Sunday, November 29, 2009

Modern Agriculture is the Biggest Contributor to Greenhouse Gases.

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.

Further reading:

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.

13 comments:

rsg said...

You ever see any of the docs on Monsantos?

Anna said...

I'm wondering how your mostly meat diet is helping the planet? Don't animals require a lot of fuel and spew a lot of greenhouse gases?

I enjoyed the farm for the future videos. It's what I'm trying to do here on my homestead.

Jezwyn said...

RSG - yes. I try to limit my repeat exposure because the whole thing is so completely depressing.

Anna - animals only require a lot of fuel if they are being fed a diet apart from their grazing areas, and are processed mechanically. The meat I eat is pasture-raised in a part of Victoria which is lush and moist (i.e. not often affected by drought) so the animals can graze year-round and have minimal need for hay supplementation. They are killed and butchered by hand by Organic Direct, who deliver the meat to all customers on one day. The one beast I consume per year might fart out a bit of methane during its life, but this amount is nowhere near the amount of fuel burnt by a tractor in just one day of operation.

Compare this process to even organic agriculture, where crops tend to be plowed and harvested by machines, and need to be transported to market daily as the products have a very limited lifespan. Unless you have your own garden, or local access to a community garden, etc, even simple vegetables require a lot of fuel to be produced and transported.

marxist-socialist said...

Hello Jezwyn and friends: I have a little question about the fat intake in the diet. Is it really necessary for people following low carb diets to eat a moderate high amount of fat in the diet?

So my basic question is, what would be the result of a low-carb diet, low-in fat, and high in protein? i ask this because in one your posts you mentioned that at the end of the day, we should also take into consideration the total amount of calories we eat, and since fats have the double amount of calories of proteins, i would like to know i could follow a diet high in protein, low in carbs and low in fats as well.

Would such a diet lead to good weight loss results?

Thank you.

.

Jezwyn said...

Relying on protein as your main food/fuel source has lots of associated problems - protein toxicity being the top one. Guys who have tried to live wild have often 'starved' while only being able to find and eat rabbits, and are then saved from malnutrition when they can finally kill and eat a fattier animal like deer. This anecdote is proven again and again.

Fats are absolutely vital for survival. If you are wanting to minimise your caloric intake by looking at macros, the healthiest way to do it would be to eat just enough protein to cover your requirements, and eat the rest as fat. Arguably, the healthiest peoples in the world live(d) on pemmican!

Ultimately, there's no biological need to eat more protein than you need, whereas fat has significant nutritive value and healing potential, as well as improving the taste of protein. So you'd be better dropping calories in the form of protein, if you are truly needing to do so.

But with all that said, you probably don't need to really over-think it. Given my results every time I go meat-only, I would encourage you to try that to see if your carb intake is what's stalling you (if that's your situation). The wonderful thing about meat-only, despite all the metabolic bonuses, is that it's really hard to eat more than you need without feeling ill! So it's self-regulating, unlike carbs and dairy, etc. Meat-only has me getting more protein than I necessarily need, but I still get around 60-65% of my calories from fat, so it's not a low-fat diet! To go low-fat would certainly make me very sick.

Ryan Christian said...

So would you say your diet consist of nothing but Proteins and Fats? Zero Carbs? Thank's and keep kicking ass...

Ryan

Jezwyn said...

Yep, zero-carb when I'm meat only, although this time around I'm including one or two eggs per day if the mood strikes me, and there is a small amount of carb in egg. Spark (like FitDay) reports tell me that my usual intake is between 75-175g each of fat and protein, with only 1 or 2g carb, sometimes 0g, none of which is fibre. I look and feel wonderful eating this way, I'm often in ketosis, and the fat burning visibly starts up again :) I'm not completely averse to using vegetables as condiments from time to time, but I never cheat when I'm focussing on maximising fat-loss. I'm going to do my darnedest to stay meat-only right up until Christmas Day, and maybe beyond! If I could get away with wearing a bikini before the end of summer, I'd be over the moon! Still got a good 6kg to go though...

Ryan Christian said...

Wow awesome...I might have to try that again..I know I had great results doing a Low Carb diet in the past...I think I will try the close to zero carb diet here. I love eggs for breakfast so will stick with 2-3 eggs for breakfast...

What is your goal for calorie intake each day? Do you base your protein intake off your body weight?

I just started a paelo style eating regime...I know I lost a good 6 pounds in the first week alone just from removing the Brown Rice and Beans from my diet. (Had been stalled for the last month)

Thanks,
Ryan

Jezwyn said...

