In my previous post on Feeding the Masses I pointed out that we already produce 17% more food globally than we need to feed our entire population. The real reason starvation and malnutrition exists is inequity. However this has been true for some time, our new Eaarth may make our excess food production a thing of the past. In my previous post I argued that the best thing you can do to fight starvation is buy food from small, local farmers, (farms which gross less than $250k annually) which is not only true in the sense that it fights inequity but also because small, local farms produce more food per acre than our mega, industrial monoculture. On average, small farms produce 1000% more output per acre (p.6) than large farms. That’s a ridiculously high number that we little guys can get to because we focus on a smaller area, use fewer inputs and produce higher value crops.
Think of it this way. A large corn monoculture grows only corn, by definition. It also relies on heavy equipment driving up and down the rows, planting, cultivating, irrigating, spraying, etc. This highly specialized operation leaves no room for any other plant to be grown alongside or between the corn stands. Those 2 or 3-foot wide bare tracks for the tractor wheels are wasted land and wasted opportunity. Beans grow very well underneath corn stalks, using the stalks as a vine climbs a fence. But giant combines can’t harvest beans and corn together. Small farms, on the other hand, can grow multiple crops in the same space, which helps naturally to fight weeds and pests while enriching the soil.
Applying this complex and diverse farm to livestock; while it takes 2.5 acres of grass to support one 100% grass-fed cow and calf pair, that same space can support an additional 5 sheep and 400 chickens. The same 2.5 acres planted in grain at (9000 lbs feed grain per acre) and fed directly to cows would produce 2250 pounds of beef (10:1 feed conversion (p. 16)). The grass-fed calf, 5 sheep and 400 chickens will produce 2500 pounds of meat (600 lbs beef, 300 lbs lamb, 1600 pounds chicken). This would cost 400 pounds of grain to feed only the chickens which equals an additional 0.35 acres of grain growing. Net result, 2.5 acres of grain produces 2250 pounds of low-quality beef and 2.5 acres of grass plus .35 acres of grain produces 2500 pounds of high-quality, Omega-3 and CLA laden beef, lamb and chicken.
Finally, let’s consider the energy used to bring those pounds of meat to the table. Industrial food systems typically require 7 to 10 calories of energy to bring 1 calorie to the table (p. 120). That includes fertilizer, machinery, processing, hauling and refrigeration. That means 2250 pounds of grain-fed beef equals 1,800,000 calories of food which requires 15,300,000 calories to get to your home. That’s the equivalent of 486 gallons of gasoline. On my old livestock farm we used 500-1000 gallons of fuel per year to bring to market 150 cows, 400 pigs, 100 turkeys and produce 4000 eggs. This is why small farms are more efficient.
Buy local, cook at home, use less refrigeration, start a garden and get to know your neighbors. These are habits that will not only help us avert the worst impacts of climate change but also deal with what’s coming.