Michael Pollan said it in an interview with Bill Moyers this time last year. Lierre Keith again has stated it in her book The Vegetarian Myth. Rebecca Hosking also talks about the ’10 calories of fossil fuel for 1 calorie of food produced by contemporary agriculture’ in her elegant and accessible documentary, A Farm for the Future, which I have embedded below. And these are just the references I’ve come across today, but it’s a message that has long been put forward again and again by scientists the world over.
“When we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.” - Michael Pollan, in his NY Times article ‘The Food Issue - An Open Letter to the Next Farmer In Chief'.
So why do ‘experts’ (read: politicians sponsored by Big Agra and vegetarians) keep propagating the myth that red meat is what is destroying the planet? Don’t they see that a big part of the ‘red meat problem’ is that agriculture is used to provide the feed for factory farmed animals? Why do they continually blame the fact that cows fart out methane, without considering the impact of a non-natural diet on their digestive processes?
Instead of weighing in on the yapping match, I wanted to share with you the findings of my latest explorations inspired by Lierre Keith - she elegantly puts forward the issues of soil maintenance and the necessity of animal products in the human diet, but there still hasn’t been a conclusive solution to the fact that modern farmers, even those raising their animals primarily on pasture, still rely on fossil fuel to power their machines for transportation, harvesting, and other vital farming activities. So I have been spending time reading about farming methods which are doing away with the reliance on oil without requiring massive amounts of manual labour nor struggling to produce enough food to feed the farmers themselves, let alone the rest of the world...
First, I encourage you to view Rebecca Hosking’s documentary below, outlining the problems faced by British farmers (and relevant to the rest of us), through to some possible solutions. I have written a basic overview of some parts of the documentary to lead into my own thoughts, so if you don't have time to watch the 50 minute film, you can get the basic message from my notes.
Part One - Rebecca looks at the necessity of change in current British farming practices, and is faced with the facts regarding the inevitable energy crisis once oil supplies hit their peak (predicted to occur at 2013 at the latest, causing not just an energy crisis by an economic meltdown unless we find ways to cope now)
Part Two - how to move forward. Alternative energies? Richard Heinberg tells us that the window for developing alternative energy sources has passed if we wanted them to allow us to pick up where oil left off. He bluntly states, "We're going to have to transform our entire agricultural system very quickly if we are going to avert a global food calamity." But how to do so? Revert to old systems of manual labour and horse & cart machining? Considering that today’s farms use oil-guzzling tractors with 400 horsepower, we can see that even if we went back to traditional ‘machining’, we would have to increase the amount of farms and farmers significantly, to feed the population.
Part Three - Raising cattle is not superficially labour-intensive, but depending on climate, farmers must protect animals from the cold of winter and supply them with hay, protect delicate pastures from hooves during the wet season, or ensure animals are well hydrated and have access to leafy summer crops in hot, dry summers (the situation in most of Australia - certainly the experience at my family's farm). Rebecca meets a family who have used the power of nature to create grass pastures that can avoid the usual British problem of delicate fields, but it's not an easy process to replicate. Each farmer would need to examine their local soils and experiment with a variety of grass species to find what can work for them. This piece is the first of the documentary to touch on the important message - that we need to understand nature and work with the eco-system in order to have it work for us.
The radical idea presented by the documentary (though no surprise for those of us familiar with the devastation caused by modern agriculture) is the argument against plowing. Plowing kills the soil - it is akin to humans ripping off their own skin. The documentary demonstrates the traditional reaction to plowing - birds coming and feasting on the fauna in the soil. After years of plowing the same field, birds no longer bother showing up, since there’s nothing alive in the soil to it - the nutrients have been ripped out, leaving nothing for subterranean animals to eat. The only way we currently cope with this destruction is by pumping the soil full of fossil fuel fertiliser - so what do we do when that’s gone?
Without oil, countries cannot import/export foods, so will require a return to local produce. Countries of small size with dense populations, like Britain, probably cannot feed their entire population on meat alone, simply given the amount of space cattle etc need for grazing (since that is the only sustainable way for them to be fed). But what are the other options, given we cannot endlessly rip up the soil if we cannot rely on oil for fertility?
The likely solution to this question, drawing on the principle outlined earlier or allowing nature to behave as it wishes to, rather than have farmers fight the landscape, is Permaculture. As Wikipedia puts it, "Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimics the relationships found in natural ecologies." The key term is design - intelligent, informed construction of human necessities within the 'ordered chaos' of nature.
Part Four - the amazing, low-energy potential of establishing forest gardens within natural woodlands. A small farm produces all the fruit, vegetables, and meat the owners need, plus the fuel to cook it. This is a farm that has not been designed to produce maximum yield, yet it comfortably feeds them with minimal effort on their part. Every element of the eco-system plays a role in maintaining the environment and soil fertility - the 'closed loop' effect of permaculture. An answer to the winter hay/summer crop issue is suggested by Rebecca's realisation that certain types of trees can serve as fodder crops for animals - naturally occurring food that the animals would probably have eaten more often than grass when living wild. I imagine this would make the meat even more delicious as well, as anyone who has tasted lamb fed on saltbush, or roo that graze on all sorts of native trees and shrubs can attest!
Part Five - Martin Crawford (Agroforestry Research Trust) details the benefits of forest gardening and the way nature works to sustain itself and how intelligent design helps to 'deal with' conventional farming/gardening problems. Fossil fuel need not apply. How much work is done by the humans? About a day per week, when harvesting is taken into consideration. And considering a farm designed for maximum yield could feed ten people per acre, this is very promising...
