Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Vegan Paradox Part II: Climate

"The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man." — Malthus

Aerodynamics of Bos Taurus
  In his now viral TED talk, Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory says that after studying the question, no rational scientist can conclude that we have any other choice than to “do the unthinkable,” and increase the numbers of grazing animals, bunched and moving, in order to restore the balance of planetary ecosystem health, replace extinct wild herds and predators, and reverse desertification and climate change. He makes the meat diet a moral duty.

Joel Salatin follows Savory’s method and sequesters tons of carbon per acre by building deep soils while producing abundant, artisanal quality, nutrient-dense animal protein. Salatin is equally committed to a meat-based diet, occasionally sounding a religious note. Michael Pollan reported:
I asked Salatin how he could bring himself to kill a chicken.

“People have a soul; animals don’t,” he said. “It’s a bedrock belief of mine.” Salatin is a devout Christian. “Unlike us, animals are not created in God’s image, so when they die, they just die.”

We live in a 45-year-old ecovillage community that was 100% vegan for its first 15 years and still is mostly vegetarian. If you ask why, it is mainly out of concern for world hunger and secondarily because the vibes are better. We have gone to great lengths to solve problems like protein balance and vitamin B-12. The World Health Organization came and studied our kids (they’re normal). Most would disagree with Salatin’s theological premise. If we can live lower on the food chain, they argue, why then should we not?

The answer to their question, if you ask carbon farming advocates like Courtney White, Christine Jones, Tom Newmark or others, is that animals co-evolved with vegetation on earth’s land masses and provide an essential link in the web of life that sustains our climate. Cut that link, as vegetarians and vegans do, and you begin to unravel the web. Replace the gone-extinct wild herds with domestic proxies and you stand a chance of restoring the balance of grassland ecologies and forest edge.

But wait, besides requiring food to grow up to slaughter age, and all the hair, teeth, bones and other parts we don’t eat, cows, sheep, goats and pigs fart. The stomachs of cows produce enteric methane as a bi-product of enzymes needed for digestion. Cows are net greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters, and as meat consumption rises, methane concentrations do too. Cow farts are currently more than 2.5 times the footprint of coal mines. While methane emissions from the US energy sector declined between 1990 and 2013, the contribution from US agriculture rose by 11 percent, and that was all about cows and pigs. The World Bank estimates that overall global methane emissions from agriculture rose 17 percent between 1990 and 2010.

According to the FAO, all told, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with livestock supply chains add up to 7.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) per year – or 14.5 percent of all human-caused GHG releases.

The main sources of emissions are: feed production and processing (45 percent of the total), outputs of GHG during digestion by cows (39 percent), and manure decomposition (10 percent). The remainder is attributable to the processing and transportation of animal products.

Actually, whether cows are net producers of atmospheric carbon depends on the lifespan of the cow. In grasslands reseeded and supplemented with biochar manure compost, steers that are “harvested” in under 2 years can more than sequester their own GHG output, as well as requiring less water. Older steers and dairy cows cross the curve after 2 years and generate more than they sequester, a lot more. Managing cattle for beef and carbon sequestration means that cows should live greatly reduced lifespans. So much for the “compassionate omnivore” argument.

Professor of History at Texas State University James E. McWilliams (author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong):  says:

 As Dr. Sylvia Fallon of the Natural Resources Defense Council has shown, symbiosis between grazing herds and grasses has historically worked best to sequester carbon when the animals lived the entirety of their lives within the ecosystem, their carcasses rotted and returned their accumulated nutrients into the soil, and human intervention was minimal to none. It is unclear, given that Savory has identified this type of arrangement as his ecological model, how marketing cattle for food would be consistent with these requirements. Cows live up to 20 years of age, but in most grass-fed systems, they are removed when they reach slaughter weight at 15 months. Cheating the nutrient cycle at the heart of land regeneration by removing the manure-makers and grass hedgers when only 10 percent of their ecological “value” has been exploited undermines the entire idea of efficiency.…

While the rigor and veracity of Savory’s claims continue to be debated at length, a few points are largely unsupportable, McWilliams says:

The conceit of mimicry as a virtue of Savory’s technique is challenged in part by the fact that not all deserts rely on the presence of herd animals for their ecological health. In many desert ecosystems, desert grasses evolved not alongside large animals but in concert with desert tortoises, mice, rats, rabbits, and reptiles. It’s difficult to imagine how a human-managed ecosystem such as Savory’s — dependent on manipulating the genetics of livestock, building sturdy fences, manufacturing supplemental feed, and exterminating predators — is more representative of “nature’s complexity” than a healthy desert full of organisms that have co-evolved over millennia.

