SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 207 April 2017

Meat and emissions

Grass, Soil, Hope: a journey through carbon country

Two Percent Solutions for the Planet

Both by Courtney White • Published by Chelsea Green (2014 and 2015, £14.99 and £16.99)

Reviewed by Iain Dalton

Among the growing crises facing humanity, those of food production to feed an expanding world population and climate change as a result of CO2 and other gas emissions are among the most intractable. Of all the many conferences the representatives of the capitalist class attend, summits devoted to climate change and famine are among the most watched – and among those where the least progress is marked.

Recent documentaries, including the viral Cowspiracy, have begun to focus attention onto the global food industry as a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions – a larger contributor, in fact, than global transportation. This is both as a result of the methane released by cows directly, but also the intensive use of corn and other crops in feeding livestock and the additional CO2 emissions that brings.

Cowspiracy concludes that it is necessary to stop eating meat and dairy if we are to avoid the worst of climate change. This has been echoed, among others, by the newly elected Five Star Movement mayor of Turin, Chiara Appendino. She aims to make it Italy’s first ‘vegetarian city’, claiming: "The promotion of vegan and vegetarian diets is a fundamental act in safeguarding our environment…"

Yet are such extreme measures as phasing out meat consumption necessary? Courtney White argues that, if managed correctly, agriculture (and our whole relationship to nature) has the possibility to sequester significant amounts of greenhouse gasses in soil, restore habitats damaged by capitalist farming and help lift living standards.

Globally, soils contain three times the carbon stored in vegetation and twice that of the atmosphere. This is because 30-40% of the carbon trapped in plants through photosynthesis is exuded into the soil feeding the microbial life which provides the plants with nutrients. This often remains trapped in the soil for longer periods of time than the carbon embodied in vegetation, with White highlighting the role of glomalin which is produced by mycorrhizal bacteria from the deepest roots of plants. This also has knock-on effects, such as increasing the amount of water that soil can retain.

The first chapter of Grass, Soil, Hope deals with cattle, in an example where a rancher had restored health to weed-covered land. They had organised the rotational grazing by the cattle using 85 portable electric fenced paddocks, in a manner to mimic wild ruminants such as bison. The action of part of the plant being chewed off by the animals causes the tips of roots to be shed, releasing them into the soil for digestion by microbes.

Whereas feed-lot beef takes an estimated 5-10 calories of fossil fuel to produce a calorie of food, grass-fed beef produces two calories for each calorie of fossil fuel. Despite this, Cowspiracy argues that, due to higher methane emissions and the size of land usage and damage from over-grazing, grass-fed beef can be just as damaging to the environment. Yet this ignores the potential of effectively managed grasslands to sequester carbon.

It is not only livestock consuming the crops. Increasingly, they are also produced for biofuels, or former farmland is used for photo-voltaic panels (PVPs). One project White looks into is an experiment of combining the latter with growing crops, with a study demonstrating that the shade provided by a partial covering of PVPs actually led to better yields as plants adapted to the conditions.

Numerous other techniques are mentioned, including organic no-till seeding using carefully selected cover crops to protect against weeds which, by not ploughing, releases less of the carbon trapped in the soil. Pasture cropping takes advantage of differences between annual crops and perennial grasses, using the latter as a cover crop which is removed by grazing animals in time for crops such as oats and barley to be grown and harvested. White also gives examples of projects which have restored rivers and estuaries.

Two Percent Solutions is a compilation of further case studies. The name comes from the percentage of US citizens working in agriculture and the percentage of GDP they would need to sequester an extra 2% of carbon. A few of these are condensed from chapters in Grass, Soil, Hope. One or two others are covered in more detail elsewhere – such as, Polyface farm utilisation of co-benefits between cattle, pigs, turkeys and chicken, in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Most of the book highlights new techniques, however. Of particular interest are the final sections on integrating the behaviour of wildlife into sustainable agricultural practices. White highlights the absurdities of bee hives being hired to pollinate crops – 1.5 million hives a year in California alone! Without pesticides and the destruction of hedgerows this would have been provided ‘for free’ by nature itself.

Many of the techniques discussed have been utilised in a small or local scale, often due to the specific needs on a particular farm or ranch, or due to the involvement of people who are concerned with global warming and other environmental issues. While, generally, such techniques have been financially beneficial to those using them, the vested interests of agribusiness – with its reliance on feed-lots, vast slaughterhouses, mass production of chemical fertilisers and antibiotics – would oppose a wider application.

Near the beginning of Grass, Soil, Hope, White seems to believe that carbon trading schemes would be useful to encourage and reward farmers to take up these techniques. Yet he also expresses major reservations, identifying middle-men (such as Goldman Sachs) as being keen to make profits out of the schemes.

Indeed, as the book goes on this idea is mentioned less frequently until, at the end, White poses his own alternative: paying farmers to increase the carbon content of their soils. He suggests that the money for such a scheme could come from defence spending cuts, or a carbon tax. Yet he almost admits this is unfeasible, repeatedly stating his lack of economic knowledge, even though his suggestion does acknowledge the need for a shift in resources to a goal unsupported by normal market practices.

There is no capitalist solution to climate change – capitalism will always pursue the avenues that lead to the greatest profits, indeed it is this essential tendency which has driven global warming to be the vast crisis it now is. Nonetheless, such technologies could be put to use if improving the living standards of ordinary people across the world, in harmony with the needs of sustaining the planet, became the priority.

That would mean wresting the levers of power out of the hands of big business – by bringing into public ownership the key food producers, supermarkets and distribution networks, alongside the banks and other key industries, subject to control and management by workers. That would allow us to plan food production for the benefit of people and the planet and utilise these technological possibilities to help do so.

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