Myth busting – Part 11
Continued from Myth busting – Part 10. If you have not read Part 10 yet, I suggest you go start there, in order to keep everything in context. Thanks!
To be clear on usage of certain terms:
Carbon (organic carbon) means the mineral carbon, an essential building block of all organic life on Earth – plants and animals, including humans.
Carbon dioxide means the gas breathed out by animals, and taken in by plants. Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring gas in our atmosphere – but human activity burning fossil fuels has increased the amount.
Over millions of years, plants ‘breathe in’ carbon dioxide and use it as a building block for cellular life. As those plants grow up into big strong trees, so the dense wood holds lots of carbon. When the tree dies, the logs fall to the ground and are buried in new growing organic matter. That carbon is taken down into the ground and stored for many years, slowly releasing its mineral content into the soil to nourish other plants and animals. This is a crude explanation, but you get the idea.
Carbon sequestration means ‘taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it as carbon bound up in life forms (such as wood, plants, soil, insects, etc.)
A carbon sink is a place or thing that acts to sequester carbon, such as a tree.
Mother Nature provides places to sequester carbon naturally. The oceans, the topsoil, the forests and peat bogs (peat wetlands or peatlands) are all massive efficient carbon sinks, the world’s top four. The problem is, those carbon sinks are not working optimally.
Where have all the fishies gone?
Approximately 70% of the planet is covered by oceans and seas. Currently, around one third of all the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is sequestered by our oceans. They could be taking a lot more.
However, there is a problem with our oceans. We have over-fished them for the last century or more, and the result is that early in the 21st century we find that 85% of fisheries worldwide are over-fished and seriously depleted. We have massively reduced fish stocks in our oceans, and the use of trawlers and supertrawlers has decimated marine life, hurting Mother Nature’s ability to restore what we have taken. In some species, over 90% of living stock has been wiped out over a few decades, reducing numbers below a certain ‘critical mass’ to such a point that populations can’t recover. This means the oceans have a reduced ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, due to lower levels of biological activity in ocean waters.
You see, it’s supposed to be the life in the water that sucks up the carbon…not the water itself. However, with more carbon dioxide in the air, our oceans are also suffering from something called ‘ocean acidification’ which means the water itself is absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, because there is more there to absorb, and it’s changing the pH of ocean waters, reducing the oxygen-richness of ocean waters. This makes it harder for marine life to proliferate. It’s a double whammy, and a vicious negative cycle.
We need marine life to proliferate in order to sequester carbon. Ocean acidification, over-fishing and pollution have left the oceans with reduces amounts of algae, phytoplankton, seaweed and fish. The result is that our best carbon sink isn’t working at all well, and the largest part of the planet’s surface, that should supply a huge proportion of our food, is drastically depleted. The answer must be to stop over-fishing, stop polluting our oceans with plastics, chemical waste and more, stop polluting the atmosphere with burned fossil fuels and let the oceans work naturally, the way they are supposed to.
Without trying to sound too melodramatic about it, it’s a bit like the zombie apocalypse, but underwater. Reduced life, pollution, loss of marine biodiversity, massive scars of land destroyed by trawlers, ‘kill squads’ out slaughtering marine life en masse. What’s happening in our oceans isn’t pretty.
Add to this the fact that we are polluting many rivers and seas too, and you can see we have some very serious problems.
In the US, polluted water from the Mississippi river washes out into the Gulf of Mexico, where the pollution causes a ‘dead zone’ (more properly called a hypoxic area) 7,000 to 8,000 square miles in size. That’s an area 5 times the size of Greater London that is so low in oxygen it doesn’t support marine life. A dead ocean…how sad is that?
Image source: texasaquaticscience.org
There are around 150 such dead zones in oceans around the world, of varying sizes. Dead oceans can’t support sea life, and they can’t sequester carbon.
And so the question becomes: ‘what causes these hypoxic areas, what is polluting the Mississippi River?’
