31. Food Supply and Women’s Issues

Providing families with food has been associated with women throughout human history.  It started with our being mammals, whose babies’ survival depended on breastmilk, which only the female of the species could supply.  And it’s hard to be a hunter if you’re carrying a baby and have to stop to nurse it whenever it’s hungry (if you don’t, its cries will scare the prey away).  So men tended to be the hunters, while women and girls were the foragers for plant foods that made up most of the diets for most groups of early humans, as is also the case for hunter-gatherers today.  Women were also the ones who generally cooked whatever meat the men brought in.  So from the start, the men got more of the food-supplying glory while the women did more of the work.

Fast-forward to today, and a new book, Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, which looks at how we can fight climate change.  And this book includes a short but pithy segment on “Women and Girls” which notes (on p. 76) a few vital facts about the global food supply.  One is that “On average, women make up 43 percent of the agricultural labor force and produce 60 to 80 percent of crops in poorer parts of the world.”  However, Drawdown also points out that these women are often unpaid or underpaid small farmers who live in situations such that “compared with their male counterparts, women [tend to] have less access to a range of resources, from land and credit to education and technology.”  For this reason, the book cites a UN Food and Agriculture Organization determination that “if all women smallholders receive equal access to productive resources, their farm yields will rise by 20 to 30 percent, total agricultural output in low-income countries will increase by 2.5 to 4 percent, and the number of undernourished people in the world will drop by 12 to 17 percent.  One hundred million to 150 million people will no longer be hungry.”

That’s huge.  And I would add that these same low-income countries are exactly the places where this amelioration of hunger is needed most.

The same pages detail proven measures to accomplish this improvement in women’s abilities to farm:  recognize women as farmers in their own right rather than farm helpers;  improve women’s ability to own land directly rather than through men;  improve women’s access to training and microcredit;  focus research and development on crops women grow and systems that women use;  and favor approaches such as group farming that are especially useful to women farmers.

An equally important part of the feeding-the-world equation which Drawdown discusses, and which is especially  a women’s issue, is birth control, and it is significant for two reasons.  One is the obvious point that the more of us there are, the harder it is to feed us all, so enabling women to bear only as many children as they actually want will ease the demand on agricultural output.  The second is that the more children a woman farmer has, the less time and energy she has left to work her land, so that lack of access to desired contraception is another factor that diminishes women’s agricultural production.  Right now, hundreds of millions of women — and not a few men — would like to limit their family size but lack access to the contraception the want and need.  So providing the 5.3 billion dollars that the Drawdown article identifies as the sum needed to create access to desired contraception for all who want but don’t have it would be doubly useful in helping to end hunger.

One additional point that Drawdown makes is that when girls have the chance to go to school, they tend to marry later, have fewer children, use more contraception, earn more money and thus contribute better to their families’ finances, and better protect their families’ health.  So enabling all girls to become educated through high school becomes a big factor in ending hunger.  Who’d have thought it?

Drawdown is focussed on decreasing carbon emissions, and the fewer people there are the lower humanity’s overall carbon footprint.  But in the interest of enabling everyone to voluntarily control their birth rate the book makes some crucial points about some of the measures that need to be taken to solve world hunger.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

30. The Consequences of Universal Plant-Food Diets… Would Be Good

On June 21, Mother Jones online reprinted a May 1 Slate article by L. V. Anderson which looked at the effects on climate and the economy if by some fantastic stroke the whole world went suddenly vegan or vegetarian.

Relying on research published in 2009 by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Anderson reports that universal veganism would immediately reduce agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions substantially:  carbon emissions would drop by 17%, methane by 24%, and nitrous oxide by 21%.  Even universal vegetarianism (using some eggs and dairy) would drop emissions much of that way.  Either would be enough to significantly moderate climate change — and the researchers found that it would do so at a much lower financial cost than making the same decreases solely through switching to renewable power sources.

Anderson points out, though, that an instant global switch to meatless diets would also cause significant economic disruptions in the agriculture industry.  The mostly-low-income workers who work in livestock-raising and in meat-processing plants would all be suddenly out of a job, as would the farmers who grow feed crops.  According to Anderson, hundreds of thousands of people would lose their livelihoods if we all went vegan (though the impact would be less if people still used dairy, eggs, and wool).  The feed-crop farmers could switch to growing food for people (and indeed, this is one of the things I have advocated for in past posts).  But most of the poor involved in livestock and meat-packing jobs would be in trouble, while  at the same time so much land would be suddenly idled that its price would drop precipitously.   The combination would be enough  to seriously mess up the whole global economy and cause, as Anderson puts it “widespread suffering and social unrest.”

On the other hand, Anderson points out that the amount of land which would become available if there were no livestock would be some 10.4 million square miles of grazing land plus some 386,000 square miles of land currently growing feed.  Not all of that grazing land could be otherwise farmed.  But if, say, one million square miles became newly available for growing food for direct human consumption, that could feed an awful lot of people.   And thereby put a nice dent in human hunger.

Another point Anderson makes is that getting rid of the factory farms — with their routine use of continual antibiotics — would immediately go very far towards preventing any further development of antibiotic-resistant germs and thus preserve antibiotics’ effectiveness in treating infections.

And Anderson points out that “if the result of a worldwide shift to a plant-based diet sounds like a right-winger’s worst nightmare, it’s worth pointing out that continuing to eat as much meat as we currently do promises to result in a left-winger’s worst nightmare:  In a world of untrammeled global warming, where disastrous weather events are routine, global conflicts will increase, only the wealthy will thrive, and the poor will suffer.”  So the article ends its consideration of the subject by suggesting that while an instant worldwide shift to plant-based diets would be direly disruptive (as well as wholly unlikely), we do all need to stop eating large amounts of meat.  “Let’s try a middle path,” Anderson recommends:  We can stop eating the products of factory farms, and can eat less red meat (produced by methane-belching cattle, sheep, and goats).  A “gradual” but steady reduction of meat-eating would give the market time to adjust while still steadily reducing greenhouse gas emissions and freeing up a lot of land for feeding people.

So yet another voice advocates mostly-plant diets for all.  I do too, as part of making it possible to feed the world as well as for the improvement of human health, the mitigation of climate change, the decrease of water pollution, and the easing of animal suffering.

Here is another recipe for meatless eating, to help you consider it:


Ingredients:  taco or tortilla shells/wraps of your choice, enough for your party of diners;  1 box prepared not-meat crumbles and/or 2 cans pinto beans with 1 tsp. thyme, 1 tsp. cumin, and chopped fresh cilantro;  shredded cheese OR fake-cheese shreds;  salsa of your choice, chopped tomatoes; shredded lettuce; chopped onion.

Directions:  1. Prepare the pinto beans (if using) with the seasonings and heat them in the microwave.  2. Heat the meatless chopmeat-substitute (if using) in the microwave.  3. Arrange the tomatoes, lettuce, onion, salsa, and cheese or “cheeze” shreds, as well as the crumbles and/or beans in dishes on the table.  4. Warm the taco or tortilla shells.  5.  Assemble everyone you’re feeding and invite them to make their tacos/tortillas to their taste.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

29. Agriculture and Climate Change — and the Farm Bill

The bad news is, in a sense, nothing new.  Farmers have always worried about droughts, floods, hail, unseasonable frosts, harvest-decreasing heat waves, and the insect and disease outbreaks that might be associated with unusual weather.  It merely does not help that global climate change can make all of these likelier, more severe, and less predictable.

The good news is very new, however:  the quite recent discovery that certain agricultural practices can take huge amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it into the soil for the long term.  We’re talking tons of carbon per acre that can be removed from being greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and turned into increased soil fertility with each growing season.  Which could both mitigate climate change and its rougher weather, and make the same amount of land more productive.  Sounds like a massive win-win.

The only problem is that just some agricultural practices do the trick, while the practices commonest in the developed world are a big part of what created the problem.  The erosion caused by overgrazing, and also industrial-agriculture tilling done by huge gas-guzzling machinery for growing commodity crops on farms of thousands of acres, both release a lot of carbon into the air.  The practices that sequester carbon, in contrast, are the ones that work with nature.  They may be called agroecology or regenerative or sustainable agriculture.  They minimize the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, using green manures, cover crops, and compost to increase soil fertility, and using companion planting and crop rotation to minimize loss to pests. When they graze animals, they limit their numbers and keep moving them around to maintain a healthy greensward.  These practices are all easier to do as part of a smaller operation.  And yes, these techniques do produce enough food for all — if their produce is not wasted on animal feed and biofuels.

So we actually know what our global civilization’s  agriculture needs to do to stop and reverse climate change, and we have good ideas of how to do it.

The problem is that national policies, much influenced by corporate profit motives and expressed, for example, in the U.S. Farm Bill, are all still pushing the wrong way.  And as long as government subsidies set up a situation in which mechanized industrial-scale farming is what farmers have to do to stay in business, that’s what they’re going to do.

I’m making a good guess, though, that for most farmers the real bottom line is that they just want to make a living growing food for people to eat.  Change the rules so that they could make a good living using agroecology practices and producing vegetables — instead of erosive practices growing, say, commodity corn — and most farmers would be fine with making a switch.

