Freshwater Depletion: Realities of Choice


Let’s get it right: it’s not drought or climate change that is wreaking havoc on water supplies in California or anywhere else in the southwest U.S. … it’s what we are eating.


60 Minutes, Leslie Stahl, and the real issue at hand

On November 16, CBS aired a 60 Minutes episode called “Water,” where Leslie Stahl reported to over 12 million viewers “new evidence” that our planet’s groundwater is being pumped out much faster than it can be replenished. The story focused primarily on the scarce water conditions in California. While Ms. Stahl’s findings were important to emphasize, they were nothing new. Whether in California or globally, audiences will eventually need to hear the truth about freshwater scarcity as it relates to our current and projected water-management trends: where all of our freshwater supplies are going and what we can do about it.

Those living in California and the Southwest U.S find themselves embedded in a significant four-year drought and have turned to strategies such as rationing water, educating the public about conventional conservation tactics (such as shortening shower times), and even approving $500 fines for overwatering lawns.

On average 2 to 3 gallons of water can be saved by reducing your time in the shower by one minute or by turning the water off while brushing your teeth. However, you can save more than 1,000 gallons per day by eliminating meat and dairy from your diet. That’s the average amount of water required to produce the nine ounces of meat that every American consumes per day, on average.alfalfa_2_rotator_web

Raising livestock plunders global resources and devastates our water supply

In some areas of the southwest U.S., including California, it requires over 4,000 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef and over 1,000 gallons to produce just one gallon of milk–as compared to, on average, 6 to 30 gallons to produce a pound of vegetables, such as carrots or various greens.

Using land and water to raise livestock and to grow crops to feed them is a tremendously inefficient way to produce food. It wastes energy, resources, and lives. With a burgeoning global human population expected to reach 9.6 billion by the year 2050 (2.5 billion more than we have now), there will come a time where growing plants for direct human consumption will be the only socially (and perhaps legally) acceptable way to deploy our finite resources for food production, whether in California or anywhere else in the world.

The state of California raises over 6 million cattle and 2 million dairy cows. Each animal drinks between 20 gallons (grazing beef cattle) and 40 gallons (dairy cow) of water daily. An additional 2 million annual gallons of virtual water (the amount of water used in the entire production process of an agricultural product) are tied up in grain and pasture to feed just one cow. Annually, this is over 100 times more water than one human drinks and is 130 times more than what is used to produce food for one person each year if eating a purely plant based diet.

Pastured livestock: far from sustainableUnknown-2

Many people consider raising livestock on pasture to be a more “sustainable” way to produce meat and dairy. But if we examine the water that just one of the two billion grass-fed cattle in the world drinks (not accounting for the significant additional water required for feed, slaughtering, or processing), it would still require 20,000-22,000 gallons over a 24-month period to raise just one grass-fed cow. That amount of water is the equivalent of a person taking a five-minute shower each and every day for 6.7 years. Indeed, when accounting for land and water use inefficiencies, net greenhouse gas emissions, effect on biodiversity, and ratios of end product consumed per resources required, pastured animal agricultural systems are LESS sustainable than factory farming.

Loss of the Colorado River via alfalfa

Every year, California devotes 900,000 acres of its land to growing alfalfa, ninety-five percent of which is eaten by cattle (the other five percent by horses). Each one of these 900,000 alfalfa acres receives irrigation to the tune of 1 to 2 million gallons per year (50-80 acre inches per acre per year). Therefore, total freshwater used in California for just one year of hay production is 1.8 trillion gallons.

Each year, California uses 1.8 TRILLION gallons of freshwater to produce hay for livestock.


In California’s Imperial Valley, one-fifth of all the water from the Colorado River is diverted through the Imperial Canal, and 70 percent is used in one way or another for livestock. The average yearly rainfall in the Imperial Valley is less than 3 inches, and water is sparse in other areas in California where alfalfa hay is grown.

Knowing this, it is shocking that the largest importer of California hay for the past few years has been the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is importing hay because it is concerned about the scarce water supply for its own citizens. Saudi Arabia will soon follow, essentially importing water from California via hay for its animals, which are then consumed by Saudi citizens. This virtual water trading loss will be a growing trend—certain countries depleting the natural resources of other, more unaware countries, such as the U.S., Brazil, and others, so they may “prosper” with importation of animals and animal products.

These animals are produced in countries where true environmental costs of production continue to be externalized, and a proper economic metric has yet to be affixed to the raising and slaughtering of livestock and fish, the largest contributors to global depletion. Opportunistic countries with dwindling natural resources will continue to take an approach similar to that of the UAE by utilizing their limited water supply more for human consumption than for crop or animal production, while taking advantage of countries such as the U.S., which doesn’t know any better or is letting economics dictate ecological reasoning.

Historically, the U.S. has heavily subsidized use of aquifer water for livestock and feed crops, such that farmers in the Ogallala and San Joaquin regions of the western U.S. (home of two of the largest aquifers on Earth) pay only 5 to 10 percent as much for their water as do residents in those areas. This has encouraged continued alfalfa and feed crop production and freshwater depletion.

Subsidence”: ground craters where water once lived …

Typically, most areas of the world predominantly use either surface water (lakes, streams, rivers) or groundwater (aquifers). California uses a combination of both, in an approximately 60/40 ratio, blending the surface waters of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the diverted Colorado River with underground water from the San Joaquin aquifer and others. In times of drought, California places restrictions on surface water and relies heavily on withdrawals from aquifer systems.

Visual indicators of these water withdrawals can be seen in many areas, most notably, perhaps, near Mendota, California, where a 1977 study showed land elevation having dropped as much as 28 feet in some areas. Known as subsidence, this phenomenon occurs when ground cratering results after excessive amounts of groundwater have been withdrawn from an aquifer. Once water has been removed from the sediment and subsidence has taken place, it cannot be replaced.

Subsidence can also be readily seen in many Texas counties and elsewhere in the world. It is occurring in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, where the water table is falling by 2 meters or more per year, due to the withdrawals required to support the growing livestock and feed crop industry there.

Worldwide, there are many examples of rapid groundwater depletion. India is witnessing losses due to the irrigation of rice fields, and the North China Plain is quickly depleting its two aquifer systems because of expansion of animal agriculture. In the U.S., there is depletion of aquifers due to livestock and feed crop operations in North Carolina, Arkansas, the Columbia River Basin, and especially in California’s Central Valley, the focus of Ms. Stahl’s report.

“The single largest human alteration of land”land-subsidence-poland-calif

The San Joaquin Valley forms the backbone of California’s agricultural industry, the nucleus of the Central Valley area, which produces 25 percent of the nation’s food on less than 1 percent of the country’s farmland. Land subsidence in excess of 1 foot has affected more than 5,200 square miles of irrigable land—one-half the entire San Joaquin Valley. The USGS has called this “the single largest human alteration of land.” It, along with depletion of the Ogallala, will likely be the single largest human alteration of water, as both the San Joaquin and Ogallala aquifers are expected to be completely drained in coming decades (within sixty years for the former and as soon as 2030 for the latter).

Abuse of the Ogallalaogallala aquifer copy

At an average depth of 200 feet, the Ogallala is the most heavily depleted aquifer in the U.S. and the world’s fastest-disappearing freshwater source, having lost 150 feet of depth in the past twenty years. It contains water formed from glaciers 12 million years ago, has a recharge rate of less than a half-inch per year, and is being drawn down at a rate of 3 to 10 feet per year.