The answer is something called fertilizer run off. In super-short terms, it goes like this:
- The world is hooked on eating cheap grains
- There is a vast area of the American Midwest known as the ‘grain belt’ or the ‘corn belt’ where a huge amount of the world’s corn, grain and soybeans are grown
- Huge farms operate fields the size of towns, dedicated to monocrops of wheat and corn
- Monocrops strip the topsoil of its natural goodness, because of a lack of crop rotation. Ideally, after 2 or 3 years growing grains, land should return to grasslands for at least 5 years of organic pasture to allow all the cow poop to restore natural fertility to the soil, but this doesn’t happen in modern, intensive, industrialised agriculture
- In order to keep growing monocrops, they apply masses of artificial fertilizer to the fields
- Artificial fertilizer adds nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous to the topsoil – essential elements that plants need in order to grow
- Every time it rains, excess nitrogen and phosphorous run off the fields into rivers, and those rivers all wind up feeding into the Mississippi
- It all ends up washing out into the Gulf of Mexico
So, to answer the question ‘What’s poisoning the oceans?’
It’s wheat and corn. It’s corn flakes, sliced white bread and pasta.
So much for ‘meat is the problem’ – I don’t think so.
While we are on the subject of artificial fertilizer, let’s just recall those GHGs we talked about earlier in Myth busting – Part 10. There was:
- Water vapour – we’ll circle back to this later
- Carbon dioxide – burning fossil fuels is producing lots, and in this post we are looking at how Mother Nature can take care of this for us
- Methane – coming from wetlands, ruminants and rice paddies
- Nitrous oxide – as noted previously, nitrous oxide is a particularly potent greenhouse gas
Nitrous oxide occurs naturally, just like methane, but human activities are now responsible for almost doubling the amount of this gas in the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide accounts for a quite considerable portion of the GHG emissions accounted to the agricultural sector. By far the single biggest source of nitrous oxide is…agricultural soil management. What does that mean? It means adding artificial nitrogen fertilizer to croplands.
See the images, lifted as screen grabs straight from the US EPA site, up-to-date in 2016.
And the sources of nitrous oxide -
79% of US nitrous oxide emissions come from – soil management. That is…growing all that wheat and corn. Corn requires very high amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, so while some folks are pointing fingers at meat as ‘the environmental bad boy’ maybe it’s the Corn Flakes we should be looking at.
We’ll come back to agricultural soil later, so far we have only just touched on this topic.
Can’t see the wood for the trees
Another major carbon sink is forested land. As trees grow, they suck up carbon dioxide and lock up carbon as a building material, while releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. However, deforestation continues globally at an alarming rate. While there are a number of drivers of deforestation, NASA, One Green Planet, National Geographic, WWF and Greenpeace all agree that the number one cause of deforestation worldwide is conversion to cropland.
The harsh truth is that trees are being chopped down to make room for growing more crops – mainly soybeans, maize (corn), wheat, sugar cane and oil crops. Why is this stuff being grown? It’s grain people! They are using it to feed cattle and make cheap food, and to some extent, as a fuel source. The main drivers are soybeans and maize, used for cattle feed.
Yes, finally, we find some truth in Cowspiracy; modern industrialised animal agriculture is a massive driver of deforestation. True.
But who said cows need or want to eat soybeans, maize or wheat? Who said it was healthy for cows to be eating grains and legumes?
FML, cows are supposed to eat grass!!!
Deforestation is a concern, but in many respects an even bigger concern is the loss of peatlands. While forests cover a little over 26% of the Earth’s land surface, peatlands only cover about 3% of the land, but peatlands sequester much more carbon, approximately twice as much as is stored in all those trees in all those forests. So while protecting forests is important, protecting peatlands should be an even higher priority.
Nothing is straightforward – peatlands often occur under forests, and when those forests are cleared, the moist peatlands below are drained and lost, so now we have lost forest and peatlands, a negative double-whammy. However, peatlands are wetlands, which emit methane, a stronger GHG than carbon dioxide…more peatlands means more methane, but on balance the benefits vastly outweigh the downsides. The amount of carbon sequestered by peatlands compared to the amount of methane emitted, make peatlands a valuable carbon sink that can help sequester huge amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere.
Why are peatlands being lost? The forest is often cleared for cheap paper making – think of all that pointless junk mail that comes through the door and goes straight in the bin. That’s the end result. Completely needless – companies who pay to randomly mail millions of households with junk mail should think hard about where the pulp for paper making is coming from. Some of these forests are being cleared for growing crops, and some for grazing livestock – more about croplands and grasslands later. Some peatlands are dug up for peat extraction, and in some places, peat bogs are drained for human urban development, but this is not common. However, there are two more big reasons – growing oil palms and digging up tar sands.
Two of the biggest factors driving the loss of peatlands in the 21st century are for growing oil palms and for mining tar sands. We should all actively avoid using palm oil, to decimate the palm oil business, and we should strongly oppose oil companies who are extracting tar sands up in Canada and Alaska.
