INFOTERRA: Food and Oil

To John swinney <>, alex Salmond <>, Mike Russel <>, Adam Ingram <>, Murray Tosh <>, David Mundell <>, Phil Gallie <>, Alex Fergusson <>, "Alasdair Morgan, MSP" <>, Andrew Wilson <>, Roseanna Cunningham <>, Tommy Sheridan <>, Robin Harper <>, "Elaine.Murray.msp" <>, Steve Burgess Robin's press <>, "Brian Wilson, MP" <>, Peter Duncan <>
From Ed Iglehart <>
Date Thu, 29 Jan 2004 12:48:50 +0000
Reply-to Ed Iglehart <>

My friends,

I would prefer to send the following as only a hyperlink, but that seems
unavailable as yet from the site, which lack may account for what appear to be typical
scanning typos in the text appended
( Apologies for the length,
but the article is worth it, and
for myself, I shall try and get sight of Mr Manning''s new book.

From the February 2004 issue of Harper's Monthly  (
THE OIL WE EAT:Following the food chain back to Iraq
By Richard Manning

 Richard Manning is the author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture
Has Hijacked Civilization, to be
published this month by North Point  Press.

 "The secret of great wealth with no obvious source is some forgotten
crime, forgotten because it was done
neatly."  --Balzac

The journalist's rule says: follow the money. This rule, however, is
not really axiomatic but derivative, in
that money, as even our vice  president will tell you, is really a way
of tracking energy. We'll follow the

We learn as children that there is no free lunch, that you don't get
something from nothing, that what
goes up must come down, and so  on. The scientific version of these
verities is only slightly more  complex.
As James Prescott Joule discovered in the nineteenth  century, there is
only so much energy. You can
change it from motion  to heat, from heat to light, but there will never
be more of it and there  will never
be less of it. The conservation of energy is not an option, it is  a
fact. This is the first law of

  Special as we humans are, we get no exemptions from the rules. All
animals eat plants or eat animals
that eat plants. This is the food  chain, and pulling it is the unique
ability of plants to turn sunlight into
stored energy in the form of carbohydrates, the basic fuel of all
animals. Solar-powered photosynthesis is
the only way to make this  fuel. There is no alternative to plant
energy, just as there is no  alternative to
oxygen. The results of taking away our plant energy may  not be as
sudden as cutting off oxygen, but they
are as sure.

 Scientists have a name for the total amount of plant mass created by
Earth in a given year, the total
budget for life. They call it the planet's  "primary productivity."
There have been two efforts to figure out
how  that productivity is spent, one by a group at Stanford University,
the  other an independent
accounting by the biologist Stuart Pimm. Both  conclude that we humans,'
a single species among millions,
consume  about 40 percent of Earth's primary productivity, 40 percent of
all there  is. This simple number
may explain why the current extinction rate is  1,000 times that which
existed before human domination
of the planet.  We 6 billion have simply stolen the food, the rich among
us a lot more  than others.

  Energy cannot be created or canceled, but it can be concentrated.
This is the larger and profoundly
explanatory context of a  national-security memo George Kennan wrote in
1948 as the head of a State
Department planning committee, ostensibly about Asian policy  but really
about how the United States was
to deal with its newfound  role as the dominant force on Earth. "We have
about 50 percent of the  world's
wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population," Kennan wrote. "In  this
situation, we cannot fait to be the
object of envy and resentment.  Our real task in the coming period is to
devise a pattern of  relationships
which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity  without
positive detriment to our national
security. To do so, we will  have to dispense with all sentimentality
and day-dreaming; and our  attention
will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate  national
objectives. We need not deceive
ourselves that we can afford  today the luxury of altruism and

 "The day is not far off, " Kennan concluded, "when we are going to
have to deal in straight power

 If you follow the energy, eventually you will end up in a field
somewhere. Humans engage in a dizzying
array of artifice and  industry. Nonetheless, more than two thirds of
humanity's cut of primary
productivity results from agriculture, two thirds of which in turn
consists  of three plants: rice, wheat, and
corn. In the 10,000 years since humans domesticated these grains, their
status has remained
undiminished, most likely because they are able to store solar energy
in uniquely dense, transportable
bundles of carbohydrates. They are to  the plant world what a barrel of
refined oil is to the hydrocarbon
world.  Indeed, aside from hydrocarbons they are the most concentrated
form  of true wealth-sun energy-
to be found on the planet.

 As Kerman recognized, however, the maintenance of such a  concentration
of wealth often requires violent
action. Agriculture is a  recent human experiment. For most of human
history, we lived by  gathering or
killing a broad variety of nature's offerings. Why humans  might have
traded this approach for the
complexities of agriculture is  an interesting and long-debated
question, especially because the  skeletal
evidence clearly indicates that early farmers were more poorly
nourished, more disease-ridden and
deformed, than their  hunter-gatherer contemporaries. Farming did not
improve most lives.  The evidence
that best points to the answer, I think, lies in the difference between
early agricultural villages and their
pre-agricultural  counterparts-the presence not just of grain but of
granaries and, more  tellingly, of just a
few houses significantly larger and more ornate than  all the others
attached to those granaries.
Agriculture was not so much  about food as it was about the accumulation
of wealth. It benefited  some
humans, and those people have been in charge ever since.

 Domestication was also a radical change in the distribution of  wealth
within the plant world. Plants can
spend their solar income in  several ways. The dominant and prudent
strategy is to allocate most of  it to
building roots, stem, bark-a conservative portfolio of investments  that
allows the plant to better gather
energy and survive the downturn  years. Further, by living in diverse
stands (a given chunk of native  prairie
contains maybe 200 species of plants), these perennials  provide
services for one another, such as re,
taining water, protecting  one another from wind, and fixing free
nitrogen from the air to use as  fertilizer.
Diversity allows a system to "sponsor its own fertility," to use
visionary agronomist Wes Jackson's phrase.
This is the plant world's  norm.

 There is a very narrow group of annuals, however, that grow in patches
of a single species and store
almost all of their income as seed, a tight  bun, dle of carbohydrates
easily exploited by seed eaters such as
 ourselves. Under normal circumstances, this eggs- in-one-basket
strategy is a dumb idea for a plant. But
not during catastrophes such  as floods, fires, and volcanic eruptions.
Such catastrophes strip established
plant communities and create opportunities for  wind-scattered
entrepreneurial seed bearers. It is no acci-
dent that no  matter where agriculture sprouted on the globe, it always
happened  near rivers. You might
assume, as many have, that this is because  the plants needed the water
or nutrients. Mostly this is not
true. They  needed the power of flooding, which scoured landscapes and
stripped  out competitors. Nor is it
an accident, I think, that agriculture arose  independently and
simultaneously around the globe just as the
last ice  age ended, a time of enormous upheaval when glacial melt let
loose  sea-size lakes to create tidal
waves of erosion. It was a time of catastrophe.

 Corn, rice, and wheat are especially adapted to catastrophe. It is
their  niche. In the natural scheme of
things, a catastrophe would create a  blank slate, bare soil, that was
good for them. Then, under normal
circumstances, succession would quickly close that niche. The annuals
would colonize. Their roots would
stabilize the soil, accumulate organic  matter, provide cover.
Eventually the catastrophic niche would close.
Farming is the process of ripping that niche open again and again. It
is  an annual artificial catastrophe,
and it requires the equivalent of three  or four tons of TNT per acre
for a modem American farm. Iowa's
fields  require the energy of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year.

 Iowa is almost all fields now. Little prairie remains, and if you can
find  what Iowans call a "postage
stamp" remnant of some, it most likely will  abut a cornfield. This
allows an observation. Walk from the
prairie to  the field, and you probably will step down about six feet,
as if the land  had been stolen from
beneath you. Settlers' accounts of the prairie  conquest mention a
sound, a series of pops, like pistol shots,
the  sound of stout grass roots breaking before a moldboard plow. A
robbery was in progress.