Since the 1960s, farmers have irrigated this land, receiving subsidies to use this water to grow crops to feed cattle. Almost half of all cattle raised in the U.S. come from just four states in this area—Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Texas, which accounted for 49 percent of the United States commercial red meat production in 2010.

The vast majority of the Ogallala abuse and depletion has occurred in support of the largest cattle herds in the U.S. and the corn that feeds them–a vivid example of just how much power various influences exert over our decisions about food. When confronted with the very real potential of running the Ogallala aquifer dry, a movement in the late 1980s supported creating a pipeline to pump water from Lake Michigan, one of the great lakes, back to all the livestock operations. This brings us front and center to the real problem—water management and food choice.

We need to find another solution. We could, for instance, eat all plant-based foods, which are far less water intensive. We do not need to eat cattle from the High Plains states or anywhere else to live thriving, healthy lives. We do, however, need water.

Water by the numbers, globally and in the U.S.HPIM0524.JPG

Worldwide, alfalfa is grown on approximately 79 million acres. The majority of it is irrigated, and 70 percent of it comes from the United States, Russia, and Argentina—countries suffering now from frequent periods of heat, drought, and water stress. Wherever water scarcity is found in the world, particularly with irreversible overdrawing of aquifers, livestock is typically involved, leaving the indelible mark of our insatiable demand to eat them.

Between 50 and 75 percent of all water withdrawal from the largest aquifers in the world—the Ogallala, North China Plain, San Joaquin, and Columbia River Basin—can be attributed to livestock and the alfalfa, corn, sorghum, and other crops they eat, the water they drink, and the water used to generally service and slaughter them, as well as to the processing and packaging of animal products.

In the U.S., livestock consume 34 trillion gallons of water per year, accounting for nearly 50 percent of all freshwater-consumptive withdrawals.

Each year, the U.S. livestock industry uses 34 TRILLION gallons of freshwater.

Globally, agriculture is responsible for 92 percent of all freshwater use, 30 percent of which goes to livestock and crops or pasture to feed them.

The China connection


Most of China’s arable land and freshwater supplies are polluted and dwindling, so they are turning elsewhere to help supply their growing demand for pork, dairy, and other meat products. China’s demand for meat has quadrupled since 1980, and it now consumes over 50 percent of the world’s production of pork and 60 percent of the world’s soybeans. Feed crops such as corn and even wheat grown in drought-ridden areas of the U.S., such as the southwest and middle corn belt, are irrigated with water from rapidly depleted ancient aquifers to feed livestock grown in China and elsewhere, while U.S. policy makers are scratching their heads to find solutions to a growing freshwater scarcity issue.

Robert Glennon, a water policy expert at the University of Arizona, calculated that approximately 100 billion gallons of western U.S. water—enough to supply the annual household needs of one million families—were being exported to China in the form of alfalfa crops grown with irrigation water from the Colorado River and dwindling aquifers in California and Arizona.

Refocusing of issues—animal agriculture, climate change, and global depletion

Regarding sustainability issues, most of the world’s attention recently has been focused on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions—energy and fossil fuel use. But climate change is only one component of the much larger, more insidious concern of global depletion. It is an exacerbator, taking these pressing issues and making them worse.

Climate change is not the sole cause of various aspects of global depletion, such as agricultural land use inefficiencies, oceanic ecosystem devastation, rainforest deforestation and degradation, food insecurity, accelerated extinctions and loss of biodiversity, and freshwater scarcity. All of these phenomena are occurring with or without the effects of climate change … with or without the use of fossil fuels. The primary driver of all of these combined issues worldwide is the raising, harvesting, slaughtering, and consumption of animals.

Regarding our state of sustainability, make no mistake that we are in overshoot mode. According to the Global Footprint Network, it would require more than 1.5 Earths to sustain what we are currently taking from and doing to our planet, and no other single factor contributes to our unsustainability as significantly as our demand for meat, dairy, fish, and eggs and the agricultural systems that support these products.

Timelines of irreversibility2014-01-05-Drought2013EarthDrReeseHalter2-thumb

All aspects of global depletion are marked by timelines—the number of years before tipping points may be reached and thus cause irreversibility. To wit:

  • Global warming: Most researchers agree that our planet will display irreversible effects if we have not drastically reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2017.
  • Oceans: With massive loss of sea life (90 percent of all large fish species are gone) due to commercial fishing, warming waters, and 30 percent acidification, irreversibility has already occurred in our oceans. It has been 300 million years since the last time our oceans have been this warm and acidic, and at that time, it took over 30 million years to recover.
  • Tropical rainforests: Since 1978 over 300,000 square miles of tropical rainforest in the Amazon have been destroyed. Ninety percent of the destruction in Brazil and between 70 and 80 percent of rainforest destruction in the other seven Amazonian countries has been due to grazing livestock and growing feed crops. The diverse wildlife lost will never be seen again in our lifetime.
  • Species extinction: Similarly, with the massive number of species extinctions (occurring at up to 10,000 times the annual background rate) and loss of biodiversity, we are already witnessing irreversibility. For some species with whom we share this planet, time has already run out. Cause of extinction: humans.

… And so it is with the availability of freshwater.

One of our most critical concerns regarding sustaining current and future life on Earth is our supply of freshwater. From 1941 to 2011 the world’s population tripled, but freshwater consumption quadrupled. The gap between worldwide demand for water and what is really available is growing at such a rate that a 40% shortage in water supply is expected in just 15 years.

Water and geopolitics     


Although the amount of water on earth remains constant, the consumptive form it happens to be in does not. Four out of five people now live within 30 miles of a water-damaged area (meaning soon to run out, or polluted), and there are nearly 300 transboundary river and waterways on Earth where multiple countries share vital running water supply. As we see water shortages over the next fifteen years, we will surely see droughts, famine, and human sickness. And then we’ll see conflicts, social unrest, and even wars. Indeed, those living downstream will be fiercely battling those living upstream for water rights.

Climate change will make these matters worse, but it will not cause them. Food choice and virtual water trading through food, especially with animal products, will play much larger roles than energy and fossil fuel use.

As we continue irreversibly damaging the environs that support us and all other life on Earth (lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere) and begin running out of freshwater, topsoil, arable land, fish in our oceans, and tropical rainforests–creating extinctions of other species and loss of biodiversity–we will come to accept that sustainability of our own species is contingent upon the choices we make. While scientists and policy makers are concerned about advancing technologies, we should be first concerned about our decisions, particularly those decisions that have the most profound effects on the health of our planet and our own health, such as food choice specifically related to animal agriculture.

The easiest solution to any area of global depletion can be found by adopting a more optimal level of relative sustainability—and to do so today, as the timelines of irreversibility are imminent and the clock is ticking.

A plea for equal time

As usual, 60 Minutes and Ms. Stahl’s “Water” segment presented an entertaining story to over 12 million viewers with a report of a real-life problem, consisting of selected interviews, a possible solution, and even a sprinkling of space technology (GRACE satellite information). But instead of resorting to “toilet-to-tap” recycling of waste water as perhaps the last resort to solving our problem of freshwater scarcity as indicated in the report, we need to hear where the overwhelming majority of our water is going and how this relates to the profound issue of agricultural system inefficiencies. We need to hear about the most sensible manner in which we can produce food … and why it needs to be done today.

