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?
Thomas: You can read on my blog that we would have to cut meat consumption only by half to achieve this.
Say hello to our grass fed cows [picture was taken as I was writing]