These issues can fall away and still leave a fairly consistent argument for the methodology of holistic management, including defining problems in terms of wholes and seeking better understanding of how nature would normally repair degraded landscapes. Almost always, native biology and the balm of time provide a better answer than energy-expensive mechanistic approaches on short deadlines. The exceptions occur where careful attention to the patterns of nature reveals ways that energy-expensive mechanistic approaches on short deadlines can assist in the ecological healing process.

Cruelty seems the greater area of contention, and here Michael Pollan makes his case for meat:

The industrialization–and dehumanization–of American animal farming is a relatively new, evitable and local phenomenon: no other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to do it this way. Tail-docking and sow crates and beak-clipping would disappear overnight, and the days of slaughtering 400 head of cattle an hour would come to an end. For who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get more expensive. We’d probably eat less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals, we’d eat them with the consciousness, ceremony and respect they deserve.

But counter-intuitively, the more industrialized (and cruel) the factory farm, the lower the GHG footprint. According to a recent study:

Feedlots maximize efficiency of meat production, resulting in a lower carbon footprint, whereas organic production systems consume more energy and have a bigger carbon footprint than conventional production systems. Cows on pastures produce more methane than cows on high concentrate diets. In South Africa, as in most of the countries in the sub-tropics, livestock production is the only option on about 70% of the agricultural land, since the marginal soils and rainfall do not allow for crop production and the utilization of green water. An effective way to reduce the carbon and water footprint of livestock is to decrease livestock numbers and increase production per animal, thereby improving their efficiency.

— A South African perspective on livestock production in relation to greenhouse gases and water usage, 5 South African Journal of Animal Science 2013, 43 (No. 3)

But we digress. We need to come back to something we began with. Can we agree that everyone should have equal and unrestricted access to a simple but nutritious diet that makes them healthy and strong?

Most of the overdeveloped countries already take that burden upon themselves, although it is now being threatened by the refugee crisis, pushed forward by two other dark riders — climate and energy. So-called “conservatives” oppose the burden of caring for those falling off the edge, using a kind of Ayn Rand logic of neoDarwinism — cull the herd of slackers and ne’er-do-wells or suffer endless, unobtainable demands that bleed society. The doomer crowd simply throws up their hands and says, “Might as well get used to starvation — it's the new norm.”

But right now, today, we can provide for a growing world population even as we work to reverse population growth in some humane way (such as according rights to women). If a simple standard of equal access to a living diet is not currently available, anywhere, the reasons are political, not agricultural.

Today the world produces a significant abundance of food beyond that consumed by humans. The National Geographic says:

Between 2005 and the summer of 2008, the price of wheat and corn tripled, and the price of rice climbed fivefold, spurring food riots in nearly two dozen countries and pushing 75 million more people into poverty. But unlike previous shocks driven by short-term food shortages, this price spike came in a year when the world's farmers reaped a record grain crop.

What drove up prices, firstly, was peak oil, which was reached in 2005-6. Suddenly, farmers had to pay more for fuel and fertilizer. Rising gas prices halved the profit margins of transport companies, who raised rates. Corn ethanol was all the rage, backed by federal loans (scribing a straight line from the US Farm Bill to the huge migrant camps on all the borders of Europe). Natural disasters, augmented by climate change, chimed in on cue. This pushed the price of food commodities higher, which led to inequality in distribution based on wealth.

To make itself antifragile, China plans to reduce meat consumption by 50 percent and they have even enlisted global celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger to spread the message “Less Meat, Less Heat.” But less meat, less starvation too.

In China, average meat consumption per person has risen a stunning six-fold since 1978. China now consumes 28 percent of all meat eaten around the world, and half the pork.

Although the average Chinese citizen still consumes only a bit more than half the meat per day of the average USAnian, China’s 1.3 billion people were eating twice as much meat in total as the United States by 2012. That is double the meat the Chinese were eating a decade ago.

