Discover more from Limits to Progress
What's for Dinner?
by Kathleen McCroskey (1946- )
George Monbiot has some great ideas, and some not-so-great ones, such as his re-wilding ideas, in wishing for large animals (such as pre-historic elephants) to live again in Europe so that they can help the health of the forests by breaking off large limbs, to encourage re-growth. This is utter nonsense, it is really bad for a tree to have the inner wood exposed to the weather, especially in impossible-to-heal wounds.
Thanks for reading Limits to Progress! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
In his book Regenesis and in various posts, George Monbiot suggests creating protein and fat food sources from microbes such as bacteria, and stop destroying the planet by animal agriculture. Yes, the largest masses of mammals on the planet are humans and cattle, and to improve biodiversity we need to reduce the numbers of one or the other or both.
In the study “The global biomass of wild animals” Greenspoon, et al. 2023, the authors state that the total mammal biomass is about 1080 Mt with humans at about 36% of that at 390 Mt, and domesticated animals about 58% or 630 Mt, with most of that cattle. Wild animals amount to about 20 Mt, less than 2% of the total, and amounting to about 3 kg per person. You eat more beef in a year than there are total live, wild mammals. The mass of dogs or sheep outweighs all the wild mammals. The mass of human-made things now outweighs the mass of all living things. Thus, ending consumption of beef should lower the total mass of cattle, which would be a good place to start.
(above image from Greenspoon et al.)
In the study “Quantifying and mapping the human appropriation of net primary production in earth's terrestrial ecosystems” Haberal et al., 2007 PNAS, the authors point out that “a remarkable share of global net primary production is used to satisfy the needs and wants of just one species on earth.” Here, again, it looks like humans are a rogue species and it would be great to also reduce their numbers, But nobody wants to touch the third-rail issue of an appropriate level of human population (if there is one). It usually ends up as a finger-pointing exercise with people pointing to developing countries as the problem, in spite of their low level of wasteful consumption. Just why are there 80 million people in Germany on land the size of Montana?
The people who stand in the place of a proper human management system, our present so-called “governments,” instead of being an anachronistic self-serving feudal system of salary-pullers, if they had performed actual governance, should have indicated to the population years ago, that we are no longer in a state of recovery from The Plague and that we don’t need to keep pulling full-throttle on population growth. But these salary takers are under the influence of the developer class who call for growth and ever more growth on a finite planet.
Such failure of governance leaves those of us who actually live here to cope with more and more people taking a slice of the same pie, the same diminishing supply of water and ever diminishing supply and variety of food in ever-worsening growing conditions. In “Our World in Data,” under “World population with and without synthetic nitrogen fertilizers,” they show that only just over half the world’s population could survive without reactive nitrogen fertilizer being used. OWID is often deprecated, but this data comes from two studies, Smil (2002) and Erisman et al. (2008), see next paragraph. This apparent improvement from use of nitrogen fertilizers is a similar condition to what happens when an aid group visits a poor African village and drills a well for them. The people are overjoyed, they can now live happily and raise their families. But they are not told that this is a temporary fix, they will soon deplete that aquifer and end up bearing the burden of an enlarged population with no food and water.
In the article by Vaclav Smil, the abstract says:
“Nitrogen was the most commonly yield-limiting nutrient in all pre-industrial agricultures. Only the Haber-Bosch synthesis of ammonia broke this barrier. The rising dependence on nitrogenous fertilizers, which represents the largest human interference in the biospheric N cycle, has two different roles. In affluent nations it helps to produce excess of food in general, and of animal foods in particular, and it boosts agricultural exports. But for at least a third of humanity in the world's most populous countries the use of N fertilizers makes the difference between malnutrition and adequate diet. Our understanding of human N (protein) needs has undergone many revisions and although some uncertainties still remain it is clear that average protein intakes are excessive in rich countries and inadequate for hundreds of millions of people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. More dietary protein will be needed to eliminate these disparities but the future global use of N fertilizers can be moderated not just by better agronomic practices but also by higher feeding efficiencies and by gradual changes of prevailing diets. As a result, it could be possible to supply adequate nutrition to the world's growing population without any massive increases of N inputs.”
