The Food System and Resilience

Note: This is my second post based on a portion of my presentations at the recent Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference in Denver. The first post is here. Go to the ASPO web site for the complete slide deck. Readers may also appreciate this article by Stoneleigh for more theoretical background.

Ecosystem resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes. A resilient ecosystem can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary. Resilience Alliance
For something as critical as food, it is common sense that society should design for resilience. Reliability in food production in the face of change requires a system capable of rapid evolution. Resilience is therefore a core principle of sustainability. Unfortunately, our daily bread relies on a food system that is not resilient. As I have explained before, this state of affairs is an outcome of government policies, financial pressures, cheap fossil fuels, and market forces in play over the past several decades. The result is a food system dominated by relatively few large actors, which creates conditions of rigidity and brittleness. This post is a brief review of:
  • the basic science of resilience,
  • how our current food system lacks a resilient structure, and
  • an overview of what a more resilient food system would be like

Food Webs

Resilence is a concept from the science of ecology. Ecologists study what are called food webs, which are feeding relationships among populations. A simple food web might be a plant eaten by a browsing animal, which is eaten by predator. When animals die a scavenger eats those bodies. And the poop is eaten by microbes that make the nutrients available to the plants again.


Diagram of a simple food web with lines indicated feeding relationships among populations of plants, herbivores and carnivores. A low diversity food web has strong connectivity between parts. Therefore, the loss of one part (as shown by the red cross mark through the herbivore) has big effects on other parts of the food web.

Ecologists have found some important relationships between food web structures and their properties. When food webs are very simple, meaning they have few parts that are connected to each other in straightforward ways, the system often shows unstable dynamics, such as widely fluctuating population sizes. It is easy to see how this happens. If a predator is dependent upon one prey, a decline in that prey will starve the predators.


An early and classic study of a low diversity food web. With only a few, strong connections, volatile dynamics result.

By contrast, diverse food webs have many parts, and often the relationships among parts are weak and not so simple. For example, instead of a few plant species there are many, and there are several herbivores that have a choice of feeding on different plants. The same is true all the way up the food chain, with predators being able to feed on a variety of prey. More diverse systems are more stable because if any particular plant or animal population goes into decline, feeding relationships are plastic and can adjust so that the loss of one part doesn’t cause havoc with others.


High diversity food webs have weaker connectivity among parts and therefore built in redundancy. This permits parts to adjust to losses, effectively buffering against volatility.

The Low Diversity Food System

Farms in the U.S. have become highly specialized to produce a narrow range of products. In the Midwest, for example, corn and soy dominate. In the Willamette Valley of Oregon, grass seed is king.


In 2009, 71% of U.S. cropland consisted of just three species (source USDA).

Low diversity at the farm level is magnified by low diversity all along the input and supply chains. Because of consolidation, few seed companies remain. And when it comes to getting paid after harvest, there are fewer buyers for farm commodities, and fewer distributors and retailers too. Few parts with strong connections among them preconditions the system for high volatility.

Seed industry consolidation 1996-2008 from Phil Howard of Michigan State University. Reaction to this issue via antitrust litigation is now occurring.

A Context for the Future

The fundamental emergent properties and core functions of a resilient system remain stable even as rapid change is occurring, whether from external forces or the ebb and flow of individuals and populations that make up an ecosystem. For the food system this means being able to produce, store and distribute food even when critical conditions alter dramatically, such as a credit crisis, energy shortfalls, or extremes in weather. Cheap transportation fuels have obviously been key in the development of our current food system, which emphasizes producing crops with high regional comparative advantages in yields, labor, or mechanization, and exporting them.

If we foresee a future with continued and possibly greater economic, resource and environmental volatility, then reconfiguring the food system for resilience is a smart strategy. Principles for doing so can be found by studying the structure of ecosystems.

The Resilient Farm Strategy

Natural systems are inherently resilient but just as their capacity to cope with disturbance can be degraded, so can it be enhanced. The key to resilience in social-ecological systems is diversity. Biodiversity plays a crucial role by providing functional redundancy. For example, in a grassland ecosystem, several different species will commonly perform nitrogen fixation, but each species may respond differently to climatic events, thus ensuring that even though some species may be lost, the process of nitrogen fixation within the grassland ecosystem will continue. Resilience Alliance

A resilient farm has diversified operations to buffer against volatility. The benefits of diversity accrue in many ways.

Organic and especially agroecological farms are less dependent upon outside inputs that can change in price rapidly and unpredictably. Crop rotation plans include many species of plants and animals that are complementary in functions, such as legumes fixing nitrogen, grasses building soil carbon, and animal manures making nutrients more readily available to plants. Instead of buying mechanized services or fertility inputs, the farm integrates the functional diversity of life to create synergies.


A farm layout and field rotation pattern based on agroecological principles. Colors represent different classes of production: green is pasture, brown is legumes, yellow is grains, red is cover crop, and blue is other seed crop. Each image shows a different year of land-use.

Inherent diversity means no single crop failure will ruin the farm, and soil imbalances are prevented. The focus is on soil health, with all fields going through periods of planting in perennial and deeply rooted species to build soil organic matter and mobilize minerals such as phosphorus from deep layers. Fungi associating with roots locate source rock and solubilize minerals that are trans-located to leaves. Topsoil fertility is therefore built from below.


Plant breeder Wes Jackson of the Land Institute (right) compares the root system of wheat (left) with that of a perennial wheat under development (right).

Landscape structure is created to provide habitat for native and naturalized species that participate positively in the farm food web, such as pollinators and predators. No need to buy pesticides when raptors have homes in the trees, predatory wasps have nectar sources, frogs can breed in clean water, and ground beetles have zones of refuge from tillage, for example.

While the emphasis is on letting the biology do the work, renewable energy infrastructure also creates resilience. Farms are often ideal places for wind and solar technologies, and on-farm biofuels are likely to have positive energy returns.


The many differences between conventional and sustainable farming systems are compared.

Food System Resilience

Most farms in the U.S. operate for purposes of exchange, not self-reliance. A resilient farm therefore needs to consider how it connects to the rest of the economy. Do farms have few or multiple choices in the sources of seeds, fertilizers and other inputs? Do these inputs come from far away mines and seed companies, or from local businesses? Are farmers beholden to a dominant buyer or do many potential buyers exist for their products?

To have a resilient food system the associative farm economy needs diversity too. Since this is typically not the case anymore, transforming the food system, both on and off farm, takes time, coordination among actors, patient financial investment, and the ability to adapt.

Different economic arrangements are competitive at different periods of history. I believe we are entering a time when the diminishing returns on previous investments will open up opportunities for new actors. Because of economic volatility, what works going forward will be different than what worked in the past. This is an age of great innovation where agroecological farming and local food system development will emerge as a natural and smart response to pressures of resource depletion, protection and enhancement of natural capital, and financial and job insecurity.

What will this new food system look like? It will be organized akin to an ecosystem, or food web. Farms and renewable energy infrastructure occupy the level of primary producers, with businesses acting as conduits for feeding omnivorous humans. In contrast to our current food system, which is linear in structure, the future food system will cycle nutrients back to the farm. This structural constraint will mean that much more food is grown for local populations.

Nutrients will still leak from landscapes, and so maintaining long-term fertility will require replacing what is lost. In forests of the Pacific Northwest, salmon migrations brought the mineral wealth of the ocean back to the land. Restoring migratory fish habitat therefore aligns with the needs of agriculture. Harvesting of kelp deposits on beaches and salt deposits from tidal zones and transporting them inland is another viable means of supporting the mineral richness in soils.

Bernie Winters of Clare Island, Ireland, harvests kelp from rocky beaches to remineralize the soils on his farm.

I hope this post has clearly framed the issue of food system resilience and the general principles involved. Many examples exist that align with the goals of resilience, including novel distribution systems, farmer training programs, and specialists on soil restoration. Please share other examples you know of, and discuss aspects of the challenges involved in more detail.

Excellent portrayal of the subject. A more local economy supports this scenario vrs the global trade of target crops and species.

It is what those who are rebuilding homesteads/farms are actively engaged in.


Nice post, Jason.

I think it's important to note that: (1) neither the federal nor state governments appear capable/willing to move in the direction of resilient food production, (2) there is great urgency that we DO start moving in this direction immediately, and (3) that we must therefore do it ourselves at the community level.

i.e. Everybody needs to start gardening/farming on a part-time basis until TSHTF. Learning to save seeds is crucial.

There are a few local/regional intergovernmental initiatives to promote greater agricultural sustainability and resilience. The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project is one example of an organized effort to move agriculture and local food systems in the direction that Jason advocates.

dan - I am in the process of applying for a rural development grant and all of the folks I talk to over at the USDA have told me that the new Sec. of Ag has issued a mandate to do everything possible to encourage and support Local food production and sustainability.

State (Oregon) has stepped up their funding focusing on these same issues.

Is it too little, too late? We shall see but I for one plan on pushing it to the limit.

P.S. IMO this is one area of our societal structure that will always have people in power pushing to sustain funding and support as long as we don't become a target for CorpAg.

Government seems capable of doing the right and wrong things at the same time. Farm bill goes to many of the bads (e.g., corn subsidies) and goods (e.g., support for organic transition on farms).

USDA is also now behind "local" which I discuss further here:

A big part of this is that there is a lot of institutional resistance to smaller-scale agriculture, and not just on the part of agribusiness. Many of the faculty in Ag departments have spent the last 40+ years developing the high-density/high yield/economies of scale system of agriculture, and they are not about to abandon it. Many truly beleive that to do so would be to court disaster.

This means that whenever a policy maker (lawyer) asks for advice on an ag-related issue, chances are the'll talk to somebody who supports large-scale ag. It also means that graduates of ag programs will be trained in this methodology and when a farmer looks for advice from the extension office, he'll get information from this perspective.

This conversation can get into the subject of who institutions serve, i.e., who do they perceive as their clients. The land grant universities and extension services are torn between missions for the public and the fact that funding is more and more corporate.

The result is today's schizophrenia.

While training for landscape architecture there were people that discounted the idea of edible landscapes as a silly idea from the beatnik years. Then there were people that looked into it full time. But it was not on the agenda of the school to talk about it, their main goal was to cream off the top, and throw out the rest. I guess going to one of the top ten schools for the subject in the country was not a viable option for me.

I was great at design, great at loving plants, but not good at getting favored by the Profs that wanted to have only the best people following their ideals getting the degrees. Pushing for sustainable living was not the theme they liked to hear.

The schools that survive into the next century will be the ones teaching sustainable live styles and living within the natural boundaries, even if they are still teaching how to get to the moon.


I forget where I was reading it, but bees do best when they have a series of crops to pollinate, throughout the growing season. For this to happen, there really needs to be a diversified set of crops to pollinate. Having only a handful of crops growing in an area, and keeping all of the grasses mowed, is likely to lead to problems.

I cover this a bit in this other blog post:

which refers to this research:

Very much true. Monoculture is literally killing the bees. Backyard beekeepers residential areas are doing much better, because there is a lot more biodiversity in your typical residential community. Our bees here in the Southern Appalachians are doing well too, because our is the most biodiverse region of North America.

I think two of the problems with trying to establish a resilient farm system is the commodification of food and economies of scale.

Consider two farms: Farm A grows 200 acres of wheat. Farm B grows 2,000 acres of wheat. Farmer A gets on the old tractor and plows the best he can. He plants using his old seed drill. Farmer B uses all the latest stuff; automated steering, precision planting and fertilizer placement/amounts (The deal here is that a lot of soil nutrient analysis is done and the computer varies the amount of fertilizer based upon that area's soil analysis). And, for those who don't follow Ag, automation is a BIG deal these days.

Quite clearly, leaving aside capital cost, Farmer B will produce more per acre at lower cost. Farmer A cannot compete in this situation. Although this is "good" for consumer prices, it is also true that the system has low resiliency.

It seems to me that ultimately society will have to choose between a resilient food production system where food costs are higher (so smaller scale farmers can make a living) and gambling that the larger scale system won't fail.

I experienced this myself years ago when I was a small-scale, certified organic grower. Our crops were slicing tomatoes and strawberries. While we could make the equivalent of day wages, they weren't enough to really support us. Our choice was to spend a lot more money for more greenhouses and such to be able to get to a sales volume that would support us or go out of business. We went out of business.


You have hit right on a crucial part of this discussion: scale.

Given the investment in big equipment and the efficiencies these can provide, I believe we need to work with what exists but alter how it is used. For example, farmers can still use the giant combines, but if they are only growing corn and soy this is a problem. The size of sections needs to shrink to create more landscape diversity, but they can still be large enough to allow equipment to move and be effective. Around here I have had combine operators tell me they are fine working a 10 acre field, for example.

So, this isn't your backyard garden type diversity, but a 200 acre farm that has 10 X 20 acre sections is a lot better than a 1000 acre farm with one crop on it.

And I'll just mention that much more acreage should be placed into herbaceous perennials, i.e., pasture, instead of annual crops.


One thing I didn't mention is the difficulty of small framers to afford benefits. I became the local school district's groundskeeper after we shut down the "farm." I not only got a decent wage, I also got benefits that included medical, dental, optical and, as a retiree, a pension. There is no way in heck that we could have gotten big enough to pay for medical much less saved enough money to provide the equivalent of the very small pension I get.


Back in the day, farmers would form their own cooperatives to take care of things like this. That how State Farm, The Grange and Nationwide got started.

The problem is that we know where we want to and have to go, but the economics just aren't right for it yet. Small scale sustainable agriculture just can't compete with large scale factory farming, yet. Those who are trying it now have jumped the gun and found that even breaking even is difficult, let alone actually earning anything.

Right now, it makes good sense for people to raise much of their own food. For some of these, it might make sense to produce a little extra and sell it on the side, as a supplemental source of income rather than as their sole livelihood. This is especially if they concentrate on high value crops and value-added foodstuffs. The trouble is that people want to bypass this stage and go directly to getting into full production and trying to earn a living as small-scale sustainable farmers. I'm afraid the time just isn't quite ripe for that, yet, except in a few very exceptional circumstances.

