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

24. Problems of Factory-Farming Livestock, Revisited

I just read a truly alarming book:  Ellen K. Silbergeld’s 2016 Chickenizing Farms and Food:  how industrialized meat production endangers workers, animals, and consumers.

As the title promises, the book reports on how raising livestock changed from small farmers’ pastures to industrial-type “factory farm” schemes where animals are packed tight into huge buildings and raised to slaughter-weight as fast as possible.  It apparently began with broiler chickens in the area where Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia meet, but has now spread all over the world and involves pigs and cattle as well as poultry (both for meat and eggs).

This model has spread fast and widely because it does produce lots of cheap meat, for which there is a huge global demand.  But as Silbergeld discusses at length, it does so with serious downsides.  These include the massive (and as it turns out, superfluous) use of antibiotics, which are rapidly breeding antibiotic-resistant strains of disease-causing organisms and threatening to cause epidemics of dangerous illnesses that could not be treated.  They also include horrendous pollution from the animals’ manure, which is not treated as the contaminant it is.  The reason for that has to do with the way in which the  big corporations that control the industry contract with farmers to actually raise the animals, but on terms that are so strict and pay so little as to leave these contractors no resources for effectively treating the waste yet absolve the corporations from responsibility for it.  This abuse of the contractors carries over to the vile conditions of employment for workers involved in  raising and slaughtering the animals.  And these workers are not only at risk themselves of terrible injuries and of contracting antibiotic-resistant disease, but they could also infect anyone they come in contact with when they go home.  The now-almost-complete erosion of regulations to protect either the workers or consumers is part of this picture that Silbergeld paints.

Silbergeld asks readers to respect the food choices of people who want to eat the meat that these factory farms produce, and so she insists that industrialized livestock raising is here to stay.  Her solution to the problems she describes is therefore that we should openly acknowledge that livestock raising is now an industry rather than anything that can be called farming and must be regulated as an industry, not treated as agriculture at all.  She proposes tough standards for worker safety, pollution control, and contractor and consumer protection, and posits that government should be held accountable for holding this industry to passable standards.

If this could be accomplished, it might very well solve the abuses Silbergeld describes.  I believe there are only two catches (besides the difficulty of getting governments to buck the interests of large corporations).  One catch is that in Silbergeld’s proposal to control and regulate factory farms, such huge portions of the corn and soybean crops would still be inefficiently feeding livestock as to continue to challenge our farmland to feed us all.  The other is that if the livestock industry really had to pay its workers and contractors a living wage and really had to control and treat the manure adequately, it would surely raise the cost of meat and other animal foods by a considerable margin.  And then the huge amounts of cheap animal foods that are the whole purpose of the factory farms would no longer be cheap.  This would unravel the whole scheme:  the economies of scale provided by industrial-agriculture livestock raising require a massive market, but if the necessary regulation raises the cost of meat significantly then that mass market is no longer massive enough to support the industrial-agriculture scale.

I do accept Silbergeld’s belief that we have no right to disrespect people’s desire for meat.  But I do not see any way for the industrial-model production of animal foods to feed the world.  It co-opts too much of our crop production and, if properly regulated, would probably not permit heavy meat-eating for most people for economic reasons.  This does not mean that people who want meat can’t have it.  But it does mean that meat would mostly be a minor ingredient in foods on most days, and a feast-food just occasionally, if we really want a healthy and well-fed world.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

22. What Should US Corn Cropland Do?

A chart I found on the internet showed US “Corn Usage by Segment” for 2015.  If I’m reading it right, only 30.3% of US corn for that year because fuel ethanol;  12.5% was exported (some of this for animal feed);  3.5% became high fructose corn syrup and another 2.2% became other “sweeteners;”  1.5% was listed as “cereal/ other” i.e. corn eaten by people as corn;  and a whopping 47.1% (plus some of the exports) was fed to livestock.

This is not how to feed the world.

I discussed the problem of corn ethanol in my last post.  There is a great deal of data these days to indicate that sugar of any kind is neither healthful nor nutritious.  And while I addressed the concerns with using human-edible crops for animal feed in posts 6 and 7, a few of these points bear a quick revisit.

