Land Use And Food

I mainly blog for two reasons:  to avoid posting walls of text on social media and to get intrusive thoughts out of my head.  Unfortunately the first of these is frustrated when sites have rules about blog spam, which I don’t get because the alternative is five thousand word long status updates and comments, which apparently people prefer, and the second is affected by “it’ll never get better if you pick it” and it usually ends up making things worse.  Anyway, I’ve been blogging incessantly on transwaffle recently, but today I’ve finally managed to get into a situation which makes it more appropriate to post here.

Transwaffle is mainly for posting about gender issues.  One recent matter which has arisen there is the relationship between veganism and feminism.  Just briefly, it’s sometimes claimed that veganism is the most feminist thing you can do because female animals are disproportionately affected by exploitation since livestock farming involves dairy and egg production and the rape of females, but I would take issue with that for two reasons.  Since men can’t be feminist, it suggests they can’t be vegan either, and that’s clearly not true, and it ignores the fact that a surplus of male animals results which are slaughtered en masse for economic reasons.  The other connection between veganism considered as a diet, which it isn’t, is that Haraway’s Cyborg Theory erases the divisions between human and technology and human and nature, thereby opening up the possibility that we need not be enslaved by our apparently human-basic anatomy and physiology, and in fact rarely are, so that just as reproduction or other aspects of stereotypical gender roles can be overcome technologically since we are “naturally unnatural”, so can possible obstacles to a plant-based diet.  We can, for example, make vitamin B12 from non-animal sources in a factory and then take it as a supplement, so the obstacles to such a diet are technological, which being part of our nature as tool-using cultural societies, mean it is in a sense natural to be vegan even if no culture in human history has ever been vegan, and incidentally it’s also a moral imperative.

In the ensuing conversation, it emerged that some people thought it was impractical for us to live off plants alone, which is difficult for life-long vegans with life-long vegan children to believe.  Having said that, it could theoretically be true that three generations of life-long plant-based nutrition would be impossible because something would prevent fertility in the third generation, such as the “programming” which takes place in the womb upon the embryonic oocytes of a female fetus.  One of my patients was a two metre high woman with no genetic history of giantism whose grandmother had almost starved to death in a Jewish ghetto in Poland, which incidentally makes me wonder about Holocaust deniers because they presumably come into contact with such people and yet are able to fool themselves into pretending it didn’t happen.  Whereas that’s not clinching proof that diet has an influence on one’s grandchildren, other more rigorous evidence strongly suggests that it does, and for this reason it can’t be uncontrovertibly asserted that veganism is sustainable in that sense – it might make your grandchildren sterile, for example.  But if one is also anti-natalist, which I’m not, this needn’t be regarded as problematic.  Perhaps it would be better if we just lived long and died out.

Anyway, the main purpose of this entry is to present you with a table of areas.

Back in 1981, the People’s Almanac, producers of the famous Books of Lists, which I always think of as the ancestors of the kind of stuff you see online nowadays, brought out ‘The Book Of Predictions’.  It’s interesting in various ways, and of course it’s always amusing to see what these get wrong, which this unsurprisingly really did most of the time, but one of the most frightening things about it is that the few really accurate predictors in the book up to today from 1981 go on to predict really depressing and dire futures now only a few years away.  But the book doesn’t confine itself to predictions.  It includes, for example, annotated maps of the consequences of detonating a 50 megaton nuclear bomb in downtown Chicago.  Cheery reading, though very familiar to anyone who lived through the Cold War.  There’s also a passage written by the Galactic Association, who published my novel, giving a slight personal connection between myself and the book since that passage is set in the same universe.

Let’s just get this out of the way:  The Book Of Predictions is (c) 1981 by David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace and Irving Wallace.  If any of the material I’m about to adapt breaches their copyright, I will be entirely willing to remove this blog entry on request.

The relevant passage is entitled “All the food needed to feed the world ( 4 ½ billion people) could be produced from:”, followed by a list.  I’m going to adjust this list to match the present human population of the planet and convert acres to square kilometres.  I will go into issues regarding that once I’ve got through it.  So here goes.

There are currently 7 600 million people on Earth.  This is almost seventy percent more than in 1981, meaning incidentally that population growth has slowed because back then it was doubling every twenty-eight years, although the seven thousand million mark was passed almost exactly as predicted back then.

