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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Food for thought...

Obligatory disclaimer...

Over the past while, I've been continuing to read and study on the subjects of climate, AGW, and a wide variety of interrelated subjects. There are so many things I want to write about, it's hard to choose. Today's title is actually borrowed from an email someone sent under the same subject heading, followed by this comment.

The amount of grain required to fill ONE SUV tank will feed ONE person for a year.

I admit my eyebrow went up a bit about this one over the use of corn. Usually, when people demonize the use of SUV's (a very popular target), it's by how much oil and gas is used by these behemoths. At least this statement assumes the driver of the SUV is environmentally conscious enough to use ethanol fuel. (On a side note, corn isn't actually the best food for feeding humans. Many of the nutrients are inaccessible to humans unless treated first with lye. The Incas who introduced corn to Europeans used wood ashes with their corn, which allowed them to use it as a staple food without succumbing to malnutrition.)

I've heard similar statements made to encourage a vegetarian lifestyle, claiming that the grain used to feed a cow would feed X number of people for whatever length of time, and variations thereof. I've always been rather frustrated by these blanket statements. I understand, sort of, what the claimants are trying to say, but to me it's a lot like when parents would tell their kids to clean their plates because there are children starving in China. While I personally abhor waste, I don't see how cleaning my plate will help a starving child in China, any more than I can see how my using public transit instead of driving a car will feed anyone for a year. There's a disconnect that I've never been able to overcome.

There's another part of that disconnect I feel, and it comes directly from my experiences growing up on the farm. I'll use the feed a person, not a cow version first, since I've been hearing that one for much, much longer, particularly from what I think of as Moral Vegetarians. I have no problem with vegetarianism, even though I personally don't agree with it. Especially the more extreme forms. I have friends who are vegetarian, and if we're sharing a meal, I will make a point of having foods they can eat, just as would try to accommodate someone who can't eat wheat, or has food allergies. I normally don't care why they're vegetarian, either, though I do respect their reasons. None of my business; it's their choice to make.

I do have a problem when someone turns it into a moral issue, and tries to make me feel guilty for eating meat. Not gonna happen! Eating meat is cruel, I'm told. In our "enlightened" society, we should be beyond killing animals for food. The worst is those who equate killing animals for food with murder (the infamous PETA "holocaust" billboards come to mind). More than anything else, it shows me just how wildly disconnected our society has become from how nature works, and how we get our food. But that's a subject for another time...

Some then turn it into an environmental issue. Cows are bad for the environment, I'm told, though how that is seems to change rather frequently. Right now it seems to be the methane they emit contributing to global warming. "If all that land used to feed cows was instead used to feed people, we'd eliminate hunger," is another typical claim. To me, these statements do more to demonstrate the ignorance to the speaker. I don't meant that in an insulting way; just that they don't have the facts needed to make an educated statement. The people who say this tend to be very genuine and passionate. They think they know what they're talking about, but have huge gaps in their knowledge base. Unfortunately, for too many, their sense of moral superiority prevents them from even acknowledging that they have those gaps in the first place.

Truth is, we already have enough food to feed everyone in the world. We could eliminate world hunger right now. The problem isn't quantity. Improved yields and technology have allowed for fewer farmers to produce more food than ever imaginable even just a generation or two ago. Unfortunately, that food isn't accessible to far too many people. In some countries, it's due to poverty. In others, it's politics. Even food donated to other countries doesn't actually help, as that food rarely gets to the people who need it.

I won't get into the economy of food right now, though. What I want to talk about is the ecology of it.

Both of the statements made - corn for fuel or grain for people - assume that planting crops is superior to raising cattle (I will use cattle only in this example, as they tend to use the largest amounts of land).

First of all, cattle are rarely fed much corn or grain. For our own cows, grain and "chop" (grain, which we grew ourselves, was put through a machine that chopped into finer pieces, almost like a coarse flour) was a treat they'd quite literally fight to get at! I remember being told quite specifically not to give them too much, as it was too rich and would make the cows sick. We also treated our cows with excess produce from our garden, etc. This was fairly typical of the beef farmers in our area. Only those cows that end up in feedlots (and it is by no means all of them - none of the beef farmers I know use feed lots, and we certainly didn't on the farm I grew up on) are fed corn or grain. There are specific reasons for that, the highest of which is that it leads to better tasting meat. That's because corn and grain makes the cows gain fat, and in beef, fat is marbled through their muscles rather than in surrounding tissues. Well marbled beef simply tastes better than lean.

For most of a cow's life, it eats grasses. Pasture in summer and stored food in winter. Farmers spend a pretty penny ensuring that their pastures are seeded with a variety of plants to provide their cows with the best nutrition they can. The same care is taken with the variety of grasses, etc. that will be baled for winter feeding.