Another problem with the analogy of the ecosystem to farming is that the the ecosystem does operate in a market economy.

The ecosystem is an economy of subsistence where participants are regularly eaten to sustain the next level of subsistence. And the top level dies off if its numbers exceed available food resources.

Is this a viable model for future agriculture? I don't think so.

In the real agricultural world the top level does not shrink but is almost like the "too big to fail" banks which grow ever larger and if they get in trouble are bailed out by the government.

Jason's post sounds like a proposal to turn back the clock to the days before oil. It was tried and failed. Large areas of rural America have lower populations now than 50 years years ago because the ecosystem model does not work in a market economy.

Those land resources that were spread around by the Homestead Act are now in the hands of the fittest. And they will not give them up without a fight.

And they know how to fight to hang on since that is how they have survived agriculture's struggles up until now.

Nor will most bother with producing cute produce for the farmers market in local small towns that lasts a few weeks in the summer. They have millions of dollars at stake and political connections to make sure that the system stays put.

Creating a farm economy analogous to an ecosystem is a pipe dream that will never happen. It can not be forced by Peak Oil since farmers now have the resources to outbid for available oil if they have to.

Many already buy huge flex-fuel pickup trucks that run on E85 produced locally from the grain grown on their own farm.

Not only that, some states produce more energy from the grain they grow than the amount of energy in the oil they consume. So they are in the cat bird's seat and know it.

True, but the situation doesn't have to be either/or. One can farm, as many of my relatives did forever, and still have a bit of a day job to help out. One can farm rotationally without having to pay every bill on the production of the farm.

For example, I had an uncle with a dairy farm in Minnesota who had a rural mail route. I am building up a farm, but do carpentry on the side and also teach school part-time.

In PO it will probably be likely that most of us will have to do many things, as well as be responsible for much of our food.

If I have too much fish on hand, I can always trade it for for that which I don't have.

The fact that the top level is getting more powerful is an example of a system on the verge of failure. If you follow the Resilience Alliance links and read about the theory of panarchy, you are essentially describing the structure before breakdown. There is no such thing as too big to fail in the real world.

I am not proposing anything related to "turning back the clock." I am looking at a system facing great pressures for change, how it resists that change, but also how during the breakdown phase it can be reconfigured to be adaptive to change.

Better yet, I am working on getting ahead of the curve to develop farming systems today that are able to deal with energy scarcity while rebuilding ecological services on the farm.

And about the jab at "cute produce." I hear you. Produce is the easy stuff. Less than 5% of the land will be for veggies. But if you do live near a town or city, veggies are a great way to make an income and the culture that forms around local, seasonal foods is nice to be part of.

My perspective is that of a farmer and retired biology professor with degrees in plant physiology and microbiology. I am a farm owner and in the 1950s I operated a diversified farm. Farms today are much less diversified. Corn is king because, being a C-4 plant, it produces much higher yields than C-3 pants like wheat. Soy beans are still grown today and they fix nitrogen. Rotation of corn and beans is still practiced, since better yields of both are achieved where rotation is employed. More rotation should be encouraged. Modern farms today practice minimum and no till agriculture. GE seeds and herbicide tolerant GE plants have eliminated the need for cultivation and fall plowing thereby greatly reducing soil erosion. We should look to GE crops as a new era in crop-plant diversity. Why not make nitrogen fixing, C-4 photosynthesizing perennial wheat? We will be able to break the corn monoculture farming by installing C-4 photosynthesis into wheat and other crops. The day will come when nitrogen fixation will also be incorporated among a range of crop varieties. Additional advantages of GE crops are a better nutritional balance for human food and the elimination of allergic plant components. Why would anyone want to eat food from the old fashion crops? Although farm equipment today is mega-sized, less fuel is consumed per acre and much less fuel per bushel produced. Soil erosion is greatly reduced.
While loss of diversity is a serious issue worthy of study, it may not be the most serious issue related to agriculture. Our groundwater resource is strained and polluted by irrigation of farmland and mineral accumulation in some irrigated lands is an issue. The production of fuel from farm crops and crop residues is also an issue of concern. Another concern is agriculture's dependence upon carbon emitting fossil fuels. Climate change threatens to drastically reduce the amount of land suitable for agriculture. It is imperative that we find a replacement for fossil fuels.
As to commercial fertilizer, we are in a must continue position. We need the productivity afford by the commercial fertilizer supplement in order to support our planet’s human population if we are to maintain anything close to our current life style and improve the nutrition of the developing world. Currently nitrogen fertilizer is produced from hydrogen supplied by natural gas. Cheap sources of phosphorous are being used up. The nitrogen issue can be managed by replacing hydrogen from natural gas with hydrogen split from water. The energy required may be supplied by high temperature nuclear reactors. These highly efficient reactors can also supply hydrogen for synthetic hydrocarbon synthesis. Tractors and combines can run on synfuels of recycled carbon and water with energy that was provided by nuclear power. As to phosphorous, there is an abundance of phosphorous in the earths crust; we will need to spend more energy in the future to extract it. Again we will look to nuclear power. I am optimistic about the future so long as we choose to trust science, especially the science of genetic engineering and generation IV nuclear power.

I glad you spoke up, given your credentials. I've abandoned all hope of any romanticized "return to the land." Only further scientific advances can extend our stay on the planet.

But I'm not optimistic.

Every scientific gain--every hope you have--will be swamped by further population growth. "Sustainable" has no meaning whatsoever in this context.

Conventional ag is doomed because it relies on drawdown of exhaustible resources.

"Organic" ag is doomed because it relies on takeover of available land.

Actually, both methods rely on drawdown and takeover to varying degrees. There's no other way to farm.

We're in a box. Catton calls it "The Tragic Story of Human Success."

The worse it gets, the more we talk about it.

mikeB, you are a realist. I have to admit that I am clinging to a very tiny thread with my optimistic last sentence. I have recently read Stewart Brand’s, “The Whole Earth Discipline and James Lovelock’s, “The Vanishing Face of Gaia”. Stewart Brand does think that a small possibility exists for turning our over-population around. He thinks that could happen before the world population tops nine billion. He states that the present trend projects that by mid century 80% of us will live in cities. Women in cities have freedom and opt for small family size. History shows that birth rates go negative when industrialization occurs. India, China and South America are rapidly undergoing industrialization. He thinks that if the planet can maintain the trend by mid century the human birth rate may turn negative. A huge amount of energy is needed to supply the appetites of a rapidly growing number of industrialized societies. Climate change may lower the planet’s carrying capacity. The result, Brand, believes, would be catastrophic. The only hope is to quickly replace even the cheapest fossil fuel, “dirty coal,” with something cheaper. James Hansen has mentioned the Integrated Fast Reactor (IFR) and the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) as replacement candidates for fossil fuel Both hold hope for a simpler lower investment design. Either can deliver bountiful energy for as long as people inhabit the planet. Both Brand and Lovelock see nuclear power as the only energy source capable of providing the energy necessary to move us away from fossil fuels.

C3 plants are adapted to the cooler temperatures of fall and spring growth. C4 wheat would simply compete for time and space with summer crops. There are also so many other factors that go into the biology of plants that this seems to be a highly unlikely project, e.g., germination temps, biochemistry of photoreactive compounds sensitive to temperature, the unique cellular structure of C4 plants, etc.

The farmers of the midwest have adopted GE corn and soy and minimal till methods but soil erosion is still a huge problem, with ca. 18 tons per acre per year coming off some of the best soils in Iowa. All to produce annual crops that mostly go to feedlots.

We should stop thinking about technological solutions until the problem has been appropriately identified. You want less soil erosion? Switch land cover to herbaceous perennials and feed the animals those. You worry about not being able to feed people? Stop building ethanol plants and sending corn to feedlots.

I trust science when I see that scientists are focused on the right questions. This is not the case anymore in most land grant ag schools. I am a scientist and so are many of my colleagues. We just don't happen to be in a department financed by entities wanting to patent life and dominate markets to maximize quarterly earnings and stock prices.

Ecosystem scientists have found that intact natural ecosystems out produce (NPP) human modified ones in nearly every case. The irony here is that I am confident that by mimicking the structure and function of natural ecosystems we will have more food at lower cost, and yet people are afraid this is a recipe for starvation!

Where we agree is that I am not super concerned about fuel use on farms. As long as biofuels can stay on the farm these machines can still run, and they are fantastic devices. That said, I would not tell anybody they shouldn't train horses or other draft animals if they are a small farmer and haven't invested in the machines.

As I see it, the real problem is not actually on the farm but in corporate control of the rest of the food industry.The farmers themselves will adapt to whatever conditions exist and if they could make a living running smaller acreages of diversified crops they would do so.

This is more of a political than an ecological problem.

The real enemy is a defacto coalition of some of the biggest and most powerful corporations in the world.

They are closely allied with a govt eager to constantly expand it's powers and supported by a whole media industry of useful idiots who keep the public scared to death of a handful of cases of food poisoning etc.

The same fearmongering crowd works it's butt off to make sure parents are afraid for thier kids to walk to school.Of course a kid here and there will be grabbed by perverts but hundreds of times, thousands of times, as many will die of obesity a little later as a result of a lack of exercise.

Big regulation is just another cost of doing business to big biz including big ag biz and the costs are easily passed on.

Small operations can't cope unless and until the regulatory environment changes except by doing what they are doing now.

The handful of exceptions so far as I know about personally are succeeding by dint of upscale marketing and cutting out some of the middlemen.This works, and works very well sometimes, for the small portion of farmers suitably situated near affluent upscale markets.

It is not an option for the vast majority of us.We used to make ends meet by selling a significant portion of our product directly to retail customers but the customers aren't there any more-there are too many of us farmers locally, and women whose mothers practiced canning and freezing buy bags of presliced , prechopped, even preseasoned veggies nowadays at Walmart and Food Lion and Harris Teeter.

If our harvested produce doesn't go on a truck, it goes "over the bank"-we dump it in a gully or feed it to livestock to get rid of it.Our only other option is to pay sixty dollars a ton to unload it at the dump.

There is so many things that could be fixed it is not funny.

Parents, if your kid can walk to school, walk with them to school, and go there and walk them home again, use your brain and get a better plan to work at your job, so that you don't need to be there when you are needed to walk your kid to school.

My mom walked with me and my brother to school, They would turn off to go to the K-6 school I walked on to the 9th grade school. When I hit 10th grade I could ride the city bus to school, I hopped a ride with a nieghbor who drove, and later got a ride from my dad, on his way to vo-tech school, until I learned to drive myself to school. My mom walked my brother to and from school everyday. She got in 4 miles of walking 5 days a week.

Later he either walked to school himself or rode with me while I was going places.


Farmers should have the ability to produce and sell to someone all that they make, all this waste is going to bit us in the butt in the future.


Jason Bradford, Thanks for a thought provoking presentation. Your point that biodiversity is a buffer against volatility is well taken. Also the concept of increasing the use of local markets is a way to conserve fuel used for long distance transportation. Your market locally approach will serve those of us nearer to the land very well if the fabric of society comes unglued. With the trend of migration the city trend I shutter to think of what will become of the masses if the transportation and energy infrastructure fails. The migration to the city has the beneficial effect of freeing up land to return to a natural state where wildlife can flourish. People who live in the inner city have a rather small carbon foot print. I am embarrassed by the terribly large carbon foot print that we suburbanites create.

You state, “We should stop thinking about technological solutions until the problem has been appropriately identified. You want less soil erosion? Switch land cover to herbaceous perennials and feed the animals those. You worry about not being able to feed people? Stop building ethanol plants and sending corn to feedlots.”

I certainly agree with your above statements. While I favor diversity of energy sources, I am not convinced that ethanol plants save significant fossil fuel and certainly we could have a healthier life style if we reduced our intake meat from the feedlot.

I am not aware of C-4 photosynthesis being tightly coupled to day length. I only raised that point to call attention to the power that I see in science to solve major problems.
My main departure from your position is that I am not convinced that conventional farming is less environmentally friendly than or less sustainable than so-called sustainable farming. I believe both have a role to fill. Sustainable farming and organic farming lend themselves better to local marketing. Their smaller scale also works better on a diverse and marginal terrains than large scale conventional farming. Europe is wrong about GE crops. Much starvation in Africa is attributed to efforts by misguided Europeans who discouraged Africans form growing GE crops.

I think the science of seed breeding can do a lot of good. The use of trait linked genomic markers, for example, can speed the process of developing new varieties. The more this is done in the public domain and non-patented, the less expensive the seeds will be and the better chance poor farmers will be able to afford to buy the seeds in the first place and then save them.

The social context in which technology is deployed is as important as the technology. A good line of work on this goes under the heading Science and Technology Studies, with applied research in agriculture.

Starvation in Africa has little to do with GE adoption or not. It is very much a political crisis. A great book on this subject is Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel. What worries me is turning Africa into another India--a place that did adopt all technologies sent its way.

If patents are to be allowed at all on seeds and animals, they length of the patent period needs to be shortened substantially-maybe five to ten years might be an acceptable range.The world moves a lot faster than it used to and seventeen years is way too long for any patent.Too much power is being concentrated in too few hands.

As far as biological patents are concerned I'm not sure they should be issued at all.Maybe we should just accept a slower rate of invention in ths area in order to avoid the abuses.The majority of the resaearch seems to be publicly funded anyway, while the profits are almost entirely privatized.

I am a scientist and so are many of my colleagues. We just don't happen to be in a department financed by entities wanting to patent life and dominate markets to maximize quarterly earnings and stock prices.

Obviously there must be something seriously wrong with you ;-)

JohnT said:

Why would anyone want to eat food from the old fashion crops?

One reason might be indicated by this sidebar from the January 24, 2009 issue of Chemical and Engineering News (The American Chemical Society's weekly news magazine), page 24, entitled Key Nutrients Decline in Transgenic Rice "...When they compared the transgenic varieties with conventional O. sativa rice, they detected a significant decline in vitamin E in the first type of transgenic rice; a sizable reduction in protein content in the second type; and a deficiency in amino acids, including alanine, glycine and tyrosine in the third type..."

