I've gotten to that point in time--or maybe my life--where I just cannot go reading a study and believe it to be factually true. I honestly don't care how many authors have signed their names to it, or whether it hails from some prestigious university or not. What I care about the most is the content of the study, what it's actually saying, and what the whole context and its purpose for being published actually is.
That's how I approached this brand new study that was put out by a number of scientists from Oxford University that I was made aware of thanks to some friends through both the Soil4Climate group and Ethical Omnivore Movement. Really, it wasn't the study itself that got my attention, but rather an article from The Guardian with the stark, attention-grabbing headline, "Huge reduction in meat eating 'essential' to avoid climate breakdown." The first thought I had was, "Oh Lord, here we go."
After reading the article, and grinding my teeth to the kind of message they relayed from the paper itself, I thought I'd better give the actual study a read-through as well.
Springmann et. al. (2018)'s "Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits" was this so-called "the most comprehensive analysis of the food system's impact on the environment," according to Damian Carrington, author of The Guardian article.
Oh, I so strongly disagree.
But first let me summarize the contents of the study. That is, without my own bias and harsh critique, coming up next.
The authors are suggesting a push for more and/or better technology to be much more precise in the application of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers for crops. They also, rather ambiguously, suggested that we need to reduce food waste in a significant manner. Their final suggestion was that everyone should adopt a more "flexitarian" or should I just say vegan/vegetarian diet, where, "...the average world citizen needs to eat 75% less beef, 90% less pork and half the number of eggs, while tripling consumption of beans and pulses and quadrupling nuts and seeds." Within all that, they also made quite an effort to blame livestock for most all environmental problems, especially when it came to greenhouse gas emissions.
This paper, believe it or not, is actually a study that is funded by the largest food corporate giant, Nestlé, and others, primarily through their EAT Forum. In my professional and personal opinion, this "study" is merely a means to extend and affirm the giant corporation's stranglehold on the global food market.
I found that this study was much more of a speculative "scientific" piece, with no real substantial solutions that held merit or had any practical applications. In layman's terms, it was more fluff than stuff. While it really was, though rather loosely, based on the current issues that are occurring with today's food system, the conclusions they arrived at where so incredibly dubious and full of holes it was rather laughable, and shamefully so. Much of their methods and proceeding conclusions were derived only from poorly designed computer data models that completely ignored--whether that was deliberate or not, I'm thinking it could be the latter--some major inputs that would drastically affect the outputs in their models.
The thought processes that created the very context of this report was highly reductionist and mechanistic. That, considering the fact that the paper seemed, at least to me, an excuse to cling on to the intensive, inefficient industrialized agriculture practices, was hard to ignore. The paper also entirely and intentionally ignored a growingly significant branch of agriculture that has proven through practicality on millions of acres, not merely through theoretical over-simplified computer models, that regenerative agricultural systems, including advanced adaptive grazing practices and no-till polyculture cover cropping practices, has (and continues to) restored soil health worldwide and provides a completely new revolutionary framework unlike anything we've ever seen before.
We know the other context for this "scientific" paper: Nestlé has its fingers in many holes, and certainly must feel threatened by this new grassroots agricultural framework. Why? Because this incredible agricultural advancement that goes far beyond new technology to satisfy the same old paradigm of Henry Ford and Justus von Leibig leads to an astoundingly enormous cut in their profit margins. They know that if more and more people get on board with growing their own food, sourcing local regeneratively-produced meats and produce from local farmers, Nestlé and its many brands will collapse like a deck of cards. And they are scared sh*tless about it. That's why they've formed the EAT Forum, and why they've produced this report and purposely went about to demonize meat and elevate veg[etari]an diets as "more healthy."
Really, when we get down to the barebones of it all, it's merely a marketing ploy to, as someone said on Facebook about this same paper, "...extend and consolidate Nestlé's stranglehold on its ability to profit from marketing their ultra-processed food products worldwide... [and] to push the food system towards foods with high markups that will maximize Nestlé's profitability."
To some of you this may sound like some conspiracy theory thing to wave off, but if you think about it, much of it really makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?
