Food’s ticking time bomb

Yorkshire Post – Monday 25th June

Dr Tara Garnett, who heads up the Food Climate Research Network, spoke with Chris Bond about the ‘ticking time bomb’ of the global food system. There are myriad problems to tackle as we push forward into the 21st century and the time is ripe to start addressing them. Garnett pinpoints the root of the issue as “the linked problems of not enough food, too much food, and the wrong kinds of food”. This breaks down into three critical problems – malnutrition, obesity and waste – and it will take a systemic change in our food system to fix them.

While the SFT agrees with such overviews, when it gets to the detail we have a longstanding disagreement with Dr Garnett, especially over the concept of what constitutes a sustainable food system and the value of grazing livestock.

In the piece she is quoted as saying, “It’s hard to imagine the Yorkshire Dales without all the lovely sheep but at the same time they cause lots of methane and nitrous oxide that create greenhouse gases. A lot of people probably don’t realise, but livestock production actually contributes around 14.5 per cent of climate change emissions.”

SFT policy director Richard Young comments, “We agree with so many of Tara Garnett’s points, and recognise the major contribution she makes to analysing data and trying to find a way forward, but when she refers to grazing livestock in this way, as she frequently does, we feel she is misleading, misguided and pushing for change which will make agriculture less, not more sustainable.

The 14.5% figure comes from an FAO report in 2013 which included the emissions associated with recent land use change in South America. The emissions are generated from the tragic felling of tropical rain forest which has been globally damaging. This has been further fed by illegal logging and population growth, and the equally tragic conversion of the Cerrados from grassland and woodland to prairie crop production, driven in large part, by growing demand for grain-fed meat. But the figure failed to include, for example, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the ploughing of over a million acres of grassland in the UK which has been converted from livestock grazing to crop production in the past few years, or the historic conversion of grassland and woodland to crop production in recent decades.

Because a lot of the recently converted land in South America is being grazed with cattle, this seriously distorts the picture and gives the impression that the emissions of methane and nitrous oxide from cattle and sheep are the main problem. Those emissions would still have occurred even if the land was now being used to grow vegetables and other directly human edible food. Methane emissions from all farmed ruminants globally actually accounts for less than 3% of anthropogenic global warming, and less than 2% when natural sources are included. That’s not insignificant but very little food can be produced and distributed these days without significant emissions of one sort or another. We also need to recognise this includes the grazing animals on which more than one billion people on dry rangelands depend for their survival. Linking nitrous oxide emissions to grazing sheep is also misleading. Emissions are principally associated with the use of nitrogen fertiliser and intensive indoor livestock systems. Emissions from grazing animals on unfertilised pastures are not non-existent but they are very much lower.”

But let’s just assume that we take away the sheep from the Yorkshire Dales, and it’s not an unrealistic scenario, with small livestock farmers being driven out of business in large numbers by agricultural policies which encourage large-scale grain production and the factory farming of animals. What would happen to that land?

Richard continues, “It would be ploughed for yet more crop production, which would put the equivalent of about 250 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per hectare over the next 50 years or so. This would also add to soil degradation, the silting of rivers and the decline of pollinating insects and much more. Alternatively, it may be that no food would be produced from it at all.”

But the SFT’s biggest issue with the constant attacks by campaigners on grazing livestock is that only they, and the herbage they eat, have the potential to reverse the serious issue of soil degradation. Livestock provide a long term and infinitely sustainable alternative to nitrogen fertiliser, the primary cause of almost all the ills associated with intensive food production.

Dr Garnett is clearly right that global meat production and consumption are far too high and unsustainable. But we need an intelligent joined up approach. Removing sheep from the Yorkshire Dales or encouraging consumers in a pastoral country like the UK to switch from lamb to intensive chicken is only going to make the situation worse.

