The best way to save the planet?

18 06 2018

This amazing piece of information just came across my newsfeed, and it encapsulates everything I believe in and want to practice on the Fanny Farm….  There are great embedded videos in this, and it will take you some time to get through it, but it’s really worth the effort… the Roots of Nature site is fantastic, and I will go through it once the building phase here is over….

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The best way to save the planet? Stop listening to George Monbiot!

We can’t and shouldn’t try to calculate the value of living systems by only using reductionist science that is centuries behind explaining the true wonder of mother nature and her balanced systems.

POSTED BY CAROLINE GRINDROD ON JUN 16, 2018

In his last article and in the other regenerative agriculture and holistic management hate mail currently spewing from George Monbiot – is an unrelenting desire to reduce our food production systems down to simple numbers. Numbers which conveniently support his idea of a vegan utopia.

This sort of mechanistic analysis only makes sense for de-natured food systems where all-natural processes have been ‘knocked out’ and what’s left is a lifeless medium in which a plant can put down roots. In our modern ‘Frankenstein’ agriculture N + P + K = a food plant, which will survive if you exterminate all pests (also known as wildlife) with pesticides, all fungi (one of the most important organisms for carbon sequestration) with fungicides, and all weeds (also known as wildflowers) with herbicides.

George Monbiot Meat
This ‘efficient’ yet highly vulnerable chemical agriculture system is what mostly produces the plant foods that George insists is all we should eat. A lot of the plants are also fed to our Frankenstein livestock fattened in sheds in horrible and unethical conditions. I’m with George 100% that this practice is completely unacceptable and totally inefficient, but the WHOLE of this chain of production is utterly anti-nature, regardless if it’s animals or humans eating the product.

Let’s not overlook that in any food production system – especially those run by large profit-driven corporations like the companies who will be making those yummy fake meat burgers  – there’s a lot of waste crop that doesn’t make the grade for human consumption which makes up a significant part of what is fed to livestock. This isn’t factored into his number crunching.

We can all cherry pick reductionist science to back up our most closely held viewpoints. George accuses free range steak of being ‘more damaging’ than even conventional meat based on the land required to produce a KG of grass-fed steak. These accusations are based on the ridiculous idea that a living animal on a living system should be quantified using this calculation;

Total methane emissions = number of animals x lifetime of animal x methane emissions per head per day.

 

Thinking of a cow as a ‘meat machine’ highlights the extent of the issue of using reductionist science for making decisions about food. But as explained in this great piece and its relevant links  much of the methane emitted by cattle as part of a properly managed grazing system is oxidised and countered by the processes in the healthy living soils that the animals themselves enhance.

George Monbiot seems to think of a cow as a machine that belches unacceptable levels of methane into the atmosphere, yet overlooks the huge increase in methane that would be generated by the introduction of beavers into rewilded landscapes. As we can see in this systematic review of the literature, wetlands, which are promoted by beavers making dams, may sequester some carbon but the methane they release could overall make their GHG contribution more than if the land were to be left as grazing land.

Luckily as holistic managers, we understand that it would be ridiculous to judge the beaver based on science that is taken out of context and will probably soon be out of date anyway. I’m all for regenerating a fully functional habitat and would love to see beavers introduced back into our Wilderculture sites to improve overall ecosystem function; especially the water cycle. But if you applied the same thinking that claims cows cause global warming to beavers, they could be considered a bad idea along with any other wild herbivores that inevitably burp methane.

 

regenerative agriculture

 

George seems to understand nothing of the very serious health concerns associated with eating a vegan diet. Please watch the video below for a better understanding of why animal food are so important for fighting disease.

 

 

I think the reason why George Monbiot very obviously doesn’t ‘get’ regenerative agriculture and seems to have no grasp at all of what is involved in holistic management, is that he sees nature on one side of the fence and agriculture on the other.

By segregating and exploiting agriculture to feed humans so we can ‘give back’ land to nature, we further alienate ourselves from ‘the’ environment. Shouldn’t it be ‘our’ environment? Eventually, nobody will care; we’ll end up eating factory made products and forget any responsibility we have for our food systems and how they impact nature and people.

George Monbiot thinks of rewilded land in terms of ecosystems, yet doesn’t apply any of the same logic to farmed land and the food systems he recommends. He’s missing the point totally – probably because he repeatedly shuns any offer to learn more about it – that holistic management is based on a framework that helps us increase the effectiveness of the ecosystem processes.

In holistic management, we use tools – that sometimes include livestock – to build a healthier ecosystem that supports the greatest range of species possible, including predators. For us Holistic Managers, we consider predators, and diversity as a barometer of how well we managing our land.

 

 

Conservation organisations have highlighted that one of the biggest threats to species and habitats is the fragmentation and isolation of species in reserves; they’re like islands in a sea of degraded farmland. My dream, through our Wilderculture work, is to have farms that are even better than our current nature reserves for wildlife and provision of ecosystem services. These farms will also produce highly nutritious meat and other plants, in greater volume than the current low baseline, as a ‘by-product’ from the use of livestock to improve habitat. I would LOVE to have the problem of trying to protect my livestock from wolves and lynx one day, this would mean our environment is enormously productive and resilient to climate fluctuations.

George assumes that all holistic managers use fences and exclude predators from grazing land, which is simply not true. We learn and fully understand that we can’t have a healthy ecosystem without creating the functions of the predator-prey relationship – it’s a ‘key insight’ of holistic management!

 

 

In many of the dry-land ranches holistic planned grazing (a procedure we sometimes use in holistic management) the livestock are herded and fences aren’t used at all. When we do use fences, it is simply to mimic the function of a bunched and moving herd of wild herbivores where herding is impractical. Cattle in our Wilderculture work and in many of the African holistic management systems encourage the regeneration of a kind of wood pasture/savannah landscape – exactly that most likely to have prevailed before man had such a significant influence on the landscape.

 

 

For those who want to understand more about Holistic Management and see some of the farmers managing over 40 million hectares using this tried and tested framework, this short documentary explains it well. Or you can join me on an hour-long webinar explaining more.

 

 

We assess our land through four windows; the water cycle, the mineral cycle, the energy flow and community dynamics. Increasing function in these can increase productivity dramatically; good for the farmer, good for wildlife.

Those who judge everything based on reductionist empirical evidence will assume this is too simplistic a metric to use. Don’t be fooled. The more I learn about the most updated soil and climate science from globally respected experts such as Jason Rowntree,  Walter JehneChristine JonesElaine InghamDavid JohnsonRichard Teague – who, unlike some more ‘confused’ grazing researchersare on the right side of the now-called ‘soil revolution’ – the more I appreciate the simple elegance of this method of assessment. Reading ecosystem processes at the soil surface encapsulates the incredible and complex natural balancing system at play, in a way that science can’t yet fully accommodate.

But some of the better newer science also suggests we shouldn’t look at food systems through a single ‘window’. This article is a great and full explanation of why carbon sequestration and methane oxidation cannot be separated out from the – sometimes more important – climate change mitigating functions of a food production system.

 

The four ecosystem processes.