Congrats on the progress, Ryan! That initial water-weight loss is a serious motivational boost, huh?! I was amazed by how quickly the scales showed me results when I first cut the carbs, even if the clothes took a while to show change.

Do eggs keep your sated for long? I often have to skip lunch during the week, but meat keeps me going for a good 8-10 hours, even if it's less than 500kcal worth...

I don't have a calorie goal when I go carnivore - I just eat as much meat as I like when I'm hungry. I track all of my food intake at the end of the day, so I see my stats when I do that. I never feel bad if the number is high, but I sometimes second-guess my lack of hunger if the number seems low, usually on lunch-skip days. Today, for example, I had two pure beef snags and an egg in butter, then for dinner I had a filling scotch fillet steak with butter, and I'm far from being hungry... But I've barely cleared 800kcal! So my concern for my metabolism is nagging me to go stuff more food down my throat, even though I feel mildly repulsed by the thought of eating more! Argh... But anyway, I tend to find myself eating between 1300kcal - 1600kcal lately, if the food stats on Spark and NutritionData.com are to be trusted. Those kind of figures are inherently unreliable though, so I don't stress about it. Equally unreliable is a past calculation of my BMR by Spark, which claimed I use about 1800kcal in just surviving. However, in my first Carnivorous experiment, I was consuming an average of 2200kcal per day, and still losing fat, so who knows! 'Follow your gut instinct' may have never before been so relevant :)

Yes, I worked out what my minimum protein intake should be based on body weight - 1g per kg given my broad frame and muscular build (under the chub). This puts me at a current minimum of 76g protein per day, which I always consume, and then some!

I look forward to being updated on your progress! Have you found good substitutes for if you find yourself craving the look/feel of rice & beans? (Though if you're going ZC, you'll probably just have to push through that one, unless you can crumble ground beef to look like beans! Ew...) :D

marxist-socialist said...

Hi Jezwyn and friends, thanks for taking your energies, and time to explain in this blog the science behind fats.

Well i am honest and realist, i am not doing a zero-carbohydrate diet, because its economically imposible for me to have meat 2 to 3 times a day. It's cheaper for me to eat whey protein powder in the food.

And the whey-protein powder i use has about 2 grams of carbohydrates per scoop. And i take in about 3 scoops of whey-protein powder a day (6 grams of carbs.).

Plust i take a small, bowl of cooked, boiled green-vegetables at lunch with my 10 ounces of chicken, turkey or meat.

I was trying a zero-carb diet like you propose and instead of eating 10 ounces of meat at lunch with a serving of cooked green vegetables, i was eating 15 ounces of meat. (that made me feel too bloated and sluggish)

I guess i could've tried 10 ounces of meat and the other calories from fat. But now i eat 10 ounces of meat and a small serving of green vegetables (which is like 30 grams of carbohydrates)

So i think i am eating about 45 grams of carbohydrates a day, which is still within the range of most low-carbohydrate diets.

Anyways i think i will try this low-carb diet of 40 grams of carbohydrates a day to see the results in my body-weight.

.

.

Jezwyn said...

Phwoar, 15oz in one meal? Even your 10oz lunch is almost double what I eat in one serving. And my meat is fatty, unlike your chicken breasts. I bet you'd feel much better if you swapped for a fattier type of chicken, like thigh with skin. That's cheaper too, at least here.

Do you have the ability to buy meat in bulk? I can often get bulk packs of ground beef at a really cheap price, or bulk packs or certain kinds of steak... My lamb chops - the way I used to buy them - come in slabs of about 2k for an outrageously cheap price, and yet I maintain that they are the tastiest meat out there! I know you don't have such access to lamb, but there's probably a local equivalent...

I reckon you could be quite sated on 8oz max of meat for breakfast and dinner, with a protein shake on standby at lunch if you need to, and more fuel on workout days. I'd be surprised if that broke your budget, but I don't know what your situation is.

The only reason I've responded is because 40g carb would certainly stall me, and make me retain water. But your body may well be different. Keep me informed of your progress! :)

klowcarb said...

My zero carb diet, which I have done purely for 8 months, is 70% fat and 30% protein. Right now I am doing entirely ground beef, but that is not necessary. Ground beef is a great ZC food, particularly 80/20 and 75/25. Easily digestible, very inexpensive, tasty, and you know the exact percentages. I have never been leaner and more muscular while lifting on a zero carb diet.

klowcarb said...

klowcarb is also Katelyn, BTW. I've posted before.

I eat about 2000 calories on work out days and 1650 or so on non work out days. I am 5'4" and 100 lbs. I eat at least 1.5 lbs. of beef each day.