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Real Food Under Fire

Posted on June 19, 2019

cows on pasture


Who would have imagined that real food would be a questionable commodity or that it would generate heated debate?

When I was a child, we had simple meat and potatoes, vegetables and fruits. The milk came from a cow and butter was a staple. But that was changing by the time I was a teen.

Margarine came along looking like butter; Cheez Whiz and Velveeta replaced wheels of cheddar cheese; powdered milk didn’t sour becoming a substitute for raw milk; and TV dinners were quicker than made-from-scratch real meals. 
Now, we have Beyond Burger pretending to be beef, nut cheeses instead of real dairy ones, and unimaginable gluten-free concoctions replacing bread, the staff of life. And saying anything against these imposters causes a cacophony of arguments from their defenders.

Why do we need to defend real food against these aberrations?

What’s wrong with the simple food people have eaten for millennia?

One of the arguments used to defend these food-like substances is the impact on the environment of raising the real thing. The truth is that farming done organically and in harmony with nature improves the environment. It’s a horrendous lie to say otherwise.

Another farmer from Manitoba addressed this issue in a post on their Facebook page. Here it is.

Beef & Water Use by Lydia Carpenter, Luna Field Farm, Manitoba

I have been hearing a fair bit recently about how much water it takes to produce a pound of beef.

I watch our cattle out on pasture. They eat grass and they drink water. They urinate and they defecate on pasture and those nutrients are cycled. It seems quite efficient for a grassland to have ruminants grazing. They do drink water and they do graze plants that require water to grow.

I imagine that the fear around the water footprint of beef comes from the notion that as animals consume water, that water, in the form of urine and manure is a contaminant. That may be the case under certain forms of management, but it is not the case for the majority of cattle on pasture (keeping in mind that most cattle spend the majority of their lives on pasture or grazing crop residue and thus fertilizing crop fields).

It is important to first remember that water use is broken down into three parts:

The green water footprint (consumption of rainwater);

The blue water footprint (consumption of surface and groundwater); 

The grey water footprint (pollution of surface and groundwater).

The green water footprint and the blue water footprint of animals in natural functioning eco systems and agroecological systems, where we do not pollute surface or groundwater, is arguably part of the hydrological cycle.

That is, a cow on pasture drinks surface water (ex. from a pond) or ground water (ex. from a well). She needs about 30 gallons per day. She urinates and defecates on pasture.

Through respiration and elimination, the cow is putting a fair bit of moisture back into the environment. Her urine and manure, rich in nutrients provides food for the soil and plants. This is particularly so in a functioning grassland system (with healthy soils and plants) and is an important aspect in the use of ruminants in trying to improve pasturelands.

A healthy soil and plant root system cycles these nutrients. The moisture goes back into the ground. Some of the surface moisture is lost to the atmosphere via evaporation and some is taken up by plants. Plants transpire, again releasing moisture to the atmosphere.

Some of the urine percolates through the soil, filtered as it goes, and runs back into surface water points.

Now, if the water does not leave the system (as one might assume if thinking linearly), but rather is cycled through the system and the cattle are moved or managed in a way as to not only not contaminate surface or groundwater but to improve soil and plant health and water holding capacity thus repairing localized hydrology, how do we make value statements about water use in this case?

I understand that the water footprint of cattle also calculates additional feed use (grain). We can calculate the additional water footprint of imported and irrigated grain fed to cattle much the way we can compare the water footprint of Asparagus grown on the coast of South America to that of Asparagus grown right here in Manitoba. They are not equal.

Now, it takes water (rain!) to grow pasture. In some cases, and in some parts of the world irrigation is used for pastures too.

Here, on our farm, and for many cattle farmers in Manitoba we rely on rainwater and adequate water infiltration and storage for pasture growth. It rains and the pastures grow.

We can calculate all of that rainfall as part of the water footprint for beef cattle but is it a worthwhile exercise if the grasses themselves need the ruminant and grazing to thrive? Having co-evolved with large ruminants, the grasslands and pastures need to be grazed to cycle nutrients. Rain falls, pasture grows, cattle graze and drink water, cattle defecate and urinate and trample forage, soil microbiology eats, and plants grow, trampled thatch and root mass help hold moisture, cattle are moved; repeat. This is quite a simple description of a complex system.

This is such a long and nuanced conversation, but in short, it is not the cow, it's the how! We have to take these stats with a grain of salt and rather than simply assume that all systems are equal we have to start understanding how different farming practices work within the context of local ecology, hydrology, nutrient cycling, carbon cycling, etc.

Do reference one of my favourite text books, "The Nature and Properties of Soils" by Weil & Brady.

Conclusive remarks to the above article from Harvest Haven:

Experienced, knowledgeable, and skilled agricultural practitioners, loosely and often disrespectfully called, “farmers,” are suffering interventions of so-called science, bureaucratic showmanship, and political ideology, all exercised to a great extent through ignorance and presumption. We live in self-defeating and dangerous times that only the wise and prudent will be able to weather and survive.

God help us against the foolishness of man, called, “enlightenment” and “progress.”



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