Tag efficiency

Feeding the Masses – Small Farms are More Efficient

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.

 

Biodiversity and Food Efficiency

I’ve been toying with some ideas about food production here at the farm. While there is much discussion at a national level about energy efficiency in industrial food production, there is little debate about the differences between food production methods and wasted food. In addition, there is typically little value placed on biodiversity in these discussions, which undoubtedly results in proposals to farm corn from fence-row to fence-row. I’d like to propose two inter-dependent concepts to help guide consumers, farmers and chefs toward a more sustainable food system; biodiversity and food efficiency. Thanks to my brother for helping me to flesh this out.

Biodiversity is difficult to quantify and thus can only be treated in a qualitative and conceptual way. However humans and animals can survive on a limited source of nutrition (currently corn and soy in the developed world), I (and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, quoted below) believe reliance such as this invariably leads to instability, disease and ultimate self-destruction. “The erosion of biodiversity for food and agriculture severely compromises global food security. We need to strengthen our efforts to protect and wisely manage biodiversity for food security. Its sustainable use is central to achieve a secure and sustainable food supply system.” One pest, one string of bad weather, a new bacteria or fungus could wipe out an entire nation’s food source in a system like this. In addition, a  limited source of nutrition provides just that to it’s consumers, contributing to the staggering rise of diabetes and obesity. And, concentrated manure, fertilizer and pesticide use has destroyed habitat beyond saving in many of the world’s waterways and arable lands (see dead zones). This system is eroding soil “…10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished, destroying cropland the size of Indiana every year.” (Cornell University Study) It has driven farmers to bankruptcy and even suicide through corporate control of seed and genetics. Yes, we can survive for a time on industrial corn and soy, but not for all time and certainly not happily. That brings us to Concept 1: biodiversity is immeasurably important for food security, health and environmental stability.

Now, if you believe in Concept 1, consider having a truly biodiverse landscape. We have grasslands, forests, mountains, rivers, lakes, cold and hot climates and in each of these places a variety of food sources can be found. Instead of fabricating one unstable super-crop to grow in a handful of environments, we can allow natural selection to develop ever more resilient and diverse food sources for each environment. This has essentially been the natural plan for all history, until we started fixing nitrogen and mechanizing farming. Now we can discuss real food efficiency.

Food efficiency does not only consider the human or fossil fuel energy input to food production, but it must consider all energy while retaining biodiversity. It takes much less energy to graze a cow on pasture than to convert that pasture to corn, mill the corn, truck it to a CAFO and then have to deal with all the manure afterwards. Instead the cow grazes, returning much of the vegetable matter back to the pasture, building up the topsoil while making healthier meat. The American Bison, over millennia, made all that topsoil we’re currently eroding. So the cow eats grass, produces milk and meat for the people but also produces a bunch of stuff we don’t normally eat like bones and organs and tough cuts of beef. Those can go into animal feed for our dogs and cats or get ingeniously turned into human food through adventurous cooks. The pasture stays pasture, the cow eats grass and all the product gets used while creating a healthier environment for all. The same can be said for chickens eating bugs and grass, pigs eating rotten food, nuts and roots, goats eating brush, sheep eating leafy weeds and grass on rocky pasture, etc. Concept 2: Feeding animals a natural and appropriate feed creates a significantly healthier product and environment, promotes biodiversity while reducing food waste and increases food efficiency. Waste not, want not.

Of course, there is one glaring problem; food production like this won’t make enough food for an infinitely increasing population. A topic for a future post.

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