A Ruminatory Ramble On the Pitfalls, Wallows, False Paths and a Way Ahead(?)

Part III of a Trilogy

Part I and Part II

PATRICIA REMY – It’s time to get down to earth. Soil, that is. When the soil is exhausted, nothing grows. There is no arable land, no grassland, no forest. There is no food or shelter for the beasts of the field and forest, no grazing animals, no sustenance for predators. I guess marine animals would still thrive. They pre-date soil.

Humans, however, are land animals. Without soil, we are toast.

The oldest soils are apparently slightly over three billion years old (remains of which are found in Greenland and South Africa). What we recognize as soil, rich and red-brown, did not appear until about 450 million years ago. Shortly thereafter, in evolutionary terms, around 440-410 million years ago, the first animals colonized dry land. Centipedes and millipedes headed the march.

Humans have abused the soil. According to studies during the 2010’s, the University of Sheffield estimated that the UK had only 100 harvests left; the University of Washington set it at 60. Now however, I just finished reading a Tweet from the New Scientist (2019) which tells us that making such calculations is well-nigh impossible. Soils are in danger, some being depleted very quickly, but fertilizers and no-till agriculture are alleviating the problem and even enriching soils locally. Houston, do we have a problem or not?

Y’know, on this one, be it ever so humble, I’m just going to rely on common sense. In 1965, the consumption of artificial nitrogen fertilizers stood globally at 46.3 million metric tons per year. By 2019 it had risen to 190 million tons, 4.1 times as much. There are graphs which correlate the rapid growth of the world’s human population during the past several decades to the increased use of artificial fertilizer. In 1965, the world population was 3.4 billion; in 2019 it was 7.7 billion, 2.25 times as many.

One source tells me that half the population of the world is dependent on fertilizer for the production of their food.

On November 15, 2023, we reached 8 billion Earth population. One thing is for damn sure: all these people need to eat, and the soil can’t produce enough food for them without being supplemented with synthetic products. All of these, lest we forget, swallow energy in their production, transport, and distribution on the field. Greenhouse gases are a by-product.

A question to which I did not find an answer: how much more fertilizer would it take to grow enough crops to nourish the entire the world human population on a vegan diet? I suspect this would involve fertilizing land, which is now only pasturable, until it becomes arable, i.e. rich enough to support crops. I’m thinking that’s a helluva lot of fertilizer.

One commenter suggested an alternative; namely, developing a new soil system on the grasslands. When covered in layers of alfalfa, straw, manure, compost, and perhaps dried seaweed, soil becomes home to a plethora of microbes and suitable for organic crops.
Hmm. First you have to obtain the alfalfa et.al., grow it (without fertilizer, I hope), gather it, transport it, distribute it. That requires energy. Can it be done without generating GHG’s?

So re-structuring the grasslands in order to produce organic crops which contain all the essential amino acids for going vegan might not be the solution it is touted to be.

Maybe we should just leave the conversion of non-crop vegetation to the ruminants. Let them concentrate the protein in their meat and harvest them respectfully. Ask a passing ruminant: Would you rather be torn apart alive by a random predator, your usual fate in a world of carnivores and herbivores, or dismissed with one directed shot to the head? In regulated game parks, please, not in mass slaughterhouses.

Meanwhile, via soil, let’s get back to methane.
Another commenter makes the point that it is not the ruminants, but the bacteria which produce methane from fibrous plant material. This just happens to take place in ruminant stomachs. Take away the ruminants, and the wily bacteria will find a means of delivering their methane anyway. Like maybe it will rise directly from the soil, bubble up underfoot.

Some of the strategies to reduce bovine-sourced methane you just can’t make up.

For example, the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations for those who would rather forget) is hard at it. In a project in Ethiopia, to my mind difficult to duplicate even approximately in Canada, cows were fed with a supplement of leguminous shrubs enriched with urea molasses multi-nutrient blocks (UMMB) which reduced methane emissions by 16-44%. I bet a cookie that no one asked the cows whether they enjoyed their new diet. And where did the urea and molasses come from? Once again, think production, transport, distribution.

The University of Nebraska has achieved enteric methane reduction in cows by feeding them a diet higher in carbohydrates. [For chemistry nerds, the additional carbs change the exchange of hydrogen (H2) in the metabolism of the forages, and through that limit the amount of methane produced.] Grinding and pelting their forages to speed up digestion; adding yeast and unsaturated fats reduces methane, too. Need I mention that this feed preparation takes additional energy? Are there associated GHG’s?

Another experiment related how the biomass in the rumens of slaughtered bison was mixed with cattle feed. The cows got to eat pre-digested bison forage. Yes, slit Buffy’s butchered stomach and feed its contents to Bossy. Apparently, the particular bacteria in the bison rumen digest nitrogen compounds better than those in the cattle rumen, nitrous oxide being another greenhouse gas produced in agriculture. No comment on methane. Nitrogen-based GHG’s are another story. I include this example merely to show what types of experiments have been made.

There are also lots of thoughts on genetically altering the cow rumen, etc. Yikes, the ends to which humans will go, so as to avoid changing their own behaviour. How much energy and hot air does all this research account for?

Really, when I began this ruminatory ramble, I was looking for ways to reduce the production of methane associated with farming beef. What I found was a maze of deflection and denial.

In addition, I ended up asking myself what a sustainable diet might consist of. I refer to an article in Sentient Media under “Environment, Health & Medicine” from Jan 19, 2023 by Jenny Splitter. She summarizes the advice of several organizations: The FAO, EAT-Lancet (the prestigious English medical publication), The World Resources Institute, and Project Drawdown. All say buy local. Eat no more than 1.5 burger equivalents of meat per week. Nosh more fruit, nuts, and vegetables. Dairy is allowed in moderation. Anti-climactic but sound advice.

In the spirit of the late E.O. Wilson, however, let’s remember the real dimensions of our time’s greatest challenge: HIPPO — habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population, and over-use. In his spirit, too, let’s leave half the planet to the millions of other species.

Our task is to focus the political will toward living within our means.

– Series Index –

  • Part 1: On Meat, Methane, And A Future Scenario
  • Part 2: On Population, Ruminant Methane, and Non-Arable Land
  • Part 3: On the Pitfalls, Wallows, False Paths and a Way Ahead(?)

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