 When we say the soil is rich, it is not a metaphor. It is as rich in
energy as an oil well. A prairie converts
that energy to flowers and  roots and stems, which in turn pass back
into the ground as dead  organic
matter. The layers of topsoil build up into a rich repository of
energy, a bank. A farm field appropriates
that energy, puts it into  seeds we can cat. Much of the energy moves
from the earth to the  rings of fat
around our necks and waists. And much of the energy is  simply wasted, a
trail of dollars billowing from
the burglar's satchel.

 I've already mentioned that we humans take 40 percent of the  globe's
primary productivity every year. You
might have assumed we  and our live, stock eat our way through that
volume, but this is not the  case.
Part of that totalalmost a third of it-is the potential plant mass lost
when forests are cleared for farming
or when tropical rain forests are  cut for grazing or when plows destroy
the deep mat of prairie roots that
held the whole business to, gether, triggering erosion. The Dust Bowl
was no accident of nature. A
functioning grassland prairie produces  more biomass each year than does
even the most technologically
advanced wheat field. The problem is, it's mostly a form of grass and
grass roots that humans can't cat.
So we replace the prairie with our  own preferred grass, wheat. Never
mind that we feed most of our grain
to livestock, and that livestock is perfectly content to eat native
grass.  And never mind that there likely
were more bison produced naturally  on the Great Plains before farming
than all of beef farming raises in
the same area today. Our ancestors found it preferable to pluck the
energy from the ground and when it
ran out move on.

 Today we do the same, only now when the vault is empty we fill it
again with new energy in the form of
oil-rich fertilizers. Oil is annual  primary productivity stored as
hydrocarbons, a trust fund of sorts, built  up
over many thousands of years. On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of
fossil energy to restore  a year's worth
of lost fertility to an acre of eroded land-in 1997 we  burned through
more than 400 years' worth of
ancient fossilized  productivity, most of it from someplace else. Even
as the earth  beneath Iowa shrinks, it
is being globalized.

 Six thousand years before sodbusters broke up Iowa, their Caucasian
blood ancestors broke up the
Hungarian plain, an area just northwest  of the Caucasus Mountains.
Archaeologists call this tribe the LBK,
short for linearbandkeramik, the German word that describes the
distinctive pottery remnants that mark
their occupation of Europe.  Anthropologists call them the wheat-beef
people, a name that better  connects
those ancients along the Danube to my fellow Montanans on  the Upper
Missouri River. These proto-
Europeans had a full set of domesticated plants and animals, but wheat
and beef dominated. All  the
domesticates came from an area along what is now the  Iraq-Syria-Turkey
border at the edges of the
Zagros Mountains. This is  the center of domestication for the Western
world's main crops and  livestock,
ground zero of catastrophic agriculture.  Two other types of
catastrophic agriculture evolved at roughly the
same time, one centered on rice in what is now China and India and  one
centered on corn and potatoes in
Central and South America.  Rice, though, is tropical and its expansion
depends on water, so it  developed
only in floodplains, estuaries, and swamps. Corn  agriculture was every
bit as voracious as wheat; the
Aztecs could be  as brutal and imperialistic as Romans or Brits, but the
corn cultures  collapsed with the
onslaught of Spanish conquest. Corn itself simply  joined the wheat-beef
people's coalition. Wheat was the
empire  builder; its bare botanical facts dictated the motion and
violence that  we know as imperialism.

  The wheat-beef people swept across the western European plains  in
less than 300 years, a conquest
some archaeologists refer to as a  "blitzkrieg." A different race of
humans, the  Cro-Magnons-hunter-
gatherers, not farmerslived on those plains at the  time. Their cave art
at places such as Lascaux testifies
to their sophistication and profound connection to wildlife. They
probably did  most of their hunting and
gathering in uplands and river bottoms, places the wheat farmers didn't
need, suggesting the possibility of
coexistence. That's not what happened, however. Both genetic and
linguistic evidence say that the farmers
killed the hunters. The Basque  people are probably the lone remnant
descendants of Cro-Magnons,  the
only trace.

 Hunter-gatherer archaeological sites of the period contain spear
points that originally belonged to the
farmers, and we can guess they  weren't trade goods. One group of
anthropologists concludes, "The
evidence from the western extension of the LBK leaves little room for
any other conclusion but that LBK-
Mesolithic interactions were at best  chilly and at worst hostile." The
world's surviving Blackfeet,
Assiniboine Sioux, Inca, and Maori probably have the best idea of the
nature of these interactions.

 Wheat is temperate and prefers plowed-up grasslands. The globe  has a
limited stock of temperate
grasslands, just as it has a limited  stock of all other biomes. On
average, about 10 percent of all other
biomes remain in something like their native state today. Only I
percent  of temperate grasslands remains
undestroyed. Wheat takes what it  needs.

 The supply of temperate grasslands lies in what are today the  United
States, Canada, the South
American pampas, New Zealand,  Australia,  South Africa, Europe, and the
Asiatic extension of the
European plain  into the sub-Siberian steppes. This area largely
describes the First  World, the developed
world. Temperate grasslands make up not only the habitat of wheat and
beef but also the globe's islands of
Caucasians, of European surnames and languages. In 2000 the  countries
of the temperate grasslands, the
neo-Europes, accounted for about 80 percent of all wheat exports in the
world, and about 86  percent of all
corn. That is to say, the neo-Europes drive the world's  agriculture.
The dominance does not stop with
grain. These countries,  plus the mothership-Europe-accounted for three
fourths of all  agricultural exports
of all crops in the world in 1999.

 Plato wrote of his country's farmlands:

 "What now remains of the formerly rich land is like the skeleton of a
sick man. Formerly, many of the
mountains were arable. The plains  that were full of rich soil are now
marshes. Hills that were once covered
with forests and produced abundant pasture now produce only food for
bees. Once the land was enriched
by yearly rains, which were not lost,  as they are now, by flowing from
the bare land into the sea. The soil
was deep, it absorbed and kept the water in loamy soil, and the water
that soaked into the hills fed
springs and running streams everywhere.  Now the abandoned shrines at
spots where formerly there were
springs attest that our description of the land is true."

  Plato's lament is rooted in wheat agriculture, which depleted his
country's soil and subsequently caused
the series of declines that  pushed centers of civilization to Rome,
Turkey, and western Europe.  By the fifth
century, though, wheat's strategy of depleting and moving  on ran up
against the Atlantic Ocean. Fenced-in
wheat agriculture is  like rice agriculture. It balances its equations
with famine. In the  millennium between
500 and 1500, Britain suffered a major  "corrective" famine about every
ten years; there were seventy-five
in  France during the same period. The incidence, however, dropped
sharply when colonization brought an
influx of new food to Europe.

  The new lands had an even greater effect on the colonists  themselves.
Thomas Jefferson, after enduring
a lecture on the rustic  nature by his hosts at a dinner party in Paris,
pointed out that all of the  Americans
present were a good head taller than all of the French, Indeed,
colonists in all of the neo-Europes enjoyed
greater stature and  longevity, as well as a lower infantmortality
rate-all indicators of the  better nutrition
afforded by the onetime spend down of the  accumulated capital of virgin

 The precolonial famines of Europe raised the question: What would
happen when the planet's supply of
arable land ran out? We have a clear answer. In about 1960 expansion hit
its limits and the supply of
unfarmed, arable lands came to an end. There was nothing left to plow.
What happened was grain yields

  The accepted term for this strange turn of events is the green
revolution, though it would be more
properly labeled the amber  revolution, because it applied exclusively
to grain-wheat, rice, and  corn. Plant
breeders tinkered with the architecture of these three  grains so that
they could be hypercharged with
irrigation water and  chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen. This
innovation meshed nicely  with the
increased "efficiency" of the industrialized factory-farm  system. With
the possible exception of the
domestication of wheat, the  green revolution is the worst thing that
has ever happened to the planet.