Let’s move the critical mass in the right direction and do so now. Let’s all contact Ms. Stahl, asking her to seriously consider reporting on how animal agriculture is the sector most responsible for global depletion. Ask her to clearly spell out to her massive audience that the timelines necessary for action are upon us and that immediate and complete replacement of animal products by organically grown, whole-plant-based food alternatives is necessary to ensure the highest level of relative sustainability for our species. Remind her that this topic should not be considered political, nor should her reporting of it be constrained by cultural or economic bias, because it is a topic of our survival and that of future generations.

It’s a story about health, peace, truth, and social justice. It is a story about saving resources, saving lives, saving species, saving humanity. As such, it should be considered the most important topic we have in front of us today—the most worthy of conveying. This is the report we all need to hear.

Dr. Richard Oppenlander

More can be found in my book, Food Choice and Sustainabilitywater_crisis4

COP 19 and Climate Change: The Path to Resolution


The Conference

On November 11th, world leaders in business, industry, and NGOs will join representatives from nearly 200 countries to convene in Warsaw, Poland, for the nineteenth annual Conference of the Parties (COP 19) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—an international environmental treaty established in 1994 to address the challenges of a warming planet.

The Sustainable Innovation Forum will be occurring alongside COP 19, featuring similar representation, with the objective of fostering innovative thinking and actions to transform energy policy and supply (energy security).

What was concerning to a few researchers in the 1980s, leading to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, is generally widely accepted today—that global warming and climate change are very real, they are worsening, and they will exacerbate severe weather patterns, threaten food security, damage the health of our oceans, and detrimentally effect many lives. Developing countries already struggling with hunger, poverty, loss of productive topsoil, and human sickness will be particularly hard hit. Importantly, although natural sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions do exist, humans are to blame for the degree of climate change we are currently experiencing, because it is largely a byproduct of our actions—certain habits that have resulted in excessive GHGs being increasingly emitted into our atmosphere over the past century. Unfortunately, previous conferences of this type have ended in lack of formal agreement and have missed targets for change. The two largest emitters in the world, China and the U.S., don’t even participate.

Urgency       Image

Every aspect of global depletion has a timeline. It’s not really a question of if we will run out of certain vital resources or environment that sustains us… it’s WHEN. Perhaps the most critical timeline we face, regarding our survival as a species, is that of climate change. We have only a three- to four-year window of time from now to drastically reduce GHGs, or we will be thrust into irreversible warming of our planet. Most experts agree that if our planet’s temperature increases just 2 degrees Centigrade from pre-industrial levels, there will be catastrophic effects—complete loss of island countries, as well as severe droughts, flooding, and storms, just for starters. If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because we are already halfway to that two-degree mark, and we’re most likely careening toward a 3.6- to 5.3-degree Centigrade rise in average temperature by the end of this century. Some researchers believe that enough GHGs have already been emitted to cause atmospheric changes that will force us into continued short-term warming, regardless of a reduction in emissions.

In fact, the International Energy Agency has been quite clear about the window of opportunity for us to limit global warming, and that window closes at the end of year 2017 (IEA).


Wrong Focus

To date, the attention at the previous eighteen COP conferences and all other high-level climate change meetings has been on reducing the burning of fossil fuels by the energy sector, which accounts for roughly 53 percent of all GHGs. (Energy accounts for 66 percent of global GHGs, and 80 percent of all energy consumption derives from fossil fuel). Many experts suggest elimination of coal, due to its lack of efficiency and large proportion of GHG contribution.

In 2006, a now widely cited U.N. study shocked the world by reporting that the livestock industry accounted for 18 percent of all human-induced GHG. Since that time, other researchers have found that this figure may be in excess of 51 percent, which would make it by far the most significant global contributor to climate change. This disparity (18 vs. 51 percent) was a result of at least three factors: underreporting and omission of key data, use of outdated figures, and likely editorial conceptual bias of that 2006 U.N. report (see Goodland & Anhang). Note that neither report (U.N. or Goodland & Anhang) accounted for the additional GHG and ecological damage contributed by the fishing industry—the fossil fuel used by fishing fleets, as well as the transportation, refrigeration, processing, and packaging of marine life that is extracted from our oceans or raised in aquaculture operations.


In or out of COP conventions, discussions of our climate change plight typically end up sooner or later referencing one of two figures related to the maximum amount of GHG our atmosphere can accept before catastrophic effects mount:

  • The first figure, 350, refers to the parts per million density threshold of carbon-equivalent GHGs.
  • The second figure, 565, refers to the maximum total number of gigatons (Gt) of GHGs our atmosphere is able to absorb.

Livestock have been shown to produce up to 32 Gt per year (from methane and CO2 production, deforestation, etc.). So, it is possible that we could exceed our atmospheric maximum of 565 Gt by the year 2030, simply from the continued production and consumption of livestock—without the energy sector or any fossil fuel consumption (gas, oil, or coal) even factored into the equation.

While attention should surely be given to the energy, industry, and transportation sectors, certainly animal agriculture demands equal time in any COP or similar climate change conference. BP, Shell, and Exxon are significant players in our climate change saga, but so is every business associated with the meat, dairy, and fishing industries as well as the consumers who eat their products. And it is certainly easier for consumers to reach for plant-based food items than it is for them to go off the grid with their electrical needs or drive a wind-powered car.

Mitigation vs. Adaptation    get-attachment-12.aspx

Unable to construct a workable legal framework by which all countries are accountable, and faced with what they now see as worsening climate change inevitability, the delegates at Doha, Qatar (COP 18) turned to discussions of methods for “adapting” to climate change, rather than mitigating it. Discussions about the role of agriculture were conveniently postponed, as had occurred at all prior COP conventions, so frank dialogue addressing the elephant in the room—raising and eating animals—remains quite remote. The participants at recent COP conventions have had no difficulty calling for the elimination of coal and replacement of fossil fuels by alternative energy sources such as wind and solar. It’s time they consider calling for the same measures with animal products and concomitant agriculture industries. Indeed, the solution to the climate change caused by at least one of the three largest emitters of anthropogenic GHGs can be readily found by any of the high-level COP 19 attendees—they simply need to glance down at what’s on their dinner plates!

Prescription for Change     bookhardcover copy 

When looking at strategies for solving our increasing anthropogenic GHG-climate challenge, I believe we are faced with adopting one of two approaches here in the United States, which could then serve as an example for the rest of the world.

  • The first approach is to reduce our dependency on fossil fuel and fund research on alternative technologies, which is already underway. However, building renewable energy infrastructure such as solar and wind generators across our country to reduce climate change, although a good idea, is projected to take at least 20 more years and $18 trillion to develop. We don’t have 20 years, and we certainly don’t have $18 trillion.
  • So another solution to climate change would be to stop eating animals—today. It doesn’t have to take 20 years. And instead of $18 trillion, it costs nothing.

Replacement of all animal-based food products with plant-based alternatives is the clear immediate prescription for mitigating climate change.

Oh, and by doing so, we will also minimize our global footprint, essentially reducing nearly all other aspects of global depletion—land use inefficiencies and freshwater scarcity, damage to our oceans and loss of rainforests, rapid extinction of other species, world hunger, and escalation of chronic disease in humans.

Problems solved.


Saving the World With Livestock—the Savory approach examined


A number of hurdles obstruct the path of evolution toward more sustainable, peaceful food production systems. One such hurdle is the perpetuation of belief that sustainability can be achieved if we simply modify our current animal production systems. Many authors, scientists, and organizations are happy to spread this message and have ample perceived public platform to do so. This invariably leads to distortion of reality, suppression of facts, and an appeased global audience still clinging to some form of justification for eating meat.

