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Livestock: Lengthening the shadow?

Richard Black | 17:20 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The environmental impact of meat is something of a well-done dish.

Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Sir Paul McCartney are just two of the public figures who have called on us all to eat less meat in order to curb the rate at which the world warms.

The number most commonly cited in this arena - that the meat industry is responsible for about 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions - comes from a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report entitled Livestock's Long Shadow.

Cow

 

The figure is a somewhat curious entity, in that it its veracity is easily challenged, and yet manifestly incomplete.

Easily challenged, because like all kinds of accountancy, you can cut the numbers in a variety of ways - and the 18% figure can look way too high if you do the sums differently.

Yet manifestly incomplete, because raising livestock clearly impacts the world in a number of other ways - climate-changing gases are not its only legacy.

Time then, perhaps, for a more holistic assessment.

And here - as opportune as a spoonful of apple sauce to a dishful of roast pork - comes just such an analysis, from Nathan Pelletier and Peter Tyedmers of Dalhousie University in Canada, in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

What they've attempted is to calculate the environmental impact of livestock in 2050, and relate that back to "planetary boundaries" - the points beyond which it would be unwise to pass if humanity wishes to avoid serious degradation of environmental systems.

They calculate that the total amount of meat we'll be eating in 2050 is about double today's levels, given the growth in the human population and the rate at which we're getting richer (and thus spending more on high-value foods).

Factoring in likely changes in the efficiency of farming systems, they estimate that the climatic impact of meat production on this scale would "occupy 52% of humanity's suggested safe operating space for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions".

But that's not all.

Agriculture hugely increases the amount of reactive nitrogen in the environment - and the use of fertilisers implicit in this meat doubling picture entails, they calculate, that the "sustainability boundary condition" for reactive nitrogen would be surpassed by 117%.

Meanwhile, livestock production would occupy 72% of the "safe operating space" for human "appropriation of biomass" - a measure of how much of the world's primary productivity is being consumed by us, with less left over for everything else growing on Earth.

The notion of "planetary boundaries" was expounded at length in a paper published in Nature last year. That paper contains one of the sets of suggestions for boundaries that are out there in the scientific literature, and which the Dalhousie team uses in its analysis.

Dead Zone imaged from satellite

The Gulf of Mexico often shows a "dead zone" - here imaged in red by satellite

When you get down to the specifics, all of the proposed boundaries are of course estimates.

And there's unlikely to be any single limit beyond which things suddenly become unbearable the world over. After all, the most spectacular impacts of excessive fertiliser use - the so-called "dead zones" in the oceans - are exactly that - dead zones, not a dead totality.

So any and all of the numbers can easily be challenged. 

But the exact numbers are not the point.

Rather, it's the conceptualisation - the notion that here is humanity travelling in some kind of vehicle and heading rapidly towards a giant elastic band, and if we plough into it full-tilt, we will be flung backwards at quite a rate of knots.

The task is to deduce exactly where the elastic band lies, and what scale of impact is bearable; when it is wise to withdraw

The concept has been fully developed, with big reports and loads of numbers, in the field of climate change, including the Stern Review. It's less well developed in terms of other proposed "planetary boundaries" - but as this paper shows, it's beginning to be more developed, and integrated across the various domains of humanity's interaction with nature.

So I think we can expect more of the same - elastic bands with progressively more sophistication.

What we do with the projections, however, is less clear.

Comments

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  • 1. At 6:21pm on 05 Oct 2010, bowmanthebard wrote:

    I was amused to read George Monbiot's recent defence of meat-eating, as if the cruelty of it pales in comparison to its environmental advantages!

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  • 2. At 7:57pm on 05 Oct 2010, sensiblegrannie wrote:

    Wouldn't it be better to use the elastic band analogy to represent give and take? If we were made to feel less guilty about eating meat if we ate less of it. Perhaps people would be more responsive to the idea of eating non-meat proteins for the rest of the time.

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  • 3. At 8:37pm on 05 Oct 2010, jr4412 wrote:

    Richard Black.

