inputs."

Yeah, but all the fancy YIELDS they claim and promise are predicated on the continuation of high input systems. That's their major and enduring carp about the possibility of "organic" feeding the world- they state very flatly that it can't; the high inputs are necessary. That may or may not be true- but it does mean research effort into low-input is very very low.

I have some intimate experience there. I've never seen an academic; or a mainstream ag company, NOT release a new variety of anything- just as soon as it could be launched- with very high pesticide requirements. Even if they started off thinking they wanted to breed/develop something with low requirements. From the genetic standpoint, broad resistance is quite complex; and screening/testing for it requires multiple decades. No academic or company thinks they can afford to wait that long; so, they dont'.

Specific example; I have a 200 tree apple orchard; mostly antiques, but some modern varieties. I never spray anything. In particular, "Haralson", a long time standard apple in Minnesota, is a complete cripple without incessant spray; it will produce nothing. Older varieties like Roxbury and Golden Russets have good years and not so good years, pest wise; but they always produce. Their popularity, however, was the result of many decades of testing by hundreds of growers. A paradigm simply not used at present.

Same is true I know in pecans, almonds, commercial hazels, and advanced hybrid maize.

Low input is not on their list of things to do; and is beyond the reach of current development processes.

Oh! And. Your theoretical GM hybrid hazel? Will be developed on a university or similar research station, under high pressure for quick results. Which means all inputs possible will be used. Irrigation, weed control, preemptive pesticides, max fertilizer; automatically.

Plants developed in such conditions have never worked out well in real farmer worlds (not including "show farmers" linked to the U." Which is why the entire first generation of Hybrid Poplars had to be abandoned- they literally could not survive off the reservation.

No Greenpa, my theoretical GM hybrid hazel will be developed in a university or research station using the exact same genetics as the hazel which Badgersett has developed - creating hybrid hazel pretty much indistinguishable from the badgersett hazel, with the sole exception that it has immunity to my theoretical virus (well that and the ideological refusal of muddleheads to eat anything produced by it)

"No Greenpa, my theoretical GM hybrid hazel will be developed in a university or research station using the exact same genetics as the hazel which Badgersett has developed -"

Well, I doubt. Badgersett uses a breeding technique no one else does; it's new, in fact. Alas no, it isn't published yet; but they do present it in great detail (too much detail, many think) as part of their annual Short Course. Basically, they create an artificial "hybrid swarm", (use google) and swarms actually more complex than any known to occur in nature.

There's not really any terminology in existence to designate or describe it; but it intrinsically includes; MUST include, decades of field performance data before any plant is used to move forward. So far, none of the universities, inspired by Badgersett's successes, shows any sign of comprehension. They all revert to "oh, we can do this faster in the lab". And their really is no historical evidence they can.

From a brief glance at hybrid swarms I can see how it would be harder than one would first think to get any genetic modification in there.

However, and I may just be misinterpreting what you're saying(or what a hybrid swarm is), it does look like after your decades of field performance, when something is "moved forward" this would provide an ideal opportunity to get in there and slap in a gene - if that plant is to be an integral part of the swarm, or is the founding of a population or such, then sticking a transgene into that particular line would appear to me to be the best way to get new traits into the final swarm - the trait may not appear in the entire population, but would appear in a subset of the population - which in terms of viral resistance, or insect resistance, or somesuch, would still I imagine prove valuable in terms of yield without requiring any additional inputs (other than the relatively minor input into engineering the trait in the first place) - although to what extent having a heterogenous population protects against viral attack etc anyway would then be a decisive factor as to whether one used GM techniques or whether they were worthless in this situation.

Ewan (and Greenpa too, but especially Ewan), you've become one of my favorite posters because you always argue so well and are so very reasonable and thoughtful!

I'm going to let Greenpa carry the weight of woody ag here (although one of the bigger issues is simply going to be shifting diets to get people eating hazelnuts instead of soy - not undoable, but the reality is that the public is a strange set of birds ;-))

And go to your larger argument, about whether it is better to set large chunks aside from human habitation and use land more intensively and toxically in smaller quantities - I think there are a couple of problems with that idea.

The first and deepest is that places almost all wildlife and all nature far away from people - we have a real problem already, I would argue, from the idea that "nature exists over there somewhere far away."

But more practically, I'm just not convinced that you can put enough land wholly aside - given teh impacts of climate change and unintended consequences. If we don't give priority to land where humans actually intersect, there may be very few places (as there are now) where species can actually exist in anything other than tiny populations.

Nerissa, actually I'm talking about supporting the population we have now and are going to have. There is a case to be made that making sure that there is mostly enough food to go around at all always encourages people to keep having babies - but since the only alternative in food terms (as opposed to other strategies for population limitation) for reducing the population is to starve a large chunk of the extant population, I don't consider that an ethical solution.


Why should you eat less meat now? Maybe you shouldn't, if you live in a place where there's been growth in truly grass fed animal production. But inquire carefully - most chicken and milk in the country is not wholly or even largely grassfed, so make sure you know that your producers really aren't feeding human food to animals. There are very few truly grass fed dairies in the US, and there is no such thing as a 100% pasture raised chicken in the US or egg. You can use some alternative high protein supplements, but if you are getting "pasture raised" eggs, that doesn't mean you are getting "no purchased feed eggs" - ask your producer what they are using as supplementation - good farmers are honest about this stuff. Moreover, how close is it? How is it travelling? Grains and beans are shipped dry, often by rail, while meat producers require refrigeration and freezing.

