Posted by: cjkrebs | August 18, 2011

Selection from Pew Report on Sustainable Agriculture

Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America

A Report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production

(Full text at, I have just copied the conclusions of the report. It´s worth reading. And note, it has absolutely nothing to do with radical anti-meat activists.)


Conclusion: Toward Sustainable Animal Agriculture

On behalf of the Commission by Fred Kirschenmann, PhD, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University, and North Dakota rancher


Sustainability is a futuristic concept. Webster’s dictionary defines the verb “sustain” as “to maintain,” “to keep in existence,” “to keep going.” By definition, then, sustainability is a journey, an ongoing process, not a prescription or a set of instructions. So when we ask, “How do we sustain animal agriculture?” we are asking how to manage animal agriculture so that it can be maintained indefinitely and what changes are necessary to accomplish that goal.

Sustainable animal agriculture requires that we envision the challenges and changes the future will bring. In his extensive studies of past civilizations, Jared Diamond has observed that civilizations that correctly assessed their current situations, anticipated changes, and started preparing for those changes were the ones that thrived—they were sustainable. Civilizations that failed in these efforts were the ones that collapsed—they were not sustainable (Diamond, 1999; Diamond, 2005).

What is true for civilizations is likely also true for business enterprises. So this report would not be complete without an assessment of some of the changes likely to emerge in the decades ahead and recommendations to address those changes.

To begin, it is important to recognize that our food production system today operates in the general framework of the industrial economy, which begins from the assumptions that natural resources and other inputs to fuel economic activities are unlimited and that nature provides unlimited sinks to absorb the wastes thrown off by that economic activity. Our modern food system, including industrial animal agriculture, is part of that economy.

Herman E. Daly has warned for some time that this economy is not sustainable, that we must recognize that human economies are subsystems of larger ecosystems and must adapt to function within ecosystem constraints (Daly, 1999).6 Because the natural resources that have fueled our food and agriculture systems are now in a state of depletion and nature’s sinks are saturated, Daly’s prediction may soon be realized.

This insight is not new, however. As early as 1945, Aldo Leopold recognized both the attractiveness and vulnerability of industrial agriculture (Leopold, 1999):

It was inevitable and no doubt desirable that the tremendous momentum of industrialization should have spread to farm life. It is clear to me, however, that it has overshot the mark, in the sense that it is generating new insecurities, economic and ecological, in place of those it was meant to abolish. In its extreme form, it is humanly desolate and economically unstable. These extremes will some day die of their own too-much, not because they are bad for wildlife, but because they are bad for the farmers.

In these early years of the 21st century, the insecurities Leopold perceived are beginning to manifest themselves and compel us to reevaluate current crop and animal production methods.

Among the many changes likely in the next 50 years, we believe the following three will be especially challenging to the US industrial food and agriculture system: the depletion of stored energy and water resources, and changing climate. These changes will be especially challenging because America’s successful industrial economy of the past century was based on the availability of cheap energy, a relatively stable climate, and abundant fresh water, and current methods have assumed the continued availability of these resources.

The end of cheap energy may well be the first limited resource to force change in industrial food animal production as ifap systems are almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels. The nitrogen used for fertilizer to produce animal feed is derived from natural gas. Phosphorus and potash are mined, processed, and transported to farms with petroleum energy. Pesticides are manufactured from petroleum resources. Farm equipment is manufactured and operated with petroleum energy. Feed is produced and trucked to concentrated animal operations with fossil fuels. Manure is collected and hauled to distant locations with fossil fuels.

When fossil fuels were cheap, these inputs to the process of agricultural production were available at very low cost. But independent scholars agree that oil production either already has peaked or will shortly do so (Heinberg, 2004; Roberts, 2004).

Of course, there are alternatives to fossil fuel energy— wind, solar, and geothermal energy as well as biofuels—so it’s possible that oil and natural gas could be replaced with alternative sources of energy to keep industrial animal agriculture viable. But the US industrial economy was created on a platform of stored, concentrated energy that produced a very favorable energy profit ratio (the amount of energy yield less the amount of energy expended to make it available). Alternative energies, on the other hand, are based on current, dispersed energy, which has a much lower energy profit ratio. Consequently, economies that depend on cheap energy are not likely to fare well in the future. This is why the depletion of fossil fuel resources will require that America transition not only to alternative fuels to produce food but to a new energy system.

The real energy transition will have to be from an energy input system to an energy exchange system, and this transition is likely to entail significant system changes in the US production of crops and livestock. For example, future agricultural production systems are less likely to be specialized monocultures and more likely to be based on biological diversity, organized so that each organism exchanges energy with other organisms, forming a web of synchronous relationships, instead of relying on energy intensive inputs.

A second natural resource that has been essential to industrial agriculture is a relatively stable climate. We often mistakenly attribute the yield-producing success of the past century entirely to the development of new production technologies. But those robust yields were due at least as much to unusually favorable climate conditions as they were to technology.

A National Academy of Sciences (nas) Panel on Climatic Variation reported in 1975 that “our present [stable] climate is in fact highly abnormal” and that “the earth’s climate has always been changing, and the magnitude of … the changes can be catastrophic” (emphasis added). The report went on to suggest that climate change might be exacerbated by “our own activities” and concluded that “the global patterns of food production and population that have evolved are implicitly dependent on the climate of the present century” (emphasis added) (nas, 1975). In other words, according to the nas, it is this combination of “normal” climate variation plus the changes caused by industrial economies (greenhouse gas emissions) that could have a significant impact on future agricultural productivity.

While most climatologists acknowledge that it is impossible to predict exactly how climate change will affect agricultural production in the near term, they agree that greater climate fluctuations—“extremes of precipitation, both droughts and floods”—are likely. Such instability can be especially devastating for the highly specialized, genetically uniform, monoculture systems characteristic of current industrial crop and livestock production.

A third natural resource that may challenge our current agricultural production system is water. Lester Brown points out that although each human needs only four liters of water a day, the US industrial agriculture system consumes 2,000 liters per day to meet US daily food requirements (Brown, 2006). A significant amount of that water is consumed by production agriculture: over 70% of global fresh water resources is used for irrigation.

As discussed earlier in this report, the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water for one of every five irrigated acres in the United States, is now half depleted and is being overdrawn at the rate of 3.1 trillion gallons per year,7 according to some reports (Soule and Piper, 1992). Furthermore, a recent Des Moines Register article reported that the production of biofuels is putting significant additional pressure on US water resources, and that climate change is likely to further stress these resources (Beeman, 2007). According to the Wall Street Journal, “Kansas is threatening to sue neighboring Nebraska for consuming more than its share of the Republican River” as farmers consume more water for irrigation 8 (that suit has since been filed); Kansas had previously sued Colorado over Arkansas River water diverted in Colorado, in part, for agriculture irrigation and use by the city of Denver.

Reduced snowpacks in mountainous regions due to climate change will decrease spring runoff, a primary source of irrigation water in many parts of the world, further intensifying water shortages.

These early indications of stress indicate that energy, water, and climate changes will intersect and affect each other in many ways and will make industrial production systems increasingly vulnerable.

But new soil management methods can make major contributions to the sustainability of future US farming systems. Research and on-farm experience have shown that the management of soils in accordance with closed recycling systems that build soil organic matter significantly enhances the soil’s capacity to absorb and retain moisture, reducing the need for irrigation. Onfarm experience (as well as nature’s own elasticity) also indicates that: (1) diverse systems are more resilient than monocultures in the face of adverse climate conditions; (2) energy inputs can be dramatically reduced when recycling systems replace input / output systems; and (3) management of soil health based on recycling systems requires more mixed crop / livestock systems. Furthermore, new insights from studies in modern ecology and evolutionary biology applied to nutrient recycling and humus-based soil management could provide additional information that can help in the design of postindustrial farming systems.

Scientists have recognized for some time that the single-tactic, specialized, energy-intensive approach of industrial agriculture which relies on technology to intervene in a system to solve a specific problem, such as eliminating a single pest species, is not sustainable. Joe Lewis and his colleagues, for example, wrote that, while it may seem that an optimal corrective action for an undesired entity is to use a pesticide to eliminate the pest, in fact “such interventionist actions never produce sustainable desired effects. Rather, the attempted solution becomes the problem.” The alternative, they propose, is “an understanding and shoring up of the full composite of inherent plant defenses, plant mixtures, soil, natural enemies, and other components of the system. These natural ‘built in’ regulators are linked in a web of feedback loops and are renewable and sustainable” (Lewis et al., 1997). Unfortunately, ifap is built on the so-called single tactic model, which seeks to maximize production and simplify management needed to get there.

The management of pests, weeds, or animal diseases from such an ecological perspective involves a web of relationships that require more biologically diverse systems. “For example, problems with soil erosion have resulted in major thrusts in use of winter cover crops and conservation tillage. Preliminary studies indicate that cover crops also serve as bridge / refugia to stabilize natural enemy / pest balances and relay these balances into the crop season” (Lewis et al., 1997). In short, natural system management can revitalize soil health, reduce weed and other pest pressures, eliminate the need for pesticides, and support the transition from an energy-intensive industrial farming operation to a self-regulating, self-renewing one. A diversified crop / animal system enhances the possibilities for establishing a self-regulating system.

Other benefits, such as greater water conservation, follow from the improved soil health that results from closed recycling systems. As research conducted by John Reganold and his colleagues has demonstrated, soil managed by such recycling methods develops richer top soil, more than twice the organic matter, more biological activity, and far greater moisture absorption and holding capacity (Reganold et al., 1987; Reganold et al., 2001).

Such soil management methods illustrate the path to an energy system that operates on the basis of energy exchange instead of energy input. But more innovation is needed. Nature, for example, is a very efficient energy manager; all of its energy comes from sunlight, which is processed into carbon through photosynthesis and becomes available to various organisms that exchange energy through a web of relationships. Bison on the prairie obtain their energy from the grass, which gets its energy from the soil. Bison deposit their excrement on the grass and thus provide energy for insects and other organisms, which, in turn, convert it to energy that enriches the soil to produce more grass. These are the energy exchange systems that must be explored and adapted for use in postindustrial farming systems. But very little research is currently devoted to exploring such energy exchanges for farms.

Fortunately, a few farmers have already developed energy exchange systems and appear to be quite successful in managing their operations with very little fossil fuel input (Kirschenmann, 2007). But converting farms to this new energy model on a national scale will require a major transformation. The highly specialized, energy-intensive monocultures will need to convert to complex, highly diversified operations that function on energy exchange. Research has established the practicality and multiple benefits of such integrated crop-livestock operations, but further research is needed to explore how to adapt this new model of farming to various climates and ecosystems (Russelle et al., 2007).

In the meantime, current intensive confined animal feeding operations, can take steps to begin transitioning to a more sustainable future. In our visits to many such operations, we saw innovative adaptations of some of these principles. For example, a large feedlot we visited, which holds 90,000 head of cattle in confinement, composts all of its manure and sells it in a thriving compost market, thus improving its bottom line. As fertilizer costs go up due to increased energy costs, more farmers may turn to such sources of fertilizer to reduce their costs. The Commission visited an integrated producer of  90,000 dozen eggs a day, that composts its manure, mixing it with wood chips from ground-up wooden pallets, and sells the compost as garden and  landscaping mulch, again generating additional income for the company. A 4,500- cow confinement dairy operation recycles its bedding sand and plastic baling wire. Both the dairy and the feedlot also cover their silage piles to reduce pollution.

Farmers in many parts of the world are adopting deep-bedded hoop barn technologies for raising their animals in confinement. As explained earlier in this report, hoop barns are much less expensive to construct, have demonstrated production efficiencies comparable to those of nonbedded confinement systems, and are more welfare-friendly for animals (Lay Jr. et al., 2000). The deep-bedded systems allow animals to exercise more of their natural functions, absorb urine and manure for composting and building soil quality on nearby land, and provide warmth for the animals in cold weather. Such hoop structures are used in hog, beef, dairy, and some poultry operations and have demonstrated reduced environmental impact and risk.

Tweaking the current monoculture confinement operations with such methods will be very useful in the short term, but as energy, water, and climate resources undergo dramatic changes, it is the Commission’s judgment that US agricultural production will need to transition to much more biologically diverse systems, organized into biological synergies that exchange energy, improve soil quality, and conserve water and other resources. As Herman Daly said, long-term sustainability will require a transformation from an industrial economy to an ecological economy.

Posted by: cjkrebs | July 7, 2011

A guy named Alex

The past couple of months I (along with another volunteer) have been working in a small village northeast of my site, La Fortuna. In this time I have worked closely with and become friends with Alex, the community water council’s treasurer.

Alex is an extraordinarily cheerful, open, and smart guy. The first time I visited him at his home, we were going through his meticulously kept financial records of the town’s water council’s activity for the past two years. Near the end of our meeting he pulled out a well-worn piece of paper that he kept filed next to his well-worn copy of Honduran Water Law (dated 1992). It was a list of 10 suggestions on how to live a happy, good life. He had been given it while at the hospital in the capital with a family member who had just been in a terrible accident. Alex says he reads it almost every day.

Unfolding the paper he proceeded to read through each bullet out loud, pausing to clarify points when he thought necessary, or simply look up at grin (dutifully following bullet point #1, a smile is one of the best gifts you can give). Finishing all ten, he laughed, folded back up the paper, and sent us on our way with a giant bag of fruit and homemade candy his wife had packed for us.

In any scenario, a guy like Alex would be a rare find. He’s jolly, humble, a good father, caring, hardworking, studious; an all around excellent human being. And while it shouldn’t be so surprising to find such a guy here, I think it’s worth it to describe Alex’s situation.

Alex lives on the edge of the mountainous protected area in southern Honduras, the same region that provides 60% of Choluteca’s potable water supply. He lives under a canopy of fruiting trees in the last of three 3-4 room humble stucco houses (belonging to his wife and her relatives), a brisk 20 min walk from the nearest bus-transited dirt road. The path to his doorstep crosses several seasonal streams, winding through a dense forest of trees, some the diameter of an 18 wheeler tire and easily four stories high. Most of the fruit trees are unknown in typical American supermarkets. (Jocote, mammon, nance, star fruit, and a wide variety of mangos and bananas). People say that there are still even monkeys in the forests… for a while Alex had a picture on his phone of a monkey that a neighbor had captured. He thinks it’s a shame there isn’t more education available about protecting the region’s vanishing wildlife.

For Alex, it is too expensive to take his youngest son to the clinic, even after the 2-year old spent five days with a ranking cough and little appetite. He owns no land besides that of his house, and is currently renting a small fraction of an acre on which to grow corn and beans… without the benefit of fertilizers. (Rumor has it his wife supports the political party that isn’t in power at the mayor’s office. And whispers of a rumor are enough to bump you off the mayor’s free fertilizer list.) When you ask Alex, he’ll tell you it’s a tossup whether it is even worth renting and working the land, but then he’ll grin; “At least it keeps me busy!” He’s always looking for some sort of employment, seeing as without the income he’ll have no way to make the unavoidable payments to send his two kids to school, and buy the few things the family needs. He recently was rejected from a potential job opportunity because he had no computer skills… small surprise as the house has no electricity.

I have never asked Alex how old he is, nor how much formal education he has had. Judging from the clues, I would say he’s late twenties, early thirties, with between a sixth and ninth grade education level. But while if pressed, Alex would admit his circumstances don’t allow the best opportunities for himself or his family, you will never hear him whine of poverty. Alex is a can-do man. His agile mind, genuine personality (and excellent penmanship) ranks him as one of the best people I know.

We said good bye to Alex that day and made the journey home. This day, we had learned more from Alex than he had from us.

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