Palm oil is used in cheap butter substitutes, processed foods like chocolate spread, peanut butter and other processed spreads, dressings and sauces. Consumption of palm oil has been linked with increased rates of heart disease, so frankly, we are just better off without it. It’s also used in cosmetics and as a biofuel. Most palm oil comes from countries in the tropics. The best way to stop using this stuff – avoid processed foods (MND Core Principle 3) and cut back on cosmetics use (MND Core Principle 4 – less chemicals).
Energy companies, with support and tax incentives from governments, should be spending their R&D budgets on solar, wave, wind and tidal energy projects – not finding more ways to extract fossil fuels from places once deemed too costly for mining.
The most widely grown crops in the world are sugarcane, maize, wheat and rice. These 4 stand way ahead of everything else. Sugarcane is grown for the sugar industry. The role of sugar in 21st century healthcare has been covered extensively elsewhere on this blog. MND Core Principle 2 – cut the sugar!
What have we learned about these other crops?
Maize (corn) – major cause of deforestation. Often grown to feed cattle – which should be eating grass instead! Intense farming harmful to farmland, leading to topsoil degradation. Fertilizer runoff polluting rivers, killing fish and causing hypoxic zones in our seas and oceans.
Wheat – along with corn and soybeans, these crops are grown to make cheap cattle feed and to make cheap bulk foods such as cereals, bread, pasta and so on. It’s the intensive growing of these crops that are responsible for a large proportion of the world’s nitrogen fertilizer use, which is a major source of nitrous oxide emissions, and additionally is largely responsible for all that fertilizer runoff that is causing thousands of square miles of the Gulf of Mexico to be one big dead puddle supporting virtually no marine life at all. A lack of marine life further hampers the ocean’s ability to sequester carbon.
Rice – we see data showing that rice paddies are a major emitter of methane, contributing two thirds as much methane to the atmosphere globally as all the farmed animals on Earth. However, I’m just betting rice doesn’t provide two thirds of the nutrients that meat and dairy provide.
Maybe it’s just me, but compared to eating animal foods, I’m thinking that these vegetarian dietary staples suddenly don’t look like the answer to all our environmental concerns.
What do you think?
Carbon sinks - topsoil
So far in this post, we’ve talked about the oceans and the forests and the peatlands, that leaves topsoil. In some respects, everything up to here was preamble. Topsoil is what it’s really all about.
We have already said that it is the intensive growing of wheat, maize, soybeans and other cash crops that are the major drivers of artificial fertilizer use. Artificial fertilizer has to be added to soil because these crops strip the mineral life from the soil. Of course, in Mother Nature’s systems, the nutrients would be returned to the soil when the plant dies, but that doesn’t happen when we harvest the plants that we have grown. The natural way, plants suck up carbon dioxide as they grow, the carbon is a building block of all plant life, then when the plant dies, the carbon would be mulched down, aided by the hooves of animals, and as it decomposes back into the soil, worms and other bugs in the soil would do their job and return the carbon and other minerals back into the soil – what’s called the soil food web, the complex biodiversity of life forms present inside soil.
But humans grow these crops – maize, wheat, soybeans – and harvest them. The seeds are the cash crops of the cheap food industry – cheap food for cattle, and cheap food for people – and the plant waste tends to be taken away and used as a feedstock. Feedstocks are mulched up plant wastes used as biomass for energy production.
As the plants are harvested, the carbon and other nutrients are not returned to the soil, and so in order to grow the same cash crops over and over, again and again, in vast fields the size of towns, farmers have to keep putting minerals back into the soil. Over time, this depletes topsoil, in two ways. It depletes it of organic life, and it depletes it structurally. Let’s take that second point further.
Constant ploughing of soil depletes its structure – it breaks it up, turns it over, removes all the roots and that leaves the soil prone to be washed away by rain. Over years, inches of topsoil end up washed into rivers, and eventually out to sea, leaving land arid and unproductive. If that soil had trees and grasses and other plants growing on it, the root structures would hold the soil together. So…grasslands and forests retain soil, but croplands under the plough can and do lead to soil erosion. This is a huge driving cause of global loss of topsoil.
Worldwide, billions of tonnes of topsoil is being lost every year, and it’s being lost 30 times faster than nature can replace it. Estimates suggest the current cost to public health of topsoil erosion runs to tens of billions of US dollars per annum, and as topsoil is lost (against a rising human population) every year we are left with less land, to feed more people.
