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]

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.

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?

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.


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.

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.

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   And you can check out their new project at

Ugo Bardi on Food Systems Complexity

19 07 2015

Ugo Bardi

Ugo Bardi

Can you think of something worse than a wicked problem? Yes, it is perfectly possible: it is a wicked solution. That is, a solution that not only does nothing to solve the problem, but, actually, worsens it. Unfortunately, if you work in system dynamics, you soon learn that most complex systems are not only wicked, but suffer from wicked solutions (see,

This said, let’s get to one of the most wicked problems I can think of: that of the world’s food supply. I’ll try to report here at least a little of what I learned at the recent conference on this subject, jointly held by FAO and the Italian Chapter of the System Dynamics Society. Two days of discussions held in Rome during a monster heat wave that put under heavy strain the air conditioning system of the conference room and made walking from there to one’s hotel a task comparable to walking on an alien planet: it brought the distinct feeling that you needed a refrigerated space suit. But it was worth being there.

First of all, should we say that the world’s food supply is a “problem”? Yes, if you note that about half of the world’s human population is undernourished; if not really starving. And of the remaining half, a large fraction is not nourished right, because obesity and type II diabetes are rampant diseases – they said at the conference that if the trend continues, half of the world’s population is going to suffer from diabetes.

So, if we have a problem, is it really “wicked”? Yes, it is, in the sense that finding a good solution is extremely difficult and the results are often the opposite than those intended at the beginning. The food supply system is a devilishly complex system and it involves a series of cross linked subsystems interacting with each other. Food production is one thing, but food supply is a completely different story, involving transportation, distribution, storage, refrigeration, financial factors, cultural factors and is affected by climate change, soil conservation, population, cultural factors…… and more, including the fact that people don’t just eat “calories”, they need to eat food; that is a balanced mix of nutrients. In such a system, everything you touch reverberates on everything else. It is a classic case of the concept known in biology as “you can’t do just one thing.”

globalfoodsystemOnce you obtain even a vague glimpse of the complexity of the food supply system – as you can do in two days of full immersion in a conference – then you can also understand how poor and disingenuous often are the efforts to “solve the problem”. The basic mistake that almost everyone does here (and not just in the case of the food supply system) is trying to linearize the system.

Linearizing a complex system means that you act on a single element of it, hoping that all the rest won’t change as a consequence. It is the “look, it is simple” approach: favored by politicians (*). It goes like this, “look, it is simple: we just do this and the problem will be solved”. What is meant with “this” varies with the situation; with the food system, it often involves some technological trick to raise the agricultural yields. In some quarters that involves the loud cry “let’s go GMOs!” (genetically modified organisms).

Unfortunately, even assuming that agricultural yields can be increased in terms of calories produced using GMOs (possible, but only in industrialized agricultural systems), then the result is a cascade of effects which reverberate in the whole system; typically transforming a resilient rural production system into a fragile, partly industrialized, production system – to say nothing about the fact that these technologies often worsen the food’s nutritional quality. And, assuming that it is possible to increase yields, how do you find the financial resources to build up the infrastructure needed to manage the increased agricultural yield? You need trucks, refrigerators, storage facilities, and more. Even if you can manage to upgrade all that, very often, the result is simply to make the system more vulnerable to external shocks such as increases in the cost of supplies such as fuels and fertilizers.

There are other egregious examples of how deeply flawed is the “‘look, it is simple” strategy. One is the idea that we can solve the problem by getting rid of food waste. Great, but how exactly can you do that and how much would that cost? (**) And who would pay for the necessary upgrade of the whole distribution infrastructure? Another “look, it is simple” approach is ‘if we all went vegetarian, there would be plenty of food for everyone’. In part, it is true, but it is not so simple, either. Again, there is a question of distribution and transportation, and the fact that rich westerners buy “green food” in their supermarkets has little impact on the situation of the poor in the rest of the world. And then, some kinds of “green” food are bulky and hence difficult to transport; also they spoil easily, and so you need refrigeration, and so on. Something similar holds for the “let’s go local” strategy. How do you deal with the unavoidable fluctuations in local production? Once upon a time, these fluctuations were the cause of periodic famines which were accepted as a fact of life. Going back to that is not exactly a way to “solve the food supply problem.”

A different way to tackle the problem is focussed on reducing the human population. But, also here, we often make the “look, it is simple” mistake. What do we know exactly on the mechanisms that generate overpopulation, and how do we intervene on them? Sometimes, proposers of this approach seem to think that all what we need to do is to drop condoms on poor countries (at least it is better than dropping bombs on them). But suppose that you can reduce population in non traumatic ways, then you intervene into a system where “population” means a complex mix of different social and economic niches: you have urban, peri-urban, and rural population; a population reduction may mean shifting people from one sector to the other, it may involve losing producing capabilities in the rural areas, or, on the contrary, reduced capabilities of financing production if you could lower population in urban areas. Again, population reduction, alone, is a linear approach that won’t work as it is supposed to do, even if it could be implemented.

Facing the complexity of the system, listening to the experts discussing it, you get a chilling sensation that it is a system truly too difficult for human beings to grasp. You would have to be at the same time an expert in agriculture, in logistics, in nutrition, in finance, in population dynamics, and much more. One thing I noticed, as a modest expert in energy and fossil fuels, is how food experts normally don’t realize that the availability of fossil fuels must necessarily go down in the near future. That will have enormous effects on agriculture: think of fertilizers, mechanization, transportation, refrigeration, and more. But I didn’t see these effects taken into account in most models presented. Several researchers showed diagrams extrapolating current trends into the future as if oil production were to keep increasing for the rest of the century and more.

The same is true for climate change: I didn’t see at the conference much being said about the extreme effects that rapid climate change could have on agriculture. It is understandable: we have good models telling us how temperatures will rise, and how that will affect some of the planet’s subsystems (e.g. sea levels), but no models that could tell us how the agricultural system will react to shifting weather patterns, different temperatures, droughts or floods. Just think of how deeply agricultural yields in India are linked to the yearly monsoon pattern and you can only shiver at the thought of what might happen if climate change would affect that.

So, the impression I got from the conference is that nobody is really grasping the complexity of the problem; neither at the overshootlevel of single persons, nor at the level of organizations. For instance, I never heard a crucial term used in world dynamics, which is “overshoot”. That is, it is true that right now we can produce roughly enough food – measured in calories – for the current population. But for how long will we be able to do that? In several cases I could describe the approaches I have seen as trying to fix a mechanical watch using a hammer. Or to steer a transatlantic liner using a toothpick stuck into the propeller.

But there are also positive elements coming from the Rome conference. One is that the FAO, although a large, and sometimes clumsy, organization understands how system dynamics is a tool that could help a lot policy makers to do better in managing the food supply system. And, possibly, helping them device better ideas to “solve the food problem”. That’s more difficult than it seems: system dynamics is not for everyone and teaching it to bureaucrats is like teaching dogs to solve equations: it takes a lot of work and it doesn’t work so well. Then, system dynamics practitioners are often victim of the “spaghetti diagram” syndrome, which consists in drawing complex models full of little arrows going from somewhere to somewhere else, and then watching the mess they created and nodding in a show of internal satisfaction. But it is also true that, at the conference, I saw a lot of good will among the various actors in the field to find a common language. This is a good thing, difficult, but promising.

In the end, what is the solution to the “food supply problem”? If you ask me, I would try to propose a concept: “in a complex system, there are neither problems, nor solutions. There is only change and adaptation.” As a corollary, I could say that you can solve a problem (or try to) but you can’t solve a change (not even try to). You can only adapt to change, hopefully in a non traumatic manner.

Seen in this sense, the best way to tackle the present food supply situation, is not to seek for impossible (wicked) solutions (e.g. GMOs) but to increase the resilience of the system. That involves working at the local level and interacting with all the actors working in the food supply system. It is a sensible approach. FAO is already following it and it can insure a reasonable supply even in the presence of the unavoidable shocks that are going to arrive as the result of climate change and energy supply problems. Can system dynamics help? Probably yes. Of course, there is a lot of work to do, but the Rome conference was a good start.

H/t: Stefano Armenia, Vanessa Armendariz, Olivio Argenti and all the organizers of the joint Sydic/FAO conference in Rome


* Once you tackle the food problem, you can’t ignore the “third world” situation. As a consequence, the conference was not just among Westerners and the debate took a wider aspect that also involved different ways of seeing the world. One particularly interesting discussion I had was with a Mexican researcher. According to her opinion, “linearizing” complex problems is a typical (and rather wicked) characteristic of the Western way of thinking. She countered this linear vision with the “circular” approach that, according to her, is typical of ancient Meso-American cultures, such as the Maya and others. That approach, she said, could help a lot the world to tackle wicked problems without worsening them. I just report this opinion; personally I don’t have sufficient knowledge to judge it. However, it seems true to me that there is something wicked in the way Western thought tends to mold everything and everyone on its own image.

** In the food system, the idea that “look, it is simple: just let’s get rid of waste” is exactly parallel to the “zero waste” approach for urban and industrial waste. I have some experience in this field, and I can tell you that, the way it is often proposed, the “zero waste” idea simply can’t work. It involves high costs and it just makes the system more and more fragile and vulnerable to shocks. That doesn’t mean that waste is unavoidable; not at all. If you can’t build up a “zero waste” industrial system, you can build up subsystems that will process and eliminate that waste. These subsystems, however, cannot work using the same logic of the standard industrial system; they have to be tailored to operate on low yield resources. In practice, it is the “participatory management” approach, (see, e.g.,the work of Prof. Gutberlet). It can be done with urban waste, but also with food waste and it is another way to increase the resilience of the system.

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.

Do you really want to live sustainably – self sufficiently?

5 02 2014

A couple of years ago, I somehow found this interesting blog called thekitchensgarden written by “A girl from New Zealand married to an American fella and living on the prairies. Growing, cooking and eating using sustainable and organic methods. Welcome! I am here most every day”  Her name is Celi…….  I don’t read everything Celi writes, it’s a bit like a diary – which is fine – but it’s a bit cutesypie for me who prefers reading meatier stuff….  I’m sure you all know what I mean!  But Celi is a good writer and photographer, and every now and again she posts something that really catches my attention, and today she has a doozy…  Do you really want to live sustainably – self sufficiently?

I think about little else these days, as our water supply dwindles (still haven’t bought any…), the garden shrinks, and the cloudy skies bring no rain worth mentioning.  And every day, and I mean EVERY day, the temperature reaches 30+ (~90ºF) drying everything out…..  I saw the other day a well respected NZ long range forecaster predicting we may not get any decent rain in Queensland before May.  My friend Serge who has 20 acres near Gympie was talking about selling his cows the other day, because he’s run out of feed….. and he has a spring!

But back to Celi………  “Sustainable is not only about food. It is also about lifestyle”, she writes, adding

Our house is heated by a wood stove. (We only use trees that have fallen in storms or been culled by farmers.)  This means that only one area of the house is heated, the rest is just .. well .. cold.

I lay in the bath every night and you would not know there was a pale tired little body in there,  the room is ALL steam.  Our bed is a mound of blankets. Cats  tucked into the corners.  Dogs waiting for our feet.

We eat pretty much the same thing with small variations each night. The proteins are free range chicken or their eggs, lean grass fed beef, lavender lamb, or  pasture raised pork.  The frozen vegetables are almost all gone.  The tomatoes and fruit in jars are still holding out. I also eat nuts and seeds, rice and cereals that I cannot grow out here.  (Bought at the supermarket once a month – not at all sustainable.)   Flour for bread, pizza bases and pasta is bought. I have used all the home grown potatoes, onions,  and beans and pumpkins long ago so if it were not for frozen peas (bought from the supermarket) and my enormous stash of tomatoes in jars and my wine (there are vitamins in wine?) we would have scurvy.

The fact is that if I were a sustainably managed vegan or vegetarian (as in growing all my own food)  and living out here on the prairie I would be dead. Or at the very least unwell and very thin. We eat plenty of vegetable and egg based meals. But we need to buy most of the vegetable ingredients now. Not sustainable or self sufficient at all.  We have a 6 month period when the ground will grow nothing at all. A cold frame will extend the lettuce for a while. But there is very little nutrition in a lettuce. All the greens must be grown in the summer and stored.  And a cabbage only lasts so long, same for the onions and the potatoes and pumpkins. So by now I am looking to the supermarket to buy my vitamins, absolutely none of which are grown within hundreds and hundreds of miles of here. Certainly not without the help of a lot of artificial heating. So thank goodness I have a freezer full of protein. Even the milk is bought from another farm until I start milking again. Not self sufficient.  Flour, chick peas, legumes, split peas, kidney beans, etc, all bought from the supermarket. Not self sufficient.  Flax seeds, buckwheat, rye.. all bought.

Celi’s blog‘s worth a visit, just for the photos…….

I recently had a lengthy online argument with a vegetarian (or was she vegan – don’t know) who was going on and on about cows’ greenhouse emissions.  And the ethics of killing animals for food too of course….  I told her about how her organics needed animal manures to grow instead of the normal chemical fertilisers.  To cut to the chase, the argument ended when I asked her had she ever tried growing her own food.  City people have no idea……  they somehow believe we will just transition to a Carbon free and sustainable future, and everything will be honky dory…


Wwoofers fixing swales

I hate to think what will happen to Celi and her husband and animals WTSHTF….  at least she’s way in front of the propane consuming farmers; what will happen to them when the propane stops?  What will happen to the city folks expecting those farmers’ produce to hit the shelves when they fail to arrive?  Denial is rife…..


where’s the water…..??

I just sent off three young American Wwoofers from Seattle to their next destination, Singapore.  They were only here for five days, but they worked like slaves (no, way better actually) and did tons of stuff I don’t have the energy to do (ah to be 18 again….  and know what I know now!).  They reinstated our swales, which over time after being walked on were more like bumps on the landscape, cleared that invasive grass that used to come from next door on the wind, spread mulch everywhere, and generally set the scene in expectation of that last remaining ingredient, RAIN…  Feeding them was an eye opener……  all that work had to be energised with loads of protein, which I mostly bought, because while unlike Celi we are not snow bound, the garden looks like it’s been nuked, so dry it has become.  Is there anywhere on Earth that is suitable for sustainability and self sufficiency…?  I wonder every day…

Right now, having breakfast of left over Huon Valley blueberries we brought back from Tassie (boy am I going to grow heaps of those in Geevo…!) with Goat Milk Yogurt……  Yum!