- Date published:
7:05 am, February 7th, 2020 - 123 comments
Categories: farming, food - Tags: joel salatin, mark shephard, new forest farm, plant based, regenag, regenerative agriculture, veganism
Here’s a wonderful, short, explanatory piece from Johannesburg chef and food writer Andrea Burgener on why the environmental farming choice isn’t meat vs plant-based, but industrial vs regenerative. Burgener leads with the example of concern about the Amazon rain forest being expended to grow meat, or grain for meat production.
My take: essentially our global economy demands that other, poorer people grow cash crops to support the excessive lifestyles of the overdeveloped nations. NZ’s ecological footprint would require 2.43 planets (PDF) if everyone lived like us. But don’t worry, only having one planet doesn’t mean our lives have to be nasty, brutish and short.
In the case of the Amazon, that means chopping down trees for export beef. The current mainstream, over-simplified response tends to be that we should stop eating meat and eat plants instead. But as the article points out,
It’s not so much about what we farm. It’s about how and where. That holds true for the maize supplying the abominable livestock feedlots and the seed oils grown for the abominable “plant-based” burgers. And it’s why agriculture per se is not destructive to the Amazon. Some very good mixed agroforestry, which supports biomass and is self-fertilising, is practised in the Amazon.
Livestock farming on grasslands that require almost no external inputs and regenerate land shouldn’t even be spoken of in the same breath as the beef originating from grain-dependent beef farming: they are chalk-and-cheese scenarios.
By the same token, a homogeneous view on “plant-based” foods is ludicrous. We mean well, but only our urban ignorance could allow us to entertain the notion that a glass of almond milk from fossil-fuel dependent, pesticide-driven farming that has resulted in the death of everything from bees to topsoil and water is a “green” food item. Land degradation, biomass loss and climate change are intertwined, whether in the Amazon or a savannah. Emissions are so wildly different in these scenarios that nuts and grains can outstrip meat in their CO2 production.
A critical point here is that the push to shift from omnivore to plant-based arises predominantly from the idea that zero carbon is all we need to do. Zero carbon isn’t inherently sustainable though, it’s a way to reduce a catastrophic pollution (and while we remain within extractive/polluting systems, zero carbon appears to be very hard to achieve).
But even on GHG terms alone, reducing our carbon footprint somewhat but not enough (i.e. shifting from industrial meat to industrial plant-based ag) just means we burn a bit slower. We still burn. It’s not exactly rocket surgery to understand that if growing corn for meat production causes too much harm, then eventually growing corn for humans will too if we keep increasing our population or lifestyle consumption. Industrial cropping simply delays the inevitable.
The way we get to prevent the worst of climate change and ecological destruction is if we start to organise our societies within the limits of nature, including how we grow and supply food. Fortunately there is a significant body of knowledge and practice, largely outside of the mainstream, that knows exactly how to do that.
Regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, silvopasture, permaculture, biodynamics, food and garden forests, agroecology, and many more, are all ways humans have been putting sustainable agriculture into practice. These generally integrate animals into that system, both as inputs and outputs (fertility and meat/dairy/eggs).
If the progressive movements can conceive of a steady state economy, I’d like to see this grounded in an ecological world view, rather than a reductionist world view that still sees nature as separate from human society and economy and as something to exploit then adjust when we’re too excessive. The key point about regenag is that it regenerates (soil, biodiversity, community, economies). The systems that do this are designed to work with nature and utilise the most efficient processes it offers us. Industrial cropping is just as far from that as industrial animal ag.
By observing nature and imitating those systems, we can create food producing systems that are ecologically sound and economically profitable.
The holy grail of agriculture and civilisation.
Mark Shephard referencing Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison.
Not sure how regenerative agriculture works? Check out this 17 minute explanatory Ted Talk from radical ‘grass farmer’ Joel Salatin.
This seven minute vid from Mark Shephard’s New Forest Farm in Wisconsin showcases agroforestry, with the last 2 minutes on how pigs are integrated into the system.
Moderation note: if you want to argue plant-based farming is better for the environment or climate mitigation than regenerative agriculture, please do better than using global stats based on US CAFO meat production that simply don’t apply to NZ and can’t easily be compared to regenag. More in-depth debate than link-dropping Guardian articles would be appreciated. Please be kind or respectful to each other and stay on topic. Also, I don’t want to see meat eaters taunting vegans, thanks.