    "..the total amount of meat we'll be eating in 2050 is about double today's levels.."

    but is unlikely to be produced by 'classical' farming methods:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/6680989/Meat-grown-in-laboratory-in-world-first.html

    http://openthefuture.com/2006/12/bioprinters_vs_the_meatrix.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_vitro_meat

    "..the notion that here is humanity travelling in some kind of vehicle and heading rapidly towards a giant elastic band, and if we plough into it full-tilt, we will be flung backwards at quite a rate of knots."

    can't wait.

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  • 4. At 9:36pm on 05 Oct 2010, Jensen wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 5. At 10:03pm on 05 Oct 2010, Yorkurbantree wrote:

    Good to get back to a subject with some real substance. More research is always welcome but as it stands we already know the fundamentals: big increases in human population and meat consumption on a finite planet are bad news. One of the partial answers was in the news today though - chop back child benefits...(Vote blue:get green!)

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  • 6. At 10:11pm on 05 Oct 2010, Yorkurbantree wrote:

    Jensen @ 4: You must have a very odd definition for the phrase 'scraping the bottom of the barrel' if you think hat this issue qualifies. Incidentally, there is no hyphen in the word 'recycling'.

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  • 7. At 10:17pm on 05 Oct 2010, John_from_Hendon wrote:

    Richard,

    CO2 moves with Temperature - DOES NOT mean that CO2 CAUSES the temperature to move.

    In any case meat production from cows generates less flatulence than that from sheep apparently and both considerably less that from the algae and bacteria as I recall.

    This is yet another piece of duff self serving science from the UN!

    If we want to improve the conditions on our planet we need to find some practical way to moderate the input from the sun as the dwarfs everything else. As well as limiting our population so as to enable more resources to be available to each person, animal and plant. And of course preventing unequal sharing of the resources that are available - THIS MEANS YOU the developed World esp. the USA - but as no President or Congress will every vote for its own sacking nothing is ever likely to improve (until an ecological disaster hits the USA!)

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  • 8. At 10:45pm on 05 Oct 2010, melty wrote:

    Did anyone ask where the C in the CH4 in livestock farts comes from? It comes from the grasses ingested, so those farts are part of the short-term biosphere-atmosphere carbon cycle, adding only somewhat to the net C in the atmosphere (tho' methane is indeed a more powerful GHG than CO2 by a factor of at least 25). This is completely overshadowed by the century-scale changes we have wrought by digging up trillions of tonnes of fossil fuels and burning them. It is our transformation of GEOLOGICAL carbon into atmospheric carbon that is the root of the problem. Why is this so hard to understand? Also: The oceans and the terrestrial biosphere are buffering our emissions right now but may not continue to do so much longer -- then the fun will really start.

    Richard wrote: "So any and all of the numbers can easily be challenged. But the exact numbers are not the point." Er, a lot depends on the numbers. Perhaps what you meant to write was "the accuracy to n decimal places can be challenged but the SIGN and MAGNITUDE are pretty damn clear."?

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  • 9. At 10:52pm on 05 Oct 2010, FergalR wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 10. At 00:42am on 06 Oct 2010, indianblue wrote:

    i come from the country with the largest number of cows and i tell u wat, we eat much less meat than most would expect. even if we eat, it is mostly what you would call as organic meat or sustainably sourced meat. Now thats not because we all make right choices here in India, it is one of the perks of not commercializing your market to the whims and fancies of meat giants.
    Think about it, a sustainable approach can -
    1) Increase the taste of your ham, veal, beef, chicken etc
    2) Preserve natural resources better. Including large swathes of forest
    3) Let animals eat their natural food rather than corn meal-hormone concoctions
    4) Very importantly, conserve biodiversity. No offense, but i guess most people fail to realize its importance. Welcome to India, visit one of our Bio Div hot spots, you will get the point.
    5) Generate rural employment and enhance wealth distribution through all tiers of the economic society
    6) Prevent market monopoly
    7) Control incidents like the salmonella outbreak

    Vasudhaiva Kudumbakam( The world is my one big family)

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  • 11. At 00:50am on 06 Oct 2010, GeoffWard wrote:

    Richard,
    love the topic, don't like your analogy.

    Rubber band proposition has the effect of bouncing back into the life-zone individuals who reach the boundary of life's envelope.