For one thing — and most to the point when discussing world hunger — livestock is incredibly inefficient in turning feed into food.  After all, some of what any animal eats is simply excreted (a dairy cow that produces 11 gallons of milk per day, for example, also produces some 80 pounds of manure).  Some food is burned for energy;  some becomes fur, feathers,  bones,  teeth/beaks, hoofs, hide, and discarded internal organs.  Crickets,  chickens, and fish turn a full 25% of what they’re fed into food humans can eat, but they are the most efficient.  For pigs, sheep, and cows it takes about 8 to 20 pounds of feed for the animal to produce one pound of food for people.  From the perspective of ending hunger, feeding animals many pounds of grain and soybeans to produce each pound of human food instead of feeding all those many pounds of grains and beans directly to the hungry is simply not excusable.

If that is not enough, there are other problems with the Confined Animal Feeding Operations/CAFOs, i.e., factory farms that use all that feed.  When animals are treated as production units and crowded by the thousands into buildings, they are so stressed and miserable that they are prone to mass die-offs from disease, so continual antibiotics are needed to keep them alive (and putting on weight as fast as possible) — creating antibiotic-resistant disease organisms.  In such conditions the amount of manure they produce can equal that of a small city per CAFO, but inadequate regulation leads chronically to water and air pollution.  That many animals drink vast quantities of water, which removes water from streams and groundwater and can cause environmental damage and shortages of water for other uses (like drinking, bathing, laundry, and irrigating crops for human consumption).  And the industrial-agriculture model that produces the feed has serious environmental problems (as noted in post 19).

Beyond question, factory farms based on subsidies for growing the feed are the pre-eminent way to produce lots of cheap meat, eggs, and dairy.  And cheap animal foods are in high demand.  But producing cheap animal foods in this way directly and seriously impedes ending hunger.

So what should US corn cropland be doing?  How about growing corn and other grains and beans and vegetables for people to eat?

There are two interlocking keys to transforming the current situation into this better one.  One is for people to switch their dietary expectations from high to low consumption of animal foods.  (Vegans and low-dairy vegetarians  are exemplary, but moving to plant-based diets which just use small amounts of animal food would do for most.)  A serious drop in demand for animal foods would leave room for sustainable and appropriate pasturing of livestock but could eliminate CAFOs.  The other key is to adjust farm policies and subsidies so that farmers who now grow commodity corn for feed and ethanol could instead make a living growing corn for eating as corn, while adding the growing of other grains and vegetables that people would eat.  Farmers basically want to make a living growing food.  If government policies provide different ways of doing this — as long as the making-a-living thing is guaranteed — it should not be unacceptable, even if it does mean making some changes.

This brings us to the realm of national politics and policies.  The first step in working towards policies that are better at ending hunger than what we’re doing now is to start the discussion of their necessity.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

13.Antibiotics, Livestock, and Food

I interrupt a planned group of posts about urban food-growing to report on recent news regarding the problems of antibiotics in the factory-farming of animals.

Two stories broke recently in just two days.  On Sept. 23, Danish researchers announced their discovery of a strain of a dangerous multiply-antibiotic-resistant bacterium — MRSA — that was transmitted directly from infected poultry to people who ate it.  Since MRSA infection cannot be fought with any known antibiotic, this can be life-threatening to the unfortunate people so infected.  And while such transmissions are still rare, they point to the growing danger of overusing antibiotics in raising livestock for food.

It may not be well-known to everyone, but the economics of Confined Animal Feeding Operations — CAFOs, i.e., factory farms — produce intense pressure to get the animals big enough to slaughter as fast as possible, and feeding them antibiotics continually makes them gain weight faster.  At the same time, the animals are so crowded together that one disease organism could spread through them all and wipe out a whole buildings’ worth of animals in a few days, so feeding continual antibiotics is the only way to keep them alive long enough to slaughter.  The result is that most of the meat and eggs derived from most livestock operations come from billions of animals fed continual antibiotics:  a perfect recipe for breeding antibiotic-resistant disease-causing bacteria.

The U.S. has made feeble attempts to do something about this looming crisis, issuing an “action plan” last year that forbids the use of antibiotics for spurring growth.  But since it still permits “preventative use” of these drugs, the result is no change whatsoever from feeding continual antibiotics to factory-farmed livestock.

So it is hopeful that the second bit of breaking news was a UN summit meeting on Sept. 22 at which 190 member nations all signed a declaration to do something about antibiotic resistance.  This would be great — except that the declaration is nonbonding and sets no firm targets.  So although previous similar declarations (for example to fight HIV) have had good results, it is hard to see how, in the face of rising demand for meat, this UN declaration could work.

