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Really local diets: where the UN gets it wrong

A newly produced UN Report rightly points out, among other things, that the western model of meat and dairy production simply won't work on a planet of 9 billion people. The report, which quantifies the basic unsustainability of affluent societies and the challenges facing us in satisfying needs we've spent a century creating and can't possibly actually fulfill, is generally a good one. But I do want to take issue with the underlying assumptions in the report, including the ones that lead the UN to the most controversial and media-attention gathering claim - that we need to move towards a universal vegan diet.

The problem with this report, as with many analyses, is that it doesn't take the realities of fossil fuel and resource depletion fully into account - the underlying assumption is continued world economic growth and expanded resource use. Now I'm the first person to observe that there's nothing in peak oil that can save us from climate change - energy resources are peaking, but not fast enough to prevent us from pushing the climate past critical tipping points or beyond climate sensitivity - we know this to be true, and it is important to restate this, because some irresponsible elements of the peak oil community have in the past felt that the way to draw attention to peak oil was to minimize the potential risks of climate change.

That said, however, resource depletion and its economic effects are likely to reshape our future dramatically, and while I think that assumption ought to be used to reconsider the report as a whole, the point I think most needs critiquing is the idea that we will have the energy resources we need to put into agriculture, and thus, that we will not have to rely on localized diets. A prescription for a particular universal animal product intake assumes that we can offer a universal dietary prescription.

Now let me also reiterate that I believe that most of us will need to eat vastly fewer animals products. With the exception of extremely impoverished diabetics who cannot control their blood sugar any other way and cannot afford too choose sustainable alternatives, there is simply no excuse for any person who cares about the planet to eat CAFO meat. If it comes on a styrofoam package in your supermarket, don't eat it - period. For some people this may mean vegetarianism or veganism, for others, a small to moderate amount of locally produced, grass-fed and pastured animal products.

As the UN report articulates, the largest impact of meat comes from feeding animals grains that could also feed human beings, along with the clearing of forested land for export animal agriculture. And all of us who care about the well being of others should be striving to minimize grain-fed animal agriculture by our purchasing choices and by our actions if we raise animals, and also to seek out local sources not raised on rainforest. The reality of feeding the world is going to have to focus on making sure that we are not feeding human food to animals. But that's not quite the same thing as saying we should end animal agriculture or shift to a vegan diet.

Let me also make clear that for those who choose a vegetarian or vegan diet, this is a good and honorable choice. I'm not in any way diminishing the value of that choice, or suggesting people should seek out meat - discussions of diet are like discussion of religion and they get heated. But realistically, meat has always been a high value luxury food that many people will choose to eat, and finding a relationship to meat that we can live with is more likely to be effective than asking everyone to eschew all together. Moreover, if we are facing a relocalized agriculture, there are places and cultures where a sustainable food system will have to depend on animal agriculture, done very differently than in the present situation. Local food systems cannot begin from one single seet of assumptions, because local agricultures are always site-specific.

What is a small to moderate amount of meat? With a few exceptions, most of us should be eating meat no more than one main meal (plus whatever leftover meals you get off of it) per week. We should also be limiting our consumption of dairy and eggs - in fact, dairy may be a more critical factor in some cases - in cold climates, most dairy produced during winter involves a large amount of purchased grain, and even if high spring and summer, grass fed dairy means eating less of it, because cows and goats and sheep all produce less milk on grass alone than they would with the addition of grain.

Indeed, often in these discussions we focus on meat, and ignore dairy products and eggs, which is a mistake, because while it is possible to raise most major large meat ruminants - sheep, goats, cows, etc... on pasture alone for their meat, making use of grass, a resource humans can't use, it isn't possible to produce large quantities of eggs or milk without some supplementation. That supplementation usually involves grain, although as I'll talk about in a second, there are exceptions and ways to shift this.

The UN report rightly addresses an existing globalized society, but wrongly assumes that we'll have the ability to keep shifting food around the world and around regions, and that we will never have to rely for even a substantial portion of our calories upon local production. This, I think is unlikely - even if the rate of fossil fuel decline is much lower than projected, we have several examples of reductions in fossil fuel import of 20% or less that resulted in widespread failure of industrialized agriculture - in Cuba, Argentina and the Soviet Union.

Moreover, during the 2008 food crisis, a rise in oil prices up above $100 barrel led to rise in input and transport costs all over the developing world that led to food supply constraints. Despite high grain prices, farmers in the developing world were unable to plant because of the high initial cost of inputs, or transport food to market. In the American Great Depression, a purely financial crisis where food supplies were ample, we saw that farmers couldn't afford to transport their food to market, so urban dwellers went hungry while crops rotted on the ground. So we know that both energy depletion itself and the economic consquence of energy supply constraints or related economic crises can result in major food supply constraints, and that it is probably not wise to assume that we will always be able to import food or move food freely around the globe as we do in at least much of the world today.