With two annual conferences and worldwide acclaim, the TED talks have brought audiences “Ideas Worth Spreading” since 1984. During one of these talks in February 2013, which garnered a standing ovation, Allan Savory—a Zimbabwean biologist, farmer, and environmentalist—argued that grazing livestock is the answer to our global population explosion, climate change, and restoring the many lands that are turning to desert. In his twenty-two-minute talk, he dramatically built the case that two-thirds of the world is desertifying (becoming desert-like with the loss of all topsoil and fertility) and that the only option we have to solve this “perfect storm” is to “do the unthinkable—to use livestock bunched and moving as a proxy for former herds and predators to mimic nature. There is no other alternative for mankind.”

Mr. Savory uses these profound remarks to introduce us to his work with the Savory Institute and their attempts to restore desertified grasslands with what he calls “holistic management and planned grazing”— essentially a form of short-term grassland management or intensified rotational pasturing techniques, now employed by many grass-fed operations and permaculturists. According to Savory, using large herds of cattle “addresses all of nature’s complexity and our social, environmental, economic concerns.”

Savory’s TED talk was compelling and certainly provided what all carnivores wanted to hear (hence, the standing ovation). Nevertheless, it was riddled with inconsistencies and unsupported claims, and it suppressed key information in a calculated manner.

Two distinct misrepresentations characterized his talk: (1) that desertification is an isolated problem by itself; and (2) that increasing livestock production in affected areas of habitat loss will solve the problem of desertification. Perhaps the more significant of the two is the very precept from which he built his case—that desertification is a stand-alone concern, impacting food security and our future survival. It is actually a manifestation or side effect of something else—deforestation, which is a by-product of our choice of foods.

Aside from naturally occurring deserts, which are healthy components of our earth’s varied ecosystems and habitats, there are two forms of man-made deserts—those that were once primary ancient grasslands/ savannas and those that were once forests. Grasslands are being lost at an alarming rate. However, of much larger concern is that most grasslands were once forests, and we are cutting down forests at a rate of 30 million acres per year, globally. Another 20 to 30 million acres of forests are being degraded (destroyed by thinning and creating roads and disruptive corridors). These deforested areas are eventually converted to grasslands for cattle or for cultivating crops to feed livestock. Savory focused the audience’s attention to a NASA aerial photograph of the world, and he highlighted regions that are most affected by desertification—the Amazon basin, numerous countries in Africa, and temperate regions in Asia—but he failed to mention that nearly all of those areas were once forests, now turned into pastures for cattle. Nearly 90 percent of the deforested areas of the Amazon are the result of the meat and dairy industries. These deforested areas then become eroded and eventually desertified, losing valuable topsoil along the way.

The problem at hand is that we eat meat. Eating meat causes demand to raise more livestock, which is a miserably inefficient use of land as well as other natural resources, requiring from two to twenty acres to support just one cow. Therefore, in the pursuit for more land, raising livestock causes deforestation. Deforestation then causes erosion and topsoil loss, which then causes desertification. If we stopped deforestation, we would stop desertification. If we stopped eating meat, we would stop deforestation as well as loss of ancient grasslands.

Savory provided the audience with examples of restored land using his livestock and grazing techniques in Africa, Argentina, and Mexico. Argentina, though, has lost over 66 percent of all its forests over the past seventy-five years, with current deforestation rates at 210,000 acres per year. Over 40 percent of all plant and animal species are negatively impacted in that country. Zimbabwe, where most of Savory’s studies have been conducted, is destroying their forests at rate of 1 percent per year, which doesn’t sound impressive, but they have already lost more than 85 percent of their original forests, primarily due to raising livestock. Desertification is occurring as a by- product of this deforestation as well as combined with subsequent pastoral herding. Savory states the cause of desertification is somewhat a “mystery.” But the primary cause is due to grazing livestock. It is no mystery.

Closer examination of Savory’s techniques of holistic management reveals they do not work as well as he states. His idea of “mimicking nature” is to place up to 400 percent higher cattle density in small, desertified areas of grasslands and rotate them in an attempt to replicate the movement and soil compaction by hooves of massive ancient herds of grazing animals. Numerous authors have studied the effect of Savory’s and similar methods in Africa and North America and have demonstrated that, in most cases, short duration grazing “reduced individual cattle productivity due to stress from heavy stocking and movement of cattle” and that these methods “do not provide a unique means to favorably modify rangeland composition.” When compared to rotational grazing, studies have shown that conventional continuous grazing methods displayed greater plant health and production in 87 percent of the cases.

Although Savory proclaims worldwide success of his methods, it is the consensus of many researchers that intensive rotation grazing (such as the Savory technique) as a means to increase vegetation and animal production “has been subjected to as rigorous a testing regime as any hypothesis in the rangeland profession, and it has been found to convey few, if any, consistent benefits over continuous grazing.” Drawing that conclusion in 2008 after comprehensive review of a number of studies, Dr. David Briske from Texas A&M and other researchers added in their synthesis paper, “It is unlikely that researcher oversight or bias has contributed to this conclusion, given the large number of grazing experiments, investigators, and geographic locations involved over a span of six decades.”

Studies by the chief of field and pasture extension in Zimbabwe (Gammon 1984) and others (Vaughan-Evans, 1978), compared the Savory Grazing Method (SGM) to less intensive management and showed that Savory’s methods were “not superior to less intensively managed areas.” One study pointed out that during an eight-year period of time, where SGM showed some degree of success, there happened to be an unusual amount of rainfall (50 percent above normal for that area), which likely boosted any positive results Savory had recorded. Within two subsequent years of normal rainfall, continued use of SGM produced an observed progressive deterioration in pastures and animal performance.

Savory argues that many desertified areas of the world can only be used to grow animals, not plants, to feed people, suggesting that there are no alternatives to eating meat for people living in these areas. One of these areas Savory uses as an example is the Greater Horn of Africa (GHA), which comprises eight countries and covers six million square kilometers. The entire region has experienced severe conflict and disturbances in some form in the past decade, and it is one of the most highly desertified regions in the world, having lost more than two-thirds of its topsoil. Here, Savory argues that providing them with livestock is the only hope they have of saving their families because, as he states, “95 percent of the land in the GHA can only feed people from animals.” Savory’s approach for this region would be to raise livestock in massive numbers to help restore pastures and then slaughter them to help feed people. Typically, these areas are drought- ridden and the people plagued by poverty, hunger, and illiteracy. It would make more sense to optimize sustainability by producing a type of food that is the most efficient to grow—least water usage, no GHG emissions, least land needed, and healthiest for humans to consume. When compared to plants, raising livestock seems illogical. Wherever pasture can grow or be restored to feed livestock, other plants could be grown as well—to be eaten directly by humans. It’s interesting to note that livestock already occupy 44 percent of the total land surface of the eight GHA countries and are directly responsible for use of the sparse natural resources available for their human population. The country of Eritrea, for instance, has a human population of 5 million people yet is using their very few resources to support 6 million cattle, sheep, and goats. Ethiopia is cutting down 25,000 acres of their forests each year in order to make more room for their growing herd of livestock, now the largest in Africa, while their human population suffers from lack of food. It’s quite clear that use of sparse and dwindling natural resources for livestock in the GHA is essentially choking the struggling human population. Yet Savory’s plan would be to add more livestock to the region.

