Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why the meat industry's "resonably practicable" standards are not good enough

I've been dismayed by the national outpouring of grief in the past week or so over "our" Aussie cattle being treated cruelly by a bunch of (if you believe the hype) sub-human Indonesians. For anyone who missed it, the media storm began when the Australian ABC's Four Corners program showed "an explosive expose of the cruelty inflicted on Australian cattle exported to the slaughterhouses of Indonesia", where they have their throats cut in a manner that panders to Islamic religious beliefs (i.e. halal slaughter).

I won't add any fuel to the current fire by inserting my atheist opinion of all religious irrationality (that is to say, all religions) here.

One of the (numerous) things that bothers me about the Australian public's hysterical response to this story is that the ill-treatment of livestock is very old news - at least it is for people who genuinely care about, and give any thought to, farm animals.

For example, I've been talking to my friends about the mind-bending cruelty of Australia's live sheep export industry since I was in year 10 at school, in 1990 (the actual live sheep export from Australia to the Middle East has been going on since the 1960s, but I only became aware of it when I started taking an active interest in the source of my food as a 14 or 15 year old).

1990 was the year that I became vegetarian. My friends mostly laughed at me then, and teased me about being a hypocrite because I wore leather shoes to school. They also used to think it was hilarious to try to trick me into eating meat. In other words, they were totally unsympathetic to the plight of our nation's sheep and cattle twenty years ago.

But now, those same friends are weeping and wailing all over Facebook about how awful the newly-infamous Muslim abattoirs in Indonesia are.

Why now?

And, why point the finger of moral superiority at the Indonesians? Why not speak out against the Aussies who trained those Indonesians? Or the Aussies who supplied the slaughter boxes? Or how about the Aussie farmers who sent their cattle to Indonesia without (they claim) bothering to find out how those cattle were being treated?

The answers to those questions seem pretty obvious to me: it's very easy, and indeed comforting, to criticise an abomination that has absolutely nothing to do with you. It's satisfying to criticise foreign abattoirs, because it means you can feel good about yourself without having to change your own behaviour one iota (except maybe taking 30 seconds out of your busy-busy schedule to add your name to an online petition).

But the reality is that livestock are quite often treated with comparable disrespect and cruelty right here in Australia. The biggest difference is that we Aussies tend to use a less hands-on approach than the Indonesians. For example, the Indonesians hit and kick cattle, whereas we Aussies just leave cattle to bake in often treeless paddocks; then we truck them over long - sometimes vast - distances in "cattle trucks" (a term which is synonymous in our language with extreme discomfort); and when it comes to getting the beasties to move when they baulk at the abattoir, we use electric prods: a far more civilized approach! (I'm using the term "civilised" here in much the same way that Derrick Jensen uses it, i.e. not as a term of endearment). 

I've addressed this issue before on my blog, at which time I provided a few examples of the unpleasant things that many of our farmers routinely do to their land and their livestock.

The response to the type of criticism I'm levelling here is almost always along the same lines (the following quote comes from Becca): "If an animal was stressed in life then it has an adverse effect on the meat quality, so it is in the best interest of the processing plant to assure the animals go as calmly as possible."

The old argument that "people always do the right thing because it's really in their own best interest!" is about as fresh and as watertight as a rotting carcass. 

It is true that acute pre-slaughter stress in animals does cause tougher meat.

But, a quick Google search reveals that tough meat is not exactly unheard of out in consumer land. In fact, plenty of people routinely buy tough, cheap cuts of meat from supermarkets all over Australia, without ever giving a thought to the mental state of the animal (which, of course, is completely and conveniently unrecognisable once it ends up in a neat plastic package on the supermarket shelf).

Furthermore, Australian scientists D.M. Ferguson & R.D. Warner readily acknowledge that "Stress is the inevitable consequence of the process of transferring animals from farm to slaughter". This observation was published in Meat Science - a peer-reviewed journal of the American Meat Science Association, which is hardly a hot-bed of animal rights propaganda.

Ferguson and Warner also state that "ongoing improvement in stock handling, handling facilities and stock management must be encouraged" - even though such improvements are "dif´Čücult to achieve because of economic and behavioural (human) issues".

Money talks, and many (probably most) Australians are content to support inhumane farming, transport, and slaughtering practices with their hard-earned cash. 

If humans are treated badly at abattoirs ... imagine what the animals are likely to experience.

Here's a slightly different way of thinking about the Australian meat industry:    

Work-related injuries and illnesses in the Australian meat industry occur at a rate of four times the average of all workplaces

If the Australian meat industry's employees experience such a poor outcome - what does this imply about how the industry treats the animals that go there to be killed?

One of our local abattoirs is renowned for (inadvertently) breaking the legs of sheep and goats prior to slaughter (I've been told that the problem is caused by poorly maintained wooden ramps). When one of my friends spoke to an employee of the abattoir about this problem, his response was dismissive. As he pointed out to her: the animals would be dead in 48 hours anyway, so what's the problem? In any case, he said, a certain percentage of broken legs was inevitable.

Another abattoir (where a 17 year old slicer died in a bizarre incident involving a sharp knife) was accused of "substandard training, understaffing, lax safety procedures and bullying".

In response, the abattoir claimed that the training and supervision it provided was ”reasonably practicable”.

"Resonably practicable" behaviour has many chilling implications when it comes to killing animals for profit (and let's face it, modern abattoirs exist to kill animals for profit).

It seems apparent that most (if not all) of the horrific accidents that happen at abattoirs are entirely preventable. But these accidents continue to happen anyway.

So, I can't help but wonder: if abattoir workers frequently injure themselves horrifically by accident - then what on earth do they do to the animals (either by accident, or through carelessness, or as a result of fatigue, or poor training, or stupidity, or malice, or because the facility is poorly designed or maintained or whatever).

From what I've read, modern abattoirs typically kill and process about 250 head of cattle per hour, or about 1 every 15 seconds. I've never met anyone (and I'm not sure I'd want to) whose ambition in life was to slaughter hundreds of animals every day, but I imagine that doing such a job would either attract, or be left to, people for whom the welfare of farm animals is not a pressing concern.

It's no coincidence that the footage of some of the most grievous cruelty to animals - which just occasionally leads to public outrage, and some kind of action - is usually filmed covertly by animal welfare groups such as Animals Australia. (Animals Australia reportedly provided the "explosive" footage of the Indonesian abattoirs which was screened by Four Corners).

Inevitably, the meat industry cries foul and claims that the animal welfare group was somehow unfair in their (mis)representation of the issue.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the meat industry never seems to cop any accusation of animal cruelty on the chin. Rather, they typically blame some "rogue" element within the industry, or, as in this latest Indonesian incident, they use the pathetic and implausible excuse that they were ignorant of the true situation. (Ignorance is not accepted as an excuse in a court of law, and, in my opinion, it's an equally lame excuse for sending the animals you claim to care about to a fate that could fairly be described as torture).

So, here's what I think could be a partial solution to a number of problems within the meat industry: the provision of 24 hour webcams in abattoirs.

The provision of live footage means consumers could see precisely what they're buying; animal welfare groups could monitor the operations to their hearts' content; unions and Workcover could keep an eye on labour conditions; and the meat industry could prove itself to be as clean as the driven snow (or, alternatively, it could be motivated to lift its game quick smart).

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Extreme Weather": now playing at a venue near you!

I watched Gardening Australia last night, and was struck by the comments of two of the presenters - one who's been experiencing record dry in the west, and one who's been experiencing record wet in the north of Australia:

JOSH BYRNE: When I laid out my native garden in April of last year, I wasn't expecting it to be the driest winter on record in Perth, followed by the hottest and driest summer on record. [...]

LEONIE NORRINGTON: I created this [garden] bed in preparation for the dry season and optimistically planted some vegies. However in the meantime, Darwin had its biggest wet season on record - more than 3 metres of rain. Sadly none of the vegies I planted survived.


Back in 1991 (which was twenty years ago, for anyone who might be in a time warp) a report on agriculture by the Ecologically Sustainable Development Working Group was submitted to Australia's then Prime Minister, RJL Hawke.