To feed the world, we need both a livable world and a situation in which farmers can grow food for its citizens.  Identifying the areas in which agricultural policy needs to change is a necessary first stop towards getting there.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

28. “Wasted Food”

(I’m finally back in harness, in case anyone was wondering.  First there were the Passover/ Spring Break holidays which included both our own travel and then hosting the welcome invasion of out-of-town family;  and since then I’ve been Getting My Garden In.  That’s almost done, so now I can resume blogging.)

Actually, there are some bits of good news to report on the topic of not wasting food.  Jordan Figueiredo, an activist on this issue, reports progress on the salvaging of cosmetically imperfect/ “ugly” produce.  One brand called Misfits is now marketing ugly produce in 300 US stores involving three supermarket chains.  Also, Walmart and Whole foods have both begun pilot programs to sell odd-looking fruits and vegetables at certain of their stores.  And chefs are becoming aware that they can use “ugly” items too.

This is all still very small-scale and tentative — but any journey starts with the first step.  It is very welcome to see these first steps taken;  scaling them up is the next thing that needs to happen.

On the other hand, Kate Cox and H. Claire Brown of the New Food Economy wrote a review (on May 15) of a new study on the content of food that Americans throw away.  The study was done by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future and is available online in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  It aimed to investigate not the amount of food that US citizens collectively waste but the nutritional content of that wasted food.  What they found was sobering.

It turns out that it is not just the 1,217 calories per US person per day that gets tossed, but that these are not comprised primarily of junk food calories but of valuable nutrients.  Each 1,217 calorie unit of loss includes:  33 grams of protein, 5.9 grams of dietary fiber (19%) of daily needs), 1.7 micrograms of Vitamin D, 286 milligrams of calcium (29% of daily needs), 880 milligrams of potassium, 48% of iron RDA, 43% of vitamin C RDA… and so on.  In other words, the researchers discovered that what’s thrown away is indeed nutritious stuff, which could, if salvaged and eaten, contribute to greatly improved nutrition for the US population.  And we could use it, both because too many millions of us are food insecure and also because even the food-secure among us chronically fall short in our intake of many vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

The study’s authors point out that preventing even a portion of this food from being wasted could boost the nutrition of all Americans from where we are to completely adequate.  They point to several tactics — revised and standardized sell-by dates, educating consumers, and giving tax breaks to grocery stores that donate leftovers to food banks instead of landfills — as low-cost ways of significantly decreasing the loss of good food that we actually need.  And the researchers also suggest that part of the education we need might be started by shifting away from talking about “food waste” (which we unconsciously take to mean talk about “waste”) and beginning instead to talk about “wasted food” — which would emphasize in our minds that this is food we’re discussing.

I think they have a point.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

27. Hunger, Poverty, and Food Justice: First Thoughts

In 1998, Amartya Sen was awarded a Nobel prize in economics for his work showing that famine deaths in India had been primarily due not to lack of available food but to hungry people not having enough money to afford to buy what food was available.

He could have cited as another example the Irish Potato Famine, when over a million people starved to death and millions more emigrated while English absentee landlords who owned Irish farmland were exporting Irish-grown wheat that the Irish poor could not afford to buy.

On a different note, American Farmland Trust reports on the growing number of aging farmers who have no one to pass their farms on to, while a growing number of young would-be farmers cannot afford to buy farmland — at the same time that weekly newspaper Wisconsin State Farmer reports on a trend in which non-farming millionaires buy farmland as an investment (WSF, 1/6/17, p. 9B).  They hire people to work it, but these are employees who are required to produce a profit over stewarding the land or growing what feeds people (and will not become independent farmers themselves).

Similarly, nations like China and Saudi Arabia that cannot feed their people on their own land are increasingly buying up agricultural land in places like Africa.  African governments are happy to accept payment for this — but local Africans whose ancestors have farmed these lands from time immemorial (often without formal title because their tenancy stretches back prior to such notions) lose their lands and thus their ability to feed themselves and their families, and inequity increases while hunger is merely shifted, not solved.

Meanwhile, food pantries in the U.S. are needed because minimum wage jobs plus SNAP/ “food stamps” together do not enable people to buy enough food for their families.  The need for free and reduced-cost school lunches is part of the same picture.

Even the factory-farming of chickens and pigs for “cheap” meat and eggs is deeply  abusive.  For the typical set-up is that a big corporation owns the animals and contracts with a farmer to raise them.  But the farmers do not get paid unless they do exactly as the corporation specifies, no matter how inhumane or unsanitary that may be, yet they are paid so little even when they comply that they can barely scrape by and have no extra money left over to, for example, control manure safely, while if anything goes wrong it is the farmers and not the corporations that take the financial hit.