For me personally, it really casted an enormous amount of doubt on the efficacy of industrialized agriculture and its ability give any hope in hell of saving our sorry asses when our day of reckoning finally comes.
Want an even blunter opinion from me? I think that study is absolute insanity, and so utterly asinine on many levels it's amazing these people that dared to attribute their names to this paper think that anything they suggested will actually work in reality. Honestly, you simply cannot come up with any real solutions sitting in an ivory tower staring at computer monitors with fancy modelling graphics without getting your boots dirty.
Now that that's out of the way, let me take the time to explain a bit more about why Springmann et. al. (2018)'s "options" for the environment are so very wrong.
Stop Ignoring and Abusing the Soil
When a paper that is supposed to be "the most comprehensive analysis" on the impact of the food system on the environment bears only one tiny mention of the word "soil," and confines that mention only in their "Uncertainty" section where it's tied to their questioning of the validity and plausibility of soil carbon sequestration, it is most definitely not a comprehensive analysis. This study deliberately ignored a fundamentally important piece of the puzzle, and could only tout the "importance" of better and more advanced technology for more judicial means of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer application.
I also noticed that there was absolutely no mention about the effects of tillage on the soil and the surrounding environment downhill, even downstream, either. It seemed to me that the soil didn't matter one iota to them. Not even the soil biota, the earthworms, the mycorrhizae, or even the effort to build back organic matter that has been so depleted from repeated tillage practices for the past century and then some.
This is so utterly shameful and disappointing for a paper that is supposed to be "the most comprehensive analysis" of the impacts of the food system on the environment!! Honestly, does the soil not matter as being an integral part of the environment?? Doesn't it bear sufficient importance to actually be much more front and centre than technology, demonizing meat and livestock, and even food waste??
I certainly think so, and I encourage everyone reading this, who have gotten this far with me, to do the same.
Soil is the very skin of the Earth, the most crucial part of Life itself, that bridges the gap between the biotic (plants and animals) and the abiotic (rocks, water). It is made up of both minerals from beneath the surface that are brought up by geological and physical workings of the Earth, and the decomposed or decomposing material of plants and animals. Plants, for the most part, are the greatest soil builders, with the help of animals, and especially protozoa including bacteria, fungi and archaea. These microscopic organisms have formed mutually beneficial partnerships with plants' roots, where they actively run a bartering system. Plants receive necessary nutrients that only the microbes can break down with their enzymes, and in return give these microbes liquid carbon for energy. Plants that die get turned into organic matter, then eventually soil, just as animals that have died will (as well as their manures), and act to feed the next generation of life.
Sounds fantastic, doesn't it? That's because it is. It's absolutely the most perfect, complex, organic, natural system that anyone could ever dream of, with a healthy balance of dark (death) and light (life), and is completely self-sustaining. It's not something that needs fixing by human hands, it doesn't require fertilizer or tillage or pesticides. It is perfect the way it is.
And yet we humans just had to go and mess it all up.
I won't get into the boring details of the history from when we humans went from hunter-gatherer to agricultural masters, because that will just take up too much time, and detract from what I want to say. But, the very thing is is that we've been mistreating the soil for a very long time, and it has lead to the demise of various ancient civilizations of yesteryear. David R. Montgomery's book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations is a very good book to read on that topic. I have no doubt that it will be the demise of this current, albeit far more global civilization if we don't do anything to fix our mistakes
The Problem with Tillage
The rule to solving a problem is figuring out how it was created in the first place, and why. Let's start with tillage. Tillage is any kind of soil disturbance, whether it be light like harrowing that just scratches the ground, or deep tillage like with a subsoiler that goes down up to two feet deep for the purpose of breaking up hard-pan. Plowing, cultivating and discing are also methods of tillage.
All of these mechanical disturbances introduce oxygen into the soil, particularly the methods that disturb only the top two to six inches. Introducing oxygen into what is normally a largely anaerobic system wakes up and encourages the proliferation of aerobic bacteria. These bacteria quickly set to work consuming organic matter, turning them into plant-available nutrients, particularly nitrogen. This is so that any annual plant seeds (which we like to call "weeds") which may have been laying dormant in the soil for many years and are stimulated into germinating by this soil disturbance, have these readily-available nutrients to quickly grow and protect the soil from any potential losses like erosion. These annuals stay and keep producing seed until they are eventually taken over by perennials.
