Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy. His previous article on BNC was: Feeding the billions on a hotter planet (Part II)
Welcome to Part III of my still presumptuously titled series on feeding the world in 2050.
I spent the first two parts of this series looking at global authorities like the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation) with its predictive obsession and its policy associate IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) with its meat obsession. Writing in a similarly obsessed country with far more cattle than people, I felt compelled to add a special section on protein and to also quantify the place of meat, particularly sheep and cattle meat, on the world food stage. Cattle are a major player in climate change, biodiversity loss and general environmental destruction but both they and sheep are globally irrelevant to food security. But worse than being irrelevant, their net contribution may well be negative. Here are some of the negative impacts:
- Reductions in the productivity of the land that produces real food. These reductions are via physical soil damage, consumption of crop residues which protect the soil, the deliberate burning of areas that are croppable to maintain them as pasture.
- Fouling water. Lack of clean water is the second biggest cause of malnutrition.
- Acting as disease generators. I mentioned Cryptosporidium in the last post, but livestock are also major generators of novel rotavirus strains. Rotavirus kills a million children annually, with vaccination not always available in the developing world. We don’t need new strains.
- The direct sickening and killing of children and women via the use of animal dung as a fuel.
- The reduction in the global food supply by making feed production more profitable than food production. The last impact doesn’t always apply to sheep and cattle but is more general. People with the perspicacity to easily recognise this problem in the context of biofuels are almost universally blind to its existence elsewhere.
Today, in the last of the series, I want to look some standout scientific work that breaks the predictive meat obsessed mould. This is work by Jonathan Foley and Navin Ramankutty and a sizeable group of associated researchers. I’ll call this the “FR” work, but keep in mind that there are many other researchers involved.
This work breaks the mold because it isn’t concerned with mere prediction, like that of the FAO. Nor is it obsessed with meat as a food but rather it recognises meat’s central role in reducing global food Calories.
Step 1 and 2 and 3 … prepare the data
Central to the 2011 Foley-Ramankutty paper is the careful selection and preparation of global data sets over more than a decade. This combines large scale vision with obsessive attention to detail. Here are the major data sets that serve as input into their global modelling:
|Agricultural lands||Combined production and satellite data on 175 crops||I II|
|Cultivable land||Merging of satellite and GCM prediction data||I|
|Crop planting dates||Merging of regional data sets||I|
|Fertiliser and manure production and application||Merging of data sets||I|
|Nitrogen flows on croplands||Global dataset||I|
|Phosphorus balances||Global dataset||I|
|Monthly climate conditions||1961-90 average at 1km resolution||I|
|Soil attributes||soil carbon, wilting point, nitrogen, bulk density, thermal capacity||I|
I don’t know the extent to with these datasets are the product of independent effort or orchestration, but FR have assembled them to work as a unit together with assorted algorithms.
The first two of these datasets are particularly important. National governments collect data on agricultural output for various regions and then combine. Most people work with the combined data. But FR work as much as possible with the low level regional data. Australia, for statistical purposes, has 59 regions and Brazil has 5510! For some countries, the data is thin or suspect and FR use FAO national figures which are derived using all kinds of estimation techniques and expert knowledge. The FR team then combine this raw (or not so raw) data with two sets of satellite data. Satellites can identify different types of woodland, grassland and so on, but are not good at differentiating between different crops, you need the low level regional data for that. Combining the two types of data allows you to allocate production to geographical regions at a reasonable level of detail.
The resulting dataset allows you to answer many questions. FAO has national data of how much of which crops are used as feed, so if you combine this with knowledge of which crops and animal products are produced in different areas, then you can, for example, calculate the food Calories produced in those areas. You can combine this with climate records and predictions from Global Climate models to predict how much food might be produced with the same or different crops or animals in the same region. Knowing planting times and crop suitabilities for different areas allows you to calculate food production possibilities under any alternative agriculturally feasible scenario.
Next step … use it
So far, so good. The FAO and IFPRI modellers do similar things and indeed, FAO data is central to the FR work. But it’s what FR do with the data that separates them from the rest. They don’t stop with “mere” prediction and they don’t let prevailing meat industry biases block the science.
FR suggestions on ways to increase the global food supply begin with a basic constraint: agricultural expansion onto new land, particularly tropical forests, must be slowed and eventually cease. With a few important exceptions, tropical crop yields are below those in temperate regions, but carbon released during their deforestation is huge. This cessation of deforestation, particularly tropical deforestation, is a climate change imperative.
Within this already radical constraint, FR’s first two suggestions are straight from the “more of the same” play book of FAO and everybody else. These suggestions are to reduce the gaps that exist between the yields achieved by the best farmers and the worst and to increase resource use efficiency. Even in areas with similar soils, rainfall and climate, some farmers get far larger yields than others. There are many reasons for this, and current agricultural research and extension programs are designed to address such problems. While recognising and quantifying the room for improvement, the fact that we have doubled the global population without heavily increased rates of malnutrition is an indication that these parts of the current food supply system are working.
Plant scientists have achieved a myriad of small useful advances in the past few decades in addition to the larger and more heralded successes of the green revolution. They are also constantly battling plant diseases by deriving new resistant strains and treatment. Without those on-going efforts the global food supply would crash. Animal scientists on the other hand, have achieved increased output by pushing livestock well past physiological limits so that, for example, all but a few percent of the world’s 18 billion chickens at any point in time will be unable to walk normally in the final weeks of their 6 or 7 week life.
The next suggestion in the FR paper goes beyond business as usual and is the bombshell … shifting diets away from animal source foods. As we saw last time, IFPRI explicitly rejected any analysis of such an option for reasons that were simply rubbish. Similarly, the lead article in the special issue of “Science” on food security last year also rejected analysing the potential for such a shift, again using unsubstantiated claims. In the previous post I showed that the claim that grasslands produce significant amounts of meat is false under any reasonable definition of “significant”. The same lead article goes on to claim that: “… pigs and poultry are often fed on human food ‘waste’.” . This is also false under any reasonable definition of “often” and FR quantify the details.
One can reasonably argue that scientists should stay out of policy debates, but refusing to calculate or estimate the impact of a fairly plausible policy direction is not only entering the debate but taking a strong stand and showing a clear bias. It pre-empts policy decisions by failing to provide policy makers with proper data. This is unconscionable, sloppy and unprofessional.
Foley and Ramankutty grasp the nettle and calculate the impacts of a full shift to plant based foods. They estimate that this would add 49 percent to the world’s Caloric output. They naturally leave open the vexed issue of how big a shift in this direction is socially and politically possible. But their calculations allow policy makers to consider the issue. Not only do they calculate how many extra Calories we could produce but the article contains a map showing exactly where in the world these extra Calories could be generated.
And in a changing climate …?
The extensive datasets and modelling enable FR to calculate changes in potential food production under various climate scenarios. Early work on this was done in a 2002 paper and can be repeated as improvements are made in both climate models, auxiliary methodology and the datasets. In the 2002 paper, 3 climate models were used and in regions where the models were in substantial agreement, an index was derived to predict the change in suitability of the land for cropping.
Here is that early result. It shows large regions of increased suitability for crops in 2070-99 as well as regions of decreased suitability.
That 2002 study was aimed at mapping cultivable land … cropland. Unsurprisingly, there are vast croppable areas available in tropical regions, including Africa, but much of it is forested or grazed.
As the future warms and more northern regions become cropable, there is a disturbing potential for the north-south food and wealth gap to grow. What will the northern countries do? Will they clear and crop or clear and graze newly productive land? Will they clear and crop and feedlot and refuse to sell cheap food but ship frozen meat? Will some dark forested areas become more reflective under wheat and will this increased albedo compensate for the loss of carbon? There are many questions.
Foley and Ramankutty have quantified what is qualitatively obvious. The explosion of global food production over the past few decades would have wiped out malnutrition if had been used to feed people instead of livestock.
But malnutrition is still with us. It has changed its face a little with a billion overfed people facing chronic diseases being added to a billion underfed people facing the more pressing daily diseases of poverty. As the wealthy in developing countries adopt the diets of the dominant western culture they contract the same diseases and demand the health care facilities that go with the diet. You can get a triple heart bypass in Cairo or Nairobi despite 30 percent of the children in Egypt and Kenya being stunted.
The same policy path which FR has shown has the potential to tackle the biggest component of malnutrition, not enough food, will also enable both a cessation of deforestation and an increase in reforestation. James Hansen’s Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? regards both rolling back 200 years of deforestation and slashing non-CO2 climate forcings as both essential to get to a stable level of atmospheric forcings. Changing to a plant based diet tackles both problems. It isn’t a substitue for rebuilding our energy infrastructure, but it is both essential and complementary. A 2009 paper also showed huge financial benefits in fighting climate change using dietary change.
We know we need to change the global food system for a myriad of reasons and the work of Foley, Ramankutty and their colleagues has quantified the evidence and so strengthened the case.
Any move to reduce livestock and increase plant foods will be resisted by powerful and well connected forces. Marion Nestle in Food Politics and T. Colin Campbell in The China Study described the subversion of the nutritional advice system in the US by the livestock industries. They did it as well connected Professors inside that system.
In Australia, the CSIRO has pushed a high meat diet in a bestselling book owned by 1 in 7 Australian households, effectively thumbing its nose at its climate scientists and sending a very effective message to the Australian public that climate change isn’t worth doing anything about. Similarly, the recently released NHMRC Draft Dietary Guidelines have done no more than pay lipservice to environmental issues in general and climate change in particular. We don’t have a whistle blowing insider (yet), but we have all the external public evidence of the subversion of the system. Elsewhere, the signs of progress away from meat obsession are reasonable in the UK and parts of Europe. India is holding the line and Chinese livestock growth has at least plateaued.
It will be an uphill battle.
And from left field …
A long crippled theory which frequently gets a run in discussions on food security received another hammering recently. Fish and other seafood are globally irrelevant to food security. Together they provide about 1 percent of Calories and mostly to the rich with some 63 percent of the ocean’s fish going to high income countries having just 18 percent of the world’s population. Fish can of course be locally important in developing countries like Indonesia and we rich countries know exactly what to do when people who need food try to take it from people who don’t … we burn their bloody boats and put them in jail.
The dodgy theory that drives the demand for fish and fish oil in rich countries is that we need to eat them for their long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs), because our brains can’t make them efficiently.
The existence of millions of children with normal brains dispite no LCPUFAs in their bottled infant formula for decades (it is still only “optional”) should have been enough to kill this myth, but it keeps popping up. However recent work in the Maasai in Kenya has done the hard work of measuring everything carefully (easier said than done) and showing that people can indeed make ample LCPUFAs, far more than theory predicts. The Maasai have almost no sources of LCPUFAS in their diets, but have perfectly normal levels in their red blood cells.
The study also contains some interesting and highly relevant observations about the value of cattle to the Maasai. The cattle have little food value. They rarely eat them, but cattle are traded for maize. The exchange rate is said to work out at about 1000 Calories of beef for 8000 Calories of maize. The argument that cattle are important for food security because of their economic value is very different from the argument that they are important nutritionally. It is one of a myriad of economic and social problems associated with formulating plans for dietary change.
55 replies on “Feeding 10 billion in 2050’s sauna (Part III)”
I’d like to see this carried into sustainability. Great job!
I’m not sure that changes to crop zone suitability will be reliable if they take a long time, perhaps centuries, to stabilise. Thus cereal cropping on the fringe of the present Russian and Canadian tundra may not be viable this century if summers produce nuisance frosts for decades past 2100. Ditto the WA wheatbelt; as it dries out governments will no doubt support farmers well past 2050 in the hope the good old days return at least some years. What made me think about this was the fate of the SE Australian forest giant Eucalyptus regnans who may already be doomed as an Ice Age relic well out of its comfort zone.
Fortunately urban sprawl may be slowing. if someone asks where are the good soil and rainfall areas around Adelaide I’d say they are now called suburbs. I suspect expensive diesel and phosphate in the next decade will impact food production before climate change. Controlled climate growing like greenhouses solves both weird weather,and nutrient conservation but won’t produce enough rice or loaves of bread.
The modelling for the prediction of crop zone suitability are relatively simple at present and could be broken by high levels of variability (weird weather), even if climate averages are accurately predictable.
How much more time will be wasted in theoretical exercises which predict doom because of climate change or how to feed 10 billion people by 2050 If we can make the adjustments to the climate and learn how to feed 10 billion people by 2050 how then will we feed 15 billion people in 2100?
Doom is already here. The world is simply overpopulated. That is the only meaningful issue which must be addressed NOW.
It’s unlikely we’ll hit 15 billion due to urbanization, which is progressing at a rapid pace. Urban populations in most countries reproduce at well below replacement rates. Population models that take urbanization into account project a population peak around 2050 at about 9 billion (according to Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline).
Policies that promote urbanization, along with economic development and education for women, will help this process along.
No need to fret about feeding 10 billion people. We’ll never reach that number. (Deleted unsubstantiated personal opinion.)
Please re-submit with scientific peer-reviewed references to support your assertion.
golif: I too hope this valuable work is extended.
JN: I too question the crop viability in northern Canada. Beyond the very real late-frost risk, IMHO, neither tundra nor boreal forest have much of what would normally be considered ´soil´for crops. Eventually maybe, but not by 2050. (NOTE: This is based upon my experience living in those areas, not quantified, peer review research)
JC: We know how to address population growth quite easily and are already well down that path. Unfortunately it takes 2 generations – education for women & provide for basic needs such as water and sanitation. Together those rapidly reduce family size to sustainable (replacement-only) levels. That still leaves the issue of children of those chidren…
(Apologies: I do not have peer-research to cite as I am currently in a remote area with extremely marginal connectivity, working on foreign language computers)
That’s fine Jess – thank you for your input. Actually your points have been discussed on BNC many times and many refs/links already supplied by Barry, Geoff and other commenters.
WRONG: “The explosion of global food production over the past few decades would have wiped out malnutrition if had been used to feed people instead of livestock.”
Human population grows to consume all available food. The laws of population dynamics work the same for humans as for all other organisms. (Deleted pejorative) (People have) been saying the same thing for half a century, and all we got was more people.
Crop zones moving poleward: You mean like the drought and heat and fires in Russia in 2010? There is also no reason to believe that the land further North is as fertile as where the crops grow now. The glaciers scraped the soil off of Canada and deposited it in Iowa.
“Ecological Footprints and Bio-Capacity: Essential Elements in Sustainability Assessment” by William E. Rees, PhD, University of British Columbia and “Living Planet Report 2008” also by Rees. We went past the Earth’s permanent carrying capacity for humans some time in the 1980s.
9 billion people isn’t going to happen. A population crash is going to happen.
You are contradicting http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wcc.81/full
“Drought Under Global Warming: a Review” by Aiguo Dai
and “Preliminary Analysis of a Global Drought Time Series” by Barton Paul Levenson, not yet published. Under BAU [Business As Usual], agriculture and civilization will collapse some time between 2050 and 2055 due to drought caused by GW [Global Warming].
When farmland is converted to desert, nothing croplike grows there. Look at Texas now.
Geoff Russell – “Any move to reduce livestock and increase plant foods will be resisted by powerful and well connected forces. Marion Nestle in Food Politics and T. Colin Campbell in The China Study described the subversion of the nutritional advice system in the US by the livestock industries. They did it as well connected Professors inside that system”
Which is well detailed in the book that I posted last in the last article you wrote “In Defense of Food” by Micheal Pollen. It is ok to say restrict protein however if you say restrict beef in your diet then the cattle growers will be sueing you to the ends of the Earth. That is why the guidelines are careful no to mention a specific food rather their components.
I am also a bit bemused by your articles on this blog. I am often at odds with people that post here for my views as I have seen you in other threads recieving similar treatment as you are not a fan of nuclear power nor of a continuing business as usual low carbon economy saved in the nick of time by said nuclear energy. Hence I am wondering exactly why Barry has posted these sort of articles.
Your entire posture seems to indicate change in the way we do things. As you said “They naturally leave open the vexed issue of how big a shift in this direction is socially and politically possible. But their calculations allow policy makers to consider the issue.” it is a huge shift to a more plant based food supply however in my opinion this will be thrust on us unwillingly unless we do make the change.
Do you consider Ted Trainers “The Simpler Way” (http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/) or “Limits to Growth – the Thirty Year Update” Chap 7 as examples of where a more sustainable society can incorporate better eating to be more sustainable? Ted Trainer has also been posted here mainly for his opinion of renewables.
Ender: I’ve been a fan of nuclear power for a while now. You will find the “tale” of my conversion on BNC
Yes, I’m a fan of changing to a low consumption lifestyle, but not necessarily low tech … but who can prefer 15 kg of steel bicycle to
8 kg or carbon :). But regardless of such preferences, much of the world needs copious amounts of energy just to rise to that level.
We can tackle energy consumption with nuclear … but it won’t do much for food. The long term sustainable budget is about 1 tonne of CO2eq per person per year. The typical Australian diet was estimated at 4.5 tonnes by CSIRO “Home Energy Saving Handbook”. Nuclear power can’t reduce this by a lot if it is meat based … particularly ruminant.
Edward: There might be all sorts of climate changes that will undermine the best modelling efforts of both climate modellers and the various food modellers. But quoting from the Dai paper you mention:
“Besides the tropical deficiencies, current climate models still have large deficiencies in simulating precipitation frequency and intensity,”
That’s the rub. A warmer world is a wetter world, but I don’t believe that models are yet good enough at the fine resolution necessary plug into the FR framework to get good estimates. The Dai paper doesn’t model food production at all, so predicting vast famines based on it seems premature. The FAO paper I cited in Part II is very laid back about the food production future. It sees vast amounts of land available if we need it to replace any lost capacity … its just a little annoying that most of it is under tropical forests … (yes, I am being sarcastic about this!). I don’t think anybody knows whether the climate will degrade gradually or cross tipping points and crash. If there are crashes, then all bets are off and you will be on the money.
How about some less powerful and well connected forces like the man on the Clapham omnibus. Are there none here who enjoy a good steak? Are we to tell those who enjoy meat that they’ve got to manage without because of the number of children some people in a remote part of the world choose to have?
My respects to Geoff Russell and the article series, however I wish to challenge the graph that has snuck into his text. I was unable to get the PDF to download. Nevertheless, just looking at the graph by itself, one can infer a very different story from Hansen et al to that proposed by Geoff Russell.
The factual data consists only of the green line, an exponential decay after the delicate “carbon cycle” was broken for ever. The rest of the Figure contains some misleading, possibly dangerous, fiction. In particular, it perpetuates a fantasy that the amount of fossil fuels (“reserves”) we knew about yesterday will run out tomorrow and never be replaced by any other mineral source. That these guys keep asserting that industrial emissions will cease of their own accord begins to sound like code saying that human population will collapse from Nature’s intervention. That smacks of religion dressed as science.
The springing back of the other curves could only be possible if there is a restoring force in the biosphere, overcoming the waste CO2 left behind by industrial homo sapiens. It would seem that in about 2030, industrial society collapses, with coal burning dropping to zero and burning of other hydrocarbons dropping away. Then the pre-industrial forests return, although world population would have to collapse if its agricultural land is to return to forest across a century or so. Some hitherto unknown sink for carbon dioxide appears, and miraculously draws the CO2 concentration back down to a level that, as if preordained by Gaia, is the same as that which gave rise to agricultural man in the first place. However, there is no such strong restoring force.
If biomass increased in proportion to CO2 concentration, we would see an increasing amplitude in the cycling of the boreal forests. However we see (NOAA graph) no such increase in amplitude. The worsening frequency of forest fires puts paid to the hope that reforestation can keep the original carbon sequestered, let alone remove industrial carbon from the air. Reforestation is no answer.
In the old carbon cycle, the main sink for carbon was marine organisms creating limestone, to be eventually subducted. However ocean acidification has weakened that restoring force instead of strengthening it. We can see the death of the Barrier Reef and living bioherms elsewhere.
It is the slow weathering of rock that is the only sink for carbon I know of that increases with global warming and increased CO2. However it is slow, at 0.2 Gt/a of carbon (Azimuth Project), puny compared to the 10 Gt/a currently being released by industrial man.
The only way for the weathering of rock to set a new equilibrium requires a 40-fold reduction in the release of fossil carbon followed by an unknown period of changed climates. It could be that there are people who want the extinction of industrial man to happen as violently as the graph implies, but they would not be writing or reading an article with hopes to feed ten billion people.