Where is the water that is feeding these sustainable livestock coming from? Ewan talks about acreage usage - depending on where you are, a cow could take 20 acres or 1, msotly depending on rainfall and water sources. If farmers in the west are pumping water to feed their cattle or to irrigate alfalfa, that's not an improvement on eating grains from further away. In high rainfall areas, though grassfed meat may be preferrable.

Moreover, it is important, I think, to understand the distinction between now and the future. Right now, many producers focus on animal products because it provides dense calories and high economic returns per investment - and that's what consumers want. If your area had to feed everyone based on farm production, and that land could grow enough meat to feed a small elite or enough potatoes to feed everyone, your priorities may change - and theirs too. I don't necessarily mean to imply everyone should dump their local farm meat, but remember, the local agriculture we have now is transitional, it isn't necessarily what we're going to end up with.


so very reasonable and thoughtful!

and completely off topic it appears! (I blame Greenpa for this - woody ag is maddeningly interesting and apparently obscure enough that I can't find out quite enough about it)

On the second post - I'm sure a lot of primary meat producers wouldnt quite agree with the high ecomomic returns per investment, at least from what little I've seen (possibly biased sources) - incomes of $10,000 p/a on million dollar investments (think thats the Food Inc. quoted figure for chicken shed income, which was depressing), net losses on pork.

Also - even on the same farm I could envision it being better to supplement cattle with grains grown on farm, rather than shipping in, if the overall land footprint was smaller - increased production per unit area appears to me to be the ideal goal for agriculture, even if you have to go as low input as possible, land should still be seen as an input, and should be utilized in the most efficient manner (and if this means your cows spend more time in a cattle shed and less time roaming about, I guess that's a little sad, but in terms of ethics I think you'd be almost better off getting rid of the cows rather than utilizing more than the efficient amount of land to keep em) - again, something that'd have to be assessed on a farm by farm basis - could well be the case that without all the contrivances and chemicals of modern industrial farming that grain would never beat out alfalfa or grass.

On feeding a small elite, or feeding everyone - that's gonna depend on how much of a hold capitalism has on society post-fall - my guess is that a lot of farmers would still produce meat if it provided them with the higher benefit at the end of the day, even in a barter society so long as meat retains a higher intrinsic value I'd see this as a probable outcome. Which sucks for me because I don't see that post-fall Farmer Jones is likely to have much need to barter with a molecular biologist.

You made the statement: "Right now, many producers focus on animal products because it provides dense calories and high economic returns per investment - and that's what consumers want"

I do not think this is an accurate statement depending upon which animals you are talking about. The return on investment for most livestock operations is low or negative, particularly for beef cattle. Raising cattle in many parts of the US is simply a byproduct of owning large tracts of land. One survey from Texas showed that 90% or so of all cow cal operators there had no expectation of making a profit each year.

I recall reading, a while back, that the Texas cattle business had run at a deficit for the past 11 years previously. Here is a joke about it. Rancher Zeke won a multimillion dollar lottery. Neighbor comes by and asks, "Well, Zeke, now that you are a multimillionaire, what are your plans?" Zeke replies, "I've given it a lot of thought. I really like ranching. I'm just going to keep on ranching until it is all gone."

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 14 Jun 2010 #permalink

"But it is almost certain that refrigerated shipping will be too costly and energy intensive for many people - thus, the industrialized and centralized meat industry that we've created is not likely to be a long term success."

This is very interesting. But is it "almost certain"? Would you (or any other reader) have links to analyses which consider the degree to which refrigerated shipping costs can be expect to rise with oil depletion and the consequent likely impact on consumer prices?

Sorry, Ewan and Mike, I should have been clearer - I was thinking of small scale, low input local farming, rather than larger conventional livestock producers. Speaking as someone who has tried to make a go farming both potatoes and peas and goats and chicken, I can tell you that if you are selling direct to consumers and can command the premiums that come with "local" and "sustainably produced" livestock has a greater return, at least in the east. But that's not true of many larger family farmers, or for those selling into the conventional trade.


Dave, offhand I can't think of a paper that offers hard numbers from, say, 2008 and actually quantifies the exact rise in refrigerated transport costs at various oil prices, if that's what you are looking for. However, if you look at the data about refrigerated trucking in general during the oil spike in 2008, you find that the truckers there did worse than the truckers transporting dry goods (which of course makes sense), and that the transport industry in general suffered enormously even from the very short term high oil prices.

In the longer term, barring the emergence of a new and longterm viable liquid fuel system with a high EROEI, refrigerated trucking is going to be extremely tough. Consider the much-touted electric cars - imagine the charging required for an 18 wheeler, hauling cuts of meat from Montana and Indiana.


One think, is that long distance transport can be handled by trains, which can be electrically driven.

One thing is secure, or economic and agricultural "systems" are going to undergo major changes.

An one more think, sustainable agriculture requires more workers. At this time we need jobs for many people. If we put the unemployed to work on sustainable farms that means we have to import less oil. If we turn the corn fields into browse fields we need less fossil fuel, build rather than destroy topsoil, and use less water. T

The current system is mining Ogallala Aquifer, for example, and hence on that grounds alone is unsustainable. (Irrigation always leads to salification which ruins the land for agriculture until enough rain has fallen to wash the minerals out of the topsoil and this takes a long time, because irrigation is only used in low rainfall areas.