Life and death from the soil food web on up

“Part of living is killing. I don’t care if you eat vegan or you eat meat, you are responsible for death. I would argue that if you’re vegan, you are responsible for way more death than if you eat a healthy, regenerative diet with grass-fed meat. As a regenerative rancher, it’s part of our responsibility to give more life than we take. We understand—because we understand nature—that every part of eating is killing, no matter what it is. A plant doesn’t have a heart or lungs, you’re right. But that crop field growing crops was once life to a huge diversity of plants, and animals, and birds, that are now gone. You are responsible for that patch of cropland killing that habitat, and killing all of those animals that could be living there—living there alongside your grass-fed steer, or living alongside your diversified agriculture crop.”       

Doniga Markegard, author of Dawn Again: Tracking the Wisdom of the Wild

In an absolute world, simple dialectics make decisions easy. More specifically, in a world of dietary tribalism and reductive thinking, for some dietary tribes plant sources of food are inherently “good” while animal sources of food are inherently “bad”, For them, this is especially true in regards to ethics and morality. For those that are most zealous and absolute about this belief, there’s no uncertainty. Though as will be demonstrated below, meats versus plants is a false dichotomy. Doing the least harm, causing the least amount of suffering and creating the most diversity is more a matter of balance than absolutism. So for any type of food, whether from plants, animals or fungi, there are a wide array of ways to grow, catch or raise that food ranging from very bad to very good. This is especially true in regards to overall impacts on ecosystems and other sentient beings. So the HOW and appropriateness of WHERE any particular food is grown, raised or caught often matters as much or more than the WHAT that’s raised, grown or caught.

Though in this world of dietary tribalism, what’s always interesting is listening to people, who’ve probably never set foot on a ranch or farm, discuss the ethics of any form of food production.  A lot of these discussions are absolute and quasi-religious or are reduced to whataboutisms. Many of the most zealous people tend to identify as vegans including many who reside in the ivory towers of various institutions around the world. Their lexicon contains such words as dissonance, speciesism, and carnism. All of these words are connected to verbose philosophical treatises. Plus these vegan philosophers seemingly like to incessantly point out that everything is a “natural fallacy”. But more often than not, many of these people seem to be some of the most ecologically illiterate and disconnected people I’ve ever listened to. The more zealous or quasi-religious, the more ecologically illiterate and disconnected they tend to be.

What’s especially strange is that despite their concern about the suffering of certain other animals, their ontology remains very anthropocentric. So, the only other sentient beings they appear to care about are those on PETA posters with central nervous systems analogous to those of humans. They also don’t seem to understand how ecosystems function especially in regards to how everything in an ecosystem is interconnected and interdependent. So, they especially don’t understand how important the soil food web is for all life including their own lives. When they concede some degree of impact from agricultural practices, many immediately resort to a mistaken belief that commodity crops are only grown and used to feed confined livestock.

Many indigenous people tended landscapes. So there wasn’t as much of a distinction between wilderness and civilization as there is today in modern culture. But colonization was quite a bit different, Forests were chopped down for timber and fuel. Cleared land, where suitable, was converted to crop land with or without integrated livestock. Other wetland and grassland ecosystems were also replaced with cultivated agricultural land. Often excess tillage and extraction led to land degradation, so more and more land was converted from natural occurring ecosystems to manmade agro-systems. This still occurs in many tropical regions and developing countries where all the indigenous people are displaced. This also still occurs in the United States where we’re losing most of our grasslands largely due to farming more and more marginal land to increase ethanol production. Grasslands are very diverse ecosystems. Monocrops of corn are not. Moreover monocrops of other crops of palm fruit trees, soybeans, banana trees, wheat, etc are not diverse ecosystems.  The less diversity, the less life.

Compare the diversity of this regenerated grassland to that of an industrial monocrop for peas or soy. Then ask yourself, which supports more bird life or life in general? Life is about balance, not absolutes.

Land conversion is the first of many steps where sentient beings die. Sentient beings also die during land cultivation as well as during crop protection, irrigation, pollination, harvest, storage and transport. These sentient creatures include foxes, badgers, feral pigs, moles, voles, rats, mice, salamanders, frogs, snakes, birds, fawns, ground squirrels, and myriad of other creatures. Pretty much all of these creatures want to eat what’s being grown including gophers that eat the roots of trees/vines, birds that eat fruits and berries, and feral pigs that pretty much eat everything. Many synthetic or organic “cides” are used in conventional and organic systems to kill insects, rodents, weeds, etc. Those “cides” may also harm any other animals up the food chain as well, for example, like foxes that eat mice that ate rodenticides. Even in biodynamic systems, based on biomimicry, mankind has to create conditions to encourage predation like with the installation of owl boxes. So there’s no getting around suffering and death. Something else has to die to protect the food humans eat. Plus being ripped apart alive by an owl or dying from internal bleeding due to rodenticides entails a lot more pain and suffering than a quick bolt to the head. There have been a couple studies trying to quantify how much death occurs in fields to grow plants primarily during harvest like Steven Davis’s 2003 paper and a more recent one by Fisher and Lamey in 2018. Though the total amount of death that occurs is hard to quantify. Moreover none of these papers account for the difference in the amount of more life that’s possible in a grassland, wetland or forest system versus the amount of life possible in a made-made agro-system…..or the complete absence of life in an industrial agricultural system with monocrops, pesticides and bare fallows.

Some like Fisher and Lamey also put forth the argument that insect’s deaths aren’t as significant.  Why? Such creatures lack anthropomorphic central nervous systems and thus can’t suffer pain…or at least what humans know of pain. But such anthropocentricity doesn’t understand how any and all life is dependent on various food chains that make up a complex web above about and below ground. Thus such a disconnected anthropocentric point of view, revolving around the concept of suffering, can’t even begin to conceive why healthy soil microbiology is also very important. Why? Because bacteria is consumed by fungi and plants as well as larger microbes like protozoa and nematodes. Those larger nematodes, in turn, are consumed by small insects that are then consumed by larger insects. What eats larger insects? Birds, amphibians, and small mammals eat larger insects. Larger mammals and birds of prey then eat all of the smaller creatures.  When soil microbial life is killed, the soil food web is destroyed, and everything higher above in the chains that make up the food web, starve, suffer, and die. This is exactly what’s happening with insect, bird and amphibian populations around world. We are rapidly losing biodiversity. Modern industrial agricultural is ecocide whether the wheat, soybean meal, or corn DDG/oil is used to feed humans, feed livestock, make Impossible Burgers or added to gasoline.

As an example of the wide array of ways that death occurs, let’s take a look at rice production in Northern California. When wetlands were drained for rice fields around Sacramento, California, migratory bird populations dropped. Why? The rice paddies are drained after rice crops are harvested.  So there’s no wetland area for migrating birds to land. Thus there’s no land full of insects for birds to consume along their migratory path. Though some may argue insects aren’t “sentient” because they don’t have central nervous systems and thus can’t suffer, insects are an essential part of the food chain for other creatures with central nervous systems like birds and frogs. So fewer insects means fewer birds, fish, frogs and other amphibians. Another thing worth noting about how a lot of rice is grown is that growers use sirens to drive birds away so birds won’t land and eat any of the rice seed heads. So without enough or any food along their migratory pathways, birds starve, suffer and die. That’s something for vegans to think about the next time they eat any rice with their tofu. And it’s not just birds or frogs in rice paddies that are impacted. Other sentient creatures are as well. Wetlands were historically where salmon grew larger before entering into rivers. Without these wetland ecosystems, salmon fry are more susceptible to predation because they enter water ways while they’re too small.  There are also mankind caused predation problems with flood irrigation. Water flooding the rice fields cause small mammals to flee for their lives. That, in turn, makes these small mammals, that don’t drown, susceptible to raptors circling above. But those aren’t the only impacts caused by mankind’s interventions, in conventional rice paddies using synthetic nitrogen, when the flooded fields are drained back into rivers, the synthetic nitrogen also comes along for the ride causing algae blooms and hypoxia which also cause fish to die.  Now certainly there are ways to mitigate some of these issues, but one also needs to remember that ninety-five percent of California’s wetland ecosystems have been drained largely for crop and specialty crop land.