 

The water cycle – we assess and improve how well the water passes into and is retained within the soil and utilised by plants avoiding drought and flood. A poor water cycle reduces the ability of our planet to cool itself, drastically reduces productivity in all growing systems and reduces the ability of soil to sequester carbon.

The mineral cycle – can your plants access minerals and recycle through a living soil food web then back to the soil quickly so more plants can grow? If it does then, we can drop all the fertilisers, chemicals and medicines from agriculture – the biggest contributor to the agricultural Carbon footprint AND the biggest cost drain on farmers.

Energy flow – How effectively are you using sunlight energy and passing it through the ecosystem system for the benefit of all organisms including those that will eventually feed humans. By getting more plants photosynthesizing per every Metre squared we are making more food; for microbes in the soil, for livestock, for wildlife and eventually us. If solar energy flow is not effective you will be using fossil fuel energy; that’s expensive and destructive.

Community dynamics – How effectively are you harnessing the highest successional state within the land you manage to balance our and reduce pests, maximise nutrient uptake, seed rainfall and make all land (agricultural or ‘wild) more resilient to climate change and wild fire?

 

 

In George’s articles, he refers to one of the conclusions of this report; ‘It shows that animal farming takes up 83% of the world’s agricultural land but delivers only 18% of our calories. A plant-based diet cuts the use of land by 76% and halves the greenhouse gases and other pollution that are caused by food production.’

In Richard Young’s (Sustainable food trust) superb response he highlights the many problems with using global averages to back up a highly Westernised viewpoint. The above figures neglect to understand that when farmers pioneer land they will assess the production capabilities of a given area and cultivate the lower, flatter and most accessible for crop (plant food) production and use the higher more inaccessible or less productive areas for grazing animals. it’s just common sense.

 

Of course, you’re going to get fewer calories and protein from these vast areas of uncultivated land, they wouldn’t sustain effective plant food production anyway!

 

Why do you think there are no vegan traditional cultures on the 2/3 rds of the planets habitable land that have long dry seasons? You simply don’t find large numbers of vegans anywhere in the world where there aren’t fancy-pants health food stores! All the traditional peoples of dry-land cultures have to rely on the milk, eggs, meat and blood of animals to survive.

Let’s imagine a modern-day land pioneer deciding what to grow on his land, it will illustrate why simply selecting an ‘efficient’ grain crop may not be the brightest of ideas!

You stumble across a hundred acres of wild and diverse savannah grassland and ‘grab it.’ You’ve got two choices;

1) You decide to grow just soya beans; it’s the most efficient source of food you can grow in terms of protein production and yield. Somehow you find the money to buy the seed.You need to plough the land to minimise competition and establish the crop; this kills most of the creatures that live here. Because you’re fighting nature to grow a monoculture (nature abhors bare ground and monoculture) you must use chemicals to suppress the weeds, disease, and bugs that are making a ‘bee’ line for the easy target you have provided them.

The soil has degraded releasing its valuable Carbon into the atmosphere reducing the capacity to absorb and retain precious water, and the soil micro-organisms so vital for oxidising methane and cycling nutrients have been destroyed.

The soil structure is damaged, and the liquid carbon pathway no longer functions so the plants will need inorganic fertilisers to grow – the most energy-intensive element of agriculture. 60% of those fertilisers will be lost to the rivers and streams causing havoc in water ways and oceans.

You will need to irrigate the land because, bare soil (what you have created) gets hotter and loses water through evaporation very quickly and is prone to drought and flood damage.

You could eat all this soya bean product and possibly survive – for a while at least, but there are serious health concerns about eating copious amounts of soy, or plant foods – especially the modern processed types. (see the note at the foot of the article)

Between 40 – 70 nutrients are known to be needed for health and disease resistance, not only will we get pretty bored of eating soy products, it would inevitably lead to disease and malnutrition.

The land will eventually become so degraded that no amount of chemical helps will allow a successful crop to grow – it’s not a good long-term plan – you’ll end up with a desert.

 

 

2) Alternatively, you could maintain the diverse, living savannah and allow all the wildlife to co-exist.Within your 100 acres, you can run a herd of twenty or more cattle by bunching them and moving them to mimic the natural large herds of grazers that pass through the land. You’re going to team up with your neighbours to make bigger groups, so you can allow areas of land to rest for longer.

You can milk the cows which produce a healthy and nourishing protein source all year round along with an amazing array of health benefits and you can kill a cow or a wild animal occasionally for meat.

You can use the wild herbs and roots for food and grow small areas of crops in mixed rotation to avoid pest burdens and soil degradation, the manure from the animals replenished the fertility of this land.

The entire system provides all the nutrients you need to thrive and requires NO agricultural fertilisers, chemicals or livestock medications.

This system is flood and drought resistant and can go on forever supporting the families who choose to live there.

So, in a fuller context, Georges soy-based scenario isn’t sounding quite so attractive! One of the best examples of scenario two operating at a significant food production scale is regenerative agricultural hero Gabe Brown who, in this great video below, shows an photograph of some soil before and after a woodland was cleared and then cropped with soy for 17 years – it’s scary!

 

 

George Monbiot is using the current unsustainable agricultural model – which I completely agree must change – to justify a move to a plant-based model with some vague notion that we will get better at producing plants organically without the need for livestock.

As Mark Palmer, an experienced organic agricultural advisor explains in his excellent article, producing food from an animal-free cropping system is not as simple as George would like it to sound.

My colleague Georgia and I have written a whole series of articles on how to eat in ways that regenerate land and recover human health whilst still producing enough food to nourish a growing population; we cover them fully in our ‘Wilderove approach’ the eco-omnivore approach to saving the planet.

 

Dumbing down the complexity of the discussion to a statement like ‘eating vegan is less harmful to the planet’ is absurd!

 

As I have highlighted in my article ‘I run a meat business but I’m glad more people are becoming vegan’ I would be happy to leave George alone to enthusiastically convert more people to veganism. I admire anyone who’s willing to make a change for the sake of the planet, even, if in my view, it’s misguided. At least it’s a move away from some of the cruel agricultural practices that are the current norm.

But sadly, George Monbiot seems to have made it his life’s greatest mission to undermine the efforts of regenerative agriculture practitioners like myself who farm alongside wildlife, help mitigate climate change and produce healthy food for all humans (not just middle-class ones with access to a whole foods store!) And, in particular, he seems hell-bent on destroying the reputation of a man; Allan Savory, whom I feel will one day be remembered as one of the greatest positive change-makers of our time.

We holistic managers and regenerative farmers are a small but growing movement of empowered, skilled, experienced and passionate individuals who WILL keep trying to save this beautiful planet regardless of the unrelenting application of limited thinking and significant influence against our cause.

 

 

So, in my humble and un-scientific opinion, one of the most damaging practices in land management today is the widespread promotion of GM.

I mean George Monbiot!