Before I get into the cropping aspect, I just like to say that mechanical tillage "stirs" up the soil, breaking up aggregate structure to more powder form. Soil that has no particular aggregate structure, especially one that has been formed by the roots of plants for many years, is more conducive to erosion and compaction. Erosion, because the destroyed aggregate structure gives much more surface area for much smaller particles, meaning that water takes a lot longer to percolate or infiltrate down into the soil horizons. Therefore, water is more likely to run off instead, leaving only the top few inches wet, and bone dry underneath. Compaction, because these soil particles are more apt to stick together, and be pushed together when heavy equipment go over it, creating more of a platy or blocky structure instead of a normal and natural cylindrical soil structure. Compaction may not be seen at the top 6 to 8 inches of the soil, but there's more than likely going to be hard-pan just about a foot down where most tillage equipment, and no crop roots, can reach.
With crop production, tilling *temporarily* eradicates competition from other plants (all in a perfect world), creating a "clean canvas" for seeding annual grains and legumes into. That's actually not true. Tilling stirs up dormant annual forb seeds (again, we love to call them "weeds") to germinate and quickly cover the soil. This "infestation" is detrimental to the ultimate goal of getting a clean grain crop off, and bad to the conventional farmer, but a good thing on Nature's terms. I always chuckle at the surprise that farmers I talk to get when I tell them they're always going to have a seed bank in their soil.
The sown crop takes advantage of the temporary lack of competition and the nutrients released by the bacteria consuming the organic matter to give a bumper crop. This production boost is only temporary. The soil basically cannibalizes itself out of increasingly less organic matter, and with the regular tillage activity before seeding and after harvesting, there is also a lot of loss of topsoil from erosion by wind and water. Quite frankly erosion still also happens while the crop is in the ground, just not as heavily as in the spring and post-harvest.
This has been going on for many decades now. There are pictures and reports of as much as 6 feet or more of topsoil that has been lost from tillage. Many farmers are no longer farming topsoil, but actually subsoil, the B (and maybe some in the C) horizons instead of the OM and A horizons. How depressing is that? Not only that, but the southwestern states, as well as other parts of the world undergoing desertification, are seeing massive dust storms the likes of what was seen during the Dirty '30s.
That soil that gets eroded away doesn't come back, folks. It goes into waterways and fills up streams and rivers, choking them with fine soil particulate. This gets carried all the way out to the ocean. Tiny soil particles picked up by the wind are carried for miles upon miles, and deposited elsewhere. All, lost from its original source forever.
Since a lot of precious topsoil and organic matter is all but gone, which is that natural "skin" that bonds plants with the microbe community so that plants can easily get nutrients without human assistance in the form of fertilizers, in order to keep growing crops on this naked, hungry, thirsty, and feverish soil, regular fertilizing from pelleted or liquid petroleum-sourced fertilizers is needed.
The Problems with Fertilizer
The man-made temporary solution to the loss in productivity from the substantive loss in organic matter is to apply fertilizers. Fertilizers are really a short-term, band-aid solution to a much larger problem that is being willfully ignored. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Essentially fertilizers make plants quite lazy in getting nutrients for themselves. They don't grow as extensive and large a root network to search out nutrients, nor need the natural interconnection with arbuscular mychorrhizal fungi and soil bacteria to assist those plants with breaking down and converting "tied up" nutrients into plant-available nutrients. Instead, the plants have what they need right there, in man-made pelleted form. Wonderful right? Yeah, sure...
What it does is makes plants weak--did I mention lazy--towards pests and diseases. The conventional "wisdom" laughs down this agroecological claim, even though the science is out there if you know where to find it, stating that plants are just plants and it's more to do with what's in the soil. That's partly right, particularly since bare soil, thanks to tillage, isn't protected from rain drops hitting the soil surface at a high velocity. The impact sends soil particles and microbes onto the stems and leaves, creating unsanitary conditions ripe for disease (bacterial and fungal) to proliferate. But, plants aren't "just plants," they are sentient, living beings that have immune systems and are capable of becoming stressed and sick just like animals.