And then there is the problem with loss of biodiversity. Savory has not addressed how he plans to restore loss of the ecosystems and plants, animals, and insects that were originally present before livestock ruined the landscape. When he places cattle and livestock into an area that has been deforested and now desertified, what is the plan to bring back the natural, indigenous flora and fauna—a number of which are now extinct?

Many desertified areas, including those in semi-arid regions would be much healthier and more productive if restored in a resource- efficient manner with indigenous drought-resistant plants, agroforestry, implementing terracing and other organic methods, or plant-generated microbiological measures, rather than with livestock. One of these measures is the reintroduction in desertified land of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus (AMF) and various plants, such as legumes, which then form a highly evolved mutualistic relationship. This is one of many complex symbiotic interactions lost when cattle are introduced to an area.

Forests and reforestation provide the following categories of health to the environment with the absence of cattle or other livestock:

  • Diverse non-timber forest products, including herbs
  • Edible plants
  • Fruit
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Gums
  • Resins

Forests also provide ecosystem services such as:

  • Watershed protection (natural control of water, reduction of erosion)
  • Maintenance of biodiversity and conservation (species of plants, animals, and insects)
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Balance of atmospheric oxygen

There is another way, then, to mimic nature—by truly mimicking nature. Adding domesticated cattle to desertified landscape as a measure to compensate for our mistakes of decimating the normal flora and fauna over the decades creates many issues. Savory’s methods may indeed restore some desertified grasslands but so would plant-based food production systems or simply reintroducing the original natural blend of species (plants, animals, insects, microbes).

Wherever Savory speaks, he conveniently fails to mention that deforestation and degradation of tropical forests and subsequent transformation to pasture are the primary global reasons for initializing erosion, decreasing soil fertility, and eventual desertification and heavy contribution to climate change. Prevention, therefore, is key, not acting in a retrospective manner with concepts that confuse industries, agriculturalists, and consumers.

If “mimicking nature” is what he desires, then Savory should consider reintroducing the 10 million acres of forests lost each year in Africa (part of the 4.5 billion total acres lost globally over the past few hundred years), primarily due to the introduction of livestock. He should add the correct number and density of wildebeests and other grazing mammals that were lost due to deforestation—add the 140,000 lions, leopards, and other predators back into the equation and all other wildlife and biodiversity that has been destroyed over the years by human activities—that would “mimic nature”.

From 1955, when he served as game ranger/officer in Northern and Luapula provinces of Rhodesia (now Zambia), through 1969, Savory supervised the killing of game animals and advocated the mass culling of elephants and hippos, convinced that they were destroying the habitat. Savory was also a farmer, game rancher, consultant, officer in the Game Department, and politician based in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). As such, he called for a project to slaughter more than 40,000 elephants— until it came under heavy criticism when officials realized that these gentle, innocent giants were not the problem.78 While Savory was arguing for a calculated slaughtering of animals, others, such as Lawton and Gough, were suggesting that elephants were not the problem at all. Rather, it was the repeated burning or human-induced fires in the dry season (from slash- and-burn/swidden agricultural methods) that might be the real reason for desertification. At the time, R. M. Lawton was an ecologist with the Land Resources Division of the British Directorate of Overseas Surveys, and Mrs. Gough was a skilled observer of animal behavior in Zambia.

There is the question of motives behind Savory’s advocacy for increasing cattle and livestock production. He states that he loves elephants, yet slaughters them. He loves wildlife yet kills them. He refers to the indigenous people of Zimbabwe as “drum beaters” and offers us his own bias of the human scale of intelligence in the statement, “Everyone knows this, from Nobel Prize laureates to golf caddies.”

Savory’s holistic management or “mimicking nature” philosophy appears to be merely a facade of many sorts, since his operation and overriding objectives are in full support of increasing the meat and dairy industries. This is evidenced by his stated philosophy, which is supported by every program with which he’s been involved in the U.S. and developing countries over the years. His leading team members (Director of Research and all co-founders of the Savory Institute) are derived entirely from the meat and dairy industry. Most of them own and continue to operate very large cattle and other livestock ranches for the purpose of slaughtering, selling, and eating meat, not necessarily to improve their own grasslands.

According to Savory:

“If we just do it on half the world’s grasslands I’ve shown you we can take us back to pre-industrial levels [of GHG] while feeding people. I can think of almost nothing that offers more hope for our planet, for your children and their children and all of humanity.”

Restoration in this sense is complex and insidious. It is true that mob/rotational grazing by livestock could help selected, previously desertified areas in certain developing countries. But it comes with a price undisclosed by Savory or other permaculturists—misdirected resource use. The same land used for grazing could be used for producing plant foods for humans to eat directly. Water is being used for livestock, rather than directly by humans. There is an increase in GHG emissions, disposition (slaughtering) at the end of the animals’ tenure, and production of a food product that is much less healthy to eat than any of a number of plants that could have been grown. On its surface, Savory’s process may look attractive, but it obscures the Savory Institute’s objective of feeding a certain portion of the world with increased meat and dairy products by way of herd management of desertification.

It is difficult for Savory or any “expert” to see beyond his own limiting factors of cultural influences—if he eats meat and promotes its production, it will be difficult for him to accept concepts that call for its elimination. Yet this is a perfect example of the type of argument to which we will be continually subjected, wrongly influencing the masses, as we journey toward a healthier planet. It’s time the TED talks consider not spreading at least one of their “Ideas Worth Spreading.” –excerpts from my new book “Food Choice and Sustainability“, to be released in September, 2013Image


The Blue Planet Prize: What does it mean in 2012?

ImageYesterday, it was announced that Drs. William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel will receive the Blue Planet Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious environmental awards, for their work in creating the Ecological Footprint—a tracking or measurement of the impact we have on our planet. Since 2003, Rees, Wackernagel and their Global Footprint Network have used a data-determined metric as a monitoring device tracking how sustainable (or unsustainable) we are living. Their group and global partners now span six continents and apply the impact of the Footprint to many projects. As of 2012, they report that humans are in overshoot mode because we are using the equivalent of more than 1.5 planets to provide the resources taken, and to absorb our GHG emissions. One of their goals is to “increase international media outreach to broaden our message.” The work of this group is remarkable, and can serve as an important tool as we assess and then correct the detrimental effects we impose on our planet. They are to be truly commended.

But knowing that we are in an overshoot, unsustainable mode and actually taking the right steps to correct this are two separate issues. It is how we can best use this tool that becomes the question. The Global Footprint Network make it perfectly clear that they are “not anti-trade, anti-technology, or anti-GDP.” They are informational based only and “make no judgment about the value of technologies” or “the benefits, disadvantages or fairness of trade.” As such, it is left up to our nations’ leaders, policy makers, business leaders, and individuals to first become aware of the information provided by the Ecological Footprint and then to create change—if sustainability is their goal. The Global Footprint Network has come to the same conclusions as many other organizations in that “climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, fisheries collapse, food insecurity and the rapid extinction of species are all part of a single, over-arching problem: humanity is simply demanding more from the Earth than it can provide.” However, as with other organizations, the Global Footprint Network stumbles with providing specific reasons and then a viable direction as to resolution—we need a clear pathway toward sustainability, not simply hearing recited observations that we are not there. Fundamental change is in order and it begins with conveying realities.

I can help with the clarification. This would be my approach: Our global demand to eat animals, without proper economic regard or reflection of resource use, has caused food production systems to become the largest contributing factor to our unsustainable Ecological Footprint. The raising, slaughtering, and consumption of animals—livestock, wild caught fish, and aquaculture—is the primary cause of Global Depletion. It is not a factory farm or “agribusiness” problem. It’s an eating animals problem. Our demand to eat animals is responsible for 30-51% of all anthropogenic ghg emissions and climate change, 80% of the deforestation of tropical rainforests, 100% of the overgrazing, 100% of the fisheries collapse, 100% of the food insecurity issues (with factors we can control), and at least 50% of the rapid extinction of terrestrial and oceanic species. This is what needs to be said.

So Drs. Rees and Wackernagel are quite right in stating that “climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, fisheries collapse, food insecurity and the rapid extinction of species are all part of a single, over-arching problem: humanity is simply demanding more from the Earth than it can provide.” They, and the world however, need to identify the reasons, spell out the fact that although there are other contributing factors, our food choices as they involve animals and animal products are the largest single issue. We need to use this valuable information to create change, not simply point our finger at a generality that a problem exists. Although specifying the major cause of our ecological overshoot appears to be difficult for everyone to do, it is actually the easiest to identify and correct—simply begin eating all plant-based foods. No animals. Now.

I encourage everyone to take the information Rees and Wackernagel have so skillfully assembled, assign the major causative factor for overshoot, make the change to a fully plant based diet and then inspire others to follow suit. We have the information. Let’s do something with it.

Dr. O

Biodiversity and Food Choice: A Clarification

ImageThere needs to be a correction, and also modification of a particular concept, to the recently published article I had written for the North American Vegetarian Society (“Meat: no longer just a factory farm issue” in Vegetarian Voice 2012) regarding biodiversity loss. The “30,000 per year” extinction or loss of species statement I made is actually referring to species of animals, plants, insects—not simply animals (although the “animal” kingdom technically includes insects). This figure was first brought to light by Harvard naturalist and emeritus professor of biology, Edward Wilson (The Diversity of Life, Harvard University Press 1992) and supported by Niles Eldridge (Life in the Balance, Princeton University Press 1998). Others such as Georgina Mace, Paul Ehrlich have extinction estimates as high as 70,000 to 130,000 species per year (7,000 to 13,000 times the background rate).

After speaking with and interviewing numerous researchers with the Species Survival Commission of IUCN (The World Conservation Union) and COBD (The Convention on Biological Diversity), about this topic over the past four months, I now feel there are many uncertainties surrounding attempts at quantifying the exact number of species becoming extinct per year. For this reason, it is more meaningful to view our planet’s current loss of species and the impact of our food choices in the following manner:

  1. We are losing species of life as well as ecosystems on Earth at an unprecedented and alarming rate, estimated to be anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times the “background rate”—that which had been seen for the previous several thousands of years. Therefore, it is this massive rate of extinction rather than number of loss that becomes a more meaningful metric and cause for concern.
  2. It is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately predict the number of species loss per year because of a number of factors. One of the largest unknowns is the exact amount of species that we have on earth, which is a needed component when attempting to determine total numbers of species loss when using an extinction prediction equation. This is one of the reasons the Species Area Curve Relationship method of extinction calculation has led to speculation and wide ranges of numbers of extinct species. It is the feeling of most researchers today that although we have identified approximately 1.8 million species on our planet, there are most likely between 10 and 30 million that exist.
  3. Regardless of the exact number of species becoming extinct per year, it is alarming at best and can be most attributed to loss of habitat—and the predicted future escalation will be due to habitat loss combined with climate change.
  4. With estimates of 45% of all the land mass on Earth used by animal agriculture and 1 to 2 trillion fish extracted from our oceans each year (by fishing methods such as trawling, purse seine, long lines, explosives and other techniques that are damaging ecosystems)—eating animals (fishing and livestock production) is the largest contributing factor in habitat loss and constitutes the second largest sector implicated in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions which lead to climate change.

There has been widespread thought that marine species were more resilient to extinction and our further exploitation. However, there is finally a growing amount of evidence that fish and wildlife in our oceans are as, or more, vulnerable to extinction than many terrestrial and freshwater species. Despite continued massive harvesting of sea life from our oceans, it is generally agreed upon by researchers not affiliated with sustainable certifying organizations that the amount and distribution of threatened marine species is, at best, “poorly known.” Our demand to eat fish cannot be taken out of the equation when discussing our abuse of natural resources, eventual loss of species, and climate change.

Habitat loss is far and away the most pervasive threat to terrestrial animal species, impacting 86% of all mammals, 88% of amphibians, and 86% of all birds. One in every eight birds, one in every three amphibians and one in every four mammals is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the near future. Overexploitation of animals for consumption remains a second major factor for extinction such as can be seen in wild meat trade in Africa and Southeast Asia and all hunting endeavors on land, globally.

Current biodiversity assessments (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, IUCN Red List, and the Global Environmental and Biodiversity Outlook) now generally agree that land use change, modification of river flow, freshwater pollution, and exploitation of marine environments are the most significant drivers of biodiversity change and loss of species. Eventually, ocean acidification and climate change will become increasingly important. With overharvesting sea life in our oceans and raising livestock on land (grazing or CAFOs), our demand to eat animals and animal products remains the largest contributing anthropogenic factor to those accepted drivers of loss of species on Earth.

Let’s eat plants, not animals, and inspire others to do the same. Dr. O

The World Hunger-Food Choice Connection: A Summary

ImageDuring many of my lectures, I have been asked to discuss world hunger as it relates to our food choices because it is a very serious and complicated issue. One billion people in the world suffer from hunger and six million children will die from starvation this year, as they did in 2011. The reality of these figures should be as startling to you as they are to me.

We all seem to have difficulty understanding how our choices, particularly regarding items we consume such as food, could possibly have an impact on something or someone elsewhere in the world. It is so very difficult to see, feel, or extend beyond the microcosm or bubble each of us finds ourselves living within. After all, if it is not directly in our sight, it must not real.

Although having many layers of complexity, to most observers the reason we have world hunger is because of poverty. While on its simplest level this is true, animal based food production systems are directly responsible for many factors affecting hunger, starvation—and even poverty, which then, cycles itself back to hunger.

This correlation between animal (livestock and fish) based food production systems and world hunger is, of course, fueled by the demand for these products and can be found in generalized global factors as well as on a very local basis or regionally within countries where hunger rates are high. Together, these two categories of factors (global and local) insidiously manifest themselves in many ways.

There are two primary groups of people suffering from this poverty-hunger cycle—about 33% are those living in more urban settings (this is the case with those found in the U.S. and other developed countries), while the other 2/3 are those in rural and more undeveloped nations. For both groups, the raising and eating animals (livestock and fish) by our global community ultimately affects food prices, food availability, policy making, and even education to improve agricultural systems in those developing countries. Global factors include control of seed manufacturing and pricing primarily for livestock feed crops by large companies such as Monsanto and DuPont (Pioneer), buying and selling of grain including futures by Archer Daniel Midland, Cargill and through the processing/slaughterhouses and packaging by Cargill, Swift, Tyson, and JBS. These few but very large and powerful companies control over 65% of all seed, grain, and over 80% of all final animal products in the world. It is a very monopolized production and economic system manufacturing seeds at one end and spewing out meat at the other. Because of the global demand for meat (all livestock), cultural, social, political, and economic influences remain strongly supportive of the continued dominance of these large companies and the meat, dairy, and fishing industries in general, which then drives how global resources are being used (land, water, rainforests, oceans, atmosphere, biodiversity, etc.), how money is spent, and how policies are determined. The demand for animal products in developed countries drives resource depletion in developing countries as well as exacerbating poverty and hunger.

