Or the role of animals in agriculture
Climate change is the most pressing problem facing Earth’s inhabitants and we need to get serious about addressing it. There are lots of things we can do as individuals – cycle more and drive less, waste less food, compost our scraps and plant more trees. Another effective thing we can do is reducing our consumption of industrially farmed meat, as the way it’s raised uses a lot of resources and creates a lot of waste.
Around the world, a large part of all the food grown is grown to feed animals, and when you look at the equation, eating meat that’s raised this way just doesn’t stack up. We have to compete with livestock for much of the world’s grain, land and water and according to Anthropocene Magazine, livestock consume a massive 1/3 of global crop production. If we continue to divert edible crops away from people, we’ll need to increase crop production, and this will lead to further loss of biodiversity and environmental damage.
For some people, the only option they see is moving to a vegan diet. This means avoiding anything that has come from an animal, including all dairy, eggs, honey and of course meat, poultry and fish. For many people it also includes avoiding leather, sheepskin, wool, and down for clothing and homewares. Some people come to this way of eating because of their concerns about animal cruelty, but an increasing number are removing animal products from their life as a way to address climate change. But is it really the right thing to do? I acknowledge the good intentions, but as so often moral absolutism that often comes with the territory is blind to the realities of life on this planet. The question of whether a truly vegan – that is in every sense animal free – farming system could even possibly exist is yet another question. What about worms and insects in the soil, what about the bees that pollinate the plants? What about the many small animals that get killed in combine harvesters? These are still animals being caught up in food production. I will not discuss this in this post, but I am happy to have conversations about it, if anyone feels that they have good evidence for an agricultural system that is completely free of causing harm to any animal.
In any case – animals have been part of the human diet since well before we started agriculture, in fact there is good reason to assume that in many parts of the world, agriculture was only started, because our hunter gatherer ancestors had hunted the big and easy to kill prey to extinction. So we have been eating animals for most of our evolution and since the dawn of agriculture we have been using animals in our agricultural systems. Indeed the most successful agricultural systems have been most successful because they included animals (an absolutely fantastic book to read on the topic of human evolution at the dawn of agriculture is ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond).
The problem with industrial agriculture, the most common system in global food production, is that it isn’t modelled on nature. Instead it creates concentrations of crops and stock in conditions that may not be suitable, stretching water resources and creating problems with waste. The intent of this specialisation and segregation of stock and crops is to increase efficiency and create an economy of scale, but as with all things that mess with nature, it comes at a price. The food we eat and the way it is produced has a huge impact on both us and the planet, and the devastating effects of this are now too urgent to ignore.
I certainly agree that the way animals are farmed in the current industrial system is neither sustainable or compassionate, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – there’s another option, and it can improve your health and the health of the planet. So, before you give up your bacon and eggs, let me tell you a bit about permaculture and how animals can help create a circular system of food production that’s good for both people and the planet.
A few blog posts ago I talked to Adrian Roche, manager of Kelmarna Gardens. Adrian has a really deep understanding of the principles of permaculture – it’s one of the most developed systems available to help guide us in ways of farming that restore, regenerate and sustain both people and the planet. In contrast to industrial agriculture, permaculture creates long-term systems that sustain life, both above and below the soil. It’s modelled on nature, and as in nature, animals are an essential part of the ecosystem. It also focusses on regenerating our resources and environment, and while the role of animals in agriculture may be debated in some circles, their place is definitely safe within a permaculture system.
One of the 12 principles of permaculture is the creation of a system that produces no waste and animals play a vital role in cleaning up leftovers and by-products from mixed farming. At Kelmarna, the hens eat any insect-damaged leaves from green vegetables and the cattle make short work of tougher stuff like banana palms and flax leaves, which are nearly impossible to compost. The cattle also help with pest control, dealing with weeds and insects that can survive the compost heap.
The land feeds the animals, and in return, the animals feed the land. Their manure helps build soil structure and fertility, and even the smallest animals, such as worms and microorganisms, break plant materials down into nutrients that new plants can easily use, and so the cycle continues. They are as essential to the cycle as the sun and the rain! In an urban farm like Kelmarna, animals have an another role to play in reducing waste, diverting massive amounts of food waste from landfill where it produces large amounts of methane as it breaks down.
Over a year the three cattle at Kelmarna consume more than 10 tonnes of fruit and vegetable scraps from local greengrocers. It would otherwise have gone to landfill and produced an estimated 19,760kg Co2-e of methane emissions, while the cattle themselves produce only about 6,900kg Co2-e. Incidentally the cows also ate some of our waste bread from Bread & Butter Bakery that gets returned from supermarkets (this is one of my pet peeves that I will come back to in a future post: supermarkets only pay for the bread they sell, putting the entire cost and burden of dealing with the wastage on the bakery that produced the bread. Which is, why they are able undercut us in our own pricing! Sorry, short diversion. More on this later. Back to the actual topic). So the cows are also able to use some of the bread waste from our bakery that is no longer suitable for human consumption because it has gone stale and hard. In winter it helps them get much needed calories and fibre and it makes good use of a valuable food source that would have otherwise gone to compost. They also make use of rough, hilly land that’s not suitable for growing crops, and this helps with another principle of permaculture – make good use of renewable resources. The grass that grows on the hilly slopes naturally captures sun and water, turning them into food for the animals, and in turn into valuable protein for us – in the case of Kelmarna without much work on Adrian’s part.