 For openers, it disrupted long-standing patterns of rural life
worldwide, moving a lot of no-longer-needed
people off the land and  into the world's most severe poverty. The
experience in population  control in the
developing world is by now clear: It is not that people  make more
people so much as it is that they make
more poor people.  In the forty-year period beginning about 1960, the
world's population  doubled, adding
virtually the entire increase of 3 billion to the world's  poorest
classes, the most fecund classes.  The way in
which the green revolution raised that grain contributed  hugely to the
population boom, and it is the
weight of the population  that leaves humanity in its present untenable

 Discussion of these, the most poor, however, is largely irrelevant to
the American situation. We say we
have poor people here, but almost  no one in this country lives on less
than one dollar a day, the global
benchmark for poverty. It marks off a class of about 1.3 billion
people,  the hard core of the larger group of
2 billion chronically malnourished  people-that is, one third of
humanity. We may forget about them, as
most Americans do.

 More relevant here are the methods of the green revolution, which
added orders of magnitude to the
devastation. By mining the iron for  tractors, drilling the new oil to
fuel them and to make nitrogen
fertilizers, and by taking the water that rain and rivers had meant for
other lands, farming had extended
its boundaries, its dominion, to  lands that were not farmable. At the
same time, it extended its
boundaries across time, tapping fossil energy, stripping past assets.

 The common assumption these days is that we muster our  weapons to
secure oil, not food. There's a little
joke in this. Ever since  we ran out of arable land, food is oil. Every
single calorie we eat is  backed by at
least a calorie of Oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average  farm in the
United States produced 2.3 calories
of food energy for  every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the
last year in which  anyone looked
closely at this issue), that ratio was 1: 1. And this  understates the
problem, because at the same time
that there is more  oil in our food there is less oil in our oil. A
couple of generations ago  we spent a lot less
energy drilling, pumping, and distributing than we  do now. In the 1940s
we got about 100 barrels of oil
back for every  barrel of oil we spent getting it. Today each barrel
invested in the  process returns only ten,
a calculation that no doubt fails to include the  fuel burned by the
Hummers and Blackhawks we use to
maintain  access to the oil in Iraq.

  David Pimentet, an expert on food and energy at Cornell  University,
has estimated that if all of the world
ate the way the United  States eats, humanity would exhaust all known
global fossil-fuel  reserves in just
over seven years. Pimentel has his detractors. Some  have accused him of
being off on other calculations by
as much as 30  percent. Fine. Make it ten years.

 Fertilizer makes a pretty fine bomb right off the shelf, a chemistry
lesson Timothy McVeigh taught at
Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995-not a small
matter, in that the green
revolution has made nitrogen fertilizers ubiquitous in some of the more
violent and desperate comers of
the world. Still, there is more to  contemplate in nitrogen's less
sensational chemistry.

 The chemophobia of modem times excludes fear of the simple  elements of
chemistry's periodic table. We
circulate petitions, hold  hearings, launch websites, and buy and sell
legislators in regard to  polysyllabic
organic compoundspolychlorinated biphenyls, polyvinyls,  DDT, 2-4d, that
sort of thing-not simple carbon
or nitrogen. Not that  agriculture's use of the more ornate chemistry is
benign-an infant born  in a rural,
wheat-producing county in the United States has about twice  the chance
of suffering birth defects as one
born in a rural place that  doesn't produce wheat, an effect researchers
blame on chlorophenoxy  herbicides.
Focusing on pesticide pollution, though, misses the worst  of the
pollutants. Forget the polysyllabic
organics. It is nitrogen-the  wellspring of fertility relied upon by
every Eden-obsessed backyard  gardener
and suburban groundskeeper-that we should fear most.

 Those who model our planet as an organism do so on the basis  that the
earth appears to breathe-it
thrives by converting a short list of  basic elements from one compound
into the next, Just as our own
bodies cycle oxygen into carbon dioxide and plants cycle carbon  dioxide
into oxygen. In fact, two of the
planet's most fundamental  humors are oxygen and carbon dioxide. Another
is nitrogen.

