Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Religio-Industrial Vegetarianism And Peak Oil

We are currently seeing something of a push by the various vegetarian lobbies to make their diet the official methodology for saving the world from climate change, among other scourges. Everywhere I look these days it seems there are various bits of media chaff designed to convince meat-eaters to give up our evil ways and jump on the bandwagon to save the earth. If only we would all stop eating meat then we would have nothing to worry about, all the plastic consumer crap that pollutes the earth would implode and leave us once more inhabiting a pristine wilderness with clear skies.

Once again we are plagued with a religious radicalism, forced to endure half-truths and strawmen set up to direct people along a narrow road toward a mis-Utopia masquerading as a logical solution to our woes.

Sure, everyone should choose a path that fulfills their ethical goals and lies in line with their moral compass, and many of our problems today stem from the fact that people neglect the re-assessment and re-evaluation needed to chart such a course. There are a lot of problems in the world, but it's certain that none of them can be solved with vegetarianism as a blanket prescription.

Where does the food that vegetarian's consume come from? Sadly, it generally comes from farmland, and may pause on it's journey to the consumer in a factory for further (no doubt energy intensive) processing, typically to be massaged from it's native state into something more closely resembling meat (eh?)

Isn't vegetarian food grown on the same farms where the plough tears through the field, spewing the denizens of that dark and earthy realm out into the harsh sunlight, killing them indiscriminately? Who actively takes on the karma begotten through this slaughter? What about the effects of the pesticides and fertilisers that the earth is salted with in order to raise yields to economical levels? What about the displaced fauna, the birds, rodents and other mammals small and large?

I don't read of many vegetarians that give these issues much deep thought, and any I've pointed it out to stridently insist that what I do is so much worse. Microbes don't have souls, so it's all good from a vegetarian perspective.

Is it? Any thinking person will agree that grain-fed meat must have a cumulative impact, with the burden of both grain growing and raising animals, but there is nothing natural about this kind of meat production, and certainly nothing redeeming, so I would never think to promote it.

What if one were to eat only pasture fed animals? We have a situation where the animal grazes, the worms and other soil organisms are not killed off, and, to an extent, other mammals can live side-by-side with the stock, and birds are only minimally disturbed, usually when the animal they are perching upon decides to take off across the paddock. It's not always an ideal relationship, the farmer still has to ensure the pastures aren't being consumed more by natives than by our introduced food-on-four-legs, but it's a start.

Let's consider it from a basic energetic perspective.

Let's imagine a field, say 2 hectares, with a DSE (Dry Sheep Equivalent) of 3. A DSE of 3 means that each hectare could support one ewe with lamb. A sensible farmer might run two ewes on this land, each bearing one lamb. As the lambs grow, the ewes drop back to requiring 1 DSE each (for a total of 2) and the lambs might require 1 each as they grow, for a total of 4 DSE, leaving 2 DSE, so effectively this small flock could survive on that land.

This gives us 2 sheep for meat each year. Let's say we grow them up to 36kg to try and make the most meat out of our land. This will give us a cold carcass in the area of 15kg, for a total of 30kg of meat for the year.

Lamb, depending on the cut, might give us about 800kJ of energy per 100g, or 240,000kJ (see note below) 60,000kJ of energy in total. To get this energy we don't need to waste buckets of fossil fuels ploughing, harrowing, sowing, spraying and harvesting our crop either. And considering our interest in all things "Peak" animal farming is a valid possibility for a small family.

Note It's been rightly pointed out that I've failed to take into account the muscle to bone ratio in the above calculation. 19% was suggested as a reasonable figure, which would reduce our energy to 48,000kJ. But, but, but! We must also consider that the 800kJ of energy is for lean meat, and in a normal diet (mine :-) ) none of the fat escapes the dinner table. Finding nutritional figures for full-fat meat is difficult, but http://www.nal.usda.gov/ tells me that even with 1/8" of fat left on the lamb chop has an energy of 983kJ/100g for 58,980kJ. We're also leaving out a lot of other useful sources of nutrition such as offal and bones so we could reasonably expect a total energy in excess of 100,000kJ when all is said and done. I'll provide a figure of 60,000 above to be mean to my cause.

How would we go if we put this land down to soybeans? With a yield of about 3 tonnes per hectare we would harvest 6 tonnes from this land. Soybeans have an energy content of 1.25kJ per 172g for cooked mature beans. Total energy returned: 43,604kJ! We would exhaust ourselves trying to grow and harvest this crop manually, especially if we had to live only on the energy it provided.

