Problematizing ecology, local, and grass-fed… again

I originally posted this as a comment, then thought, well, this is a lot of writing just to be a comment. So here goes:

Eighty percent of corn and soy crops are used for livestock feed, not for vegan food. The problems of grain, soy, and monocultures are simply not ones that can be pinned on the vegan movement. To paraphrase Gary Francione, the problem of designer foods is not inherent to veganism any more than the problem of designer clothes is inherent to wearing clothes. There are plenty of designer foods that meat-eaters eat, and there are plenty of vegans who eat mainly local and organic, plenty of vegans who don’t eat soy or tons of corn and wheat, etc. To claim that all vegans eat all grain and soy, or that a vegan diet only consists of grain and soy, is a disingenuous straw-man argument.

Veganic/stock free permaculture is a thriving practice all over the world. It seems many locavores are willfully ignorant of this fact, and I’m not entirely clear why. Veganic permaculture is by far the most sustainable farming practice. There are many books and internet resources on this if you need more information.

Grass fed livestock don’t partake in the problem of corn and soy feed. But pasture/grass fed animals require more than twice the land of factory farmed animals. Grazing is one of the worst environmental problems that exists. Overgrazing has trampled and compacted land and been the largest contributor to desertification. Two-thirds of the American West, for instance, is grazing land. Clearing land for pasture is the major reason for destruction of forests and biodiversity including the atrocity of rainforest destruction. This is simply not a problem with even the least sustainable plant diets. Even the most industrialized plant diets use exponentially less land per yield than meat diets, especially grazed meat diets. Grazing is one of the most ecologically absurd situations humans have ever created. One researcher, Vacliv Smil, who has done very careful math has estimated that by 2050, if we are to feed the world on a meat diet, we will need 67 percent more land on the earth. Again, there is no comparable number for even the least sustainable plant agriculture, as plant protein is much higher yield per energy input than meat, and is consumed directly instead of being turned into an animal first.

Cows emit massive amounts of methane, one of the worst greenhouse gasses, and it is well documented that this is a major cause of global warming, surpassing all forms of transportation combined.  Grass fed and free-range livestock emit many times more methane than industrial livestock, in fact, because they live much longer. Again, this problem is simply not comparable to the problems of plant agriculture. Plants are not farting and stomping us to extinction.

Raising livestock, even grass-fed, is also by far the world’s number one cause of water usage and water pollution. Again, not comparable to the water usage of plant agriculture.

Furthermore, the issue of transportation of food over long distances is often cited by locavores, but the truth is much more complicated. The simple equation of food miles does not account for whether or not irrigation is used, whether or not food is grown in hothouses, whether or not food is in season, how food is stored, how food is cooked, how much food was shipped where and how, whether or not it is animal or plant food, etc. In short, transportation is about ten percent of a food’s energy cost. To quote James McWilliams, who has many problematic ideas but is right-on when it comes to food miles, “To take an extreme example, a shipper sending a truck with 2,000 apples over 2,000 miles would consume the same amount of fuel per apple as a local farmer who takes a pickup 50 miles to sell 50 apples at his stall at the green market.” Furthermore, simplistic food mile equations do not account for people who live in regions where food is not available, which opens up a sizeable, incredibly complicated can of worms in terms of human rights and food access. The local ethic, despite its benefits, simply does not take responsibility for the problem of food access in a globalized world where food is an inherently global issue. I am not saying I have a perfect answer to this problem, but I am saying that food access in a globalized world is complicated, and it deserves to be dealt with in a complicated way, especially if people who have social and economic privilege are claiming to be concerned with human rights.

But I digress. I don’t at all mean to tear local agriculture a new asshole. There are many reasons to eat local, especially in places where, unlike the Arizona desert where local food–including all meat–is all sustained by irrigation, local makes sense. I support eating local for several reasons, and I eat local as much as I can (and I’m a vegan… gasp). The point, rather, is that just because something is local does not mean it is the most environmentally friendly option. A life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a much more honest and comprehensive way than food miles to figure which food is the most sustainable.

If you are going to eat animal food, grass-fed meat from permaculture farms is the most sustainable way to do it. But veganic permaculture is exponentially more sustainable due to the minimized effects it has on land, water, and greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the less sustainable techniques of plant agriculture are more sustainable than the most sustainable forms of animal agriculture.

And this does not begin to get into the issue of the rights and interests of individual animals. I happen to believe that an egalitarian and ecologically friendly world is not possible when our personal and mass psychology is imbued with the idea that it is okay to unnecessarily use most of the world’s sentient creatures as mere instruments to our own ends. But that aside, I do understand the issue of animal rights lives in complicated philosophical, emotional, and spiritual territory. However, the issue of whether or not eating meat is good for the environment, especially in the long run, is quite simple: it isn’t. And there are viable, thriving alternatives. We might not like them because they challenge our deep-rooted food habits and assumptions, but within this generation there will be 10 billion people in the world, and save hitherto unknown technological interventions, there won’t even be any more land for meat-heavy diets.

5 Responses to Problematizing ecology, local, and grass-fed… again

  1. Mikko Lahtinen says:

    Hi,

    Thank you for interesting post. There is a few things I would like to discuss.

    vegetarianmythmyth wrote:

    “Veganic/stock free permaculture is a thriving practice all over the world. It seems many locavores are willfully ignorant of this fact, and I’m not entirely clear why. Veganic permaculture is by far the most sustainable farming practice. There are many books and internet resources on this if you need more information.”

