Vegetarianism exists since at least the 7th century BCE but it has taken a different path over the last decades. Time has changed and people are not only becoming vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian for the animal rights but also to eat more sustainably. Eating meat is questionable beyond the moral and ethic of killing an animal. What does it mean to buy a steak from your supermarket which is from industrial agriculture and has traveled more than 1000km to arrive on your plate? What does it mean to support monocultures or the use of fertilizers? Those questions are important to address in our changing world.
What’s wrong with the agriculture these days?
Is it that agriculture became an industrial system where farms have become factories which consume fossil fuel, water and topsoil at unsustainable rates? Hum let’s see…
This type of agriculture concentrates production on a large scale, driving out small producers, and undermining rural communities (so bye bye local farmers). In this system, monocultures have become a priority leading to an erosion of the biodiversity which is a major problem in natural systems.
Biodiversity is the key to resilience where a natural system can adapt to changes. In order to increase yields and optimize the costs of production, this agricultural practice produces genetically similar or identical plants. The lack of rotations and diversification prevent self regulating mechanisms, leaving the crops at high risks against changing conditions, extreme weather, disease or insects invasions. Monocultures depend therefore on high chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides to compensate the benefits brought naturally by diversity (aka those chemicals end up in your body through bioaccumulation).
What does it mean to eat meat?
1. On large meat farms such as the one found in the US or Canada, the animals finish their lives on Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) to be fed on high calorie, grains based diet, supplemented with antibiotics and hormones, just to maximize their weight gain. The recent controversy against the CETA (new trade agreement between the EU and Canada) was to avoid the loss of small farmers in Canada and Europe and to avoid the arrival of the meat from animals fed on hormones or products containing herbicides and pesticides banned in Europe but use on the other side of the Atlantic. Same as for the fertilizers, those hormones end up in your system.
2. On top of polluting your own body, chemical fertilizer runoff and CAFO wastes contribute to CO2 emissions and creates oxygen-deprived or « dead zones » in the mouth of waterways, such as Chesapeake Bay, the mouth of the Baltic Sea or the Northern Adriatic. More than 400 dead zones exist worldwide.
So what happens in Dead zones? Excess nutrients coming from fertilizers make their way to rivers, lakes and oceans by runoff or wastewater. This stimulate overgrowth of algae which take over the environment, sink to the bottom and decompose in the water. This decomposition process consumes oxygen and depletes the supply available to healthy marine life creating « dead zones ».
3. And on top of that, livestock sector generates almost 1/5 of the manmade greenhouse gas emissions (Beef and milk production accounting for the majority respectively 41% and 19% of the sector’s emissions), the water needs of livestock are tremendous, and cheery on the cake it contributes massively to deforestation.
So how did we end up here?
Well the shift towards monoculture farming has been possible via mechanization, development of agrochemicals, increased consumerism, the interest for international markets and economic interest from large corporations. Industrial agriculture has been promoted as THE technological revolution, with a great efficiency to allow food production to keep pace with a rapid growing global population, insuring at the same time financial benefits for a profitable business.
Really? has it worked? 1 billions people are malnourished at the moment and the ecological costs are enormous…
Let’s have a look at another alternative, shall we…
What about Agroecology…
Agroecology is a concept that has been introduced at the beginning of the 20th century in an attempt to merge agronomy and ecology for a novel management approach. It links the science to a set of practices, it applies ecological science to the study, design and management of sustainable agroecosytems.
The concept is simple:
– Focus is on food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging these resources. It applies ecology to the design of farming systems.
– It links ecology, society, culture and economics to create a healthy environment, food production and communities.
– It recycles wastes, minimizes energy and water use, maximize genetic diversity, regenerate soils, increase its carbon content, integrate livestock and crop into holistic systems.
And guess what is the foundation of this concept…?
BIODIVERSITY!!! Diversifying of farming system. Agroecology tries to mimic natural processes to create beneficial biological interactions and synergies among the components of the agroecosystems. Soil condition is preserved for plant growth, recycling nutrients and energy are added on the farms rather than introducing external inputs such as fertilizers. This is growing in several countries such as Brazil, Germany, France or the US.
But is a such practice economically viable?
A feel good story with the direct application of agroecology: Permaculture in Normandie
Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer started an amazing project with their “Bec Hellouin” farm in 2006. It is a 40 acre organic farm, growing 380 varieties of fruit, vegetables, herbs and medicinal plants. They quickly became a national and international reference in terms of productivity while protecting nature and recreating biodiversity, all of that without the use of any fossil fuel or machines. They started their farm with the objectives of being self sufficient until they came across permaculture which was a revelation for them.
Between 2011 and 2015 they undertake a scientific study in collaboration with INRA (National Research Institute of Agronomics), the first research institute in Europe and second in the world. The goal was to evaluate the viability of their approach and measure the productivity levels over 1000 m2, modeled on « Mandala gardens », cultivation mounds and garden-forests. With 55% greenhouses and 45% open-air cultivation they achieve 54300€ net gross sales a year, producing about 80 buckets a week. This was a great validation of the micro-farm concept.
If you want to learn more about this project here is a great video.
In a nut shell:
– Products from industrial agriculture: think about fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, CO2 emissions, deforestation…
– Imported products: Carbon footprint is high and your local farmers are more valuable than large industrial national or international corporations.
– Biodiversity is fundamental, Nature is the best example we can ever have.
– If you really need to eat meat than reduce your consumption is better for the environment, and you’ll make cows and chooks happier.
If you are still not convinced by my last point here is a funny study (questionable but funny):
Scientists in Prague, tested the body smell of red meat eaters vs non meat eaters. Half the participants had to eat meat for 15 days, the others were on a non meat diet. They were asked to refrain from using perfumes, deodorants, drink alcohol, take drugs or smoke. At day 14, they had to shower without soap and stick a cotton pad under their armpits for 24h wearing a neutral T-shirt provided for the experiment. Then, 30 women spent some time sniffing those cotton pads and evaluated their smell.
It turns out that odors from non meat eaters were rated as more pleasant, more attractive, and less intense. This could be due to aliphatic acids and fat proportion in meat.
Haha sorry meat lovers you stink !!!!
Illustration and top photo from the author of this blog.
Commission proposal for EU beef hormones ban. (2000). British Food Journal, 102(8). doi: 10.1108/bfj.2000.070102hab.013
Hathaway, M. (2015). Agroecology and permaculture: addressing key ecological problems by rethinking and redesigning agricultural systems. Journal Of Environmental Studies And Sciences, 6(2), 239-250. doi: 10.1007/s13412-015-0254-8
Diaz, R., & Rosenberg, R. (2008). Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems. Science, 321(5891), 926-929. doi: 10.1126/science.1156401