Granted rice isn't corn and beans but it clearly indicates that one cannot take something at face value without testing...and publication.


There's a lot of information along these lines. This is basic evolution in operation. When you select on one trait you tend to loose others. Selection for yield may have led to a decline in nutrient density.

Also, the European Union doesn't allow for GE crops because feeding trials showed problems with liver and kidney toxicity. I am not an expert on this research, but I also don't assume that newer is better.


We present for the first time a comparative analysis of blood and organ system data from trials with rats fed three main commercialized genetically modified (GM) maize (NK 603, MON 810, MON 863), which are present in food and feed in the world. NK 603 has been modified to be tolerant to the broad spectrum herbicide Roundup and thus contains residues of this formulation. MON 810 and MON 863 are engineered to synthesize two different Bt toxins used as insecticides. Approximately 60 different biochemical parameters were classified per organ and measured in serum and urine after 5 and 14 weeks of feeding. GM maize-fed rats were compared first to their respective isogenic or parental non-GM equivalent control groups. This was followed by comparison to six reference groups, which had consumed various other non-GM maize varieties. We applied nonparametric methods, including multiple pairwise comparisons with a False Discovery Rate approach. Principal Component Analysis allowed the investigation of scattering of different factors (sex, weeks of feeding, diet, dose and group). Our analysis clearly reveals for the 3 GMOs new side effects linked with GM maize consumption, which were sex- and often dose-dependent. Effects were mostly associated with the kidney and liver, the dietary detoxifying organs, although different between the 3 GMOs. Other effects were also noticed in the heart, adrenal glands, spleen and haematopoietic system. We conclude that these data highlight signs of hepatorenal toxicity, possibly due to the new pesticides specific to each GM corn. In addition, unintended direct or indirect metabolic consequences of the genetic modification cannot be excluded.

Why would anyone want to eat food from the old fashion crops?

Its hard for me to imagine someone asking that question. Why? Because they taste good, of course. Why people spend $2.99/lb for cardboard tomatoes is a better question. I've been growing old fashioned varieties preferentially for years, and almost always I get a taste and texture from my produce that you just can't buy in stores.

Cardboard tomatoes certainly do not compare well with the juicy tomatoes that I grow in my compost fertilized garden. Good discussions require the presentation of contrary points of view.

We need the productivity afford by the commercial fertilizer supplement in order to support our planet’s human population if we are to maintain anything close to our current life style and improve the nutrition of the developing world.

The planet's human population doesn't "need" to be supported, it needs to be reduced --and right quick, if we don't want to inflict yet more permanent, irreversable damage to the world's ecosystems. Our vain attempts to "support" population overshoot have already inflicted massive damage, from loss of countless species, to fertilizer run-off dead zones the size of small countries, to the Giant Pacific Garbage Patch, to the enchroaching deserts of northern China.

If you really want to "maintain anything close to our current life style and improve the nutrition of the developing world", then do everything possible to support international efforts to reverse population growth and politically empower women. A greatly improved ratio of humans : natural resources will get us there very quickly --especially if combined with sustainable agriculture, sustainable energy and sustainable manufacturing processes. It will also allow the earth to recover from human abuse from last 200+ years.

I am optimistic about the future so long as we choose to trust science, especially the science of genetic engineering and generation IV nuclear power.

I generally "trust" science and scientists and believe Gen-IV nuclear holds a lot of promise as a scalable replacement for FF. Nonetheless, I'm not so trusting of corporate behemoths like Monsanto that employ genetic engineering for the purpose of patenting life and increasing short-term profits and market share to the detriment of everything else.

"The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles, hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages ... and we think some plastic bags, and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference?

"The planet isn't going anywhere. We are!" -- Carlin

Technically, George Carlin's sardonic assessment is accurate. Barring some unforeseen cosmic catastrophe, The PLANET will still be here. Unfortunately, should current trends continue unabated, WE --and life as we know it-- may not be.

The planet has been through some major extinction events, this is true (including a collision with a mars-sized planetoid some 4 billion years ago). This does not mean everything came out hunky-dory for whatever was living on the surface each time --far from it. In fact, the "recovery" period for the lucky few surviving organisms following mass extinction events can be measured in millions of years. If we render the surface uninhabitable for ourselves (and many other species), I have no doubt some species will survive. However, this provides me cold comfort as I am dead and the human race is extinct.

John T = Industry Shill

I usually take the position of defending the little guy or the underdog, but in a situation where open pollinators complain about contamination of their crops with genes from GE crops I take the position that the public good is better served by siding with the industry. I cringe at being called an Industry Shill, but if the shoe fits I will reluctantly wear it. As a child I found the DuPont radio theater to be a marvelous window into the world of science. I still recall the programs about Luther Burbank, Mendelian genetics, and blood typing. Better things for Better Living Through Chemistry was the motto. Later DuPont dropped the "through chemistry". We came to hate Monsanto for the dioxin in Agent Orange and the chemical industry was so tainted that the word chemistry vanished form advertizing. Domestic nuclear power has suffered a similar fate. I have also been accused of being a Nuclear Shill. It could be argued that both the chemical industry and the nuclear industry are victims of prejudice and therefore underdogs so I can support them with a clean conscience.

I usually take the position of defending the little guy or the underdog, but in a situation where open pollinators complain about contamination of their crops with genes from GE crops I take the position that the public good is better served by siding with the industry. I cringe at being called an Industry Shill, but if the shoe fits I will reluctantly wear it. As a child I found the DuPont radio theater to be a marvelous window into the world of science. I still recall the programs about Luther Burbank, Mendelian genetics, and blood typing. Better things for Better Living Through Chemistry was the motto. Later DuPont dropped the "through chemistry". We came to hate Monsanto for the dioxin in Agent Orange and the chemical industry was so tainted that the word chemistry vanished form advertising. Domestic nuclear power has suffered a similar fate. I have also been accused of being a Nuclear Shill. It could be argued that both the chemical industry and the nuclear industry are victims of prejudice and therefore underdogs. I am consistent in my support for underdogs.

If you went to college why can not you create readable text? No paragraphs.

I disagree with your views on todays ag even though I managed to read your difficult text.

Your totally BAU it appears to me. Do you not ever read those of opposing views here on TOD?

Where to start, where to start. Or rather I will just give up.

Spend more money, dig up more phosphorous, it is very abundant then.

"TRUST SCIENCE." That says it all then. Fah............



Science is a tool, not a solution on a stick.

I am with you airdale.


Lets look at two farmers with a bit different perspective.

Farmer A has 100 acres. He grows a large garden and him, his wife and children can every bit of what they don't consume right off. He can spend a lot less money on groceries. He also raise some hogs and chickens for his meat protein. He drives a small tractor with cheap but good quality implements. He might raise a acre of tobacco, house it, and strip it and market it for some spending money.

He is raising two boys and a girl. The boys hire out during planting and harvest when their farm work slacks off. This family is very healthy and live in good harmony with their farm. They have a small footprint on the earth and their land grows more and more fertile. The children raise their own horses to compete locally in the local rodeos and trail rides.

Farmer B. Owns 1000 acres and rents another 2 thousand. Got divorced some time ago due to not being able to spend 'quality' time with his spouse. No children issue.

He spends an enormous amount of time caring for his expensive equipment and must hire some extra hands, which means insurance for them and has to have 3 pickups and 5 tractors plus two combines and 1 new 32 row planter.

Even though he works very hard he can't seem to get ahead and is heavily in debt. His land is not as productive as it could be. He has of late been diagnosed with increasing cardiac problems and has blown the ligaments in his knees.

He has to purchase all his food and must drive 30 miles to do so. Eats very poorly, mostly a lot of junk and fast food.

He makes a good profit but it all seems to go somewhere. His land is slowly losing more and more fertility and the fertilizer costs keep going up and up.

He thinks GW is a hoax. He doesn't really care about the land and lately the FSA office has provided funds to help him hire a dozer to take down all the trees in his fence rows. His corn seed last year cost him near $200 per bag. One bag will plant 2 1/2 acres.

He knows that Farmer A sows open pollen and pays zero for his seed corn. He thinks Farmer A is part of 'The Problem' and refuses to even talk to him.

I know a farmer A and a farmer B in my area. One will end up in the grave a lot sooner than the other. A lot of them already have.

Which one has a better chance of surviving a economic and energy crisis? Which one has a better lifestyle?

Airdale-I was very close to the description of farmer A some years back after I threw the 'operators' off my land and quit row cropping.
I made far more money baling hay and doing grasslands management on my 100plus acres.

PS.Let me add that I also had time to write code(a 911 system) and build many desktop systems as well as spend quite a bit of time blacksmithing and raising horses as well. I also had time to build a 4500 sq ft log house myself. Also had time to go fishing when I had spare time.

PS.Let me add that I also had time to write code(a 911 system) and build many desktop systems as well as spend quite a bit of time blacksmithing and raising horses as well. I also had time to build a 4500 sq ft log house myself. Also had time to go fishing when I had spare time.

Well you've just got your priorities all wrong, what a slacker you are! Fishing?! What a profound waste of time! Oh, and GW really is a hoax...

Oh, in case anyone is wondering if I've suddenly gone over to the dark side may I dedicate this song to all the good people who create and also visit this site. To be clear I don't include those sick twisted people who think that corporations should have more rights than the rest of us.

Arlo Guthrie/This Land is Your Land/Boston Pops

Crop rotation was practiced for hundreds of years before we abandoned it - Per wiki


Old crop rotation methods were mentioned in Roman literature, and referred to by several civilizations in Asia and Africa. During the Muslim Agricultural Revolution of the Islamic Golden Age, Muslim engineers and farmers introduced a new modern rotation system where land was cropped four times or more in a two-year period. Winter crops were followed by summer ones, and in some cases there was a crop in between. In areas where plants of shorter growing season were used, ie.spinach and eggplants, the land could be cropped three or more times a year. According to some sources, in parts of Yemen wheat yielded two harvests a year on the same land, as did rice in Iraq.[1] Scholars such as Andrew Watson have written of a Muslim agricultural revolution as the Islamic world made significant progress in developing a more "scientific" approach based on three major elements: sophisticated systems of crop rotation, highly developed irrigation techniques and the introduction of a large variety of crops which were studied and catalogued according to the season, type of land and amount of water they require. Numerous farming encyclopaedias, with surprisingly great precision and details, were produced.[2]
From the end of the Middle Ages until the 20th century, the three-year rotation was practiced by farmers in Europe with a rotation of rye or winter wheat, followed by spring oats or barley, then letting the soil rest (leaving it fallow) during the third stage. The fact that suitable rotations made it possible to restore or to maintain a productive soil has long been recognized by planting spring crops for livestock in place of grains for human consumption.

A four-field rotation was pioneered by farmers, namely in the region Waasland in the early 16th century and popularised by the British agriculturist Charles Townshend in the 18th century. The system (wheat, turnips, barley and clover), opened up a fodder crop and grazing crop allowing livestock to be bred year-round. The four-field crop rotation was a key development in the British Agricultural Revolution.

George Washington Carver pioneered crop rotation methods in the United States by teaching southern farmers to rotate soil depleting crops like cotton with soil enriching crops like peanuts and peas. [1]

In the Green revolution, the traditional practice of crop rotation gave way in some parts of the world to the practice of supplementing the chemical inputs to the soil through top dressing with fertilizers, e.g., adding ammonium nitrate or urea and restoring soil pH with lime in the search for increased yields, preparing soil for specialist crops, and seeking to reduce waste and inefficiency by simplifying planting and harvesting. Some disadvantages of this type of monoculture have since become apparent, notably from the perspective of sustainable agriculture and the risk of catastrophic crop failure.

Perhaps instead of looking forward we need to look back because back is where we are going. While people may not have understood the intricacies of the food web, the soil etc. they did many things that worked. I think the important thing is to not complicate what you do.

For instance the Humanure composting toilet is about as simple as you can get. Why design complex composting toilets when a bucket and some leaves will do, compost the results, return your garden's minerals that you ate in the form of rich compost. Instructions at -

Or Ruth Stout's no work garden - pile degradable stuff (leaves, seaweed, hay) on your garden, smother weeds, hold in moisture, create compost right on the garden. Deal with any problems with bugs as they come up - such as pulling back mulch from plants that have problems with slugs. Take a basic simple idea, then let your plants tell you how to fine tune it.

Awesome job Jason, couldn't agree more!

We built Bright Neighbor as a community resiliency system, with the overall vision of people growing food & fuel crops in their lawns (Lawns to Gardens) and exchanging it with one another, among other resources.

Now, we have turned it into a local job creation machine by fusing the CSA model with worm farming ( to replace fossil-fuel based fertilizers.

If anyone is interested in opening a Bright Neighbor / Worm Island branch in their city, we have proven the business model. Time to "Ray Croc" sustainability!

Contact us here:

- Randy White

I'd argue that this is another reason to shop at your local farmer's market, aside from deliciousness. Vote with your wallet for more seasonal, local, and resilient methods of food production.

Thanks for your article. O. K., you've covered diversity. Any comments on soil erosion? I checked the link you gave to "SoilSmith" and it appears to be a commercial site, and what they are doing certainly is helping the soil but the testimonials all refer to crop yields, not reduction of soil erosion, and it does not go into great detail except to say "call us."

My concern is that soil is eroding about 10-20 times faster in the U. S. A. than it is being formed. Because the effects of soil erosion are so slow to develop, you could do a really great job at stopping soil erosion (say, cutting erosion by 1/3 or 1/2) and still have an unsustainable system overall. Does organic (or any other technique, no-till or whatever) really stop soil erosion (or net erosion) and if so, is there any published research, etc., on this? I'll bet it helps, and I'm not contesting that, but I'm looking for techniques sufficiently well-tested so that we can say "if everybody did this, we wouldn't have a problem with soil erosion." The research may not yet exist on this, and if so that's fine, I'm just curious.