  Nitrogen can be released from its "fixed" state as a solid in the
soil  by natural processes that allow it to
circulate freely in the atmosphere.  This also can be done artificially.
Indeed, humans now contribute more
nitrogen to the nitrogen cycle than the planet itself does. That is,
humans have doubled the amount of
nitrogen in play.

 This has led to an imbalance. It is easier to create nitrogen
fertilizer than it is to apply it evenly to fields.
When farmers dump  nitrogen on a crop, much is wasted. It runs into the
water and soil,  where it either
reacts chemically with its surroundings to form new  compounds or flows
off to fertilize something else,
somewhere else.

 That chemical reaction, called acidification, is noxious and
contributes significantly to acid rain. One of
the compounds produced  by acidification is nitrous oxide, which
aggravates the greenhouse  effect. Green
growing things normally offset global warming by sucking  up carbon
dioxide, but nitrogen on farm fields
plus methane from  decomposing vegetation make every farmed acre, like
every acre of Los Angeles
freeway, a net contributor to global warming. Fertilization  is equally
worrisome. Rainfall and irrigation
water inevitably washes  the nitrogen from fields to creeks and streams,
which flows into rivers,  which
floods into the ocean. This explains why the Mississippi River,  which
drains the nation's Corn Belt, is an
environmental catastrophe.  The nitrogen fertilizes artificially large
blooms of algae that in growing  suck
all the oxygen from the water, a condition biologists call anoxia,
which means "oxygen-depleted," Here
there's no need to calculate  long-term effects, because life in such
places has no long term:  everything dies
immediately. The Mississippi River's heavily fertilized  effluvia has
created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico
the size of New  Jersey.

 America's biggest crop, grain corn, is completely unpalatable. It is
raw  material for an industry that
manufactures food substitutes. Likewise,  you can't eat unprocessed
wheat. You certainly can't eat hay. You
can  eat unprocessed soybeans, but mostly we don't. These four crops
cover 82 percent of American
cropland. Agriculture in this country is  not about food; it's about
commodities that require the outlay of
still  more energy to become food.

  About two thirds of U.S. grain corn is labeled "processed," meaning
it is milled and otherwise refined for
food or industrial uses. More than  45 percent of that becomes sugar,
especially high-fructose corn
sweeteners, the key, stone ingredient in three quarters of all
processed foods, especially soft drinks, the
food of America's poor  and working classes. It is not a coincidence
that the American  pandemic of obesity
tracks rather nicely with the fivefold increase in  corn-syrup
production since Archer Daniels Midland
developed a  high-fructose version of the stuff in the early seventies.
Nor is it a  coincidence that the plague
selects the poor, who eat the most  processed food.

  It began with the industrialization of Victorian England. The empire
was then flush with sugar from
plantations in the colonies. Meantime  the cities were flush with
factory workers. There was no good way
to  feed them. And thus was born the afternoon tea break, the tea
consisting primarily of warm water and
sugar. If the workers were well  off, they could also afford bread with
heavily sugared  jam-sugar-powered
industrialization. There was a 500 percent  increase in per capita sugar
consumption in Britain between
1860 and  1890, around the time when the life expectancy of a male
factory  worker was seventeen years.
By the end of the century the average Brit was getting about one sixth
of his total nutrition from sugar,
exactly  the same percentage Americans get today-double what
nutritionists recommend.

 There is another energy matter to consider here, though. The  grinding,
milling, wetting, drying, and
baking of a breakfast cereal  requires about four calories of energy for
every calorie of food energy  it
produces. A twopound bag of breakfast cereal bums the energy of a
half-gallon of gasoline in its making.
All together the food-processing  industry in the United States uses
about ten calories of fossil-fuel  energy
for every calorie of food energy it produces.

 That number does not include the fuel used in transporting the  food
from the factory to a store near you,
or the fuel used by millions of  people driving to thousands of super
discount stores on the edge of  town,
where the land is cheap. It appears, however, that the corn cycle  is
about to come full circle, If a bipartisan
coalition of farm-state  lawmakers has their way-and it appears they
will-we will soon buy gasoline
containing twice as much fuel alcohol as it does now. Fuel  alcohol
already ranks second as a use for
processed corn in the  United States, just behind corn sweeteners.
Accord, ing to one set of  calculations,
we spend more calories of fossil-fuel energy mak- ing  ethanol than we
gain from it. The Department of
Agriculture says the  ratio is closer to a gallon and a quart of ethanol
for every gallon of  fossil fuel we
invest. The USDA calls this a bargain, because gasohol  is a "clean
fuel." This claim to cleanness is in
dispute at the tailpipe  level, and it certainly ignores the dead zone
in the Gulf of Mexico,  pesticide
pollution, and the haze of global gases gathering over every  farm
field. Nor does this claim cover clean
conscience; some still  might be unsettled knowing that our SUVs'
demands for fuel compete  with the
poor's demand for grain.

 Green eaters, especially vegetarians, advocate eating low on the food
chain, a simple matter of energy
flow. Eating a carrot gives the diner  all that carrot's energy, but
feeding carrots to a chicken, then eating
the  chicken, re- duces the energy by a factor of ten. The chicken
wastes  some energy, stores some as
feathers, bones, and other inedibles, and uses most of it just to live
long enough to be eaten. As a rough
rule  of thumb, that factor of ten applies to each level up the food
chain,  which is why some fish, such as
tuna, can be a horror in all of this.  Tuna is a secondary predator,
meaning it not only doesn't eat plants
but eats other fish that themselves eat other fish, adding a zero to
the  multiplier each notch up, easily a
hundred times, more like a thousand  times less efficient than eating a

 This is fine as far as it goes, but the vegetarian's case can break
down on some details. On the moral
issues, vegetarians claim their  habits are kinder to animals, though it
is difficult to see how wiping out
99 percent of wildlife's habitat, as farming has done in Iowa, is a
kindness. In rural Michigan, for
example, the potato farmers have a  peculiar tactic for dealing with the
predations of whitetail deer. They
gut-shoot them with small-bore rifles, in hopes the deer will limp off
to  the woods and die where they
won't stink up the potato fields.

 Animal rights aside, vegetarians can lose the edge in the energy
argument by eating processed food, with
its ten calories of fossil  energy for every calorie of food energy
produced. The question, then,  is: Does
eating processed food such as soy burger or soy milk cancel  the energy
benefits of vegetarianism, which is
to say, can I eat my  lamb chops in peace? Maybe. If I've done my due
diligence, I will have  found out that
the particular lamb I am eating was both local and grass-fed, two
factors that of course greatly reduce the
embedded energy in a meal. I know of ranches here in Montana, for
instance,  where sheep eat native
grass under closely controlled  circumstances-no farming, no plows, no
corn, no nitrogen. Assets have  not
been stripped. I can't eat the grass directly. This can go on. There
are little niches like this in the system.
Each person's individual charge  is to find such niches.

 Chances are, though, any meat eater will come out on the short  end of
this argument, especially in the
United States. Take the case of  beef Cat, tle are grazers, so in theory
could live like the grass-fed  lamb.
Some cattle cultures-those of South America and Mexico, for example-have
perfected wonderful cuisines
based on grass-fed beef.  This is not our habit in the Unit, ed States,
and it is simply a matter of  habit.
Eighty percent of the grain the United States produces goes to
livestock. Seventy-eight percent of all of our
beef comes from feed  lots, where the cattle eat grain, mostly corn and
wheat. So do most of  our hogs
and chickens. The cattle spend their adult lives packed  shoulder to
shoulder in a space not much bigger
than their bodies, up  to their knees in shit, being stuffed with grain
and a constant stream of  antibiotics
to prevent the disease this sort of confinement invariably  engenders.
The manure is rich in nitrogen and
once provided a farm's  fertilizer. The feedlots, however, are now far
removed from farm fields,  so it is
simply not (,efficient" to haul it to cornfields. It is waste. It
exhales methane, a globalwarming gas. It
pollutes streams. It takes  thirty-five calories of fossil fuel to make
a calorie of beef this way;  sixty-eight to
make one calorie of pork.