Realize that 82% of the world’s starving children live in countries where food is fed to animals that are then killed and eaten by more well off individuals in developed countries like the US, UK, and in Europe.  One fourth of all grain produced by third world countries is now given to livestock, in their own country and out.

Globally, even with climate change issues and weather extremes, we are producing enough grain to feed two times as many people as there are in the world. In 2011, there was a record harvest of grain globally, with over 2.5 billion tons, but half of that was fed to animals in the meat and dairy industries. Seventy seven percent of all coarse grains (corn, oats, sorghum, barley, etc.) and over 90% of all soy grown in the world was fed to livestock. So clearly the difficulty is not how can we produce enough food to feed the hungry, but where all the food we produce globally is going, in addition to the other factors of pricing, policy making, and education. This will certainly become more of an issue as our planet’s human population extends beyond 9 billion before the year 2050.

On a local basis, specific animal based agriculture simply perpetuates both poverty and hunger. This is true whether in urban, industrialized countries, which are affected by all those factors mentioned above, or in rural developing countries. As an example, in Ethiopia, over 60% of their population is considered hungry or starving, and yet they have 50 million cattle in that country (one of the largest herds in the world), unnecessarily consuming their food, land, and water. More than 2/3 of Ethiopia’s topsoil has been lost due to raising cattle. Many countries elsewhere in Africa and in the Amazonian region that suffer from hunger raise cattle inefficiently at the expense of their soil, localized climate, and other resources while producing a fraction of the food they could if converting to plant based foods. This is because of their  very powerful cultural factors to raise cattle as well as demand globally and by neighboring countries.

More than 66% of the world’s poorest people (those living on $2 or less per day) live in rural areas and rely on natural resources for their existence. Global demand and production of fish and livestock has reduced traditional fishing stocks and decimated coral reef systems for indigenous people living on coasts and islands, shriveled and segmented million year old forests. This will only exacerbate world poverty and hunger because while remote from those who consume animal products, it is the world of the indigenous and the very natural resources they have relied on for centuries.

So, how would conversion to plant-based, local agriculture systems change this? Hunger and poverty, in many cases, exist as a circling phenomenon, whereby one perpetuates the other. Addressing the hunger issue will help solve the poverty issue. It has been shown that growth in the agricultural sector of a developing nation is two times more effective than growth in any other area including economics. This is because in Africa and most other developing countries where there is poverty and hunger, over 75% of the working force is engaged in agriculture. Ethiopia has 95% of its income dependent upon agriculture. However, at the same time that agricultural growth is needed, it must be in organic plant based systems because this would be the most efficient use of their resources—many of which are already critically diminished such as water and land.

Instead of using their food, water, topsoil, and massive amounts of land, and energy to raise livestock, Ethiopia could for instance grow teff, an ancient and quite nutritious grain. Seventy percent of all their cattle are raised pastorally in the highlands of that country where less than 100 pounds of meat and a few gallons of milk are produced per acre of land used. If this land were used for the growing of teff, Ethiopians could produce over 2,000 pounds of food per one acre with no water irrigation. The end product could provide a much greater amount of much needed nutrients and even stimulate improved economics with business opportunities to sell teff (as well as many other types of produce) to other countries. Therefore, conversion to plant based food systems for local regions in developing countries would feed more people more nutritiously with more efficient use of their resources, improve long term soil fertility, create economic opportunities, all of which would provide a path toward breaking the poverty and hunger cycle.

Nearly all researchers on this topic could agree that while there are many complex layers of influences related to hunger and that war and repressive government regimes as well as climate extremes all play a role, the most significant are poverty, lack of natural resources and inefficient use of the resources they do have. And although other influences certainly may also play a role in poverty, the most significant and long-term factor that can be changed is with the development of new plant based organic agricultural systems and the education to do so. It is what we have the most control over, with the most profound impact. It must begin, though, with education and an example of this can be found in the Machakos district of south Kenya. This is a poor area economically as well as from a soil fertility standpoint and they are many times in the midst of an unstable, if not repressive, government. Nevertheless, a program was implemented teaching the women farmers, (more than 50% of the farmers in African countries are women) techniques such as erosion and rainwater control with terracing. They began focusing on organic, plant based foods instead of livestock or animal feed crops, and their yields improved by more than 50%, now using produce to feed more people and even creating business opportunities that are selling items such as green beans to other countries.

In developing countries elsewhere, organic plant based agricultural systems have been shown to improve yields by as much as 400%, with an average of 150%. While most researchers and organizations involved in the plight of nations suffering from hunger inherently feel that improved information technologies, increasing intensified livestock operations, and fostering the continuation of cultural practices are where energy and dollars should be spent, I can see many difficulties with that approach. Instead, I feel that the emphasis should be placed on education, redefining the word “yield” beyond short term consumptive gain, and providing guidance for the implementation of fully organic plant based agricultural systems. This is the best way to improve soil fertility for the future, provide the most nutritious food at the least cost to their environment, while opening the doors to economic opportunities—thus, “feeding themselves” and creating a food, economic, and environs security net despite what repressive forces may surround them or they may encounter.

We must remember that although climate change and extremes of water conditions from floods to droughts do obviously exist, much of the soil fertility issues that are faced by developing countries in Africa and elsewhere who have high rates of hunger and malnutrition are derived from how they have managed (or mismanaged) their own agricultural systems over the past 100 years. It would be difficult to blame any other reason than their use of livestock—their complete cultural dependence on cattle. In many areas of Africa, poorly managed cattle herds have caused severe overgrazing, deforestation, and then subsequent erosion and eventual desertification. On average, 1/2 to 2/3 of all the topsoil has been lost across the entire African continent with some areas experiencing complete topsoil loss.  Allocation of the 2.5 billion tons of grain produced globally to people instead of animals, elimination of livestock based agricultural systems globally and locally, education of all small stakeholders and governments in developing countries for furthering organic plant based systems, and of course increased global awareness of these issues and the development of a collective consciousness will help eradicate world hunger as well as many other concerns along the way.

The World Hunger Service and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations stated in 2011, regarding world hunger: “The principal problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food.”

And, therein lies the problem—explaining why there has been no progress. This statement vividly illustrates the quite narrowed, simplified view of the very institution that is leading efforts to solve world hunger.

Let’s do our part in reducing world hunger and poverty by increasing awareness about changing to a fully plant based diet. Let’s raise and mobilize the collective conscience. We can do this.

Inspire Awareness Now!

Meet Jane

ImageThis is a story about Jane, a cute, cuddly, trusting and innocent 10 month-old real life koala. It’s not so much about her life directly as it is about a major disconnect—and a necessary reconnect that I’ll begin to weave for you. Jane’s life has been affected by the food choices we make on a global basis. “How can that possibly be,” you would surely ask—after all, the food we eat comes from a grocery store or a restaurant.

Similar to its effect on many other species living on our planet, the beef you are eating today has a profound impact on Jane and other koalas in two ways. First, since the U.S. is the second largest importer of Australian beef in the world (following Japan), the meat you are eating may have actually come from Australia—part of the 200,000 tons ($1 billion worth) we import each year from their country. Second, even if the beef on your plate today is not directly from the grasslands of Australia, it is one of the building blocks of the meat and dairy industry that casts its ominous shadow over our planet. With every bite of beef you take, it is effectively stamping another vote of support and creating the demand for more and more livestock to be raised and slaughtered throughout the world. This then perpetuates Global Depletion (see the book, Comfortably Unaware) of our planet’s resources and creates substantial increases in risk factors for loss of our own health. As we continue to demand more meat, dairy, and fish products to eat in our country we are also closing our eyes to the true costs to produce those animal products—whether here in the U.S. or in other countries. Until we recognize the true value of the resources and health implications of eating animals, irreversible losses on many fronts will continue to occur. We need to impose an eco and health risk tax on all animal products that are produced, purchased from other countries (such as Australia), and sold to consumers who want to continue eating them. We need to make the entire chain of responsibility pay for the real cost of producing that food. Accountability needs to be established by affixing an appropriate economic value to animal products that reflects all resource (eco) cost during production and to us (health) after consumption, is long overdue and it should be translated into a mandatory tax. For instance, if the habitat and lives of koalas (or biodiversity anywhere on Earth) are lost by the production of an item consumed by humans, then that loss should be paid for by all those responsible.

As with nearly every other country in the world, Australia is a major cattle producer and consumer, expected to become one of the top beef producers and exporters in the world by the end of 2012 along with Brazil and the U.S. (among other things, we have the distinction of holding the #1 spot for beef production in the world in 2011). With the importing of over 2 million head of cattle and 800,000 tons of fresh beef and veal in 2011, the U.S. also has become the world’s second largest importer of beef, following only Russia.

Australia is considered a grass fed wonderland because most of their 200 million sheep and cattle raised annually are being pastured. Even so, Australia is seeing an increase in cattle going to feedlots and being “finished” on grain prior to slaughter, expecting this trend to grow to 31% of all cattle raised by the year 2020. In the U.S. there is heavy marketing and media coverage about grass fed/pastured livestock products, however, the USDA predicts our country will see a 4% increase this year (2012) in cattle that will be raised, or at least finished, on grain in feedlots instead of being 100% grass fed. This is largely due to the demand for grain fed meat by Mexico, the largest importer of U.S. grown beef, who favor the ‘marbled’ taste of grain fed cows and the obvious fact that grain fed cattle in confined (concentrated) feed operations are simply more efficient to produce and with much less land usage than in grass fed situations—which is still a few thousand times less efficient than using land to produce plant foods for us to consume.

As you drive the roads through any cattle district in Australia, you will see many, many cattle and sheep, a few kangaroos, and an occasional wallaby among other things. One sight that you will not see, though, is the one of miles and miles of corn or soybean feed crops as can be typically seen along any stretch of highway in the U.S. (especially in the Midwest). This is because cattle raised in Australia, do in fact, graze for most their lives—but it is with heavy land use and an irreversible toll on wildlife. The loss of biodiversity is blatant and measurable and, unfortunately, it is with an apathetic view.

Among the many livestock operations I am visiting in Australia, there is a region in Gippsland, Victoria that represents one of those very few areas in the world where resources such as water, land, and even their climate are considered ideal for ‘sustainably’ raising livestock. Streams and spring water are abundant and pasture can grow year round, so it has become a prime location for grass fed livestock operations such as cattle, pigs, sheep, and even goats. It is also Australia’s premier area for grass fed dairy operations. The trend seen in Gippsland and across Australia is to produce smaller cows and in less time by keeping them milking at their mother’s side in pastures and then letting them grass feed until 10 to 11 months of age and slaughtering them at an average weight of 265 kg (583 pounds). This method is, of course, fueled by demand—in this case, by Japan and the U.S. for meat from smaller, younger cattle. Interestingly, from a land use standpoint, this method of “sustainable” agriculture occurring in the most favorable conditions in Australia, and perhaps in the world, still uses minimally 2.5 acres to raise just one cow. When it is all said and done, that one cow will provide 300 pounds of meat, which results in 120 pounds per one acre of land used in one year. For reference, an organic vegetable farm, just down the road from these livestock operations in Gippsland, produces on average 5,000 to 10,000 pounds per one acre of food such as tomatoes, fast growing greens, and herbs, that are infinitely healthier for us to consume.

Although throughout Australia, the total number of farms has decreased, the size of an average farm (by “size,” I am referring to the number of livestock raised as well as acreage of land) is increasing, similar to what is occurring in the U.S. However, cattle farm operations in Gippsland remain smaller, averaging 50 to 500 head of cattle per farm and they adhere strongly to ‘grass fed/pastured’ philosophies of operational methodology and marketing protocols.

The concept of ‘humane’ is largely relegated to disease reduction in livestock, with all governmental agencies such as the Department of Primary Industries, Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), Australia Department of Agriculture and Food, etc. being more concerned about the quality of meat as the end product than the true physical, mental, and emotional state of an animal. For example, the very small section allocated to the welfare of animals raised for food that can be found in Western Australia’s Animal Welfare Regulations for the Pig Industry (adopted from the Australia Department of Agriculture and Food) states that the floor space in a stall for a sow should “not be less than 0.6 meter wide by 2.2 meters long” and that a sow with piglets should “not be confined for more than 6 weeks at a time in a farrowing pen less than 5.6 square meters.” This means that a sow can have the luxury of being confined to a space 23 inches wide by 6 feet long without being ‘inhumane’ and if with piglets, can be kept up to one and a half months, without being let out, in a pen 6 feet by 9 feet with its 10-12 piglets. Try that yourself sometime (with or without piglets) and then revisit this definition of ‘humane.’ Also, there are minimal enforceable measures.  This year (2012), the MLA voiced weak concern about the method of slaughter for their transported sheep ending up in the Middle East (99% of all exported sheep from Australia end up in Middle Eastern countries). With this small exception, there is a conspicuous lack of concern or regulation about the need for humane transport and humane slaughter of any livestock—knowing, of course, that there is ultimately no ‘humane’ method for us to slaughter another living thing.

As I pointed out earlier, Australia is among the largest producers and exporters of beef. This, of course, is at the expense of the health of their country—loss and inefficient use of their resources and the declining health of their citizens.

Although beef consumption is slightly declining within our own U.S. population, we are the second largest importer of beef from Australia, which is contributing to deforestation and loss of biodiversity in that country. Grazing livestock currently use over one billion acres of land in Australia, or more than 56% of the entire land mass of this country ( The rate of deforestation in Australia is increasing as quickly as anywhere else in the world with 600,000 acres lost in 2011. The majority of this forest destruction is in areas where koalas live, or once lived, therefore the world demand for beef equates into more land needed to raise cattle which results in forest loss, turning this land into pastures, which destroys the natural habitat of koalas—it’s all connected.

Hence, Jane’s family and thousands of other koalas are killed yearly primarily from direct habitat loss but also indirectly when they are hit by cars and attacked by dogs while moving on the ground in search of eucalyptus trees that were cut down in order to raise cattle. Jane is left orphaned, ending up in a remote sanctuary fighting to regain her health and parameters of life that had gone fairly undisturbed for the previous 25 million years and yet taken away in a matter of minutes by an invisible, insidious force called food choice. Jane represents species everywhere on our planet that are being devastated by livestock operations that are fueled by our demand to eat animals.

We need to think about Jane when you see beef or any other form of animal product that is considered ‘food’ for us to consume. Whether it has come directly from Australia or any other country, plucked out of our oceans, or even raised in your own back yard—meat is not ‘food’; it is a destructive human induced process.  Ask Jane.  Image