I recently posted an article on the Swiss Bio Farmer Facebook page titled "Bill Gates says you can eat meat and STILL care about the Planet", as published in the Daily Mail. Bill Gates says that some of the environmental impacts of raising cattle have been vastly overstated, for example "one study that excluded green water [rainfall that evaporates back into the atmosphere and goes into rivers - meaning it is not lost] found that it takes just 44 liters - not thousands - to produce one kilo of beef.
This post sparked quite a heated and insightful exchange between me and two vegans that I know through Facebook. I was engaging in this discussion via smartphone throughout my day on the farm looking after the cows.
The full exchange between Sebastian Leugger and Daniel Oliver Sutter can be found on the Swiss Bio Farmer Facebook page.
- Sebastian: "Bill Gates says some environmental impacts of meat have been overstated" - The use of "some" suggests that more than one type of impact has been overstated. However, as far as I can see, the only example provided in the article is water use. What about greenhouse gas emission? - The rest of Gates' arguments are these:
"Mr Gates also explains that he once dabbled with being vegetarian himself in his late twenties but found he couldn't keep it going.
He argues that meat is an important source of nutrition needed to help children develop healthy and said it was important that people in developing countries have access to these foods."
So he talks about his personal experience with being a vegetarian 30-40 years ago, which is completely irrelvant to the discussion, about his prejudices about child nutrition, which contradicts the position of the american dietetic association (cf. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19562864) and about people in developing countries, and both the journalist who wrote that article and you celebrate this as an argument for meat consumption by rich people in developed countries (i.e. by us here).
- Thomas: When I have the time I will write a post going through all the false statements in the recent movie 'Cowspirscy' [i have done so here and here and will write more]
While industrial raised corn-fed beef is in most cases as bad as the numbers suggest, for locally raised grass-fed beef the numbers regarding Greenhouse gas emissions have been vastly (!) overstated (carbon sequestration in soil, important part of crop rotation), water use has been ridiculously overstated (factor of 500), land use has been ridiculously overstated (by a factor of 10)
- Sebastian: A study by the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL) has shown that "local grass-fed beef" is worse than "industrial raised soy-and-corn fed beef", at least in Switzerland.
- Thomas: Soil fertility and humus is completely excluded from these numbers.
Annotation: Because of the Kyoto Protocol from 1997, soil has been consistently excluded as a carbon sink, because it is too difficult to measure and it can not be guaranteed that it will stay in the soil for 100 years - this FiBL study also does not consider soil in its analysis.
- Thomas: On the farm where I am at he has managed to lock up 4000 tons of CO2 in the soil in the past 18 years with 20 cows on 22 hectares. Humus level increased from 2.5 to 6.5%
Annotation: A recent study found that "pastures managed using intensive grazing principles can capture up to 8 metric tons of carbon per hectare" - that is about 4 times more than the greenhouse gas emissions coming from the cow's methane emissions (about 2 tons per hectare, when 250 kg of meat are produced per hectare). When in addition to intensive grazing, the manure also gets composted, then an increase of 20 tons of carbon per year are possible, as soil samples from the farm where I work have shown. That means 10x more greenhouse gases are stored than emitted!
We produce about 3000kg meat per year. So that would be 24 tons of CO2 according to the above chart. In 18 years that's about 450 tons of CO2 emissions vs 4000 locked up in the soil.
Also, did you know that methane has a half life time of 7 years in the atmosphere? So if the number of cows stays the same, the amount of methane over the long term does not increase at all. Zero
And did you know that the FAO in its last report vastly reduced the CO2 emissions related to agriculture as a % of total emissions because they falsely attributed logging (a one-off event) as recurring emissions. Currently agriculture as a whole..accounts for 12% of world wide green house gas emissions.
Sebastian: The short half-life of methane is a double-edged sword, argumentatively. It also means that the effect of methane in the next 20 years is greatly underestimated by the common co2eq. calculations because they average the contribution of all the different gasses over 100 years. If we focus on the next 20 years, *reducing* methane emissions clearly has a high priority. So we cannot be content with maintaining current methane levels. Also, when it comes to capturing co2 you have to compare keeping lifestock to the vegan alternatives: vegan organic agriculture on arable Land, using pastures to either get Grass for compost or mulch, or to use that Land to grow forests instead. - I'n Not saying that the vegan alternatives necessarily capture more co2, but I'm saying this is what you have to compare it to (and not: to conventional agriculture)
Thomas: We don't have to compare anything. Clearly the way we practice animal husbandry has a positive carbon balance. So it's a mute argument.
You speak about a vegan agriculture as if you have experience with that. You keep talking from a theoretical perspective.
Ruminants are so important to sustainable agriculture that in order to be BIO in Switzerland you MUST have at least 20% in your crop rotation. Better would be 30-40%
Annotation: In two separate long exchanges Sebastian points me to "Meat. A Benign Extravagance" by Simon Fairlie. He points out that while Fairlie does not agree with veganism, in his book he talks evidence to support the claim that *some* stockfree farmers do not have an issue with soil fertility. I replied that I have read the book carefully and Fairlie examines vegan crop rotations in the chapter titled 'STOCKLESS ROTATIONS'. On average they needed 25% clover to sustain themselves. Only one of the 12 examined was without grass/clover. [Obviously that grass/clover can be fed to the cows, who will in turn produce manure as fertiliser]
You must accept the premise that we will not stop animal husbandry. It simply will never happen. So you need to choose what kind of animal husbandry you want
Any by the way: when you plough one hectare of land to grow vegetables you will on average kill 750'000 worms. They have a lifespan of 8 years. In addition you kill hundreds of mice.
- Thomas: Having been a passionate vegetarian, I was on your side of the argument for a long time. And then I became a farmer and moved away from my theretical constructs.
I understand why you feel so passionate about not eating meat and why you are so passionately opposing animal husbandry. And I dare to say that we agree on most points why animal husbandry today is a catastrophe.
But it would be neither reasonable nor sensible nor ever achieve able to ban animal husbandry. In fact it is possible to practice gopd animal husbandry that contributes to sustainability. So let's not put those in the same pot as the industrial-feedlot-mulitnational-profiteers. That would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater and in fact in the long run this absolutist view is hurting what we are both fighting for.
Daniel: It is true that ploughing land for vegetables kills animals like worms as well. This is almost impossible to avoid. However, you also know that in order to generate grain in order to feed lifestock you need 8-16x the grain you'd need for a plant-based nutritional equivalent like e.g. tofu. So in order to kill as few worms as possible, we have to reduce wasting grain to feed lifestock. "Animal husbandry" is a funny, characteristic term of this industry. It implies a relation akin to loving a "husband", yet it is per definition an exploitative relationship. So better call it by what it is; "animal exploitation". You don't exploit and kill a husband, at least in a working relationship wink emoticon There are countless vegans who have actually abolished this "husbandry" from their lives - and the numbers are growing. This isn't a theoretical construct, this is a longstanding proof-of-concept that animal husbandry is unnecessary and damaging in many ways.
Thomas: We feed our cows 100% grass based - grass coming from crop rotation and steep hillside pastures. 'Feed no food' is a fundamental pillar of sustainable animal husbandry.
Daniel: And how much more realistic than adopting a vegan diet is people insisting on only eating small amounts of exclusively gras-fed beef and avoiding pork and chicken (and eggs), who can't be gras-fed, altogether?
Say hello to our grass fed cows [picture was taken as I was writing]
As you will see when you read my blog post, we only.have to reduce beef consumption by 20%. Pork and chicken is what must go [mostly]
Daniel: Yes, and again, how many people do you know who match these criteria regarding their eating pattern: 20% less beef, only beef from gras-fed cows (also when invited or eating-out), no pork, no chicken?
And do you yourself behave that way?
Thomas: Yes, I do. At least I try my very best.
I don't believe that this should really be something that each person has to consciously decide every f***ing time they go shopping. What has to happen is that we only produce meat that meets these criteria and then that the only thing you can buy. And if there is less meat, that just means that it will be more expensive.
I think many people are willing to enforce this politically.
Daniel: Yes, and how many other people do you know? The thing is, you're rooting for oppressive laws that prohibit anything other than grass-fed meat; effectively forbidding chicken/eggs and pork. Good luck with that (you'll get opposition from all sides). And who's supporting these extremely radical democraticly elected changes? A handful of people who don't even follow this code when they have the freedom of choice? This is very utopic, to say the least. On the other hand, there are countless vegans who are starting in front of their door and taking responsibility for what they buy. This isn't a conscious effort every time they buy something - much of it is a mere adaptation of habits. After a year, it really doesn't happen that you accidently buy cheese, for example wink emoticonIt might truly be a lot more difficult to insist on only gras-fed beef and no other meats; and that's exactly the problem. It's unrealistic that consumers will face that task - and that's why I suspect you know very few such people. Veganism is much easier to do, hence thousands of vegans with the numbers growing.
Thomas: You spend so much effort writing, but you don't make the effort to read my blog.
Chickens and pigs have their place as well, eating waste food and surplus production.
I believe you have made a good choice for yourself becoming vegan. It is however unfortunate that you believe everyone has to make the same choice.
To me it sounds like you are condemning meat consumption and production altogether without differentiating.
Growing up I spent two years at an ultra conservative Christian American high school. I feel like talking to you about animal husbandry is not so different than talking to a born-again Christian about evolution. And since I have good friends who are born again Christians, I don't mean it as an insult. I just realise that it is quite pointless.
The discussion regarding grass fed is a huge topic of discussion in Swiss agriculture at the moment, especially among the organic scene. Currently most farms feed 75% grass. But many want more, or at least a definition that is more clear.
- Daniel: I think the discussion tends to be pointless if you ignore legitimate questions and compare me to a dogmatic religious person, which indeed is an insult to me. I've asked you two times how many people you know who actually adhere to the reforms you are proposing. You never answered it, so I'm assuming it's almost no one. Also the question of where you get the political support for this system change remains unanswered. Animals get killed without their consent - that is enough to condemn it on an ethical basis - and their lives are restricted in certain ways, even in organic productions, but I don't want to open an entirely new discussion topic with you - and I'm certain we can never agree there. Anyway that's why I'm trying to abolish it. Ecolocy is just one aspect of it and I'm sure you wouldn't either want to see the killing of humans be reduced to some ecological argument either. So OK, you'll have waste-eating pigs and chickens (which is illegal in CH if the food comes from e.g. restaurants) that makes it even funnier for the consumer: "Please, can you tell me which dish is produced of exclusively gras-fed kettle or exclusively waste-fed chicken and pigs"? This is pretty much unheard of, hard to imagine, and there isn't even a term for this style of eating - making it even harder to adopt. And I think you know this. If it doesn't even work on the individual level and nobody cares enough to be able to do it, it cannot possibly be forced on society by law. At least not in a democracy. Forcing stuff on people to do what some people think is for their own good is really a conservative christian style of doing affairs, BTW ("god told me" "the pope told me" "the bible tells us"). You wrote that I believe everyone has to make the same choice as I did. This is wrong; I believe that if people are informed they should make their own decisions - and if they see the the hidden cruelty behind animal farming it will be enough to overcome that on the long run, since basically people don't want animals to suffer, and it's largely for cultural reasons we pet dogs and eat pigs.
- Thomas: I don't exaggerate when I tell you I know hundreds of people who deeply care about the 'Feed no food' principle and try their best to live their lives according to that. Here is an example of 300 of those people in one placehttp://www.swissbiofarmer.com/novembertagung-2014/
Animal husbandry according to the feed no food principle is called 'default animal husbamdry' - see Prisca Bauer.
So I am not as gloomy as you on this topic. Lots and lots of people care and are doing something about it. And I think politically it is a gradual process. No making a ban but moving more and more in the right direction. What are you proposing? Banning animal husbandry?
I deeply respect my born again Christian friends. And I have deep respect for vegans (not so much for vegetarians) and I think what they stand for is great and an important part of the discussion. I wish that we could lock arms and March against industrial animal husbandry shoulder to shoulder. But for me the sad truth is that the people who get the most upset about the idea of sustainable animal husbandry are vegans.
And I think it is an atrocity that it is banned to feed restaurant food waste. But still, there is a lot(!) of food waste in production and processing.
Its all in my blog post which I still challenge you to read. http://www.swissbiofarmer.com/blog/2015/1/6/how-much-meat-consumption-makes-sense-yes-there-really-is-a-number
- Daniel: Okay, thanks for clarifying this, I haven't been aware of these facts. I understand that it must seem paradox that you get the must criticism from vegans. I think the fundamental problem vegans have with people trying to to improve animal farming (which has good motives, no doubt), is that it is fixing something that can only be fixed so far - animals will always be degraded to food and killed for it - not reaching anything close to their natural life expectancy. I believe this is completely unnecessary and can simply be avoided; you probably believe that either this is just or this can't be changed anyway and make the best of it by improving the system. Maybe this comparison is weird to you, but during slavery in the U.S., there were also people who were improving the living conditions of slaves out of purely noble impulses. But this cemented and justified slavery, since slavers could say: "Yes, they are slaves, but they're living a fulfilling live, they have everything they need". So the better conditions got, the harder it was to make people see that the basic issue, the degradation of humans to slaves, remained untouched. From my perspective, a similar thing (reformism vs. abolitionism) happens today. Do you maybe have a different angle on this analogy?
Thomas: Well, now we have moved away from the ecological argument and moved towards an ethical one. Which I also disagree with. For example: let's take wild Buffalo herds in North America for example before 1500. It is estimated that there was 30 million. It is in their nature to have one calf per year (logically only the female ones). Yet their life expectancy could be up to 25 years. The math does not add up. Logically it means that for every one born one would have to be killed by a predator. And for the total number to stay constant, the average life expectancy must be  years.
Our cows have the same life expectancy. And they live a very natural life in a herd.
- Jena Griffiths: Thomas, you need to lead with the soil you are creating and the co2 that's being locked in the ground instead of the atmosphere. This is far more complex than a food choice discussion.
- Thomas: yes, i think it is really the most central issue here and it is missing form most discussions altogether. Sebastian mentioned that we should pay more attention to methane because it has such a huge impact in the short term - well if you look at the numbers, our greatest hope in the short term would actually be to build up soil fertility. soil holds 2 times the amount of carbon that we have in the atmosphere!
And that would just be a SIDE benefit of the soil fertility. The main benefit would be that we dont need any chemical fertilisers at all and would produce super healthy, nutritional food
- Thomas: Steven, the ethical question can one that cannot be argued on scientific facts (or at least only to a certain extent). And while I do respect your belief in this regard, I must say that this is the point where to me it starts to feel like arguing about evolution with a creationist.
- Daniel: Regarding your Buffalo calculations: The same might be argued with humans - if we all live long, happy lives, populations would grow too fast - which they do. Do you also think it's a good solution to kill people in their twenties? I don't think so. If you're really affraid of exploding cow heards, there are other methods of controlling populations, contraception being an easy one that doesn't involve killing.
I think ethically it's easy to say that cruelty should be avoided, especially if it's unnecessary. There are some scientific facts that show that killing animals for food is both unnecessary and cruel. Unnecessary because we can easily live a happy and healthy life without killing e.g. cows - and there's even strong evidence that moderate meat consumtion has a significant impact on our risk of colon cancer. Another fact is that every mammal want's to to live, mammals feel pain and higher mammals doubtlessly suffer from grief ("social pain"). So when we kill them, we are violently ending their live without their consent - which means grossly ignoring the autonomy of these animals. The killing itself is also problematic - not every bolt will be perfect, leading to massive and traumatic injuries before death. And what is forgotten: As herd animals, as you pointed out, cows build strong bonds between one and another. Removing a cow from the herd to eat it therefore must trigger some grief - especially regarding the enormous grief a mother cow shows when you take its calf away in the diary industry.
- Thomas: Just to be clear: You are suggesting that cows use contraception?
I believe that death is a part of life. I have killed many animals myself. It is not something I do with pleasure. But I do it with respect.
In my opinion your view on our relationship with nature is slightly naive. When you eat only vegetables, you will also be responsible for the killing of thousands of worms and countless mice (mammals). And have you ever bought anything bio? Well then it was fertiliser with manure... From animals...
I believe that it is possible to live together with animals, treat them respectfully and kill them respectfully and without suffering. With this I have no ethical issues.
I have ethical issues when we force animals to live lives where they suffer.
In your opinion, in order to avoid all killing of animals, targeted or collateral, should we just grow food in greenhouses completely separate from nature and maybe somehow using 3D printers?
I have ethical issues with
Btw, the health risks associated with eating meat are actually only associated with processed meats, but not unprocessed meat. Here is the Harvard study.
Daniel: Of course it would be able to use contraceptive methods with cows. It would be some disrespect to their autonomy, but if it's really a problem that we're overrun by cows that's the solution which doesn't involve killing. And I'm sure if you were a cow
Yes, I was aware of this, but at least 99% of meat-eaters eat processed meat. The main point is: We don't need meat to live healthily.
- Thomas Rippel: Alright, I really enjoyed this discussion. Thank you.
I think now we have reached the point where we just have to agree to disagree. I hope that is ok for you. Otherwise we can continue.
- Daniel: Okay