Back to the Savanna
On every continent, vast herds of large herbivores move through grass lands, grazing on the grass's green leaves while leaving the rhizomes’ regenerative root structures in place. The larger animals are then followed by flocks of insects, predators and birds, all of which contribute a vital product or service. The procession leaves behind a rich, vibrant layer of manure and bacteria that will make its way into the soil. This, combined with the cast-off roots the grass no longer needs for its diminished solar production due to lack of green leaves, creates a fertile subterranean ecosystem for worms, rodents and, once again, bacteria. The ecosystem then creates the ideal conditions for the grass to grow again for the return of a herd in two-to-three weeks. This cyclical cooperation has been around since before the dinosaurs.
Our inefficient industrial food production system takes the herd, makes it stationary, brings the stationary grass (corn) to the herd, losing resources at every step. The nitrate-rich manure, carrying precious enzymes and proteins in the way of bugs, which roaming herds would spread over the land, never leaves the pasture in the industrial scenario. We currently manufacture nitrates using a large amount of petroleum to grow the corn to feed the cattle. Much of this artificial fertilizer gets blown off by the wind or washed away with rainfall, due to lack of sufficient top soil which has been eliminated by the years of intensive industrial production. Poultry birds are then raised in a completely different place, their droppings becoming a hot, nitrate intensive waste. Their natural ability of aerating the soil and providing pest control by pecking for food in the manure of the herd is wasted. Each industrial production facility creates an intense density of unutilized resources like a giant petri dish, breeding germs, fungi and pests. This creates the need for pesticides, fungicides, and antibiotics, which in turn kill off not only the desired invasive organisms, but also peripheral beneficial organisms, such as bees and bacteria.
Some calculations have this inefficient system responsible for as many greenhouse gases as cars. Excess methane is created by feeding cows corn instead of grasses. The production of nitrates is carbon intensive. The waste from this has been tied to the destruction of wet lands, contamination of ground water, and even the creation of dead zones in the ocean.
So how do we use the savanna’s efficiencies in modern food production? On a small scale Polyface Farms, discussed in Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has many of the answers. The real trick of the Polyface Farms example is mobility of the animals and permanency of the plants. To do this on a grand scale post-industrial food production would need to undergo a paradigm shift. Each producer must see themselves as true stewards of the land, not owners. The Bureau of Land Management must shift to an advisory role, informing the producers as to when land is ready for the herd, poultry or farming, and when it just needs a break. Ranchers must rotate their cattle as organic farmers do crops. Bird pens become mobile, perhaps even solar powered, to create a shelter for the birds and enable birds to peck at the soil.
The plains once supported 60 to 100 million large bison. Our present beef production is 32 millions cows. Imagine a herd of cattle, be it beef, bison, or other herbivores, grazing across the countryside, like one long cattle drive. Following the cattle, the poultry farmer brings a slow bird drive, truly free range, through the grazed fields. Using the grubs in the cow patties for food as well as the grasses, they leave behind a nitrogen rich patchwork of bird poop. Worms and bacteria then break this mix of animal byproducts and create a layer of topsoil, aided by the turning of the ground by rodents, while root structures remain intact preventing run-off of soil. When there is a good, rich layer of topsoil, the farmers rotate crops for a few seasons, then move to the next fertile fields, allowing the land to regenerate. In this system the only waste problems involved are that of the slaughterhouses. Distribution of the final products to the consumer is the only concern of carbon use during transportation, assuming processing plants are appropriately placed on the route. Transport may be by rail along the the migratory route.
At least 5% of the total land mass is now used for food production. It’s a huge percentage of our land to degrade as we are now. If the present food production system continues, we will likely see iucreased global warming, pollution of our aquifers, destruction of our topsoil, and an increase in antibiotic resistant diseases. Our seafaring food production fares no better as larger dead zones in the ocean eliminate many fish breeding grounds. We must have a paradigm shift in our food production system. Our present system is not sustainable, relying heavily on petroleum and manufactured nitrates. If our food system practices transform at the current slow pace, it will be decades before we approach partial solutions to these global issues with many issues will still remaining. Even 100% organic production will not be sufficient to address all the waste issues.
Where better to find a successful model for food production than what has worked for millions of years? It reduces waste and eliminates artificial chemical costs. The saved costs could then pay for higher labor wages. Best of all, it could be sustainable for generations.