Keith, I don't know if the continual mulch garden could be adapted to any type of commercial production but in our garden it DOES stop erosion. I garden on several terraces left over from when this land was cotton cropped. The soil on the top terrace was pretty good when I started but going down the terraces are mostly clay. We have had a wet year with quite a few gully washers. Most of my mulch has stayed put and thus the soil underneath has stayed put. I use mainly leaves that folks in town rake. They are building up the soil and so I am having the opposite effect from erosion. However I am of course borrowing from other land - OK now when no one knows that their refuse is pure gold. If folks in town stop raking and start growing food, or I can't get or afford gas to get to town I would have to get my mulch material off unused land - so I would be borrowing from one piece of land for the benefit of another.... No easy solutions. But at any rate I can assert that a leaf mulch will stop wind erosion and water erosion on mild slopes.

RE: Keith's comments on erosion

Some of the most productive soils are a legacy of the last ice age when the continental glaciers melted 11,000 years ago. There were massive dust storms because the climate was much drier with sea level 200 feet below today. This dust (loess) laid down glacially pulverized rock over many of the best agricultural regions of the world. Loess has high natural fertility because it is relatively recent and it has superior moisture retaining properties. The soil below the loess is usually poorer and of lesser quality for agriculture. Much of the loess layer is less than one meter thick.

The glacial soil is ustally productive also.

When it's gone we'll have to wait for another ice age to replace it.

Our city lot is on a slope. At the back left corner, looking at the whole lot from the front going back. There is an old Concrete drain back there, and to fix run Off, I built up from that corner sloping back into the yard. When we moved here, we had rocks and clay and roots. And nothing but weeds out in the back half of the yard. Now in my old garden, we have 4 sheds, and a few trees.

I have moved the garden up closer to the house, where once it was all trees. The soil is still about the same as it was, but less rocks.

But last year we had 83 inchs of rain, and many times the water would be running over the yard and down the street. 2009 was the highest rainfall year since records were kept. I tried to fill in wash spots, but they still eroded with all the rain.

Erosion is one of issues that can be solved with planting hedge rows, and wind breaks, out in your fields, and even in yards, you can plant things that limit the runoff. But you have to work at it.

I seem to have seen bette use of hedgerows and windbreaks in the past than I see now. It does not help when earthmovers come in and leave soils bare for months on end during construction of house farms on old farm land, and scarp the topsoil off and sell it.

We could do better to preserve things.

or remineralise with rock dust

I would recommend looking at the Land Institute if you want to know about practices that build top soil rather than erode it.

Organic farming per se doesn't stop erosion. You can farm veggies organically, rely on a lot of tillage, and cause a lot of erosion. This is why I focus on pasture in rotation, which will build topsoil. Pasture builds, if you do seed crops right you should be able to maintain, and vegetables will likely break down, the top soil.

When veggies are done, keep the area small and make sure it is bordered by perennial plantings. Your soils should have good drainage so that water will infiltrate instead of move horizontally.

Regarding Soil Smith. This guy is a commercial compost tea outfit. The connection is that living soils create structure resistant to erosion. Compost tea is a great way to take a sterile soil and put life into it.

The Land Institute talks about perennial grains which is an interesting idea. Your ideas are generally the kind of thing I want to hear, and I am looking for the data to support it. While I do have a garden and am interested in this from a practical point of view, I am interested in the long-term effects of soil erosion. If soil is eroding faster than it is being formed, this obviously cannot be continued indefinitely and we need to think about alternatives.

To me, the default alternative (and the only one I can see right now) is just to leave a lot of land fallow. But if soil is eroding 10 times faster than it is forming, you'd have to leave it fallow 10 years to cultivate it 1 year (or have 10 acres, cultivating only one each year, or something like that). To do that, you'd need to reduce population, obviously, not to mention the population of our livestock. This explains why up until about 1700 soil erosion was a local problem rather than a problem threatening human existence -- lower levels of population. And because of biodiversity concerns, we shouldn't be thinking about exploiting every last single square inch of the planet for human needs anyway.

It's interesting that you suggest that pasture builds soil. Do you mean grazed pasture? Or just fallow land? Some people argue that grazing animals on pasture degrades the soil: "A huge literature is in near-total agreement that the world's grazing lands are the most degraded lands on earth." Of course a lot of this grazing is likely to be due to mismanagement. But even if you know the right way to do it, you have a problem with diffusion of the right ideas and practices. And first, you need to identify what those practices are.

Well managed pasture builds soil. Think of the historic praire in the U.S. with the herd of bison on it. Look into Management Intensive Rotational Grazing, and multi-species grazing, and related concepts. Joel Salatin books are a good start, and very practical and oriented towards farmers earning a decent profit.

A lot of grazed land is low quality "rangeland." When I say pasture I mean high quality land with adequate rainfall and often the ability to irrigate to maintain a steady growth of forage. The contrast between the two is key. Range land may be able to support only 1 large animal for every 50 acres, whereas good pasture can support 1 per acre. Because the density of animals on rangeland is low, it is difficult to manage. You must cover a huge area and people don't always invest in equipment and methods to prevent damage. That said, well managed rangeland does fine with animals on it. Grasses evolved with herbivores and need grazing to grow best, whether those are wild or domesticated beasts.

Think of the historic praire in the U.S. with the herd of bison on it.

Think of the new prarie after we're gone, herds of bison grazing on millions of acres of C-4 photosynthesizing perennial GE wheat.

It's not nice to
fool Mother Nature

I can only guess at your point but won't make any assumptions. Just to clarify my beliefs a bit though:

1. I don't promote GE c4 wheat and doubt its feasibility.
2. Perennialism can be selected for using traditional breeding. It is a matter of selecting for different allocation traits and in many species the genetic variation exists to move a plant between one life history and another.
3. The Land Institute promotes a diverse polyculture of long-lived herbaceous perennials, not a mono-culture of one species.
4. Agriculture is a means to divert photosythetic productivity towards human biomass and away from other species.
5. Too many of us, i.e., not sharing the productivity of the planet with other species, is not a viable long-term strategy for keeping us around and is detrimental to agriculture itself.

My comment was directed more at Jonh T's faith in GE. However I feel that the biodiversity is already there. We have always allowed parts of our place to go back to nature for several seasons and restore itself. More than just having fallow sections, these sections are quickly populated with a diverse group of native plants. Of course, this reduces production, but I think nature knows what she needs if we just give her the chance some of the time. Humankind's history of enginuity is littered with unintended consequences when we force things. Of course, with so many mouths to feed, we've been forcing things for a long time. What good does it do to increase production 300% when we have cut nutritional value by as much or more?

Hi Ghung,

I don't know if you are being sarcastic or if I am way behind but I don't know of any situation where the nutritive value of our current crops are aslow as a thrd of older varieties-perhaps for a given nutrient such as a particular vitamin or amino acid this might be true.

I am not a big fan of GE myself but there is always a bigger envelope to consider-maybe SOME GE is justifiable to help us thru the next few decades.I don't think we are in a position to rule anything out at the moment.

Agreed that the key problem, the elephant in the living room , is population.Ironically our best chance to fix this problem may be more growth rather than less.(Unfortunately peak resources combined with political screwups -peak credit , etc,-probably means that the growth is no longer possible)

Lomberg's The Skeptical Environmentalist just showed up in the list of most important books posted here on TOD somewhere today or yesterday , the list selected by leaders in the field of environment and policy and govt, etc.

I'll bet I'm damn near the only person here on TOD who has read it.

old farmer mac, while not always as low as a third, nutrient levels have declined:

The inherent problem is that most farmers think if they throw in enough NPK and see lots of growth then everythings ok. It's all about yield, quantity over quality.
When these deficient plants are targeted for recycling by the system we call Nature, these same farmers are outraged, and start spraying chemicals which try to kill the recyclers (disease, fungi, insects) more often than not making more problems.

It's a FUNDAMENTAL misunderstanding of how this system works, and one on which most modern agriculture is based upon.
This is why I would oppose pesticides, overdoses of chemical fertilisers, and GE crops, there really is no need for them.

I farm quite happily without any of these, with healthy plants and high nutrient levels, as do many small farmers all over the world.

It requires a 180 degree shift to see that all this spraying, poisoning, and manipulation is just a pointless waste of energy. If you work with nature it's easy...

If we could understand Trophobiosis
and implement this knowledge we would have an appropriate agricultural revolution.

Strange how all those forests managed to grow without pesticides isn't it... ;-)

Interesting. I will do some more research.

It's not clear to me whether by "build soils" you mean that soil erosion is so low that you have a net gain in soil. Is this what you're saying? Just checking, that's a pretty low rate of soil erosion. I'm not sure that even natural grasslands do that (although this is a research topic for me). I am going to check out a book called "Natural Grasslands," edited by R. T. Coupland, I'll see what they have to say.

I see the claim "Well managed pasture builds soil," but I do not see the evidence. All I see is vague references to Joel Salatin and the bison. I can't refute it off the bat, but it is not intrinsically plausible. Given that historically grazing has been extremely destructive environmentally, I would look for more precision on this point. To "build soil" you are going to have a really low rate of soil erosion. Animals compact the soil which increases the runoff and thus soil erosion. There is no "free photosynthesis": if animals graze the plants, the plants are going to respond with new growth giving the appearance of healthy soil, but that growth has to come from somewhere, and eventually it will take its toll on the plants. Pasture land has a very low rate of caloric return per acre, so even a low rate of erosion on pasture land means that you are eroding more soil per calorie than you would by just growing crops and feeding crops to animals.

I hear the bison cited a lot, but I'm skeptical about this. First, it is not clear that even "natural" stocking intensities do not have a net erosion effect on the land. But I suspect that bison numbers are greatly exaggerated and I can cite Dale Lott, who wrote what seems to be a pretty authoritative book on "American Bison," in support. On top of that, I suspect that bison were historically at their greatest numbers sometime between 1491 and 1850. Their biggest natural enemy would likely be humans. But with the arrival of the Europeans and their diseases there was a huge die-off of indigenous peoples, perhaps 80% - 95%. There is a book called "1491" which you have probably heard of or read which investigated this whole question. If there were 60 million native people in North America I think there would be a lot fewer bison, and then when most of them die off, you'd see an explosion in the bison population. (On the other hand, the vastly fewer natives, after the arrival of the Europeans, eventually got horses and rifles, so I don't know exactly what this would mean, although I suspect it would still mean that bison increased after 1491.)

I don't know much about Joel Salatin, except from reading "Omnivore's Dilemma" and watching "Food, Inc." My impression is that he is more focused on practical techniques to avoid soil erosion rather than actually measuring soil erosion.


This is Ecology 101 stuff. I am not making it up. Topsoil builds where the rate of mineral and organic matter deposition exceeds the rate of erosion. This does happen in nature because of some combination of volcanic activity, deposition from wind and water (e.g., flooding), AND because plants colonize substrates, reduce exposure to erosional forces all while adding organic matter. The plants are really the key. Soil can develop on bare rock or on tree limbs if plants can take hold. This is why perennial systems are so important--gives time for soil building.

Well managed pasture mimics this situation. The reason why topsoil is deep and rich in some places is because plants and animals have been there a long time. Grasses in particular evolved with grazing. Now when you remove animal biomass from pasture there is a depletion going on, but not really of carbon. The micronutrients as well as Ca and P are slowly depleting, but because of the depth of the root system and the symbiosis with fungi the topsoil may be replenished from below. Better yet, replenish using compost tea and mineral applications such as sea salt, etc. Even better yet...cycle wastes from the people eating those animals.


May I suggest a couple of books:

1. The New American Farmer published by USDA's Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education Program (* It contains many profiles of farmers and ranchers who have done. It used to available as a download but I don't know about now.

2. The Contrary Farmer by Gene Logsdon. It's a short book with a lot of wisdom.

3. Out of the Earth by Louis Bromfield (1948 - I have a 1950 copy - shows how long I've been interested in Ag). Bromfield also wrote Malabar Farm (a real farm in central Ohio - I'm sorry I never visited when I was in college since it wasn't that far away. Now it's a state park of some kind.) The book, Malabar Farm, is really inspirational!


* UC Davis in CA also has a lot on sustainable farming Edit to add: Well, this link doesn't work but it's what I remember - sorry. Do a google.

Thanks, I will check out "The Contrary Farmer."

Edit: I am now looking at this book. Off the bat, I do not see any references to quantification of soil erosion. It looks like a book of practical advice on "cottage farming." My main focus is, as I mentioned, the long-term effects of soil erosion. If all agriculture tends to erode soil, then the only real solution is to reduce erosion to the minimum and leave land fallow. If we did that with current agricultural practices, we'd need to have 10 - 20 times as much land fallow as cultivated. (And it's even worse in Asia and Africa.) So just reducing erosion by 20% or even 50% isn't going to cut it.

I review some studies on soil erosion here:

I think your 20 fallow to 1 non-fallow is way off. I go with ca. half pasture at any one time so that an area is building topsoil while other areas are probably losing it.

Very nice post. I was taught back 35 years ago when I started my own gardening life that the food web was an important thing. That growing your own food, without a lot of chemicals and such was the only way to go. I seed saved, crossed my own vegies, pruned for starters, and did a lot of sustainable gardening. We canned almost all of our extra, and gave the products of that canning away as gifts. I knew about ways to do things more sustainable than I was doing.

I fell away from living that way for a long time, but I was always growing something where ever I was. I drew up my prefect living yards/farms and made detail plans for "when I could afford land" but have been unable to get beyond a certain level of sustainable.

I now live back with my parents, in the house where I grew the most food in the past. I push the idea of sustainable living. Edible landscapes. I would love to see every city adopt a sewerage treatment plant, that funneled all the wastes into a Wetland setup that would handle in a natural systems way the problems of human living. Growing food webs and infrastructural webs will go far in fixing some of our problems.

Like why haven't cities been growing plants on roofs, or collecting solar power from them. Why have we been aware of all these issue for over 30 years and nothing has been done to fix them. Only in the edges of the "Tree Huggers" have things changed. WHY?


You know, one great information source I haven't seen mentioned on TOD are the Year In Agriculture series published by the USDA. I have the old "timey" books from 1936, 1940 and 1943-1947. They have a wealth of information.