Caroline Grindrod

 

Taken from Weston Price Web site; • High levels of phytic acid in soy reduce assimilation of calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc. Phytic acid in soy is not neutralized by ordinary preparation methods such as soaking, sprouting and long, slow cooking. High phytate diets have caused growth problems in children. • Trypsin inhibitors in soy interfere with protein digestion and may cause pancreatic disorders. In test animals soy containing trypsin inhibitors caused stunted growth. • Soy phytoestrogens disrupt endocrine function and have the potential to cause infertility and to promote breast cancer in adult women. • Soy phytoestrogens are potent antithyroid agents that cause hypothyroidism and may cause thyroid cancer. In infants, consumption of soy formula has been linked to autoimmune thyroid disease. • Vitamin B12 analogs in soy are not absorbed and actually increase the body’s requirement for B12. • Soy foods increase the body’s requirement for vitamin D. Fragile proteins are denatured during high temperature processing to make soy protein isolate and textured vegetable protein. Processing of soy protein results in the formation of toxic lysinoalanine and highly carcinogenic nitrosamines. Free glutamic acid or MSG, a potent neurotoxin, is formed during soy food processing and additional amounts are added to many soy foods. Soy foods contain high levels of aluminum which is toxic to the nervous system and the kidneys.

 

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‘Eat Less Meat’ Ignores the Role of Animals in the Ecosystem

27 01 2018

Lifted from Civil Eats…… it’s fortunately what we were taught at the Small Farm Planning course, and it’s mercifully slowly catching on. My neighbour’s cows are currently on my land, building soil and reducing fire danger all at the same time.

Given the concerns over resource-intensive industrial meat production, you’d think the resounding message would be, “don’t buy cheap meat, buy good meat.”

Instead, a rule of thumb that has emerged in environmentalists’ circles is simply “eat less meat.” This statement frames meat as an indulgence rather than 1) the end result of an essential and timeless ecological process (the biological breakdown of vegetation, which feeds the soil and removes dead grass so that new vegetation can grow) and 2) a fulcrum in the way land across the world is managed or mismanaged.

As a grazier and land manager, I’m part of a growing group of people who have committed our lives to restoring the health of environments directly, through exquisitely precise grazing on sensitive land, and who depend on the support of our communities to do this work.

“Eat less meat” is a well-intended caveat amongst woke environmentalists (a group who is, after all, my cohort) but it has also become a primary barrier to me and others like me doing our work. And it’s hard to not take that personally. Because what could be more personal than the health of my watershed and the kingdoms that inhabit it? If these things aren’t personal to you, we have a bigger problem.

Our work goes like this: We memorize every nook and cranny of a piece of land like a lover’s body. We study how water flows across it and what grasses grow where. We plant trees where we’ve seen them grow before and could grow again. We spend unpaid hours moving animals exactly where they need to go to knock down encroaching brush on long-neglected land. We fence out bird nests. We leave areas ungrazed for a season—and can calculate the cost to the tune of hundreds of dollars—because we know in our throats, our chests, our bellies, and our bones (that’s where we feel it) that it needs another season to grow before grazing would be helpful. We get knocked down, kicked, cut up and cut open; we don’t just risk injury but accept its inevitability. We memorize the names of species that used to grow or live here but have been lost. We love the land and its inhabitants so much that we’re willing to work for next to nothing.

But martyrdom isn’t very becoming, and you can’t milk a dry cow; so like everyone else, graziers have to make money. Until environmentalists actually really put their money where their mouth is and pay me and others to graze land right without meat as the chief goal, we have to sell the surplus from our herds (the flesh of some of the animals) in order to be able to afford to feed ourselves.

Believe me, I wish I were a photosynthesizing autotroph who could get my nourishment directly from the sun.

Not all grazing is created equal. This is the essence of what gets missed in discussions about the impact of livestock agriculture on our local ecosystems and global climate. Decades of mismanagement has left a tough legacy for those of us grazing with restorative goals to overcome. But when animals are managed according to nature’s schedule, beautiful changes can happen fast.

Some of the year I graze the animals in tight bunches to lay down old grass to feed the soil. Other times, I’m herding them fast across the property to stimulate grass plants to grow denser and healthier while they pump carbon deep into the soil food web. I can stop erosion around streams based on how I move these big animals, and stabilize vulnerable hillsides through careful decision-making. For me and many like me, grazing is our art form—it’s our best tool for breathing new life into neglected land.

“Eat less meat” is about mitigating damage, and it misses the opportunity to tell people that there’s a way to actually benefit their planet. Industrially produced meat is unquestionably bad for the environment, and for animals. But perpetuating the myth that all meat is the same means that the potential benefits of responsibly raised meat never get a sufficient foothold. By telling only half the story, we’re perpetuating the problem because we never bother to mention the solution.

 

As an aside, few environmentalists who are opposed to grazing animals and eating their flesh have demonstrated either the degree of embodied affection, personal risk, and deep practice or the knowledge of grassland dynamics, plant succession, and wildlife movement that I’ve seen among the graziers in my life. So I urge those who care about the meat industry’s impact on the environment to bring more curiosity and humility to the discussion.

When we say “eat less meat” and end it there, we miss an opportunity to equip eaters with the means of sourcing protein that will not only nourish them but restore their home ecosystems. And behind every few hundred acres of land that goes poorly managed due to consumer miseducation is a land steward who can’t do their work.

Appetite is energy. Rather than try to halt the tide of appetite for meat by discouraging its consumption outright, a better way to steward that energy would be to concentrate on where it would it can do the most good. In doing so, we’re not just improving our environment, we’re widening the demand for graziers who can produce meat and serve as ecological service providers.

So don’t “eat less meat.” Eat meat from people whose hands you can shake and whose ranches you can visit. Eat as much of that as you can afford, because that stuff comes from extensive production systems that impact hundreds and thousands of acres. Sourcing your protein from places you can account for means you can verify that their pastures are also habitat for foxes, badgers, burrowing owls, and bears—that you are keeping land wild and free. As I see it, beef raised in its environs beats a bean field any day as an ecologically just source of protein.

This type of meat isn’t cheap—and you might find that you value it differently and stop taking it for granted. The end result may very well be that far less meat is consumed overall, at least for a while. But the quantity doesn’t matter to me—what matters is what that animal did in its life on earth.

We have to pay for the world we want to live in. This means consuming the flesh of other sentient animals may damn well require a line-item on our budgets, alongside “eating out” and “entertainment.” Maybe it’s time we socialized ourselves and others to budget for environmental activism, and use that money to buy meat produced by the soil-building, grassland-loving graziers in our communities.

Photos courtesy of Ariel Greenwood.





Post collapse, just what will we eat…..?

21 11 2017

Further to my post where I explained how Australia’s poor soils are largely incapable of growing much more than meat, this article landed in my news feed…

Here’s a list of what Australian farmers produce:

  • Each year, on average each Australian farmer feeds 600 people.
  • Agriculture powers 1.6 million Australian jobs.
  • Australian farmers manage 48 per cent of the nation’s landmass.
  • Cattle, wheat and whole milk are our top three commodities by value.
  • More than 99% of Australia’s agricultural businesses are Australian owned.
  • Out of the $58.1 billion worth of food and fibre Australian farmers produced in 2015-16 77 per cent ($44.8 billion) was exported. 
  • 6.8 million hectares of agricultural land has been set aside by Australian farmers for conservation and protection purposes.
  • Australian farmers are among the most self-sufficient in the world, with government support for Australian farms representing just 1% of farming income. In Norway it is 62%, Korea 49%, China 21%, European Union 19% and United States 9%.