Pests (mostly insects) respond to plants that are in distress or are sick, and emerge to eat those plants so that the more healthy neighbouring plants can continue to thrive, unaffected. Conventional industrial agriculture doesn't see it that way either. They just think that all bugs that "like to eat" any kind of annual crop as bad and therefore deserve to be executed via insecticides.
I'm including pests and diseases here because it's all inter-related. The point is, though, fertilizers are not a good thing. Of course they're going to be needed for a farm that is shifting from conventional to regenerative practices because their soil is going to be just like a drug addict, and if they stop buying and applying fertilizers cold-turkey, they'll have one hell of a train-wreck on their hands. And we don't want that, do we?
But it's just not necessary, period, end of story. It doesn't matter what these scientists have calculated out and what kind of data they see on their computer screens. Even the most precise, frugally-applied amount of fertilizer is going to cause harm the environment, and has been for a number of decades, ever since the end of the Second World War. As if tillage wasn't bad enough...
Fertilizers come in pelleted, liquid, or gaseous form. The most common is the former, and the gaseous form is primarily anhydrous ammonia. Now, anhydrous ammonia is particularly toxic, and has been used as a pest control agent for killing gophers--and more than likely other underground critters. The off-gassing vapour of anhydrous is also concerning, since that would contribute to the nitrous oxide emissions (with ammonia reacting with the air molecules and converting into the most potent, long-lasting greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere.
If you think that's bad, take a look at pelleted and liquid fertilizers. When coupled with tillage and rain events, which creates quite a bit of erosion (because the ability of tilled, bare soil to have any water infiltration ability is severely compromised thanks to the mechanical stirring that breaks up aggregate structure largely formed by plant roots), a significant portion of these fertilizers are going to runoff the soil surface, mixed with the rain water and fine soil particulate, and be washed into neighbouring water bodies. This creates and contributes to eutrophication of ponds and lakes, high and toxic algal blooms, and killing off aquatic life, particularly fish and amphibians. There's an ocean dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico that has been attributed to nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from croplands.
Do you honestly think that a more precise application of fertilizer is going to solve anything? That an increase in technology, or rather continued focus on the chemistry set and the physics applications, and ignorance of the biology, is going to help us? Please, I hope you say no to this too!
It's the Biology, Stupid!
Let's face it, continuing tillage, being more precise with fertilizing application, and continuing to have to use pesticides to kill weeds and pests--stoking the "kill, kill, kill!" mentality--has not helped us and I guarantee will definitely not continue to help us.
Not only that, but it's not the Earth that needs saving, it's us humans that need saving. And it seems to me that one of the only ways to save us all is to adopt practices that mimic Nature and encourage Life and more Biological interaction. Let's strive to get more "live, live, live," rather than this senseless "kill, kill, kill."
Nature already has the blueprints and fundamentals set out for us to follow. We just have to start following them. Some of us, thankfully, already are, and are helping others to see that something like Regenerative Agriculture, Holistic Management, or heck even Permaculture, actually works in practicum, and doesn't just look good on paper.
But there's more I need to cover with this study. Hold on to your hats.
Land Isn't Fungible
Is it really so simple an assumption to be made that grazing lands, or even pasture land, can be converted into cropland? No, it's not.
Even the most highly productive grazing lands are grazing lands because this very land isn't suitable for crop production for a wide variety of reasons. These range from soil type, to climate, plus topography, as well as other factors including ease of access for machinery, access to water (if irrigation is needed), the question if this land is conserved and protected for wildlife and endangered plant and animal species, and other factors that obviously these scientists probably never thought of.
Shall I include here that tilling up land with perennial vegetation is going to do a whole lot more harm than good, or have I made my point already with what I said above?
The thing is farmland is quite specific as to what can be grown on it. There's actually currently a lot of farmed land that is used for crops that is considered marginal, yet is being conventionally cropped for oil and biofuel, primarily. That land should've stayed as perennial vegetation in the first place, and been used for livestock instead. Of course, big money is in industrial crop production, not livestock, which explains why there's a whole lot more cropland than grazing land.
