A series of articles on ecology, conservation, the environment and modern agriculture.
Last edited - 05 Feb 19
A few weeks ago, BBC World News featured a story about diet, health and the environment, a story also found online on the BBC’s website:
While I had intended to stick with the philosophical, political and economic articles for now, the timing of this story allows for a Segway into the dangers of rejecting or ignoring scientific truths and objective reality in the pursuit of ideological goals. Not the introduction to ecology and conservation that I had planned, but a suitable hook regardless.
So, here goes:
The UK’s BBC has the unmitigated gall to host the following story under ‘Heath and Science’! Like a bunch of uncritical sheep, many other media outlets, including CTV Global in Canada have repeated the story without the slightest effort to fact check the ‘science’ behind the story or the ‘health’ consequences of the diet they recommend.
The claim of the article is that this diet will help reduce global greenhouse emissions and is environmentally responsible. Unfortunately, this claim is based on terrible science and prehistoric hypotheses:
1. Their claims about the contribution of greenhouse gasses from grazing herbivores are, not only incorrect, but wildly inaccurate. The understanding that large numbers of grazing herbivores are essential for ecosystem health for over 40% of the world’s terrestrial surface has been known to science for over 60 years while the belief that animals damage the ecosystem is, quite literally, a prehistoric belief based on a faulty understanding of ecosystem processes.
2. Their claims about the ecological validity of cropland agriculture are completely wrong and this fact has been understood by mainstream ecologists and conservationists for at least three decades, and the leading scientists in the field for the last 50 years.
3. Their claims about the effects of human health by various food sources are based on debunked 1950s and 1960s hypotheses based on scientifically flawed epidemiology studies from the same period. Both anthropological studies into the diet and health of prehistoric and modern hunter-gatherer societies, and modern carefully designed metadata analyses on human diet and all cause disease and mortality, completely refutes the claimed benefits of the diet recommended in the article.
4. The claims of the article ignore 50 years of advances in conservation in sub-Saharan Africa, where a modern conservation model has proven extremely successful in integrating agriculture and conservation.
5. The article ignores the utter failure of western conservation efforts in Africa, Europe and North America, in complete contrast to the success of African efforts in Zimbabwe, Zaire, Botswana and South Africa (among others).
6. The article belies a complete failure to understand the science of grassland soil and plant ecosystems, the mechanisms behind soil and plant biodiversity loss and the mechanisms behind anthropogenic causes of desertification.
If the complete destruction of many thousands of wildlife species, the reduction of the planet’s biomass carrying capacity and the continued destruction of human health is the new face of environmentalism, then perhaps the BBC is on the right track. Let’s face it, a cold lifeless planet like Mars is ‘natural’ after all, so why shouldn’t we push for the same with Earth?
However, on the assumption that preserving biodiversity and the ecosystem is a better goal for conservation, we must examine the article’s arguments more seriously.
First, the single most ecologically destructive human activity is the growing of monoculture crops to produce food, fibre and fuel for humans, exactly the agricultural model their dietary recommendations support. Plant monocultures are an aberration in nature. They support little insect life, and virtually no birds or animals. Those chattering flocks you see flying over a barley or oat field don’t live there or find food there, they are just passing.
Why the level of destruction? Well, to grow a monoculture crop, you must first destroy the natural ecological system that preceded it. 40% of the world’s land surface consists of seasonal grasslands, or what were seasonal grasslands before Neolithic agriculture started our current path of destroying nature with the plow. Most of human crop production now occurs on what were seasonal grassland ecosystems. Technically, seasonal grasslands are all those areas where grasses are the primary fixers of topsoil. Ever wonder why efforts to recover desert with trees don’t work? Well, topsoil must be created and stabilised by fine root biomass and built with a solid cover of biomass called the detritusphere, a natural mechanism beyond the capacity of trees alone. Trees can help, but they’re not necessary, grasses are.
Monoculture agriculture destroys the soil ecosystem, exposes topsoil to sun, wind and water erosion, causing the slow but steady loss of soil organic matter (carbon) and slow death of the biology that maintains and builds topsoil.
With the loss of the topsoil and the plant ecosystem it both supports, and which provides it with protection and food, wildlife habitat is lost. No animals can survive in a monoculture of cotton, wheat or corn. As the push to maximise crop production results in farmers draining more wetlands, clearing the last remaining forested areas and removing even old fence lines and hedges. The wildlife that lives there simply runs out of food and starves to death. Unseen, unnoticed and not missed until someone mentions they haven’t seen a deer for weeks, months or years.
Rice is the single most destructive crop on earth, cotton is number two and soybeans are number three. Wheat, oats, barley, rye, beans, lentils, peas, etc., etc. all follow on close behind.
That’s right gang, the single largest man-made threat to our Earth’s natural ecosystems comes in nine words in three phrases, ‘Plant Based Diet’, ‘Plant Based Proteins’ and 'Confined Feeding Operation'. As a challenge, name one wild herbivore species that can survive on a monoculture cereal, oilseed or pulse crop. Oh yes, there aren’t any because a monoculture doesn’t supply year-around nutrition suitable for any species, including the biology that makes up a healthy soil ecosystem. Herbivores only contribute to the destruction if we feed them using this system.
Then there’s the next problem with monoculture agriculture, the process. First you sterilise the soil of its wild plant population using physical or chemical tillage. Then you plant one species of plant. Because the soil ecosystem has been destroyed, you introduce three plant macronutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) in the form of synthetic fertiliser. You don’t know or don’t care about the multiplicity of micronutrients that are missing from the system, you just concentrate on volume. The result is hydroponics with dirt (not soil, soil is dirt plus biology), where the dirt is only needed to hold the plant upright.
The plant grows and looks green, so it must be OK, right!? Wrong!! Since 1950, the average nutrient density of agricultural food products has dropped by 1/3. Without the micronutrients in the soil provided by active soil biology, and the complimentary action of diverse polycultures, the plants simply don’t produce nutrition, just steadily increasing quantities of carbohydrates and, because we’ve selected for them, prolamins (toxic proteins produced by plants to ward of insect predators, but that are toxic to all animals) such as gliadin, the problem protein in gluten. Micronutrient concentrations are missing or out of balance. Lipid profiles are awful and deeply in the ‘heart attack and autoimmune failure’ region. In general, a human and animal health disaster.
While this is happening, a number of other things are occurring. Significant periods of the growing season go by without a living root in the soil. No living root, no biology in the soil and no organic matter (carbon) being stored. Each application of synthetic fertiliser causes a ‘burn’ of soil bacteria and other biology, which releases CO2 into the atmosphere when it dies. Taking the grain crop off removes 1/3 of the carbon stored during the growing season (through photosynthetic activity). Removing the straw removes another 1/3. Tilling once removes another 1/3. Factor in the fertiliser application and you now have a net carbon emission from the soil into the atmosphere. If you’re lucky, you’re into a slow decline in soil health and eventual agricultural failure and, if you’re not lucky, you’re mining your way to a rapid end.
Modern industrialised cropland agriculture isn’t a an ecologically renewable industry, it’s a form of mining, pure and simple. When the mineral wealth runs out, you close the mine and walk away. Hardly a plan to feed 9 billion (projections are that we won’t reach 10 because a growth in economic productivity in the developing world is seeing a matching drop in birth rates).
In a healthy grassland ecosystem, there are between 145 and 170 species of grasses, sedges, legumes and forbes. Some areas have fewer and some more, but that’s a good representation of most seasonal grasslands. On the Great Plains of North America, around 30 of those species of plants cannot reproduce without the impact of herds of mob grazing herbivores, keystone species like bison (or wildebeest in Africa’s case). Take out the animals and you lose plant biodiversity and potential biomass production.
‘So what?’ you say, ‘Those farting ruminants are releasing tonnes of greenhouse gasses, it’s worth sacrificing 30 species of plants to extinction to cut that methane production.’
Here’s the rub, a bison cow produces about 70kg of methane per year, or the equivalent of 1610kg of CO2. So, a ranch with a herd of 100 cows produces the methane equivalent of 161,000 kg of CO2 per year. Their calves emit another 45,000 kg equivalent and the 95 yearlings from a herd that size produces another 80,500 kg equivalent. The equivalent of 286.5 tonnes of CO2 per year sounds terrible, if you forget the rest of the ecosystem.
That herd of animals weights approximately 205,000 lbs. They’ll consume around 2% (it’s actually a bit more than that, 2.5-2.8% in summer, 1.8-2.0% in winter) of their bodyweight in forage dry matter per day (the plants minus the water in them). That equals about 4100lbs/day or 1.497 million pounds of plant dry matter per year. On a holistically managed ranch, that’ll account for about 1/3 of the plant biomass production of the land, the rest is trampled down to produce the detritusphere mentioned earlier. So, the land has produced about 4.490 million pounds of dry matter in the year. As 4/5 of the matter consumed by the animals is returned to the land in the form of manure, that means that 4.192 million pounds of vegetation dry matter is added to the topsoil in one year. As about 50% of forage dry matter is carbon, that’s 2.096 million pounds of carbon, or 952.7 tonnes of carbon.
As the atomic weight of carbon is 12 and that of CO2 is 44, that’s the equivalent of 3493.3 tonnes of CO2, compared with 286.5 tonnes of bison farts or TWELVE times as much greenhouse gas stored as emitted.
Oh, did I forget to mention that the root to leaf ratio of perennial grasses I about 45:55? So, another 2858.2 tonnes of CO2 being stored. So, 6,341.5 tonnes or 22 times the emissions of the animals. That means that every 1000 lb bison cow reaps a net CO2 storage of 29.3 tonnes per annum, or 7.997 tonnes of pure carbon. Every year of her life. Times the number of bison cows living on ecologically managed seasonal grasslands, or cattle, or horses, or sheep, or goats, or yaks or . . . you get the idea. Herding mob grazing ruminants earn the title ‘keystone species’ for a reason, without them the ecosystem fails.
OK, so not all that carbon would enter the soil, a bit would end up being released back into the atmosphere, but a few percentage points here or there can’t change the order of magnitude of the positive absorption of the system.
Grazing herbivores and perennial grasslands were storing carbon in topsoil for thousands of millenia before we invented the plow and started to reverse the trend.
Therefore, we must consider what would happen if we didn’t have the animals in the system. In brittle or semi-brittle environments (most grasslands), the average annual humidity isn’t sufficiently high to allow dead plant matter to break down biologically. Hence the need for animal impact. Without the animals, the dead plant matter remains standing and begins to oxidise. This results in direct release of the stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Plus, not only do we lose the plants that require animal impact for reproduction, the standing plant matter smothers regrowth. The plant ecosystem progressively loses plant density, biodiversity and exposed soil begins the desertification process. As of 2019, we’re losing somewhere north of 70 billion tonnes of topsoil per year worldwide due to human agricultural activity, that’s around 10 tonnes per person. A single human only needs about 500kg of food per year, so we’re producing 20 times as much eroded topsoil as food!!
Zimbabwean Biologist Alan Savory discusses holistic management of perennial grasslands - YouTube.com
So, we can burn more diesel, turn more iron into agricultural implements, plant crops, lose biodiversity, create greater and greater wildlife extinction problems and have virtually no carbon sequestering ability (the definition of sustainable agriculture is a break-even carbon cycle). We can accept the reduction in nutrient density of foods, the continued growth of autoimmune disease resulting from excess and season-long consumption of plant proteins and a high carbohydrate diet.
Or we can adopt a regenerative agriculture model. We can ‘Treat the farm as an Ecosystem’ as North Dakota regenerative agriculture pioneer Gabe Brown describes it in a video series of the same title on Youtube.com. We can mimic natural ecosystem processes, concentrate on soil and ecosystem health and then eat what that ecosystem produces. We can reverse the current 70 billion tonnes of global topsoil loss per annum and start to rebuild this precious resource using biology as the tool.
Regenerative Agriculture pioneer Gabe Brown introduces soil health as a foundation for ecosystem health; Part 1 of 3 - YouTube.com
So, what would such an ‘Ecosystem friendly diet’ would we end up with if we actually took the environment seriously rather than a club to beat our ideological foes with? Well, for a few months of the year we’d be in a dry season grassland savannah hunter-gatherer situation. We’d have access to animal proteins and fat and our bodies would be in ketosis for the bulk of the time. We’d then enter an early growing season dietary environment where larger volumes of green leafy veggies would become available. Mid-growing season we’d end up with a wide variety of low glycemic index berries and fruits. Late in the growing season, the first starchy tubers, higher glycemic index fruits, plus nuts etc.
We can even keep a few of the pulses (beans/peas etc) and grains, provided they can be grown and harvested in a diverse polyculture crop that also supports animals.
Our bodies would be in ketosis for 6-8 months of the year and we’d only resort to the metabolism of carbohydrates for end of growing season fat storage before heading into the next dry/winter season. We’d cut autoimmune disease and cancer rates dramatically as virtually all of them are related to excess carbohydrate consumption, autoimmune reactions to toxic plant proteins and, in the case of 80%+ cancers, a failure of the cellular systems regulating the metabolism of sugars.
So, if you wish to see our planets ecosystems mined for short term, high volume junk food, autoimmune disease and cancer, please follow the advice in the article. Let’s face it, the suffering of animals ends when they go extinct, so I suppose vegetarians and vegans eventually do end animal suffering when they finally succeed in turning all of the earth’s natural wildlife habitat into cropland to grow lentils.
If, however, you would like to see our planet’s ecosystems be rebuilt and human diet and health return to a more natural state, then ignore everything they say. Buy your foods from a farmer who practices regenerative agricultural techniques using diverse polycultures and livestock integration using planned grazing management. Go put a spade into their soil and see the life they support, they’d be proud to show you how the ecosystem works and the wildlife that calls their farm/ranch home. Eat a healthy local seasonal diet based on range fed meats, seasonal leafy green vegetables and low-glycemic index berries and tubers. Reduce consumption of every monoculture crop species developed by man since Leonidas and his 300 made their stand at Thermopylae. Avoid eating any animals fed on any grain crop developed since the Egyptians first started growing Emmer wheat. A barley field is not natural habitat for bison, elk, bear or moose.
By all means eat your porridge or lentil stew once in a while, just don’t encourage some farmer to clear every last square inch of land of anything natural just so you can eat your favourite inflammation bagel, arthritis baguette or ‘whole grain’ cancer loaf every bloody day. Treat them like potato chips or popcorn, junk food you eat during the game or movie on the weekend, twice a month.
There was no such thing as a loaf of bread when the Egyptians built the pyramids. The world’s natural ecosystems support hunter-gatherers, not Cheeto munching and Pepsi swilling robots with flabby jowls, early onset osteoporosis and arthritic knees.
So goes my introduction to the concept of ‘Conservation Agriculture’, as well as and opening for discussion on ecology and diet. More articles to follow.
OK, we know that most of the methane produced by ruminant herbivores is produced by the biological processes of the rumen, and released by belching. However, I couldn't resist a couple more cow farting jokes.
Human stupidity can be unbelievably annoying but, with the right attitude, a source of great amusement.
To the great fortune of the rest of us who have to put up with the idiocy!!