Page xii of the Preface of that report (which has been sitting on my bookshelf for two decades) yields some pure gold political rhetoric (a.k.a. total bullshit):

"The Prime Minister requested that the deliberations of the Working Group be guided by four fundamental goals to which the Government was firmly committed:
  • improvement of individual and community well-being and welfare that does not impair the welfare of future generations;
  • the provision of equity within and between generations;
  • recognition of the global dimension; and
  • the protection of biological diversity and the maintenance of ecological processes and systems."
I first read the above as an impressionable and idealistic teenager. I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry or scream or commit suicide when I think back on how naive and optimistic I was then. But I digress ...

The Working Group's 14 members included scientists, farmers, envioronmentalists, trade unionists, and public servants.

The report's findings are extensive and detailed (the document is 240 pages long, and it covers a range of topics), but, to cut a long story short, the Working Group accepted the IPCC's findings that anthropogenic global warming is real.

The Group turned to scientific studies by the CSIRO to determine the likely effects of greenhouse gases and global warming on Australian agriculture. Some examples of "the nature of changes associated with global warming" that the Working Group highlighted were:

  • an overall increase in heavy rain events over Australia
  • an overall decrease in the number of annual rain days
  • longer and more intense periods of soil aridity over large areas
  • reduced viability of fruit production areas in WA, NSW, and Vic
  • changing and unpredictable climatic patterns
  • a southward movement (to the Southern Ocean) of the climatic conditions in WA that are suitable for wheat growing
  • a worsening of already severe soil degradation problems such as soil erosion and nutrient loss
  • increased frequency and intensity of fires
  • varied regional effects, such as:
    • an increase in annual rainfall in most of northern Australia
    • a decrease in annual rainfall in south-western Australia
Just to repeat myself one more time: these were careful predictions that Australian scientists made more than twenty years ago. This information has been available - in plain English - to our national leaders for twenty years, which covers five Prime Ministers, of both genders, and from both sides of the increasingly flimsy political fence.

But, the frightening reality is that we have now passed the point in time where "record-breaking" extreme weather events are just theoretical: they've already happened in 2009, 2010, and 2011; and my money's on more extreme weather events in 2012 and beyond, both in Australia and across the world.

The reality is that "record-breaking" weather (both wet and dry) is already ruining people's gardens, destroying food production, and, in some cases, it's actually killing people, in a dramatic fashion (I'm thinking of events like the February 2009 "Black Saturday" bushfires in Victoria, and the January 2011 floods in Queensland).

Incidentally, "the rainfall that caused the January 10 2011 flooding in Toowoomba was extreme, with some rain gauge stations recording 500 year to 1000 year rainfall events" according to hydraulic engineer Neil Collins in his recent submission to the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry

And what are we doing about this situation? As a nation, we're bickering like pre-schoolers over the introduction of a measly tax on carbon, which, I might add, we've been pondering for at least 20 years. (The same 1991 report quoted above notes that "a national policy response to global warming which has received some attention is the imposition of a carbon tax" which would "vary according to whether the tax was levied on the production or consumption of fossil fuels" (p.208). Where did this "policy response" go? Straight into the dustbin of history).

I was 17 in 1991, which means I've been actively engaged with issues like climate change for my entire adult life, plus a few years. Now, twenty-something years on, I'm about as cynical as it's possible to be. I certainly can't see this latest flurry of noise amounting to anything more than the usual fart in the wind.

One day I'm sure I'll be wrong in my pessimistic predictions: serious action will finally be taken ... probably at roughly the same time that it's just. too. late.

To all the people who are opposing serious and immediate action on climate change: don't expect your children to thank you. Arseholes.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Secret Women's Business (some musings on menstruation)

Menstruation is far from my favourite topic of conversation. However, in the past six months I've had two friends (who don't know each other) each tell me excitedly about their discovery of re-usable menstrual cups. Both times, I've had to admit that I'd been quietly using this fantastic product (mine's a Keeper) for about five years. They both wanted to know where I'd first heard about the Keeper, and why I'd never mentioned it. So, I thought it was about time I joined the club, and started spreading the word.

I first heard about menstrual cups in a discussion about Female cycles over at the forum on Aussie's Living Simply in 2006.

It seems that, once women try menstrual cups, they never go back to using disposable products.

Menstrual cups represent a huge evolutionary leap from the disposable pads and tampons that advertisers would have you believe you should be screaming in the supermarket aisles for. Unfortunately, disposable feminine hygiene products are amongst the most heavily-advertised products in consumer land, with ads ranging from the embarrassingly euphemistic to the downright offensive. In fact, I think this Libra tampon ad is SO bad that it's worth sharing:

Here are some stats:

For Australian women, the average time from menarche to menopause is about 40 years (average age at menarche: 12 years; average age at menopause: 52 years).

That equates to 480 months, which, multiplied by 25 tampons per month, equates to a potential lifetime usage of 12,000 tampons. 

That, in turn, equates to a big old pile of used tampons that most (Western) women just send "away" to landfill, or worse, down the toilet.

As an aside: any woman who's heard a plumbing horror story about a sewer or septic system backed-up by tampons should be overcome with dread at the very thought of flushing one of those cotton devils down the dunny!

Furthermore, at a cost of about 25 cents per unit, 12,000 tampons cost a total of $3,000, which is not exactly small change.

Enter, re-usable menstrual cups.

I bought my first menstrual cup - a Keeper - from The Natural Company in 2006, for $55 (postage included). Five years on, my Keeper is still as functional as the day it was purchased, and it's cost me less than $1 per month.

And, since 2006, menstrual cups have only improved: they're now cheaper than they were 5 years ago (no doubt due to their booming popularity), and they come in a range of brands, sizes, colours, and materials (the original Keeper was rubber, but because some people are allergic to latex, most menstrual cups are now made of silicon).

Better yet, many of the businesses selling menstrual cups (including The Natural Company) have so much confidence in them that they offer a money-back guarantee. So there's absolutely nothing to lose by making the switch. 

If you need any more convincing, I recommend Leanne's recent blog post over at Hazeltree Farm: Bloody hell...Menstrual cups versus tampons

Now for something a little different: here's the official trailer for the Baukschow Vampire, the story of a recently turned vampire who can't bring himself to kill so he feeds on menstrual blood. It's a period piece. Mwahaha ...

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A rainbow of photos: a slice of life, through my eyes.

It's cold, windy, and wet outside today.

Because it's such nice weather for snuggling up inside, I thought I'd post a semi-random selection of photos I've taken, arranged roughly by colour.

(I'm not certain how Blogger deals with large images, but I'm hoping that you'll be able to see the larger versions by clicking on the small versions below).

Many of these photos were taken within 20 metres of where I'm currently sitting. Others were taken further afield, such as the stained glass window from St Mary's church in Mudgee, and the Abercrombie caves at Trunkey Creek.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

0 to 60, in about half an hour

As a youngster, I loved colouring-in. Luckily for me, I grew up during the hey-days of the 1980s, when the prizes on offer for colouring-in competitions were, frankly, amazing.

These days, a kid would be lucky to win a corporate fridge magnet as a prize - but as a teenager I won an actual fridge (plus a washing machine, as well as literally dozens of other awesome prizes, including a flight in the blimp over Sydney harbour, and a Dragons rugby jersey signed by the team).

Anyway, one of the best prizes I won was a solar hot water system to go on the roof of the family home. That was in 1987, when I was 12, and that baby is still producing hot water for my mother to this day. (My Mum reckons that the fancy paint set she bought me for my 10th birthday - which seemed extravagantly expensive at the time - was one of the better investments she ever made).

A blast from the past: "Samantha's in hot water" (and in the local paper). I'm sure my Mum was proud, but I got teased pretty badly about this at school. Nevertheless, I was chuffed.
Now, 24 years later, I've finally got a new solar hot water system of my own, and I couldn't be happier with it.

We chose an evacuated glass tube system this time - and the tubes are fantastically effective at gathering heat from the sun's rays.

This was about 30 minutes after the evacuated glass tube collectors had been installed - and even on such a gloomy afternoon, the exposed section of the outlet pipe was too hot to touch. Love it!
One of the many things I'm enjoying about our spanking-new set up is that solar hot water systems have become a lot more interactive over the past quarter-century. In 1987, the interaction we had with our solar system was basically limited to flicking the electric booster switch on if the water felt too cool. Now, we have a fully interactive control panel which, among other things, shows you the precise temperature of the water at the collector, and in the storage tank.

The Solar Controller - for hours of interactive fun! (This reading indicates that the water in the tank - "T2" - is at 55C)
At 6.30 this morning, the tubes were icy, and registering a temperature of -1°C, while the water in the tank was 55°C. The maximum temp in the tank is 60°C (to avoid burns) - thus, the hot water in the tank lost 5° over night (for the record: nobody used any hot water after sunset yesterday). This overnight heat loss is not ideal, but, then again, 55°C is quite hot enough for a generous hot shower should a person happen to want one in the morning - using rain water collected from the roof, naturally!

At 6.30 this morning the evacuated glass solar collector tubes were icy - but not for long!
And, as soon as the sun peeps over the escarpment in the morning, the collector starts ticking up through the degrees, generally (at least while I've been watching it) at two or three degrees celsius per minute.

The sun, arriving for work at 6.30 this morning
It's now 1.00pm, and I've just checked the readings again. Although the day is currently overcast, the collector is sitting at 100°C, and the tank is sitting at its maximum temp of 60°C.

I'd almost forgotten how much fun data collection can be!

Friday, September 24, 2010

My community spirit takes another dive.

I mentioned last week that one of our neighbours dobbed us in to our council for (allegedly) spraying raw sewage into the creek. Our neighbours couldn't have been more wrong, and that little community encounter was disappointing, to say the least.

I've also mentioned before that I rent an old house to a large family who would probably be described in the tabloid media as tenants from hell.

Well, that rented house sits on three adjacent quarter-acre blocks. The tenants have the use of half an acre, while I use the remaining (fenced-off) quarter-acre as an aollotment on which I grow fruit and vegies.

Correction: I try to grow fruit and vegies.

I went over to weed and water the garlic a few days ago, and this was the sight that greeted me:

The garlic vandal's handiwork
 Of 60 thriving garlic plants, 32 had been pulled out of the soil and left to dry out in the sun.

It's really hard to know how to respond to this kind of mindless vandalism.

For starters, I didn't actually see who perpetrated this petty crime against self-sufficiency - just like I didn't see who took most of my pumpkins last season, or who broke all the branches on the lemon tree my mother gave me for my birthday a few years ago.

But, based on various pieces of evidence, it's a pretty safe bet that the tenants' children are the culprits.

The really sad part is that we have always actively encouraged the tenants' children when they showed any kind of interest in what we were doing with our food garden.

A few years ago, their eldest boy (now aged 11, and frequently suspended from school) used to love using our mattock to dig up thistles, even though the mattock was almost as big as he was, and he usually lost interest after about 30 seconds.

He would always be hanging around us, usually under foot and pestering us for attention - but we could hardly blame him for wanting a break from his home, which is in a state of almost constant shouting, swearing, and general mayhem.

This young boy helped us to turn local horse manure and green waste into compost.

He also helped us plant and tend the tomatoes, potatoes, and other green goodies.

When it was time for tomato harvest, we gave him an arm-load of tomatoes to take home to his Mum. We had a faint glimmer of hope that he and his siblings might get fresh tomatoes with their dinner that night, rather than something from the freezer section of the supermarket (in a town as small as ours, everyone knows what everyone else buys at the supermarket!).

The next time we saw him, we asked him if they'd enjoyed the tomatoes. His response stunned me:

"Mum says we don't eat food grown in shit."

And he never once came back to help us in the garden again.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Have locust plague; need birds.

There's been a lot of talk in the Australian news media over the past few months about the locust plague that is expected to sweep over the grain growing regions of NSW, Victoria, and South Australia later this spring.

Individual farmers stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of grain crops - but we are being soothed with the assurance that the NSW government has an "arsenal" on standby to tackle the locust attack.

What's in the government's arsenal? Mostly toxic chemicals, such as:

* fipronil - a broad spectrum insecticide which is highly toxic to all insects (including non-target species), as well as fish, aquatic invertebrates, and many species of bird.

* fenitrothion and malathion - both of which are organophosphate pesticides. These insecticides are considered to be "slightly toxic" to birds and aquatic organisms, but, if it happens to get into your body, malathion breaks down into the far more toxic chemical malaoxon.

Generally speaking, organophosphate pesticides irreversibly inactivate acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme which is essential to nerve function in insects, humans, and many other animals.

Organophosphate poisoning can cause a slew of symptoms ranging from sweating and headaches, through to weakness, tremors, loss of coordination, and loss of consciousness.

Spraying with fipronil; playing with fire.

Fipronil is one of the main chemical causes blamed for the spread of colony collapse disorder among bees. Fipronil is deadly to bees, but even at sub-lethal doses, fipronil has been shown to reduce bees' navigational abilities.

Being able to navigate to and from the hive is central to bees' survival. And bees (as pollinators) play a critical role in the production of many fruits, vegetables, and nuts for human consumption. If we lose bees, we also lose an awful lot of food.

But just how toxic is chemical locust control to other "non-target" species? Consider this anecdote from Peter Bennett, on p.52 of his book Organic Gardening (6th edition):
The destruction of magpies and many other insect-feeding birds over large areas where locust plagues have been ineffetively sprayed at great expense is all part of the same great tragedy. I well remember one farmer in Victoria a few years ago, who, when driving me to Melbourne from his farm in the Shepparton district, spotted a common magpie feeding near the roadside and pointed it out to me with almost wild excitement. I exclaimed "So what!", whereupon he explained to me that magpies, normally resident in tens of thousands in that locality, had not been seen for years; since the last Dieldrin attack on grasshoppers.
If I had the government's locust-control budget at my disposal, I'd fill my arsenal with locust-loving birds. Chickens would be my first choice.

I suspect that most people would laugh at the idea of using chickens to control locusts, but I have to ask: why not?

Some of the obvious questions / objections are:

Q. Surely you'd need millions of chickens to eat all those locusts?
A. Australians already slaughter well over one-and-a-quarter million chickens every day. (According to the Australian Chicken Meat Federation, a total of 470 million chickens were slaughtered for meat in Australia last year).

Q. How would all those birds be transported?
A. Hundreds of millions of chickens are already transported to slaughterhouses in Australia, so chicken transport on a very large commercial scale is nothing new. Furthermore, Joel Salatin of Polyface farm has proven the validity of mobile chicken houses.

Q. Would modern, over-bred chickens know what to do with a field of locusts?
A. Believe it or not, the Chinese have already addressed this very issue, by training birds to eat locusts before sending them out into the field to clean up. (The Chinese have found ducks to be even more effective at eating locusts than chickens - but we don't currently have a large duck industry in Australia).

From abcnews.go.com:
... authorities in the worst-affected Xinjiang province in China have recruited locust-eating ducks to combat the menace, the official Xinhua news agency has reported.

The "duck soldiers," specially trained by farmer Yang Dayuan, are capable of eating more than a pound of locusts every day. What's more, they even eat locust eggs that are laid in the marshy alkaline wastelands.

An environmentally friendly locust-crunching method, the duck soldiers add a boost to the circle of life, Yang told the British daily The Times. "The ducks will grow healthy and fat and will get a higher price on the market after they retire from pest-control duty."
Duck patrol!

Q. Australia is a very big country - how would you know where to take the birds to?
A. The same way that you know where to spray your pesticides. According to the NSW Locust Control Program Strategy:
Land managers [e.g. farmers] are the frontline in the successful monitoring and control of locusts. It is vital (and a requirement under the Act) that they take action to notify their local LHPA of any presence of locusts on their land and control locusts.
Q. Wouldn't the locusts just fly away when the birds arrived?
A. Not if the timing is right. After they hatch and emerge from their underground "pods", locust nymphs have to moult several times before they finally develop fully-formed wings. The locusts literally "band" together (on foot) for weeks before taking flight. Hence, according to the NSW Locust Control Program Strategy:
Ground control is the most effective and efficient method of controlling plague locusts. The locust nymphs are most easily controlled when they congregate together into bands. This is also when locust numbers are at their densest.
So, regardless of whether your weapon of choice is toxic chemicals or hungry birds, the best option is to attack the locusts before they're able to fly away.

Q. Do you honestly think that controlling locusts with birds is possible?
A. Absolutely. After all, farmers already use birds to control locusts in Asia and Africa.

Certainly, it would be much cheaper and easier to use chickens to control locusts on, say, a 7 acre farm than on a 7,000 acre farm. But that being the case, maybe, as a nation, we Aussies need to completely re-think our concept of "modern" agriculture, which enables (and, indeed, encourages) the very existence of 7,000 acre farms.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Is anyone breeding tomorrow's heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties?

I've noticed that an increasing number of people seem to be going nuts for heirloom vegetable varieties these days.

An "heirloom" fruit or vegetable is an old (usually 50+ years old, depending on who you ask), pure-bred cultivar that breeds true to type from one generation to the next. Heirloom cultivars are great for home gardeners who want to grow exactly the same vegetable varieties each year, because the seeds can be saved and replanted year after year, and the result will be highly predictable.

Heirloom varieties are also great for people who want to escape the clutches of the world's multinational seed companies - most notably Monsanto, that giant ogre of a corporation which pushes its GMOs and pesticides on farmers and consumers alike, while snapping up gene patents like a greedy child in a lolly shop.   

I totally understand the attraction of growing heirloom cultivars, because I grow a bunch of them myself. I have a particular soft spot for heirloom pumpkins, and this year I'll be planting 5 different heirloom pumpkin/squash varieties, namely:

* Marina di Chioggia (as memorably featured in Barbara Kingsolver's fabulous book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle)
* Rouge vif d'Etampes (the so-called Cinderella pumpkin)
* Lakota (reportedly a favourite of the Lakota indians)
* Lady Godiva (with nude seeds!), and
* Musquee de Provence (just because).

But, there's a potential problem with heirloom varieties. What's good about them is also what's bad about them. Specifically, heirloom cultivars are thoroughly inbred ... which is why they breed true to type in the first place.

Inbreeding is generally a bad thing, for two main reasons:

1) inbreeding can, and usually does, cause the expression of harmful ("deleterious") recessive genes. This situation is known as inbreeding depression, and it produces offspring with a relatively low level of fitness for survival, and

2) repeated inbreeding inevitably causes a reduction in the resultant offspring's genetic diversity. This reduced genetic diversity may never cause a problem - as long as the environment throws up no unexpected challenges to the offspring's survival. But, inbred plants typically respond poorly to new and unexpected changes in their environment, such as:

* unusually high (or low) temperatures,
* unusually low (or high) rainfall,
* unusually low (or high) nutrient levels,
* a different or unusually severe pest infestation, or
* a new viral, bacterial, or fungal disease.

The fact that we're now experiencing world-wide climate change (a.k.a "global weirding") means that, for example, an heirloom variety of pumpkin which was (in)bred in France two hundred years ago may simply not be able to cope with the environment where I live (i.e. rural Australia) in the year 2020.

That's why, this year, I'll be growing at least one disease-resistant hybrid tomato variety. This summer I'll be testing the taste and productivity of the hybrid/s. But the really interesting test will come next year, when I plant out the seeds of these hybrid tomatoes. I'll be very interested to see what I get.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A loving, caring community? You must be kidding.

Community: a group of interacting organisms sharing an environment.
I'm getting tired of being criticised, both explicitly and implicitly, for lacking community spirit.

The people I know who are suddenly very scared about the state of the world seem compelled to tell me what I should be doing, and what I need to be doing, in order to create a cohesive and loving local community. Because, according to them, I need my community. (Most of these people are infatuated with Rob Hopkins' Transition Towns concept).

But, in reality, my local community provides nothing that I need.

And, moreover, I'd much rather curl up in bed with Leo Tolstoy (after a day spent working with plants, animals, and words) than spend even the briefest amount of time in the company of most of the people who live in my community. (There are some awesome exceptions to this generalisation, but even they come under the category of "like", not "need").

You see, where I live, I am surrounded by uneducated morons with whom I don't see eye to eye on anything. These are people who, for example, think that global warming is some kind of communist conspiracy, and who can't see anything wrong with spraying pesticides in the creek at the bottom of our shared hill.

I don't have the time, the energy, or the patience to educate these people, which is probably just as well, because they clearly don't have the inclination, or, dare I say it, the intellectual capacity, to be educated. (For the most part, their collective conversational repertoire consists of one highly versatile syllable: "Uh").

Case in point: we're most of the way through building a tiny straw bale house, complete with a greywater system which drains into a reed bed, as well as a government-approved waterless composting toilet (it's a Rota-Loo, for anyone who's curious). Every aspect of this development has been approved by our council.

We've had a lot of rain recently, which partially filled the still-empty reed bed trench. In order to line the said trench with the council-required geo-textile fabric and plastic, we had to pump the fresh rainwater out of the trench. For that job, we hired our local builder's fire-fighting pump.

Here's a picture of our dog, Louis, playing in the resultant spray of water:

No sooner had we come inside from playing in the water than the phone rang. It was our local health inspector, calling to inform us that one of our neighbours had just been on the phone to her, complaining that we were spraying raw sewage into the creek, and that it stank.

To use the local lingo: Uh?

To be fair, the fact that our fresh rainwater "stank" at least goes to show that our neighbours are not completely devoid of imagination. Nor is their vocabulary quite as small as I thought.  

However, the simple fact is that we don't produce liquid sewage here (thanks to our waterless, composting toilet), but if we did, we certainly wouldn't be spraying it into the creek ... let alone frolicking in a high-powered stream of the stuff with our dogs.

It's moments like these that I feel even more annoyed by my community than usual.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What do dogs dream of?

Anyone who's spent time around dogs will have witnessed the "bunny chasing" dreams that dogs have when they're fast asleep, whereby the dog's legs run on thin air, their ears and facial muscles twitch cartoonishly, and they emit muffled yips and growls - for all the world looking and sounding like they're chasing an imaginery rabbit.

Louis: fast asleep, but still listening.

Last night, we experienced a novel variation on the doggy dreaming theme: Louis was fast asleep on the lounge when a police car, with siren blaring, appeared on the television. Almost instantly - and still fast asleep - Louis started howling. This wasn't the lung-filled rusty bagpipe howl that Louis normally responds to sirens with. Rather, it was a dream-version of howling: muffled, breathy, and very funny.

Clearly, the siren had entered his dreams, which made me wonder (as I often do) just what a dog is capable of thinking, imagining, and, indeed, dreaming.

Louis and Kai, asleep on the lounge (as usual!)

All this talk of dreaming-in-motion reminds me of one of my favourite music videos, "Her Morning Elegance" by Oren Lavie:     

Thursday, August 12, 2010

"I want another one"

I just saw a promo on SBS television for the documentary "One Born Every Minute" (an eight-part series that celebrates what it really feels like to become a parent, by taking a bustling maternity hospital and filling it with 40 cameras.)

The advertisement shows a woman who has just given birth, and her comment on the situation is: "I want another one".

What the ...??

I would have cheered this new mum if she'd said something like, "Wow. Bringing another human into this over-populated world is a huge responsibility, so now I'm wondering how I can help make the world a liveable place in the future."

Or even, "I'm so pleased to have a beautiful baby to love and to devote all of my time, energy, and head-space to".

But, of course, that wasn't to be. Instead, she had to go and spout the ultimate consumer sentiment: "I want another one".

I find this kind of hormone-induced anti-thinking very sad, very scary, and more than a little bit creepy. And the woman in the documentary is clearly not alone, because I've noticed that having two, three, or even four children is currently all the rage amongst my affluent and well-educated 35-year-old friends.

Hence, I have a sneaking suspicion that Dick Smith is going to have trouble finding someone to give his million-dollar Wilberforce Award to.

From the Dick Smith Population website:
The award is designed to give a one million dollar prize to anyone under 30 who can impress Dick by becoming famous through his or her ability to show leadership in communicating an alternative to our population and consumption growth-obsessed economy.
Good luck, Dick! Good luck everyone! (I think we're all gonna need it).       

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My family is allergic to (almost) EVERYTHING

July is a time of birthday celebrations for my extended family.

My brother and two of my uncles were born on the 25th, while other family members were born on the 8th, 11th, and 13th of July. There are also a handful of late-June and early-August birthdays. So, every year we have a family get-together for "The July Birthdays". This event is usually hosted at my mother's place in Sydney, and all the guests typically bring a plate of something nice to eat.

But, in recent years, feeding the extended family has been getting harder and harder.

It all started when, several years ago, one of my uncles was diagnosed with celiac disease. Since then, gluten (i.e. anything made with wheat flour) has been forbidden at family gatherings.

Then, five years ago, one of my cousins gave birth to a child who turned out to have mild autism as well as life-threatening allergies to nuts, eggs, shellfish, and strawberries. Needless to say, these items are now off the menu, too.

Then, one of my aunts drowned her mid-life sorrows and became an alcoholic, so alcohol is now strictly off-limits at family gatherings.

Meanwhile, my mother has astronomically high blood pressure, so salt is a big no-no for her. (Mum recently caused her GP considerable alarm when she produced a blood pressure reading of 232 over 100-and-something. In other words, her doctor basically thought she should be dead, or at least suffering from a terrible headache or some other grave symptom. He checked her BP several times, with different machines, and got the same reading every time. My dear old mother has been defying death for about 25 years, but that's really another story).

Then there are the various other family members who have personal objections to sundry food items including mushrooms, yogurt, beef, salad dressing, and pasta (which is already disqualified anyway, by virtue of being a wheat product).

So, this year, almost everyone came up with the same solution to the problem of the main course: potatoes! Which is how we ended up with at least four strange and elaborate potato-based concoctions. (If you think it's impossible to ruin the trusty spud, think again).

LS had the bright idea of frying up some papadums just before lunch. The papadums were a hit, and were, in my opinion, the best potato dish of the day, by a considerable margin.

But what to make for dessert, with no wheat flour, no eggs, no nuts, and no alcohol allowed?

Good old Aeroplane Jelly saved the day for me (it's basically just sugar, gelatine, and a bunch of artificial colours and flavours, to which you simply add water and stir). Yum!

But, being the acknowledged Chocolate Fanatic of the family, I felt a strong obligation to produce some kind of chocolate dish too. Luckily, a Chocolate Bavarian fit the bill perfectly, with its remarkably basic ingredients: chocolate, sugar, milk, whipped cream and gelatine - a very simple crowd pleaser that went a long way to making up for the disappointment caused by the under-cooked, grey-coloured, and weird-tasting potato dishes.

(I just can't believe our luck that, with all the allergies in my family, not one person is allergic to, or otherwise intolerant of, milk).

The only person in the family whose allergy isn't pandered to by my mother is poor LS, who is allergic to cats.

Unfortunately for him, my mother's house is run by an evil feline, Claudia, who has my mother at her beck and call 24 hours a day. It's painfully amusing to see my mother leaping up every 30 seconds to let the cat in ... and then out ... and then in ... and then out ...

The evil cat that has enslaved my mother.

I can hardly wait for July 2011!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Some thoughts about protein and nitrogen

As a food-loving, Peak-aware, agricultural scientist I worry a lot about a likely future of world-wide food scarcity.

And, as an ex-vegetarian, I have real (but limited) sympathy for the increasingly popular "save the planet, go vegetarian" movement. (My sympathy is limited because, environmentally, vegetarianism is just an efficiency measure that can't possibly "save the planet". To really save the world as we know it, we need to reduce the number of humans on the planet, quickly).

Nevertheless, although vegetarianism is limited in what it can achieve, I've been surprised and disappointed by what seems to be an increasingly vitriolic anti-vegetarian backlash, led by people like Lierre Keith with her 2009 book, The Vegetarian Myth.

The main problem I have with Lierre Keith is that she's a patronizing ignoramus who apparently knows remarkably little about the subjects she wrote an entire book on.

One of Keith's central tenets is that humans cannot live by eating plants alone. She's correct on this point, for the simple reason that vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient not produced by plants. The problem is that Keith's book is a 321-page rant, in which she bases many of her specific arguments on notions that have no basis in reality (I'll provide some specific examples in a minute).

However, The Vegetarian Myth has received an average rating of 4 out of 5 stars on Amazon, indicating that most of Lierre Keith's readers are so completely unaware of the basic facts about plants, animals, and nutrition that they find her arguments completely plausible. This is profoundly worrying to me.

If people eagerly absorb false beliefs about, for example, how many chickens can live sustainably on one acre of pasture; and if they have no idea where nutrients actually come from - then how can they possibly hope to feed themselves when relocalization is forced upon us all, courtesy of Peak Oil, and whatever other global catastrophes may await us?

The subject of human nutrition is way too big for one blog post, so I thought I'd focus for the moment on the subject of protein (which is probably still too big for one blog post).

In The Vegetarian Myth, Lierre Keith carries on about "poor-quality plant protein". She repeatedly compares animal protein with plant protein, and declares that animal protein is "better".

To say that animal protein is "better" than plant protein is to express a personal opinion. But, because many of Lierre Keith's beliefs and opinions are based on misinformation, I would argue that she has arrived at her conclusion via seriously flawed "reasoning".   

In fact, animal protein (from meat, milk, and eggs) is "complete", meaning that it contains enough of all the essential amino acids to support a human's total protein needs. However, complete protein can also be obtained from plants, very easily. A small number of plant foods (such as amaranth, buckwheat, soybeans and quinoa) provide complete protein on their own. Other plant foods have to be combined to provide complete protein. For example, common grains such as rice and wheat can be combined with legumes, vegetables, or nuts to yield a highly nutritious, complete protein meal.

Hence, for Lierre Keith to make the blanket statement that all plant proteins are "poor quality" is either ignorant or foolish (the irony here is that Keith delights in telling her readers - over and over again - how terribly ignorant vegetarians are).

Where does protein come from?

Proteins are made up of amino acid building blocks. Amino acids are molecules based on the general formula: H2NCHRCOOH. In other words, proteins are based on the elements:

Hydrogen (H),
Nitrogen (N),
Carbon (C), and
Oxygen (O).

Carbohydrates and fats are also based on hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. Hence, the characteristic element that differentiates protein from the other macronutrients is nitrogen. Indeed, it is the nitrogen component of protein that enables scientists to use the so-called Kjeldahl method to estimate the amount of protein in a particular food, and "on food labels the protein is given by the nitrogen multiplied by 6.25, because the average nitrogen content of proteins is about 16%."

Lierre Keith actually mentions the importance of nitrogen, albeit in rather purple prose:
"This is the chemistry we should learn like a liturgy: life is spoken in the language of nitrogen. You’ve probably heard that amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Well, nitrogen is the building block of amino acids, the alphabet of DNA." (p.104)
Keith then briefly mentions the crucial fact that particular bacteria, in symbiosis with leguminous plants, "fix" atmospheric nitrogen into a form accessible to plants, and thence to animals. She states that "this is where essentially all the fixed nitrogen on the earth started" (p.105). She isn't quite right there. For example, cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) "inhabit nearly all illuminated environments on Earth and play key roles in the carbon and nitrogen cycle of the biosphere". Cyanobacteria operate independently of leguminous plants.

Keith explains that, to grow food, soil needs adequate nitrogen. This is absolutely true. However, she then leaps into la-la land by stating, repeatedly, that adequate nitrogen can come only from animal products, such as livestock manures and "what’s left of the dinosaurs". This is bizarrely, blatantly, totally incorrect.

Keith obviously hasn't pondered where the nitrogen in animal manure comes from in the first place. It's elementary: the nitrogen in cow poo comes from the nitrogen in the plants that the cow ate. You can obtain even more nitrogen by cutting the cow out of the equation completely (because the cow, of course, uses a significant amount of nitrogen to create the protein that you find in a steak):

Below I'll respond in detail to Keith's following statement about nitrogen and protein:
"Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium - NPK - is the Triple Goddess of gardeners, the Troika of elements that rule plant growth. [...] Nitrogen was the big one. There are plants that fix nitrogen. Wasn’t that enough for my garden? Couldn’t it be? I begged. But I was begging a million living creatures who had organized themselves into mutual dependence millions of years ago. They had no use for my ethical anguish. No nitrogen-fixing plant could make up for all the nutrients I was taking out. The soil wanted manure. Worse, it wanted the inconceivable: blood and bones." (p.19)
There are at least two important questions to ask in response to Keith's emotional paean to animal-based fertilizers:

1) How much nitrogen does Keith's garden really need? And,

2) Where does the nitrogen in Keith's animal-based fertilizers actually come from - and where does it end up?


1) How much nitrogen does Keith's garden really need?

The answer to this question depends on several variables that are unknown to me, such as what plants Keith is trying to grow; how much water she has access to; and whether her garden is limited in nutrients other than nitrogen.

However, below are some ball-park figures for nitrogen requirements (in kilograms of nitrogen per hectare, or kg N/ha) for tomatoes, corn, wheat, and soybeans:

Tomato plants use ~100-150 kg N/ha, yielding 35-60 metric tonnes of fruit per hectare (reference).

Corn (maize) uses up to 200 kg N/ha, yielding 20 tonnes of corn, fresh weight (reference).

However, one 2005 study found that the overall economically optimum nitrogen rate for corn was 125 kg/ha.

Wheat uses ~95 kg N/ha, yielding 2.7 tonnes of grain (reference).

Soy uses 312 kg N/ha, yielding 3.4 tonnes of soybeans - however, typically ~50% of this nitrogen is fixed by the soy plants in symbiosis with bacteria such as Bradyrhizobium japonicum (reference).

Hence, it seems fair to say that high-yielding food plants generally require roughly 100-200 kg N/ha.

Lierre Keith claims that "no nitrogen-fixing plant could make up for all the nutrients I was taking out" - but she provides no data to support her claim. So I went and consulted Google, again.

According to a paper published by the University of Florida, symbiotic nitrogen fixation rates of "75 to 300 kilograms of N per hectare per year are common in various combinations."

And one study found that a leguminous green manure crop, "in general, supported corn yields equivalent to those achieved with 90 to 125 kg/ha of fertilizer N".

So, contrary to Keith's claim, normal symbiotic (legume-bacteria) nitrogen fixation rates are more than enough to make up for the requirements of common food crops - even notoriously nitrogen-hungry ones like corn; and even assuming that none of the corn crop (i.e. the stem and leaves) is returned to the soil as green manure or compost.

However, it's important to note that, to maintain adequate soil nitrogen levels, a leguminous green manure crop would have to be planted in lieu of a food crop about once every two to four years, depending on which food crops were being grown. This means that a truly sustainable farm could probably produce only 50-75% as much food as a typical, modern, unsustainable farm that relies on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers made from fossil fuels.  


2) Where does the nitrogen in Keith's animal-based fertilizers really come from, and where does it end up?

Keith writes emotively about how her soil "wanted manure. Worse, it wanted the inconceivable: blood and bones."

Keith is playing games here by anthropomorphizing her soil. In reality, it's Lierre Keith who "wants" these animal products for her soil. So, my question for Lierre Keith is: where does the nitrogen in her manure, blood, and bone come from in the first place?

Nitrogen is a chemical element. Cows can't make nitrogen, nor can they metabolise the molecular nitrogen (N2) which is in the air all around us. Rather, cows must eat nitrogen in a form that is bio-available to them. Grass is rich in bio-available nitrogen, which it gets from the soil. The soil gets nitrogen from nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which in turn get nitrogen from the air.

If you remove animal manure from the pasture where that manure was produced, you deplete that pasture of nitrogen. If you deplete the pasture of enough nitrogen, it will no longer be able to grow enough grass to feed a cow, meaning that you will no longer get manure for your garden, meaning that you'll probably starve to death if you don't wake up and realise that you can't eternally rob Peter to pay Paul without eventually sending Peter broke.

As for the question: where does the nitrogen in Lierre Keith's animal-based fertilizers end up? The answer is that a significant portion of it ends up in her excreta, which she (presumably) flushes down her toilet and thence into her local municipal sewage works. (Incidentally, according to her book, Lierre Keith lives in both western Massachusetts and Arcata, northern California - an odd cross-continental living arrangement for someone who preaches about sustainability and localisation).

Anyway, as it happens, Arcata's sewage processing facility is the well-known Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary (AMWS).

So, what exactly happens to the nitrogen in the sewage that ends up at the AMWS? Basically, it gets turned back in dinitrogen gas (that is, the atmospheric form of nitrogen that plants and animals can't use). According to EcoTipping Points, two processes are of particular importance for nitrogen cycling at the Arcata marsh:

1) Dentrification: The conversion of nitrates found in wastewater by bacteria into nitrogen gas through removal of oxygen in the anoxic conditions found in the detrital layers of the wetland.

2) Nitrification: The conversion of ammonium to nitrates (which must happen in oxygen rich regions of the soil, usually near the clumps of vegetation) which can then be converted into nitrogen gas through dentrification.

It's possible that Lierre Keith captures the nitrogen in her effluent by using a composting toilet, but she certainly doesn't mention this in her book.

I use a composting toilet, and I think it's wonderful - but that's surely another blog post.

Friday, June 18, 2010

What they didn't teach me at university: Soil is Life.

I've spent a lot of time recently learning about the so-called Fertile Crescent: that once-fertile and super-diverse swathe of land across Iran, Iraq, Syria, and southern Turkey that we (Westerners) are now more likely to think of as lifeless, war-torn desert.

There is so much to learn from, and say about, the Fertile Crescent, that I hardly know where to start. So I thought I'd take Maria von Trapp's advice, and start at the very beginning ...


Agricultural scientists and farmers are often surprisingly slow to figure out what's good for the land that they profess to care so much about. Usually, they start by doing what's good for themselves, at least in the short term. For example, scientists do whatever research they can get funding for (meaning that their research is often driven by the interests of Big Business), while farmers grow species that produce high yields, and/or fetch high prices.

Sometimes a farmer comes up with a genuinely good idea - but the good idea is all too often sparked by a farm's declining productivity, caused by too many years of mining the land for every last drop of vitality. In other words: necessity is the mother of invention. 

Colin Seis's development of pasture cropping is a good example of this. "Pasture cropping" is the zero-till sowing of cereal crops into perennial pastures - a simple and logical farming method that has been hailed as revolutionary by farmers and scientists around the world (just Google the terms "pasture cropping" + revolutionary to see what I mean about the buzz surrounding this "novel" farming technique).

The fact that intelligent humans can get so excited in the 21st century over a technique that nature has been using for countless millennia is, frankly, depressing to me. I think we were kidding ourselves when we called our species Homo sapiens, which literally means wise man.

I have a rather nice piece of paper, given to me by the University of Western Sydney, which declares me to be a Bachelor of Applied Science in Systems Agriculture.

I first developed an interest in agriculture on one of my train trips out to western NSW to visit an aunt and uncle during school holidays. (That was back in the old days, when passenger trains actually ran out to western NSW).

Gazing out through the train window, I was alarmed by the gully erosion I saw in paddock after paddock. I didn't really know anything about soil or agriculture back then, but even as a child I could see that gully erosion was (for want of a better word) wrong. In other words, even a child could see and understand that our agricultural land was damaged and depleted.

What is gully erosion?
"Gully erosion occurs when water is channelled across unprotected land and washes away the soil along the drainage lines. Under natural conditions, run-off is moderated by vegetation which generally holds the soil together, protecting it from excessive run-off and direct rainfall.

Excessive clearing, inappropriate land use and compaction of the soil caused by grazing often means the soil is left exposed and unable to absorb excess water. Surface run-off then increases and concentrates in drainage lines, allowing gully erosion to develop in susceptible areas." 
I wrote recently about Deborah Bain and her agricultural propaganda-fest called Farm Day, whereby impressionable city folk are encouraged to believe that Australian farmers are "committed to enhancing and protecting the environment".

However, according to the NSW Department of Environment, my local catchment area (Central West NSW) has upwards of 12,500 instances of gully erosion. Interestingly, that figure is more than 20 years old, but the Department states that it is "still indicative of what is happening today".

Meanwhile, Dr Christine Jones writes (in an article titled How to build new topsoil, which is well worth reading in its entirety):
"In little over 200 years of European land-use in Australia, more than 70 percent of land has become seriously degraded (Flannery 1994). Despite our efforts to implement 'best practice' in soil conservation, the situation continues to deteriorate.

Annual soil loss figures for perennial pastures in Tablelands and Slopes regions of NSW generally range from 0.5 to 4 t/ha/yr, depending on slope, soil type, vegetative cover and rainfall (Edwards and Zierholz 2000).

These figures probably underestimate the total amount of soil lost. Erosion can occur at much higher rates during intense rainfall events, particularly when groundcover is low. Areas which have been cultivated (whether for pasture establishment or cropping) are more prone to soil structural decline."
In light of these facts, I really wonder how people like Deborah Bain can stand up in public, and, with a straight face, claim that farmers are "enhancing" the Australian environment? As I've acknowledged before, there are exceptional farmers who are passionate about regenerating Australia's soils - but the key word there is "regenerating", meaning that they're attempting to re-build the soil and biodiversity which has been lost over the previous 100 years or more.

It's a rare farmer indeed who runs a commercial farming enterprise on land which is currently in better health than it was prior to European settlement.

And this brings me back to my experience of studying agricultural science at university.

Straight out of high school, I spent two unhappy years studying agricultural science at Sydney University. I sat through seemingly endless lectures on chemistry, physics, economics, and statistical data management. I found almost all of the course material mind-numbingly irrelevant to my interest in the land.

I found the course at Sydney University to be far too reductionist for my personal taste. (I'd probably get a lot more out of it now than I did as a teenager, but the simple truth is, I don't easily relate to soil, plants, and animals on a molecular level). My friends who thrived in that course went on to write academic papers with esoteric titles such as "Modelling soil attribute depth functions with equal-area quadratic smoothing splines".

After two years of fairly hard-core science and mathematics, I transferred over to the "Systems Agriculture" course at the University of Western Sydney (UWS). The course at UWS was as holistic as the course at Sydney Uni had been reductionist. At UWS we studied subjects like "Human Activity Systems", and our lecturers were big on concepts such as "praxis" (the process by which a theory or skill is enacted or practised).

I had a blast at UWS. I loved that course, because it allowed me to go and knock myself out with "praxis" in extraordinary places, as diverse as the Bayswater Colliery in the Hunter Valley; Warrah biodynamic farm on the outskirts of Sydney; and Kanchanjangha Tea Estate in the foothills of the Himalaya in Nepal.

Life at UWS was one amazing and life-changing experience after another. But the UWS course was critically short on science, and students who weren't smart and/or motivated could fairly easily cruise through the course without learning anything much at all.

So, the course at Sydney University taught its students to revere pure science, while the course at Western Sydney taught its students to revere farmers - but no one taught us to revere the land, the soil, the water, that every single one of us depends on for our lives.

No one taught us that soil is life. Indeed, how could they teach us that, when almost every aspect of agriculture concerns itself with controlling (and usually destroying) the soil food web? We were not taught to observe and respect the land; we were taught, instead, to "master" it, by grazing, ploughing, fertilizing, and irrigating it. We were taught to exterminate a staggering array of "pests" (ranging from fungi to kangaroos), with never a thought given to what crucial role those "pests" might play in the ecosystem.

We were taught to manage, to control, and to subdue nature. (Ha!)

We call ourselves Homo sapiens, but I think a more apt title might be Homo arrogans, or perhaps Homo insciens. As a species, we seem utterly incapable (or are we just utterly unwilling?) to learn from nature, and from our mistakes. As a species, we are apparently not as clever or as wise as we think we are.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

How big is a chicken's footprint?

I've been thinking about chickens a lot recently.

I would dearly love to raise my own chickens for eggs and meat. But if I raise chickens, I want to do so not just humanely (which is relatively easy), but also as sustainably as possible (which is a much bigger challenge).

Total sustainability implies a closed, self-supporting system that can operate indefinitely without taking inputs from elsewhere. A closed system would, for example, provide all of the nutrients and dietary supplements (including grit) that a chicken needs in order to be healthy and productive. It would also provide all housing materials.

Modern domestic chickens are the descendents of Red and Grey Junglefowl, which evolved in the tropical forests of Asia. Generally speaking, the further removed a chicken is from its native tropical forest environment, the more dependent it will be on its human keeper for food, shelter, and protection.

The first major problem I have with creating a sustainable chicken-raising operation is that my "system" (my land) is only two acres in size. So, the first question I asked myself, before eagerly rushing out to buy some chooks, was: how much land does one productive chicken need?

I may as well have asked myself: how long is a piece of string? The answer to the chicken question depends on a large number of variables, including: what is the local climate like? (Is the land bountiful? Is it prone to drought? Is it under snow for several months of the year?). And what exactly is a "productive" chicken, anyway? (Is it one that produces an egg every day? Or is it one that simply performs some basic weed control?) The questions go on, but I'm sure you get my drift.

So, I started Googling, and (as my favourite blogger noted at the time) I found a figure that has surprised everyone I've mentioned it to: the general consensus seems to be that a 100% free range chicken requires roughly half an acre of land in order to meet all of its requirements. 

Most of the people I've mentioned this "Chicken Footprint" to have responded with incredulity; even (or perhaps especially) the people who actually raise chickens - although I'm yet to meet a chicken owner who maintains even one healthy chicken without buying supplementary feed or additives of some description.

(As an interesting side note, some local friends mentioned that the monetary value of the chicken feed they buy actually exceeds the monetary value of the eggs they get from the half-dozen aging hens in their backyard).

Lierre Keith, author of The Vegetarian Myth, touches very briefly on the chicken footprint concept in Chapter 1 of her book. She writes:
I’ve heard vegetarian activists claims that an acre of land can only support two chickens. Joel Salatin, one of the High Priests of sustainable farming and someone who actually raises chickens, puts that figure at 250 an acre. Who do you believe?
Keith heavily implies that her readers should unquestioningly believe that one acre of land can sustainably support 250 chickens. Unfortunately, she provides no data or reference to support her belief. However, if she had bothered to read Joel Salatin's own book on the subject of raising pastured poultry, she would realise that her belief is, quite simply, wrong.

As an aside, it's interesting that Lierre Keith refers repeatedly to Joel Salatin as a "high priest". Unfortunately, her belief in Salatin's ability to squeeze truly miraculous levels of productivity out of one acre of land seems faith-based rather than fact-based. Maybe Salatin should capitalize on the religious-style fervour he stirs in people, and start a new cult:

Joel Salatin, the Messiah of Meat Lovers

As it happens, I own a copy of Salatin's book, Pastured Poultry Profits. The book (which is widely regarded as the best source of information about raising chickens on pasture) was first published in 1996, and was most recently updated in 1999.

The crux of the matter is this: "chickens cannot be totally grass-fed, according to several experts. They also need grain." (Ref: Chicken Feed)

Why can chickens not be totally grass fed? Because chickens are omnivores; they are not grazing, grass-eating, specialist herbivores. By contrast, sheep, cattle, and geese are physically adapted to thrive on a diet of 100% grass.

It is no coincidence that it is primarily omnivorous farm animals - pigs and chickens - who have ended up suffering the intensive confinement of factory farming. Why? Because pigs and chickens "destructively" dig up pastures in search of highly nutritious sub-surface critters and other goodies, such as roots.    

As it happens, even Joel Salatin's "pastured" chickens are mostly grain fed. According to Salatin, "the prepared ration represents 80 percent of the [pastured] bird's diet". He goes on to explain that 92% of the prepared ration he feeds his chickens is made up of annual grains, specifically:

Corn - 52%
Soy  - 29%
Oats - 11%

"So what?", you might ask.

The point is that, based on average US yields of corn, soy, and oats, you can't actually grow enough grain on one acre to feed 250 chickens (even assuming the chickens are getting 20% of their feed from pasture). And even if you could grow enough grain on one acre, where would those 250 chickens be living while you grow the grains to feed them (keeping in mind that corn, soy, and chickens all share the same spring and summer growing period)?

Following are the assumptions I used to calculate roughly how much grain it would take to feed Salatin's 250 Cornish Cross chickens for 6 months (which is how long Salatin raises broilers for each year).

The Cornish Cross is a large, fast-growing meat breed of chicken, which, in addition to fresh pasture, eats about 150g of feed per day (reference: Washington State University). Multiplied by 250 birds, that's 37.5kg of grain per day. Multiplied by 182 days (i.e. 6 months), that comes to a total of 6.8 tonnes of grain per year.

Broken down by grain (according to Salatin's feed mix), and using average US yield data, that's:

3.5 tonnes corn @ 4130kg/acre = 0.85 acre
2.0 tonnes soy @ 1188kg/acre = 1.68 acres
0.7 tonnes oats @ 1900kg/acre = 0.37 acres

TOTAL = 2.9 acres - just to grow the necessary grain to feed 250 birds for six months.

Then there's the acre of pasture that these chickens need to actually live on, bringing us up to 3.9 acres thus far, which equates to a substantially reduced figure of 64 birds per acre. If you subtract Salatin's average broiler mortality rate of 7.5%, you're down to 59 birds (Cornish Cross chickens are susceptible to having heart attacks late in the season, so you can't realistically expect to make a proportional saving in feed).

But that's not the end of the story by a long shot.

Salatin's super-productive system relies on the highly-controlled confinement and movement of (to use Salatin's words) "race car chickens". The Cornish Cross is a hybrid chicken which is "constantly being genetically upgraded by the commercial industry to perform at a totally unnatural gain rate" (also Salatin's words, ref: p.32). 

Salatin places his broilers in moveable pens which provide a space, on average, of less than two square feet per chicken. In this respect, it's worth noting that Salatin's broiler operation meets one of just two criteria which define a CAFO (a.k.a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, a.k.a a factory farm). Specifically: the animals are confined for at least 45 days in a 12-month period. 

Now consider some of the inputs, other than grain, that Salatin draws on to raise his pastured poultry (the following are all specifically mentioned in Salatin's book):

* live chicks from a commercial hatchery
* wood shavings for chick bedding (Salatin's chicks live on a floor of wood shavings for 12 to 28 days of their 56-day lifespan. Salatin raises multiple batches of chickens each season).
* artificial heat source to keep chicks warm
* drinking water
* feed and water containers
* hay chaff
* moveable pens (made from treated softwood, aluminum sheeting, chicken wire, screws, etc)
* plastic buckets (as Salatin says: "the world revolves around 5 gallon buckets")
* grit (creek sand and aggregate)
* feed grade limestone
* mineral supplements
* fish meal
* kelp meal (from Iceland)
* commercial probiotic
* cattle for keeping the pasture short before and after the chickens pass through
* tractor and fuel for transporting feed, water, and chickens.

Could anyone (besides Lierre Keith) seriously claim that all of these materials can be sourced sustainably from one acre of land? With room to spare for the actual pasture-fed chickens?

Furthermore, key factors that Joel Salatin's broiler system doesn't concern itself with at all are:

* Breeding: Salatin buys his chicks from a commercial hatchery. The poultry hatchery industry is a form of factory farming whose collective harm goes way beyond the scope of this blog post.

* Incubation: Salatin's system is based on artificial incubation, and the controlled confinement of all broilers, at all times.

* Winter care for birds: Salatin only keeps broilers for six months of each year, which is convenient for him, because Polyface Farm gets deep snow over winter. Chickens evolved in tropical jungle, so they don't cope well with snow. They certainly can't be expected to utilize fresh pasture for food during snowy winters. Hence, you would have to double the amount of land, or halve the number of chickens, in order to produce enough feed to keep the birds alive for an entire year. This brings us down to fewer than 30 birds per acre, or less than 12% of the stocking rate suggested by Lierre Keith - and that's still completely ignoring all of the inputs in the list above.

Having thought long and hard about this issue, I suspect that a chicken probably needs more than half an acre, assuming that your environmental accounting is unflinchingly honest (by which I mean that all inputs, including timber, fossil fuels, metal and plastic, as well as feed supplements such as fish meal, grit, and Icelandic kelp etc, are recorded in the ledger).

So. I think I can justify keeping a few chickens, even though creating a closed chicken-raising system on my two acres remains a pastoral fantasy. But, at the very least, I'm quite convinced that a pastured chook would have a happier life than a factory chook; and happiness counts, in my ledger.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Antipodean Thanksgiving

Having lived in Australia my whole life (apart from a handful of weeks spent elsewhere), I feel that I've had a surprising amount of exposure to the cultural phenomenon of American Thanksgiving - almost all of it via Hollywood.

Being an incurable sweet-tooth, the thing that always caught my eye on the Thanksgiving table was pumpkin pie. Imagine that: pumpkin for dessert! (Yet another perfectly healthy vegetable corrupted by sugar! I like that concept a lot).

So this year, on the fourth Thursday in May (i.e. six months before ... or is it six months after Thanksgiving in the USA?) I decided to have a little antipodean Thanksgiving celebration - with pumpkin pie, naturally:

My pumpkin pie didn't look as pretty as the one in my cookbook, and it tasted disturbingly like hot cross buns. Not that there's anything wrong with hot cross buns, mind you - it's just that I expected something different. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, hot cross buns and pumpkin pie are both, in essence, excuses for adding large amounts of sugar and spice to a starchy base.

My verdict? The pumpkin pie was very nice, and I'm pleased to have finally tried it. But I've decided I prefer my pumpkin roasted, or turned into soup or gnocchi. Mm-mmm.

Incidentally, this date strikes me as rather late in autumn for a harvest festival (which is what Thanksgiving traditionally is, or was). For example, our pumpkins were harvested (due to the onset of frosts) over a month ago. The Canadian date for Thanksgiving (the second Monday in October) seems to be more in alignment with the actual harvest period. 

Aha! Now that I've spent 30 seconds Googling the history of Thanksgiving in the USA, I've learned (according to Mayflower History) that:
"The Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving began at some unknown date between September 21 and November 9, most likely in very early October.  The date of Thanksgiving was probably set by Lincoln to somewhat correlate with the anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod, which occurred on November 21, 1620 (by our modern Gregorian calendar--it was November 11 to the Pilgrims who used the Julian calendar)."

Note to self: I must organise a fair dinkum harvest festival next year, possibly involving the consumption of home brew, by the light of the full moon ...

Monday, May 24, 2010

May 2010: donuts, sauerkraut, mycelium, garlic

I've been trying to write a blog post about what I didn't learn at university (where I studied agricultural science). But it turns out that there is so much I didn't learn, that my post got completely out of hand, and my brain short-circuited.

So, while that post sits on the back burner until I can wrangle it into manageable instalments (or something), I thought I'd post a few tid-bits about how May 2010 is coming along so far.  

The autumn frosts keep coming, which doesn't seem to bother the chervil at all:

The comfort food also keeps coming, which is starting to take a toll on my waistline, but that's just too bad. This week I tried my hand at making donuts. They were very nice:

I feel like a strange cross between Sarah Connor and Martha Stewart. In Terminator 2, Sarah Connor can see TEOTWAWKI coming, and she responds by frantically trying to warn people. The authorities respond to Sarah's warnings by locking her up in a mental institution, where she lets off steam by doing chin-ups.

I, too, see TEOTWAWKI coming (courtesy of Peak Everything, climate change, environmental disasters, overpopulation, economic collapse, etc), and, like Sarah Connor, I've been frantically trying to warn people ... but they basically ignore me. I have to admit, being ignored is better than being locked up in a nut house, but it's still stressful, seeing the end of civilization looming, and feeling utterly powerless to do anything about it (beyond taking measures to save oneself from the worst effects of the collapse).

I can't do chin-ups (like Sarah Connor), so I let off steam by baking instead (like Martha Stewart). I find baking very meditative, and it has the added bonus of producing delicious comfort food, which makes me feel very happy (for, oh, at least 5 minutes).

Still on the food front, I decided to have a go at making sauerkraut. I've never actually tasted sauerkraut ... in fact I've never even seen sauerkraut, except in photos, so making it seemed a little bit daunting.

Everything I've read makes sauerkraut sound totally foolproof, but nevertheless I decided to follow an extra-foolproof recipe, which uses fresh yogurt whey to inoculate the cabbage with lactobacillus bacteria. (By all accounts, fresh cabbage generally brings its own lactobacillus to the party, but when it comes to microorganisms, I prefer to err on the side of caution).

My large jar of shredded, pounded, salted cabbage has had three days of fermentation on the bench now, and the mixture is expanding, as the recipe said to expect. Now I just have to figure out what to do with the finished product.

The mushroom-growing experiment I mentioned previously is coming along very nicely: we now have a fairy ring of mycelium! So far it's only a very small fairy ring, immediately surrounding one of the mushrooms I placed in a tub of compost, but from small fairy rings, big fairy rings grow. (Mycelium networks can grow to acres in size - like this one in Oregon, which has spread over more than two thousand acres. Amazing).

Here's my mycelium:

We recently planted four containers with garlic - 60 cloves in all. We planted them closer together than is normally recommended, following the general principle espoused by gardening elder John Jeavons (author of "How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine"). Only time will tell if they manage to bulb up successfully, but they're coming along nicely so far: