Winter 2011-2012

By Joann S. Grohman 

“It’s surprising just how often common assumptions – by both scientists and the media – are wrong,” says Howard S. Friedman, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside, in the March 12, 2011, issue of ScienceDaily (

Consider the belief that feeding grain to people, not cattle, means more people can be fed. Is this belief so rational and mathematically provable that “Yes” is the only possible answer?

Simon Fairlie, a former farmer, now editor of The Land magazine, delves into the issue in his book Meat: A Benign Extravagance (Chelsea Green, 2010). Some livestock-related beliefs that now enjoy favored nation status do not survive his witty yet exacting scholarship.

Fairlie compares the productivity and sustainability of six cultivation options:

1. Chemical farming with no animals (the agribusiness vegan model)

2. Chemical farming including animals (the agribusiness omnivore model)

3. Organic farming including animals

4. Organic vegan farming

5. Permaculture with livestock

6. Permaculture and vegan.

Permaculture is an integrated design for living that includes food production, water management, home building, income generation and more.

To simplify his task, Fairlie uses the 55-million-acre agricultural land of Britain and its current 60.6 million people, allotting them a standard 2,767 calories per day, including fat and protein, two essential values omitted from most projections. He takes pains to give every possible advantage to vegan (stock-free) agriculture.

Each farming model must meet practical considerations, and Fairlie addresses these. For instance, the organic vegan model must find non-synthetic chemical fertility to replace animal manure available to farms with livestock. This usually means planting a green manure crop, usually a legume, to be plowed under annually. If 1 of every 3 acres is allotted to green manures, crop yield declines by one-third; and tilling green manure requires energy. Nonetheless, strictly in terms of calories, 2.5 acres of arable vegan organic land feeds 8 people whereas 2.5 acres of arable organic land plus 3.75 acres of pasture for grazing feeds 7.5 people. So with livestock, more land feeds fewer people.

The vegan organic farm might further enhance its productivity by composting biomass. For instance, Will Bonsall and Molly Thorkildsen, who have used vegan methods on their Khadighar Farm in Industry, Maine, for 25 years, harvest and compost ramial wood – brush and branches under 3 inches in diameter from deciduous trees in their forest. They chip these and compost them or use them as mulch.

Farms can also incorporate green manures in ways that don’t take a year out of crop production. At Goranson Farm in Dresden, Maine, for instance, vetch and oats have been planted in late summer; the oats winterkill, and in the spring, Rob Johanson cultivates 8-inch-wide strips 6 feet apart in the vetch.  He transplants winter squash and pumpkins into the cultivated strips; cultivates the strips once more and walks through to hand hoe them; then the crop expands and shades out the vetch, so that the vetch doesn’t have to be mow-killed.

Livestock on a farm deposit manure where it is needed – on the pasture – although seldom quite enough. Every four or five years, a section of pasture will need to be plowed to add green manure for a subsequent crop, with a section of grain or vegetable land then reverting to pasture. But you get meat or milk plus grains and vegetables. Reserving land for pasture leaves less spare land for other purposes, such as forest, biomass crops or rough grazing for sheep. But that’s OK because even Britain, one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, has no land shortage; and steep or rocky land unsuitable for tilling is often well suited to pasture. This adds resiliency to a farm, as grass usually grows and animals continue to graze even when poor weather causes arable crops to fail.

All of Fairlie’s models include the option of dedicating some land to growing biomass for energy generation – but with no provision for restoring fertility to this land. Perhaps he added the biomass option as a sop to contemporary enthusiasms, believing as I do that using cropland to grow biomass wastes resources, except for woodlots that provide smallholders with firewood.

The stock-free chemical model provides nearly three times as many calories as expected from the organic/livestock model. Its sustainability depends on your faith in technology and unlimited fossil fuel. Fairlie does not explore this point but remarks that stock-free chemical agriculture “is the ideal farming system for any society wishing to reduce the number of its farmers to a minimum, to grow wide areas of biofuels, or to support large urban populations – all main objectives of modern social policy. With industrial processing of pea, bean and grain protein into artificial meat and milk, a semblance of an animal-based diet could be provided for about 200 million people (in Britain, using the same land take as the other models).”