    Let's examine the envelope (and I don't have the advantage of having read the Nature paper) - we survive because we have evolved to exist within the parameters of a 'million' life factors - oxygen, temperature, carbon, halides, etc, etc. Any one of these, individually but also in interaction with the other '999,999,999', can be the limiting factor of the moment. Some limiting factors can, exceptionally, be substituted by another similar factor but, essentially, we need all in sufficiency to survive within our envelope (I prefer 'bubble'). Visualize a multidimensional hyperspace (bubble = niche) with each factor's vector giving its unique distance (limit of survivability).
    .
    When our life (physiology, psychology, sociology, etc) pushes us against the bubble boundary, what happens? Does a virtual elastic band bounce us back into the life-zone with the exhortation ... "Don't go there, it's terminally dangerous!"? Our higher centres might indeed recognize this signal and our body, etc. might respond appropriately. But the appropriate response is not possible if the limit of the factor is exceeded - either by experiencing too much or too little of the factor. You know you are at life's bubble-boundary when you move from life to death (perhaps the boundary is white).
    The world does not give us - each animal, each plant - a second chance (the Rubber Band analogy).

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  • 12. At 01:51am on 06 Oct 2010, GeoffWard wrote:

    Richard & posters,
    .
    one of my favourite papers on this topic is:
    LIVESTOCK'S LONG SHADOW: environmental issues and options. (FAO, 2006). http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM
    It is also pdf.
    .
    Planetary Boundaries; Safe Operating Space; Sustainable Boundary Conditions - these are simply colloquial expressions for the classic operators of Ecology; they are contextural descriptors of Niche Theory. And very useful they are, too!
    .
    To say that human-harvestable livestock will command 72% of all the world's primary production used to support human life is a gob-smacking statistic! It relegates all plant-life grown for human consumption to 28% - and how will the expansion of biofuel hectarage worldwide alter these proportions and the absolute land area available for arable & livestock human food?
    .
    Richard states "..the total amount of meat we'll be eating in 2050 is about double today's levels.."
    and jr4412 @3 responds: "but is unlikely to be produced by 'classical' farming methods", offering a link on laboratory-produced meat/protein.
    .
    I think, for my lifetime, we will see central Brazil largely transformed into Stockyard breeding lots, the same as the USA. I offer you 'Stockyard Cattle Images' via Google - I am looking at 'Union Stockyard Pens, Omaha, Nebraska' - horrendous! OK, I know it's an old photograph but, in my opinion, modern Stockyard Farming is the quadripedal equivalent of Factory Farming Chickens. If we really want meat (beef) when our human population has doubled, we may have to let go our love of humaine livestock husbandry.






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  • 13. At 02:26am on 06 Oct 2010, FergalR wrote:

    12. At 01:51am on 06 Oct 2010, GeoffWard wrote:
    -------------------------

    Geoff,
    There's an enormous amount of (often unsed) land that's perfect for animal pasture and that is near useless for growing crops.

    Brazil's population is stabilising already. Any further destruction of pristine land or intesification of agriculture there will be for biofuels and the export market.

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  • 14. At 03:14am on 06 Oct 2010, sossige wrote:

    Obviously, human population growth is unsustainable. Instead of fussing about eating less meat, let's start talking about breeding less. Fewer people = less demand for everything.

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  • 15. At 09:56am on 06 Oct 2010, Jack Frost wrote:

    I wonder how many billions and trillions of plant eating animals lived before man walked the earth parping methane and breathing out the deadly gas CO2.

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  • 16. At 10:23am on 06 Oct 2010, Roland D wrote:

    Sorry, remind me again why the rest of us should listen to the ramblings of the discredited Mr Pachauri or a faded rock star?

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  • 17. At 12:05pm on 06 Oct 2010, Smiffie wrote:

    Perhaps there should be a government body to look into this, the Ministry of Silly Farts.

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  • 18. At 12:37pm on 06 Oct 2010, AnotherEngineer wrote:

    Easily challenged, because like all kinds of accountancy, you can cut the numbers in a variety of ways - and the 18% figure can look way too high if you do the sums differently.
    I was immediately reminded of the question your accountant (allegedly) asks: 'Did you have any particular figure in main?'
    Has anyone added up all these figures for percentages from various sources to check that they only add up to 100?