Correction: plants will not flourish as the world warms

Scientific American – Wednesday 10th June

A dire new report erases any illusions that the ‘greening effect’ will provide an upside for plant growth as CO2 levels rise. Plants are in trouble, and that doesn’t bode well for anything living off them in the coming century. The report found that plants would suffer from climate change in the tropics as much as in higher latitudes, though for somewhat different reasons.

In the tropics, heat and drought will cut the number of ‘growing days’ for plants by as many as two hundred, significantly lessening their productivity. In higher latitudes, however, low light levels minimise any benefit from a warming planet. Further, the increase in photosynthesis from elevated CO2 levels has been cancelled out, because in warmer temperatures plants close their stomata and stop taking in CO2 to prevent moisture loss. The loss of growth in the lower latitudes will have a major impact on the area’s food security. Camilo Mora, assistant professor of geography at the University of Hawaii, who led the study, says that “the land will fail to meet basic demands”.

Mora’s research was prompted by a conversation with a climate denier, who was arguing in favour of the ‘greening effect’ – Mora wanted to show that climate change wasn’t offering benefits. The only hope to be gleaned from the study lies in the impact of climate change mitigation measures. Mora found that lowering CO2 emissions had a real impact on how many growing days were available to plants – the scenario got better the more emissions were lowered. In conclusion, we need to lower our emissions or we – as well as the plants – are in trouble. 

Roundup weed killer banned from French garden centres over ‘probable’ link to cancer

The Independent – Monday 15th June

The ramifications of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) statement that the glyphosate – the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer – is ‘probably carcinogenic’ are starting to play out. France, which has been on a campaign to turn around food production and farming, takes a stand on the herbicide by banning Roundup from over-the-counter sales in garden centres. The French Ecology Minister, Ségolène Royal, stated that “France must be on the offensive with regards to the banning of pesticides.” The ban follows on the heels of an agroecology law passed last autumn in the French parliament and a recent food waste law, which forbids supermarkets and other food retailers from throwing out edible food.

Although Monsanto and others contest the WHO statement and debate the significance of what it means to be ‘probably carcinogenic’, France’s stand could be a harbinger of things to come for the company’s greatest moneymaker. Colombia has also recently banned the chemical’s use to destroy coca crops because of protests from farmers that the residue from aerial spraying is causing a spate of health problems. Glyphosate remains the most heavily sprayed pesticide in the world. But the question is, for how long? There may be a spreading concern among a broad and general public about the impact of pesticides and herbicides on our environment and our bodies, which will drive greater circumspection of their use. With agencies like the WHO speaking up and governments exercising their legislative powers, the reign of glyphosate might be waning.

France links organophosphate pesticides exposure to cancer

Farmers Weekly – Monday 15th June

In a move that may be separate, but is surely related, to France’s ban on over-the-counter sales of Roundup, the government has also listed non-Hodgkin lymphoma as an ‘occupational’ disease related to agricultural work. Is the country mapping out a more aggressive stance on pesticide regulation? This is certainly in keeping with Ségolène Royal’s recent comment on France’s need to be ‘on the offensive’ on this issue.

The French government clearly has a sense of a responsibility towards its farmers and citizens in relation to chemical use, which is in marked contrast to Britain. The UK government’s enforcement of the use of organophosphates in sheep dip in the early 1990s, after its dangers were realised, illustrates a very different attitude. An enquiry into this has only just been opened more than 20 years on. This is further reflected in the current government’s adamant support for continued neonicotinoid use, despite growing evidence that it has a significant role in the collapse of bee colonies. France clearly considers the interests of its citizens and workers over those of the big chemical companies that produce pesticides and herbicides. Are the priorities of the UK government in the same good order? We think there’s certainly room for debate here.

Water company trial to reduce pesticides in water

Farming Online – Monday 8th June

And there is yet more this week on measures to mitigate pesticide exposure. In Britain, Anglian Water is finding innovative ways to deal with pesticide run-off from farms surrounding its reservoirs. It has a particular problem with metaldehyde, which is used to kill slugs. It can’t be removed from drinking water, so the company needs to find a way to keep it from entering the water in the first place. Currently, Anglian Water has a frequent problem with levels of the chemical exceeding the regulated limit – it’s preventing them from complying with EU water standards.