But ploughing does something even worse – ploughing releases carbon.
Carbon is locked up in soil. Topsoil is the biggest carbon sink on Earth after the oceans, and ploughing soil releases much of the carbon within.
Fertile topsoil sequesters carbon from decaying plant matter and animal droppings. So plants (grasses, trees, etc.) such up carbon dioxide and use it to build cellular material. Then they die, and the plant waste (biomass), rich in carbon, decomposes down into the soil, taking the carbon with it. This process is aided by animals walking on the waste, and depositing mineral-rich droppings on top. This is how Mother Nature sequesters carbon. Our early human ancestors were hunter gatherers for 180,000 years, not farmers, they were hunting wild animals on the move, and hence they did not interfere with this natural process.
But in modern agriculture, we don’t allow that natural cycle to happen. We plant a crop, harvest all the biomass and remove it from the land. It is often taken for other uses, to add to animal feedstocks or to be used as a cheap fuel. In many places it is still burned – releasing carbon dioxide directly back into the atmosphere. And then the soil is ploughed, releasing yet more stored carbon back into the atmosphere.
When a modern tractor ploughs a field, the tractor burns fuel and this emits carbon dioxide. This is counted as GHG emissions from the agricultural sector, or from the transport sector, depending on which data you are looking at. However, and I cannot verify the accuracy of this data, but I have read some reports that state that the carbon emissions from the tractor only make up 5% of the carbon emissions from that field. When they set up monitoring devices to measure carbon released, 95% of the carbon released into the atmosphere by the action of ploughing a field is not coming from the fossil fuel burned in the tractor, it is being released silently, invisibly, from the physical disturbance of the topsoil.
I invite you to take a minute to get your head around that.
How many fields have gone under the plough?
All around the world.
Over the last, say, 200 years, as the human population has exploded since the Industrial Revolution, and global food demand has gone through the roof.
If you think burning fossil fuels is the single biggest cause of increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, this might give you something new to think about. Humans began burning fossil fuels, particularly coal, in earnest in the mid-to-late 1700s, the Industrial Revolution started in the late 1700s. As the human population exploded, food demand grew to all-new previously unprecedented levels, demanding much more land to come under the plough.
Over the last 200 years, as humans have burned coal, oil and gas, so we have ploughed up between 11% and 13% of the Earth’s total land surface to grow crops, reducing the ability of topsoil to sequester those additional carbon emissions, while simultaneously releasing billions of tonnes more stored carbon from the soil itself.
Most environmental groups point to the 240 years of burning fossil fuels and say “There, that’s the cause of global warming” and there is no doubt that the emissions from that activity have contributed to atmospheric CO2 levels, and there is also no doubt that even given ‘normal fluctuations’ in the Earth’s average atmospheric temperature, the last 100 or so years really have seen a rise into a warmer period. However, with the explosive boom in population, the amount of ploughed land on Earth is creating a ‘double whammy’ effect on greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
There were 165 million people on Earth in the year 0, and we reached the first 1 billion in 1820, a few decades into the Industrial Revolution. From 1820 to 2000 the population exploded from a billion to over 6 billion, and now (2016) it’s over 7.3 billion. Arable land, that is land under the plough, has more than quadrupled in those last 240 years. Back in the late 1700s, only a few percent of the land on Earth was ploughed, and that has risen to around 12% to 13% today. Every ploughed field releases carbon into the atmosphere, and reduces the soils ability to sequester CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuel.
Think that’s all? Nope, it gets worse.
Topsoil and water
Topsoil loves water. Water loves topsoil. Fertile topsoil is a great place to store lots of water. Fertile topsoil dense with growing plants, soil held together with roots from grasses, trees and other plants, can hold a ton of water. Trees and hedgerows drink a lot of water, so when rain falls on land that has trees, hedges and grasses on it, the soil soaks a lot of that rainfall up. But on bare land, stripped of trees and hedgerows, and ploughed frequently, much of that rain washes off the land and runs off into rivers.
Yes, that’s the same ‘washing off’ we have been talking about that causes fertilizer run-off into the Mississippi and other rivers, and the same wash off that cause topsoil erosion worldwide. Remember, ploughing soil destroys the soil’s structural ability to stick together, to hold carbon, other minerals, and water.
