This week let’s explore various diets within the context of agriculture alone. I am not going to make any health claims about a meat-based or plant-based diet. I’m no expert on nutrition. Experts always make opposite claims about cholesterol and saturated fat. Unfortunately they generally do not take into account how different forms of agriculture relate to human health. They treat both animal-based foods and plant-based foods homogeneously.
In today’s newsletter I’m going to argue that, first, it is not a great idea to treat human health independently from the nuances of agriculture. Diet and human health no matter what we each choose to eat is tied to the environment. In the long run they come back to effect politics, economics, and human health. Second, it is misleading to claim that a plant-based diet is what’s best for the environment. There’s a lot to consider.
I first want to discuss something that’s happening right now in the Netherlands. Tens of thousands of Dutch farmers are protesting, blocking roadways, intimidating governmental officials, and blocking supermarket distribution hubs across the country in response to legislation that requires them to cut emissions of nitrogen oxide and ammonium by 50% by 2030.
The Netherlands is the largest meat exporter in the EU; 60% of its agricultural revenue comes from exports. It isn’t exactly one of the largest countries by land mass, either. So this means that their more than 100 million chickens, pigs, and cows are packed tightly in feedlots. Runoff from the animals’ waste goes into waterways (the Netherlands has got a lot of those), creating dead zones that negatively impact protected habitats, air quality, and water quality. After Dutch courts decided to halt construction and infrastructure projects due to fears that those projects would lead to excessive emissions, the legislature decided to take action on farmers knowing full well that “not all farmers will be able to continue their business.” The Netherland’s ambitious climate goals has had some far reaching implications.
While the pollution caused by industrial agriculture is noticeable and pronounced in the Netherlands since it’s a small, densely populated country, we have similar problems here. Please take a look at this map, which shows how much landmass is used for various purposes.
That huge block front and center for cow pasture looks alarming. So much land for animals that create so much pollution? The obvious solution is to eat less meat and dairy, right?
It’s not that simple. I’d like to divert your attention to the bottom right of that large block, to the smaller blocks labeled “livestock feed” and “feed exports” (and also “ethanol” and “corn syrup”). These smaller blocks are the problem and I believe that the “cow pasture” block could even be even larger.
Most beef cattle spend the first 10-14 months on that large block eating grass. Meanwhile on the “livestock feed” block conventional farmers grow GMO corn and soy. They put some bad synthetic fertilizer into the soil and they spray some bad chemicals on the plants and they purchase all that bad stuff from some bad companies. They till the soil twice a year, which is also bad. The harvested and processed corn and soy eventually meets those now older cattle in feedlots to be “finished” for the last 3-4 months before slaughter. Adding to the damage done by growing and processing the corn/soy, the feedlots result in waste runoff as I mentioned above. That’s the deal with beef cattle. Conventional dairy cattle never see pasture and never eat grass. This is because conventional dairy farmers would have to bring in the cows from pasture to milking barns twice a day. Not possible when you have an enormous herd.
Even though those 3-4 months are a small fraction of the bulls’ total lives, the finishing stage does immense environmental damage. It’s also psychologically and physically damaging to them. They can’t even properly digest grains so they immediately get sick and are thus pumped full of drugs.
Contrast this to 100% grass-fed cattle. The cows have plenty of space, are under the sun, and eat what their complex digestive systems and gut flora allow them to eat. Since they aren’t crowded in feedlots and since they don’t depend on high impact corn/soy, there are no detrimental environmental effects. In fact, it’s a net positive. The dung and urine that goes into the soil enhances a pasture’s microbial life, which sequesters carbon and traps it into the soil. A recent study showed that a 100% grass-fed operation has a carbon footprint 111% lower than conventional beef: that means that for every kilogram of beef produced, 3.5 kilograms of carbon is sequestered. That’s taking into account every aspect of the farm’s operations.
Now let’s compare ruminants (beef, bison, venison, elk, sheep, and goat) to poultry and pork. Chickens, turkeys, and pigs do not eat grass. They are still dependent on corn/soy feed. The chickens I get meat and eggs from are pastured, so there is the benefit of carbon sequestration, and they do eat bugs and worms as they naturally should. The pigs I get pork from are rotationally grazed in the woods, so there is also carbon sequestration and they eat plenty of tubers and nuts as they naturally should. But the diet of bugs, worms, tubers, and nuts is more of a bonus. The animals are still highly dependent on corn (less dependent on soy: the farmers use a feed that is low in soy): non-GMO corn and soy, but corn and soy nonetheless. That comes with the negative impacts of tillage and fertilizer. But this is A LOT better than feedlot poultry/pork that uses GMO corn/soy.