This rapid adoption of the Western diet is having serious health impacts. Paul French, author of “Fat China: How Expanding Waistline Will Change a Nation,” has said “urban China is fat, and getting fatter — fast.”

WildAid reports:

“China has 20% of the global population, but 33% of the world’s diabetics. Child obesity has quadrupled in a single generation.” And this is happening on top of their terrible pollution-driven health problems: “Over 50% of the population is suffering from environmental-related illnesses, many of which are made worse by higher meat consumption, such as heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes.”
The poorest billion of the world typically spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food. When food prices become 101 percent, people riot. That is what happened in Tunisia in 2010.

Tunisia grew from 4,220,000 in 1960 to 10 million in 2008 and roughly the same today, with 64% of Tunisians being of childbearing age. Egypt grew from 30 million in 1960 to 79 million in 2010. It is 88 million today and 69% of the population is of childbearing age. Similar demographics apply in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain, a.k.a. Springtime in Arabia.

In Palestine and Israel, populations are approximately equal at 6 million, but Palestinians have the upper hand both in fertility (3 children per Jewish mother vs 3.4 for Palestinians generally, and 4.1 in the Gaza Strip) and age demography. Of course, food distribution in Israel-controlled Palestine is far from fair or equal by any standard. In the West Bank, century-old orchards are mowed down to pave the way for new Jewish settlements to fill with foreign zealots.  While offshore gas wells in Gaza might have helped pay for food imports, Israel is seizing that, piping it through Turkey to Europe, and using the money to buy more weapons. 

Food is still perilously close to costing 101% of the income of up to a third of the world. We know Salad Bar Beef is more nutritious, humane, and climate-mitigating, but is it more affordable and thereby more equally accessible? If not, is that because of skill, land area required, stocking density or some other factor?

The truth remains that combinations of animals, root crops, mushrooms, plants and trees in a mixed ecology is a considerably more prolific production system for nutrient-dense foods. It also provides biological services like no farm. It just can’t co-exist with high population density or the demands of voracious cities.

In his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, Thomas Malthus argued that ”The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence."

The Guardian:

If you truly want to combat climate change, cross off meat, eggs and dairy foods from your shopping list. Foods derived from animals, whether eaten by candlelight or not, require more resources and cause more greenhouse gas emissions than plant-based foods do. Each year, humans kill 60 billion land animals for food – that’s about 7 million animals every hour. All these animals produce massive amounts of waste, which releases powerful greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. The livestock sector is the single largest source of both methane and nitrous oxide, greenhouses gases that are 25 and 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, respectively. A person who follows a vegan lifestyle produces the equivalent of 50% less carbon dioxide than a meat-eater and uses 1/11th of the oil, 1/13th of the water and 1/18th of the land, which is why the United Nations has stated that a global shift towards a vegan diet is essential to combat the worst effects of climate change. So blow out the candle, turn on the lights and get into the kitchen and cook a vegan meal this Earth Hour. It’s the best thing any of us can do for the environment as well as for animals.

Countering that is a post by Allison Eck on NOVA Next:
A group of researchers has published a study in the journal Elementa in which they describe various biophysical simulation models that compare 10 eating patterns: the vegan diet, two vegetarian diets (one that includes dairy, the other dairy and eggs), four omnivorous diets (with varying degrees of vegetarian influence), one low in fats and sugars, and one similar to modern American dietary patterns.

What they found was that the carrying capacity—the size of the population that can be supported indefinitely by the resources of an ecosystem—of the vegan diet is actually less substantial than two of the vegetarian diets and two out of the four omnivorous diets they studied.
But it’s relative. In a meat-heavy culture like the US, readjustment to a vegan diet, would feed 735 million people— more than twice today’s population. And that’s from a purely land-use perspective. A dairy-friendly vegetarian diet could feed 807 million people, the difference being available land that is unsuited to the vegan diet but regeneratively abundant with grazing animals. Partially omnivorous diets rank even higher. Thus, according to Peters, et al, Carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural land: Ten diet scenarios, Elementa: The Journal of the Anthropocene (Jul 22, 2016, DOI 10.12952/journal.elementa.000116 ), incorporating about 20 to 40% meat in your diet is actually better for sustaining humanity than being completely meat-free. For meat-eating USAnians, shifting your diet to 80% plant could reduce the amount of land needed to feed the USA and “at the same time increase the number of people who can be fed from our agricultural resources.”