As an aside – here in the UK, we see towns suffering flooding in winter after a few days of rain causes rivers to swell. Some years it can be very serious, lives are lost, property destroyed, homes washed away. Look at the land on the hills around those towns and you’ll see years of farming have removed all the trees from those lands, and ploughed those fields. The hills have lost their water-holding capacity, and the results are swollen rivers and flooded towns.
The people moan to the politicians, the politicians send in the army, the army pile up sandbags. After the flooding, town planners spend millions diverting rivers and building flood defences, when really they should just go back up on the hills and replant trees and hedgerows. But they don’t, because our farming community is governed by agricultural policies and the buying power of food companies – output is rewarded, not sustainable land management.
Water and carbon
Now let’s add something else to this situation. Every gram of carbon in the soil, can hold up to seven or eight grams of water.
Let’s back-track for a moment, to the water cycle that we all learned about back in primary school. As grown-ups, we might call it the terrestrial hydrological cycle, but it’s still the same thing. There is a fixed amount of water on Earth, which is constantly on the move, changing form because a solid (hail, ice), a liquid (salt water and fresh water) and a gas (water vapour). This water is circulating through the air, the land, and all living creatures on Earth.
You probably remember from school…
The sun’s warmth causes water to evaporate off the surface of the oceans, seas and lakes, and rivers, and this water vapour rises into the atmosphere. In the atmosphere, water vapour condenses into clouds, and then when conditions are right (to do with temperature, pressure and altitude above land) those clouds shed that water as precipitation (rain and snow) back down to the land. The water makes its way through the land back into rivers and out to the sea, to repeat the cycle.
Lots of factors affect the ‘land’ part of that process. Some water runs off the land as surface water, some is absorbed into the soil and some makes it down into groundwater (underground) courses. We are interested in the bit that is absorbed into soil.
As noted above, when land is covered in trees, hedgerows and grasses, the root structure and thirsty plants, and all the carbon in the soil, holds on to a lot of water. But when land is stripped and ploughed, releasing lots of carbon back into the atmosphere, so its water-holding capacity is greatly diminished and less water is stored on the land for any length of time.
Where do you think that water goes?
Two places. Rising sea levels. More water vapour floating around in the atmosphere, more clouds.
Remember, rising sea levels are blamed on global warming, right, but it’s not just the melting polar ice caps. We have ploughed about 12% of the land on Earth, massively reducing the water-holding capacity of that land. This upsets Mother Nature’s intricate and amazing balance, and rising sea levels are the end result.
And also remember, water vapour is the #1 greenhouse gas. Refer back to Myth Busting – Part 10 and see that approximately 65% of all GHGs are accounted for by water vapour. 200 years of ploughing enough fields to feed our expanding human population has relinquished some of the soil’s ability to hold water, and that water is now circulating in the atmosphere as additional clouds. Think of clouds as vast vapour-versions of rivers…but flowing in the sky, not on the land.
All this ‘freak weather’ that gets blamed on global warming – increased hurricanes and storms, more flooding. In simplified terms, topsoil erosion is the reason that there is more water ‘up in the sky’ than there used to be, and at some point in time, that water comes down.
And finally…some scientists have argued, in recent years, that global warming isn’t caused by greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon and methane from transportation, industry and agriculture. Some argue that global warming is in fact just a natural cycle in the Earths regular pattern of temperature fluctuations. They argue that atmospheric increases in carbon dioxide emissions and the observed temperature increases since the Industrial Revolution are not correlated in a way that proves cause and effect. It goes beyond my knowledge level, I don’t profess to be a climate expert…but maybe the increases in water vapour caused by the increase in ploughed land, can account for some of this difference.
Let’s just pull this together now in simple steps:
- Topsoil holds water
- Constant ploughing…releases carbon…less water holding…exacerbated by fewer trees, deforestation, and less grasslands, so fewer roots, more topsoil erosion
- Is this significant? Yes!
- Global land use data varies depending on source, but taking data from World Bank, UNFAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization) and UNEP (UN Environment Programme) and averaging those data points, land use early in the 21st century breaks out roughly thus:
- 34% of land on Earth is deserts, glaciers, high mountains, etc.
- 27% is grasslands
- 26% is forest
- 12% of all the land on Earth is arable – that’s croplands, land under the plough
- 2% is urban conurbations and infrastructure (the human concrete footprint – all cities, towns, roads and infrastructure)
- Totals don’t add to 100 because of rounding errors
- If you think 12% croplands doesn’t sound like much, imagine all those big cities, towns and roads in your mind’s eye – now think that we plough up 6 times as much as all the towns, cities, roads, dams and power stations added together
- Ploughing that land releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere
- 95% of the carbon emitted from ploughing a field comes from the soil, not the exhaust from the tractor
- Topsoil is left with reduced water holding capacity
- If the water is not in the ground, where is it?