So we get 5.5 times more energy off the land by growing sheep! And that's before we even begin to consider the energy costs of production, and the fact that we haven't had to sterilise the earth to grow our sheep. Let me tell you, if we were doing it all by hand (as we well might be once peak everything kicks in) rounding up a couple of sheep is a lot less energy intensive that harvesting an hectare of grain...

Further to these typical production practices, we can envisage a more advanced system drawing on the practices of permaculture to inform a better way. As far as the smallholder is concerned he or she wants to maximise production of food for family and friends in the face of an uncertain future, one where the spectre of Peak Oil, even Peak Everything, and climate change looms above all plans.

Such a smallholder will not be interested in hand ploughing a field, broadcasting the seed and then scything, gathering and winnowing the crop. Far too much energy would be expended, to the extent that the farmers would starve trying to feed themselves.

Far better to build up an integrated pasture and forest system, whereby various animals can graze (sheep, goats, ducks, chickens) in harmony, maximising meat production beyond the numbers supplied above, as well as providing sideline benefits of vegetative produce.

In essence, grain production is a dead-end path. Once yields come close to the theoretical maximum there is very little that can be done to increase them further, without building your own genetic engineering lab and releasing all kinds of virulent filth upon the earth. Fundamentally, each additional species you introduce to a grain field reduces the overall productivity of your main crop.

Only through a synthesis of animal and plant within the growing area can increased yields be realised. While ever we are stuck in the two dimensional realm of the grain crop true productivity gains cannot be made, and so we cannot hope to live well in an uncertain future. It would seem, given this amateurish analysis, that suggestions we will find humanity's salvation via vegetarianism are misplaced. It's doubtful we'd even find the salvation of a single post-peak oil family. In fact, turning the earth over to grain fields might just make all our problems worse.

If you're hoping to survive peak oil, my advice would be to stick with the mixed agricultural systems that are emblematic of most "primitive" societies, and then whenever you meet someone claiming to have discovered the means to salve all of humanity's ills in one convenient spiritual package you will at least have the energy to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.

Friday, 12 February 2010

And So It Goes

It's been almost a month to the day since the last post, and I can't say a lot has happened in that time. I'll be meeting with the real estate agent on Tuesday to organise for the block to be put on the market. We had had some interest from someone that was looking to buy the neighbouring property, who wanted our block for it's access to the water, but in the end they decided they wanted to be closer to the nearby city. At the time it was a positive sign, because selling the block is going to be challenging, to put it politely.

We're holding off marketing this place now, until we sell the other block. We need a place to live while we wait to clear that one out and consolidate our lives. Just got to hope everything doesn't come crashing down around our ears in the meantime, on both the personal and global levels. It's still up on the internet site, and if it sells, well, that's the way it's meant to be, but we wont be pushing it via an agent for now.

I finished the tiling in the kitchen, well, almost. DW has asked that we tile the back of the cupboard that faces out into the room, rather than trying to do anything else with it, so the job got a little bit bigger, but it shouldn't take much. It's looking a lot better in there, that's for sure.

The newly planted trees survived a bout of heat and have made it through to our current rainy period. It's still hot, and strangely muggy, but at least we're getting some rain, and all the weeds look so nice and green :-P

Further sad news on the vehicle front, we are now without any kind of work vehicle. After the adventure with the little truck, not two weeks ago the trusty ute died on me, right in the middle of Sydney, on the way home after attending meetings for work. It made it all the way down there okay, but just couldn't struggle back, throwing the timing chain as I was motoring back along the M4. Needless to say this has left us in a pretty tight spot, especially considering we've got so much stuff to move around the place to get all the plans in order. There is something of a synchronicity in this as well, even though a negative kind.

Yet again I'm left wondering about the validity of any of the plans we dream up. The Universe is either challenging us or obstructing us, but it doesn't appear to be giving us anything in the way of clear guidance. The various things I read around the place tell me we're heading towards ever more trying times, yet we find ourselves in a position that is, if anything, even less prepared than we were two years ago. It could well be that that is the message, that we need to clean everything up, get it all sorted out, before we can move forward. It certainly started out by cleaning two useful vehicles (and associated expenses) out of our lives :-) Off to a good start perhaps!?