Intuitively, it seems obvious that we would prioritize oil and other resources for agriculture, but in fact what seems to happen in energy supply constraints is that there are so many competing priorities that the attempts often fail. Every nation knows that the food insecurity of its people is a recipe for political unrest and has a deep investment in keeping people fed, but that doesn't necessarily translate into the ability to do it.

In a world where energy supplies are much more constrained than most international agencies assume, where peak oil and other energy supplies are limited, it may well be possible to move dry grains around in some measure, although for whom and in what measure is an open question. But it is almost certain that refrigerated shipping will be too costly and energy intensive for many people - thus, the industrialized and centralized meat industry that we've created is not likely to be a long term success.

Let me reiterate - this is not an excuse for [not] trying to end it sooner than peak oil does it anyway - the CAFO industry is reprehensible in any number of ways, from lack of humane treatment of human workers to mistreatment of animals, the the risks posed by heavy antibiotic use in animals in close quarters to the problem of manure processings, to the fact that they tend to be giant conglomerates, the climate impact, the impact on world grain prices... I could keep listing reasons, but you all get the point. Confinement animal raising is unethical, unsustainable and doomed, and the more we support them now, the more disastrous the impacts over the long term.

But the assumption that the industrial world is likely to continue in the long term to raise animal products in precisely the ways it has been is probably not justified. So is the assumption that animal agriculture must involve the consumption of human food, or land suited to the growing of human food.

If we take as a basic principle that the goal is to feed as many people as possible with as small a climate and ecological impact as possible, we find that small scale animal agriculture is actually a vital part of that, and that a small amount of animal products - varying by place and environment, will probably be a part of many diets, and some localities, including the arctic and dry savanna regions of the US, Canada, Asia, Australia and Africa will depend heavily on animal products by necessity, because those soils cannot be tilled in the drying conditions we are likley to see due to climate change. Only by grazing animals carefully and sustainabily on those soils can human food be extracted from them.

In addition, there are regions of many nations that include cold, steep areas unsuitable for tillage and urban areas where human food waste is a substantial ecological problem, and where small scale animal production, living on that food waste (and alongside real attempts to reduce wasted food) could provide much needed dense proteins in areas otherwise highly dependent on more fertile and less populous areas for food.

Moreover, because it is already infeasible to move manures over long distances, the need for an integrated animal agriculture in a small farm system becomes more acute if you cannot assume the affordability or ready availability of mined and synthetic fertilizers. That bag of 10-10-10 is both resource intensive and has a significant climate and ecological impact. We have seen the ways that the price of mined fertilizer inputs rise during times of high energy prices, and can reasonably assume that mined Potash and Phosphorous, as well as synthetic nitrogen will experience substantial price fluctuations - and because most of the mined minerals and centralized and Haber-Bosch nitrogen depends on natural gas supplies, we may find the cost of moving them around becomes untenable for many people. We are going to have to include livestock manures, wisely handled (and on a manageable scale) in our plans - or work out better ways to treat and make use of human manures.

A few years ago, a Cornell University study (Peters, C. J., N. L. Bills, A. J. Lembo, J. L. Wilkins, and G. W. Fick. Mapping potential foodsheds in New York State: A spatial model for evaluating the capacity to localize food production. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 24(1); 72-84.) was released that suggested that New York State could feed about one third of its population using its existing agricultural land - and more interestingly that it could feed slightly more of its population when it included a small quantity of animal products in people's diets. The assumptions of the study, of course had to begin from what we were planning to eat, and did not assume a renewal of victory gardens or transformation of the acreage of New York lawn into food production, so I suspect the number if rather low, but the Cornell study usefully illustrated how small animal inputs could actually increase the number of people fed. The results of the study were important mostly because they showed the enormous difference in land carrying capacity based on how you chose to eat - New York state can carry five times as many people with a small amount of animal products integrated as it can on a conventional American diet. The study concluded:

"[W]e conclude that the inclusion of beef and milk in the diet can increase the number of people fed from the land base relative to a vegan diet, up to the point that land limited to pasture and perennial forages has been fully utilized."