Is an ability to sustain a larger human population better for the planet? Not so much.


Don Stewart said...

I don't think that trying to reduce the question of cows to ethics is possible. When the eukaryotic cell evolved, with its high utilization of energy from organic matter, with the organic matter being eaten directly or indirectly, then 'thou shalt not kill' became a ridiculous goal. Every eukaryote requires billions of critters to die. Very few prokaryotes or eukaryotes die peacefully in their beds. All things considered, a death arranged in accordance with Temple Grandin's rules is a lot better than most experience.

If domesticated or game animals are not about ethics, primarily, then what is the rational way to think about them? And I submit that this current article (with the previous and following articles) by Chris Smaje, a working small farmer in England, gives us some clues. Smaje points out that, in England and other places in the temperate zones, a historical shortage has been dietary fat. Animal fat, much of it from dairy, has filled that niche in the human diet. We only have to remember Jack in the Beanstalk to sense the importance of the family dairy cow.

More broadly, Smaje sets out to describe what a Neo-Peasant farm in Wessex (the west of England, shorn of its Crown Properties), might look like in a few decades.

I believe that getting into specifics the way Smaje does gets us away from abstractions such as 'thou shalt not kill' and into the real world (e.g., we need ducks to kill slugs; and we will in turn eat the duck eggs and the duck meat). That doesn't mean that I agree with everything Smaje says...I just agree that specifics trump abstractions most days of the week.

Don Stewart

Abraham Palmer said...

I'm struck more and more by the complexity of long-term carbon sequestration and just how open-minded and reflective we are going to have to be to get this right.

Jan said...

The grazing ecosystem described by Dr. Fallon worked, that is, sustained itself, because the cows' manure and bodies remained in the ecosystem. The cows did not permanently remove materials and nutrients from the ecosystem, they just borrowed them for a while and then returned them. If the cows' population was allowed to build up to unsustainable numbers and their manure and bodies were removed from the ecosystem, large quantities of materials would have to be imported from somewhere to replace them. This is exactly what we are trying to do with human grazing systems where we are the grazers. We are trying to design sustainable human grazing systems in which we build up our population to unsustainable numbers and then we permanently remove our manure and bodies from that system. We are constantly exporting nutrients and looking for replacement to keep the system going. We need other animals to supply manure and their bodies to our grazing system since we refuse to recycle our own. The only problem is that these animals that we use as a substitute, or sacrifice, come with their own food needs. So we are asking them to cover for us and we need for them to cover for themselves as well. Until we can get over our cultural taboos that prevent us from returning our manure and our bodies to our grazing ecosystem, we are striving for sustainability in vain. Perhaps biochar provides us with the answer as to how this can safely be done. Didn't the terra preta deposits contain the waste and bodies of the cultures who made it? We humans just need to get over our cultural eliteness and truly become part of the cycle of life and death instead of maintaining our aloof position of observing from the outside. We know that a vegan diet can keep us in optimum health, the problem is where do we get the nitrogen and other nutrients to keep the system going so that we can continue to build up our population to very high numbers, flush the nutrients and materials away, and lock our dead bodies into caskets that never decay? We have bodies that can be optimally healthy without causing any pain or suffering to other animals. Similarly we could probably maintain our ecosystems in optimum health on a vegan diet if we would just return the materials that we borrow to the ecosystem when we no longer need them. We would not need to impose on other mammals to sustain our ecosystem. Any slight nitrogen deficit that may occur could then be made up for by legumes. I say probably because as far as I know, it has never been investigated. However, if natural grazing ecosystems can be sustained by keeping nutrients in the system through return of manure and bodies, it seems it should work for us too if we model our human grazing ecosystems on "natural" ones, that is, those without human intervention which amounts to permanent removal of nutrients from the system. We understand the basics of how natural systems work, why do we insist on playing by different rules? We are imposing some very challenging limitations on our ability to sustain our grazing ecosystem due to our cultural biases. Is there any "natural" ecosystem that could sustain itself under these conditions? Maybe it's time we become part of the "natural" world and accept the basic premises of nutrient recycling.

Don Stewart said...