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  • 19. At 12:57pm on 06 Oct 2010, AnotherEngineer wrote:

    #18 should nof course be 'Did you have any particular figure in mind?'

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  • 20. At 1:25pm on 06 Oct 2010, Jack Frost wrote:

    I've just had a thought, to save time with all these non-important tree hugging, polar bear stroking, shark kissing stories, why not just have one titled,

    "you're all gonna die because you breath out"

    I'm sure it would save on expensive jolly jaunts to seminars in far flung countries, think of all the carbon saved. Mother earth would clap her hands in absolute glee. But since we're 'passed the tipping point' anyway why not accept our scorched earth demise and enjoy the 50 or so years earth has left before it frazzles away to a wallnut.


    A Merry freazing winter to everyone.

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  • 21. At 2:10pm on 06 Oct 2010, ghostofsichuan wrote:

    Thomas Malthus, late 1700's.

    "Must it not then be acknowledged by an attentive examiner of the histories of mankind, that in every age and in every State in which man has existed, or does now exist

    That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence,

    That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and,

    That the superior power of population it repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice

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  • 22. At 3:25pm on 06 Oct 2010, Jack Hughes wrote:

    Just say no to this peril porn.

    This is getting like a really bad episode of Horizon - every week some new peril that's even scarier than last week's.

    And to think I've just finished decorating the lounge and the world is going to end next month. Or the month after.

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  • 23. At 3:38pm on 06 Oct 2010, Smiffie wrote:

    Basically the whole meat issue comes down to two questions, do we intend to allow third world population to rise to a level that disrupts food production and threatens everyone on the planet? and do we, in this day and age, still believe that CO2 and methane are a problem?

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  • 24. At 4:27pm on 06 Oct 2010, bowmanthebard wrote:

    Smiffie #23 wrote:

    do we intend to allow third world population to rise to a level that disrupts food production

    Cart before horse. Food production is what has allowed the third world population to rise to present levels.

    If you think we should not "allow" the third world population to rise any more -- an extremely doubtful suggestion in moral, political and practical terms -- try to restrict food production. That is what kept it down before. Keeping it down means maintaining famine conditions.

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  • 25. At 6:46pm on 06 Oct 2010, ledders wrote:

    Instead of not being able to eat meat we could just keep the human population to sustainable level by a one or two child policy.

    But apparently that's too controversial.

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  • 26. At 9:00pm on 06 Oct 2010, GeoffWard wrote:

    "Re Geoff @ 12, There's an enormous amount of (often unused) land that's perfect for animal pasture and that is near useless for growing crops. Brazil's population is stabilising already. Any further destruction of pristine land or intesification of agriculture there will be for biofuels and the export market." (Fergus1R @ 13)
    .............
    Exactly, the export market in meat will potentially make Brazil richer than its export market in raw minerals.
    The world's human population is set to double, and China is its target market, and with increasing income, the Chinese 'average man' will become a greater meat-eater. Home-produced pig-meat will be massively supplemented with Brazil-produced beef and chicken. The Chinese market is so vast that the big Amazonia-margin fazendas (ranches) will continue biting into the southern sub-tropical margins of the forested areas, to continually expand the range-grazing and thereby the cow meat for export.
    There will come a time when the environmental protection -v- ranching conflict limits further classic ranch expansion. By then the national herd will be so vast that the feed requirements will command a majority of the human-supply primary production. This is the time that the country will turn to intensive rather than extensive production systems. It is simply a question of roi.

    Sugarcane bioethanol is already exported in millions of litres per year to mix into mineral oil vehicle fuels, thereby meeting emmision reduction targets. This will therefore not cease but will expand. There is sufficient geographical and ecological segregation of livestock/feedstuffs and cane alcohol production in Brazil to make massive expansion of both beef and alcohol probable.

    China is currently buying up and buying into the Brazilian agro-industry farm estates, to exercise some sort of control over its supply-chain .... and who can blame it.

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  • 27. At 9:27pm on 06 Oct 2010, Andy wrote:

    The problem is obviously more complex, as the population grows there is a shortage of food (including meat), water (as most goes to farming), living space, we run out of carbon energy, greater pollution, effects of overfishing, effects of over farming, the impact of rubbish dumped in landfill and the sea ...and probably many, many other things.

    The people who want to ignore this are fine, it's not their problem (they just made it) - its the world we are going to leave for my grandchildren that worries me.

    The current political system has a 5 year time horizon and is a popularity contest. The people who run large successful businesses have longer time views and do take very unpopular decisions on a regular basis.

    The current world system and direction is VERY scary; IMHO.

    Sorry if I've depressed somebody............

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  • 28. At 9:56pm on 06 Oct 2010, FergalR wrote:

    26. At 9:00pm on 06 Oct 2010, GeoffWard wrote
    ----------------------

    The human population is not set to double.

    My spreadsheet skills are poor, but someone graphed the UN estimates from 2004 here:
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/77/World-Population-1800-2100.png/587px-World-Population-1800-2100.png

    Their more recent analysis suggests that population will peak slightly higher and slightly sooner than the medium variant and then fall much faster than that prediction.

    Human fertility, even in the most underdeveloped and fundamentalist countries is dropping precipitously. By the end of the century there'll be fewer poeple alive than there are now. That will be a disaster because most of the population will be too decrepit to work.

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  • 29. At 10:07pm on 06 Oct 2010, bowmanthebard wrote:

    Andywr #27 wrote:

    The problem is obviously more complex, as the population grows there is a shortage of food

    This is religious mythology. The population did not begin with Adam and Eve. There has not been an abundance of food until just recently, when the human population hit the "carrying capacity" of God's Green Earth!

    When, oh when, will you all begin to acknowledge your own ubiquitous religious assumptions, and try to slough them off?

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  • 30. At 11:39pm on 06 Oct 2010, bowmanthebard wrote:

    28. At 9:56pm on 06 Oct 2010, FergalR wrote:

    By the end of the century there'll be fewer poeple alive than there are now. That will be a disaster because most of the population will be too decrepit to work.

    Aw more "disaster" baloney. Who knows how many will be alive, and who cares? If by some miracle there will be fewer poeple alive than there are now, then hardly anyone will have to work because those lucky few will be able to enjoy the wide open spaces and farmlands dripping with uneaten cheap produce.

    Get real!

    By the way, I'm sorry to tell you we're all going to be dead by the end of the century, so you may as well just let the next generations deal with it as best they know how -- and they will know how, much better than we do. They'll know more about how to deal with problems as they arise, just as we know more than our great-grandparents did about how to deal with early twenty-first century problems.

    Relax and enjoy life -- it's finite!

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  • 31. At 11:57pm on 06 Oct 2010, FergalR wrote:

    30. At 11:39pm on 06 Oct 2010, bowmanthebard wrote:
    "...If by some miracle there will be fewer poeple alive than there are now, then hardly anyone will have to work because those lucky few will be able to enjoy the wide open spaces and farmlands dripping with uneaten cheap produce...."

    Wow, food grows itself?

    I'd relax and enjoy life if a small laager of self-proclaimed intellectuals weren't campaigning to reduce greenhouse gas emission to 20% of 1990 levels.

    Such idiocy would preclude all human activity with the exception of a fraction of our current agriculture.

    Have a nice relaxation there, bowmanthebard.

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  • 32. At 01:06am on 07 Oct 2010, GeoffWard wrote:

    "The human population is not set to double." (Fergal1R @ 28)
    I agree, my colloquialism ran away with itself.
    My subsequent reading leads me to believe that our present 6,500 million world pop. should top-out at around 10,000 million inhabitants by 2070.
    This 50% increment will need, arguably, 100% more food than we presently produce - as the undeveloped and underdeveloped move towards developed. My original argument holds in terms of increased need for higher grade food production even though my snap-shot population assertion was way off.
    Geoff.

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  • 33. At 07:40am on 07 Oct 2010, bowmanthebard wrote:

    FergalR '31 wrote:

    Wow, food grows itself?

    Yes!

    All humans gave to do is plant it and harvest it, something largely done by machines using cheap energy such as oil. That's why in technologically advanced parts of the world, the amount of time spent "laboring in the fields" is a tiny fraction of what it once was. Even the "laboring" often consists of sitting in an air-conditioned cab listening to the Archers.

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  • 34. At 08:06am on 07 Oct 2010, FergalR wrote:

    @33

    So, food doesn't grow itself, in the sense that if people didn't plant food it wouldn't grow.