And again, this study left out a number of things that might have increased this number. For example, looking at nations in the Global South one sees that one of the things that cities are able to do well is produce small scale meat and eggs - rabbits, pigs, chickens and guinea pigs among others live on food scraps, grasses and weeds from land margins, and other sources, producing dense calories in areas that simply can't grow their own grains. Many nations in the Global South produce as much as 20% of their meat within city limits, and using only food that would otherwise go to waste. The study asserts that New York city could produce only a very small percentage of its food locally, but that number could change were the millions of pounds of food wasted annually to be fed to chickens and other animals.

Unfortunately, given fewer resources, no one size-fits all diet is available to anyone. What you eat has to depend on three things:

1. What does your region produce successfully, and with the least ecological damage? How do you use all the land in your region optimally?

That means here in upstate New York, my rice habit doesn't make much sense - so my family is switching as much as it can to potatoes, with corn and barley and oats that do well here and are now grown mostly for livestock. We will eat small - to - moderate amounts of seasonal meat and dairy in season - taking advantage of the fact that much of my land is too steep to till and too wet to grow crops well, but grow grass extremely well. I can produce an excess to sell to neighbors in the high season, and some to preserve as cheese and meat for winter, but realistically, I'm not going to be eating many chowders in February in upstate NY, since my goats wouldn't be giving much milk without a lot of supplements.

An urban New Yorker might want to rely heavily on beans and grains, but local produce, but if they eat meat and eggs, to work on expanding in-city production using food scraps from restaurants and stores for rabbits and chickens - less beef, more bunny.

A person living in the American heartland could easily eat a wholly vegetarian diet with an emphasis on soybeans, but they might want to ask where the soil fertility to suppor that corn and soy rotation is going to come from in the long term.

2. What can you produce using things that would otherwise go to waste - whether the grass on your neighborhood lawns or the food you let rot in the kitchen, or that stores throw away.

Making full use of the food capacities we have is going to be essential - that means making use of land and resources that are underused, such as food scraps, or space for street trees that could be replaced with fruit or nut trees to provide free high value foods. It means making full use of available crops that go to waste now, such as the olives that are planted as street trees in many warm climates. It will mean

3. What do you produce that *also* creates habitat for wildlife - in a world struggling to feed human beings, dual purpose areas that feed wild creatures and humans simultaneously are essential unless we want our experience of nature to be limited to squirrels, pigeons and raccoons that live off our wastes.

Forest crops and woody agriculture (and the animals and other crops compatible with this) and permanent pastures have the advantage of providing more wildlife habitat than a field of soybeans or a suburban neighborhood of lawn. The ability to both feed peopel and support biodiversity is a good measure of a successful small scale agriculture.

The UN's basic recommendation to reduce meat, dairy and egg consumption is a good one - the 167 grams of animal products the average American eats per day is ridiculously high. That said, however, with the exception of those who choose that diet, I suspect the future is not largely vegan, but involves complex shifts in how we raise and feed animals.

The emergence of truly relocalized diets will have to begin with consumers - farmers don't have the ability to lead the way, growing what they think people should eat. Until local consumers educate themselves about what grows well in their region and begin to focus on those foods, developing a truly local food culture, there will be a long lag time in developing an agriculture that can do more than provide seasonal produce, but can actually feed us if we need it.


Editorial Notes: EB contributor Ann Peluso writes:
Excellent summary on the necessary use of animal products. I especially appreciated the mention that not all land is suitable for human crops. That is hardly obscure information, but rarely brought into politically-correct conversation. Nice to see it mentioned. I would add that not all grain grown for humans will be suitable for humans. Most grain is wasted if animals don't eat it. Traditionally, lesser quality grain was fed to poultry as their natural food source. Dropped grain was foraged by sheep and cows, which is their natural food source coming into winter to put on fat. Grain for humans must be cleaned, hulled, and otherwise processed to be edible. That's very energy consuming, and a miserable chore for those of us who have tried it. None of that is necessary when fed to animals. According to Sally Fallon [Nourishing Traditions] a tiny amount of animal product greatly increases the uptake of vegetable protein. If you are squeamish, skip to the next paragraph. Many insects are edible, fried grasshoppers being a favorite snack in Mexico. Most land snails are, also. Maybe we should be eating them instead of poisoning them. Farley Mowat [Never Cry Wolf] has a delightful recipe for mice. Yes. They're edible, too. Along with grasshoppers and land snails, they are inadvertently grown in most gardens. And I appreciated Sharon's mention to remember the wildlife. If for no other reason, it is lonely without them. I would add, plant a few flowers or leave wildflowers to grow. "Beauty is its own excuse for being." [Emerson, The Rhodora] FYI, it seems that potatoes have an amino acid profile similar to wheat [a googlable study]. There are lots of French recipes using beans and potatoes together. I can grow both easily in Maine, along with grasshoppers, land snails, and mice. I'm all set.

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