Farm facts by commodity

  • In total, Australian beef cattle farmers produce 2.5 million tonnes of beef and veal each year. Australians eat an average 26kg of beef per person, per year. 
  • Australians consume an average of 45.3kg of chicken meat per person, per year. This not only cements chicken’s position as Australian consumers’ favourite meat, but also makes Australia one of the largest consumers of chicken meat in the world!
  • In a normal year, Australia’s cotton growers produce enough cotton to clothe 500 million people.
  • Australia produces about 3 per cent of the world’s cotton but is the fifth largest exporter, behind the USA, India, Brazil, Uzbekistan.
  • Australian dairy farmers produce 9,539 million litres of whole milk per year with the farmgate value of milk production being $4.3 billion.
  • On average, each Australian eats 3.08kg of dried fruit per year. Total Australian dried fruit exports in 2015–16 totalled 5,000 tonnes and was valued at $19.4 million.
  • The Australian forestry, logging and wood manufacturing industry employs 64,300 in the forest products industry. At the end of 2010, 13,067 million tonnes of carbon was held in Australia’s forests and harvested wood products in service and in landfill. Almost all this carbon 12,841 million tonnes – 98% was stored in living forest.
  • Australia’s grains industry accounts for more than 170,000 jobs across Australia from farm to export dock. About 65% of Australia’s grain is exported, including up to 90% of that grown per annum in Western Australia and South Australia.
  • Australians consumed more than 27kg of pig meat per person in 2015–16; ranked second behind poultry.  The Australian pig herd is free from many serious viral and bacterial diseases afflicting other pork producing countries.
  •  In 2016–17 there were 772 farmers who harvested rice, a significant increase on the 347 growers from the year prior. Australian rice growers use 50% less water to grow one kilo of rice than the world average.
  • Australia is the world’s largest exporter of sheepmeat, and is the world’s third largest producer of lamb and mutton. In 2016–17, Australians, on average, ate 9.5 kg of mutton and lamb per person.
  • The sugar industry directly employs some 16,000 people. The world’s principal sugar exporters in 2015–16 were Brazil, Thailand, Australia and India.
  • Wool production for 2016–17 is forecast to increase by 4.3%, to 339 million kilograms (greasy) from the estimated 2015–16 production period. The increase is largely the result of excellent seasonal conditions in many areas resulting in higher fleece weights.

So, I ask you, WHERE do our fruit and veggies come from?

We may export 77% of what we produce, but it’s all meat, dairy, grains, and wool or cotton……  the money earned therefrom pays for the importation of fruit and veggies not farmed here. In a post oil crash, most of that stuff we export will no longer be made, because it all utterly depends on fertilisers and tractors and harvesters……. If we can’t afford to import non meat/dairy food, will we all turn into carnivores…?

These are serious questions to ponder…..

The mobile butcher came this afternoon, and cut up our two sheep, which are now in the freezer.  We won’t be starving, that’s for sure!

If you are vegan, you might also like (or not..!) to read this… https://qz.com/1131428/if-the-entire-us-went-vegan-itd-be-a-public-health-disaster/





Is eating no meat actually doing more harm than good?

18 05 2017

I spend more time on the internet arguing wih vegetarians/vegans than any other group of people……  I so wish they would get off their high horses and start supporting farmers who do the right thing…. and that goes for all you meat eaters out there who buy meat from supermarkets….  STOP IT!!

This opinion piece was originally published by Farmdrop on 4th May 2017.


The younger generation are positively redefining the way we see ourselves in relation to food and the environment.

I grew up in the late 1960s and so I consider myself a bit of a hippy. That decade marked a fundamental mind-set shift in the way people saw themselves in relation to the world. At the time, it was difficult to pinpoint where these ideas came from; many of them simply seemed to come through intuition.

I mention this because, for the first time since the late 1960s, I feel like another shift in consciousness is occurring among the younger generation, particularly amongst so called ‘millennials’.

There is a new field of scientific study called epigenetics which shows that all living organisms constantly interact with their external environment and that these influences can prompt changes in gene expression which can be passed down through the generations. Plants, for example, have epigenetic responses to the environment they grow in, as a result of which a plant may have a subtle difference in its genotype from its parents. Even more interestingly, certain epigenetic traits can stay dormant for several generations, only to find full expression at a later time.

So I suspect that the changing shift in consciousness towards food production and sustainability may actually be partly epigenetic. Perhaps the radical energy of the 1960s is now finding expression among millennials, albeit in a slightly different way.

For these reasons, as an organic farmer of almost 45 years, I have never been more optimistic about the future of farming. However, I am growing increasingly concerned about the large number of people turning to diets that may not necessarily be either healthy or sustainable.

If we are to move to a genuinely sustainable food system, then I think we all need to become much better informed about the sustainability or otherwise of different food systems. Only then we will be better placed to challenge the huge amounts of misinformation on so-called sustainable diets which are encouraging people to avoid all meats and animal products, despite the reality that in many (if not most climates and regions) it is difficult to farm in a truly sustainable way without livestock.

What is the problem with food and farming?

It has become a cliché but it’s true: supermarket food is not cheap and comes at a heavy price. The industrial application of nitrogen fertiliser has contaminated our water systems and atmosphere with dangerous nitrates; the subsidised production of fructose corn syrup has driven an increase in obesity and diabetes; and the excessive use of antibiotics in animals has caused a resistance to these drugs amongst humans.

The real problem is that none of the costs of all this damage is charged to the people who use it and, on the other hand, the positive effects of sustainable farming are not supported.

The current policy framework supports a dishonest economic food pricing system, as a result of which, the best business case is for farmers to grow using industrial methods and for retailers to buy the commodity products from industrial farms, process the hell out of them, package them so the consumer knows nothing about their backstory and then make a profit by turning that around.

So we need new incentives and disincentives, which ensure that the polluter pays and those who farm in a truly sustainable way are better rewarded for the benefits they deliver.

But what are the most sustainable farming methods?

There is no doubt that agriculture and farming is one of the most significant contributor towards climate change. Cutting back on the biggest pollutant (man-made fossil fuels) is very important but to actually reverse climate change – take CO2 out of the atmosphere – then we need to change the way we farm, particularly in relation to the way we look after the soil.

This is because organic matter in the soil is a store of carbon, thereby mitigating harmful emissions in the atmosphere. Britain’s soils store around 10 billion tonnes of carbon, which is more than total annual global emissions of carbon dioxide. Moreover, high levels of organic matter are also the basis for soil fertility, releasing nutrients for healthy plant growth and ultimately food. In other words, the amount of organic matter present in the soil is essential, both for combating climate change and ultimately improving our health.