The permaculture models differ from the other farm models in scope. Fairlie imagines what Britain might look like as an entire permaculture nation providing food, textile and energy sovereignty. He envisions moderate sized farms serving nearby market towns, with more people moving to rural areas (as they are already doing) and lower city populations. Unless chemical agriculture prevails, Fairlie does not assume the future existence of any huge farms – due to constraints imposed by fossil fuel shortages and to limited phosphorus (P) availability.

The Phosphorus Problem

For the last couple of centuries, agriculture has relied on P-bearing rock as a source of P, but P mines are running out, so the price of P is soaring. While some mining continues, we apparently have reached peak phosphorus. We will have to look anew at manure, the natural resource we have been madly wasting.

Unlike nitrogen, which can be obtained from the air by nitrogen-fixing bacteria that associate with leguminous plants, and potassium, which is widely distributed and usually needs only tweaking and can be supplied by ashes, low P often limits plant growth. When plants or animals are harvested and sold off the farm, the P they accumulated must be replaced. For centuries farmers sent sheep and goats to graze hillsides, bringing them in at night to fill the fold with P-rich droppings. All the old farms in Europe had pigeon cotes; pigeons went forth at dawn to eat and returned at dusk to feed their squabs and deposit the day’s leftovers in the loft. These are two of many ways to restore P to depleted land – without raising a manure fork or firing up a tractor or buying anything.

Fairlie describes other systems, now abandoned, including settling ponds that were flooded with manured water. The nutrient-rich water pumped onto fields produced impressive hay crops. Similarly, in parts of Asia, flooded rice paddies are (or were) fertilized with human waste, or by ducks and fish raised with the rice, thus gaining three crops, rice, ducks and fish. Learning how to avoid bacterial contamination of crops grown under this highly effective system offers a fertile opportunity for problem solvers. Fairlie advocates strongly for an end to the mindset that views manure (including ours) as waste when it is the most indispensable component of a well-fertilized future.

How Many Are Fed

Fairlie’s farm examples grow cereals, potatoes, sugar (beets, I assume), vegetables and fruit. The “carnivore” farm includes milk and meat. Vegans get beans and canola (for protein and oil).

A farm including livestock and using synthetic chemicals feeds 14 people on 2.5 acres of arable land plus 3.75 acres of pasture.

The same area farmed organically feeds 7.5 people; Fairlie assumes organic yields are about 60 percent those of conventional, based on data from The Organic Farm Management Handbook (Lampkin, N., et al., Eds., 2008, Aberystwyth University and Organic Research Centre Elm Farm, Aberystwyth and Newbury). I’ll return to this figure.

In the chemical vegan model, 2.5 acres of arable land feeds 20 people, whereas organic vegan feeds eight.

Chemical-based commodity monoculture is vegan agriculture. Its advocates claim to be poised to feed the world now and into the future, a disingenuous statement. Commodity monoculture isn’t feeding the world now for reasons of politics and greed. If history teaches us anything, these forces will not dwindle with time. Converting local agriculture into megafarms spreads hunger by forcing people off their land and into cities, where they depend on menial jobs and government handouts. No one is richer or better fed by this except the corporations, which then own the means of food production. Since money is labile, when the initial investment ceases to be hot, it can be withdrawn overnight, leaving nothing behind but exhausted land and depleted aquifers – not only in developing countries; the United States has thousands of dried up farms and deserted main streets in formerly vibrant service towns.

If we opt for organic agriculture, what about the supposed 40 percent yield decrease? The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements says the world now has 25 percent more food calories available for consumption than it needs (“Powered by Nature,” by Anne English, IFOAM, in The Financial Times Food Security Briefing, Like oil reserves, this food is held as a price-manipulating hedge. But what if this reported food surplus does not exist? Lester Brown of Earth Policy Institute says that to get affordable grain prices, we need to produce 150 million more tons, something that rarely happens and is certainly not predicted this year (“The Great Food Crisis of 2011”). Whichever audit proves correct, we still have to pay for grain, and nobody is predicting cheap food.