The cattle are also rotated between pastures. We never had very many cows because we didn't have that much land, and significant portions of our land was covered in trees. There were also ponds, a gravel pit, land set aside for grain crops, hay, alfalfa, and finally the area where the barn, house, other buildings and garden were located. After we'd finished baling hay for the year (twice, sometimes 3 times, a year) and crops where in, the cows would be allowed to pasture those fields as well. This gave the added benefit of natural fertilizer. Even large beef operations run along similar lines. Herds are only as large as the land can sustain. This was the largest problem beef farmers had when the borders closed due to the Mad Cow scare. Unable to sell their cattle, their herds continued to grow. Farmers had to buy feed because there were too many for the amount of land they had. Eventually, some farmers were forced to cull their herds. Heartbreaking for any farmer to have to kill their animals like that.

The alternative being suggested is that, instead of cows, this land would be better served by planting crops. This calls to mind another disconnect that comes to mind when people tell me some variation of "that grain could feed a person for a year." Just who, exactly, eats grain for a year? Yeah, I know - they probably mean grain plus some other food, but it does seem that they mean for grain to be the primary food, which is a very short road to malnutrition. Grain has a lot going for it nutritionally, but as the cliche goes, we can't live on bread alone.

Nutrition aside, lets get back to the ecology of it. I've been told that planting these crops is more environmentally friendly than raising cattle, and a more efficient use of land, nutritionally.

Well, this is what this farm girl has seen to compare.

Our farm was a self-sustaining farm. We weren't a commercial operation. We grew enough to feed ourselves and pay the bills. If it wasn't enough to pay the bills, my parents went out and got odd jobs, but going hungry was never a fear. Our neighbours, however, were commercial farmers. Those fields on the other side of the fence (the one plowed and planted right to the fence, rather than with a broad alley of grass surrounding the planted area, as ours was) where a large part of how they made their income. Being a small, self using operation, we never used herbicides or pesticides. It was all organic, though not out of any moral sense. That meant we had weeds. Our neighbour complained to the weed counters (yeah, there are actually such people) that weeds were blowing from our field to theirs. My dad got a visit and was told he needed to start using herbicides, or he'd be fined. My parents chose this time to retire, since we simply couldn't afford the expense in herbicides and equipment.

Instead, my parents rented out those fields. Another neighbour, also a commercial farmer, rented it from my parents. They then proceeded to plow the field right to the fence line.

For the first time I ever remember, we started loosing topsoil to wind erosion after the crops were off. This was something I'd already seen in our neighbour's field. Other areas, farmers plowed their land not only to their property line, but into the ditches as well, if they could. Every inch they could squeeze out for their crops, they'd use. From harvest to the next season's planting, those fields were left exposed. Some years, you could actually watch the topsoil being blown from one side of the road to the other. On hot days, you could also see heat waves emanating off the black soil, just like off of asphalt. A plowed field can noticeably increase the temperatures in the area.

Early on, well before I had any notions of "environmentalism" or "sustainable resources," I could see with my own eyes that growing crops did more damage to the land than pastures. As I grew older and began to understand more of the complexities of agriculture, I could see that any mono-culture agriculture caused the most environmental damage, even though it was the most efficient way to produce a high yield crop.

It was more than watching topsoil being blown away. With only one type of plant in a large area, those plants are at greater risk of diseases and insect infestations compared to areas with a wider variety of plants. Soil nutrients are quickly depleted, as there were so many of the same plant competing for the same nutrients in such a large area. I actually have little against chemical fertilizers (to a plant, potassium is potassium, nitrogen is nitrogen, regardless if it comes from a commercial mix or from manure), but these farmers ended up having to use large amounts of fertilizers; the excess nutrients leech into the groundwater and, eventually, into neighbouring lakes and rivers. It's excess nutrients in the groundwater that are causing the incredible algae blooms endangering Lake Winnipeg, for example. Likewise, I'm not greatly concerned about pesticides and herbicides - many plants contain their own natural pesticides, which we eat without harm. Again, there's often little difference between natural and man made chemicals(yes, I know there are exceptions). In small amounts, there's little concern. Large amounts, as are needed on these fields, can become a concern. More for the farmers applying them than the consumers, but eventually they do build up in the food being produced. Under these circumstance, both weeds and insects eventually become immune to the chemicals, and ever greater strengths are needed to protect the crops. Or genetically modified crops, like the Round Up Ready seeds, become necessary. I know there are a lot of concerns about these GM seeds, but the farmers I know that use them love them, because it means they don't have to use as many chemicals to protect their crops.

It may seem that I am arguing in favour of eating meat over eating grains and cereals, and that we should turn all our crop fields over to pasture, but really I'm not. What I'm trying to point out is that one isn't actually any better than they other, and certainly neither is morally superior.

Whether corn is grown to feed a person, a cow, or to make ethanol fuel is irrelevant. Just growing the corn in the first place has environmental consequences. Not eating meat or not driving an SUV won't change that.

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