That's one strange looking Irishman gathering seaweed there, but they are a bit strange out that way.. hee hee
Great post again jason,

It's estimated that there's 150 million tons of seaweed washed up on the uk coastline every year, quite a resource.. but not very practical to bring inland, maybe as dried seaweed powder or as liquid extract.

Another high mineral, low mass source would be seawater, or "sea solids" i.e salt. for inland areas that need to be replenished.

I think perennials are the way to go, however we have to remember that all fertility ends up in the sea. No matter how deep the roots are, if the minerals are not in the bedrock they need to be brought in.

This might not be important for a generation or so, but if we want to not only survive but thrive, we need to monitor nutrient levels, check the geology of a region and supplement with small amounts of trace elements. 1kg of sea salt can top up an acre for 5-10 years.

Natural systems are the most productive and don't need patents to feed people. we've had a long journey from hunter gatherers to agriculture and it seems like we will be returning to a merging of the two without having to wear bear hides or trademark every living organism on the planet.

I have seen reports that the Indonesian tsumani led to an increase in farm productivity as the ocean water floods deposited needed salts. Some compost tea recipes recognize this and add sea salt to the mix. I know a guy who bought several tons of sea salt, shipped from Baja CA, for this purpose.

yep, and when belgium was flooded with seawater by the nazis as a means to terrorise them it produced their best yields in years!

Famine has been a regular part of human history and our ability to store fat is pronounced in many cases. A pound of fat will allow an adult to live 1.5 days without eating. Corporations are mandated to maximize profits and this usually means vast fields of monocultures with minimal storage. Storage does not suit our societies because in order to generate profit we must pass as much commodity through our industrial processes as is possible and skim a little profit on each unit sold. Generally we do not conserve anything, it all has to pass through the maw of a giant corporation (to extract a profit) and eventually end up in a waste heap. Life eats sunlight, water and minerals and usually drops them in the vicinity of where they were taken. True human resilience will require a totally new approach to living on the planet. Interesting facts regarding starvation can be found at this site:

"For something as critical as food, it is common sense that society should design for resilience."

A very smart friend once told me people waste what's cheap or free. Right now the incentives point toward mass production, automation, GMO and chemicals. I propose that this is happening because corporate farms don't have to pay for soil erosion, loss of habitat/diversity, or disposal of their chemicals (runoff). These things are essentially free, therefore they are wasted.

Many of these costs get passed on to neighbors or society. Imagine if there was a heavy fine for losing a certain amount of top soil, polluting an aquifer, or contaminating your neighbor's land with GMO pollen. Perhaps factory farming would not be profitable if they had to incorporate the true cost of these things.

Without the right economic incentives, the socially responsible farmer has no chance to compete with the irresponsible ones.

Another important, perhaps critical aspect of a resilient food system is food preservation. People have to re-learn how to store potatoes, turnips, and carrots over the winter in a cold cellar, how to can tomatoes and green beans, how to store onions, and apples, how to salt down meat. If today's food system contracts significantly, and we have to rely on locally grown food, it won't just be "in season" food that we'll need to survive. We need to develop local food preservation cooperatives and canning kitchens.

I grew up canning my garden's harvest after we ate as much as we wanted, or we just grew that crop for the canning of it.

My dad, buys fresh foods, and when he can get more than a week's worth he slices and freezes, or we make something and can it, or freeze it.

Though we have not used the canning equipment much in the past little while, we still have it and all the abilities. I guess I should get my extra income over to the store and buy up jars and such, while they last, just in case.

There are lots of things we could be doing as a nation, that we are only doing as small groups to sustain ourselves long term. There just needs to be a ground swell of change moved through the system.


Or it might be to late for that already.

IMO, important to understanding why we have the farming systems we have is understanding the history of federal farm policies and their impact on farm economics, particularly the impact of subsidies, market orders, transfer payments, tax policies, tariffs and so on on their evolution from integrated systems to high input monoculture systems.

IMO the best book is:

Pasour EC, RR Rucker (2005). Plowshares & Pork Barrels: The Political Economy of Agriculture, The Independent Institute - book website

Thanks for that. I cover some of that history in the article on the Food System and Public Policy, linked at top.

Stepping back I can see how it derived from a monetary system based on debt with interest that discounted the future, and a faith by policy makers that making money would lead to innovation that would solve the problems created by their policies, ad infinitum.

I remember a macroeconomics professor admonishing us "Not to save or conserve because cutting back on consumption would cripple the economy and we need a robust economy to tackle the environmental and population problems."

He wasn't happy when I argued with him that the robust economy was the cause of the environmental and population problems. I think he wished we had another planet to put all our trash.

As a hanging-on-by-a-thread farmer, I have come to believe the easy credit scam coupled with man's greed (addictions?) is the root cause. When we were limited to this year's raw material production times the processing, delivering, and consumption of those products, whether food or hard materials, we were held fairly well in check, except for raiding parties or major wars to kill off rival groups and take their production. Now, we seem to be able to go hell bent for leather until all four wheels fall off, and afraid to jump off for fear of no easy landing.
Until corporations cease being a legal entity, banks cease lending (except maybe for long-term purchases like land or factories, but no short term operating loans), the true cost of an operation is built into production costs, and we desire no more than the basic necessities plus something to satisfy our artistic needs, this system will fail on the order a comet hitting earth.
I absolutely do not want city sewage, even if it were properly composted, on my land. There are too many heavy metal contaminants in it. There would need to be major changes to city sewage handling before I'd look at it again, even from our county seat--population 1800. Ditto for feedlot manure. We got a fine crop of noxious weeds with that. I'd rather have commercial fertilizer, although I don't really want that either. I have messed around with sea solids, with most of the NaCl removed and am very impressed. I was involved with organic farming before the infrastructure was in place to make it feasible and was forced by economics to give it up. Bankers in this area are not friendly to anything other than BAU. Several years ago I tried to explain things to my banker, and his final word was don't do anything different from your neighbors even though most are slowly going behind. Don't experiment--leave that to the land grant colleges.
My opinion--soil loss goes on any time land is sloped. The Mississippi was labeled Big Muddy long before the prairies were broke out for farming. If you want to stop soil loss, you must level the land at great expense with berms to hold the heaviest recorded rainfall times 5. The slopes down to the next level must be gentle and meticulously maintained in permanent plants. In areas of heavier rainfall, fields would have to be tiled and excess water tightly controlled all the way to a stream. Areas that are prone to wind erosion, even if levelled, should be in permanent plants or must have a thick mulch on it from leftover crop residues grown on that land (not imported).
This sort of stuff doesn't happen with bank money. It used to happen in some cultures (India and China). I don't count on our government for anything useful anymore. During Bush II's administration, long-term planning was 90 days. I see nothing in Obama's to indicate anything different.
It's been said that people go crazy en masse and come to their senses one at a time. I am looking for a combination of farming and off-farm work that replaces borrowed operating funds until I can get what's left of my farm going in a good direction again, definitely not what my neighbors are doing. For example beef raised only on forages have a heart-healthy fat content very different from grain-finished beef, and a tremendous amount of machinery, fertilizer, and chemicals are avoided. They gather a mix of different minerals from a variety of plants and store it in their marrow. How many of you cook soup on cracked long bones to obtain minerals? Animal farming or wild animal hunting have many pluses that have been lost on modern thinking.
The problem with where I live (Kansas high plains) is that the population is shrinking and infrastructure is getting very expensive to maintain (fewer people to share the tax burden). Oh--my downfall was too much borrowed money (greed, since repented of) combined with hail three years in a row followed four years later by an 8-year drought.
That brings me to another problem--locally grown food leads to local famines when things go wrong. Any ideas on how to move food to stricken areas without eventually getting back to the same mess we're in now?

Thanks for sharing your fascinating story. A river as big as the Mississippi will always be eroding banks and churning up bottom mud, but erosion from historic perennial cover was minimal. You have some great ideas for landscape engineering to reduce it as much as possible.

Regarding your last question. I can think of four strategies. 1. Storage of surplus. 2. Diversification to reduce risk of total loss. 3. Maintenance of basic communication and transportation services, e.g. railroads and barges. 4. Population management through education and social norm pressures so that years of surplus food doesn't lead to years of surplus people.

That brings me to another problem--locally grown food leads to local famines when things go wrong. Any ideas on how to move food to stricken areas without eventually getting back to the same mess we're in now?

It's been done. In the early 18th century, famine was avoided in England by bringing shiploads of grain from Russia and America.

We still have local famine in a global world, it's just that the localities aren't in OECD countries.

In general, the issue comes back to Jason's resiliency concept. Grow monoculture corn for high fructose corn syrup, and the farmer lives in a food desert, unable to eat what he grows and subject to many vagaries from the outside world. Have a "hobby farm" with potatoes, pasture, grain, a garden and a day job, and the farmer has considerable resilience.

Generally, I agree with yours and Jason's answers. I didn't mention the grasshopper problem we had for the past three years. When they go on a population explosion, it's hard to afford the chemicals necessary to kill them off. Historically, large areas have been decimated. Fortunately for us, a wet summer promoted diseases that promise to cut the population down, and we have added chickens and guineas back on this farm (my grandparents used to have them) with some success already. We literally couldn't grow garden because the hoppers would eat plants off within minutes of being transplanted. Spray was a losing game, as they just moved in from yards to miles away to fill the void. Such personal experience led me to my closing questions, and no one has adequately answered the last one. Once a culture learns to trade to stave off starvation, it's off to the races again. The desire for more variety is strong, and there must be strong trade laws to make sure no culture gets gouged. (That's probably for another discussion.)
As for the muddy Mississippi, just follow it upstream and look at all its tributaries down to the creeks and normally dry draws (coulees to you Northerners and arroyos to you Southwesterners), and it becomes obvious that more than streambank erosion has occurred. Our land does eventually end up in the ocean, and barring glaciers and volcanoes, what's left will end up being an acid bog. We humans, whether you credit our existence to a Creator God as I do, or eons of evolution, still are here with tremendous abilities to alter our environment. It is what we do, just as deer do deer things and elephants do elephant things. So we'd best get on with our talents and use them to husband this environment rather than rape it. That involves long term thinking essentially the same as a good man thinking through what it will take to nurture his wife and children for all his life, rather than plotting the most amount of personal gratification with the least inputs.

That brings me to another problem--locally grown food leads to local famines when things go wrong. Any ideas on how to move food to stricken areas without eventually getting back to the same mess we're in now?
- i think diversification is the best bet.
As far as i know most famines in recent history anyway are due to political decision as opposed to lack of food.

First, Jason, I want to say thanks for your work on Reality Report, numerous episodes of which I downloaded from Global Public Media onto my mp3 as an excellent source of education and inspiration during work on my house and garden in 2008 and 2009. I'll miss it.

In looking at the data as a whole, I have come to the conclusion that transition to a local vegan diet is really the single best strategy we can pursue to build long-term resilience within the global food system and across all sectors of the global economy. Along these lines, I have recently started a blog that explores what I find to be the surprisingly conflicted relationship between plant-based nutrition, permaculture, and climate change/energy descent activism. For the most part, I find there is enormous resistance to vegan transition within the climate change and energy descent activist community. I wonder what your thoughts are on the role of vegan dietary transition to food system resilience?

I have made a careful study of the work of T. Colin Campbell - perhaps the world's top nutritionist - and I think the science is clear on the superiority of a balanced vegan diet for optimum human development and the prevention of chronic disease. I am also familiar with the work of Jeavons, Jenkins, Coleman, Ludwig, Fukuoka, Holmgren and Mollison, and Blume, who between them more or less chart out, in my opinion, the most thermodynamically efficient way forward, though only Jeavons, to my knowledge, has taken a hard enough look at the long-term trend in per capita arable land and water availability to grasp the necessity of a veganic diet (for most of the world's population) from an agricultural perspective.

This is probably what I find to be the most disappointing aspect of our present state of analysis: there simply is not enough clear-headed planning in light of per capita arable land constraints, starting from a global perspective and working back down. I try to encourage this kind of global analysis in my most recent post, and will soon be posting a rebuttal of the Pollan-Coleman-Salatin euphoria over grass-fed beef that employs a similar methodology at the national and state level. The preview to that piece is this: grass-fed beef doesn't have a chance of working at scale, either agriculturally or economically. It's a tragic misinvestment of resources. At least, that's how the data looks on this end, but I very much look forward to sharpening my understanding in light of better data and better argument. Hope you'll help me out!

Hi permavegan, just wanted to say looks like an interesting blog, i would just point out two things: Campbells work is not universally agreed with due to how he conducted his study with it's worth checking out the work of weston price

While we may discuss energy use in meat and veg production, his research over 10 years found that healthy indigenous groups always included some form of meat in their diet. Those who did not showed signs of degeneration over generations..


I am quite familiar with the propaganda of the Weston Price Foundation. Here is an example of this propaganda - the "criticism" section of the Wikipedia article on Campbell's book The China Study. This section is lifted from a text by Chris Masterjohn, a writer for the Weston Price Foundation and the only author that I know of who has questioned the scientific integrity of Campbell's research:

"Critics of this book highlight the worry that, despite some useful work in denouncing Western health care systems and the necessity of obtaining nutrients from foods, it is biased towards the Vegan lifestyle. It is accused of ignoring evidence that does not back-up Veganism such as on page 221, where Campbell declares, "Folic acid is a compound derived exclusively from plant-based foods such as green and leafy vegetables." The USDA database reveals that the most folate-dense foods are organ meats."

Here is the complete passage from p. 221 of Campbell's book:

"In another study on Alzheimer's [76], the risk of getting the disease was 3.3 times greater than among people whose blood folic levels were in the lowest one-third range and 4.5 times greater when blood homocysteine levels were in the highest one-third. What are folic acid and homocysteine? Folic acid is a compound derived exclusively from plant-based foods such as green and leafy vegetables. Homocysteine is an amino acid that is derived primarily from animal protein [77]. This study found that it was desirable to maintain low blood homocysteine and high blood folic acid. In other words, the combination of a diet high in animal-based foods and low in plant-based foods raises the risk of Alzheimer's disease [78]."

