There are many people who like the attitude that the only way to solve modern issues is with contemporary solutions, they will triumphantly disregard anyone who looks at lessons from the past as antiquated and twee.
On the subject of agriculture and food be careful not to overlook the vested interest of enormous companies in keeping agriculture and food production industrialised. Everything from seed supply to monopolising the shelves in a supermarket is worth a lot of money to some of the players in these industries. Huge marketing budgets maintain the notion that we need GM, factory farms and space age technology to be able to deliver a growing populations food needs. Well actually that is where (in my opinion) they are wrong. And it’s not just ‘little hill billy me’ either, there is a growing choir of voices singing the same song.
The ONLY way we can feed a large population is through a sustainable agricultural system that is not depleting the very reserves that grow our food in the first place.
It is true that we are likely to have to feed approximately 9 Billion mouths in the next couple of decades. But to use the US as an example, it takes 41 tonnes of plant protein to produce 7 million tonnes of grain fed animal protein. Does this make sense! AND in doing this it uses vast quantities of fossil fuel, water and has a huge detrimental effect on the environment.
Grass land grows food for animals all year round, the manure from the animal naturally fertilises the soil with no transportation or storage required, the grass grows deep roots so is resistant to drought and flood. Healthy soil grows deeper and richer by taking atmospheric carbon and locking it down in the ground which in turn grows more nutrient dense food for the animal to grazing upon. Some fields are cultivated to produce vegetables and cereal grain for human consumption and are naturally fertile, these crops are rotated to maintain a natural fertility minimal loss of carbon.
Factory farming is in essence moving the animals from a given area of grassland and putting them in a shed. You need to feed the animals and get them fat quick so you plough the pasture and grow a crop, each year the soil depletes and carbon is released into the atmosphere. The poor soil is vulnerable to flood and drought and there is a huge amount of work, money, chemicals and fossil fuel required to sow the seed, kill the weeds, harvest the crop, dry, store and feed this to the animals. The animals are not really designed to eat this stuff and get sick so we give them anti biotic’s to prevent this. The manure is collected in huge tanks causing toxic gas and potential contamination and is then transported to spread back onto the fields which may be a long distance from the ‘farm’.
But can we produce enough food from a pasture based system?
Well this is hard to prove or disprove and it depends on what people want to or should eat, how much they eat and how much we waste.
In the USA 35 Million cattle are slaughtered every year for food. It is estimated that in the past the Great Planes of North America alone supported up to 75 million bison (twice the weight of a beef steer), the bison would have co-existed with millions of other large (edible) mammals and thrived on a diverse resilient eco system. This area alone could easily produce more than enough healthy 100% grass fed meat for the US population’s current requirements.
And do people require all that food anyway? Well, it’s a bit of a politically in-correct subject, but the answer is NO.
Americans eat approximately 815 billion calories a day, 200 billion more than needed to stay healthy, this is enough to feed 80 million people!
There are nearly one billion malnourished people in the world, but the approximately 40 million tonnes of food wasted by US households, retailers and food services each year would be enough to satisfy the hunger of every one of them.
Can we afford not to feed the world on a pasture based system?
The State of Iowa has lost one half of its top soil in 150 years of farming, this soil took thousands of years to form. Water is a finite resource and with the current population growth will have to be managed VERY carefully. Industrialised agriculture accounts for 87% of fresh water consumed each year, livestock themselves only drink 1.3% of this.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that if a traditional system of crop and pasture rotation was adopted and un-cultivatable land was grazed by meat animals, there is a very good chance we could not only feed the world a more nutritious diet but also reverse climate change in the process!