In the previous article, we have explored the numerous causes of concern of industrial agriculture, such as its water and carbon footprint, as well as its ecological impact in terms of dead zones, deforestation and the buildup of Anti-Microbial Resistance (AMR).
In this article, we will prove that industrial agriculture is not a necessary evil to meeting rising demands, and solutions such as free-range grazing and mixed farming are actually more economically and ecologically viable. In addition, we will explore other options through which we can create a sustainable food future.
During our childhood, when the word “farms” come to mind, we would imagine rolling pastures dotted with cattle and sheep; huge diverse landscapes filled with golden swaying crops of corn, wheat and barley; the various chirps and chatter of surrounding wildlife. In such a system, there can be a range of benefits for farmers, consumers, the local environment, forests across the globe and lastly, animal welfare.
Free ranging animals are able to live: They are able to run and jump and sleep; they are able to freely scratch and graze and peck and forage; they are able to feel the fresh air, the warmth of sunshine, the gust of wind, and bathe in dust, mud or water alike. Most importantly, they are able to feel kinship, and show love and affection for one another. What they see as a normal life, just as we do, would be a paradise for those living in factory farms.
In mixed farming, there is almost no need for any chemical fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides. With a rotational system, after the crops are planted and harvested, farmers would leave the fields to grow grass and clover for the next few years. Through the feeding of livestock, Nitrogen is naturally restored into the soil, while animals do their part by scattering manure across the field.
With natural, healthy soil, creatures which thrive on it will be able to make a comeback. Small as they may be, insects such as dung beetles are able to further enrich the soil through animal droppings, while earthworms are able to mix soil and nutrients together and return the final product to the fertile topsoil. Not only that, other animals which depend on these creatures for food would return as well. With the food web established, there will be a massive increase in wildlife present in the vicinity: From small mammals such as voles, mice and rats, to larger creature such as buzzards, kestrels and barn owls.
In the absence of chemical pesticide and soil fertilizer, life flourishes, both locally and elsewhere. With long roots, grass is able to tap into deeper water sources while holding more nutrients and soil together at the same time. With reduced soil erosion and nutrient runoffs, communities depending on the river and the sea are able to survive.
Lastly, by cutting down on grain-fed animals, as well as the reduction in demand for resource-intensive meat, we can save the remaining forests. From the Sumatra jungle to that of the Amazon, ecosystems housing millions of species are hanging on by a thread. Trees that are not cut down would not only serve as a safe haven, but also as our lungs: By removing carbon from the atmosphere while simultaneously returning oxygen for us to breathe.
True or False?
One common misconception is that mixed farming would not be bringing in income at all due to its reduced meat production rate and crop yield.
It is true that free grazing animals take a longer period to grow and mature. However, as they feed naturally on grass, wildflower and herbs, compared with farms that fed grain to their animals, the cost of feeding animals is much lower for mixed farms. Costs are reduced further by keeping them out in a natural environment, with lower vet bills due to their stronger immunity. In fact, Jonathan Brunyee, senior lecturer at the Royal Agricultural University (Cirencester) has reported that ‘The only farmers making money [from beef cattle] are those that are pasture-fed and selling direct’ to the consumers.
As for the difference in crop yield, although crops generated in mixed farms are about 10–15% lower, without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, the farmers save more while reducing the total ecological impact.
In addition, with a diet high in variety, we gain through healthier, more nutritious food. Grass fed beef has shown to be much lower in saturated fats and higher in health-giving nutrients such as Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and omega-3s.
Lastly, we are convinced that we simply do not have enough landspace for the entire meat and poultry industry. To qualify for the “free range” label in the UK and Europe, each individual chicken needs to be allocated at least a square metre of outside space. Given that there would be 155 million chickens alive at any one time (in the UK alone), we would need 155 square kilometres of space, a drop in the ocean compared to the UK’s total agricultural grassland (119,000 square kilometres).
And now, how else can we make better use of our resources?
Reducing meat consumption
It is estimated that in the last 50 years, the global population has doubled to 7.8 billion people, while the amount of meat we consume has tripled. In my previous article, we have highlighted that carbon emissions from transport industry (16.2%) is in fact lower than that of Agriculture, Forestry & Land Use (18.4%), with meat production contributing 75% to that total count.
Through a change in our consumer habits, we are able to reduce the total carbon footprint of agriculture, meal-by-meal.
Reducing Food Wastage
About a quarter of the global food basket, enough to feed an extra 3.9 billion people — is being wasted by being binned or left to rot. Together with huge amounts of fruits and vegetables, the global food-waste mountain includes the meat equivalent to about 12 billion farm animals (almost a sixth of global farmed animals) being reared, slaughtered and binned.
Has all the water, energy and other resources that go into producing, storing, processing and distributing food, as well as the environmental impact of dead zones and carbon emission been in vain?
In developed countries, food wastage occurs mostly due to over-ordering in restaurants and cafeterias, as well as the disposal of food which are aesthetically unacceptable by supermarket standards. While in developing countries, food is often lost due to inappropriate production, storing and handling. For instance, Latin America and the Carribean, one of the world’s primary breadbaskets, is responsible for 10% of total food waste in 2020, partly due to unsuitable infrastructure and poorly organised food chains.
We all have a part to play in this foodwar. For instance, under the processing and retail distribution sectors, we can start encouraging “ugly” food in supermarkets; we can establish more connections between various food banks and supermarkets to deal with food surplus; we can start recycling food waste into compost or better yet, use them as feed for chickens, pigs or goats.
In terms of consumption, us consumers can do our part by avoiding self-service buffets, ordering only what we can eat as well as storing and finishing any leftovers. Similarly, governments and corporations alike can encourage better production, handling and storage practices through stricter regulations and investments in better infrastructure and technology, especially in developing countries.
An alternative to pasture farming would be the production of lab-grown meat. Instead of dedicating large amount of such as land, water and energy to feeding the livestock, artificial meat would only take up a fraction of these resources. In addition, we would be able to avoid the numerous landmines which comes with factory farming, such as that of animal cruelty, the use of antibiotics, the plague of bacteria and most importantly the clearing of landspace.
Currently, there are numerous ways to produce cultured meat, one of which being the nurturing of animal stem cells in a nutrient rich-brew. In December 2020, a restaurant in Singapore, Eat Just, together with the collaboration of the local government, became the pioneer in selling cultured chicken to consumers.
“It’s a way of eating meat without killing an animal, without tearing down a single tree, without using a single drop of antibiotics, without negatively impacting biodiversity, without accelerating zoonotic disease,” said Josh Tetrick, co-founder of Eat Just. “So, you get the good stuff about meat, without the bad.”
However, this sunrise industry faces many challenges. For instance, the best medium for growing of such animal stem cells would be Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS), a serum harvested from pregnant cows usually without the use of anesthesia. To use such a medium would be contradictory to our initial goals. In addition, to sustain cell proliferation and differentiation, compounds such as hormones and growth factors would need to be produced safely on an industrial scale, while fossil energy usage for such a complex process might even worsen global warming due to the increased carbon emissions albeit decreased methane production from livestock. Lastly, production of such cultured meat is still quite pricey, with prices being about 9 times higher than normal meat.
All in all, one thing is certain: We must change our ways of agriculture while making full use of the resources at hand.
Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel, and or shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it. — Sanskrit Text, 1500 BC