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:

Tacos

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

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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