In the above passage, one of several to address the relationship of diet and Alzheimer's, Campbell explains how a plant-based diet simultaneously increases blood folic acid levels and decreases blood homocysteine levels (if proper folic acid and B-12 levels are maintained, as noted in 78), thereby lowering Alzheimer's risk (in accordance with peer reviewed science, as noted in 76 and 77). Campbell is completely correct to say that folic acid is a compound derived exclusively from plant-based foods such as green and leafy vegetables. It is found in the organs of animals because they derive it from the green and leafy vegetables they eat, not because they synthesize it on their own. Cows, for example, are raw food vegetarians. They get the folate they need from the foliage they eat. That's what it's called folate, by the way. Folium is Latin for leaf.

We can get the folic acid we need second hand from organ meats, but in so doing we also raise our blood homocysteine levels, thereby increasing Alzheimer's risk, among many other things. However, if we obtain our folic acid by eating green and leafy vegetables, and eliminate meat, we will get the high folic acid levels AND the low homocysteine levels that best protect us from Alzheimer's.

Now think for a moment about the fact that Masterjohn grossly misrepresents Campbell's use of the word "derivative," painting Campbell as an uninformed fanatical quack. Then think about what Masterjohn didn't tell you about this passage: that a high blood homocysteine level - and remember here that homocysteine is a toxic amino acid derived primarily from animal proteins we eat - is associated with an increased risk for Alzheimer's. Now why would Masterjohn misrepresent Campbell in the first instance and ignore the most critical aspect of this passage in the second?

Who does Masterjohn work for again? Now, after reading this, who are you more inclined to trust?

Please cite me one peer-reviewed scientific study demonstrating that meat is a dietary requirement for human nutrition. As far as I know, every major medical group has signed off on the adequacy of a balanced vegan diet.

whew PV where to start?
A few years ago i would have been of a mind to lock horns with you and discuss this till the tofu cows come home but i'll try and keep this brief as it's straying away from this thread.

The trouble with this issue and how you are approaching it IMO is that when you have a belief this strong (Being Vegan in your case), it comes down to right and wrong. When you are of the opinion that you are morally right you don't tend to hear much of what anyone else has to say.

Now taking your point about folic acid, it looks like Chris Masterjohn made a mistake. Good on you for seeing that, i hope he can recognise this and take account of it. Have you let him know?

However in looking at Campbells rebuttal of his article:

and Masterjohn's rebuttal of his rebuttal!:

It's interesting how Campbell seems to resort to name calling and doesn't really answer any questions.

In your post you speak of "Propaganda" and say that Masterjohn paints campbell "as an uninformed fanatical quack" strong words, indeed. I don't see evidence of this, only calmly stated points.

You ask me for a peer reviewed study to show meat is a dietary requirement. I'm not aware of any such study, how would you conduct one?

As i have already stated, the work of Weston Price, if read without a previous bias, is a fascinating look into indigenous diets, all of who had some form of highly concentrated seafood, organ meat or shellfish in their diet.

The only way to really see the effects of diet is over generations, you can show me all the vegan weightlifters you want! But lets see their children and their children's children.

The evidence is in the bones and teeth.

In only looking at the china study you ignore the work of people like George Mann who studied the Masai (as did price). Vegetables were a rarity in their diet, yet they were some of the healthiest people Price ever studied..

I would be very careful of your world vision, religious fervour is impressive, have you got all the facts? How can you if you discount any that you don't agree with?

If you are open to other ideas i would recommend some of the books on cholesterol, how important it is for the brains functioning, and what this "war" against it will do to the current generation.
Books like, "lipitor, thief of memory" and the "cholesterol myths", although maybe you'll see it as more "propaganda"?

Now i'm as guilty as anyone else of being an "eco-fundamentalist" and of sometimes having what I call "crusader complex" I get too serious about green issues and can't believe nobody is doing anything about the state of the world.

I understand you care deeply about this issue, and you believe you are "right". Trouble is grand world visions tend to bring a lot of stress, i'd chill out a bit. ;-)

In terms of vegan/vegetarian being more ecologically responsible, i see most vegetarians i know eating highly processed, exotic ingredients from around the world.

Instead of more meat discussion i'd be interested in what you think a locavore vegan would eat? Is this a diet you follow? Most raw food people i know are happily eating avocados and fruit smoothies all year round, with some carrots thrown in...

We are going on a 100 mile diet from March this year to see how Peak oil will be, should be interesting...

Seeing as you like figures, have you any on meat usage if all the body parts are used, there is currently huge wastage because people don't eat much liver anymore (mmm... with onions).

And i've asked many Vegans this, but seeing as you promote a domestic animal free future, where do all the cows go? Will you kill the cockrels? and whose responsibility is that?


Jason's post ends as follows:

"I hope this post has clearly framed the issue of food system resilience and the general principles involved. Many examples exist that align with the goals of resilience, including novel distribution systems, farmer training programs, and specialists on soil restoration. Please share other examples you know of, and discuss aspects of the challenges involved in more detail."

My commentary on this thread is 100 percent on target with this invitation. In my first comment, I introduced an example that aligns with food system resilience - veganic diet - and I discussed aspects of the challenges involved: limited per capita land availability, competing non-food land use priorities, and resistance of energy descent and climate change activists to the empirical basis for the health-promoting effects of a balanced plant-based diet as compared to the disease promoting effects of an otherwise balanced diet containing even small amounts of animal protein.

Your own commentary is straying rather far afield from the thread, however. I am hearing you and the other participants in the discussion just fine. This isn't about my commitment to being a vegan, it's about my commitment to the scientific method.

And to fair scholarship. Which Masterjohn's critiques of Campbell are not. If Masterjohn does not know that folic acid is derived exclusively from plants, is he qualified to critique Campbell? Perhaps. But Masterjohn didn't simply get the folic acid fact wrong. He also slandered Campbell's reputation as an objective researcher by accusing Campbell of placing a "veganic objective" ahead of scientific integrity.

Masterjohn's "calmly cited points" consists of just one point - that Campbell's book "is biased towards the Vegan lifestyle" because it ignores "evidence that does not back-up Veganism such as on page 221." That's the only point in the entire bit of criticism that appears on Wikipedia, per Masterjohn, and that calmly cited point is completely wrong. If you look up "propaganda" I think you will find that this is a perfectly accurate word to describe the phenomenon being described. I say this after having read (some time ago) all of the Masterjohn-Campbell correspondence. I don't think Campbell engages in name-calling, and I don't think there is anything in Masterjohn's rebuttal that addresses Campbell's points; on the contrary, to an informed reader, Masterjohn continues to undercut his own credibility. He even ups the folic acid propaganda in his rebuttal:

"Campbell carries this selectivity so far as to make the absurd claim that folate is found exclusively in green leafy vegetables when the best source is actually chicken liver. Even in his rebuttal, Campbell ignores most of these points and still has not admitted that folate is present in animal foods."

Why should Campbell take time from his research to respond to Masterjohn on this point?

Dietary requirements for all classes of essential nutrients are a regular subject of scientific study. If you want to learn more about this you might be interested in an undergraduate course in human nutrition.

I have not only studied Campbell's work. I studied the work of Weston Price more than a decade before I studied the work of Campbell. But you have never met me. You know nothing about me and my academic or other qualifications apart from what I have published on my blog. How can you possibly presume to know what I have and have not read? The degree of my openness to new ideas? The rest of your psychological analysis is really so completely uncalled for I'm flagging your comment as inappropriate.

I find there is enormous resistance to vegan transition within the climate change and energy descent activist community. I wonder what your thoughts are on the role of vegan dietary transition to food system resilience?

Permavegan, thanks for your comments. I am interested in Jason's response. I heard him speak once (he's quite good) and I think he said that he's not vegetarian but strictly avoids factory farmed stuff. His standard response to vegetarians is to ask you whether you would rather have grass-fed free-range beef from a sustainably managed pasture or tofu made from imported soybeans grown on land cleared by cutting down the rainforest. Of course we aren't typically faced with this choice, but it's worth thinking about.

In my experience I don't find as much resistance to vegetarian and vegan diets within the Transition and "energy descent" people (I'm in the U. S.) as I do in the rest of the U. S. population. There is a substantial minority of vegetarians in the Transition movement, although most people in Transition are for "backyard chickens" or some variation. I think that in the energy descent, once the economics of growing food kicks in, that most people will be vegetarian most of the time.


Hi Keith,

Thanks for the response. But wow. I really, really hope Jason doesn't respond this way:

His standard response to vegetarians is to ask you whether you would rather have grass-fed free-range beef from a sustainably managed pasture or tofu made from imported soybeans grown on land cleared by cutting down the rainforest.

I would cite such a response as an example of enormous resistance to vegan transition within the climate change and energy descent activist community. Such a response is obviously nonresponsive to the current state of our scientific knowledge about human nutrition. At the same time, it ignores per capita arable land limits. There simply is not enough land in the United States to continue feeding a growing population of U.S. citizens 3-4 ounces of beef per day (the current average), and there definitely is not enough land globally to raise this level of conspicuous consumption to scale, which is what the developing nations are presently trying to do.

Nor do U.S. households themselves have the resources to waste on such consumption. Four ounces of sustainably raised beef per day, at a benefit-of-the-doubt, incredibly cheap $6 per pound on average (less than the going rate for grass-fed organic beef in my area, anyway), is going to cost each member of a household $548 per annum. Multiply that by a population of 300 million and we are talking about an annual cost to U.S. households of $164.4 billion - for 4 ounces per day of a product that does not contribute to human health! This is a tragic misinvestment of household and national wealth, considering all of the other priorities we have on our plates, so to speak. Further, we will eat up the vast majority of arable land in so doing, leaving us too little left for two of the most urgent competing land use demands in light of energy descent and climate change: afforestation and biofuels production.

We simply have to reduce aggregate demand for beef and all other livestock. This can most easily be done by increasing the number of vegans and vegetarians in the population. There is no need to eliminate niche marketing of high-quality, grass-fed beef on a local basis for those individuals and communities who can afford this commodity, but it is a terrible mistake to try and scale this up as state, national, or global policy for the food, health, and agriculture sectors. We need to be scaling up veganism and vegetarianism.

A final point: the U.S. doesn't import soybeans to feed people, it imports soybeans to feed cattle. If U.S. consumers shift aggregate demand from beef and other livestock to a balanced plant-based diet, that is what U.S. farmers will produce. And U.S. farmers will be able to produce ALL of this diet - which will not overemphasize soy, by the way - on a fraction of the land-base required to produce JUST 4 ounces of beef per day per capita. This will end the South American deforestation pressures created by present North American and global meat demand. It will also leave U.S. citizens with land for trees, fiber, and ethanol crops, and for a growing population. It will put more people to work and it will lower health care costs. To suggest that U.S. vegan demand for plant-based foods is a variable driving deforestation in Brazil is, well, it's so far from the true state of affairs as to verge on the unconscionable.

Jason has posed this dilemma (tofu from soybeans in the Amazon vs. grass-fed beef on well-managed pastures) on more than one occasion, but I got a different impression from the context of the question. I think he was just saying that from an environmental point of view, plant foods are not always good, and animal foods are not always bad. On other occasions, he has expressed strong opposition to factory farms. So I don't think this is a form of "enormous resistance" to veganism. I'd say it's pretty mild in terms of the resistance of the mainstream of American culture, in which factory farms hardly come up for debate at all.

Soybean production actually does threaten the Amazonian rainforest, though most of those soybeans are going to cattle feed, not tofu, so we can probably relax on that horn of the dilemma. But the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon is still cattle ranching.

There's no dilemma here, Keith. The posing of a dilemma that does not exist is itself resistance. Consider the documentary Food Inc. Relatively mainstream, opposes factory farming, glorifies grass fed cattle and meat consumption in general, no mention of the negative health effects of meat in the diet, no promotion of the simplest solution across the board, which is a whole foods vegan diet. No mention of plant-based diet in Jason's posts, but a "standard response to vegetarians" that isn't a fair comparison and isn't a promotion of vegetarianism in any context. Content analysis (admittedly unscientific) of articles and commentary on Energy Bulletin, Transition Culture, The Oil Drum, and Climate Progress indicates almost zero engagement by their regular contributors and their readership with transition to vegan and vegetarian diet as one of our foremost health, stewardship, and mitigation strategies. The silence is both inexplicable and deafening.

Deafening, yes. Inexplicable, no.

People resist vegetarianism on Transition in other energy groups for the same basic reasons that the general public resists it: it's an unfamiliar and alien idea, and it doesn't get up to the threshold level of plausibility for them to take it seriously. The world has a lot of problems, they are confusing and complex, and food is just one manifestation.

Of course there is resistance. If the problem was easy to solve, someone else would have doubtless solved it already. But it isn't, so that's why we're here.


I didn't say the resistance was inexplicable, I said the silence was inexplicable. The concept I have presented is not an unfamiliar concept and it is no less plausible than peak oil or climate change.

Uh, O. K., good point. However, the silence is just one manifestation of the resistance. If there is a great deal of resistance, which there is, it will manifest first as silence ("why should I even respond to this weird theory with its fanatical proponents"), then if you overcome that it will manifest as denial. Neither silence, nor resistance, nor denial is inexplicable, though.

A lot of the silence can be explained because authorities such as Michael Pollan (or Jason, for that matter) reject vegetarianism -- in effect, "if the experts have already considered and rejected vegetarianism, why should we bother?" So we can start by engaging their discussion. As in fact, we are both doing.

Keith, on this thread, I am obviously trying to engage in a discussion with Jason. Thus far, I have been sidelined by you and Dylan. You are not in fact engaging in a discussion with "them," you are engaging in a conversation with me. At first, you tried to convince me that enormous resistance to veganism does not exist within the energy descent and climate change community. I countered your argument, and now you are presuming to educate me about the reasons for the "great deal of a resistance" that you previously denied. But I think I made it abundantly clear in my very first post on this thread that I am well aware of the memetic influence of Pollan, Salatin, and Coleman. If you want to engage in conversation with "them," than direct your commentary accordingly. If you want to express your support for my position, than please stop rebutting me.