For in fact, the only real route to preserving antibiotics’ effectiveness for treating sick people is to stop their continual use on livestock.  But this would mean the end of factory farming of food animals.  And one immediate result of ending the CAFOs would be the end of abundant cheap meat.  Other effects, however, would directly affect the fight against world hunger.  For in addition to ending the air pollution and water pollution and greenhouse gas releases and fish kills that all arise from factory farms’ manure pits, ending factory farming of livestock would free up vast acreage now growing animal feed for use in growing food directly for humans.

This is really three good things, since if people eat little meat they are likelier to be healthier than if they eat a lot of it — as long as their substitute for heavy meat-eating is an increased consumption of beans and whole grains and vegetables and nuts and fruits, and not refined grains and sugar and junk food.  But for people to actually go along with eating little meat, two things have to happen.  First, they have to learn how to enjoy and embrace plant-centric cuisines.  And second, they need to have access to the aforementioned good-quality beans and whole grains and vegetables and nuts and fruits.  Currently , low wages and urban food deserts stymie this last necessity for many, and economic inequity is therefore something these posts will need to address.  But urban food-production could surely be part of solving these problems.   So I will return to that topic in my next.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

Introduction

A first blog post is necessarily introductory, of both subject and self.

My subject springs from much reading and engagement in the areas of:  gardening;  agriculture;  environmental issues;  nutrition;  plant-based diets;  and social justice.  This combination of interests and experiences gives me critical insights into both the problems that cause hunger and malnutrition on our planet, and also into areas of slack in the system from which real solutions could be developed.

The problem is that malnutrition exists (despite current agricultural production of enough calories to feed everyone) while the human population is still growing.  Economic factors are surely part of this problem, and improving economic equity and empowering (or re-empowering) the poor to grow and be able to buy good food is pretty well understood to be needed.  But there is also concern that even if this were achieved, it would be inadequate to feed us all as human numbers grow even larger and as more less-poor people desire a richer diet.

For there are limits to what plants can produce.  All the good agricultural land is now in use.  Overuse of marginal land is causing desertification that exacerbates the problem.  Use of water for irrigation and livestock is already at such unsustainable levels that aquifers and surface water are being drawn down worldwide (from the US high plains and California to India and the Aral Sea) to a degree that further compromises our ability to grow food into the future.  Climate chaos throws an additional sabot into the works.  Further, one of the biggest causes of both food shortage and greenhouse gasses is raising livestock, yet as people climb out of poverty the demand for animal food rises beyond any kind of sustainability.

Is big problem.

But there are also solutions, and they lie in correcting current misuse and underuse of what we have.  Waste is a huge area to address.  Devoting over 90% of US corn acreage to biofuels, animal feed, and  high fructose corn syrup is another.  Suburban lawns and urban rooftops and vacant lots represent space where enormous amounts of food could be grown.  And people can eat amazingly well using very little animal food (or even none!).  So even as we work towards zero population growth and economic equity, there are things we can do to greatly increase the amount of available food.  And while we can’t end hunger solely by resolving any one of these factors, working on all of them together could do the trick.

I plan in this blog to report on efforts and initiatives already known of or being tried to address each of these areas of slack in the system.  I will discuss what people can do individually and what will require concerted citizen action to make changes at the policy level.  I hope to cross-pollinate ideas so that people interested in one aspect of the problem of world hunger, or working on one of the solutions, can be enabled to learn and act more widely, and in better coordination with others.  It’s because of this cross-pollination of ideas that I call myself “the gentle bee.”

As far as who I am, my first tiny garden was planted in the mid-1970s when I was in my twenties.  I’ve lived in urban “bedroom communities” and have gardened in back yards, front yards, and community gardens.  I’ve been a Community Supported Agriculture subscriber and farmers’ market patron.  I learned about human nutrition during my pregnancy and then taught it for 27 years as a Bradley Method childbirth educator.  My daughter was already interested in vegetarianism when I met my vegan husband;  he and I got a vegetarian group started (Milwaukee Area Resources for Vegetarianism) and I’ve written its monthly newsletter since 1994. I wrote a food/nutrition/cookbook, Food Pyramid Feast, published in 2000. I myself drifted slowly into eating a plant-based diet, and have been ov0-lacto-vegetarian for about 15 years.  My interest in and knowledge about food and growing it is thus long and varied — and ongoing.

Finally, a plea for indulgence:  my first exposure to computers in 1975 pretty thoroughly defined the term “user UNfriendly” and traumatized me for life.  So this is my very first venture into the blogosphere, and I have a lot to learn.  I can only hope that my content will be interesting and useful enough for readers to stick with me while I figure out how to do this.

Thanking you in advance for your patience, and hoping to reward it, I am

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley