George Monbiot’s opening argument in a recent Oxford Union Debate , as part of the Oxford Farming Conference on meat, was quite ironic. In his opening argument he discussed the the massive amount of both soil and biodiversity loss, and then concluded, we need to eat plant based diets. Why was this so ironic? Because well managed livestock BUILD soil….and especially soil health. Well managed livestock in grassland ecosystems can preserve and increase biodiversity. Whereas industrial crop production – be that for feed for CAFO’s, ethanol and biofuel for cars, seed oils for cooking and processed food – is what’s truly f’king everything up. Tilled organic has some serious issues as well (e.g. tillage destroying soil microbiology and releasing soil carbon, bare fallows, and excessive “blue” water consumption where done in more arid environments like here in California). Yet George would prefer to have meat analogs and lab meat that are completely reliant on this industrial Ag, convert to plants without addressing production methods, and completely dismiss regenerative farming and grazing that restores land, and soil health as well as biodiversity.
So George really needs to listen to someone like Gabe Brown (see Keys to Building Healthy Soil ) and actually learn something about soil health. George really doesn’t seem to know much of anything about soil health. To that end, he should read all three of Dr. David Montgomery’s books: “Dirt, the Erosion of Civilizations“, “The Hidden Half of Nature” and “Growing a Revolution” as well as Josh Tickell’s new book “Kiss the Ground” and Nicolette Hahn Niman’s “Defending Beef.” So, as seems to be George’s modus operandi, he has everything completely ass backwards.
After discussing soil and biodiversity loss, George then did the whole feed efficiency argument. The main problem with this argument is that it doesn’t differentiate between feed that’s edible to humans and feed that’s not edible to humans. This argument also doesn’t seem to realize that there is a lot LOT more land suitable for livestock production, especially ruminants, than there is arable land to grow crops. Furthermore arable land for crops is more productive when animals are reintegrated onto such land (once again refer to Gabe Brown). The UN FAO also recently released a report (Mottet et al 2017- Livestock: On our plates or eating at our table? A new analysis of the feed) on feed that looked at this argument very closely. And what did Mottet et al 2017 conclude? Livestock, and especially ruminants INCREASE food security because they are primarily eating foods that aren’t competitive with human food. Humans can’t digest cellulose. Ruminants can. Even in feedlot production (which I don’t support) here in the States, a large portion of what the cattle eat is by-products humans can’t eat like almond shells and silage. Though a lot of the land where industrial Ag for feed/fuel/seed oils is done, should be allowed to revert back to grasslands. This would be what’s best for climate change and biodiversity. Though George also doesn’t recognize the importance of grassland ecosystems. He seems to be under some misimpression that everything was once one big vast forest. Someone needs to let George know that those mega-fauna he so admires, specifically, the mastodons and mammoths were keystone species that kept grasslands from succeeding to forests. So needless to note, George is once again tilting at the wrong windmill.
George has probably never been on a ranch that uses regenerative practices. If he had, he’d actually realize with well managed ruminants, those ruminants occupy only a small portion of the grazing land. Most ranchers, using these adaptive multi-paddock management [AMP] systems, are using only approximately one percent of their grazing area at any moment in time. They’re constantly moving their herds or flerds of cattle, sheep, goats, bison, etc. When they do this adeptly, they restore soil, store carbon, improve the hydrology cycle, restore methane sinks, and INCREASE the carrying capacity of the land for livestock AND wildlife. So this land IS supporting wild life. Many well managed ranches are akin to wild life preserves. Additionally what’s good for herds is especially good for birds. Plus when you restore soil methane sinks, you reduce the load on the hydroxyl radical sink in the troposphere. These sinks largely offset biogenic and anthropogenic methane emissions including enteric methane emissions. One of the main problems with the climate change debate, that isn’t sufficiently discussed, is the reduction and destruction of GHG sinks. Many of these sinks have now become emitters making things worse due to industrial farming practices like the heavy use of synthetic nitrogen, bare fallows, tillage or herbicides in non-till systems. Many of these degenerative practices are also used or even more so used with organic farming like bare fallows and tillage.