In fact, the profitability or production advantage of chemical agriculture over organic is unlikely to continue indefinitely. John Ikerd, distinguished agricultural economist from the University of Missouri, now retired, says that our total focus on the bottom line in agriculture has created a “carefully oiled machine” that cannot function should dirt get in the gears. “Take away government supports and the (big operations) will collapse,” he warns in The Milkweed, an independent dairy industry news magazine (Issue 381, April 2011). He notes that awareness of the impact of industrial food upon human health is growing exponentially, with the market for “something different” now three times greater than the ability of farmers to supply it. Incentives claimed for industrial farming are further eroded when their owners are required to pay for collateral damage, currently a public burden.

Questioning Assumptions

The difference between 7.5 and 20 (almost three times as many people fed by chemical agriculture) does not withstand scrutiny. Reports mount yearly of crops diminished by stresses of hot weather and disease. Soils have reached their capacity to produce increased yields with heavier applications of synthetic chemicals. Conventional practices result in a soil debt for future generations. Organic farming, with or without livestock, pays its debts in advance. 

While the advantages of chemical agriculture are exaggerated, the productivity of organics is chronically underestimated. In “Grazing Sheep in Vineyards Creates Big Savings in Fuel, Labor and Water Plus Adds Sheep Profit Potential” (The Stockman Grass Farmer, August 2011), Kelly Mulville shows how she added sheep to a vineyard, with dramatic results. Sheep have grazed in vineyards in winter for generations but were always removed after winter because they’re fond of grape leaves. Mulville designed an electric wire system that defends the leaves while leaving trunks exposed for sheep to trim unwanted laterals and suckers and to keep down grass and weeds, turning this biomass into quality fertility. A typical vineyard requires 26 to 34 passes with a tractor to control grass and weeds. This cultivation leaves bare ground to dry out. Mulville’s strategy reduced irrigation by 90 percent compared with a neighboring vineyard, saving 50 gallons per vine (5 gallons compared with 55 gallons), and kept soil cooler. Grape yields increased by 1,245 pounds per acre. And everyone said the wine was exceptional. The sheep were happy, and the system added $700 to $900 per acre. (On organic farms, sheep would have to be removed 90 days before grape harvest to meet required waiting periods after manure applications.)

Likewise, rotational grazing in Brazil yields cattle that are 15 percent heavier with 22 percent higher pregnancy rates while reestablishing native grasses (Donald Parsons Eaton et al., “Rotational Grazing of Native Pasturelands in the Pantanal: an effective conservation tool,” Tropical Conservation Science, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2011). Also, rotational grazing protects area wildlife, including jaguars, peccaries, giant anteaters and 720 bird species, while reducing incentives for deforestation and uncontrolled burning. “Many areas… have already been converted to large scale non-sustainable ranching operations where native forests and savannahs were replaced by exotic grasses. While these techniques sometimes produce higher profits in the short run they leave behind an impoverished deforested landscape prone to erosion and drought…” Graziers throughout the United States attest to the benefits of controlled grazing.

Fairlie’s farming models do not include nutrient estimates for extra food provided by pigs, poultry or sheep. He calls sheep a negligible food source, though valuable in other ways. Pigs and poultry he terms default food sources, providing enormous value on small farms where they compete for neither land nor feed; with a modicum of management they cost virtually nothing, thriving on stuff nobody else wants. Sheep are a distinct advantage to the organic orchardist, controlling grass that otherwise competes relentlessly with trees.

As previously noted, sheep redistribute fertility well. And mine are not a negligible source of meat. As for chickens, I can scarcely imagine how anybody gets along without them. They sweep a couple of acres daily and keep us free of ticks and fly maggots. I see vegan farming as pushing nature uphill to make an uncertain point. Everywhere that nature or humans clear land for agriculture and let the sun in, grass immediately grows. Grazing animals turn grass into meat or milk and save all kinds of work. The apparent advantage in calorie production seen in vegan farming is readily made up on the mixed livestock farm by this “default” animal production, which, unlike the fruits of the vegan farm, is obtained with little physical labor.