When I say the silence is deafening and inexplicable, I am not saying the silence cannot be rationalized, which is what you are attempting to do. I am saying that it has no logical or ethical basis and is therefore impossible to explain. That an explanation is being attempted by someone who claims to support my position is a something of an irony.

Now you have raised the issue of expert opinion as an "explanation." I will counter this argument and then please feel free to have the last word on this part of the thread. To my knowledge, neither Jason nor Michael Pollan has a PhD in human nutrition, or anywhere close to the epidemiological, laboratory, and nutritional policy-making experience of T. Colin Campbell. To the extent this is an argument about confidence in expert opinion in the field of human nutrition, and not about the best available data and valid generalization from that data, it is inconsistent and unwise to identify Jason and Michael Pollan as authorities and experts. Your "explanation," in other words, is based on a misuse of the terms "expert" and "authority" in the present context.

Once more: if you want to support the vegan position, respond to Dylan and provide the vegan position with some factual back-up. Or respond to Jason and do the same. I think you are citing some good articles - your Fuhrman link is a good one - but you are directing this information to the wrong person.


O. K., here's my last word. Why don't you contact me off TOD? You can find my e-mail address by a Google search or by clicking on my name. I found your blog but don't see a way to contact you directly.

I am glad for your responses to Dylan and to Jason. Concerning Jason, I have in fact engaged in a fairly extended discussion with Jason at several points, see my comments on soil erosion and my discussion of the health of indigenous people. I didn't respond to Dylan because I thought your responses were quite effective and because in the past I have discovered that debating with the Weston Price people is an exercise in futility. You did a rather better job than I did.

In my view it is not constructive to say that resistance to veganism (or silence about it) is impossible to explain on logical or rational grounds. If it is, then there's no point in being here making logical or rational comments. Instead, I try to figure out where people are at and respond if and when possible. I don't think there's as much silence or resistance to veganism as is apparent to you. In general, there's less resistance in energy / environmental circles than in the general population. My advice would be, stay tuned. By the way, I'm not sure who you mean by Coleman, but I actually debated Mel Coleman on the subject of vegetarianism on two occasions before he died.

All the best,


Thank you, Keith, for the feedback, both here and in the earlier version of your comment (which I am very glad I quickly caught before getting separated from Web access while on the road for a couple of days).

I am refering to Eliot Coleman.

I'll be in touch.

I don't have resistance to vegetarianism. I was vegetarian for 8 years. I just don't see any "absolutes" in all this.

Hi Permavegan,
We are starting from different assumptions about what the "right thing to do is."

I do not have any explicit goal to feed the world, especially one of 10 billion people. Right now we could feed nearly 10 billion people with current ag productivity but we don't because of structural issues in the money system and the fact that many people live in politically bad places with low quality soils and access to tools, etc.

My primary aim is to steward the environment, which in the ag context means soil preservation. Perennial herbaceous cover is one of the best ways to do that. A vegan diet would dramatically reduce the land needed for ag, so I am totally in favor of many, many people adopting that diet. In many places, however, soil qualities make tillage a very poor choice in land disturbance. So I see animals as a good "use" of that land, but not nearly at the level of consumption we currently have.

Overall, I'd prefer to see more forests, wetlands, the regeneration of natural ecosystems, etc. as this is the major form of "wealth" available to humans whether they recognize it or not.

Hi Jason,

Thanks for responding. I am very sorry that we do not share a common assumption about our ethical obligation to help create a future in which all children born on this earth have access to a healthy diet. Although I suspect you are really on board with this assumption and I just didn't manage to present myself very well.

At any rate, insofar as your explicit goal is stewarship of the environment, and insofar as you see this goal as being attained through maximization of soil conservation and regeneration of natural ecosystems, we converge on common ground.

If the 310 million inhabitants of the U.S. adopted a vegan diet, all food to supply that diet could be grown on the mere 130.8 million acres of 48-state U.S. cropland now used to grow food for people, at a very generous rate of 4/10 of an acre per capita. With improved biointensive and no-till agricultural practices, including humanure recycling, we could continue to meet all of our national food supply for the next 100 years on the same small land base, assuming population growth consistent with the U.S. Census Bureau's middle series estimates. And I am talking about a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, and herbs - not a soy-intensive diet.

This would allow you and other environmental preservationists to turn the 718 million acres of range, pasture, and woodland pasture now used to raise livestock into an ecosystem services reserve. Afforestation of as much of this land as possible is, I think, the most sensible conservation strategy (50-60% forest cover of our total landbase is a sensible target, I think), but expansion of protected grasslands acreage would also be sensible. I believe this is something that vegans will very enthusiastically support. I myself would certainly support hunting and fishing of wild game, and forestry, on properly managed multi-use land, as I support it in Maine. I don't understand the need for domesticated livestock on such a preserve from an ecosystems services point of view.

This will still leave U.S. citizens with the 217 million acres of cropland now used to raise livestock and livestock feed. We will also have the 93 million acres of cropland idled, failed, or used to grow cotton, flax, and tobacco. Combined, this 310 million acres of cropland can be used as a very solid starting point for sustainable production of biofuels, manufacturing feedstock, and fiber.

If we do this, and if we control sprawl and improve efficiency in rural, suburban, and urban settlement design, we may be able to prevent further loss of sensitive ecosystems and prime farmland to development, even as we manage a population growth rate that I don't think anyone quite knows how to legislate to zero. If that will ever be possible.

This, or something very close to this, would seem to be implied in your goal. What I don't understand is why, in your response to me, you reject or ignore the research documenting the contribution of dietary animal protein to cancer and chronic disease in humans, and why you think existing cropland in the U.S. is so insufficient to the requirements of a plant-based food supply for our country that livestock on marginal land is anywhere required?

For about every acre of cropland there should be another acre of potential cropland set aside as pasture for rotation purposes...more or less. In the long-run I'd love to see the successful development of perennial grain crops, which would likely have half the yields but require almost no rotation with pasture and could be managed alternately between pasture and seed harvest. I agree that marginal land is probably best kept from of domestic animals. In many places, however, the landscape is a mix of marginal and prime cropland and so wild and domestic animals will co-mingle.

I see cultures that subsist almost entirely on animal products and cultures that subsist almost entirely on plant products. Doesn't seem to me that either way is inherently unhealthy. Any way can likely be over done. From an evolutionary perspective our morphology and physiology strongly suggests we are omnivorous.

Animal populations tend to grow to the extent that they fill the carrying capacity of their environment. I already believe humans have exceeded that so doubt we will ever have 10 billion to feed. We are in an ethical predicament where conflicts may arise between short and long-term needs. Some have called this "lifeboat ethics." Certain places are in such a situation right now and the who knows when it will arrive to a neighborhood near you. I hope never.


Dylan's last comment has me acutely aware that you and others may view my activity on this thread as tangential to the point of your post, or as representative of a veganic agenda as opposed to an agenda to design the most resilient food system possible for the largest number of people "already here or on the way" in light of the best available science.

So I will make this my last comment unless you indicate that you welcome further discussion on my part in relation to one or more points under our mutual consideration.

I would say that we are in a lifeboat situation right now and that it is very much in my neighborhood. I think it is in everyone's neighborhood. I am trying to help design and build a lifeboat. As far a I can tell, that lifeboat begins with top scientists (PhD level, at a minimum) and opinion leaders in the fields of energy descent and climate change getting on the same page in their endorsement of the transdisciplinary imperative for rapid scale-up of a vegan diet to prevent premature death and disease from famine and malnutrition for billions of children and adults over the remainder of this century.

I think this is what W3 generally, and these websites in particular, are meant to be used for. Collaborative knowledge-building and knowledge-transfer in accordance with science for the benefit of humanity.

That said, what exactly do you mean by "overdoing" a plant-based diet?

What cultures, specifically, are you referencing that subsist almost entirely on animal products, and what evidence do you have that the members of these cultures are no less healthy, epidemiologically, than the members of cultures that subsist on a plant-based diet? To my knowledge, the China study is the single best source of scientific data we have on this question, given the size of the sample, the quality of the design, the reliability of the data, the range of diets studied, the degree of geographic variation, the degree of genetic variation, and the ability to contrast premodern and modern lifeways. The study was conducted by a nutrition reacher at the top of his field. But this is not all. The results of the study, which were not anticipated by the research team, validate experimental animal studies by Campbell and by other research teams across the globe. The findings are also consistent with research that continues to come in from unrelated studies throughout the field of human nutrition. Please direct my attention to the specific contradictory studies upon which you are basing your opinion.

When you say that "from an evolutionary perspective our morphology and physiology strongly suggests we are omnivorous," are you saying that all human diets are therefore equal from an epidemiological perspective? Campbell and others have studied the physiological response of rats to plant-based diets versus diets containing varying amounts of animal protein, from an extremely large portion of the diet as animal protein to a very small amount. The results are striking and consistent. These data confirm the human epidemiological data and support the benefits of a plant-based diet. Are you referencing alternative data here? I want to make sure that I fairly weigh the empirical basis for your assertions against the empirical basis of my own. I am willing to change my view but not without peer-reviewed data.

Keeping the above in mind, I don't understand what you mean from an agricultural perspective when you say that for every acre of cropland there should be another acre of potential cropland set aside as pasture for rotation purposes. We in the United States, but even more so poor family farmers in developing countries around the world - don't have the land-base or the surplus energy to put into pasture. We need to grow our food on the smallest unit land-base possible - I think we have already agreed to this point. Jeavons has adequately demonstrated the long-term sustainability of biointensive production methods, and Fukuoka has adequately demonstrated (my weakest link) the long-term sustainability of no-till cereal culture. Orchard, vine, and nut crops, and similar perennials, are included in U.S. Ag Census cropland statistics. Americans need to consume more of these crops on average (while decreasing animal foods) to improve health, and so more acreage of these perennials need to be established. Here again, pasture is unnecessary. Rotation is important in all of these systems (biointensive, Fukuoka, perennials), but this is rotation between crops, not between crops and pasture. We can build soil with pasture, or we can build it with legumes and grains and clover (till or no-till but no-till is better if it is not chemical intensive). The pasture yields x quantity of meat. The cropland consistently yields a 5x (and often much higher) quantity of legumes and grains. Perennial wheat will be wonderful when it comes. Even at the half the yield, it will provide at least 2.5 times the nutritional yield of meat from pasture. Taking your numbers as my reference. But we don't need perennial wheat for scale up of what we already know works. More cropland in well-managed perennial, no-till, and biointensive crop rotations is what we need, not more land in pasture.

Remember that pasture is not only competing with better food cropping methods, it is also competing with afforestation and biofuels production. That extra acre of pasture, in my neck of the woods, could be planted to Jerusalem Artichokes, or to another perennial ethanol crop, with all processing residues returned to the field. Ethanol that can be used to warm a house, cook food, run a generator, heat a greenhouse, or power an internal combustion engine. All of this on a local basis, with no carbon impact, and no need for rare metals. And these are all things we cannot do without - unlike meat - unless we are planning to seriously turn back the clock. In another area, that acre of pasture could be planted to trees. Why are these less valuable competing land uses in your thinking?

Taking all of the above into consideration, I am glad we agree that marginal land is best kept free from domestic animals. But I do not yet understand the empirical basis for your opinion that we should be feeding people animal protein and allocating a portion of our prime cropland to livestock domestication. Where specifically is the scientific consensus breaking down in this analysis?

Thanks for your good work and your attention.

I see cultures that subsist almost entirely on animal products and cultures that subsist almost entirely on plant products. Doesn't seem to me that either way is inherently unhealthy.

In my view, the cultures that subsist almost entirely on animal products are quite unhealthy. Vegans and vegetarians don't understand that this is actually a key issue. They tend to brush it off -- "the Inuit are obviously unhealthy", therefore the real issue is people who eat some or just a few animal products. Look, for example, at Dr. Michael Greger's excellent DVDs -- he cites studies comparing vegans with healthy meat-eaters, people who just eat a little meat. He sees that as the cutting edge issue. A few years ago he wrote Carbophobia, which addressed the Atkins diet, and while the issues actually are related, the Atkins diet has now (mercifully) faded from the scene. Joel Fuhrman, to his credit, does address the question of the health of indigenous people.

Michael Pollan, while he has heard of Weston Price and actually spills quite a bit of ink on him in his book In Defense of Food, hasn't read The China Study. Pollan actually cites The China Study in his book, but it's pretty clear that his fact-checkers have added this. His second key point, "not too much [food]," is directly addressed by The China Study, where T. Colin Campbell (the nutritional biochemist at Cornell, not the petroleum geologist) points out that the Chinese eat substantially more calories than the U. S. yet weigh substantially less. Campbell points out that even the least active Chinese, the equivalent of office workers, eat 30% more calories than the average American and yet still weigh less. He thinks that the change in metabolism may explain this (see pages 99-102). I don't think that Pollan could have possibly read The China Study and missed this point.

Permavegan, this is a good example of the reasons for the silence. Michael Pollan is a smart guy and writes well. I thought The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore's Dilemma were great. Everyone else, including I suspect Jason, is assuming that because Michael Pollan says that high-meat diets are O. K. (he said it on Oprah the other day, again), that therefore this is a valid point. The logic is: "There are so many studies, they're all confusing . . . so we'll just go with what Pollan says."

Keith, I am a vegan and I obviously understand this is a key issue. I also obviously understand Pollan's role in shaping public opinion on the matter. I think you should be directing your response here to Jason, not to me, as you are rebutting a quote from Jason, not from me. You have already addressed the "silence" issue with me directly on another part of the thread. Jason is not being silent, he is engaging, at a cost to his time, which I very much appreciate. So I don't think the silence issue is pertinent to him, or to me, or to this location in the thread.

I myself don't know the basis of Jason's opinion. It may be sourced in data with which I am NOT familiar. I welcome the opportunity to learn from such data. It is up to Jason to cite his sources, not for you or me to guess what they are.