He should also realize that “grams of protein” is a meaningless stat because not all proteins are made up of the same amino acids. Animal proteins are much MUCH more nutrient dense in the quantities of amino acids than plant proteins (See “Broccoli has more protein than steak”—and other crap ). Plus again, most of the world’s grazing livestock is raised in mix systems (chicken is a different story). Livestock and crops can be raised and grown on the SAME land. Cattle graze down cover crops and crop residues. They’re rotated like other rotations in the fields. This eliminates the need for tillage, eliminates the need for synthetic fertilizers and nearly eliminates the need for herbicides. So once again see what Gabe Brown as well as what Colin Seis does. But George seems to think the only way to raise livestock is whatever mismanaged systems he’s observed. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, but somehow seems to think that he knows more than he actually does.
George has to be reminded as to how small an area the uplands of England are. Humid temperate rain forests are a very small part of the earth’s land mass. Heck the entirety of England can fit over 120 times in just the grassland area of Africa. Grassland ecosystems are around 30 to 35%of the earth’s land mass. These are not humid environments like England’s uplands. George also fails to realize that cattle in the Amazon represent approximately only 5% of global inventory, and that the reasons for deforestation are a bit more involved. Cattle in many ways are the symptom rather than the cause. Maximizing land value is the real underlying reason. Plus rates of deforestation in Malaysia and Indochina are now higher than those in South America, and the primary reason is palm oil…not livestock. Diverse forests are being slash and burned and then replaced by monocropped plantations. This is and has happened with a lot of other crops too like bananas, coffee, acai. All of these items can be grown in more ecologically friendly ways, but- for the most part- they aren’t.
Oh gawd finally George concludes his opening remarks with a cell Ag marketing speech lifted almost verbatim from people like Mark Post. One has to figure that George hasn’t a clue how cell Ag is actually done. Lab meat, as the theory goes, will be grown in huge (yet to exist) heated bioreactors filled with cell media in heated sterile buildings. That cell media has to be replenished as it is consumed by the growing cells. Waste material (ammonia and lactic acid) also has to be removed. The cell media, besides containing a lot water, includes amino acids and sugars as well as growth factors (hormones), salts and other minerals. The cheapest and most plentiful source of the amino acids and carbohydrates are respectively soy and corn. With investors like Bill Gates and Cargill, co-products from these GMO industrial crops will now be used to feed lab meat rather than CAFO meat. So essentially this lab meat (plus plant based analogs) will take meats, especially ruminant meat, that can be raised on non-competitive foods (grasses) and replace that meat with a lab meat exclusively grown on other foods humans can eat. Thus this REDUCES food security and increases reliance on industrial Ag. More irony from George
Not to mention George doesn’t seem to understand the metrics he regurgitates from cell Ag marketing pamphlets because BLUE water usage will more likely be higher for lab meat (and other products) than it is for grass fed/finished meat (and other products). Fat and stem cells may need their own bioreactors plus whatever other products that will be derived, like leather, in different bioreactors will use even MORE blue water. BLUE water is what’s critical. The water in a bioreactor is not static. The water is continuously being refilled with more nutrients added, and more waste being removed. Whether or not water can be filtered and re-used is one of many major issues that hasn’t yet been resolved. How, and if, any of the waste material can be recycled is yet another concern. Water footprints for meat are so high because it’s a life cycle number including all the “green” water to grow the feed, forage or grasses that a farm animals eats over its entire life time. Green water is mainly rain fall. Green water is NOT critical, and well managed cattle actually improve the hydrological cycle. See this prior article I wrote on understanding these numbers.
(Photo credit: Rosemary Brown on her ranch near Caroline, AB Source: https://www.frostfreenosepumps.com )
I’ve already responded to the land use fallacy in my response up above regarding how much land ruminants actually occupy in well managed AMP systems. Though remember too ruminants preserve and share these ecosystems. So, unlike, crop land, range land allows for INCREASED biodiversity.
So as Dr. David Montgomery notes in this article, healthy soil is the key to feeding the world. Plus Nicolette Hahn Niman notes in this video clip, healthy livestock are essential to building and regenerating healthy soil. Using industrial Ag differently doesn’t provide a real solution. Cell Ag just continues down the pathway to further land degeneration. The real solution also isn’t sustainable. It’s regenerative. There’s no real point in sustaining a broken system. And yes, many (not all) regenerative systems function best when they include livestock as tools to restore ecosystem function. So, George, turn around and tilt at another windmill. Thanks in advance.