Please see:

One of the points is that the carbon to nitrogen ratio of bacteria is considerably lower than it is for most other critters, including humans. The bacteria are about 5 to 1, while humans and cows and micro arthropods are all around 30 to 1. So, when some critter eats a bacteria, there is surplus nitrogen, because the eater only needs 1 part in 30 of nitrogen. Many, many minerals are liberated when critters are eaten, because the eater does not incorporate all of the nutrients into their body. So the plants that humans and cows eat are dependent on the death of bacteria. If no bacteria ever died, then they would sequester all the nitrogen in their own bodies...not favorable for humans or cows or micro arthropods. As synthetic nitrogen disappears, the liberation of nitrogen from bacteria will once again loom a a very large factor in the flourishing of humans.

I won't speculate about whether bacteria have souls or feel pain. Suffice to say that whatever forces or being that made the Earth, created them, and they seek shelter from predators. Many of our human genes come from bacteria. We cannot digest our food without their help.

It is quite possible for Vegans to state that 'we humans can live without eating cows', or perhaps even 'we humans can live without eating something which has face which looks like us', but in the broader sense all of us prokaryotes must eat to live. And what we eat was once alive. And most everything we do eat owes a debt to the bacteria, with their low carbon to nitrogen ratio.

Don Stewart

Anonymous said...

Humans don't have souls either. This is a myth, fabricated by religious indoctrination, but it is provably false. All that humans define is species-centric, but that does not make any of their opinions actually true. The concept of a soul is also species-centric and cannot be proven either way, which is evidence that it is false and does not exist. The same is true for the other animals, it cannot be proven either way if they have a soul or not, therefore it is also false. Only that which has provable evidence can be asserted as true or fact. Nothing religions teach including the entire concept of Christianity is a provable fact, however it can and has been widely proven that Christianity is a creation (fabrication) and only exists by beleiving and accepting non-facts. The historical record does not even remotely support the concept of Christ or Moses or Abraham or any number of biblical patriarchs, nor does the historical record support the bible itself as an authentic, accurate portrayal of fact, history or events. Researchers have proven it is also a creation with thousands upon thousands of errors, interpolations and redactions, omissions and contradictions. None of the Gospels are true or facts, nor was the supposed existence of Christ or even King David. The entire Old Testament is one contradiction after another. The notion of a soul is not necessary Christian (who adopted this from Judism who adopted this from pagan beliefs), but it is a principle tenent of the faith. However, it is simply not true and never has been. The soul is simply a creation of faith just like religion, it does not animate us or exist beyond us or any such thing. It is as species centric as is our claims of Manifist Destiny still in evidence today. There is Self, the identity of what we are and what we think we are, and nothing else. The soul exists in the imagination of humans, and applied only to humans, but it's simply a species-centric belief of our imaginations.

Unknown said...

Thanks for a well thought out and balanced look at a subject that generally polarizes people and ends up in a screaming match.

I, of course, have my own biased opinion just like everybody else, colored by my own history and observations. A few things come to mind as I read your piece.

For one thing, I don't expect the current Big Ag system to be feeding anybody beyond the short term future. I expect we humanoids to be mostly feeding ourselves, with what we can grow ourselves, locally and as sustainably as such things can be done. My own inclinations are toward aquaculture in the greenhouse, gardening in the fields, and raising Mangalitsa pigs on pasture. I am taking baby steps toward that, and trying to sequester some carbon along the way.

I definitely believe that all of us have souls, down to the trees and the grass and maybe even the rocks....certainly stars and spinning galaxies exhibit a profound purpose, not that I can fully grasp what that might be.

For some of us, our karma is to be food for something else. When my time to cease breathing comes, as it must (and not that long from now) I will gladly give whatever's left to whatever or whomever can use it.

Killing animals is a hard thing, and one not taken lightly by all omnivores. I don't take it lightly. But I see the way of nature, having been fortunate enough to grow up in closer contact with it than most people, and nature's way involves some animals dying to provide food for others. Only man is vain enough to debate the morality of killing for food.

I would guess that those sorts of arguments will be forgotten soon, and that the runaway engine of man-made climate change will reap a whirlwind, rendering the thermodynamics of animal husbandry fairly moot. We will do the best we can with what we have, for as long as we can...and it will be a lot less, and we will be many times fewer.




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