Next step: let’s compare and contrast livestock farming with produce farming. With produce farming we need to distinguish between annual foods (plants that live 1 year: most veggies) and perennial foods (plants that live longer: most fruit). For a deeper discussion of annual vs perennial agriculture, click on the link.
First annuals: vegetable growers generally till every year in order to incorporate fertilizer into the soil and also to get the ground into a workable state to allow for planting. Tillage is not a great thing. I discussed this in previous newsletters in depth so I won’t go into it, but just take my word for it for now. But the fertilizer used by organic vegetable farmers comes from factory farms with animals that eat corn/soy: feather meal, blood meal, bone char, liquid fish from fish farms, etc. There is a method of farming called “veganic” farming that uses leaf compost. In fact when I farmed I did so veganically. But this was only possible because I had access to Abington Township’s amazing leaf compost yard. Normally compost is not an ample source of nutrients. However if you add A LOT as I did it can be sufficient. But veganic farming is very rare. Most organic farmers use byproducts of feedlots (Biodyanmic farms are an exception too-too much to get into now). We can either choose organic produce with feedlot byproducts or conventional produce with synthetic fertilizers (also problematic) and sprays. Pick your poison. Veganic no-till or Biodynamic no-till are the crème de la crème for annual produce production. It requires municipalities to pick up leaves and compost them with sufficient aeration. Abington is incredible at this.
Now perennials: pretty simple here. Fruit trees do not require tillage and do not require fertilization. They’re pretty easy going. They are the ruminants of the plant kingdom. But the downside is the spray. It takes a lot to be an organic orchardist in this region. There aren’t many, and those who grow stone fruit and apples organically do not do so at any volume to wholesale. The fruit I offer is IPM (Integrated Pest Management) which means that the trees are monitored and sprayed only when necessary. I have also heard rumors that the organic fruit in grocery stores is coming from organic trees that are surrounded by conventional trees, creating a barrier. I haven’t been able to confirm this.
There are many things that I didn’t mention. The point that I’m trying to make is that the “eat less meat” argument from an environmental standpoint is somewhat simplistic. On the contrary out of each of the agricultural categories that I’ve discussed the only one that is without fault is grass-fed ruminants. Not only is it without fault but it’s the only category that’s a net positive for the environment when raised the right way. There are no external inputs needed: poultry and pork need externally grown corn/soy, annual produce needs tillage and externally produced fertilizer, and perennial produce needs sprays. Grass-fed ruminant farming is the least impactful form of agriculture today.
While a ruminant-based diet is the least impactful, I’m not advocating that we all eat nothing but rib eye and cheese. I’m only pointing out that any argument for or against a diet requires consideration of different agricultural methods. Also, it seems to me that those who pose solutions to the climate crisis are doing so solely within a “do less harm” (less emissions) frame of mind rather than a “do more good” (carbon sequestration) frame of mind. So in the Netherlands legislators give more emphasis to “doing less harm” via reducing herds within the existing feedlot system rather than “doing more good” via assisting farmers to transition to a pasture-based system. I think that we need a combination of both of these mindsets because most forms of agricultural are inherently destructive. This will always be the case in a modern world where most people are not growing their own food. Unless we start growing food in test tubes (over my dead body, Bill Gates). For those forms of agriculture that are inherently destructive (pretty much most of them besides raising ruminants), I think we should focus on less harm: less tillage, less sprays, less animal-based fertilizer, less corn/soy reliance. And at the same time I think we should focus more on those forms of agriculture that are “doing more good:” pastured ruminants, oyster farming (they filter water), mushrooms (which break down organic matter into stable carbon), veganic no-till, and Biodynamics (Biodynamics is Pandora’s box and I’m not opening it today).
It’s a messy situation in the Netherlands. Many farmers want to transition to a pastured system but need more time and financial assistance to pay off debts. Other farmers don’t want to change. Legislators say it’s time to make a difference no matter what even if it means many farmers go out of business. What got the Netherlands into this mess to begin with was their conscious decision to feed the world. They accomplished it temporarily but sacrificed a lot. A global food system that pushes the boundaries of what the environment can sustain does not work in the long run. It never will. Many Dutch farmers are worried that the entire industry will collapse. It might. I hope that the rest of the world learns from their mistake.
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