We cannot callously wait for collapse and blame the hand of God or Gaia. The only intervention that can save the climate that gave rise to homo sapiens requires the hand of Man.
Roger: Thanks for the kind words. Try here for an alternate download site for the article containing the graph, “Target CO2”
The graph assumes a total phase-out of coal by 2030 and the utilisation of known oil and gas … under the two definitions of “known” listed in the legend … (EIA or IPCC estimates of reserves).
Certainly, if we add heaps of new oil/gas/shale etc, the graph won’t work. The carbon-cycle model Hansen uses to draw that graph is pretty simple … but he thinks its good enough for the purpose. In a real sense its a “best case” scenario … so if we don’t phase out coal by 2030, or if coal use accelerates faster than he modelled then we will have bigger problems meeting his targets.
Granted, it would be easier to feed the world if people adopted a vegetarian diet.
Also granted, methane emissions and damage from overgrazing would be less.
However, I do not see any exploration of practical measures to reduce the amount of meat consumed. The author gives the impression he would like the government to ban eating meat, which is totally impractical, or that we eat a lot of meat because of shadowy corporate interests, which is silly. Cultures all over the world consume meat; poorer people mark their celebrations with meat; rich people usually eat meat daily. People like the taste of meat (http://www.ajcn.org/content/80/4/823/F1.expansion.html).
I would love to see some suggestions for de-emphasizing animal protein in our diets, by taxing it for example, or more strictly regulating the conditions in which animals are raised for meat. I can see meat becoming more of a garnish, seasoning, and food for special occasions. But the author, I suspect, is more interested in enlisting people concerned about climate change in advancing a vegetarian agenda driven by other concerns then in making partial changes in what we eat and how much.
I invite everyone to read the reference on the Masai that Geoff has provided. It stands at odds with his statements about their diet. It should also be noted that “fish oil” fats are present in many foods, such as grass fed beef. In fact the discussion section makes note of conversion of ALA to DHA:
“The DHA proportion in the red blood cells of the Maasai was 50% of the value in the German sub-cohort (2.23% vs. 4.60%; ), although the Maasai’s intake of DHA was less than 5% compared to the German sub-cohort (6.2 mg/d vs. 170 mg/d; ). As mentioned above, although the endogenous conversion of ALA to DHA is restricted (≤ 0.05%, ), it seems to be increased under conditions of low dietary DHA intake [38,42]. But, an effective increment of DHA in human tissues is only achieved by direct DHA consumption, rather than by conversion from ALA to DHA .”
I also invite people to investigate the environmental hazards inherent in growing crops. Nitrous Oxide emissions from wheat are 3kgN/ha, dryland crop is 0.45kgN/ha, legumes can be very high (6-11kgN/ha) when irrigated and highly fertilised, as are other intensive crops. Geoff has singled out meat production (due to his animal liberation bias’) without looking across agriculture as a whole.
Emissions from grain production are still an argument to reduce beef consumption. We mostly feed our cows with grain, and the amount of grain required is several times higher than the amount required to feed humans with grain directly.
Grass-fed beef could be another matter.
In fact, with proper management, it seems to be possible to make a cow pasture carbon-negative. Best links I have handy are to NPR and Time:
Actually Dennis it isn’t an argument to reduce beef at all. It is actually an argument for utilisation of pastures rather than grains and for less intense methods of meat production. It is also an argument for use of better pastures (some pasture species are far superior for GHG and utilisation) and ruminant flora to reduce not only emissions but also feed conversion (something my colleagues are currently working on). It is also an argument for the value of food to be actually paid for by the consumer so that quick turnover of livestock and premature harvesting are not required. The only reason cattle are grain fed is because farmers weren’t being paid enough for the meat.
Another point I’d make is that you’re discussing feed conversion efficiency of cattle. Their feed conversion efficiency for any vegetable/grain based diet will be superior to our use of that same diet, due to their ruminant digestive system. So the orders of magnitude that are often quoted are largely spurious due to not accounting for our utilisation. There is a difference, but it isn’t ‘orders of magnitude’.
On the soil carbon thing, I wouldn’t get too excited about that. I did some work on that about 5 years ago and in Western Australian soils (low nutrient status, ancient soils) there was very little potential for improvement of soil carbon. Even in other areas of the world and Australia the ‘sequestration’ is limited. The reason for this is that the largest input of carbon into the soil is from biomass production (primarily roots but also plant shoots). So to increase soil carbon you have to grow more biomass, essentially increasing yields. It isn’t like we haven’t been trying to do that in agricultural science already.
There are two methods that have shown promise. One is the input of huge amounts of carbon (manure, compost, etc), which is largely unrealistic for broadacre farming. The other is biochar, which is showing some promise, but needs a lot more investigation (some soils require different kinds of biochar, some soils aren’t suited at all). I’ve read my mentor’s preliminary review of the biochar research in Western Australia and it could be an on ground sequestration and nutrition method within a decade if the appropriate investigations are funded.
Hmm…less intense methods of meat production, and paying farmers more for the meat, sounds to me like a recipe for reduced beef consumption, attacking both the supply and demand side.
Don’t the feed conversion comparisons just compare available calories in beef and grain, and how much of that grain would be used to make the same amount of beef? It seems that the calorie measurement implicitly accounts for human utilization.
Perhaps there is better carbon potential in other regions. Albert Bates writes in The Biochar Solution (which is about techniques like compost and no-till in addition to biochar), p. 76: “Soil scientist Rattan Lal of Ohio State University found that with better carbon management practices, soils in the continental U.S. could soak up 330 million tons of carbon each year, enough to more than offset the emissions from all the cars in the U.S., while improving food production by 12 percent.”
One side of the problem is adding more carbon to the soil, but the other side is keeping more of it there, eg., by using no-till (and biochar of course). Perhaps that’s the side that agricultural science hasn’t focused on so much.
Allan Yeomans claims drastic improvements in Australian soil carbon using subsoil plows and keyline contouring, but I’m not sure how credible he is.
(But I’m just a guy who’s read a few books, so it’s always interesting to hear from someone who’s actually worked on this stuff.)
Dennis, the issue with any soil carbon storage is that it isn’t going to be permanent unless it is in a form that doesn’t enter the carbon cycle of the soil. Mobile pools can be turned over in a matter of months, so you can’t just add carbon to the soil, you have to add the right kind or add it continuously.
The biochar is kinda a cross between charcoal and stable pools and can act as a nutrient whilst not degrading. The difficulty is that biochar is made from a range of sources and thus has differing characteristics. Combine this with differing soil types and you have some biochars that are actually harmful to some soils. So biochar is still a decent amount of time away from being a usable storage method.
I’ll also mention that Carbon Farmers should be avoided. There are at least 6 snake oil products listed on one page alone, not to mention a few dubious practices. They also mention stuff that is still in the first stages of development, like rumen microbes, which I know for a fact that they are not involved with in any way. Thus any thing that they are looking at is likely to be another snake oil.
Someone mentioned sequestration haveing dubious claims, well yes, you’re absolutely right. If you want to measure actual changes in soil carbon it is nigh on impossible to monitor without impossible costs. Myself and another scientist had to walk away from the testing of one trial scheme because they didn’t want the rigour that was required. It still ended up on the Australian white paper.
I fear that Australia’s carbon farming initiative
will become another form of rural pork barrelling akin to corn ethanol in the US. The temptation will be to overestimate the amounts and permanence of soil carbon capture while underestimating debits from fuel and fertiliser use and animal methane, While on paper the potential GHG savings look impressive I suggest the most reliable way is to burn less coal in power stations. We lightly hammer away at tacks while missing the nine inch nail of baseload coal.
I agree the most worrisome issue is that of rangelands or prairie cropping, noting we get more protein directly from cereals than animal products. Whether or not the rain still arrives at the right time in the wheatbelt the fact is we need giant machines and tonnes of chemicals. Except in green fantasies manual labour, composting and charcoal in the semidesert are not going to produce several tonnes of food per hectare. Climate woes will be amplified by the interaction with declining farm inputs and more mouths to feed. I think it is only a matter of time before Australia introduces ‘food stamps’ along the lines of those that help feed 45m Americans. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supplemental_Nutrition_Assistance_Program
Replacing coal plants is definitely a high priority.
It’s a good point that the cheapest way to get big money from “carbon farming” is to fiddle with the numbers.
I think the problem can be addressed in part by (1) focusing on biochar, which looks to be pretty long-term sequestration, and easily audited by just counting the tons buried, and (2) putting a price on carbon at the major sources (coal mines, etc), so whatever emissions occur are accounted for in fuel prices.
Using biochar alone might mean bypassing some significant potential carbon sinks, but it’s arguably better than allowing fictional sinks.
If we are going to seriously start measuring biochar the results may not be what we expect. In the case of gathering forest timber, charring it then spreading it on crop fields there needs to be full accounting. We should deduct CO2 from diesel (about 2.5 kg per litre) used in harvesting and spreading. Then we should deduct the carbon relocated from the forest to the field ie simply moved sideways. Then there is the CO2 and soot from the charring process that wouldn’t have happened if the timber was left in the forest, absent wildfires. Also what do we do when there is no liquid fuel for trucks, tractors and chainsaws?
I’ve experimented with a Filipino process for making charcoal from grass. Perennial grasses like fescue are self seeding and need few added nutrients. They can be harvested right next to the charcoal kiln then the char scattered back again, in theory no diesel involved. I’m still not sure the process can be guaranteed as a net carbon sink. The sure fire way to reduce man made CO2 is to close coal fired power stations.
The one-two punch is that we shouldn’t burn gas in non-peaking power stations either but save it to fuel farm tractors and harvesters.
Robert: Where do you get the impression I want to ban meat? I think the moral implication is clear:
1) we can solve the global calorie shortage by reducing livestock populations … the precise degree of reduction required is debatable.
2) this will allow reforestation on the kinds of scale Hansen is talking about as being necessary … nothing else will do this.
3) the reduction will also contribute to the decrease in non-CO2 forcings
These imply that we should reduce livestock. The best way to achieve this is a tougher issue and I don’t have fixed ideas. Is perhaps a forcing tax, rather than a carbon tax the right way to go? I think so.
I don’t think bans work until you have overwhelming public support, so they are clearly off the agenda.
John: I agree about the pork barrelling impact of the CFI … and I’ve written before about carbon “balancing”.
Tim: Of the 3 LCPUFAs examined (EPA, DPA and DHA), the first two were at levels similar to those of her comparison German cohort. Yes, DHA was lower. There are numerous biochemical differences between people on different diets … but is there any evidence that this particular difference causes any problems? No. If there was, would the best solution be to trash the oceans, raze the forests, or grow DHA in labs? We know what the answer is in the case of B12. The stuff from labs works better and is cheaper.
Geoff Russel – ” I’ve been a fan of nuclear power for a while now. You will find the “tale” of my conversion on BNC
I actually find it strange that you need to be “converted” to nuclear power. My own position, despite what you may think, is that nuclear will be needed however my preference is for it to be the power source of last resort. All generators of electricity have problems and nuclear has its share. In my world view renewables are a better fit with a sustainable society however that is just my opinion not fact.
“Yes, I’m a fan of changing to a low consumption lifestyle, but not necessarily low tech ”
I am not a fan of low tech either. I never said anything about low tech nor have I ever said it. Some nuclear power advocates, in my experience, tend to equate renewable power with cave living, which is false. I am sure we can move to a society based on the Simpler Way or Chap 7 of “Limits to Growth” – the Thirty Year Update without moving into caves and wearing hair shirts. This chapter details a world where the concept of “sufficiency” supplants consumerism but never mentions turning our backs of technology. In fact it is a high tech scenerio where recycling is paramount. Everything should be 100% recyclable before it is allowed to sold.
“We can tackle energy consumption with nuclear … but it won’t do much for food.”
I agree. I have read that the nutrient content of foods grown of factory farms is less than from organic farms.
Click to access Greenbaum_A%20Comparative%20Study%20of%20Organically%20vs.%20Conventionally%20Grown%20Foods.pdf
This study details several sets of work that show that our present fertiliser based factory farms are producing foods with much less vital nutrient content than ‘organic’ farms. So not only do we have to eat less meat but we also need to restrict factory farming that is causing so much environmental damage. How we are to grow enough food organically to meet demand in warming world is anybody’s guess.
It is for these reasons I believe we are in overshoot and that climate change is a symptom of this. We could treat the symptom with nuclear energy but we would not be curing the disease which IMHO is our present consumer society.
Ender: I don’t know if we can feed the world organically either. I used to think it was impossible … as per Vaclav Smil. These days I’m agnostic. I just haven’t put the time into systematically reading the literature. Do we need all the good nutrients in organic food or should we restrict out poison intake? Here’s an interesting article … people on a bog-poor fibre-poor nutrient-poor diet … but they don’t get bowel cancer:
If you don’t eat the bad things, you don’t need the good nutrients to
protect you. CSIRO and others keep trying to add stuff to diets to counteract the bad things … its a great business model, but I don’t
think its a good health strategy.
Tim: Over on “The Conversation” nobody took up my challenge, so let me repeat it. Sure, growing crops causes environmental problems. You can either solve these (as many agricultural scientists try to do), or alternatively reduce the plant component in the food supply. I’m guessing you will opt for the second alternative (or both). So please tell me how to feed the current population with a reduced Calorie supply from crops. Currently extensive meat provides about
8.4 percent of global calories (Livestock’s Long Shadow), and cereals
provide 46 percent (FAOstat). About 30 percent or so of total grain production goes to feed livestock … that seems like a good place to start if you are concerned about crop production. You may think differently.
I’d add 2 constraints to any solution you might like to offer (feel free to break them if you think they don’t matter), no more deforestation and any current pasture which was formerly forest must be destocked over the next few decades … please indicate if you want to break this constraint.
The problem with Geoffs prescription is that there is a huge difference arguing for phasing out coal and replacing it with nuclear and phasing out animal proteins (of phasing ‘down’ to be fair to Geoff) and replacing them with grain.
There is no “we” in the latter case. Doesn’t exist, at all. Countries are going to develop and need energy. So, we can influence them on the energy solutions. But food is altogether something totally personal. While ticks up and down on eating animal protein are visible for the most part, those that eat meat will continue to do so, and those that don’t will not. No gov’t can implemnt what Geoff suggests as its’ politically untenable. If people want to eat animal protein they will, and, if they can’t get it, or the prices climes to unachievable levels (thus reducing animal protein availability for the working classes and of course nothing changes for the “1%”) you are going to have a septic tank full of trouble.
One can, and I do, argue that the entire geo-political structure of the world, the fall of the USSR and Warsaw Pact was predicated on an *insane* decision: the cutting back of pork sausage availability to Selesian coal miners and Gdansk ship yard workers in the 1980s. It damn well launched a revolution.
The idea that we have to convert grasslands to forests is simply not going to fly except in relatively un-populated areas. There are, on any average year, about 5 to 10% of all US grasslands that are not just fallow but also never plowed for farming. Why not seed these areas for forest reclamation? But Kansas, friends, is NEVER going to plant trees on wheat fields.
I want to add that it’s like saying, “well, we ALL have to stop driving cars”. When? How? What’s it gonna cost?
This is why I reject claims that in the US getting a massive public transportation system with low or even no faires is going to solve a large problem of transportation carbon effluent. No, it won’t. Not even a “lot”. We DO need to extend, build, and other wise put massive amounts into making a US public mass transit sytem available. But ony 6% of the US work force uses public transportation. A majority live in suburbs and are not going to take multiple transfers to mass transit to get to work. They are NOT going to move into high density cities.
There is a social and political economic reality that I think Geoff is projecting that is unrealistic with his view on meat raising and eating. Even if everything Geoff argues is true, and there is no reason not to believe him, the sort of massive, almost authoritarian prescription it would take to even implement part of his plan would be rejected.
Thanks Tim. When I mentioned “carbon farming” I didn’t have any particular organization in mind, do you mean the folks at carbonfarmers.com? (I’m guessing not, their site seems mostly about forestry.)
I see two problems:
The first is just not knowing the real physical effects of various methods, like you say for biochar. We just need plenty of research to tackle that.
The more frustrating problem is people inevitably gaming the system, which makes the whole thing counterproductive. This will be easier for some methods than others, so we can help by focusing on methods that we can measure. It seems like biochar, once we know more about it, would be relatively simple on this score.
But it also seems a giant waste to just pass over methods that could have a large effect, on the grounds that we can’t measure them well enough to reward them accurately. Reforestation is maybe a good example.
I’m not sure what the solution could be. Maybe the answer is to work on changing systems in ways that promote better practices, without actually awarding carbon credits per supposed ton.
The ultimate solution is probably to convert to nuclear power and synthetic fuels as quickly as possible, and let all that biofuel cropland return to forest. But that’s going to take a while, and it’d be nice if we could absorb some carbon along the way until we get there.
Where could a layman like me go to learn more about the real known effects of these ideas? (Not just biochar, but no-till farming and all the rest.)
Dennis, I was referring to this site:
But most of these organisations are similar. There is another that have been buying a leasing large amounts of farm land for tree plantations, promising certain payments. I know that their figures are based on high rainfall, fertilised growth rates, yet the land they are contracting with is medium to low rainfall and will be low input. Charlatans.
I completely agree on the ‘gaming the system’. I’ve already seen some happening. I also know that a couple of good schemes also had some ridiculous accounting requirements that meant they had to game the system (a friends was having to plant trees prior to the end of the financial year, two months prior to planting season, then having to rip them up and replant). This will be a major hurdle with competing industries and $$. It won’t be good for farmers or the environment, but make companies and people feel good about their emissions.
I believe the way that will likely be applied is that certain soils and rainfall environments will be accurately assessed and then chucked into a carbon model. That will then assign a sequestration value and $ value, which will then have companies invest in. I know that several researchers are currently working towards this, and it seems like the sensible scheme that will be applied.
In terms of places to look for information, pretty much the actual research organisations. GRDC funds a lot of the work in Australia, CSIRO, obviously, have a fair bit of work going on, my organisation Dept of Ag and Food WA, and DPI NSW. If you do a search for Paul Blackwell you’ll find a number of papers and reports he has been involved with (I can’t remember who headed the national projects, just that he was my colleague involved). A search for Paul will bring up the CSIRO and GRDC work and links to the other projects. Ignore anything that has Christine Jones’ name attached, her heart may be in the right place, but her methods are unscientific.
Thanks Tim, I’ll look into those.
Incidentally, I advocated biochar and related ideas in my climatecolab entry (along with advanced nuclear and synthetic fuels):
A month from now I’ll be at the U.N. and Congress presenting it. I’d be really interested in any further thoughts you have on how to make this stuff work in a practical economic system.
Dennis and Tim: I originally had a section on mulching in this series but it got cut somewhere along the way … if you are interested then
I can recommend this dissertation:
To me mulching sounds like biochar that can work … it requires far less infrastructure. The dissertation is quite brilliant, this is somebody who has thought very deeply about something which is superficially very simple. The practical applications can flounder on livestock and social norms which see livestock “cleaning up” fields as a good thing and an automatic right.
Geoff, No till or minimum till are standard practice in WA cropping. They are becoming the standard practice in most cropping regimes. The exceptions to this are researching it as we speak. Some crop species are not grown in this manner, especially intensively grown foods. I’ve even visited the Purdue research station to discuss no-till and my colleague has been to Germany and the Netherlands to discuss it with them. Speaking from a soils perspective, the soil carbon benefits are often completely misunderstood and/or overstated, especially in dryland rainfed cropping.
Dennis, I’ll have a read and reply. Being Xmas it may not happen until the new year.
I think Garnaut blundered in advocating ‘carbon farming’. I recall he endorsed a scheme which sought carbon credits for frequent burning of NT savannah. Yes the idea is that burning reduces CO2. Mind you he also recommended that the RET policy and REC payments cease the day carbon tax starts.
In their desire to be everybody’s best mate governments took up one of Garnaut’s worst ideas and rejected one of the best.
This is where I’ve always been interesting in some GMA R&D and why I’m not 100% oppose to it. If we could genetically manipulate some cereal grains, like wheat, and various annual African grains, it would go a long way to saving our soil. Just a thought.
Thanks Tim. David, I was staunchly against GMA until I read Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand, and The God Species by Mark Lynas, both books by environmentalists who make a strong case for genetic engineering (among other things, including nuclear). It turns out that genetic engineering is a lot like nuclear: the people who know the most about it are the least afraid of it.
Dennis and David, we actually have a GM research facility that has just started operating at my work place. I completely agree with your statements regarding GM being like nuclear: much maligned due to ignorance. But it is also not the panacea that some people make it out to be.
I’m really excited by the technology, but it is a long way off giving us some of the plant genes we could really use. Monsanto really shot itself in the foot promoting RR. They had some fantastic Vit A work that was going to cure third world blindness that they should have promoted, then maybe GM would have been accepted and the Vit A work wouldn’t have been blocked with a bunch of other techs.
I always liked the idea of Vertical Farming (and combined with Thorium – LFTR for electricity – to run 24x7x365 and desalination plants) which are built at the location of where the market is (urban areas). This can also reduce the need for farmland and associated stresses on ecosystems (and hopefully begin to restore ecosystems) and minimize extinctions. Both need research and work (including marketing), but worth it.
See “Advantages of Vertical Farming”
TEDxYYC – Kirk Sorensen – Thorium
Robert Hargraves – Aim High! @ TEAC3
I don’t think the numbers work out too well for indoor farming. Average sunlight per square meter is 250 watts:
The dutch plantlab doubles photosynthetic efficiency, so we can figure 125 watts/m^2.
Crops and pastures take up about half of U.S. land area:
U.S. total land area is about 9 million square kilometers. Let’s assume we get more efficient with our food production, perhaps going more vegetarian and/or converting to a lot of lab-grown meat by 2050 or so. Also we’re getting rid of ethanol production. For nice round numbers we’ll say we need one million square kilometers for food production. Maybe we can do with less, but probably not by an order of magnitude.
A million square kilometers is a trillion square meters, so we’d need 125 terawatts to convert entirely to indoor farming, in the U.S. alone. Current world energy production is about 17 terawatts. Not to mention, we’d need to build a million square kilometers’ worth of indoor structures and light sources.
Sadly then it doesn’t seem feasible to convert to indoor farming for bulk food production. But it might work for high-value specialty crops that are normally shipped long distances.
On the other hand, suppose we reach the theoretical limit for food production efficiency? What if we could use some kind of nanotechnology to synthesize healthy, good-tasting food?
One watt-hour is about equal to one kCal (dietary calorie). Let’s say we need 2000 per day per person. At about 25% thermodynamic efficiency for the synthesis process, that’s an input of 8 kWh per day per person. Divide by 24 to get a third of a kilowatt per person.
By the time we have technology like this, we could easily have 9 billion people on the planet. Food synthesis would then require 3 terawatts for the entire world’s food supply.
Thanks dennisbpeterson. My gut was telling me indoor farming is just niche stuff, viable in a few special circumstances but no more. I think you’ve established that that’s all it will ever be.
Actually 3 terawatts for food synthesis for 9 billion people doesn’t sound too bad to me. I’ve worked out that total final energy demand in 2060 will be 8-9 terawatts (electricity + synfuels), and if we got even 1/4 of our food from synthesis by then, that’s only adding another 10% to that total. Doable, certainly. I’ll have to crunch more numbers on this – thanks Dennis for a first pass, very stimulating.
Your argument seems to be based on two assumptions, not enough energy and not enough land.
Lets see if that is correct.
“terawatt (1012 watts)
16 TW – geo: average total power consumption of the human world in 2010”
Multiply terawatt by 1,000 to get petawatt.
“petawatt (1015 watts)
174.0 PW – astro: total power received by Earth from the Sun”
Conclusion: Comparing the two, doubling current human energy use is minimal when compared to total power received from the sun, and does not include the use of nuclear power. The vertical farm uses natural sunlight and artificial lighting and other productivity methods.
Total U.S. Area = ~2,261,000,000 acres
US Farmland area ~ 930,000,000 acres
Vertical Farm proposal:
Via the vertical farm website:
“Year-round crop production; 1 indoor acre is equivalent to 4-6 outdoor acres or more, depending upon the crop (e.g., strawberries: 1 indoor acre = 30 outdoor acres)
No weather-related crop failures due to droughts, floods, pests
All VF food is grown organically: no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers
VF virtually eliminates agricultural runoff by recycling black water
VF returns farmland to nature, restoring ecosystem functions and services”
So companies are working on the concept.
Assume a building 50 stories high, and say one acre in area (footprint), therefore each vertical farm equivalent of 50 acres farmland. with the productivity an estimated 5 times more productive per acre than traditional farming.
Result: one vertical farm acre is 250 times the productivity of a traditional farm acre.
930,000,000 divided by 250 = 3,720,000 acres needed for vertical farms to replace U.S. farmland.
3,720 divided by 2,261,000 = 0.00165 or 0.17 % of total U.S. Land area.
Lets assume the vertical farms are each only 25 stories high and only 2.5 times productive.
0.17% x 4 = 0.68%, still less than 1% of U.S. land area.
So much for only being a niche, especially when considering nanotechnologies, robotics and current construction technology.
The Future of Nano-Electric Power Generation
Eric Drexler: Physical Law and the Future of Nanotechnology
Sure, there’s enough energy available from the sun, otherwise we couldn’t grow those plants on farms either. But now you’re talking about covering half our farmland in solar panels. That’s going to be way more expensive than just putting the plants out in the sun. At a dollar a watt, it’s $125 trillion just for the solar, never mind the buildings and lights. And the farmers will want money for their land, too. Total cost, let’s be optimistic and say it’s just $300 trillion total for the U.S. Meanwhile U.S. GDP is about $15 trillion. If we devoted ten percent of our economy to rolling this out, it’d take us 200 years, not counting maintenance and replacement over that time.
Right now, solar is something like one percent of our energy production. You’re talking about making it an order of magnitude bigger than total world energy production, and that’s just for the U.S.
And it’s probably not that beneficial, either, once you take into account the carbon emissions from making the cement and steel for all those buildings, the pollutants from making the solar panels and LED lights, etc.
Indoor farms appeal to me, but the effort needed to use it for a substantial part of food production is just staggering. I think there’s a lot else we could do for the same effort that would have more benefit.
Now if we manage to efficiently synthesize food with nanotech, that’s another matter. That might be doable, we just don’t have the technology yet.
Gosh Tim and I agree about something :). The risks associated with GM are very much like those associated with nuclear … its easy to tell a good story that will convince people of the dangers but there is no body count. On the other hand the potential for it to make a contribution is very UNLIKE nuclear. Productivity gains tend to be small and the hype is hard to sort from the actuality. It isn’t just RR (roundup ready) that was a debacle, before that there was Golden Rice. Monsanto overhyped the claims and got caught out … see “Safe Food” by Marion Nestle for a good account. The other huge difference between nuclear and GM is that GM isn’t one technology, in any sense of the word. Each application has to be judged on its merits. But current debate is highly polarised … either ALL GM is good, or ALL GM is bad. This is a nice simple paradigm which plays well with the media and will be really tough to change.
@vertical farming. It would be interesting to see some experiments to judge how much energy a vertical farm actually uses. Would we grow cereals there? Legumes? Perhaps raising some dairy cattle? I’d like to see it. Perhaps a SMR could power each one? I don’t know…just seems interesting (if we do SMRs then we can raise nice tasty lamb and beef cattle, to mention aquaculture!
@GM. The problem is that corporate greed has produced things like patented suicide seeds, contamination of historical corn lines (Mexico) and can be abused quite greatly. Like I said, the main reason I’m for some of this is for developing perrenial grains and cereal production.
I’m not interested in GM so we can use MORE chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. I’m interested in it so we can use *less*.
Barry, how do you figure 8-9 TW total energy usage in 2060? Most projections I’ve seen have energy usage continuing to increase, not dropping in half. If you’re right that would definitely make things easier.
Agree that food synthesis numbers are pretty good, though I’m just guessing at efficiency. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable if you’re not paying for metabolism.
Dennis, when saying 8-9 TW I was talking about final energy. The base primary energy demand for this projection is 25-30 TW, assuming a ~33% carnot cycle efficiency for thermal electricity generation, and also various assumptions for synfuel manufacture (10% for electrolysis pathways, up to 60% for direct high-temp catalysis). I’ll post more details about this in an upcoming BNC post.
Thanks Dennis, Jeg3 and Barry for thoughts on a high tech food
future. I’ll eventually revisit the issue, but for now, there are more pressing matters to deal with … Australia now has a new
set of Draft Dietary Guidelines.
A committee with a contract staff of thousands has been 3 years writing this lot. When it started, I wrote to NHMRC requesting that they appoint people to consider environmental impacts … appropriate people from UQLD were recommended. They didn’t bother to respond and the draft guidelines as released have totally ignored environmental issues despite these being touted as a responsibility when the committee was formed.
Ahh, wasn’t familiar with the term “final energy.” That’s a really cool way of looking at it, looking forward to that post.
The dietary report is interesting reading. At least it puts meat alternatives on an equal footing, as part of the same “food group.”
I’m not sure it’s such a bad thing that this report leaves out environmental impacts. By focusing purely on health, its acceptance of a vegetarian diet may seem more trustworthy to some people. But now of course we need a separate report on environmental impacts, and of course it sure would be nice if that staff of thousands had drawn one up.
Geoff, I don’t know if you are planning a Part IV for this series but you need to dwell on societal habits and the problems of implementing a non-meat regime on a planetary basis. I think you are avoiding this issue. Eating is not like any other habit for function in society. It’s not even close. To think Aussies, to use your country, are going to eat less shrimp, less lamb, less red meat is simply not like generating energy, or smoking, or other forms of everyday routine.
While they may be forced to do as the climate gets worse and the ability to actually pay for things like a rib-eye steak becomes out of the question, it will never occur by choice. The Chinese are the largest consumers of pork in the world (not per capita, that belongs to Italians, as it happens) in absolute quantity. They are not going to change because the *facts* of the effects on the environment become somehow obvious.
Humans can and will find scientific solutions to the problems of animal protein production to make it relatively less of a impact on the climate.
I agree that even this entire essay in 3 parts should be included in the official report on dietary guidelines, society is not going to change it’s habits on food consumption, the heart of any culture, based on environmental appeals.
[…] Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff is a mathematician and computer programmer and is a member of Animal Liberation SA. His recently published book is CSIRO Perfidy. His previous article on BNC was: Feeding the billions on a hotter planet (Part III). […]
Way back in November 2011, Jason Kobos commented on Geoff Russell’s first thread that they were “going to invent a way to grow beef without the cow?”
They have. The famous $325,000 stem-cell vat grown hamburger of 2013 is now only 4 times as expensive as regular meat, and the price is coming down.
If the feedstocks are sustainable, isn’t that a good thing? One feedstock I’m interested in is kelp farms that could be vast, soak up the nutrient poisoned dead-zones, and supply the land with all the fertiliser and biomass feedstock we could need. Any comments on vat-grown-beef or turkey or chicken or pork, and kelp as a feedstock to supply this?
More on kelp:
Seaweed farms could revolutionise the world. 2% of the world’s oceans are nutrient rich enough for these farms. Nutrients wash down rivers and coastal erosion, and some come up from the ocean floors in ‘oceanic upwelling’ currents. Some rivers near farming regions dump too much fertilisers in the oceans which causes algal blooms and oceanic dead zones.Seaweed farming can soak this up and restore ocean health. A new vertical column method of 3D farming grows kelp and other seaweeds that are a rich source of vegetarian super-food in their own right! Seaweeds can form a whole variety of ice-creams, ‘salads’ or vegetables, sauces, and other food ingredients. But not only this, vertical farming is an ecosystem based approach. They also grow shellfish and oysters and even wild fish grow in amongst the kelp. It’s nothing less than a revolution that could feed the world! Watch this 15 minute TED talk about seaweed feeding the world.
2% of the world’s oceans have abundant nutrients for growing seaweed, and according to the TED talk above, we would only need a small fraction of that to feed the world. But seaweed farming would not limit us to only seaweed and seafood! By no means! It could provide all the fertiliser our traditional land based farmers need. We would bring some biodigested seaweed onto land, get the salt out, and use it as fertiliser. Seaweed could bring our soils back to life. There is even a special seaweed that cows love and eliminates their methane burps! Methane burps are bad news, and cattle lose 15% of their growth to these energy losing burps. But a special seaweed cuts their burps by 99%, solving cattle’s infamous methane climate emissions, and helping the cows grow faster!
Now here’s where it gets bizarre, and potentially planet-saving. Peer-reviewed work has been done imagining extending kelp farming out into the nutrient-poor open ocean. They first farm the nutrient rich waters. Then a previous season’s kelp is biodigested in big submersible bags to collect methane gas out the top, leaving the digested kelp nutrients behind. They then recycle those nutrients out in nutrient poor waters. They use slow drip feed hoses and ‘tea-bags’ that slowly fertilise the kelp, extending the kelp farms out into what was nutrient poor water, or ‘ocean desert’. This means that oceanic nutrient flows are no longer a limiting factor. We can recycle nutrients and grow kelp almost anywhere.
What if we really went crazy and farmed about 9% of the world’s oceans this way?
The paper below says it would give us:-
half a kilogram of seafood per person per day, to feed a world of 10 billion people!
all the biofuels and biogas we could need to replace fossil fuels and provide the ultimate backup to wind and solar power
remove ocean acidity
restore our atmosphere to 350ppm by 2085
In other words, seaweed is a silver bullet to feed the world, save the oceans, and save us from climate change, all in this free PDF. “Negative carbon via Ocean Afforestation”. Just register, and download it for free.
Vat grown beef: it takes just like meat because it is meat, just without the cow!
EN, no thanks to the vat-grown beef. Give me a real hamburger or steak a few times a year, a couple of soy sausages a month, and lots of vegetarian chili and red lentils.