A square kilometre is 247.105 acres.  Consequently the figures in square kilometres are:

  • Current agricultural land use:  26 million.  This is probably an underestimate compared to today because of factors such as soil erosion.  Other factors, unfortunately, such as war, are probably about the same.  There’s also supermarket food waste to be taken into consideration, which I believe to be greater today than it was back then.
  • 22.4 million if present post-harvest loss is reduced 70%.
  • 12.76 million by feeding all the world’s cereal crops to people instead of livestock and distributing these efficiently.  This is an important one from the viewpoint of a plant-based diet.  It more than halves the land use, and notably doesn’t take silage or grazing into consideration.  Therefore the argument that meat and dairy production is a way of turning inedible plants into food edible to humans is invalidated if this figure is correct, or rather, it’s true but not particularly important.
  • 11.2 million using Chinese production techniques.  I’m not exactly sure what this means, but it may refer to the practice of raising fish and rice on the same land, like the chinampas system.  This whole list, by the way, is essentially before permaculture became widely known.
  • 2.93 million using North American production techniques and a vegetarian diet.  This is not ideal because of the environmental damage done by farming of this kind, and it’s not clear whether this refers to a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet or a plant-based (so-called “vegan”) diet.  It is, however, a notably big jump, and it’s been claimed that dairy is one of the most efficient foods to produce, compared to meat.
  • This is a sobering one.  Using 1981 population figures, the southern half of the Sudan if it were drained, relevant infrastructure developed and the nomadic cattle rangers of the area were to change their lifestyle to sedentary cattle farmers.  In reality, as we all know there was a famine in South Sudan last year due to war and drought.  Although I don’t know, I wonder if there’s a connection between the drought and global climate change.  There have also been periodic famines in South Sudan since the 1980s, although it’s not clear to me if this entry is a reference to that.  It could also be argued, from a non-vegan point of view, that the nomadic pastoralists of the Sudan should have been allowed to continue their lifestyle even if it was inefficient.  Nomadic pastoralism, however, is associated with difficulty in accessing healthcare and, for better or worse, low vaccination rates among both humans and bovids, and in other ways (and I’m going to be vague here) is the worst of both worlds compared to settled agriculture and hunter-gatherer lifestyles.  From a vegan viewpoint, and here the needs of people with traditional lifestyles are not taken into consideration, they shouldn’t be farming or otherwise exploiting cattle anyway.
  • One million square kilometres of greenhouses using North American production techniques and three crops a year.
  • Between 800 000 and 1.7 million using biodynamic farming.  This is an odd one.  Biodynamic agriculture relies quite heavily on bovids, which is incidentally why I don’t use herbs grown using biodynamic techniques.  However, it doesn’t follow that the bovids need to be particularly exploited since they don’t need to be eaten or used for dairy, although their bodies do need to be buried on the land and if the death rate is low, i.e. they aren’t slaughtered but allowed to die of old age or other causes not caused directly by human violence against them, it isn’t clear to me that it would be as efficient as this.  Therefore this is probably not as good as it sounds unless you’re non-veggie.  It does, however, make the point that in theory there could be the traditional farm animals roaming free and unexploited on land used to grow food crops for humans, meaning that even if manure is still being used that doesn’t by any means imply that the animals concerned are being raped or murdered.  Nonetheless there is also such a thing as veganic agriculture.  I suspect that if this list had been written a decade later, this entry would have referred to permaculture instead.
  • 103 000 using hydroponics.  Hydroponics is a mixed issue.  In a sense it’s closer to organic farming than mainstream arable farming, but the balance of minerals can be less than ideal and therefore the nutritional value of the crops can be wanting.  In order to avoid the use of animal products, chemical fertilisers would probably be used extensively and there are issues of balance here.  Many fertilisers don’t contain a good range of elements.  However, this can be alleviated if instead we used:
  • 93 thousand square kilometres of tanks growing algae in sea water, or simply using areas of the sea to grow algae, because sea salt contains all the necessary trace elements for life.  Given that algae will grow in the epipelagic zone of the ocean, which extends to about 200 metres, the actual area can be reduced further by increasing the volume and there’s the additional advantage that sewage systems constantly remove phosphate from the land which is not returned fast enough and therefore most conventional land agriculture is in any case a bit dodgy.  The figure given here in the list itself is only 0.35% of the agricultural land use in 1981.

This list shows a number of things other than its age.  Apart from anything else, it demonstrates pretty clearly that a plant-based diet for the whole human population is entirely feasible, although of course this would considerably impact on the lifestyles of indigenous people.  Also, tellingly, it illustrates particularly clearly that although we may consider human population growth to be problematic, in this sense at least it isn’t and the planet could in fact probably support something like three hundred times its current population.  This wouldn’t be desirable at all of course, but it does show that certain arguments about population control may be misguided, although I have a lot of respect for anti-natalism and voluntary human extinction while not agreeing entirely with it.

That’s the purpose of this blog post satisfied then.  Bye for now!



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