Sustainable Industrial Agriculture?

The term industrial farming is often linked to animal cruelty and unsustainability. It has now become mainstream to criticize farming at huge, industrial scales. People are now more aware that industrial farming is harmful to the surrounding environment, dumping tons of excess nutrients into water ways and producing greenhouse gasses. Agriculture is the largest contributor to nitrous oxide which has a global warming potential 298 times more than CO2 (2). The agriculture industry is also a large producer of methane. The movement is to move towards small to medium sized farms which generate a variety of crops and have less impact on the environment. There has been a substantial amount of studying showing the benefits of this type of farming. Dairy systems that use rotational grazing have shown to be better for the environment and the cows but there is a downside. Farmers do not get as much milk from their cows forcing them to charge more per gallon of milk. With many people living on low income wages in this country switching to this type of farming in the future may not be the answer. A dairy farm co-op has been working and investing on a way to make their production more sustainable.

In Indiana, The Fair Oaks farming co-op is a 36,000 acre dairy production with $2 billion in annual revenue. The cows there produce 430,000 gallons of manure every day (1). This co-op is well aware of its effect on the environment. For over ten years this co-op has been investing in a sustainable future for their farming operation. The average carbon footprint for a gallon of milk, production to consumption, is 17.6 pounds of carbon dioxide. The Fair Oaks farming co-op has brought that down to 10 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon of milk (1). Their path to large scale sustainability starts with poop.

The manure from the cows in this large operation supplies enough energy for the entire co-op. The manure is transported to a digester. With microbes and anaerobic conditions the digester produces methane. The Fair Oaks operation produces enough methane to fuel their own fleet of 42 trucks. The water from the manure is then pressed out so the manure can be used a fertilizer. The leftover water still doesn’t have a use but the co-op is planning on using it to create an artificial wetland where they can grow high-protein duckweed. Then they want to use the water that filters through the wetland for brewing beer.

Whether you like it or not industrial scale farming is a part of our food system. These large scale, mechanized farming operations have helped to create a cheap food market. On the environmental side this has led to the degradation of our rivers and atmosphere. I have heard in many other classes that the path to sustainable farming is to have small and medium sized farms. This would create a diversity of crops, decrease the amount nutrient runoff and help local economies. I have always questioned this because the further you go out west the big the farms become. This might not be a feasible goal for the future of the food system. The Fair Oaks goal to be carbon neutral is an innovative way of mass producing dairy and meat product in an environmental conscious way.

Sources:

(1) http://fortune.com/2016/01/27/fair-oaks-dairy-farm-manure-fuel/?iid=sr-link1

(2) http://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gwps.html

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Catch the Bug

He ate not one, but two daddy longlegs. Cricket Powder

It was the day our Phys. Ed. teacher successfully grossed out a busload of unruly preteens and impressed an image that I –nor any of my classmates – would ever forget. The teacher was my father, and my friends recount the story even to this day.

Any culture carries its share of taboos, many of which fall into the culinary category. Americans shun the idea of eating insects (or arachnids), while two billion people around the world don’t give it a second thought. We love our hotdogs and cheeseburgers, but insects may be a novel weapon in our battle against climate change. This global crisis offers us an opportunity to get creative, and fast. What do bugs have to offer that bovines don’t?

Sustainability: The buzzword that makes environmental scientists groan and businesses “green”. Unfortunately, the word sustainability has lost much of its luster in episodes of overuse and misinformation. It has become a trendy term that no longer carries much weight. But insects may actually be a sustainable addition to our food systems. That is, a food system with “a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” (Merriam Webster). Our current agricultural system is littered with waste, with estimates of over 30% of our food being lost or tossed around the globe (1). Some of our food waste can be attributed to food labeling and improper portions, while other problems arise at the farm itself. With 40% of a cow edible, 60% is waste. For chickens and pigs, the figure lowers to around 45% waste. Meanwhile, a whopping 80% of a is cricket edible, with only 20% regarded as byproduct (2). Organic waste (wasted food or wasted cow) emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas (GHG). Move towards a more efficient food system, and GHG emissions will decline. Right now, agriculture accounts for about 10% of America’s greenhouse gases. Adding insects to the equation may help lower that percentage.  On a per gram basis, protein produced from certain insects emits 1% of the GHG of protein production from beef (3).

Courtesy of theguardian.com

Courtesy of theguardian.com

Some people will refuse to ever have grasshopper sushi or fried silkworm. For the fainter of heart, insects can supplement meals in a subtler way. Companies around the world have created nutritious ground insect products full of protein, iron, calcium and more. The bonus? A protein bar or shake without the worry of a stray cricket leg. Further down the food chain lies an even more promising idea for the most squeamish among us. Mealworms and black fly larvae have become an excellent supplement to chicken, pig, and fish feed. Insect farms in places as different as South Africa and Ohio have learned the benefits for this supplement. Let’s look at the current trends and future options.

Livestock and farmed fish are fed ground products and meals that require commercial production. Whether commercial grade fish meal or soybean meal, the assembly necessitates conversion of land and depletion of fish stocks, and GHG emissions permeate production. Not to mention, the method is an inefficient way to convert protein. On average, beef, pork, and chicken respectively require 10, 5, and 2.5kg feed to produce 1kg of meat (2).  In come maggots. Black soldier larvae (Hermetia illucens) don’t require such an intense supply chain. They are simply fed food scraps and farm waste without an an enormous planetary burden. They are earth’s recyclers. The industrious insects-to-be convert the waste to protein and compost. The plump larvae are then converted to insect meal for livestock and aquaculture. A model that sustains on inputs of waste is more efficient by nature.

Eating bugs will not save the world, nor is this a suggestion to end all traditional meat production. Our climate crisis can only be approached with a cooperative and creative character. We need solutions that inspect all aspects of our food systems, but we also need a willingness to change. Crickets aren’t all that different from lobsters and chickens would rather eat maggots than soy beans. We live in an interconnected world; it is time for our food system to mimic relationships that nature reveals.

We all need to refocus the lens we use to look at food. Oysters, milk, hot dogs, and honey could easily gross us out. Honey is bee vomit. These things exist in our culinary traditions, but someone somewhere overcame the ick-factor of mammary gland excretions from a four-legged ungulate, to give us the delicious decedents of dairy. I am not at the forefront of the insect-eating movement (people have been eating insects for millennia) but I gave it a try and I caught the bug. We don’t have to develop investment portfolios to support insect farming and alternative food systems; we make our investments with our shopping cart. Start easy with insect-based flours and try cricket and coconut chocolate chip cookies. Maybe, like me,  you can work your way up to crunchy cricket tacos. Soon enough you’ll catch the bug in no time.

(1) UNEP Food Waste Facts. Retrieved 26 January 2016, from http://www.unep.org/wed/2013/quickfacts/

(2) Van Huis, A. et al (2013). Edible insects. org. Retrieved 26 January 2016, from http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e.pdf

(3) Oonincx, D. et al (2010). An exploration of greenhouse gas and ammonia production by insect species suitable for animal or human consumption. PLoS ONE 5(12). Retrieved 26 January 2016, from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0014445