Thursday, May 21, 2015

Come, Sit at the Table and Eat Real Food


The “Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee” report made it official, food is part of the political agenda and not just about nourishment, pleasure, and the connection that eating together give us. In his book “Food Matters-A Guide to Conscious Eating,” Mark Bitman stated that you could improve your health and the health of the planet by eating less meat and a plant based diet. Though I can’t take issue with the idea that your own personal food philosophy and policy must be consistent with living a sustainable life, I do not see carbon emission as the primary way we should judge what to eat and the primary environmental problem . As a volunteer with the conservation district I spend my time engaged with farmers and conservation practices. My world view has been shaped by my life’s work and pursuits and I believe that farming requires and integrated animal component to be truly sustainable and have healthy soil and grasslands.

Mr Bitman cites as inspiration for his book the interdisciplinary report prepared by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The most quoted section of the report stated that 26% of the earth’s surface is used as grazing land, 33% of all arable land is utilized to grow feed for animals, as much as 18% of greenhouse gas emissions come from raising primarily beef livestock, and it takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. The way these estimates are presented presumes that all grazing animals are not part of a healthy earth. There was a time when North America was cover with herds of buffalo, with a population estimated to be 60,000,000. The native grasslands protected the soil and fed the herds. We once hunted the Buffalo to near extinction, now we have passed what climate scientists tell us is the tipping point in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and other greenhouse gasses. Whatever is going to happen will happen, and what mankind should be doing is living as sustainably as we can today.

The energy consumed to create, manufacture, distribute and deliver any product is complicated and much of the work that has been done is based on averages, which can be misleading since there are lands only suitable for grazing and grasslands are a necessary ecosystem. Nonetheless, the information can be useful. “The American Carbon Foodprint: Understanding your food’s impact on climate change,” by Mathew Kling, and Ian Hough (2010). This paper was sponsored by Brighter Planet, Inc., a company whose technology platform calculates the carbon, energy, and resource impact of a variety of real-life emission sources. According to the authors food represents 21% (5.46 metric tonnes CO2 equivalent emission) of the typical American’s 26 metric tonne total annual carbon footprint. The actual CO2 equivalent emissions associated with your food consumption is dependent on where, how much and what you eat, how the food is grown, transported, processed, prepared and what you do with the leftovers. Of course the rest of your carbon and environmental footprint depends on everything else you do; work, travel, transportation, the size and energy efficiency of your home, vacations, hobbies-simply every choice we make has some impact on the earth.

According to the Brite Planet study, transportation of the food from farm to store was a surprisingly small contributor to the total CO2 equivalent emissions embodied in the food. A much larger source of CO2 equivalent emissions in food are from the delivery of inputs like, fertilizer, water, and animal feed which are far more dependent on farming practices and location. Grass fed beef that is pasture raised would have a much smaller CO2 equivalent emissions than beef that is feed with remotely sourced grain. (In addition, pasture raised cows are reportedly less flatulent than grain fed cows because cows do not naturally digest grains.) Greenhouse gases, primarily methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, are produced by the animals during the digestion process in the gut. Additional emissions result from degradation processes occurring in uncovered waste lagoons and digesters.

Crops grown without irrigation, conservation agriculture and organic agriculture all have different ecological and CO2 equivalent emission footprints versus the “conventional agriculture” industrial agriculture products. One farmer may be more sustainable than another for a variety of reasons. However, most of the food’s transportation related CO2 equivalent emissions are from travel to the grocery store and restaurants by the consumer. Food-related driving accounts for 14% of the average family’s carbon footprint.

Other environmental issues associated with Industrial Farm Animal Production so called CAFOs include high levels of resource use. The system requires a large amount of water for irrigation of animal feed crops, as well as cleaning of many buildings and waste management systems. Much of this water comes from finite groundwater sources like the Ogallala and Central Valley of California that recharge slowly or not at all, and are in demand for human needs. Greenhouse gas emissions from all livestock operations, including CAFO facilities are reported to account for 18 % of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions (Steinfeld et al., 2006).

There are more sustainable approaches to agriculture. Conservation agriculture and organic farming both strive to achieve balance between people and the land, but take different approaches to feeding people without damaging the earth. Many of us know about organic farming methods which avoid artificial pesticides and chemical fertilizers as well as genetically modified crops and no antibiotics added to animal feed. Less well known is conservation agriculture which emphasizes sustainability of the farming operation and maintaining soil and its humus by minimizing soil disturbance, maintaining a permanent soil cover and utilizing crop rotations to retain soil nutrients. Conservation agriculture is a way to combine profitable agricultural production with environmental concerns and sustainability and is a proven method of sustainable land management that can be used on farms small and large.

We might have passed more than the tipping point in atmospheric CO2 and its equivalents in other greenhouse gases. With continued growth in world population and a growing demand for meat from emerging economies we may find the limits to the quantity of livestock and crops the earth can support. Human populations will continue pushing and expanding until we reach those limits or engineer some way around those limits. The industrial agriculture that produces so much food so effectively has been harsh on the earth and is extremely energy intensive and requires large amounts of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Chemical fertilizers do not replenish micronutrients or build soil. Healthy soil is the basis of a healthy environment and clean water resources.

As a child of the fifties my view of food will always be based on the “four food groups” of my youth. In case you’re way too young: meat (all sorts of animal flesh), fruit and vegetables, milk and dairy, and grains. Back then Home Economics class taught us to plan our family’s meals within a food budget and actually taught us to cook things. Layer on that background a family of origin who fed us powdered milk (for some unknown reason) eschewed all food with chemicals and where refined or packaged anything was suspect. We seemed to only eat chicken and salmon and less often meat. We all cooked. The only real food is food I made myself. Slow cooking and herbs rendered flavor. Today I make practically all our meals. They are not a political statement dictated by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, but rather a source of pleasure, a time to sit at the table and talk, nourishment, ritual and connection to my family.

I buy my meat from an unconventional farmer in Swoope, Virginia who describes his operation as mimicking natural systems. “For context, please understand that we don’t do anything conventionally. We haven’t bought a bag of chemical fertilizer in half a century, never planted a seed, own no plow or disk or silo...” He uses animal and pasture rotation to create what he describes as a symbiotic, multi-species synergistic relationship-dense production model that yields far more per acre than industrial models.” The mainstay of my fruits and vegetables come from my CSA farm share in Nokesville, Virginia. I try to know the sources of my food ingredients and their farming practices. I am a very good cook, I enjoy it and have practiced it daily for decades. Most of my family life takes place in the kitchen, either at the table or while I am cooking. I refuse to allow anyone to turn my life and the food on my table into a political agenda item mandated by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee or some TV Chef. Food is only about nourishment, pleasure, traditions, the connections that eating together give us and love.

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