The ethics of feeding off the fat of the land
Wildlife harvesting advocate Professor Mike Archer AM has been geeing up the anti-vegetarian ork armies with an article putting the boot in for ‘hypocrisy’ over mice. The pesky little critters erupt into sizable plagues in grain growing areas every few years and Archer thereby accused vegetarians of having the “worst possible” diet in terms of suffering and sustainability.
What not to do when it comes to a sustainable diet
During the robust online debate following his article, Archer produced the following visionary statement on Australia’s food production future:
“In fact (sorry to sound insensitive), but we should not be consuming Australia unsustainably as we are now to feed 50 million people overseas in addition to the rapidly expanding Australian population. It’s a great short-term strategy to make more money and feel we done [sic] our bit to feed the starving millions overseas, but it makes us contributors to the exacerbating global problem of overpopulation rather than part of the solution. If we could just manage Australia sustainably, that would be the beginning of a rational approach to land-use and set a good example for the rest of the world.”
So there you have it. In Archer’s moral universe, feeding the hungry is contributing to overpopulation while farmers poisoning mice makes some grain consumers the “worst” contributors to suffering and unsustainability.
Archer’s vision doesn’t just “sound insensitive”, it is. (NB: Archer clarifies that he believes other countries “may have to buy (food) from somewhere else where food production doesn’t cause so much destruction of that land’s capacity”).
In his defence, part of the reason for his conclusion is his false premise.
The charge that Australian agricultural output cannot be sustained is fashionable - but that’s not the same as being true. In his article, Archer repeats the oft-heard mantra that “most of Australia’s arable land is already in use”.
Did he check? A 2009 report from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research lists various estimates of arable land in Australia. We currently crop about 23 million hectares. How much do they reckon we have?
Over 50 million hectares of good arable land, and 100-130 million hectares of reasonable stuff. This is from two independent research teams, one of whom checked productivity against multiple climate models to 2100 to see the likely impacts of climate change.
I’d suggest that sustainable until 2100 makes any suggestion of pulling up the drawbridge and looking after number one totally unconscionable. Keep in mind that regardless of research estimates, we know we have about 22 million hectares of pretty good arable land that is being used for managed pastures.
It’s easy to list Australia’s agricultural problems; there are always many issues that affect somebody somewhere. But it’s quite different to systematically quantify the problems, their production impacts, mitigation potential and make a prediction that the wheels are about to fall off.
Climate change could play havoc with the best of plans, but under either 450 or even 550 ppm CO2, the Garnaut Review found no evidence of catastrophic collapse. However, Garnaut’s worst-case findings were indeed horrific and would see Australia begging for food from elsewhere (and hoping like hell that the Mike Archers of the world weren’t influencing policy in countries which were still producing food).
Similarly, when it comes to population, is Archer so limited in imagination that he can’t think of better ways to combat overpopulation than stopping sending food?
Population growth is being targetted in many countries with effective measures by dedicated workers. The global average number of children per woman during her lifetime has been falling for some time and is now down to 2.55, not far off the break-even point of 2.33.
While it is easy to find successes and failures, the steady global decline in this statistic from nearly five in the 1960s to 2.55 now is why United Nations demographers expect about 10 billion people by the year 2100 instead of the 26 billion we’d have without such measures.
A recent paper in Nature showed we could increase our planet’s food production by about 50 per cent by not using food as feed. In keeping with those findings, we should begin by phasing out all of our animal industries where food is used as feed and where land that can produce food has been diverted to feed production.
Such a policy is similar calls to prevent biofuel production from diverting food to fuel. The global implementation of a no-food-as-feed policy would let us produce enough food for 10 billion people by 2100.
This policy would also lower methane and other non-carbon dioxide climate gases and allow for significant reforestation - both of which are essential - alongside energy infrastructure reforms, to give us a fighting chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.
These views may sound radical in redneck Australia, but they are similar what is being advocated by well acknowledged experts elsewhere.
The Zero Carbon Britain 2030 report, for example, is calling for a 90 per cent reduction in the British beef herd and 80 per cent in the dairy herd. A 2009 study showed huge savings in carbon emissions, cropland use, total land use and financial costs associated with varying levels of reductions in animal product use, ranging from no-red-meat, through no-meat down to no-animal-products.
But didn’t Archer’s article claim that feeding a vegetarian Australia would require vast amounts of extra crop land? Well yes, it did. But he was wrong.
His evidence was a link to a Meat and Livestock Australia website which said something similar but provided no evidence at all. That is, Archer supported his unproven assertion with another unproven assertion.
Consider protein from red meat. Red meat production in Australia totals about 2.9 million tonnes of carcase annually.
Can Archer really expect anybody to believe there is a less efficient way of producing protein than using 27 million cattle and 70 million sheep grazing 420 million hectares of “natural” land together with a substantial fraction of Australia’s 22 million hectares of managed pasture and also consuming over 4 million tonnes of grain in feedlots?
A cattle carcase is about 13.9 per cent edible protein and a tonne of wheat is 10.3 per cent edible protein. So you can replace Australia’s entire red meat protein production with wheat grown on the land you save from not feeding 4 million tonnes of grain to cattle in feedlots. Easy. And we can reforest huge areas which the sheep and cattle industries cleared over the past 200 years.
But what about those poor mice and those horrid vegetarian hypocrites? Aren’t I merely diverting attention from a real and substantive issue which Archer has had the good sense to raise?
Happily everybody can rest easy. Yes, there are mice plagues and they cause significant problems to people as well as the mice themselves. But in his desperation to support his claim that more mice die in this fashion than cattle die producing meat, Archer overestimated the mouse death toll by a factor of 400.
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