A major controversy erupted last month in nutrition circles. The subject was red meat, and the risks (or not) consumption…
And soon we’re going to have to document for consumers in real time that our agricultural practices actually deliver these social goods.
I make no bones about it – I think that if we screw over our soils by nuking their microbe communities, we screw ourselves, the climate and our grandchildren’s chances for a healthy, satisfying life. The documented loss of carbon from our farmed soils tells us that we’re on the wrong track with chemical agriculture. We need to adopt cutting-edge biological practices that revitalise soils.
Our luxury markets are making it very clear that they understand the difference and they want food that regenerates the planet. This is our big New Zealand opportunity for rapid uptake and profit – playing to our strengths in a niche market for verifiable quality and environmental excellence.
To achieve this holy grail of food marketing, we need regenerative farming practices that increase soil humus and food mineral content, while reducing fertiliser and chemical inputs. I know the thought of farmers using fewer inputs gives a big section of the food production economy the willies, but in my book it is soils, farmers and food quality first.
The rest can get with the programme or drop out.
This is a journey for NZ agriculture, but it is not a long, arduous, nor costly process. It does, however, require a change in perspective and the willingness to really see what’s happening on our farms.
We’re told that the world population will reach 10 billion by 2050 and NZ needs to contribute to feeding those people to avoid social and ecosystem collapse. At the same time, we all want to contribute to a better environment, fewer greenhouse gases, and less human and animal suffering. These two concerns have evolved into a narrative that goes like this:
1: Population pressures will increase, because human fertility rates and longevity are increasing.
2: Humans’ greatest dietary need is for protein.
3: Farming can only produce enough food, specifically protein, if we shift away from grazing animals and focus instead on growing plants.
4: Animal sources of protein damage the environment.
5: Growing vegetables is better for the environment.
6: We know enough to synthesize nourishing, safe protein cheaply.
7: ‘Printer’ food is a good investment – eco-friendly, humanitarian, profitable.
I challenge all of the above myths.
Feeding the world
The UN’s FAO 2018 publications indicate that world hunger is not a production problem, but a distribution and social equity issue. Forty percent of food produced doesn’t make it into people’s mouths. We already produce enough food to feed 10 billion people.
I assert that we don’t need to feed the world. The world was quite capable of feeding itself until its traditional food structures were hacked by food corporations to grow exotic cash crops. The result is that people who used to be in balance with their resource base, growing crops suited to their environment, are now near slaves on factory farms. They are subsisting on processed foods foreign to their ancestry and health.
We don’t need to feed them. We need to eat more locally ourselves, reduce our use of exotic foods and encourage developing regions to do the same. NZ needs to focus on two things: nourishing ourselves to health, and delivering quality food to the luxury food market, which will always be there.
Actually fertility rates, even in less developed countries, are falling. Eastern Asia, Italy, Britain, France, Germany have fertility rates of 1.6 or less – so negative population growth. According to the UN 2015 report on World Fertility Patterns, more than 50% of the world’s population lives in low fertility countries. Infertility is the scourge of millions of couples. Population growth rates are in decline.
We’re not living longer or better. In 2006 the US Centre for Disease Control stated: “Those being born now are the first generation in history likely to be outlived by their parents.” That is not indicative of a population that is healthier or living longer.
And last year the CDC indicated that in 1970, 6% of the US population had a chronic illness, while in 2017, 44% of grade school children suffer from a chronic disease. Asthma, obesity, cancer, ADHD, autism – all of which are chronic inflammatory diseases of nutritional origin.
Agriculture and the processed food industry have not been delivering the clean, medicinal food needed for health, fertility and longevity.
Need more protein
I disagree. Our most pressing health need is for food that fulfils our evolutionary requirements – the stuff that powers our metabolism, feeds our gut microbes and supports our brain cells. That stuff is saturated animal fat. Our biology is Paleolithic, from the Ice Age. Our food options then were fat woolly mammoths, tiny tubers, bitter greens and really sour fruit.
We need the fatty acid hormone Vitamins, A, D and K2 in natural animal fats to thrive, and above all to produce healthy, intelligent children. We haven’t been getting adequate levels of these fat soluble vitamins for millennia due to lack of big game animals and more recently due to our acquired cholesterol phobia. The lack of fat-based vitamins plays a key role in widespread chronic illnesses and conditions like heart disease, osteoporosis, cancers, macular degeneration, arthritis and Alzheimer’s.
Grazing animals damage environment
In fact, ruminants historically have created the planet’s richest, deepest soils: the Steppes, the Mid-Western Prairies (think bison) and the Serengeti.Ruminant animals are an indispensable part of a natural, productive ecosystem that harvests sunlight. We need grazing cows to prompt year-round green grass that transpires water and cools the earth’s surface.
Agriculture, and dairying specifically, now use massive amounts of energy-intensive synthetic fertilisers, such as urea, because we’re not following the core planetary principles that underpin all plant and soil growth: biodiversity, constant soil cover and pulsing root growth. Mimicking the grazing patterns that formed the world’s richest soils, it is possible for us to grow each of these: soil carbon levels, water holding capacity, ecosystem resilience and farm profit
Local and international indications of how much carbon can be sequestered by grazing range from 1 to 10 tonnes per hectare per year.
Specifically, conservatively, here in NZ, our 11 million hectares of improved pastures could be capable of sequestering at least 1.5 t C/ha/yr in the soil. That would pull 61.1 Mt CO2-e of carbon out of the atmosphere each year.
According to the Ministry for the Environment, our 2016 net emissions were 56.0 Mt CO2-e, which means we could sequester more through grazing than all our NZ greenhouse gas emissions. But clearly, to achieve that we would need to change some agricultural practices, because presently we’re losing around 1 ton of carbon per hectare from our soils each year.
Various NZ soil scientists disagree and contend that our soils can’t sequester more carbon. In part they’re right: we cannot increase soil carbon using the current chemical ag approach. Soil carbon sequestration is a biological process that only occurs in healthy, microbe-rich soils.
NZ can be carbon negative within several years if we move powerfully now to adopt the regenerative agriculture practices that grow the soil carbon sponge. These are less tillage, more diverse pasture species, fewer fertiliser and chemical inputs, cover crops and tall grass, higher density grazing.
Ruminants get a bad rap from global consumers based on their impression that red meat only comes from intensive feedlots known as CAFOs – which are animal prisons (or worse) and environmental disasters producing depauperate food from animals fed corn and soy.
Soil and chemical run-off from the monoculture crop lands of the US Midwest have created a dead zone of up to 22,000 square kilometres in the Gulf of Mexico and a ‘Cancer Alley’ along the banks of the Mississippi River. These are the same crops and ag practices that provide the starting materials for synthetic meats. Do we really want to be perpetuating that ecological destruction?
When tarring cows with the ‘bad for the climate’ brush we ignore the fact that most of the GHG’s emitted in the last 300 years have come from tillage, cropping and deforestation, not grazing.
We have been ignoring the fact that the methane emissions from ruminants vary, depending on the nitrate nitrogen levels in their diet. Our over-simplified rye grass and clover pastures, fuelled by fertilisers, are unnaturally high in crude protein. This loose nitrate nitrogen in the grass shifts the rumen towards higher populations of methanogens that generate abnormally high levels of methane. We have also ignored the natural presence of soil methanotrophs that feed on exhaled animal methane. However, these helpful microbes only occur where they haven’t been suppressed by agricultural chemicals.
Grazing cows can provide the phytochemically rich, quality protein and the fats crucial to human nutrition without costly petrochemical inputs, while pulling excess CO2 out of the atmosphere. Grazing animals enable us to productively utilise and enrich parts of the landscape that can’t be used for cropping. But we have to do it following Nature’s ecological principles.
As a country we need to move from ‘reducing the negative impacts of agriculture’ to using biological sciences to actually improve natural soil capital, landscape function and food quality, without chemicals. That’s what our luxury market wants. That’s what we need to document and sell with pride.
Synthesising protein is better
The USDA’s research indicates that for every bushel of corn produced in the Midwest, 2 bushels of top soil goes down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. For soy it’s 3 bushels of soil lost for every 1 bushel of beans harvested. US chemical cropping and food distribution is energy intensive, soaking up 30% of total national petroleum consumption. We’re eating fossil fuels due to extensive tillage, excessive fertiliser and pesticide use and extremely long food transport chains.
Is importing GMO soy from the US or Brazil to NZ to be intensively processed into ‘meat’, then re-exported around the globe, a wise energy choice, consistent with environmental concerns?
We can create safe proteins
Proteins are complex substances. Can we accurately reproduce all those amino acids chains from beans and grains using GMO techniques? Might we be creating wonky proteins that will cause us immune problems down the track? Have long-term human consumption studies been conducted to ensure full consumer safety?
Reflect on what has happened with A2 milk. A very small difference in protein structure, one amino acid change in the entire casein chain, has prompted huge consumer response and the eye-watering growth of one of NZ’s most highly-valued companies.
The opposite could happen, with novel protein companies being sued for contributing to a variety of illnesses. That is happening in the courts with Monsanto/Bayer right now concerning glyphosate.
In 2015 the US Food and Drug Administration, notorious for being soft on commercial interests, denied Impossible Burger’s first GRAS (‘Generally recognized as safe’) application for self-declared safety of soy leghaemoglobin, or SLH. This GMO yeast is foundational to synthetic meat.
Impossible Burger returned to FDA in 2017 with a study of 20 control rats and 20 rats fed SLH. Despite the very small sample size in a study paid for by Impossible Burger, nine statistically significant adverse effects were documented. These included weight loss and blood changes indicating inflammation, kidney damage and anaemia, as well as decreased uterus weight. This was after only 28 days!
Impossible Foods dismissed these as “non-adverse” or as having “no toxicological relevance.” Maybe, but would you want your children consuming them?
This second submission by Impossible Foods resulted in the FDA issuing a “no questions” letter. This is not FDA saying SLH is safe. It is the FDA protecting itself from liability if something goes wrong by merely stating that the company says the food is safe. It does not protect the public from unsafe novel foods, nor the company from consumer suits.
Plan B … regenerative ag
Endorsing synthetic proteins as eco-friendly relies on people not understanding actual cropping practices or grasslands ecology. Nature needs grazing animals to maintain healthy, carbon sequestering, cloud-creating, climate-moderating prairies and veldts. If we graze animals in ways that don’t mimic nature, our grasslands do turn to deserts and we and the planet lose, big time.
But as argued above, it is not fair to demonise all cows on the basis of CAFOs’ environmental impacts and their immoral treatment of animals. Eco-sensitive grazing in regenerative ag systems is the fastest way to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, restore the global hydrologic cycle, enrich soils and reverse global warming. These soil building practices can be applied anywhere to increase people’s capacity to feed themselves and reverse desertification.
General Mills, Danone and even the Buffett family are investing big time in regenerative agriculture because it makes ecological and economic sense while appealing to consumers. US investment to date is estimated at tens of billions with projected returns of $10 trillion. At the farm level, regenerative agriculture is becoming a true underground insurgency.
Regenerative agriculture is not just a new technique, a patentable technofix or a great investment opportunity. It is the foundational shift in human perspective required to pull our species back from the brink of the environmental collapse. It requires us to realise that Nature, specifically microbiology, is in charge and we piss her off at our peril.
Ultimately, what we do to Nature we do to ourselves.
Our focus needs to be on education for biocide-free, nutrient-dense, planet-enhancing food production as NZ’s niche.
More than genetics, soil microbes determine the ultimate value of food to us. Those crucial, complex microbe communities mostly do not exist in chemical agriculture. To find a regenerative pathway for the planet we have to look to how Nature grows soils and microbes.
Even that bastion of monocultural corporate farming, the USDA, agrees – their Healthy Soil Principles encourage farmers to follow these ecosystem principles:
> Minimise disturbance of tillage and biocides/pesticides.
> Keep the soil surface armoured with crop residues, mulch or grass.
> Keep a living root in the soil at all times to feed the microbes.
> Maximize diversity.
> Provide animal input – through grazing or manure.
These ‘farm as ecosystem’ principles increase soil water storage, carbon sequestration and the food nutrient density our health depends on.
This will require a big mental shift which the petroleum-based agrichemical industry and some ag scientists will resist because their expertise and pocketbooks lie elsewhere.
But food consumers will drive the change in ag practices through their use of the emerging phone apps (using mass spectrometer technology) that measure, not only terroir, but more importantly, biocide residues and nutrient density.
Mothers using their smartphones to protect their children from pesticides will drive the recovery and regeneration of agriculture.
Nature is complex but generous. It is cheaper, easier and safer to work with Nature than trying to manipulate her. Grazing ruminants are an integral part of her modus operandi.
Ultimately this is a choice for us all between:
> Producing commodities versus producing luxury foods.
> Patents versus natural processes.
> Nitrate fertiliser poisoning versus clean water.
> Chronic illness versus robust health.
So what is it that we as Kiwis want for our children?