 Still, these livestock do something we can't. They convert grain's
carbohydrates to high-quality protein. All
well and good, except that  per capita protein production in the United
States is about double what  an
average adult needs per day. Excess cannot be stored as protein  in the
human body but is simply converted
to fat. This is the end result  of a factory-farm system that appears as
a living, continental-scale
monument to Rube Goldberg, a blackmass remake of the loaves-  and-fishes
miracle. Prairie's productivity
is lost for grain, grain's  productivity is lost in livestock,
livestock's protein is lost to human  fat-all federally
subsidized for about $15 billion a year, two thirds of  which goes
directly to only two crops, corn and

 This explains why the energy expert David Pimentel is so worried  that
the rest of the world will adopt
America's methods. He should be,  because the rest of the world is.
Mexico now feeds 45 percent of its
grain to livestock, up from 5 percent in 1960. Egypt went from 3
percent to 31 percent in the same
period, and China, with a sixth of the  world's population, has gone
from 8 percent to 26 percent. All of
these  places have poor people who could use the grain, but they can't
afford  it.

  I live among elk and have learned to respect them. One moonlit  night
during the dead of last winter, I
looked out my bedroom window  to see about twenty of them grazing a plot
of grass the size of a living
room. Just that small patch among acres of other species of native
prairie grass. Why that species and
only that species of grass that  night in the worst of winter when the
threat to their survival was the
greatest? What magic nutrient did this species alone contain? What  does
a wild animal know that we
don't? I think we need this  knowledge.  Food is politics,

That being the case, I voted twice in 2002. The  day after Election Day,
in a truly dismal mood, I climbed
the mountain  behind my house and found a small herd of elk grazing
native grasses  in the morning
sunlight. My respect for these creatures over the years  has become
great enough that on that morning I
did not hesitate but  went straight to my job, which was to rack a shell
and drop one cow  elk, my
household's annual protein supply. I voted with my weapon of  choice-an
act not all that uncommon in this
world, largely, I think, as a  result of the way we grow food. I can see
why it is catching on. Such a  vote
has a certain satisfying heft and finality about it. My particular bit
of violence, though, is more satisfying, I
think, than the rest of the  globe's ordinary political mayhem. I used a
rifle to opt out of an insane  system.
I killed, but then so did you when you bought that package of  burger,
even when you bought that package
of tofu burger. I killed, then  the rest of those elk went on, as did
the grasses, the birds, the trees,  the
coyotes, mountain lions, and bugs, the fundamental productivity of  an
intact nat ural system, all of it
went on.
It's easier to fight for one's principles than to live up to them.

"A change of heart or of values without a practice is only another
pointless luxury of a passively consumptive way of life."
-- Wendell Berry in "The Idea of a Local Economy"

                             I'm truly sorry man's dominion,
                             Has broken nature's social union,
                             An' justifies that ill opinion,
                             Which makes thee startle
                             At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
                             An' fellow-mortal!
                             Still thou art blest, compar'd wi' me
                             The present only toucheth thee:
                             But, Och! I backward cast my e'e.
                             On prospects drear!
                             An' forward, tho' I canna see,
                             I guess an' fear!

                             Robert Burns, R.I.P. (To a Mouse)

To put the bounty and the health of our land,
our only commonwealth, into the hands of people
who do not live on it and share its fate
will always be an error.
For whatever determines the fortune of the land
determines also the fortune of the people.
If history teaches anything, it teaches that.
   --Wendell Berry

"The Laws of Technodynamics:
1. Conservation of problems: Problems do not go away, they are merely
substituted, one for another.  The solution of one problem creates
another problem.
2. Technological challenges always increase.  As the human population
increases and natural resources remain constant or degrade, then
technological challenges will increase in size, number, and complexity."

  --Eric A Davidson,
or:  The chief cause of problems is solutions.

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