One "downside" that Rebecca details is the inability to grow cereal crops in forest gardens. Oh noes! You could not wipe the smug grin off my face when I found that out, especially when Martin then went on to explain how nuts would be a far more sustainable alternative, especially given that the density of growth can be equal to that of organic cereal grains without the need for a soil-raping monoculture, and the nutritive value of some nuts is 'similar to rice' (or, as we know, MUCH better for us than any cereal grain!). Plus, a nut orchard requires very little maintenance, again saving on manual energy - important if we are to maintain civilisation without requiring a great percentage of the population to return to farming. An informed gardener with an eye for detail can grow five times as much produce in a vegetable garden than modern farms currently can.
Perhaps we will return to Victory Gardens? Supermarkets and industrial farming is likely to decline as oil declines, so we need to act now to reawaken the farming traditions and improve pastures, moving into Permaculture - perhaps creating more kitchen gardens in our schools, urban community gardens and larger local providers close to metropolitan centres.
This film has joined the ranks of important and accessible texts that I will be doing my best to work into the school curriculum in the future. As Rob from Transition Culture says in his review, "We are all in Rebecca’s debt for so passionately and coherently showing the nation both that food and farming is in desperate need of a Plan B, and that that Plan B could actually be more biodiverse, more resilient, more beautiful and nourishing, than what we have come to view as ‘normal’."
Personally, I am thrilled that I now understand the value and importance of Permaculture, an Australian concept, since my sister-in-law and her husband are passionate and educated proponents of the system, having spent time living and working on a farm in NSW - the Permaforest Trust (that's them in the 'surveying' photo!), whilst completing their certification and building a mud hut! I look forward to picking their brains when I see them in January. My mother also nurtures a kitchen garden and a few chooks at her primary school, where students can go in and get their hands dirty, learning directly how to care for crops, using methods such as companion planting to keep pests at bay. For now, I grow my own herbs, buy my organic vegetables through a neat local system (local farm > market > organic store > me) removing the need for individuals or stores to travel out to the farms themselves. Most produce is grown in Victoria or just over the NSW border. I buy my meat through an even neater system - Organic Direct serves as the go-between from a farm not too far from Melbourne, to individuals in the city and surrounds. Fossil fuel is saved by the company making just one trip from farm to customers per month, covering everyone in one weekend. We then supplement this monthly (or bi-monthly, usually) haul with trips to the local organic butcher, which is less sustainable, but at least the meat is still local and not factory farmed. Plus, I either walk there, or it's a quick drive in the Prius.
So here are the meals I fueled myself with today - and while I'm not completely free of fossil fuel reflux, a couple of mild burps are much better than what the industries would like me to regurgitate:
Breakfast: since I woke up late and had big plans for lunch, I wanted to keep breakfast quite small. But then this lamb chop called to me from the fridge...
Lunch: We're consuming a roast per day at the moment, and don't I just love it! I served the beau a pile of organic veggies with his - beetroot, broccoli and carrot - not just to make his plate more visually interesting, and use the contents of our weekly veggie box for once, but also so I could hog most of the meat for myself!
However, thanks to my chunky breakfast, I didn't quite manage to scoff my entire serving. I ate too much as it was, and had to take a nap whilst my digestive system sprung into action! Preparation for Christmas feasting, mayhaps...
Dinner: after the lunch experience, I wasn't going to eat anything else, but my calories for the day were a bit low, and I didn't want to risk allowing my cold to gather strength and return, so I took in a small meal of bacon and eggs as the sun began to set...
My weight continues to drop, with my system today letting me know that fat is indeed being burnt, thanks to the unmissable reaction to toxins re-entering my system as they are freed from fat cells. Let's just say it was good to have a day at home, nice and close to a bathroom...
So that's my current food-oriented effort to find a way of surviving on less fossil fuel. I also walk to work, and minimise my need to travel by car where possible. My partner works in the city, but carpools in his Prius to cut down on fuel requirements. We're both heavily reliant upon electricity since our jobs require computers, but we use green energy and buy carbon credits when we can, especially when we use air travel. We still have a long way to go, but we're doing okay.
If you have the space and desire to start your own organic permaculture garden, here's a neat 10-step run-down of how to get it started.
To learn more about Permaculture, particularly its feasibility on a larger scale and how it can work in a variety of climates, start at the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia's website.
If you're in Melbourne and wish to find local groups that can help you start your own garden or give you information on how to support the efforts of others, check out Permaculture Melbourne. I bet other major cities around the world have similar organisations, or at least individuals who are willing to help you out.
The Salatin family in the US established a larger scale farm that is thus far the closest thing in America to a sustainable farming system - Polyface Farms. Joel Salatin is a vocal proponent of this way of farming, and pops up all over the place, so if you come across an interview with him (and there are many online resources to get you started), read and absorb the fresh wisdom of this guileless, earnest farmer.
And, as always, have a browse of the Weston A. Price Foundation's site, if you haven't already, for eye-opening science covering traditional foods, contemporary foods, and the impact of each on health.
Think before you eat. Consider the energy expended in raising, processing and transporting your food to you. And do everything you can to reduce your impact on fossil fuel use. That way, there's no reason to feel guilty about eating your one cow per year, especially if you know its existence gave back to nature through soil fertilisation. Supporting or creating your own Permaculture farm is just another way of knowing for sure where your food comes from and what was used to produce it - and that knowledge is increasingly powerful. And as always, the most important rule to live by is: Eat real food. And know where it came from.
Maybe the future isn't so bleak.