Food, food everywhere; nor any bite to eat

Some of the most powerful, prevalent and insidious arguments against transitioning to a more holistic and sustainable agricultural system are based on the still-rapidly-growing global population, and related notions of sufficiency and efficiency. In future posts I’ll address more of these myths, such as the idea that industrial agriculture is more efficient and sustainable than organic-style systems, and that organic farming can’t possibly produce enough food to feed everyone. Today, I’ll focus on the idea that there is a need to increase food production in order to feed the world.

The human population is undoubtedly growing, and is predicted to peak at around 9-10 billion people. This National Geographic article says that if current trends of population growth and increased prosperity continue, we will need to produce double the crops we currently do to feed the world by 2050, partly in order to feed more livestock. The FAO’s estimate is even higher: a tremendous 70% increase. A live discussion hosted by the UK’s Guardian newspaper on the problem didn’t appear question the assumption that more food would need to be produced, rather focusing on how this increased production would be managed.

From an initial survey of the available information, you might be forgiven for thinking that there is an urgent need to produce dramatically more food to prevent mass famine and starvation in the near future. But then you notice that the live discussion was paid for by Unilever, and that the seven panellists include a Unilever employee, a DuPont employee, a Woolworths employee and the former president of the Chilean corn and soy association. And you realise that the discourse is still being controlled by those who have the most to gain from the perpetuation of the current system. If the industrial agricultural industry can convince everyone that it is not only justifiable, but morally righteous to continue this model of perpetual growth despite the increasingly apparent destruction it is causing to both environment and society, then anyone who criticises that model can be portrayed as cold, cruel and uncaring in the face of human suffering.

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To (m)eat or not to (m)eat?

Meat is BAD for the environment (right?)

If you’re trying to find information on the negative impacts of livestock agriculture, you don’t have to look very far. A simple Google search for “negative effects of livestock” brings up 22.6 million results, the first of which is a report on a 2007 Stanford University symposium which lists many of the key reasons frequently cited for the need to dramatically reduce livestock production. In my experience, these reasons are a primary driver behind the ever increasing number of people who are giving up meat and animal products in the name of the environment.

The Stanford report asserts that because grazing takes up 26% of the earth’s terrestrial surface, and because around one third of arable land is used for feed crop production, extensive (that is, grazing based) livestock production “plays a critical role in land degradation, climate change, water and biodiversity loss.” Other negative externalities alleged include deforestation (particularly in Latin America) and carbon emissions (although it is unclear whether this refers to intensive ‘factory-farmed’ systems or extensive systems). Other frequently cited effects of livestock production is the compaction and degradation of soils, destruction of vegetation, and excessive soil nitrogen as a result of highly concentrated urine and  manure and its subsequent run-off into, and pollution of, waterways. This last effect is of particular concern in New Zealand where our waterways are of central cultural and environmental significance.

Is it though?

I don’t doubt the validity of all of the arguments set out above…in certain situations; namely, the prevailing norm of large-scale, ‘intensified’ farms employing unsustainable practices in the name of efficiency. This applies to both intensive and extensive systems, but I think we can all agree that intensive systems are environmental nightmares, and I won’t be discussing them further in this article. However, I don’t agree that all livestock production systems are inherently environmentally unsustainable, and I find the increasing acceptance that meat and dairy production are inherently bad for the environment, and that the only solution is vegetarianism or veganism, to be deeply problematic.

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Why (or why not) organic?

I remember one of my first encounters with the term ‘organic’. I was at the Hill Street farmers’ market in Thorndon, innocently buying some vegetables. I bought a few things from a stall selling (presumably) non-organic produce; it was cheaper, I was a poor student, and I had no idea why anyone would pay more for some fancy label. I was browsing at another stall, possibly selling bread or hand cream, when a stranger approached me.

“Are those leeks organic?” she asked.

“Excuse me?” I said, not sure whether she was talking to me.

“Are those leeks organic?” She gestured at the green stalks poking out from the top of my cloth bag. Definitely talking to me.

“Um…” I hesitated, “I don’t know.”

“Well, you should really be buying organic.” She said aggressively, before walking away. I felt mildly outraged that some strange old woman felt entitled to question and judge me on my choice of food. I recounted the story several times over the next few weeks as a joke, a demonstration of how crazy people can be, and then promptly forgot about it. In the intervening three years my perception of the concept of ‘organic’ has changed completely, several times over, but I know there are still a lot of people who feel the way I used to, so I thought it might be helpful to explain what it all means.

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