In short, there’s an abundance of evidence that hunger and misuse of agricultural assets is very often not at all a matter of inadequate food supply or agricultural capacity, but rather a direct result of poverty and oppression.  So any discussion of solving the hunger problem needs to include consideration of economic equity.   A well-fed world would be one in which the farmers who work the land and raise the animals are the people who own those assets, and in which they are able to make a living because everyone is able to pay enough for food to make farming economically viable.  But this is decidedly not the system we have now.

For this ideal to come about, a lot of changes would have to happen.

One area to look for changes would be the US Farm Bill, which is passed by Congress twice a decade (the next one is in 2018) and which shapes government food policy for the subsequent five years.  For some time now, it has mostly benefited industrial agriculture, with subsidies that support mega-farms at the expense of small family-size ones, chemical use as opposed to IPM and organic practices, commodity crops including high fructose corn syrup, animal feed, and ethanol as opposed to vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds (which are all amazingly called “specialty crops”) that people would eat directly.

A different area for action would be increasing the wage scale for low-level workers so that anyone willing and able to work could afford to buy adequate food — even at prices that would pay farmers enough to support their families decently through farming.

Land reform also has to be part of the picture, for while it may be profitable for governments and corporations and millionaires to buy large tracts of land to grow crops for trade, this dispossesses people who had been feeding their families on those lands’ production, thus increasing hunger and injustice simultaneously.

Changing all these things will require enormous political effort, and is unlikely to come either easily or quickly.  But if hunger is to be ended, such changes in the status quo will have to be implemented.  The sooner we get started, the better.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

26. What About Wild Game?

I have explained in previous posts why factory farming of livestock to provide copious “cheap” meat is both unsustainable and incompatible with feeding the world.  But the question might be asked whether hunting wild game could fill the gap.

I believe the answer is both No and Partly Yes.

No:  when people think of hunting they think of going out into the woods with a gun or bow and hunting traditional prey animals like deer and ducks, or taking rod and reel to go fishing.  But between habitat loss and overhunting, many once-plentiful game species are no longer plentiful, while the human population is vastly larger now than in the Stone Age when hunting really could supply much of some clans’ food needs.  Even deer, which due to suppression of wolves and coyotes are actually overpopulated in some places, could not begin to supply the shortfall of meat that will result from ending the factory farming of livestock.

On the other hand, there are some highly edible animal species that are actually becoming pests, and whose numbers really need to be reduced solely from the ecological perspective.  Besides deer in certain situations, there are feral swine all over the US southwest that are doing serious ecological and agricultural damage;  invasive Asian carp swarm throughout the Mississippi basin and threaten the Great Lakes;  Canada geese infest (and grossly defecate in) urban parks all over the US;  rabbits in Australia come to mind.  Each of these species is particularly noted for being good eating (if you eat animals at all).  So one modest suggestion would be that public policy should encourage those folks who want to hunt and fish anyway to go after these invasive overpopulated species.  In some cases, such as Asian carp and wild swine, such hunting/ fishing might even be commercially viable.

There are certainly concerns that must be addressed.  Deer and Canada geese are a problem when found near human habitation, so there are considerations of how to humanely hunt these creatures without endangering either people or non-target animals (including but not limited to pets);  hunting might have to be limited to certain well-publicized places and times when non-hunters would be warned to stay away from an area.  Some of these creatures, like swine and carp, can be quite dangerous, though this would probably be an attraction rather than a deterrent for some people;  the public policy concern in this case would be to prevent hunters/ fishers or their heirs from suing any government entity if they got hurt doing a government-sponsored activity.  Neither poison nor traps could be used to control edible pest animals, since both these methods might kill non-targeted creatures, both can be extremely cruel, and poison would render the meat of targeted animals inedible.  So orchestrated hunting of pest species for food would require considerable public discussion before it could be implemented.

Inevitably, part of that discussion would include the opinions of a significant fraction of the population who feel passionately that no hunting or fishing can ever be humane, that killing fellow-creatures for food is wrong, and that everyone should just go vegetarian or vegan.  Since I myself have not eaten any meat in the past 16 years at this writing, I would be the last person to suggest that eating meat is something people ought to do.  But I do recognize that there are still many people who want to hunt and eat meat by preference, and people for whom hunting and fishing are recreations they would not willingly give up. As long as this remains the case, why not put the people who want to hunt and eat meat together with the need to decrease the populations of certain tasty and nutritious animals?  I’m not a fan of Wild Boar Barbecue myself, but some folks would be, and something really needs to be done about those feral swine.

I do not believe that even the prolific Asian carp, rabbits in Australia, and so on would provide the volume of meat currently available in American supermarkets. But they could provide some significant amounts.  And this might as well be added in to the strategies for feeding the world.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley


25.What About Cows on Grass?

I hope my previous posts have explained in adequate detail why factory-farming of livestock is a disaster for the environment, for the animals, for human health in regard to both healthy eating and preserving the usefulness of antibiotics, and last but not least for the prospects of ending hunger (since it takes many pounds of human-edible crops to produce just a few pounds of animal food).  But what about raising animals on pasture?

Many arguments have been made in favor of pasturing livestock.  It is much more humane, because it enables the animals to live comfortably and behave naturally (until they’re slaughtered).  Where row-cropping is not possible due to inadequate rainfall/ irrigation or steep slopes, pasturing is a way of turning grass that people cannot eat into meat, dairy, and eggs that we can.  Arguments have been made, and in some cases apparently borne out, that grazing animals on pasture can sequester carbon and restore degraded land.

On the other hand, when animals trample stream beds it causes serious ecological damage and water pollution.  In many parts of the world, overgrazing is rapidly turning grassland and scrubland into desert — or has already done so.  And in a world in which water scarcity is growing, livestock need to drink a lot more water than is needed to grow plant crops.

I recently read a couple of contributions to the controversy.  The March/April 2017 Sierra magazine (a Sierra Club publication) examined the claims of Allan Savory, whose observations of African conditions led him to believe that cattle improve soil by stirring it up, and that carbon-sequestering bacteria thrive in their hoof prints, so that the more cattle are on the land the better the land becomes — whether in well-watered regions, or in arid and semi-arid ones.  The writer’s report of his interview with Savory makes clear that the man believes in his thesis passionately and sincerely.  Yet the article also shows that scientific examination of the facts do not quite support Savory’s beliefs.  For Savory insists that any number of cattle can be grazed on land as long as they’re moved about enough to avoid degrading it — but he ignores the facts that a great deal of just such degradation has been well documented, and that at least in arid and semi-arid areas, where ruminant herds were not present until people introduced them, it’s not really possible to move them far enough and fast enough to avoid very serious degradation and desertification.  Bison only worked well as part of the prairie ecosystem because grass grows well there and they had the whole one million square miles of the Great Plains to move about on.

I have read of The Nature Conservancy working with ranchers to use controlled grazing as part of the ecological restoration of their spread.  I’ve read of people like eccentric farmer Joel Salatin (especially as reported by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) who have successfully used pasturing of livestock to restore degraded land.  And I read this week (March 5) in the New York Times Sunday Review section (p.4) an essay by Englishman James Rebanks who herds sheep in England’s Lake District in accordance with traditions that date back over 4000 years.  He works within a local and ancient communal grazing system in that very hilly region which must, in order to have lasted this long, have worked out a set of practices that match flock size to the land’s long-term carrying capacity.

It would therefore seem that raising livestock on pasture can in certain circumstances be sustainable and appropriate.  But it must be made very clear that it only works when animals are kept away from stream banks, and moved about very frequently, and maintained in numbers that are limited enough to avoid degrading the land.  Arid lands probably cannot sustain grazing;  and semi-arid regions can probably only be grazed sustainably through nomadic practices that move constantly over very large distances.  Even where grass grows lushly, regenerative pasturing requires limiting the number of animals and moving them constantly from one part of the pasture to another.

There are indeed places where grazing livestock makes sense as part of ending hunger.  Where the land is so damaged that only grass will grow, or so steep that row-cropping is not feasible, or in the future on the Great Plains after the Oglalla Aquifer is depleted, grazing may be the best (or only) good agricultural use of those lands.  But the constraint of limiting the numbers of animals to what the land can sustainably support means that such grazing will never supply the huge amounts of cheap meat that are currently in demand.  For cheap abundant meat the way factory farms now produce it is simply neither sustainable nor compatible with enabling all seven-point-something billion of us to be fed.  And Earth has not got enough pasture land for grazing to match the numbers of animals now raised in factory farms.

Conclusion:  pasturing livestock can be part of feeding the world over the long term — but only in sustainable numbers and in particular places.  This would indeed provide some meat, dairy, and eggs for human consumption — but a lot less than we are currently used to, and they would cost significantly more.  Learning to enjoy low-meat diets is really the only way to go if we truly want to end human hunger.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley