What do the ethical and environmental choices about whether to eat meat have to do with the focus of the Low Tech Institute? Everything, of course. Most meat you’ll find in the supermarket is produced under high-tech conditions, using fertilizers and pesticides, factory-produced in highly complicated ways from fossil fuels, and requires mass crowding of the cows, pigs, or chickens in Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, where cruelty is simply part of this vertically integrated, economically focused system. Of particular interest is the industrial practice of feeing cows—which possess the inestimable evolutionary gift of being able to turn grass into protein—not on grass, but on protein, specifically protein-rich grains like corn or barley that normally would feed less wealthy consumers (or the rest of creation) and that upset the digestive systems of cattle enough to create a lot of that dangerous methane we hear about.
This kind of meat did not exist in preindustrial times; in other words, the problem isn’t the poor cows, it’s the way we raise them. If you treated your stock even a fraction as badly as the high-tech, vertically integrated food system does now, they would die from dietary and crowding stress. That’s where the high-tech really ramps up in applying more complex, manufactured chemicals, mostly in the form of hormones and antibiotics, but also pesticides and other poisons. The health problems these chemicals wreak on humans are cited as a great reason to avoid all meat, so it’s understandable that people who don’t want to add to animal cruelty or greenhouse gases enthusiastically embrace one clear and simple idea: that not eating meat—or even consuming any animal products at all—is an all-enveloping solution to the horrific contamination of the atmosphere, soil, and water caused by our agriculture. I get it. I only wish it were that simple. Because just not producing or eating meat is a highly simplistic “solution” to our problems that has nothing to do with the scientifically and traditionally understood requirements of an agricultural ecosystem.
There are several elementary cycles on this planet on which all life depends. The circulation of water around the globe, up into clouds, down into leaves, deep into aquifers, back up and around, makes any form of life possible. Another life prerequisite is the circulation of atmospheric gases that protects the planetary surface from the vacuum of space and whose correct balance is vital. And two more, that we tend—at our great peril—to ignore, the ones that relate to the Earth: the nitrogen and carbon cycles. Which have also been called, by one researcher off in west Texas named Pat Richardson, the Poop Cycle, otherwise known as the life-death cycle. To quickly tell the difference: the nitrogen cycle starts with nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil—which goes into the leaves and produces plants, the basis of life. We all need to note that these bacteria are routinely killed or their balance disturbed by the chemical inputs and machine compacting of industrial agriculture. The carbon cycle is the exchange of carbon between organisms, so it’s a butterfly eating poop and then being eaten by a bird, which poops so it all starts again. And if you remove the poop, can the butterfly, and all the other components of a healthy earth system, eat the chemicals? The answer is no.
Apart from the already-proven inadequacies of industrial (high-tech) inputs like herbicides, or genetically engineered crop varieties (all of which depend on extremely high use of chemicals and extra water, or they fail), what could feed the soil apart from chemicals or the wastes from farm animals? Well, there are 7 billion of us, so we could take a page from the Chinese and use human wastes to fertilize all those acres of soy and corn and veggie fields we’d have to expand if everyone became vegan. Except that—human poop, even if it’s from vegetarians, is functionally different from the poop of cattle or the other ungulates that evolved, not separately from, but together with the grasses that feed them. There exists a symbiotic relationship that keeps each component of the system—grazers and pasture—healthy; human poop is very much like hog manure. It has too many nitrates and too much phosphorus to use in large quantities because those elements kill microbes in the soil and contaminate the water by over-feeding algae, causing those dangerous blue-green algal blooms that ruin so many beaches in the summer.
Modern human poop collected as municipal sludge also contains heavy metals; it’s full of pathogens specifically evolved to attack humans (far more difficult to kill in city sludge than the sludge-spreaders would have you believe); hormones, both from pregnancy and from drugs; and tons of pharmaceutical chemicals like antibiotics, which create antibiotic resistance, not to mention yet more pollutants like flame retardants, insecticides, microbeads, and today, increasingly, synthetically produced life forms. No one has figured out how to get these many contaminants out of municipal sludge so that it can be used over the long term in the carbon cycle. In Europe, they burn sludge in circular systems that reuse gaseous material until all that’s left is a glassy puddle of terrifying contaminants. The city of Vienna is heated this way, and it’s about the best we’ve got. But a complicated, high level of technology is required, so it’s not affordable in most countries. In any event, going that route ignores the much less dangerous, low-tech and nonindustrial methods of soil preservation, which involve keeping goats, pigs, or sheep—on a mixed-production, Old Macdonald–type farm, functioning on a preindustrial scale, and using preindustrial methods to raise them. Smallholder mixed farming. Is that practicable? The UN seems to think so.
Back in 2005, the UN did the same thing for agriculture that its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) committee did to determine we are victims of human-induced climate change. Hundreds of agricultural experts from all over the world were asked to assess agricultural practices to see what will work over the long term, to feed the burgeoning human population in the face of continuing climate change. Their report was released in 2008; and they had determined that smallholder (under 5 hectares) mixed farms are the most efficient and resilient method of producing food possible. In short, they realized low- and pretechnological farming, if properly used, out-performs high-tech, industrial farming. Go to their website and read the report.
“Multifunctionality” or mixed production means small farms raising grain, fruit, or vegetables as well as stock—chickens, sheep, goats, swine, or cattle. The animals nourish the soil. The (occasional) animal nourishes the humans—this method supports what’s called the Mediterranean (or Asian or African) diet, which is based on fruits and vegetables, but uses meat as well, sparingly and occasionally, because the meat animal has a longer, happier life and so is more expensive. Better for everyone’s health.
There is a lot more to say about this subject, which I’d like to continue in future posts. However, readers should know that not only the entire European Union, but most UN agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Convention on Biological Diversity, have now embraced the report and ordered that projects and programs they support follow the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) recommendations for “multifunctionality”—meat production and meat eating—in sustainable food production. And by sustainable, we mean: it nourishes the soil, our Earth.
Holly Dressel is a well-known Canadian author, filmmaker, speaker and researcher. She has written four books, three national best-sellers with environmentalist and television host David Suzuki, and a heavily researched tome on the Canadian health care system. She has written and researched mass-audience documentary film for many broadcasters, including the CBC and the National Geographic; she taught for six years at the McGill University School of the Environment; and is a sought-after conference speaker on environmental issues, human health, and alternative economics. She works closely with several international NGOs and native groups. She is currently on the boards of E-Tech International, which helps indigenous communities deal with mining, and of the Low Technology Institute. Using the state of the world as her excuse, Dressel is unfashionably private and far too serious for her own good.