- In the air, or in the sea
- It’s a factor in rising sea levels
- Remember Myth Busting – Part 10, I promised to circle back to this – the #1 greenhouse gas is water vapour. That is water, in the air, as vapour and clouds
Sure, water vapour is natural, sure the water cycle is a natural occurrence, but man has had an effect on that process, and now there is more water in the air than there used to be, water that should be on the land.
Before we leave topsoil, we also need to talk about mushrooms, or more precisely, fungi. Healthy topsoil is rich in many lifeforms, from tiny bacteria, up to small animals like moles. In between, among the worms and bugs, one important life form in healthy soil is fungi. Healthy soil is rich in fungi – and mushrooms growing on the surface are a sign of abundant fungal life below. Think of mushrooms as ‘the flowers’ of a network of fungi roots running through the soil underneath, called rhizomes, meaning sideways or lateral running roots.
Fungal life under the soil makes up plant networks called mycorrhizas, which are symbiotic relationships between the roots of plants and the fungal rhizomes in the soil. We may think mushrooms are fairly insignificant little life-forms in the grand scheme of things, but we would be fools to under estimate the importance and significance of fungal life on Earth.
Interestingly, if you want to know what is the biggest living thing to ever exist on planet Earth, then forget the dinosaurs, forget blue whales and forget the tallest tree – a giant redwood in California, over 100 meters tall and weighing over 2 million kilos. But no, the biggest living thing ever known to the human race, affectionately known as ‘humongous fungus’ is a vast fungal network in Oregon in the United States, 4 kilometres wide, estimated to be 10 square kilometres in size and between 2000 and 9000 years old. That’s one big mushroom! Why have you never seen a picture of it? Because it lives a couple of inches under your feet – in the soil.
Soil with an abundant fungal population is good soil because fungi takes up more carbon from the atmosphere than bacteria alone. I am no soil expert, but cutting what I do know short, in simple terms, soil wants to be rich in bacteria, fungi and small creatures, in order to be the best soil. This sequesters more carbon and holds it for longer. Additionally, rich soil with this strong balance of bacteria and fungi stores more oxygen in the soil, and helps with supporting other soil lifeforms and aids more effective ‘nutrient cycling’ which in turn boosts plant growth.
And what destroys these vast, intricate, complex fungal networks in topsoil?
Right then, that about covers topsoil.
If grain farming is harming our topsoil, and polluting our rivers and seas, what can be done to nourish and support topsoil?
Now you know, that industrial scale grain agriculture diminishes topsoil and strips it of life, promotes deforestation, and inadvertently pollutes our air and oceans. And don’t forget that cows aren’t supposed to eat grains! You’ll get a healthier beef product from cows that have eaten predominantly grass!
You can see, why the movie Cowspiracy points to animal agriculture as a major source of environmental pollution – growing all that animal feed (corn and soybeans) is driving ploughing, topsoil erosion, fertilizer runoff, deforestation, carbon dioxide emissions and more. But it’s not ‘eating meat’ that is the problem – it’s feeding grains to livestock that is causing all this. It’s industrialised agriculture that is at fault.
So what actually reverses all the damage and nourishes top soil?
Cow shit and grass
Pasture raised, grass fed, organic cattle, left to range freely over open farmland, in large numbers, will crap all over the land, depositing rich amounts of nutrients and natural bacteria into the topsoil. If cattle is managed in ways that they are not allowed to completely strip the land, if they are moved between pastures periodically allowing grass to recover, then grasslands make the perfect carbon sink.
Far from animals being the cause of environmental pollution, cattle agriculture done right, that’s free range, sustainably managed to avoid over-grazing, grass-fed and organic, actually nourishes and restores topsoil, which then enables the topsoil to sequester carbon from the atmosphere…whereas large scale grain agriculture is diminishing topsoil, releasing carbon and trashing our rivers and seas too.
Those folks opposed to animal agriculture often talk about the vast amount of water required to ‘make a pound of beef’… this is calculated as the water required to grow the feed required to raise a cow. But that’s the industrial model of beef production - where maize, wheat and soybeans are grown intensively to feed cows kept inhumanely in CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), which is a cruel, inhumane, unnatural way to treat an animal.