O. K., Jason! What's the basis for this idea:

I see cultures that subsist almost entirely on animal products and cultures that subsist almost entirely on plant products. Doesn't seem to me that either way is inherently unhealthy.

Is it like, Michael Pollan, the Weston Price Foundation, or what? Do you have in mind any specific cultures subsisting almost entirely on animal products? Masai? Inuit?

(I actually posted on this previously, just checking to see if you're still there.)

I don't see a response from Jason, so this is probably the last comment.

It is hard for me to engage the idea that cultures that subsist almost entirely on animal products can be healthy. It's just not plausible and I think if we laid out all the evidence on the table and considered it objectively, I think that pretty much everyone would agree on this.

In evolutionary terms, sure, you can survive on a high-meat diet, but that's just because in evolutionary terms a human who lives to be 40 and manages to reproduce is successful. But in terms that we would recognize, that's not optimum health. The Inuit have very high calcium intake but have some of the worst osteoporosis in the world. Their life expectancy is pretty low, too, as I mentioned above. So just because you dodge heart disease doesn't mean that you're healthy.

The real debate, in my view, is over whether low-meat diets are more healthful, less healthful, or about the same as vegan or vegetarian diets. Dr. Michael Greger cites two studies in the U. S. and Great Britain, the one in Great Britain showing they are about the same but the one in the U. S. showing the vegans healthier. (He attributes the U. S. result to the fact that American vegans tend to be better at getting vitamin B-12.) If anyone's paying attention and cares, let me know and I'll dig out the references.


Hi keith, i wold be interested in seeing those references if you have them handy. From reading about weston price and the work of george mann with the masai, there seems to be evidence of meat eating cultures that were quite healthy. In the case of price this was from generation to generation.
Also Price never found a healthy group of vegetarian people who were completely free from dental problems..

The thing i wonder about studies on indigenous people now is about who they are doing the research on? Is it people who are still following a 100% traditional diet, or people on reservations who are also eating high sugar etc..

The trouble in any study of course is finding out what is actually harming and what is healing..

and from Pottingers work i wonder how humans managed to reproduce and thrive for so many thousands of years without becoming extinct?

I wonder if you've heard of "fathead" the movie?
The guy in it says that spurlock of "super size me" fame, would never provide full details of what he ate during the movie, that in fact it was not the meat which was making him ill...


This isn't quite a proper reference, but it's on Dr. Greger's 2009 update, #58. He reviews all the studies each year related to vegetarianism.

In all honesty I cannot take the theory that high animal product diets can be healthy seriously. The evidence is just too overwhelming; there is just too much toxic stuff in meat. I've debated people coming from the Weston Price Foundation point of view in the past. Never again. No matter what you say, they can find another study that says something different, and this is not how science works. Science is people laying out the evidence objectively, not going on an endless wild goose chase trying to disprove or explain every study or article that's ever been written on the subject.

Good luck.


Hi Keith,

The ball that is in Jason's court, which he has yet to return, is not whether "low-meat diets are more healthful, less healthful, or about the same as vegan or vegetarian diets." If you read back over this thread, I think you will see that you inadvertently reduced my argument to this "debate," and that Dylan has sown more doubt where none need be sown. I think the scientific evidence weighs heavily to the vegan side, but the answer is ultimately irrelevant. Even if a little meat or other animal protein in the diet were to prove ESSENTIAL, this has nothing to do with the key question at hand, because such protein could most economically be derived from poulty managed directly in cropland, at no cost in acres.

The issue at hand here - the ball that I hit back into Jason's court - is whether he is at all correct in arguing that 50% of the planet's cropland (not rangeland, but cropland) should be put in pasture. I think this statement is completely inconsistent with the other main parts of his response to me: first, that we have already exceeded the human carrying capacity of the planet; and second, that people do no worse on a balanced plant-based diet.

Keith, please chime in. Isn't the moral calculus here very simple? Right now, at this very moment, the ship is sinking (i.e., we have exceeded carrying capacity) and lifeboat ethics apply (i.e., some are not going to make it). This is according to Jason, and I would very much agree. So when I say we need to start throwing the livestock overboard so that we have enough land to feed, clothe, and care for the people on the ship, and Jason says no, we can't survive without pasture, and we need to let some more people fall overboard, instead, this is the moral calculation we are examining, is it not? This is what Jason's response to me says in its entirety, correct? Or did I misread it?

The underlying technical driver is whether we NEED pasture for soil-building or some other form of ecosystem service related to overall food system resiliency - not whether or not pasture builds good soil on cropland, which it can when well managed. I think the evidence is clear that we do not NEED pasture to improve soil fertility but can achieve this objective with all cropland in crops, thereby saving people at the expense of livestock acreage, as opposed to saving livestock acreage at the expense of people.

Permavegan says:

Isn't the moral calculus here very simple? Right now, at this very moment, the ship is sinking (i.e., we have exceeded carrying capacity) and lifeboat ethics apply (i.e., some are not going to make it). This is according to Jason, and I would very much agree. So when I say we need to start throwing the livestock overboard so that we have enough land to feed, clothe, and care for the people on the ship, and Jason says no, we can't survive without pasture, and we need to let some more people fall overboard, instead, this is the moral calculation we are examining, is it not? This is what Jason's response to me says in its entirety, correct? Or did I misread it?

The underlying technical driver is whether we NEED pasture for soil-building or some other form of ecosystem service related to overall food system resiliency - not whether or not pasture builds good soil on cropland, which it can when well managed.

(Permavegan, I'm starting a new thread because all of the nesting on the last one is driving me bananas.)

I agree with your statement above concerning the moral calculus. Jason is proposing that we periodically take cropland out of crops and put it into pasture. It looks like we're turning our backs on the people that could be fed from these crops in favor of just a miniscule number which could be supported on the animals. Shouldn't we be feeding people by keeping the land in crops for people?

I don't see a response from Jason on this. You could argue that there's plenty of land out there to feed everybody sustainably, and that hunger is caused mostly by economic inequality, so relax already, no one has to starve. So far, I don't see anyone arguing this. (We're such a bunch of doomers, jeesh!) I don't know enough to say myself, but my working hypothesis is that if everyone were vegan, we could feed maybe a billion or two sustainably, less if we have a significant livestock sector. (I think Pimentel has made similar comments, he thinks population will stabilize at 2 or 3 billion.) Perhaps Jason could say that all crops are inherently erosive and destructive of soil, even "well-managed cropland." "Well managed pasture," by contrast, builds the soil.

Even if you agree that (a) not everyone will make it in a sustainable system, and (b) well-managed pasture is the best way to rest the soil -- I think you could make a strong case for a controlled population descent with an interim system in which we grow crops all the time instead of rotating it into pasture. As the population came down, we would then gradually shift cropland to this new rotation system. (This would also apply for other "sustainable" systems, e. g. cover crops instead of pasture as the "rest" phase.)

People are fond of pointing out that population control is a really hard sell (fundamentalist opposition to birth control, etc.). But a "sustainable" system that lets all the people starve who could be fed by growing crops instead of putting the land to pasture, will surely also be a hard sell.

I would also mention some other points:

1. Jason says that grazing animals on cropland can actually improve the soil. This is where my objection comes in. (Note discussion above on this issue.) If e. g. I can show that even well-managed grass-fed beef (or whatever) causes more soil erosion per calorie than growing plant foods, then in my mind that settles the debate at once. Grow the plant foods instead. AND I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations in my book "A Vegetarian Sourcebook" over 25 years ago that showed that grazing is an order of magnitude worse than factory farming, and factory farming is an order of magnitude worse than crops, with current industrial agriculture, in terms of soil erosion per calorie of food. (Page 119 of 1993 printing.) Of course "well managed pasture" might be different, but given the history of the environmental destruction of grazing -- arguably the single most environmentally destructive form of human activity in history -- I would need just a bit more detail here to be convinced.

2. It's also very interesting that Jason evidently does not want to utilize marginal land for grazing -- land that couldn't (or shouldn't) be put into crops in the first place. I view this as a positive feature of his plan, and I'm a bit surprised I didn't notice it sooner. This land should be turned back to wilderness. Most grazing advocates say things like, "we need to utilize this marginal land as otherwise it will be wasted altogether." I'd say, let it return to wilderness; we need the biodiversity, as we are well into overshoot in terms of species extinction and trying to exploit every last square inch of the earth. I think Jason would agree on this, but without his input it's speculation.

3. Then we have the issue of whether some meat or no meat is healthier for humans. My guess based on the China Study is that a whole-foods plant foods diet is the best. This is somewhat peripheral to the environmental concerns over agriculture, but it should probably be mentioned.

Have I stated the case correctly?


I thought I had it pretty well boiled down! But I look forward to future dialogue with you on other TOD posts, and hopefully on my blog, to which I have recently added a post that approaches this problem from another angle.

Good summary.

It is difficult to compare apples to apples so to speak.

Much of the bad rap in grazing has been its mis-use in marginal lands, especially dry places. Otherwise, well-managed pasture is a major soil builder. Naturally great soils built because of perennial grassland plus the animals that grazed on them.

Look, with 7 billion people there's about 0.2 ha or 0.5 acres per person of fairly high quality arable land that could be used for crop production (i.e., careful tillage). The calorie output of even 0.25 acres is sufficient for a person on an all vegan diet. 0.25 acres x 2000 lbs of seed crop per acre (a rough average, which low for corn and wheat but high for low input legumes, for example) equals 500 lbs of seeds. Seeds have about 1500 calories per pound, so 500 x 1500 = 750,000 calories. This is 2000 calories per day, which is UN minimum.

Okay, add to that the output from pasture: say 800 lbs of meat per year per acre or 200 lbs per 0.25 acres at 700 calories per pound = 140,000 calories per year, or another 380 per day. Now that's 2400 calories per year per capita, which is probably a good, healthy amount.

I'd just add that it would be great to swap out more pasture with nut tree crops especially. Reduce meat intake and increase fats from nuts. 380 calories per day from meat is probably too high. I am just showing some round numbers why I don't believe we need to put it all into cropland, which I feel is bad for the soil.

Jason, I think you should take a look at the two most recent articles on my blog.

Let's agree that we have a population of 7 billion and 0.5 acres of good cropland per capita.

Yes, you can raise a balanced vegan diet on 0.25 acres of cropland. Yes, you can (and should) largely eliminate tillage on this cropland. And yes, you can put the remaining 0.25 acres per person into pasture for grass-fed beef production. But this leaves fiber, biofuels, plant-based manufacturing stock, settlement, and trees completely out of the equation, as though these aren't extremely significant competing cropland demands. Are you actually proposing no use of cropland for these goods, because 380 calories of beef per day is more important than all of them?

Where are you getting your estimate of 200 pounds of beef per quarter acre as a sustainable annual yield? That seems very, very high to me.

380 calories of beef per day equals 95 grams of animal-based protein per day. No, this is not a good, healthy amount for a 2,400 calorie diet. It's a prescription for chronic disease and premature death. Why is it you refuse to respond to T. Colin Campbell's work on human nutrition? And I hope you won't suggest I am being an absolutist in drawing your attention back to this man's research. This is about scientific etiquette.

Update: Yes, swapping out pasture for more perennial crops, including tree crops, is essential. So too is eliminating meat from the diet, as I note above. Tillage is bad for the soil, not cropland. You are not going to eliminate plant foods from the diet, so you are going to need the cropland no matter what. The livestock are a waste of energy. Better to put as much of the remaining land into forest as possible.

I don't know anything about Campbell's work. An a priori bias based on my beliefs regarding human evolution is that I don't buy arguments that all meat causes health problems and we are better off nutritionally from pure plant diet. The human species has occupied many environmental niches and harvested a huge diversity of foods and local populations have evolved accordingly.

I work with farmers who raise livestock on pasture. That 800 lb number seemed reasonable from my experience on prime lands.

Annual crops under a no-till situation would be great. They might be able to hold soil and in some years build soil. No-till annual crop methods are still immature and need a lot of work. Ideally we could rely on these.

The reality is that the landscape is a mosaic of soil types. I am not making any "plans" here, just tossing around numbers for perspective. There will also be "use" of more marginal lands, sometimes for crops, often for trees and fiber products, etc.

Many parts of the world are too land poor/population dense to do anything but grow annual seed crops and area efficient root/tuber crops. What I am suggesting, only tentatively, is easiest to envision in the US with 320 million cropland acres and 300 million people where nearly 75% of cropland is used for corn, soy and wheat, and most of the first two go right to animals and then biofuels.

An a priori belief in evolution is consistent with openness to the possibility of an evolutionary advantage in a non-meat diet, not a refusal to consider scientific evidence to the contrary (of this possibility's opposite).

Is that 800 lb of meat or whole cow? Bones or no bones? My understanding is that 500 lb of boneless meat to 1200 lb of whole cow is ballpark. To what prime lands are you referring (geographically) and are these prime lands available as pasture all 12 months of the year? In other words, is that single acre the only source of feed for that animal for all 12 months of the year? I am seriously interested in understanding this better.

I think the evidence is clear that no-till annuals will build soil. But I agree with you that much more work is needed in this area. Even without no-till, I think the evidence is clear that soil can be built with good rotation of green manure crops. Ultimately, for cropland, I suspect we will both agree that return of all nutrients to the soil is a key strategy for long-term sustainability, regardless of whether we rotate with pasture.

I agree that the landscape is a mosaic of soil types. It says exactly that on the USDA soil report for my acreage. It also says that we can consider soil geography in the aggregate to make better land management decisions on a general level. I thought we were talking public policy, and technical assistance, and checking our estimates to improve the accuracy and reliability of our public opinions. I am truly looking to correct any errors in my estimates and any reliable information you can provide to this effect will be very much appreciated. I certainly do not want to go around misinforming people.


An update, in response to your last, more recently added paragraph: okay, thank you. Your estimate does not take into account use of that cropland for any non-food purposes, you are anticipating zero population growth within the U.S. (or greater yields per acre due to technology), and your perspective on human rights is nationalistic, as opposed to global. Under these parameters, and given your rejection of nutrition, your numbers are starting to make sense to me. I'd still like to know more about your beef estimate.