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  • 35. At 08:34am on 07 Oct 2010, bowmanthebard wrote:

    FergalR #34 wrote:

    So, food doesn't grow itself, in the sense that if people didn't plant food it wouldn't grow.

    It does literally grow itself. And before agriculture, it didn't even have to be planted. By talking about "people planting food" you implicitly invoke wholly misleading images of peasants laboring in the fields planting rice or something. But the reality is that a very small number of specialists can use machinery -- running on cheap oil -- to plant food. Same with the harvesting.

    So if there really were much more land per person than today, and the wealth that goes with it, there would be great abundance and lots of leisure time -- rather than another religion-inspired "disaster"!

    You simply cannot tie "amount of labor" to "amount of food". Even "area of land per person" is only very loosely tied to "amount of food". The most important factors are cheapness of energy, advancement of technology -- and of course warmth, carbon dioxide, light, water, etc..

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  • 36. At 09:57am on 07 Oct 2010, FergalR wrote:

    35.

    Well - to be fair - you're the one who brought up the wholly implicit fact that people have to plant food in order for it to grow.

    Anyway.

    I'm curious what percentage of GHG emissions are from cropland. I tried in vain a while ago to find out. As Mr. Black points out in the article such things are subjective. The closest I came to an answer was that nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer was about equal to animal-related methane on a CO2-equivalent basis (in my country at least). I also read that tilling alone releases N2O.

    My inquiring mind itches to know. Just for trivia sake, mind, because the whole global warming thing is on its last legs. Stench of death, you know?

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  • 37. At 10:16am on 07 Oct 2010, bowmanthebard wrote:

    It is a tragedy, but "traditional" stories get implanted in people's minds without their even being aware of it. One such story is the idea that the human population started off very small, then grew as generation followed generation, until now, when -- uh oh! -- we are about to run out of food! Bummer!

    The reality is that the human population grows whenever some new technological advance makes food more plentiful (i.e. cheaper). One of the biggest such advances was the development of agriculture, made possible by selectively breeding grasses, to make new artificial varieties such as wheat. But such advances happen throughout history. For example, take the ability to harness oxen. Some are remarkably recent: the two most important inventions of the Middle Ages were the stirrup and the horse collar, the first for war, and the second for pulling a plough. These inventions made the horse ubiquitous, at least in Europe, and made food significantly cheaper to produce. More recently, oil has made planting and harvesting virtually labor-free, so that only a few specialists nowadays do what almost the entire species used to do.

    I've said it a hundred times before, but it's so utterly vital to understanding population growth (and dealing with the problem) I'll say it again: there are lots of people alive today because food is cheap, not because a lot of time has elapsed since a small number of humans began breeding.

    Do not attribute population growth to modern medicine! Hardly anyone who lives on a few dollars a day enjoy the luxury of visiting doctors, and disease is everywhere still. It's mostly the product of cheap food, made possible by tractors and oil.

    The problem of overpopulation can only be dealt with if we understand what caused it in the first place. Even if you explicitly reject the myth of Adam and Eve, if you think the population is large because time has elapsed, in effect you still swallow it.

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  • 38. At 12:04pm on 07 Oct 2010, Smiffie wrote:

    bowmanthebard @#24 said “If you think we should not "allow" the third world population to rise any more -- an extremely doubtful suggestion in moral, political and practical terms -- try to restrict food production. That is what kept it down before. Keeping it down means maintaining famine conditions.”

    Restricting food is one way of restricting population and making fuel from food could help here but I was hoping for something more humane, we should no longer just leave it to nature.

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  • 39. At 12:22pm on 07 Oct 2010, bowmanthebard wrote:

    Smiffie #38 wrote:

    Restricting food is one way of restricting population and making fuel from food could help here

    If we're honest, we're talking about causing famines here. Surely we agree that that's wholly unacceptable?

    I was hoping for something more humane, we should no longer just leave it to nature.

    Me too. In the West, people are having fewer children than before, or than today in the third world, because:

    (1) they have higher expectations for each child that they do have, because of low infant mortality rates and better chances in education;

    (2) old people can realistically hope to save for a pension, or at least to be looked after by the state rather than having a large extended family look after them in old age.