The problem is that industrial farming methods have depleted organic matter in the soils. In the East of England, around 84% of the land’s carbon rich soil has been lost and continues to disappear at a rate of 1 to 2cm per year. That represents an enormous amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

Sustainable food systems are therefore about much more than simply avoiding nasty chemicals and antibiotics, they are about building organic matter in the soil through crop rotation and mixed farming practices.

It is possible for farmers to reduce the emissions from agriculture by re-introducing rotations in the way they use their land – introducing a grass and clover phase that builds soil organic matter, which is then grazed by ruminant animals on rotation, who fertilise the soil further, and results in an ability to grow healthy crops.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change, it is estimated that 89% of all agricultural emissions can be mitigated by improving carbon levels in the soil.

How can you have the most healthy and sustainable diet?

Everyone, at least in principle, wants to eat a healthy and sustainable diet, but we are all very confused about how to do it. If you asked 10 people what the most sustainable and healthy way to eat was then you would probably get 10 different answers. A few might say vegetarian or vegan (the numbers eating a vegan diet has increased by 360% in the last decade) but I think that a large scale switch towards vegetarianism may not necessarily be compatible with sustainability.

In my opinion, many people have been led astray by bad science. The tools used by scientific researchers in the past, and whose published papers have prompted changes in people’s diets, were not based on sound science. It was said that red meat and animal fats should be avoided, both because they are unhealthy and because ruminant animals (cows and sheep) are largely responsible for harmful methane emissions.

But it turns out that neither of those positions are necessarily true.

The study that prompted Governments in Britain and the United States to recommend people to reduce their intake of fats was not based on solid evidence. It is this study that encouraged the food industry to replace fats with added sugars, and we are only now understanding the damage these do to our health.

And the studies that recommended a reduction in red meat consumption on grounds of reducing its environmental impact only look at certain factors in isolation rather than the whole food system. Land-use is often considered as bad in all instances, even though raising livestock is sometimes the only productive land use option available. In roughly two thirds of the UK’s agricultural land area is grass and the only way we can turn that into a good soil that stores carbon and grows healthy crops is to have ruminant animals grazing on a rotation system to fertilise the ground.

These flawed assumptions have had significant consequences for the way people eat. Beef production has halved since the 1980s and the consumption of lamb, arguably the most sustainable grass-fed meat for the land, has plummeted. While new evidence is now showing that animals fats are good for our health and cattle grazed in the right way can actually reduce carbon emissions by creating fertile soils.

Where do we go from here?

My message is simple: a healthy diet should work backwards from the most sustainable way to farm, and that ideally means eating the foods produced by mixed farms using crop rotations which include a fertility building phase, usually of grass and clover grazed by cows and sheep, but also pastured pigs and poultry.

Industrial farming has been an extractive industry. We have dined out on the natural capital of the soil that previous generations have laid down for us. We need to fix that because the environment in which a plant or animal is produced goes a long way to determine its nutrient value when consumed by humans.





Beyond Vegetarianism

2 02 2016

Beyond Vegetarian: One Man’s Journey from Tofu to Tallow in Search of the Moral Meal [Interview]

daniel_zeta
Photo by Kristine Leuze

I met Daniel Zetah this past summer, while interning on a small-scale vegetable farm in northern Minnesota. He arrived one Thursday in a white, well-worn Toyota, together with his fiancée, Stephanie. They brought with them two coolers full of meat (which they raised and butchered themselves), a few baskets of vegetables, a live turkey and her poults, two dogs, some camping equipment, and an old friend from their eco-village days who they had fortuitously seen hitchhiking along the side of the road. Daniel had interned on the farm years ago, and he was now returning to be married.

I learned over the course of their visit that Daniel had spent years living in Tasmania, where he had been a “freegan” (someone that scavenges for free food to reduce their consumption of resources), and full-time environmental activist, then a permaculture student, and then a natural builder. I learned Daniel had spent nine months on The Sea Shepherd—an anti-whaling ship vessel that uses direct-action tactics to confront illegal whaling ships—and played a very active role in Occupy Wallstreet.

I learned, too, that after ten years of vegetarianism, Daniel had become a big-time carnivore. As I had recently given up meat in an effort to mitigate my environmental impact, this choice struck me as incongruous. We ended up having a conversation about ethical and environmental eating, which challenged, angered, intrigued, and enlightened me. Daniel and his wife returned to their once-farm in central Minnesota, to finish packing and preparing to move to Tasmania. I called him at home to get the whole story, and record it for this article.

Would you describe yourself as a long-time farmer and environmental activist?

Not at all. I used to be a redneck. I used to race cars and motorcycles and snowmobiles… I was a motorhead. I don’t want people to think I was always like this, because then they’re like “oh, they were just brought up that way by parents that…” it’s like no, no: I was raised by wolves.

I ate nothing but garbage growing up. Until I was probably in my early 20s I ate nothing but shit. Like, garbage, American, supermarket food. When I would go shopping, I would buy the cheapest food I could possibly find, I was literally after the cheapest calories I could possibly find at the supermarket, right up until my mid-20s.

When did that start to change?

Well, I met a girl that I ended up getting married to and she was vegetarian, and so I started eating a vegetarian diet. Which is still completely disconnected and completely clueless as to what you’re eating and where it’s from, it’s just you’re not eating meat. And that’s where I was at for probably a good eight years, until my early 30s.

Eating shit tons of grain, lots of dairy and cheese, but just no meat.

But then I met a guy in Tasmania that basically just said “Dude, what are you doing?” and kind of told me in a very blunt manner that what I was doing was really not conducive to what I was telling myself I wanted to do, which was actually care. He just told me the blunt truth, and I couldn’t refute what he was saying. It was tough… but, like…

A lot of people, when you tell them the truth, they get pissed off, because their egos can’t handle it, and so they want to dismiss what the person said, but I couldn’t do that in this situation. I was just clueless and when this guy gave me a clue, I couldn’t return to being clueless.

So at that point, I started looking at labels of everything that I was eating, it’s like whoa okay, so now I’ve got to worry about this and this and this… and it was a rabbit hole.

The more I learned about what was actually destructive the more I had to look for on labels and after a time I couldn’t actually shop at the supermarket anymore because there was nothing I could eat there in good conscience and then I started shopping at the food co-ops, and then I ended up as a two-year freegan –freeganism.

hobart
Salamanca Market in Hobart, Tasmania

And I thought that’s my way out of guilt, my way of absolving my guilt from staying alive and eating food, is just eating food that’s getting thrown out, so I spent probably a good year and a half in Hobart, eating nothing but discarded food from restaurants and from market stall owners, and I got to know all of them by name, and they would just save me a set amount of food, whatever they had left over, and I actually had a rounds, so I never actually had to go to the dumpster, I just went straight to the source.

What were you doing?

I had quit my job, and I was a full-time environmental activist, because when I started going down this rabbit hole and learning more about peak oil and climate change I was like, ‘oh god’, here I was, just a couple years ago being completely clueless, and then this guy told me this stuff, and now I have the responsibility of the world on my shoulders, to tell everybody what I know, and I just thought at the time that it was literally a lack of awareness by people, and that if people like me would just get out and talk enough that it would all be okay, but I had no idea that it wasn’t a lack of information, it was just a lack of willingness to change. So that’s what I was doing, was just going around and speaking to school groups, speaking at different engagements… I was going to the state government of Tasmania and doing lobbying for energy policy reform, studying energy policy really really heavily, reading everything I could about climate change and human behavior, trying to figure out a way to engage with people that would allow them to absorb what I had to tell them. But yeah, that’s what I did for a year and a half.

And where does the Sea Shepherd fit into this?

sea_shep
The Sea Shepherd Anti-Whaling Ship

I was living on my boat, when the Sea Shepherd pulled up and docked next to me. So I ended up going over there and volunteering. They invited me to come along, so I sold my boat, and ended up on that ship for about 9 or 10 months. So then I was a vegan all of the sudden, because the ship is a vegan ship. So I didn’t really have much choice. And I remember seeing the disconnect there—seeing people eating these soy based meat replacers, and veganase, and all this horrible packaged shit, that had all these ingredients that were grown in industrial agriculture, but they were eating them quite happily, knowing that there wasn’t any animal product in it. Their idea, their reasoning behind being vegan, was apparently to minimize animal suffering, but in my mind, they were actually causing more harm than they [would] if they were eating meat.

Why?

Well even if you’re eating CAFO meat, which– that’s horrible, don’t get me wrong, I think everyone should stop immediately eating packaged meat if they don’t know where it came from– but if you’re eating all of your calories through a vegan diet, let’s face it, most vegans I know anyway, and I’ve known many many many, most of their food is heavily processed, and most of those ingredients are coming from– I would say the lion’s share of those ingredients in a vegan diet—are soy based, and soy, like, growing soy beans is not an easy thing to do for the land. Most, I would say 99.9% of soy beans grown, are grown in a monoculture, and they rely on outside inputs for fertilizer, they rely on lots of toxic chemicals to be sprayed on, for insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, more and more they’re GMO in the seed. So it’s all kinds of bad.

soy
Soybean harvest

So at least with meat, it’s more concentrated, at least the misery is more concentrated. And if you’re eating stuff that contains palm oil and high fructose corn syrup, or anything with corn or soy beans, anything that’s grown monoculturely in industrial agriculture. To me, the misery is just more spread out.

I mean, I grew up with cows, and I love cows more than most people I know, but why is their right to live more than the right for a whippoorwill to live or a snake to live or a mouse to live? Why is it that their rights trump the thousands of species that die in monocropped, industrial agricultural fields every year. Why does it trump all the species that have damn near gone extinct, or have gone extinct, since industrial agriculture has plowed up millions and millions and millions of acres of prairie in this country and destroyed their habit? Like why do their rights not exist?

I mean, and this is the same thing: I love whales, that’s why I was on that anti-whaling ship, but why does the whales right to exist supersede that of those other beings? Just because they’re cute and they’re big and they’re high profile? So we only like big animals? It just didn’t really compute with me.

What happened when you got off the Sea Shepherd?

After I got off the Sea Shepherd I ended up moving to a small village up in the mountains of Tasmania called Lorena, to do a permaculture course—my first permaculture course—and ended up getting offered a job by an awesome guy that was building straw bale houses in that valley, and I ended up staying there for a year and a half/ two years. That’s when I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which helped me realize the complexity of our food choices.

There is no magic bullet. There is no one way to eat that is going to be just devoid of guilt or devoid of the creation of suffering. There is no way to exist without killing something. And that concept I guess was missing for me, and it’s still missing for a lot of people. They believe, and they’re allowed to believe, due to their disconnect of not understanding how anything is grown… they just go to this magical place called the supermarket, and these magical trucks come in the middle of the night, and magical ferries put all this stuff on eye level shelves, where you just go in there and give this magical money to somebody, and they give you all the things you need to survive. That’s all really convenient, but it’s really disconnecting. And as long as you’re doing that, you can believe this myth that you can eat and survive without doing any harm to anybody else, and that myth was shattered when I read that book.

As a result, I decided that I needed to take more personal responsibility for the calories that were keeping me alive, and I decided that if I ever hit an animal with my car again, I would feel like I had to eat that animal, and the same day that I decided that, I hit a humongous wallaby, and I decided that I was going to bring it home, and go through the process of gutting it, skinning it, butchering it, cooking it, and eating it.

That was the first time I’d eaten meat in over 10 years.

And that event set you down the path towards raising livestock?

Well I guess that path led to learning more and more and more, and realizing, that while there is no magic solution for what a human being should eat, or what the perfect diet is, in terms of minimizing suffering of other beings, there is an ideal diet for each region and each situation, and where I chose to farm, which is south-central Minnesota… that bioregion, was a tall-grass prairie or an oak savanna biome, and that oak savanna biome evolved over hundreds of thousands of years from grazing animals.

Bur-oak-savanna-fall
Oak savanna

Like, I can’t eat grass, I can’t break down cellulose, but I can eat meat. And the fact is that every time we plant some kind of a monocultural crop, we have to effectively destroy an intact ecosystem to do that, because it’s an annual. Annuals are only meant as a tool in nature to stabilize soil that has somehow become open to the elements, that’s their job, they come up right away, after a flood or a tree falls or whatever, and they stabilize that soil so it’s not going to erode, and then overtime the perennial plants will say “okay, we got this. Thanks for doing that, you did a good job, but we’re back now and we’re going to be an intact ecosystem of perennial plants and grazing animals.”

And so I realized that I wanted to gain as many of my calories from that perennial ecosystem as possible, and in this biome, I can do that quite easily with nuts, and with some vegetables that we grow non-monoculturally, wild edibles, wild greens, berries, nuts, fruit, and with meat!

I mean having one animal, that’s eaten nothing but grass all its life, and that grass is actually benefiting from it because that whole system evolved to have that animal in it, as part of it, so it’s putting its nutrients back into the system in the form of urine and feces, it’s eating and trampling the plants, and putting litter back in the soil, feeding the soil microorganisms, and it’s all just this beautiful cycle that annuals can’t match…

So by killing one animal that’s going to feed me literally hundreds of meals, versus eating soy beans that I know are just destructive, it just seemed to make so much more sense.

And I felt like as long as I was growing that food and preparing that food, and preserving that food, and getting at least 90-95% of our calories from our land, I’d felt more peace in just being than I have in years. Because I felt that burden lift.

Even when we’re clueless I think we have this burden, like this unconscious burden, of just being, because we know deep down somewhere in our core, that what we’re doing and what agriculture is doing, is just bad. And so when I broke that tie, and that reliance from annual agriculture like that, I just felt much more peaceful. Even though I had to shoot animals directly in the head and watch them die, that I knew and loved, I felt still that I was actually more peaceful because I was causing less death and suffering in this world than I had before.

Even more at peace than when you were a freegan?

When you’re a freegan, you’re removing yourself from all responsibility. Which is good, because… it’s one step to say “no” to bad. And that’s what vegans do. And that’s having some kind of an impact, on how many resources flow towards that bad system, of keeping animals in confined barns, standing in their own shit, but it’s not actually benefiting, or creating, what you want to see.

And what I want to see is systems that are going to mimic natural systems and be good for everything, not just the humans or the domesticated animals, but the wild species as well. I want to see food that is grown in those systems in harmony with an intact ecosystem. And if I stop eating CAFO meat, like I said, that’s better than bad, but good, on the other side, is actually supporting those small farmers that are doing agriculture in a completely different way.

And it’s the same thing with vegetarianism. It’s admirable that people care enough to want to do something different from most people, which is not to give a shit about what they consume, but it just doesn’t go far enough, or look at the bigger picture enough, to realize that they are also consuming things that are producing suffering in this world.

Like I used to eat so many grains, I can’t even tell you, I probably ate most of my calories through grains. And anyone that’s actually been to an annual grain farm, and watched what needs to happen for that to be grown, will have no other illusions that it’s harmless. Because it’s far from harmless. Especially, like, most grains are not organic, but even organic stuff.

I’ve traveled enough and seen enough things grown around the world to know that even organic food, most of it, 99% of it, is grown in monocultures. Go out to California and see the organic almond orchards that go for miles and miles and miles with not one other species in the mix, it’s just those trees, there’s no biodiversity at all, all of the native animals are gone, because all of their habitat is gone.

Like that is not sustainable, that is not ethical, it’s just bad. But because technically they’re not spraying toxins…

I look at organics kinda like I look at vegetarianism. Organic food is better than bad, but it’s still not good. And so if your goal to be better than bad, by all means, just buy organic food from people you’ve never met from the supermarket or co-op. Better than bad! But if you want to go a step further and actually try to create a system that’s going to feed people into perpetuity, and not destroy the ecosystem, you gotta do better than bad. You gotta do good.

So now you’re heading back to Tasmania, and you’ll be trying get your calories from an intact, local ecosystem?

I’ll be eating a lot of wallaby.


This interview was conducted August 1, 2015. Daniel and Stephanie are now kicking off their new life in Lorinna, Tasmania. You can learn more and connect with them online at newstoryfarm.com.   And you can check out their new project at facebook.com/ResiliencySchool/.





Musings on the sustainability of meat and dairy

13 11 2014

In ‘my circles’, I know a lot of vegetarians and vegans.  Vegans, in particular, are the most zealous about their ideal, and I often clash with them for reasons I will tease out in this article.  Make no mistake, I find the entire industrial animal husbandry system totally abhorrent.  It is only possible because we still have relatively cheap fossil fuels, and because farming has left the hands of the many into the hands of the few who can only produce enough food for everyone by using hundreds if not thousands of fossil fuel slaves.  The Matrix is making it so easy to ‘work’ in its grip, and spend the returns shopping for food so cheap that what else are you to do?  I could never sell the food I produce, it takes me far too long (but what else have I got to do!?) and I would never get the financial return it merits, yet the satisfaction and the quality I get is worth my while…..

Simon Fairley

Recently, SBS TV here in Australia aired a fascinating doco featuring Michael Mosley titled “The Truth About Meat” (which Expires on 24 November 2014, 8:40pm).  I was already aware of the disturbing practices in the meat industry, but this film left me nonetheless gobsmacked.  The cruelty exercised on some of the animals depicted beggars belief.  Greed rules in the Matrix.  I have to say I was uplifted by the ending where Mosley meets Simon Fairley, an old fashioned dairy farmer who among other things milks his cows by hand.  The farmer explains how nothing else but grass would grow on his farm, and as we can’t eat grass, it makes sense to use cows to convert it into something we can use.  Interestingly, for someone who makes his livelihood from selling milk, he espouses that we should all use meat and dairy less.  A lot less.  Half, or maybe even less…..  I never thought I’d see the day a dairy farmer draws an exponential curve, but this one did!  As we hit the Limits to Growth wall, this will happen anyway.  Plus, if you want to continue eating meat and dairy post crash, you will have to source it locally, or grow your own.

In another doco titled “Should I Eat Meat” (which expires on 17 November ’14 – so be quick!), Mosley searches for whether or not eating meat is good or bad for you.  Many vegetarians take great pleasure in telling me meat eating causes cancer or some other terrifying life ending diseases.  Mosley’s doco actually concludes this too as he yet again experiments with his own body to discover ‘the truth’.  His cholesterol went up while bingeing on meat.  It’s actually debatable whether high cholesterol is bad for you, the jury’s still out on that one; and besides, we’re all different…  I eat a lot of cheese, and I have my share of meat too, yet my cholesterol is very low (3.0 last time it was checked, and it was 2.8 for thirty years before that!) while Glenda, who’s on the same diet (she actually eats way less cheese than me) has hers at a level that worries the doctor…  What to make of this, I do not know.  As far as meat causing cancer goes, eat non organic meat poisoned with hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides at your own peril methinks……

So, can we raise our own animals ethically and sustainably?  The ethical part of it is easily dealt with as far as I am concerned.  We care for our animals,

Zeb, our British Alpine buck, saved from the knackery at one day of age, hand/bottle raised, a real sweety

Zeb, our British Alpine buck, saved from the knackery at one day of age, hand/bottle raised, a real sweety

and those we kill (like the recent four ducks that were born in our incubator) had a great life roaming around the orchard, only locked up at night for their own security and released again at sunrise.  I’ve become an expert at dispatching chickens and ducks painlessly (for both them and me..) and with virtually zero stress on the animal.  Killing a stressed animal simply gives you bad meat tainted with adrenaline.  When we raised the only two pigs we’ve ever kept here, the mobile butcher came with his .22 rifle to do the dispatching for me.  We put some food on the ground a few metres apart for the pair of them, and when he shot the first one at point blank range killing it immediately, the second pig did not even flinch, so quiet and stress free was the whole affair.  The second pig never knew what him either.  The butcher said the animals were of the very best condition, something he can tell immediately by just looking at their livers.  He’d worked in abattoirs and said that after seeing what went on there and how bad the meat quality was, he never buys supermarket meat, and he raises his own meat too.

In the end, the resulting pork meat cost us just the same as buying organic free range pork from the shop (if you can even find some), but we knew where they’d been and what they were fed, and the meat was outstanding……  in fact the quality of the chicken and duck meat we raise leaves supermarket produce for dead (pardon the pun).

Yellow coloured grass fed free range chicken

Yellow coloured grass fed free range chicken

We don’t feed any grains to our chickens at all, instead giving them loads of organic food scraps we are lucky enough to have access to (it was the food we also fed the pigs). We also make sure our chooks eat a lot of grass.  The Muscovy ducks do this naturally, it’s their preferred staple.  A couple of years ago, I saw Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall expose the British chicken industry for what it was really worth, and showed how grass fed free range chickens have twenty times the Omega3 fatty acids of ordinary birds.  The way to tell if a bird is grass fed and truly free range is by the colour of its skin and fat, bright yellow….  you won’t find those on supermarket shelves.