There was a disturbing quote (paraphrased) in the study that plays in part in this section, that I find a little worrying, and needs to be cleared up:
"Converting highly productive grazing land to cropland could free up the boundary pressure put on forests [for a variety of purposes, which can often lead to deforestation]..."
Over two-thirds of agricultural land is used for grazing. And there's nothing wrong with that. But as I'll explain later, the issue is not the amount of land being used, but how it's used.
I've got a better solution. Graze these highly productive lands better than they already are being grazed. Utilize grazing principles and strategies that are management-intensive and adaptive in nature. Portable electric fencing, portable shelters, and portable watering systems are tools to help with this. This kind of improvement in grazing practices can create even more forage than most think is possible.
Not only that, but it gives a whole lot more wildlife more options for foraging, living, nesting, etc., than going from forest to monoculture soybean or wheat crop. I have walked in areas such as these that hold quite a diverse array of plants that support a biodiverse ecology of animals, and from an aesthetics point of view, it's a wonderful place to be in. You cannot get the same feeling of ecological wealth in a corn or canola crop.
Forested land typically isn't all that great for crops to begin with (most of the time), and some disruption with livestock in forests isn't going to hurt them any, either. I hear pigs and goats are great at being used to manage and clean up the brush in forests, and restart new growth once they've been moved out.
That's a better thing for the livestock too because they're not getting as much, if any, of their food from industrial monoculture crops as this study--and its big-company funders--wants us people to.
Food from Industrial Crops
Springmann et. al. (2018) isn't piecing the puzzle together that the so-called "healthier" flexitarian/veg[etari]an diet still must come from industrialized, soil-destroying, petrochemical-reliant monoculture crops. In my book, that isn't anything close to being healthy, let alone healthier than a diet that includes or maintains meat, milk, and eggs.
I'm no dietician, and never purport myself to be. But while the American Standard Diet that is mostly of carbs, sugar, and CAFO meats, eggs, and dairy and most certainly is not healthy at all (just look at the number of people with weight problems, not to mention the increase in metabolic and cardiac conditions in these last several decades that more and more doctors have had to deal with), and while a veg[etari]an diet is admittedly healthier (somewhat), a study that ignores the healthful inclusion of meat from regenerative, holistically-managed farms and ranches is cause for concern.
Not only that, but the produce (vegetables and fruits) and grains that come from these industrialized systems do not have the nutritional value like they did back in the turn of the 20th century, well before supermarkets showed up. I don't have the numbers on hand, but let me tell you something: You can really taste the difference when you chow down on a carrot from your own organic garden versus one you get from the store. And you know which one is nutritionally better for you? The one from your garden, or if you don't have a garden, from a farmer who raises vegetables, fruits, even grains, from regenerative agricultural methods.
Nothing can compare.
But the thing is, from my standpoint, saying that meat-eating is bad on the whole isn't getting the whole picture. And before I get into that, I just want to say that while vegan/vegetarian seems better and more healthier than the SAD, from the things I've read and the pro-vegan supporters I've met and communicated with, the veg[etari]an diet is more of a temporary cleanse than a long-term dietary solution to follow for the rest of one's life... or that everyone should be doing.
Long-term, most people on a vegan diet especially aren't going to be healthy (there are a few lucky ones who can be vegan and be healthy, but they do not represent the majority). There are some important nutrients that they may think they're getting with just going plant-based, but the reality is that they're not getting enough of them, or their body cannot synthesize those nutrients to sufficiently meet their needs. And this goes for those vegans who really do try to follow a well-planned, whole food diet, not just the ones who think they're going to be "healthy" on a junk-food diet of french fries, potato chips, and soda.
Not that I'm saying that choosing to go vegan is a bad thing, I'm just warning you of the things I've heard from many ex-vegans--and there are quite a number of ex-vegans out there, let me tell you. Such as, mental issues (loss of short-term memory, unable to think clearly...), being still liable to get sick from diabetes, cancer, heart disease, for a fair number it encourages high weight gain (obesity), for others it's the other end of the spectrum (too thin, borderline anorexic with loss of muscle tone), loss of masculinity in men (due to high amounts of plant-estrogen-promoting soy products), reduced fertility (some women have reported to have lost the ability to have regular, normal menstruation), and a whole lot of other issues. And no, veganism doesn't cure you of cancer; Apple's Steve Jobs was vegan and died of cancer.