Vegan farms inherently consume more fossil fuel, Fairlie notes; he even suggests they be allotted extra fuel if any exists, because vegans must do everything by hand or with power equipment, while animals can do at least some work when present on farms. Indeed, animals can do all the work done by machines. Fairlie suggests we not scoff at animal power. Take away the traction provided by cows in India and 250 million people will be displaced into cities with tragic results. Closer to home, efficiencies from horse-, ox- or cow-power can be appealing as oil prices rise. Huge monoculture fields are linked inextricably with oil and with the availability of rock phosphate. Manure cannot be managed on a vast scale without heavy equipment. Without cheap oil, smaller fields farmed with older, lighter equipment or with animal traction begin to look pretty good. And your animal helper will produce its own replacement. Net income is often better on smaller farms using older, lighter equipment, animal traction and fewer inputs, says Gene Logsdon in his introduction to Fairlie’s book and in his own 2010 book, Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind.

Fairlie designs realistic farms that enable meaningful comparisons among seemingly incompatible systems. This should begin to dispel the unthinking repetition of unsupported “facts” about the indispensability of commodity agriculture along with some of the more extreme allegations against cattle and their ecological impact. Huge policy decisions are afoot. Planning for our agricultural future needs to be based on reality, not on short-term profits or on the dreams of high-rise fabulists convinced they can trump natural law. Corporate leaders and others seduced by their claims might consider the words of diplomat Yukio Okamoto after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima: “We were not humble enough to Mother Nature.” (“Letter from Japan; Aftershocks,” by Evan Osmos, The New Yorker, March 28, 2011)

What About Nutrition?

Fairlie repeatedly says that plant and meat protein are of equal value, and his comparisons reflect this idea. But protein quality is rated according to biological value. Egg, the gold standard, rates 97 on a scale of 100. On a diet of egg, a rodent can grow at a standard rate and repair tissues. All animal products except gelatin score in the 90s. Plant proteins run from about 40 to 74 (Introductory Nutrition, by Helen Andrews Guthrie, C.V. Mosby Company, St. Louis, 1967).  Fairlie puzzlingly assigns to meat a biological score of 1.2 compared with plant protein, although 1.4 is more commonly used. By Fairlie’s measure you would need only 20 percent (rather than 40 percent) more plant protein to equal the same number of grams of meat protein.

The biological value of a protein depends not merely on total grams of protein but also on the number and proportion of its amino acids. Attempting to configure complementary plant proteins that support growth and repair is a mathematical minefield. I have not found research that translates complementary plant proteins into growth and repair as effectively as animal protein. Feed manufacturers, little swayed by ideology, just supplement grains with pure amino acids derived from genetically modified substrates. Dairy farmers give amino-fortified soy milk replacers only to calves they don’t intend to keep, and nearly 50 percent more of this cheaper plant-based formula is needed to get growth comparable to that from real milk. For their own replacement heifers, farmers use expensive full fat milk protein formulas.

Unlike plant protein, animal protein is fully and completely digested. Unable to flee their predators, most plants contain toxins called anti-nutrients that reduce digestibility, and all contain carbohydrates. To obtain the embedded protein, you have to eat your way through a lot of carbs.

Protein is of signal importance in maintaining a full term pregnancy and having a baby of normal birth weight. A vegan diet is ill suited to this task. Animals don’t need to be told this. Even the slow moving panda bear, which eats only bamboo shoots most of its life, prepares for breeding by eating birds’ eggs.

Feed Efficiency

Fairlie positions cattle as something of a loss leader; grow plenty of grain and you get to have a bit of beef. So he allots little land to cattle. He accepts the popular belief that 10 calories of grain produce 1 calorie of gain in cattle, although by correcting for factors such as their early life on pasture and mother’s milk, he gets some cattle to a 4:1 ratio, and the ratio is a bit more favorable for a dairy cow.

Perhaps cows would be an extravagance if they did require grain – their natural diet is grass – and if land were in short supply. Feeding grain to cattle is an economic decision. Cattle are being compelled to compete for fast profits. Let’s consider nature’s metabolic reality.

Feed efficiency or the feed conversion rate has become the standard for comparing species of livestock for human food. Dozens of books, including Fairlie’s, and thousands of articles state that chickens produce more meat per unit of feed. Feed your chicken 3 pounds of feed and get 1 pound of meat. Feed your average ruminant 7 pounds of feed and get 1 pound of meat. Cows are inefficient – if you are in a rush for meat.

