Confessions of a Carnivore

red meat

As a strong sustainability activist, I feel quite embarrassed admitting that I derive nearly all my dietary protein from animal sources (eggs and fish). Explaining why I do so is even more embarrassing, a 20-year chronic intestinal infection that makes it virtually impossible to digest plant protein, in the form of nuts and legumes (peas, dried beans, lentils, etc.).

Will Global Population Drop Without Fossil Fuels?

In The End of Growth, post-carbon activist Richard Heinberg predicts that without fossil fuels, the Earth could feed at most two billion people. Organic farmers in the biointensive movement (an amalgamation of the eighty-year-old Biodynamic and the French intensive movements) dispute this figure, pointing to studies showing that Biointensive methods actually increase crop yields by 150-200%. Given current data (see Population and Sustainability: the Elephant in the Room) that our current system of industrial agriculture feeds only 84% of the world, we could guesstimate that a switch from industrial to biointensive agriculture could potentially feed a global population of 7.8 billion.

Now here’s the rub: nearly all biointensive research focuses concerns yields of grains and vegetable crops. Preliminary research applying biointensive methods to livestock production suggests we could only provide a meat-based diet for 2-3 billion people without fossil fuels.

The average fossil fuel input required to produce meat protein is eleven times greater than for equivalent grain protein production. A meat-based diet also requires ten times more land and 100 times more water. In the US alone, the amount of energy, land and water we invest in livestock is sufficient to feed an additional 840 million vegetarians.

The Privilege of Eating Meat

At the moment approximately 1/3 of the planet (those in the privileged industrialized world) consume meat. The high cost of land, fresh water and energy compels the other 2/3 (4.7 billion) to survive on a plant-based diet. With rapid industrial development, in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, these ratios are changing rapidly. In all five countries, a growing middle class seems to be developing an insatiable demand for meat, dairy and other animal-based products. In New Zealand this is a daily news item, as China purchases the bulk of Australian and Kiwi meat and dairy exports.

Hard Choices for Activists

It seems to me that sustainability and social justice activists face some hard choices. It we are genuine in our commitment to replace capitalism with a more egalitarian society, we need to acknowledge that no society is truly egalitarian if only rich people eat meat. In other words, a truly equal distribution of land and water resources will either require a commitment to reduce global population to 2-3 billion – or a commitment by 1/3 of the planet to give up their meat-based diet.

If we fail to make this choice – and do nothing – we will be left with a scenario in which Malthusian forces (war, famine and disease) drastically reduce global population for us.

photo credit: kevindean via photopin cc

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read an ebook week

In celebration of read an ebook week, there are special offers on all my ebooks (in all formats) this week: they are free.

This includes my new novel A Rebel Comes of Age and my memoir The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee

Offer ends Sat. Mar 8.

Farming Without Machines: A Revolutionary Agricultural Technology

how to grow more vegetables

How to Grow More Vegetables (and fruits, nuts, berries, grains, and other crops) than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine

By John Jeavons

2002 Edition

Ten Speed Press

Book Review

Originally published in 1974, How to Grow More Vegetables remains a vital resource for farmers, agricultural researchers and planners, sustainability activists and home gardeners, as the world confronts the challenge of feeding a global population of 7-9 billion without access to the cheap fossil fuels that have run “industrial” agriculture for the last century. Thanks to skyrocketing oil prices, Peak Oil is no longer just a theory. The failure of oil production to increase at the same rate as heavy demand from developing countries like China and India has driven the price of oil to record levels. Owing to the heavy use of fossil fuels in contemporary agriculture, food prices have tended to increase at a comparable rate. Scientists predict that food shortages related to the loss of mechanized agriculture will likely be compounded by droughts, floods and other extreme weather events related to climate change.

Growing Soil, Not Crops

Jeavon’s book is unique in that it combines theory and research (with a fifty-three page bibliography) with a cookbook-style manual for households preparing for a future in which they grow most or all of their own food. The GROW BIOINTENSIVE approach, developed by Jeavons and Ecology Action of the Midpenninsula (Palo Alto), is centered around preserving the microbial life (bacteria and fungi) that are abundant in healthy soil and which are essential to plant health and growth. Up to 6 billion microbial life-forms live in one 5-gram sample of cured compost (about the size of a quarter). This microbial life, so essential to plant development, is destroyed by specific aspects of industrial farming. This is the main reason for the relatively poor yields of factory farms (in contrast to traditional biointensive methods). It’s also responsible for the extensive destruction of our topsoil. Repeated plowing and chemical fertilizers disrupt the delicate ecology of topsoil organisms, and pesticides and herbicides are as deadly to soil bacteria and fungi as they are to insects and weeds. In his introduction, Jeavons reveals that industrial farming destroys approximately six pounds of topsoil for each pound of food it produces. China’s soils, for example, remained productive for more than 4,000 years, until the adoption of mechanized chemical agricultural techniques led to the destruction of 15-33% of their agricultural soil. Another example is North Africa, which was the granary for Rome until overfarming transformed it into a desert. According to Jeavons, the world only has enough topsoil left to last 42-84 years.

Quadrupling Crop Yields

Based on thirty-plus years of horticultural research, Ecology Action members have ascertained that the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method, in the hands of a skilled practitioner, can produce enough food to feed one person (on a vegan diet) with 4,000 square feet of land. This contrasts with the 7,000 square feet required to feed a vegan using fossil fuels, farm machinery and conventional chemical or organic techniques. Without fossil fuels and machines, the amount of land required (using conventional chemical or organic techniques) would be 21,000-28,000 square feet. At present it takes 31,000-63,000 square feet per person to produce an average US diet (including eggs, milk, cheese, and meat), using fossil fuels and mechanization and conventional chemical or organic techniques. In addition to increasing caloric production by 200-400% per unit of area, the GROW BIOINTENSIVE method also significantly reduces water consumption (by 67-88%) and increases soil fertility (by 100%).

A Manual for Novice, Intermediate and Advanced Gardeners

Most of How to Grow More Vegetables is a detailed instruction manual describing how an average family (1-4 people) can grow the right kind of crops to supply most, if not all, their food requirements. Nearly half the book consists of tables with basic information about the spacing, care and calorie and protein content of specific crops and master charts showing where, when and how much of each variety to plant.

Originally published in Dissident Voice

Rethinking Industrial Agriculture

food forest

Small food forest

(This is the second of two posts about dramatic changes that are occurring in food production and marketing, as well as consumer food choices.  Part II addresses the application of design technology to water and soil management, which is revolutionizing the movement towards local food production.)

Applying Design Technology to Farming

Most food localization initiatives have been accompanied by radical technological advances that apply design principles to the way food is grown. The design technology employed in the rapidly growing fields of permaculture and biointensive farming is based on a radically different approach to water and soil management, modeled on nature’s ecosystem design principles. Anyone who studies natural ecosystems can’t help but notice there are no neat rows or bare soil in natural forests and prairies. Nature crams as many living organisms as possible, all with complex symbiotic relationships, into every square inch.

Ironically this “revolutionary” technology happens to be 4,000 years old. Chinese farmers discovered around 2,000 B.C. that designing their fields to replicate natural ecosystems produced the highest yields. This approach is well-described in F.H. King’s 1911 book Farmers of Forty Centuries. The US Department of Agriculture sent King to China in the early 1900s to investigate why Chinese farms were so amazingly productive. What he discovered was a highly sophisticated system of water and soil management that emphasized species diversity and rational utilization of ecological relationships among plants and between plants and animals.

The Watershed Model of Water Management

Despite King’s innovative work, it has taken English-speaking countries a full century for the lessons to sink in. Applying capitalist slash and burn mentality to farming clearly hasn’t worked. Agricultural yields in Britain and its former colonies, which all employ similar “modern” methods of water management, have destroyed tons of topsoil and essentially reduced agricultural yields by a third. In a desperate attempt to ramp up yields, chemical insecticides and herbicides were introduced after World War II. These, in turn, systematically killed off microscopic soil organisms essential to plant health.

Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other former British colonies all adopted the “drainage” system of water management. In this approach, trees are systematically cleared (usually by burning) and wetlands and springs are drained. Typically land managed in this way is subject to alternating flooding and drought, creating an unending cycle of economic hardship for farmers and farming communities. Besides destroying existing crops, repeated flooding also washes away topsoil and essential plant nutrients.

In contrast traditional farmers in non-English speaking countries are more likely to use the centuries’ old “water catchment model” of water management, sometimes referred to as terraquaculture. Because they deliberately design their farms to catch and hold water, they aren’t subject to flooding, soil erosion and draught. Chinese farmers wouldn’t dream of draining their wetlands, which are always the most productive areas for high energy food crops, such as rice and other grains.

Plowing “Kills” Soil

Soil technology has also greatly advanced in the last five decades, with the discovery of complex micro-ecosystems that support optimal plant growth. These eocosystems include a myriad of soil yeasts, bacteria and other organisms that live in symbiosis with host plants. Not only do they provide nutrients to the root systems of larger plants, but they also produce a myriad of natural insecticides and herbicides to protect them against pests. Mechanically disrupting the soil through plowing kills these organisms. They can potentially recover if the soil is left undisturbed – unless the grower totally wipes them out with pesticides, herbicides or bacteriocidal GMOs.

Studies show that plant diversity is also essential to a healthy plant ecosystem. Planting a single crop in neat rows surrounded by bare soil is also perfect invitation for weeds and insects to come and attack them.

Permaculture, in contrast, discourages noxious weeds and insect pests by creating “food forests” made up of compatible food-producing trees, shrubs and ground cover crops. Unlike veggie gardens limited to annuals that have to be replanted every year, the food forest is self-sustaining with minimal input. For people worried about the economy collapsing and their gardens being invaded by barbarians from the big city, it’s also virtually indestructible.

To get some idea what a food forest looks like, check out this video by Australian permaculture guru Geoff Lawton:

Attention City Dwellers

Lawton is also a big fan of small space urban permaculture because it’s the most productive in terms of yield per square foot. The following is a video by one of his students about designing a permaculture food growing system on your balcony or terrace:

photo credit: London Permaculture via photopin cc

Originally published in Dissident Voice