I realise that there is nowhere near enough waste food around for everyone to do this, but it has occurred to me we could easily grow wheat here, as it self seeds easily whenever grain is spilled on the ground, and we’ve had moderate success with sunflowers, which I must plant again soon.  Our biggest concern here for doing all this is that we run the whole show on tank water, and really, we need at least one more tank.  This requires money and resources, and that’s where the sustainability side of things kicks in for me.  Nothing we do is sustainable, really…..

But think about this.  If we did not have the goats, I would have to mow 3/4 of an acre.  I can’t do the maths on that, but there must surely be some greenhouse tradeoff.  Besides, because we recycle all the animals’ manures and turn them into compost, we don’t buy fertilisers made and packaged with fossil fuels.  That alone must save at least as much greenhouse emissions are the goats’ belching….

In the end, there are no silver bullets.  Too many people, wanting too many meals made up of protein is the real problem, and I see no answer to that curly problem.  The Matrix must simply wind down, that’s all there is to it.





Reality Check….

13 07 2014

Just found this, written by Tovar Cerulli who is the author of The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance. He lives in Vermont in the northeastern US.  Originally published at http://aeon.co/magazine/nature-and-cosmos/tovar-cerulli-vegetarian-food-production-hunting/

Once upon a time, I believed in the tidy taxonomy of the grocery store.

In the meat coolers, near the back of the store, I could find Animalia: beef steaks, pork chops, chicken legs, and fish fillets. In other coolers, along a side wall, I could find gentler products from that same kingdom: eggs, milk, yogurt, and cheese. In other sections, I could find all things Plantae: vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains.

The realms seemed clear and separate, each kind of food carrying a distinct meaning. When I ate meat, that meant animal death. When I ate dairy products, that meant animal confinement. When, inspired by the compassionate teachings of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, I turned to veganism — that meant harm to nothing but plants. My conscience seemed clear.

Eight years later, this fairy tale began to unravel. In the garden my wife and I tended, for instance, I began to see that squash and green beans were not just the fruit of plants. They were also the fruit of animals.

Like all living things, our garden plants had to eat. As their hungry roots drew sustenance from the ground, nutrients had to be replaced. So each year I drove our pickup truck a few miles down the road and brought home a cubic yard or two of compost: rich, dark, dense material made from the manure of cows and other animals, and from their bodies as well, as farmers sometimes compost carcasses.

Squash and green beans owe their existence to the lives and deaths of animals

I could have insisted on supplementing our own kitchen-scrap compost with fertilisers made from nothing but plants. Such products were certainly available. Most, though, were imported from out of state in bright plastic bags. Depending on them to feed our soil would, I reflected, be like subsisting on grocery-store tofu made from soybeans grown a thousand miles away, instead of eating chicken from a neighbour’s backyard or venison from nearby woods. These choices would keep animal products away from our garden and plates, but they made no ecological sense.

And even if I found a local source of animal-free fertiliser, would it make a difference? Though crops can be grown without manure, such approaches typically require more acreage than do integrated plant-animal systems. Why till more land, and perhaps displace more wildlife habitat, for the sake of excluding domesticated creatures from the agricultural landscape? Though this might help shore up my own conceptual categories, would it serve any other purpose, any greater good?

Plant-animal integration is, I realised, the norm in nature. It is how prairies and savannahs and all manner of ecosystems have been sustained for countless millennia. It is the most natural, ancient, and sustainable of systems — flora and fauna feeding one another in endless cycles. But our participation blurred boundaries I had taken for granted. If the squash and beans we grew were fed by local dairy farms, were we really eating just plants?

In his book Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us to attend to interconnections, to look deeply into the origins of the materials of everyday life, including food. The more I looked, the more complex things became.

In our own garden, I saw the earthworms we accidentally cut in two with our shovels whenever we turned the soil. I saw the beetles I crushed to protect tender young plants. I saw, too, that the compost we imported linked our garden not only to dairy products but also to meat: to give milk, cows must be impregnated. Pregnant cows give birth to calves. And virtually all male calves end up as veal.

In larger-scale crop production, I saw prairie and forest habitats disrupted across North America. I saw birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects maimed and killed by machinery and pesticides. Even in produce from small-scale organic farms, I saw rodent burrows cleared by deadly smoke bombs and deer populations kept in check by hunters and farmers alike.

When I visit the grocery store these days, I realise we have a choice, but it is not simply the choice I once made between the purity of veganism and its alternatives, based on suffering. Walking down the aisles, we can let the orderly bins and shiny packages cultivate our forgetfulness. We can let ourselves believe in all the tidy separations: plants and animals divided into neatly compartmentalised kingdoms, food severed from earth, our shopping disconnected from others’ farming. We can let ourselves be comforted by our own ignorance, by everything we neither see nor want to see.

Or we can remind ourselves of just how intertwined everything really is. Uncomfortable though it might be, we can remind ourselves that lettuce is not as innocent as it appears, that squash and green beans owe their existence to the lives and deaths of animals. We can remind ourselves that pastoral landscapes are not just backdrops for recreational hikes or idyllic rides through the countryside. They are not an ‘environment’ that exists around us. They are the places that feed us, the soil in which we are rooted. They are us.

We can remind ourselves, too, of all the people who work the land for a living. Day in and day out, they draw sustenance, theirs and ours, directly from the earth. They know the nature of the places where they live and work — the soils and waters and climates and non-human inhabitants — more intimately than most of us do. They know the nature of living and eating more deeply, too. They know it’s a messy business.

We can remind ourselves that our lives are not separate from theirs. As a teenage omnivore, I never thought seriously about the connections between my living and eating and the gritty realities of agriculture. Nor did I think about those connections as a twentysomething vegan, up on my ethical high horse, wanting nothing to do with the confinement, let alone the deaths, of fellow creatures. I assumed I could remain aloof from all of that. Only later did I begin to see more clearly.

Those connections are, in the literal sense of the word, vital. They keep us alive. The teacher and the student, the artist and the office worker, the doctor and the attorney, are all utterly dependent on the farmer. Whatever romantic notions we might have about ourselves and our ethically or environmentally motivated food choices, the boundaries between vegans, vegetarians and veal eaters are somewhat ambiguous. We are all part of the same food systems.

We can — and should — advocate changes in those systems, promoting both animal welfare and ecological health. Our efforts, however, will be most effective if people of all dietary persuasions can collaborate, remembering that we, like the foods we eat, inhabit an integrated whole, not isolated kingdoms. My wife and I, for instance, don’t buy beef or veal, yet we applaud the local farmers who produce those meats in humane, ecologically sound ways. And we recognise that the yogurt we eat is linked to the lives and deaths of cows, just as our garden is.

It is easy to forget, of course. I know I do. In the bustle of everyday life, the interconnections slip my mind. I eat a bowl of salad and see nothing but greens.

Then the phone rings. It’s a neighbour calling. Woodchucks have begun to obliterate her garden, in spite of the electric fence. I’m one of the few hunters she knows. Would I be willing to lend a hand?

Ah, yes, I think. Hidden costs.

Taking a deep breath, I fetch my .22 rifle.

17 September 2012