Sunday, September 6, 2015

I eat, therefore I kill

"Why do we think we need to appropriate all of the world's arable land to feed humans?"

Icelandic horses
  We are all what we think of as “individuals” in actuality living communities. Here in Iceland we have permaculture course participants from this country and Germany, the USA, Denmark, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, France, Norway, Sweden, Indonesia, Bulgaria and Costa Rica. Each of us is cross-fertilizing all the others with our microbiome — the spores and microbes we carry from our bioregions and freely pass by contact between skin, air, fluids and various surfaces we touch. Each of us leaves as a new microbiome, slightly altered from and more diverse than the one with which we arrived.

We also pick up and incorporate new microbes from the environment of the place. We may be ingesting bits and pieces that have already passed through the body of an old Viking, or his horse, before being interred in the soil for a time, later to find its way into our food and water and now leaving with us to become part of the soil somewhere else. Ultimately, we all come from stardust and are just continuously recycling.

Permaculture's father, Bill Mollison, liked to tease vegetarians about their dietary choices because he thought each of the arguments for going lower on the food chain to be a bit suspect. “I didn't spend several million years clawing my way to the top just to eat tofu,” he once told us over lunch. We looked down at our tofu, awkwardly.

At the time we were attending a permaculture convergence in Perth, Western Australia, and the kitchen staff had been told to expect mostly meat-eaters. Unfortunately there were three times more vegetarians amongst the permies attending, meaning long lines for the vegie option and meal servers experiencing a bit of crisis from lack of foresight.

Iceland: Grasslands thinly cover fields of broken lava; vast areas are suitable for grazing animals only.
Robyn Francis, who was one of Bill's earliest students and helped compile The Permaculture Designer's Manual in the early 1980s, breaks down some of the common ethical arguments. “Meat is just concentrated chlorophyll on a calcium stick,” she says, borrowing a pithy one-off realization from a former student. 

Rotational grazing by pigs breaks up the sod and deepens the soil profile, making it cultivatable for vegetables and grains.
The hackneyed vegan line about not eating things with eyes or that try to run away may be humorous but as we know from studies of sensory mechanisms and “emotions” in plants, those have feelings too, know fear, seek to preserve their lives, and would rather not be your dinner if offered the choice. Moreover, they each have a microbiome made of lots of tiny animals with eyes that try to get away.

Zoocentrism: the relegation of plants to the bottom of a hierarchy of intelligent life.

Robyn puts up a slide from a study of Australian grain farming that shows how many living things — reptiles, birds, ferrets, field mice — are slaughtered each year per hectare of grain being harvested by combines. In the study area of New South Wales, grain harvesters kill 25 times more animals per hectare than comparable pastures of cows destined for slaughter. Put another way, the eyeball ratio of things that try to get away is approximately 25:1 to the vegan side of the ledger. In another slide, she explains that owning a sheepdog consumes the equivalent resource costs of owning an S.U.V.. Don't even get us started on house cats.

Let's face it. If you are alive you only remain so by killing something else. This is how nutrients cycle between rock, soil, plants, decaying matter, insects, bacteria, fungi and animals. It is a group process, each of us taking a role at some time as predator or prey. We might not like to eat worms but in the end they are more than happy to eat us.

There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependencies."
— Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace 

Published on Facebook on August 27, this image
has 12,000 likes and 2877 shares, so fa
Consider the larger issue of global food supply. Humans now number 7 billion and will continue to expand; energy, food and water supply permitting. A third of Earth's land mass is suitable for agriculture but only about a third of that is actually farmable for grains, vegetables, fruits or the kinds of things that vegans eat. The other two thirds can't grow vegies and may not have enough water for tree crops but can, with careful stewardship and stocking rates, sustain edible animals. Indeed, if you listen to the mob rotational grassland discussion begun by Alan Savory, you might believe that only large herds of grazing animals, bunched and moving, are capable of ecologically restoring those kinds of damaged lands, re-sequestering the carbon they once held, and restoring the hydrological and climate cycles to pre-Anthropocene — the water and soil regime once built and maintained by buffalos, mammoths, tigers and wolves.