If we raise cows naturally, free range as they should be, then they eat grass, which is watered by the rain, so no maize needs to be grown and no transport and distribution is required, because the animals gather their food themselves, and so the water used is massively reduced. And if the operation is organic, there is no nitrogen fertilizer, no run off and no pollution.
One of the biggest uses of fossil fuels in farming is ‘moving fertility around’ – that is, managing poop. Gathering, moving and redistributing animal waste to fertilize fields is one of the biggest mechanised functions of modern farming. If we adopt sustainable, regenerative farming techniques, then we can do away with that function almost entirely.
Freely-ranged ruminants redistribute soil nutrients for free. Let them graze pasture in the valley, then herd them up on to the hills and let them crap all over the hills. They reverse the effects of gravity and rain by returning nutrients to the top of the hill, nourishing that soil without the need for the farmer to run any gas-guzzling machinery to fertilize hilly ground.
Some say manure is a major cause of methane emissions – true! When we see intensive cattle farming and manure is washed into huge pools or tanks (called slurry pits), these slurry pits become major emitters of methane gas. This is because the manure is decomposing anaerobically, that is ‘without oxygen’ (I mean, you dive to the bottom of a slurry pond and try to breathe? Right…)
But in contrast, when cattle roam freely on open grasslands, the way nature intended, and deposit their manure as they roam, it decomposes on the land, aerobically, in the presence of oxygen, and very little methane is emitted. This is the same for beef cattle, dairy cattle, pigs, sheep and even chicken manure.
Yeah, they forgot to mention any of this in the movie Cowspiracy - a one-sided view of all that is wrong in industrial, intensive animal agriculture.
Another thing they forgot to mention in that movie, is how much pollution ruminants produce compared to cars. To lend some perspective; one wild ruminant (such as a reindeer in Siberia or a caribou in North America) produces around 40 to 50 grams of CO2 equivalent per day. (Remember, methane is stronger than carbon dioxide, so it is measured in “CO2 equivalents” as mentioned earlier.)
By comparison, an average US car produces 15,000 to 22,000 grams of CO2 per day. So the car produces 400 times as much carbon dioxide as a single large ruminant. As the people screaming that animal agriculture is the greatest environmental disaster on Earth drive around in their cars, they ought to remember that.
And what about sheep? They are ruminants, and they fart and burp a lot too. Worldwide many sheep are bred just for wool. Should we stop wearing wool? And then wear what, more synthetic man-made fibres? If we wear more cotton instead, that means more land farmed to grow cotton. What about cotton farming and artificial fertilizer use, and the water required for cotton to grow? It takes more water to grow the cotton to make one t-shirt, than it takes to grow the food for the beef to make one steak dinner. If that beef is grass fed and free ranged, then most of that water required can be taken out of the equation.
What about drinking beer? That’s made from wheat too. If we want to save the environment from the disaster that is industrialised agriculture, why point the finger at grain grown to feed cattle – why not talk about grain grown to make beer?
If we are to believe that farting and burping ruminants are the leading cause of atmospheric pollution, then should we go out and cull all the wild ruminants – caribou, giraffe, wildebeest, deer, antelope, bison, buffalo and more? Should we cull all the world’s horses?
If we are to believe that methane is the problem, should be destroy all the world’s lakes and swamps and natural wetlands? Should rice paddies be outlawed and banished from society?
If carbon dioxide emissions are the real problem, should cars be abolished?
If growing grains to feed animals is wrong, because of land and water usage, should we stop drinking beer and stop wearing cotton?
See, these people presenting the extreme vegan argument still drive cars and wear wool sweaters, cotton t-shirts and denim jeans (made from cotton), and drink beer, but they don’t talk about those things do they.
Those things are inconvenient truths.
Restore the carbon sinks
The solutions we should be exploring are the fastest ways to restore Mother Nature’s carbon sinks. Greenhouse gases have these long atmospheric lifespans, such as 12 years for methane and 90+ years for carbon dioxide. We obviously do need to urgently stop burning fossil fuels, but much of the greenhouse gas emitted in the last century is still up there, and we need to rapidly restore carbon sinks in order to stop atmospheric levels rising any further.
Those sinks, remember, are the oceans, the forests, the peatlands and the topsoil.
It’s going to take some years to restore fish stocks and rebuild organic life in polluted seas. But we can stop ploughing up the topsoil immediately. And we can stop chopping down trees…or at least plant more than we cut. These are the fastest solutions.
One thing we can do more of is agroforestry, where forestry management and agriculture meet. Growing trees sequester carbon from the atmosphere and lock it into the tree’s structure for many decades. Some say that commercial logging is an environmental disaster, causing deforestation and leading to higher carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. I would agree that careless logging is a disaster, but planned forestry management isn’t.
When trees are cut for timber, carbon remains locked in that timber for the lifetime of the timber. Used in building, that can keep the carbon in that timber locked into houses and other buildings for the next hundred years. If the timber that is cut, is replaced with new growth trees, in a professionally managed forest, the new tree growth will then take further carbon from the atmosphere and lock it into more timber for many decades to come.
Commercial logging, combined with intelligent forestry management, can be a boon to carbon sequestration. Combining these good practices with agriculture, can more than compensate for all the GHG emissions of agriculture. Trees growing on farms can offset most of the GHG emissions from those farms. Of course, the problem is, modern industrialised farms don’t want trees, they want vast open spaces to grow huge fields of monocrops like wheat and maize, and trees get in the way of tractors and combine harvesters.
Again we see it’s not agriculture per se that is at fault. It’s modern industrialised agricultural practices that are causing the problems. If farms grow trees on their grasslands, and allow cattle to range freely among those trees, depositing manure as they roam, nourishing the soil, the whole system produces no GHG emissions at all. By contrast, vast open fields of monocrops, treeless and ploughed regularly, become a major source of emissions and do nothing to sequester atmospheric carbon.
If we stop polluting the oceans, killing the biological make-up of ocean waters and over-fishing our seas, and if we stop diminishing, degrading and ploughing topsoil, and if we stop chopping down trees, then Mother Nature’s carbon sinks would sequester plenty of carbon dioxide emissions now and in the short term future, while we buy ourselves time (decades!) to move away from our existing infrastructure, build around burning fossil fuels for energy and transportation.
By revitalising topsoil through low-till and no-till soil management practices, restoring semi-desert arid lands to actively grazed grasslands, and managing forests sustainably, we can reverse the damage. Currently, worldwide, we are losing topsoil at a rate of tens of billions of tons per year. Forests are diminishing at a rate millions of hectares per annum.
Making these changes may carry a cost, but I think it’s more important to ask “What is the cost of not taking action to change this now?” Shall we just keep going, until sea levels rise 20 meters and there is no topsoil left at all? Then watch 10 billion humans fight each other as we all starve to death? It really is that serious. Please don’t fool yourself thinking this is about “saving the planet” because it’s not. The planet will carry on – it’s us we need to save. When we run out of food, we will go to war over our remaining resources. This has fuck all to do with saving the Earth and everything to do with the future of the human race over the next hundred years or so.
Why not sort this out now, when the answers are actually quite simple.
The loss of topsoil is already costing tens of billions per year as farms lose productive land and food prices are forced up. We are all paying already.
Let Mother Nature run the show
Can you see how all these things connect together? We humans have to stop fighting Mother Nature and trying to dominate her, and we have to learn to live in harmony with her. She is infinitely more complex and powerful than we are, so we have to learn to work with her, not try to ‘beat her’.
If we get it right and establish sustainable agricultural models, which means sustainable organic farming, and animals raised on free range land, working with regenerative and permaculture systems of farming, we can enjoy better quality food, correspondingly better human health, a reduction in atmospheric and oceanic pollution, replenished fish stocks (fish should be one of the most abundant food sources on the planet, 70% of Earth is covered with water), better animal husbandry (no need to be cruel to other animals), and a sustainable future for a huge human population…growth of which is now finally slowing down, at last!
See how it all connects together?
All farming in general is harmful under the industrialised model, farming animals and crops, because industrialised agriculture is built around maximising profit, rather than sustainability. But if we treat Mother Nature with respect and learn to work with her, then all plants and animals can be an asset to biological diversity.
We should not raise animals in confinement (CAFOs) and feed them the wrong food (cows ain’t meant to eat corn people!) or grow crops in massive monocultures (wheat fields the size of towns) and feed those crops on artificial fertilizer. Natural fertilizer is made of organic matter – manure and food waste and worm casings and much more. But artificial fertilizer, or synthetic fertilizer, is often made from fossil fuels among other things, which is harmful and not sustainable.
That was a big post! Well done for sticking it all the way to the end.
Let’s take a short break here and then head into Myth Busting – Part 12 to bring the whole series to a summary.