From the Erisman et al. study:
“On 13 October 1908, Fritz Haber filed his patent on the “synthesis of ammonia from its elements” for which he was later awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. A hundred years on we live in a world transformed by and highly dependent upon Haber–Bosch nitrogen.
In his Nobel lecture, Haber explained that his main motivation for synthesizing ammonia from its elements was the growing demand for food, and the concomitant need to replace the nitrogen lost from fields owing to the harvesting of crops: “it was clear that the demand for fixed nitrogen, which at the beginning of this century could be satisfied with a few hundred thousand tons a year, must increase to millions of tons”1. We now know that his vision was right: the current worldwide use of fertilizer nitrogen is about 100 Tg N per year.”
Why is environmental progress so difficult? Consider the article in Nature by Malekpour et al., Sept 13, 2023, about what scientists need to do to accelerate progress on the SDGs. Apparently, the main success stories so far are improving internet access and mobile phone availability. Is this important to the sustainability of nature or to cities?
So what’s to be done? Or, as George Monbiot asks (above link) - “What would you do?” In reality, “what would you do” is a moot point on a planet with no working planetary government, on this War Planet. But we must work on reducing the ongoing explosion of human population as well as eliminating beef, since humans and cattle are the two biggest overpopulation issues. But must all agriculture end and be replaced by microbial food?
If you have tried French cultured butter, you would see how special the production of that product is. Does that have to end? In a (real) society, culture is the growing, preparation, sharing and enjoyment of food. Does Giuseppe De Lorenzo have to stop raising capers on Salina? Does Luciano Catellani have to stop raising his special Razza Reggiana cows to make the best Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese? These are centuries-old traditions of places where people actually live there. Do you close all these farms because elsewhere there are too many people to feed? Why not first close tobacco farms, opium-poppy farms, industrial wineries, barley and other crops grown just to make beer? Maize and palm oil plantations just to feed cars and trucks?
And really, the biggest problem is not on land, it’s at sea, the continual theft from the oceans of “seafood.” The North Atlantic fishery, on top of the fossil energy from coal, fueled the empires of Europe through the 1400s onward. The “Boston Tea Party” was not really a protest of the tea tax, that was a red herring, the real issue was that the processing of the North Atlantic cod fishery was moving to another British colony. The use of anhydrous ammonia (the Haber-Bosch process mentioned above) for fertilizer has been the biggest disruption of the nitrogen cycle on this planet, for the land area as well as for the oceans by runoff from over-use on farms. The other great disturbance of ocean nitrogen cycles has been the continuous and ongoing industrial-scale removal of sea life for human use and consumption. That vast protein removal represents a major loss to the ocean’s nitrogen cycle. But we have disturbed or set into chaos just about every important ocean cycle, carbonate-silicate, acidification, etc. Our disruption of the oceans is more serious than the multitude of disruptions on land - as Captain Paul Watson says, “If the oceans die, we die.”
In a study by Kozicka et al., the authors, investigating alternatives to meat, find environmental benefits:
The study finds that with 50% of animal products substituted for more sustainable alternatives, “all impacts on natural resources decline significantly” by 2050. Global agricultural area decreases by 12%, which releases 653m of hectares of land for other uses. Nitrogen use is halved, compared to the reference scenario. Water use drops 10% and greenhouse gas emissions decrease by 2.1bn tonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2e) per year by 2050.”
The research also finds that in a 50% substitution scenario, if governments implement additional measures to restore the abandoned croplands, such as tree-planting and biodiversity-friendly management, carbon sequestration would rise by an additional 3.3bn tonnes of CO2e per year by mid-century.
In an article in the Globe and Mail, Taras Grescoe writes:
According to demographers, the global population is expected to rise to around 10 billion by mid-century, by which time we’ll have to produce 50 per cent more calories than we are now, or face famine.
Russian shelling of Kharkiv damaged the National Gene Bank of Plants of Ukraine, founded in 1908 and home to 160,000 crop varieties.