Essential nutrients that are not in sufficient amounts includes iron, Vitamin B12, calcium, zinc, iodine, Vitamin D3, several types of amino acids (saying "protein" isn't enough, as protein comes in many forms) and others. Many of these nutrients come in sufficient form in meat, dairy, and eggs to meet a man's, woman's or child's need. Plants do certainly provide other nutrients not found in meat, but the point is, plants alone for most people isn't enough to suit their nutritional requirements.
But I didn't start writing this blog to put down plant-based diets and purport meat-eating because, again, if you choose to be vegan or vegetarian, that's fine. However, blaming meat eating as a cause for all bad things, environmentally speaking, that has happened in this world is rather quite ignorant. You see, it's not the meat itself that's the problem per se (although CAFO-sourced meat isn't nearly as decent quality as meat from a regenerative farm), but rather how it's produced.
It's the HOW, Not the Cow!
Livestock have been demonized for quite a number of things, from taking up too much land to ruining riparian zones. Much of these have been a result of people not really understanding WHY this is. I find many people are more worried and obsessed with the how than stopping to ask why. Why does it seem like cattle take up more land than crops do? Why do cattle ruin riparian zones? Why do livestock overgraze? Why do cattle get finished in feedlots rather than on grass? Why... ?
Go look in the mirror, as I have done, and you will see why. It's us that is doing these things, and supporting these things with the meat we choose to buy, not the cows and cattle themselves.
Cows overgraze and ruin riparian areas because we let them. Why do we let them? Because either don't know a better way to manage them, or don't know how to do things differently, or our forefathers did the same thing and therefore the mentality is that it's okay to keep doing that.
Of course we humans get a little scared of our own mirror reflection and are quite reluctant to go blaming ourselves, so it's much easier to blame a tool for being faulty, or for not doing the thing we intended it to do. I don't mean to be insensitive to the cow-ness of the cow, and her intellect and emotions, but a cow and her herd-mates are basically tools. So think of it this way: A handyman that blames his hammer for not doing a proper job of hammering a nail in isn't a good handyman. A rancher who blames the cows for damaging a riparian zone isn't a good rancher. Not that I have anything against handymen or ranchers, but I hope my point is being made here.
People who follow this logic of tool-blaming aren't getting the whole picture, and don't get the human side of the equation, which for some dumb reason always seems to get left out.
But those who don't follow that tool-blaming logic see and understand that we are at fault for a lot of things. Now, here's where the men and women are separated from the boys and girls: Those who acknowledge that we're at fault, then find solutions to fix the problem using the same tools we once blamed in the first place, are the leaders and beacons of hope to follow.
Just like what Allan Savory with Holistic Management International realized back in his younger days, and has worked so hard over these past 50 years to get people to understand.
Let me put things this way: I don't think the handyman should quit and do something else, and I don't think the rancher should do the same. What I think is that either shift their paradigm of thought to see where and why they are going wrong, then find and work on the solution to make them even better than when they first started.
If more people did that, boy oh boy wouldn't this world be a much better place?
I think these scientists need to understand exactly that. If they can look beyond just data and numbers, and see the world around them as it is, and how it could be made better if more of us broke up that compaction between the ears, softened that constipation of imagination, and realized quality over quantity, a massive shift would be seen that would be one helluva ripple affect across the pond.
Yet, my greatest hope lies with you, the reader. You are my greatest hope for staying with my long-winded raw ramblings so far. You are a part of the shift in change, the grassroots effort humanity needs to make things better for our children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren...
And I see that as the most beautiful beacon of hope that could ever exist. Thank you, and God Bless.
Range Nerd, Forage & Grazing Fanatic and a Bovine Enthusiast. A love for farming, and for the soil.
Busting myths and misinformation, delivering the truths on some facts that the Average Joe or Jane may be concerned about, and other issues are dug up here. In this blog, you get to read my thoughts and get a whole pile of details on information on things you probably didn't know about, and should be well aware of.
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