Let’s take a look at a look at a few more examples including industrial soybean fields in the Midwest, potato farms in Idaho, certified organic produce grown in the Central Coast region of California and almond orchards in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Before doing this though, let’s dispel another myth and half-truth conveyed by many vegangelicals.

These vegangelicals argue that any death for plant production is “only” due to commodity crops, like soybeans and corn, since these crops “only” get fed to livestock in confined animal operations [CAFO]. Neither argument is true even with soybeans, the crop most used as livestock feed. As I detailed in a prior blog post Soy 101, different portions of the same bushel of soybean pods have different uses. Soybean oil, thirty-five to forty percent of that crop’s value, goes almost exclusively to human uses. Soybean meal does go primarily to CAFO pigs and chickens, but it also is used in pet foods and as an ingredients in ultra-processed foods including Impossible Burgers, soy milk and baby food.  Corn is another crop with multiple human and livestock uses including and especially ethanol. Here too as the graphic below depicts, different parts of the corn kernel have many different uses, and a large portion of the corn crop fed to livestock are the portions that humans don’t eat like cobbs, stalks and dried distillers grain [DDG].   Wheat, almonds, canola, cotton, palm fruit, rice and most other crops primarily go to humans with only the by-products like wheat midds, spent grains, almond shells, and crush palm fruit fed to livestock. So, in other words, these very disconnected zealots are wrong…very wrong.

Now soy is planted and grown on millions of acres in the US that were once grasslands as well as in South America on land that was once grasslands in the Cerrado or rain forest in the Amazon. There are regenerative ways to grow soy with intercropping and cover crops, but very little soy is grown this way. In the US Midwest, most soy is grown in rotations with corn crops. Most soy is grown as a monocrop with a lot of mined fertilizers and pesticides especially mined phosphate fertilizer and the herbicide glyphosate. Where mined, phosphate has a lot of adverse impacts. As noted in this Counter article, Eaters of the earth, phosphate mining has very bad environmental impacts. Mined phosphate also contains contaminants like cadmium that end up in the soil where applied as noted in this hyperlinked article. On top of that mined phosphate is a finite resource. At some point, in the not too distant future, mined phosphate will run out. The thing too is that when applied, like synthetic nitrogen, mined phosphate isn’t very well utilized by plants. So a lot leaches into waterways where it causes algae blooms and hypoxia just like synthetic nitrogen does. Or, in other words, lots of dead fish. But that’s not all, excessive phosphate, as this Science Daily article notes, alters the soil microbial community, the plant’s soil gut, for the worse. Mono-cropping of shallow rooted soya also reduces soil microbial diversity. Then where no-tilled, with chemical fallows and other weed control through the use of glyphosate, any arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi is destroyed, so the soybean plants become entirely reliant on external inputs for fertility.

What’ the end result of such industrial practices? Trophic collapse, as noted above, and dead zones where little to no life exists. So that’s why those who claim that plant based alternatives made from industrially grown soy don’t kill animals are ecologically illiterate as well as completely nuts. The real irony of the Impossible Burger is that it’s an ecocide burger. A lot more animals die and never live for one of these burgers than for a burger from a steer or heifer grown in a regenerative system. Same thing with cultured lab “meat” using soy for amino acids (protein) in the cell media to grow stem cells. This food tech really doesn’t change anything. Why? A lot more and different animals die beside that of cattle, pigs and chickens. The real difference is that those other sentient beings end up rotting in the field rather than end up on plates. So one could, if they wanted to, morally argue that killing animals wantonly and not consuming them is actually WORSE than consuming those animals for food. Ultimately, the real problem is the method of production, that is the HOW more so than the WHAT. Monogastric livestock like chickens and pigs, as noted in my prior Soy 101 blog post, can also be switched over to black soldier fly feeds raised on food waste. This would reduce the amount of land as well as the agro-chemicals needed to produce soybean meal from degenerative industrial monocropping systems.  

If a person eats French fries grown from an industrial potato farm along with a burger from a steer or heifer raised and finished in a regenerative system, the fries are likely responsible for the death of a lot more sentient beings than the head of cattle killed for that regenerative burger-. Those French fries made from industrially grown potatoes are most definitely responsible for a lot less potential life than a steer or heifer raised and finished in a well-managed pasture or range land. Industrial potato farming is one of the most destructive forms of farming especially in regards to soil health. Lots of large gas guzzling equipment is used to plant and harvest this crop. Lots of pesticides especially fungicides, are used to protect the crop while it grows. So soils are destroyed by tillage, harvest and all the pesticides. Potato farmland is essentially one large dead zone. Very little life can survive. Again compare this to the prairie grassland (that can still be used to graze cattle), wetland or forest ecosystem that was replaced. So there’s not only the loss of life due to land conversion, there’s also the loss of potential life that never had the chance to exist.

Certified organic produce is interesting too. A large percentage of this produce grown for US consumers is grown in California where the warmer weather allows for year round production. Most produce grown are annuals. Even many artichokes, a perennial, are grown as annuals. Annuals have shallow root systems and many, especially brassicas, prefer bacterial dominated soils. Cover crops, though increasingly used, aren’t broadly used. Short term, economically they don’t pencil out. So land is often left bare for long periods of the time, and thus no photosynthesis or root exudation of carbon occurs. This reduces the amount and diversity of soil microbiology. Further reducing the amount of soil microbes is the extensive use of tillage for weed control.  Tillage, as Ray Archuleta notes in the below video, should really be referred to as “tillacide” since tillage kills a lot of soil micro and macroscopic life including arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, worms, burrowing bees, voles and a myriad of other things. So again more killing from the soil food web on up. But that’s not the only problem. Fewer microbes mean worse utilization and uptake of nutrients in the soil. Short rooted annual plants without mycorrhizal associations can’t mine for more nutrients in the sub-soil and have less of a root zone to access water. Due to oxidation, tillage also locks up minerals in ionization states that are less accessible plants. Thus the result is that the root zone is either depleted of nutrients or those nutrients aren’t in a form that can be made plant available. The result is that more external inputs are needed…..a lot more. So organic growers are always adding organic amendments for fertility including organic forms of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus [NPK] fertilizers. Organic certification of such fertilizers can be very bureaucratic. So many certified organic farms choose to purchase certified forms of fertilizers and compost. Where do these come from? Nitrogen rich bat or bird guano may be shipped from Peru or the Philippines. Plus a lot comes from the manure, bones, and feathers of livestock in confined animal operations otherwise known as CAFO’s. So such organic produce purchased in a grocery store may have more to do with the associated animal suffering that occurs in CAFO’s than a ribeye steak from a steer or heifer raised and finished on a regenerative ranch using adaptive multi-paddock management.

California’s Central Valley was a grassland ecosystem with large areas of wetlands. This ecosystem was full of elk, grizzlies and pronghorn until the late 1800’s. Today most almonds in the world are produced in the United States in this Central Valley. Though almonds can be dry farmed, the way yields are dramatically increased is through irrigation. Dry farmed almond trees produced about 1/10 the yield. Another way yields can be improved is by using synthetic nitrogen, but this brings up other larger environmental issues beyond the scope of this discussion. The way most almond production is done also exacerbates the problem. The floors of orchards are kept bare, so when almonds are shook from the trees and fall on the ground, the almonds are allowed to dry out on the ground before the almonds are swept up and collected, dehulled, and fumigated with propylene oxide, a verified carcinogen, to pasteurize them which the USDA requires for resale. Bare orchard floors have fewer soil microbes as well as a lot less soil organic matter and soil carbon. The less soil organic matter, the less water infiltration and retention. So even more water is required in this standard method of production.

So to grow almonds trees (and some other type of nut trees like pistachios) that produce high yields, it takes a lot of diverted river or pumped ground water otherwise known as “blue” water. Blue water is what’s critical…not “green” or rain water.  Where does all this blue water come from?  Well that depends where in California’s Central Valley you are and the size of the almond monocrop plantation. One place large corporate almond operations get their blue water from is from 1,200 foot deep ancient aquifers, since many of the shallower aquifers have been pumped dry (some of these aquifers have collapsed, and the Valley has actually sunk). These deep ancient aquifers took thousands of year to fill up, so obviously this is not a sustainable way to produce high yields of almonds. Aquifers have a finite source of blue water that has to be recharged. Another problem when you pump up all these ancient aquifers, a lot of salt and other minerals are pulled up with the water. This leads to higher soil salinity levels that DECREASE yields. Another mineral pulled up is selenium which is toxic to birds, and thus kills birds.

Other places in the Valley get more of their blue water diverted from river sources. This also adversely impacts the life in the rivers from where that water came from especially salmon. More river water diverted for irrigation causes remaining river water levels to drop. Shallower rivers thus results in higher water temperatures, gill rot, and dead fish either returning to spawn or hatched fry heading to sea. So irrigation has impacts that go beyond the immediate orchard or farm.  Monocultures of the same types of nut trees present a few other problems including easy spread of diseases and lack of food for native bees. The trees only bloom in spring, so native bee populations don’t have anything to eat during the rest of year. Thus native bees have been dying. The trucked in worker bees also have been dying due to pesticide use. You don’t get any nuts without pollinators. So bees are very crucial whether they have human like central nervous systems or not.

Again, many of these problems noted above with almonds and the way other crops are produced can be mitigated through different food production practices like the use of cover crops, hedge rows, and biological amendments to reduce water demands and provide other sources of pollen in almond orchards. This though necessitates other changes like the way almonds are collected into nets and dried somewhere else besides on the ground.

But the bigger issue remains. Simply “going vegan” doesn’t eliminate harm, death and or suffering. A lot of “plant-based” food causes a lot more harm than regenerative forms of food production. This is true with many forms of organic produce production as well.  So producing food isn’t about absolutism. Even hydroponic systems include death, for example, to mine and synthesize the minerals used in nutrient solution like the aforementioned phosphorus. Farming, ranching and other forms of food production are more about balance. That’s the balance between life taken, preserved and made possible while simultaneously minimizing suffering or other adverse impacts. So there are trade-offs. Whataboutisms are irrelevant.

Unfortunately though most food isn’t raised, grown or caught in ways that minimized these adverse impacts. This is especially the case with industrial forms of food production where animals are treated as widgets and soil is turned into dirt. There are no simple solutions. What’s really needed is more education and connection, so consumers can support those producers using best practices to produce food.  Some may claim this is a bit quixotic, and that consumers are too lazy to make such a commitment. Many of these people thus assert that the best solutions are based on technology.

But when our health, planetary health, and animal welfare are at stake, why should we simply accept tweaks to the current system?  Why shouldn’t we collectively work together to support better agricultural practices that reduce the  harm, death, suffering and other adverse impacts of ALL  the food we eat whether that’s plant or animal? The more we fight over what others should or shouldn’t eat based on half-truths, lies, food religion, corporate manipulation and sanctimonious virtue signaling, the harder it is to fundamentally change the system for the better.  Division maintains the status quo, which is a food system based on degenerative practices for the benefit of entrenched industries that want to further consolidate wealth and control.

Is that really a food system that any one wants?



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