    Could you give some links that can provide numbers showing that veganic permaculture can thrive in large scale, and feed most of the world? I have tried to learn a little bit about this subject, but the problem seems to be lack of verifiable facts in many cases. Often there is vague claims, but the studies and convincing calculations are missing.

    How about the issue with phosphorus? I know that animals aren’t the solution, but it is quite difficult to see providing food for 7 billion people without industrial fertilizers. I have understood it so, that the natural cycle of phosphorus is not fast enough for efficient food production, hence the need for fertilizers.

    As a vegan, it would be nice to be able to believe that veganic permaculture can feed the world, but for the time being I’m somewhat skeptical about it.

    • Hi,

      Thanks for your comment. Some good resources and links to thriving veganic farms can be found in our “busting myths: veganic permaculture” section (http://vegetarianmythmyth.wordpress.com/vegan-permaculture-ecovillages-busting-keiths-myth-once-and-for-all/). This includes one of the oldest and most successful CSAs in the US, Honeybrook Farm in New Jersey. One great book I’ve read re: veganic/stockfree permaculture is “Growing Green” by Hall and Tolhurt, which comprehensively outlines stock-free standards and procedures. It’s a great place to start. Also check out the Vegan Organic Network, Stockfree Organic Services, and Go Veganic.net. These sources talk about phosphorus, too. And Savage Rabbit has some interesting stuff to say about phosphorus here: http://bravelucky.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/keiths-myth-for-the-love-of-pele-compost/ .

      I think one of the problems is that people are very wedded to the idea that farming can’t be done without animal products and so they never give it a chance. But where it’s been given a chance, it’s been very successful, and uses far far less land and water than animal permaculture. And it’s been done in many different bioregions and climates. This is similar to how people think veganism isn’t possible, but when they give it a chance, most folks realize it is. It’s about a conscious shift in paradigms, I think.

      I don’t personally think that veganic permaculture, or any form of agriculture, can save the world. I don’t know of any forms of agriculture that can be mega-scale and still sustainable. Perhaps–and I hope– creative farmers will be forced to prove this wrong. I would be very surprised, given the sheer amount of land it takes to raise grass-fed animals, if they could do it without going entirely or almost entirely stock-free.

      There are too many humans. The human population is simply unsustainable. I don’t have a perfect answer to this problem and I am skeptical of anybody who does. But what I *have* come to believe from everything I’ve read and learned, in the meantime, is the following: veganic permaculture, of all forms of agriculture, is the *most* sustainable, *is* entirely possible as proven by those who’ve done it, offers, by far, the *most* payoff in terms of energy input per yield, and is the least cruel in terms of its effects on both large scale ecosystems and individual beings. In an ideal world, we’d take that reality and run with it in the hopes of finding a solution to overpopulation that doesn’t involve the horror of mass human-die offs.

  2. Mikko Lahtinen says:

    Thank you for comprehensive response.

    I have started to read through that section of this blog, and also other sites related to this subject. Few of them are same that you mentioned, but that book was unknown to me before. I already ordered the revised edition. Still wondering though is there a study comparing organic veganic farming to conventional farming in similar conditions? Of course yield is not all that matters, but it certainly is one very important factor. Vegatopia has quite massive database containing publications and studies that deal with veganic farming in one way or other, but I have just started wading through it.

    The thing with that post by Savage Rabbit is that if you sell a lot of your produce, then you will be removing phosphorus from the cycle and can’t recycle or compost it nearly as efficiently as would be ideal. Of course there is phosphorus in nature, but as I understand it, there is not enough for continuous farming without adding it. Few days ago I watched a video also called Growing Green where Iain Tolhurst offered a field tour to the viewer. That video inspired me to sent couple of questions to him regarding yields of the farm and phosphorus.

    I agree with the point that it is possible to farm succesfully without animals, but the thing I question for now is that can it be done efficiently enough without using industrial fertilizers? Maybe the current situation is past the point of saving the world, but seeking best (or should I say least worst) option to feed the world is still important for the sake of all life on this planet. I also agree with the part about current population. That makes it very very difficult to find a truly sustainable answer.

    Veganic farming looks very promising on this aspect too, but I think I have to read quite a lot more about the subject before jumping too hastily to conclusions.

  3. Anil Das says:

    You write, “… James McWilliams, who has many problematic ideas …” I have not read his book but came across yesterday that introduced me to some of his ideas. Please be more specific or point me to a well-reasoned criticism of his work.

    • I am in particular referring to his book JUST FOOD (http://www.amazon.com/Just-Food-Where-Locavores-Responsibly/dp/031603374X) , which is a critique of locavores and other sustainability movements. I mainly feel that his arguments in that book regarding farmed fish (he touts it as the future of sustainable protein) and GM crops (he’s very interested in using them towards the common food but fails to offer a real analysis of Monsanto et. al. having a monopoly over the technology) are flawed. I’d recommend the book, however. It’s quite interesting, he talks about a lot of things people are reluctant to talk about, and his critique of the locavore movement is fascinating. I’d suggest you start there and I’m sure you’ll come out of it with your own opinions, as the book is extremely provocative. You could also google critiques of that book, there are many, both positive and negative.

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