Now Kelmarna is a small urban model farm that some might argue is not really a good representation of how food is grown ‘in the real world’. So let me give you another example that is actually proving to be more efficient in use of resources than conventional beef farming. It is called rotational grazing and it is used in regenerative beef and dairy farms. It is based on mimicking how herds of large mammals behave in the wild. They move every day. They feed on grass and other plants and then they move off that land again. So on farms that pracite rotational grazing the animals are moved from area to area, grazing then resting each space. Some farms use a series of small paddocks, while others rotate stock around a large paddock using an electric fence to separate the areas. You’ll often see this break feeding as you drive past a farm, although intensive agriculture will usually graze to a much lower level than you’ll see on a regenerative farm. Stock are moved according to the needs of the plants, the soil and the stock – it may be as short as a day or as long as a couple of weeks.
Animal rotation, just like crop rotation, improves both the soil and plants, which in turn improves animal health. Stock that are left for long periods on the same piece of land compact the soil, making life hard for the plants and making the soil more susceptible to erosion and runoff. Left too long in one place the animals also graze the crops much closer to ground, making recovery more difficult, and trample or ruin part of the crop as they move around within the paddock. Plants that have been lightly grazed, then allowed to recover, will send out more roots, and they send them deeper. They also produce more plant exudates – the sugars that feed the microorganisms in the soil, therefore putting carbon into the soil. From deep in the soil the roots will take up nutrients, then as they decompose they boost the biomass (the good stuff) in the soil, making it more fertile, better able to absorb and utilise rain. The improved soil and increased moisture encourages healthier growth of the forage crop, so there’s plenty to eat when the stock return to the area.
This is one example of permaculture and it is gaining traction even within the community of conventional farmers as the benefits are so undeniable. Less fertiliser needed, healthier paddocks, less extra feed to buy in for the animals. It quickly adds up to a more profitable system. The role of animals in permaculture really can’t be denied, but we have to keep in mind that to fully be part of the circular economy of permaculture animals also need to produce food, whether milk, eggs or meat. This might upset the more sensitive among us, but the reality is that protein derived from animals is an important part of the human diet. And a completely vegan diet relies heavily on certain plant proteins that will always have to be imported, because they cannot be grown in a sustainable system in every country. A completely vegan system also poses the question ‘Where does the fertiliser for the soil to grow massive amounts of plants come from?’ When farmed sustainably, animals improve rather than damage the environment just as they did prior to man’s intervention. Nature has evolved both – plants and animals – and in the animal kingdom herbivores, carnivores and omnivores. The whole system works well, when the balance is kept and the cycle of life is respected by giving back to the soil, by treating animals respectfully, and by using natural resources in the most frugal and energy efficient way. Nature has been feeding man for millennia – a return to the principles of permaculture will see this tradition continue into the future, because for agriculture to be truly sustainable and regenerative, it needs to work with nature, rather than against it.
So – don’t give up your Sunday roast just yet! But maybe only have one serving of meat per week. You can then choose to buy from a small local butcher who sources meat from farms that abide by permaculture or regenrative principles, like Pierie’s Butchery in Mount Eden, or the Westmere Butchery, who offer a range of organic meats and sausages. Both use all parts of the animals and make all their products in house from whole carcasses. Of course increasing your intake of fruit and veges is a great idea and most people would greatly benefit from this, but please don’t go plant-based because you think it’ll save the planet. There are lots of other things you can do that’ll have a bigger impact. Buy carefully, read thoroughly, get to know local farmers who practice permaculture and reduce waste as much as you can. Vegan products often contain a lot of ingredients that are imported, not produced in a sustainable way, they often contain a lot of artificial stuff – vegan pastry is one of those things that makes no sense to me at all, as it uses mostly margerine, which is basically a chemically extracted byproduct of oil production – and vegan products like soy and corn based products use genetically modified crops that heavily rely on artificial fertilisers and pesticides that do a great lot of harm to bees and the environment and contribute massively to climate change. So, if you really want to save the planet, don’t believe fundamentalist claims of a single truth. Read up, dig deeper, make truly informed decisions. There’s room for both animals and plants in future farming, after all that’s what nature eveolved to be. So let’s encourage permaculture and support it where ever we can.
PS: As I am finishing this article news came of Jacinda Aderns address to the United Nations Climate Action Summit in which she claims that New Zealand is “determined” to be the most sustainable food producer in the world. Big words! But so great to hear them. Let’s make sure that she remembers she said that, when she comes back home and let’s put pressure on the government to provide support for farmers, who want to transition to a more sustainable way of farming.
To learn more about permaculture you can:
Visit Kelmarna Gardens: http://www.kelmarnagardens.nz
Rodale Institute is a leader in scientific research on the benefits and effects of organic vs conventional agriculture: https://rodaleinstitute.org
Permaculture in New Zealand: https://www.permaculture.org.nz
And some great books are:
‘Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture – A New Earth’ by Charles Massy
Radical Regenerative Gardening and Farming’ by Frank Holzman
‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond
Some of our favourite people, who practice rotational grazing and abide by and/ or use products from permaculture farms are:
Olliff Farm http://www.ollifffarm.co.nz/our-story.html. We love their tasty eggs and will start serving them in our cafe in Grey Lynn with the start of the new summer menu in October.
Mangarara Station is a family owned farm that practices regenerative agriculture. They offer meat packs to order, but Pirie’s Butchery in Mt. Eden also sells products made from their animals. https://www.mangarara.co.nz
Above mentioned Pirie’s Butchery in Mt. Eden, Auckland: https://www.piriesbutchery.com/