Here is a point of contention we take with that argument, and we welcome discussion. By extension, we can say that if arable land is at a premium, then good land with ample water should be devoted to grains, vegetables, fruits and the kinds of things that vegans eat. Far more people can be fed adequate and high quality proteins, carbohydrates and fats from that land if we eat lower down the food chain because by passing crops through animals we lose nutritional returns by large factors, anywhere from ten to one in the case of poultry to forty to one in the case of cattle. By the logic Robyn used, we should be growing domestic animals exclusively on the marginal lands that cannot support anything else. This eliminates Joel Salatin's farm in Virginia and many of the high yield animal operations in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. No more Kobe beef or German Sauerbraten.

The argument for eating farmed animals assumes we cannot feed the world if we removed commercial animal agriculture and concentrated on plants. We can — on just the portion of prime farmland that has good growing seasons and plenty of water. An acre of organic, no-till, biochar-augmented, nitrogen-fixing, non-GMO soybeans not processed into animal feed or plastics can supply high quality protein equal to forty or more acres of cattle. Eliminate animal agriculture on the best farmland and you won't need to use the other 60% of Earths arable land for food animals.

Why do we think we need to appropriate all of the world's arable land to feed humans?

Producing food for human populations in dry climates or with poor soils by importing it from better land in better climates is a dicey proposition, given that the globalization paradigm is now on life support and built on Ponzi debt that is really a theft from our children. The world is being forced by the inexorability of the physics of fossil energy to relocalize, and quickly. To continue tracking the consumerist exponential curve — of water use, soil loss, oil depletion, fishery extinctions, population, and pollution — is sheer folly. Beyond lies an Olduvai Cliff.

Roasted Icelandic Horse. Horse was the
traditional meat of German Sauerbraten.
In a localized world, absent catastrophically induced decline, we imagine that human population will gradually attrit to something approximating the steady state balance between supply and demand that indigenous peoples mastered. That was the old normal before the last Ice Age, and it will likely go that way again in the Age of Consequence.

Humans in local societies may choose to balance their diets in whatever ways are most efficacious for their climate and customs. Those habits will become, or return, traditions. Some may be vegan, many likely not.



Jan Lundberg said...

B r i l l i a n t.

adam manchovie said...

Great to start this discussion, and I think it's a terribly important point that industrial vegan diets have a lot of death in them. But two points I'd like to make.
* Well, a question first... death of mice etc. aside, do you think it is possible to grow soybeans or other annuals sustainably? If so it might involve 'pasture cropping' or the multi-generational efforts of the Land Institute, but currently annuals cultivation seems to be destroying itself.
* I think it's a bit unfair to give a chicken a 1:10 turning-feed-into-flesh efficiency ratio and a cow a 1:40 because the chicken is an omnivore that eats pretty much human quality food. I don't think we should be eating much chicken -- it requires that prime one third of the arable land to grow it's food. A cow can use the other two thirds however and convert grass.

Unknown said...

I grew up on a worn-out cotton farm in East Texas, the grandson of a small acreage subsistence farmer of the old school. My vision of sustainable living has always included raising meat animals. I actually think there is a major disconnect from reality among many (certainly not all) vegans that has to do with the ethics of killing for food.

I've always thought it was related to the Disneyfication of animal consciousness that most of my TV generation grew up with. Our culture insulates us from death so completely that lots of extremely questionable points of view have arisen, among people who have never had to grow their own food or kill anything to eat.

I have to temper that kind of thinking, based on the examples of a few serious vegans who walked the walk, and managed to do pretty well without meat animals, and had a more reasonable basis for going that route...Scott Nearing comes to mind.

Mark said...

the Age of Consequence. (s) I do like that phrase. I also like beans and tofu. In future, I would think a Maize, Beans and Squash diet supplemented with Woodchucks, Raccoons, which will take your corn would do. I would not want to build hierarchical society.

Diet For a Small Planet by F.M. Lappe has protein complementary details.

Hierarchical society I see as a source of madness, delusion, and planetary desecration. I make my choices accordingly.

Lausten North said...

Hard to tell where you're going with this. Besides breaking down some stereo types, not sure you accomplished much. The math on how to feed the world is complicated, and involves more than calculating what one person in Wisconsin can do. Not to mention the politics. But all of this is solvable and apocalyptic language doesn't really have a place in the discussion.




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