Image by Photoeverywhere.co.uk (CC BY)
In this post I’ll ask you to choose between two evils. Do you want organic grown food or do you want your food from the traditional industrialized farm? Although some make organic food out to be the only way forward there are some significant downsides to it as well.
First the problems with the more traditional farms. They use a lot of pesticides, artificial manure and other chemicals to increase the yield of their crop and promote growth. Large area’s of land become a monoculture with only one race of plants. Hurting biodiversity and putting our food sources at risk of diseases.
On the other hand we have the organic farms. They are free of pesticides use natural manure and rotate crops to keep the soil healthy. The downside is that the yield per acre is lower. You simply need more space to feed the same amount of people. And there are some indications that this gets worse as more farmers turn to organic farming because pesticides from other fields can’t contaminate the organic fields and indirectly protect the fields of organic farms. We already cut down a lot of tropical rainforests in favour of the food production. If we were to turn to organic food as a solution for the masses we might as well say goodbye to the rainforests now.
The problems are worse in both industries when we take into account the animal farming. In the traditional farms animals don’t have a lot of room and the number of animals kept in one place promotes disease. To maximize production growth hormones are added to an already high calorie diet. To make sure animals aren’t getting sick they use loads of antibiotics. This decreases effectiveness of antibiotics in general and brings with it the very real danger of antibiotics becoming useless. Resistant bacteria are already creating major problems in hospitals around the world.
In the organic farm animals get more room, get a more natural feed and take a longer time to grow. Though this is great for the animals it also means that you need a larger farm for fewer animals. And since the feed is organic as well you get a compound effect of space required needed to get a same amount of meat. Also the impact on the climate per animal is higher due to their more natural diet. Though there is a decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) this is made up by an increase in the amount of methane (CH4) and laughing gas (N2O) they produce which are more powerful greenhouse gasses and therefore have a greater net impact on the environment.
The biggest trouble with meat industry is the enormous amount of resources it requires. To produce a kilo of beef you need 9 kilograms of food and 15.000 litres of water (20 pounds and 4000 gallons respectively). The difference between these is negligible between both industries. They just require huge spaces of land to be sacrificed to produce the meat we eat. Though pork and chicken have better returns it still is a huge demand on the fresh water supply and the food chain.
The best thing would be if we would eat less meat. And some initiatives like the meat-free Thursday could have a major impact if widely adopted. The trouble is that we don’t want to eat less meat, on the contrary as more people can afford it the consumption will only increase. This is because we are programmed to eat meat and like it because meat used to be scarce. Also eating meat is a status symbol, it signifies you are wealthy enough to eat a more expensive type of food. If that is not bad enough there is a psychological phenomenon at work. The not in my backyard phenomenon. Most people think we should eat less meat as a whole at least if it doesn’t affect us personally. When it threatens to affect us personally we will resist the change.
So if the standard farm isn’t good and the organic industry isn’t a good alternative what should we do then? We’ll combine the best of both worlds. You see this in greenhouses. They reduced the number of pesticides needed to grow tomato’s and paprikas to almost zero in the Netherlands by using insects to fight pests that can destroy the crop while they can still use artificial manure to increase the yield of the harvest. This can be implemented relatively easily around the world. In the meat industry test are ongoing to see if antibiotic use can be lowered by adding garlic to the diet because it has antibiotic properties. Results so far are optimistic.
A solution for our meat problem could be insects. They require relatively little water and food to grow when compared to chickens for instance, let alone pigs or cows. Insects have also been eaten traditionally around the world as a source of protein. The trouble is that as people get wealthier they start to favour meat too insects. In the Western World it is even worse as the eating of insects is considered unacceptable. A solution could be grounding it up into burgers and rebranding it. The eating of imitation crab became acceptable when we started calling it surimi. By grounding it we don’t need to be reminded of the origin which is a plus for most consumers who rather don’t like to be reminded that their beef came from a cow either.
Another solution could be the use of algae as a basis for the animal feed. In contrast to soy and corn it can be grown anywhere provided you can get water there and it is highly nutritious. Algae can be fed using the manure from the animals in effect recycling the waste. At the moment algae farms cannot compete with soy just yet though, being a factor ten more expensive. This will be overcome when it is produced on a larger scale or when crops start to fail more often due to more extreme weather patterns as a consequence of global warming.
A last solution, still far off is just growing the meat we need. When we eat beef we mostly eat muscle tissue with a bit of fat. The rest, organs, bones and less desired meat cuts, are pretty much waste products. Wouldn’t it be great if we could only grow the bits we need? This is exactly what researchers are trying to do. Only grow muscle tissue in large vats and eliminate a lot of unnecessary waste products. It will be years before we actually get to this stage however. Currently it costs an enormous amount of money to grow a small piece of meat which isn’t even tasty either. When we do however, we will see new types of meat hitting the shelves. Fancy a roast of lion perhaps?