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Erik Richardson

Teacher, Richardson Ideaworks, Inc.


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Can we sustain the population AND the ecosystem without converting to vegetarianism?

Setting aside the ethical questions about humane treatment of animals and the ethics of killing them if we don't need to (important and interesting questions, mind you), let us consider it just from the standpoint of logistical feasibility.

If you don't think we have reached that level yet, at what point would we? That is, under what conditions would the answer tilt to the negative?


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    Apr 23 2011: Erik, I'm no specialist in that area, but some articles and researches i've stumbled upon said that it IS possible to not be a vegetarian and still be a ecologycally conscious individual. You can keep eating meat, as long as you focus on organical and sustainably-produced products when eating other types of food, like vegetables and fruits.
    Sustainability is perfectly compatible with meat-eating habits.
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      Apr 23 2011: How would such a model accommodate the incredible acreage required for eco-friendly livestock raising given the 16:1 conversion ratio of grain to meat? So far the solution has been concentrated industrial feed-lot operations - but the ecological impact of those is clearly not sustainable. I don't know if the studies you've seen addressed this angle, though. Just trying to learn :-D
      • Apr 29 2011: Erik, good question. I keep hearing that thing about the 16:1 feed conversion ratio repeated. I'm not sure where it came from, but people really need to stop repeating it.

        Firstly, it's an inaccurate figure. The feed conversion ratio for cattle and sheep is about 7:1. Chickens, pigs, turkeys and rabbits are all about 3:1. Fish have a feed conversion ratio of 4:3 or even better.

        But the major flaw in this argument is the obvious one: cows eat grass. Every cow I've ever met loves the stuff. Grass is useless as a food to us, so turning 7kg of useless, inedible grass into 1kg of nourishing, delicious beef is a very smart move if what we want to do is provide people with food. Generally speaking, the purpose of meat-animals in a sustainable agroecological system is to convert inedible organisms low on the food chain (leaves, grasses, grubs, bugs, seaweed, algae etc.) into edible meat.
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          Apr 29 2011: Interesting. What is your source for the 7:1 ratio? It still seems ridiculously wasteful, but an intriguing difference, nonetheless.

          Please see my discussion below regarding attempts at a sustainable grazing practice. If you have citations for a different calculation of how many acres of grazing land it takes for sustainable practices, please offer them. This was the only example I had heard of.
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          May 5 2011: Raising large mammals for meat isn't ecologically ideal though. Considering fully grown cattle consume up to 23.0 gallons of water per day (NDSU), and have high methane emissions as a collective, red meat isn't worth it.
      • Apr 29 2011: Sources for feed conversion ratio of cattle: http://www.suite101.com/content/feed-conversion-ratio-and-liveweight-gain-of-grass-fed-ruminants-a237660 and http://www.beef.org.nz/research/newsletters/feedconveff.asp say 7-10 to one. Page 3 of http://www.bifconference.com/bif2006/pdfs/Carstens.pdf mentions ratios of 5.37 and 6.49 to one. It varies a lot depending on genetics, diet and other factors.

        I don't think a 7:1 conversion ratio is wasteful, as nothing useful is being wasted. You are 'upcycling' straw, grass and leaves into high-value food.

        I read your discussion of large-scale grazing and I agree with your conclusions. Pastoralism cannot sustain hundreds of millions of cows; the arithmetic doesn't work out. However, I don't think vegetarianism is the best answer; I think smarter agriculture is.

        What do I mean by smarter agriculture? First, stop feeding animals things we can eat ourselves. Instead, feed them the things I mentioned: grass, straw, insects, chaff etc.. Secondly, utilize animals for more than just meat production; they should function as part of an ecosystem, improving soil, eating pests etc. That is how ecosystems work; each organism benefits other organisms and there is an interplay of plants and animals. How can you have a healthy ecosystem without any animals?

        Polyface Farm has been discussed on TED before (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQPN1O03z8I#t=10m47s). According to the figures in that talk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQPN1O03z8I#t=14m22s), yields are over 1000lb of meat per acre. That's enough for 11 people eating 1/4lb a day. Say world population is gonna peak at 11 billion, we'd need a billion acres to raise meat (forgetting about fish for now). That's less than a seventh of existing pasture (http://www.fao.org/economic/ess/ess-publications/ess-yearbook/ess-yearbook2010/yearbook2010-reources/en/).

        Another thing to consider: we may develop in-vitro meat in the next decade, making this issue irrelevant
      • Apr 30 2011: To cut those calculations another way -

        If world population reaches 9 billion, and average meat consumption is 111g (about 4oz) per day, we'd need a billion kg of meat a day - 365 billion kg a year.

        If it reaches 15 billion, and average meat consumption is 250g (over a pound) per day, we'd need a 3.75 billion kg of meat a day - 1368.75 billion kg a year.

        We already have 3.5 billion hectares of pasture, so the average yield to provide these meat requirements would need to be 104-391 kg/hectare (93-349 lb/acre)

        As I mentioned, Polyface Farms yields are well over 1000lb per acre per year.

        In conclusion, in a world teeming with meat-hungry people who really hate eating fish, who suck at land remediation and in-vitro meat research - even in that scary scenario - average yield only has to be a third of what has been proven possible with agroecology. More realistically, average yields need to get up to a tenth of what is possible.

        If we mimic natural grazing patterns and use nitrogen-fixing trees and fodder plants like clover, compost, worms, biochar etc., soil regenerates very quickly. More soil means more grass means more meat. 'Overgrazing' is really inadequate soil regeneration. With vigorously-growing grass, you can raise a cow on 2 acres (compare the 18 acres you mentioned as the current average) - and those acres also grow other plants and animals. Other animals need much less land, even to give the same amount of meat (see ratios above)

        This kind of farming has many side-benefits: you save energy and labor by not hauling around fodder and waste, the animals are healthier and need less antibiotics, the soil holds water better (water-efficiency on farms is a huge issue; agriculture accounts for 69% of water-use), the farm is cheaper to run and needs less external inputs, the meat tastes better and is more nourishing, plants are produced as well as meat, and these plants grow better because of the improved soil.

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