So the company is taking a novel approach: talking to farmers directly and getting them to use an alternative slug killer, ferric phosphate, which has a much lower environmental impact. Along the way they are also paying the farmers to be involved in the trial and training them in how to avoid pesticides running into waterways.

Dealing with the pollution of pesticide run-off is a widespread problem for water companies. The cost of this is significant and, ultimately, is borne by customers paying higher prices – the time and energy put into removing pesticides from the water incurs costs that the water companies pass on. Farmers don’t pay these, though perhaps they should. Because metaldehyde can’t be removed from water, Anglian Water has had to take a different approach and address the pollution at its root, changing the attitudes and practices of the farmers themselves.

We’ll all eat less meat soon – like it or not

Mother Jones – Wednesday 10th June

Tom Philpott from Mother Jones reflects on the fallout from the Breakthrough interview with animal scientist Judith Capper. The interview, which has been widely read as it makes the rounds of social media, has reignited the debate on whether the industrial feedlot model of livestock production is more environmentally sound than grass-fed livestock production. Though this may seem to defy logic, Capper argues that it is better for the environment. Philpott has a closer look at her assertion and offers a more nuanced contemplation of which model wins.

Capper argues that using grass-fed herds to produce the amount of beef currently produced in the feedlot system would take more land and water, and produce far more greenhouse gas emissions. She comes up with some stunning numbers to support her argument. Grass-fed beef would require “an additional 64.6 million cows, 131 million more acres and 135 million more tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions”. Seems hard to argue with – except it’s not.

First, however, there is a wider question to explore, which is whether either of these systems is sustainable on the current level of production. Are we eating too much meat? With the average American consuming over 200 lbs a year and developing nations, most notably China, coming on line with a huge appetite for meat, perhaps it’s our consumption habits that are not sustainable. The demand is the problem, then, as well as the means of supply.

There have been a number of recent studies calling for a reduction in global meat consumption in order to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. While this is necessary, it also needs to be contextualised within the production methods of pasture-raised meat and the industrial model. The SFT recognises that much of the meat raised on grass is also too intensive and based on monocultures of ryegrass, higher stocking densities and heavy applications of nitrogen fertiliser. But meat can be raised on pasture in a way that is in harmony with the natural world, maintaining and even improving the health of soils, and encouraging – instead of destroying – biodiversity.

Cattle kept in feedlots emit less methane because they are given antibiotics and hormones to make them grow faster, and high energy feeds like maize and soya instead of grass. As a result they are ready for slaughter a few months sooner than grazed cattle. But the land on which those feed crops are being grown is totally dependent on artificial fertilisers. The soil is degrading: carbon is being lost to the atmosphere, the soil itself to rivers and oceans. In addition, the huge concentration of animals in a small area encourages the spread of disease, and the effluent becomes a dangerous pollutant rather than a valuable source of fertility and soil improvement.

Scale also plays a role here: sustainable pasture-raised livestock requires lower stocking levels and could become the cornerstone of balanced mixed farming systems with crops and grassland managed in an integrated way.

Philpott’s argument is that the feedlot system produces far more meat than is ‘nutritionally necessary’ – we don’t need to eat as much meat as we do. Returning to a pasture-raised model would necessarily lower consumption levels because it would lower production levels. It is not an intensive system on the same scale as the feedlot. Americans currently eat vast amounts of meat because the feedlot makes this possible. That all makes sense to us, but Philpott overlooks the equally important point that the pasture-raised beef has a vastly healthier balance of fats to grain-fed beef. It is therefore likely to make us healthier – and not ill, which is the impression increasingly given to consumers.

Photograph: Steph French

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