    I seems to me that we should allow -- nay, encourage -- poorer parts of the world to become more like richer parts of the world, with health, comforts, education, and longevity. Decent social welfare, free (or low cost) health and education are important ingredients in that scenario. So is wealth and economic growth, but it's always a matter of balance, trade-offs, compromise.

    It seems to me that the "population crisis" -- inasmuch as it exists at all -- would be greatly relieved if we allowed the developing world to go ahead and develop, as we did in the past.

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  • 40. At 1:02pm on 07 Oct 2010, Philip wrote:

    So what is the implied suggestion of such calculations, given that we live in a capitalist system?
    To make meat so expensive as to be the food of the privileged classes?
    Let us not forget that it was industrialisation and not farming that brought us to this environmental predicament.

    Philip

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  • 41. At 6:46pm on 07 Oct 2010, Greenpa wrote:

    " The concept has been fully developed, with big reports and loads of numbers, in the field of climate change, including the Stern Review. It's less well developed in terms of other proposed "planetary boundaries" - but as this paper shows, it's beginning to be more developed, and integrated across the various domains of humanity's interaction with nature.

    So I think we can expect more of the same - elastic bands with progressively more sophistication."

    I think you've reported the scientist's opinions well, and the expectations. An unreported, and un-understood aspect, however, is how well such concepts serve us in comprehending the natural world.

    The actual track record of such statistics, and their related "models" is not particularly good; though it's incredibly difficult to find good discussions on this problem inside the scientific community. A statistic for an example; "Net primary productivity"; a number used by ecologists to explain "how productive" a particular ecosystem is. The idea being, it allows you to compare say, mangrove marsh to rice fields. As it turns out, though- the $#*%&^ statistic is really worthless; nobody measures it the same way, for starters, then there are problems with annual and seasonal variations, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc...

    It's actually useless. BUT - people continue to use it ANYWAY - even though they know it's "flawed" (useless) - because - it's the statistic everyone else uses. Heaven forfend you should try to measure things better, or in a new way.

    Scientists are, alas, very human. But both inside the scientific priesthood, and from the outside, we're not allowed to really say that. Science is sacred. Ave. And from that, we too often get to "scientists are sacred"; and, "their statistics are sacred". To say, publicly, otherwise; is heresy. (hey, I've already been excommunicated, so I can say so. ) :-)

    More on my blog:

    http://littlebloginthebigwoods.blogspot.com/2008/06/lies-and-damned-lies-and-models.html

    And, forsooth, I'm involved in this work and science; spent this morning working on my livestock, which I'm getting integrated into my cropping systems. Looking quickly at their calculations; I see just a few problems. If there IS a "real number" to be had here; I have little hope they are anywhere close to it.

    ---------------------

    "What we do with the projections, however, is less clear."

    What!! Richard, for shame. It's totally clear, and obvious. We have more meetings, and "more research is required."

    :-)

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  • 42. At 8:47pm on 07 Oct 2010, GeoffWard wrote:

    "The actual track record of such statistics, and their related "models" is not particularly good; though it's incredibly difficult to find good discussions on this problem inside the scientific community. A statistic for an example; "Net primary productivity"; a number used by ecologists to explain "how productive" a particular ecosystem is. The idea being, it allows you to compare say, mangrove marsh to rice fields. As it turns out, though- the $#*%&^ statistic is really worthless; nobody measures it the same way, for starters, then there are problems with annual and seasonal variations, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc..." (Greenpa @ 41)
    ................
    Yes, ecological measurement is difficult.
    If I want to compare net primary productivity in the deep ocean with that of a rainforest I have to use different tools of measurement and different methodologies. I measure the same phenomenon, however.
    If I measure NPP over a period of time in the same places, I can account for annual and seasonal variations.
    If I measure NPP in different places in the two ecosystems, I can arrive at a mean NPPs.
    And so on.....

    There are, as you probably know, standardised methodologies for different types of ecosystem. They are the benchmark methodologies for research and only need adding to where you get major environmental phase-changes - you know, like when permafrost melts, or when delta gets inundated.
    Yes, ecology is the study of levels of complexity overlying levels of complexity; but if it simply counted the number of 'angels on the head of a pin', I would have found it significantly less challenging, and infinitely less rewarding.