While mentioning Ukraine, there is a certain bad actor who has bombed tens of thousands of tonnes of grain that were needed by many nations. Then there’s two other bad actors, USA and UK which have sent “depleted” uranium to Ukraine for military purposes. What is depleted uranium? Has it decayed into lead? No, “enriched” uranium has 4% δ235U which is the fissionable version while δ238U is the more common isotope occurring on Earth. “Depleted” uranium has the 235U reduced below 1%. It still poses some radiation and large toxicity hazards. All that, along with the severe damage inflicted upon the best agricultural land on the planet by running over it with war, yet again.
So what’s to be done? Nothing until there is a proper world government. Meanwhile, each person can do some things, such as forget about beef, a nice memory from an earlier time. Forget about “Ocean Wise” and all other such nonsense about “sustainable” ocean harvesting. Can you undo a several centuries of over-fishing? Just stop taking from the oceans, that’s theft. Suggestion: eat more rabbit! No methane emissions from either end! People have been known to rise rabbits in just about any place, including an extra room in an apartment. They can convert a large variety of vegetative matter into a protein source, which unlike poultry, has the full complement of amino acids required in human nutrition. Will microbes do this? Regarding protein and fats derived from microbes - How can that fit into a 100 km diet? It sounds like large-scale processing with long distribution chains. How can that food supply be good for your digestive microbes?
But for all the masses of humans packed into cities, what can they all eat, as more and more land is taken up by housing? Perhaps a bulk pelleted food brought in by container-load is necessary. In my August 13th post, “Men are the Problem,” (which has only 13 views and one forward) it was mentioned that, since humans have so drastically altered their environment, perhaps they now live like caged animals living in a bad zoo. If that is true, then pass the kibble!
Vaclav Smil "Nitrogen and Food Production: Proteins for Human Diets," AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 31(2), 126-131, (1 March 2002). https://doi.org/10.1579/0044-7447-31.2.126 Published: 1 March 2002
Jan Willem Erisman, Mark A. Sutton, James Galloway, Zbigniew Klimont & Wilfried Winiwarter (2008) “How a century of ammonia synthesis changed the world” Nature Geoscience volume 1, pages 636–639. https://www.nature.com/articles/ngeo325
Helmut Haberl <firstname.lastname@example.org>, K. Heinz Erb, Fridolin Krausmann, Veronika Gaube, Alberte Bondeau, Christoph Plutzar, Simone Gingrich, Wolfgang Lucht, and Marina Fischer-Kowalski (2007) “Quantifying and mapping the human appropriation of net primary production in earth's terrestrial ecosystems.” July 31, 2007 PNAS 104 (31) 12942-12947 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0704243104
Shirin Malekpour, Cameron Allen, Ambuj Sagar, Imme Scholz, Åsa Persson, J. Jaime Miranda, Therese Bennich, Opha Pauline Dube, Norichika Kanie, Nyovani Madise, Nancy Shackell, Jaime C. Montoya, Jiahua Pan, Ibrahima Hathie, Sergey N. Bobylev, John Agard & Kaltham Al-Ghanim. “What scientists need to do to accelerate progress on the SDGs” Nature 621, 250-254 (2023) doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-023-02808-x
Kozicka, M. (et al.) (2023) Feeding climate and biodiversity goals with novel plant-based meat and milk alternatives, Nature Communications, doi:10.1038/s41467-023-40899-2 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-023-40899-2
Taras Grescoe, Contributed to The Globe and Mail, Published September 15, 2023, “Eat the past to preserve the future- History shows us what happens when food biodiversity is lost – and what we can do about it.” excerpt from his book: The Lost Supper: Searching for the Future of Food in the Flavors of the Past. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-to-save-the-future-from-food-insecurity-we-should-look-to-cuisine-of/
https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/40746/environmental_impact_Ukraine_conflict.pdf See section 1.3.3, page 14 The Environmental Impact of the Conflict in Ukraine - A Preliminary Review
© 2022 United Nations Environment Programme, ISBN: 978-92-807-3969-5, Job number: EO/2466/NA
https://www.oxfordreference.com/display/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095914358 (Haber-Bosch process)
Thanks for reading Limits to Progress! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.