Let’s compare two grass eaters, rabbits and cows. Give 1 ton of hay to 300 rabbits and 1 ton to one steer; that hay will add 480 pounds of new rabbit or steer tissue – in one month for rabbits and four for the steer. (Max Kleiber demonstrated that total efficiency of energy utilization is independent of body size. This and other fundamental concepts of energy metabolism are discussed in his 1961 book The Fire of Life: an introduction to animal energetics. In a personal communication, former rabbit producer Ann Bledsoe gave the following information: The Professional Meat Rabbit Association says that 500 rabbits constitute a “full-time” job – but, done correctly, generate a “full-time” income. With a large commercial rabbitry, manure must be dealt with daily; feeding, twice daily; breeding, daily, as are palpation, placing nest boxes, kindling and weaning.

So rabbits are more efficient not by “better” feed conversion but by time. If efficiency = time = money, rabbits win. This may well be true for CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations or factory farms) that measure efficiency as rabbits in/rabbits out. The CAFO system wants a warp speed return on investment. I can wait. If my time = money, then I have far more return on my longer-term steer investment, because tending 300 rabbits even with the best equipment will take 2 to 3 hours of intense labor daily. My steer eats his hay or grazes his pasture without supervision. I just keep his water tub full. How is this inefficient? 

Forcing cows into the Procrustean bed of dollar-based feed conversion has created a veritable cottage industry of cow bashing and has distracted attention from their incomparable value to humans. Fairlie does detail their many contributions, including meat, milk, hide and other parts usually viewed as byproducts. He recognizes the above meat production truth when discussing rearing pigs on scraps and rejects. He also profoundly points out that at all times animals provide resilience to farming systems. Large animals are the ultimate feed storage system for extra grain in favorable seasons. In less favorable seasons, they can live nicely on grass, which is usually plentiful.

Cattle convert grass, on which humans soon starve, into meat, milk and fat with an efficiency honed over 50 million years. And fat is vital. I have a hard time endorsing use of fats imported from palm trees on the far side of the world or pounded out of laboriously tended seed crops when cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry cheerfully pile it on in tasty layers from stuff nobody else wants to eat.

Food Future Looking Good

Fairlie presents options for our food future based on established realities of land, energy and fertility. It turns out that more land is available than many people suppose. The possibilities for adequate food production are much better than widely believed. What seems in shortest supply is energy, which people think of as fossil fuel or biofuels. Fairlie assumes a future with more human labor, which he says he enjoys, as do I. For years I have nurtured a theory that if 1 in 10 people actively farmed, we could grow enough food for folks who prefer indoor activities. Fairlie notes that people on the land create energy whereas people in cities consume it.

Critics of organic farming and gardening commonly lack personal experience and dismiss information not brokered by spokesmen for commodity agriculture. I suspect they have been lulled by seductive views of endless wheat fields like Dorothy among the somnifera poppies, making it seem that crops just happen when you leave it to the big boys. This stock-free/vegan thinking has a powerful grip on the theory and direction of our food producing future. Few demand proof of its logic or its nutritional adequacy. Meat: A Benign Extravagance should help align some more fanciful proposals for the future of farming along more practical furrows.

The small farm model with animals has a history reaching into antiquity. It is a microcosm of nature with its successful interdependence between eating and being eaten while maintaining an unbroken circle of fertile soil, fertile animals and healthy people. No such precedent exists for corporate vegan farming. Fairlie’s book ought to shatter the dangerously false belief that eliminating or scrimping on animal products will aid the planet. Home-reared or locally produced animal products are our best hope for a dependable, resilient and life-supporting food future. Animals hold the small farm together.

So what about the belief that more people can be fed directly with grain than by feeding grain to a cow to produce beef or milk? The question sets up a false dichotomy, because both are critical. Comparing feed efficiency based on grain is meaningless, since cows don’t need grain but profit from many of its byproducts. A mixed farm of human dimensions has room for plants and animals; they thrive together just as they exist in all of nature.

About the author: Joann Grohman has farmed in California, Washington, Sussex, England, and now in Carthage, Maine. She is the author of Keeping a Family Cow (Coburn Press, Carthage, Maine). An edited version of her Sept. 23, 2011, talk at MOFGA’s Common Ground Fair, Elite Food Security, is posted at

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