    Can I recommend, as a starting point, the accumulated volumes of the International Biological Programme on the topic.

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  • 43. At 11:46pm on 07 Oct 2010, Greenpa wrote:

    Mr. Ward: "Can I recommend, as a starting point, the accumulated volumes of the International Biological Programme on the topic."

    :-) I am, indeed, smiling. I cannot be sure which "Geoff Ward" you are- even adding "ecology" to the search parameters; but- I assure you, my Real Ecologist ribbons and stripes are extensive. Don't really need "starting points" all that much. :-)

    Delighted to have a peer respond, though; didn't really anticipate that in this venue. I was attempting to point out to the general audience that there are questions about these approaches. My question to you; are you satisfied with your colleagues use of statistics? Or their comprehension (beyond "this is how you do it.")?

    I am really not; and I find the problem gets worse daily; to the point that a great deal of work is corrupted beyond any sensible point. The current "calculation of the impact of meat" being a case in point, where the wiggle room, point by point, vastly exceeds the quality of the inputs. They are offering us a number with 4 significant digits; where, in my professional opinion, the actual calculation of how many significant digits they can correctly claim, given input certainties, etc, is approximately -2; negative 2. (humor)

    Yet the willingness of trained ecologists to lend credence to such nonsense increases; and the ability of other to offer valid criticisms decreases.

    Net primary productivity is a pet peeve of mine; very very seriously, I suggest abandoning the concept.

    Shocking, I know, given the vast amount of effort already expended. If you'll read Scurlock and Olson; Environ. Rev. 10; 91-109 (2002); you'll find an excellent review of the subject. Their bottom line: "there are significant problems with inconsistency...".

    I would go much further; in my opinion the problems are so large as to make it silly to continue pretending this approach works.

    Our ability, as scientists, to abandon bad direction, is abysmal. We keep zombie statistics, and now zombie "models" alive long after they should have been buried; often largely I think because we simply lack the ability to state, rudely "this is crap". Our colleagues will be offended; so we don't. The salmon population dynamics models are a particularly egregious example.

    "But how else would we measure "productivity?!" I hear you cry. First - look for other handles on the problem. If you're not even thinking about it (and complacency blocks it), you'll never find a different path. I actually have one I prefer - kilograms/chlorophyll/area-volume. Since most plants develop or resorb it as needed, it's a very VERY powerful handle on what the heck is going on right now; can be measured over time, seasons, years, etc; and compared.

    For example. :-)

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  • 44. At 05:04am on 08 Oct 2010, SafinCCd wrote:

    Now perhaps it’s just the diversity of available animals across the pond, but how would eating meat from invasive species or from populations that are unsustainable contribute to climate change? In certain states in America there are more deer than people. Since there are so few natural predators left, the number of deer in some states now outnumbers people. Now deer-car collisions are one of the primary causes of car crashes. Also the large populations have resulted in decreased health, and a rise in disease, such as chronic wasting disease (the deer version of mad cow). Then there is the trouble other states have with elk. Or what about eating the massive invasive carp working their way toward the Great Lakes (they weigh hundreds of pounds, and eat everything). I would think eating these animals would be a public service. Finally, wild pigs destroy crops, forests, and outcompete natural critters. Heck, you could replace your entire year’s consumption of meat with venison, invasive carp, and invasive wild pig and you would be saving lives! Try taking a boat ride down a river infested with bighead carp. Wear a helmet or you’re apt to have your brain scrambled. If preserving the environment and native species is paramount then meat-eating should be encouraged: just eat the invasives.

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  • 45. At 2:36pm on 08 Oct 2010, GeoffWard wrote:

    At last, somebody who admits to being an ecologist!

    Will get back to you later in the day.... now it's time for all geriatrics to go for their daily work-out.

    Geoff.

    P.S. Appreciated the smile - I was a bit hard on you, but this blog site tends to make you that way.

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  • 46. At 6:19pm on 08 Oct 2010, Wolfiewoods wrote:

    The issue here seems to be that grain feed to livestock would be better used to feed people directly, we should however also consider the amount of oats etc feed to riding horses and ponies, is horse riding sustainable?

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