Depends on who you ask. Scientists in Stockholm recently published a study saying we must cut personal consumption by 75 percent in order have enough water to go around. They claimed that human folks each consume 250 pounds per annum and we'd better let up on that and soon.
Jude Capper ably addressed this issue in an article entitled, "Can We Please Have Calls for Moderating Meat Consumption ... in Moderation?"
Capper, a respected authority on sustainability in livestock production, pointed out that the study was based on flawed data.
First she indicated that we don't eat that much beef, even here in prosperous America, where we consume 171 pounds a year on average. She also pointed out, "Since 1977, the U.S. beef industry has cut water use by 12 percent, land use by 33 percent and the carbon footprint of one pound of beef by 16 percent," and mentioned the ability of grazing animals to transform otherwise marginal land, not suitable for growing row crops or grains, into useful food-production acreage by eating plants that are indigestible for humans.
She concluded that, given the track record of farmers and ranchers in improving efficiency and thus sustainability, "Globally, there are huge opportunities for improved efficiency and concurrent reductions in resource use from all meat production systems -- the key is not to reduce meat production but simply to produce it more efficiently."
We recently took a drive across a couple of nearby counties on the way to a nearby farm event. There was gold in them thar hills. Goldenrod that is, mile after mile of it, covering fields with a carpet of yellow and brown that stretched to the horizon in many places.
It blanketed land that during just the past few years had been in use as pasture or crop land that now lay fallow, no hooves grooving paths from food to water to barn, no tillage equipment turning the soil so crops could be planted, no harvesting happening of anything at all.
It didn't look like particularly good habitat for wildlife either. Goldenrod is eaten mostly by the larvae of moths and butterflies, and although birds do dine on those critters, we didn't see much activity in the empty, barren fields. No doubt a few voles and woodchucks gleaned among the weeds for grass seeds. Deer probably passed through on their way to tasty alfalfa and corn fields. Not much food production was happening, though.
I suspect that many of the fields were marginal, perhaps not as fertile as others nearby that supported rich harvests of hay and corn. Some were no doubt wetter than is optimal or bony with ledge rock granite poking up through too-thin soil. Still, they had clearly been in production and not too long ago either. No trees or shrubs had grown up, as generally happens within just a few years of the cessation of cultivation. Drooping fences were much in evidence. This wasn't woodland or wetland. This was farmland.
I couldn't help but think of the beef conundrum as we passed them. Seems as if just putting that acreage back into production would make more beef available. If a similar scenario is playing out on farmland across America, then maybe there is room to grow a lot more beef. Or soybeans, or corn or whatever is needed.
And modern technology, combined with advances in food production methods, driven by an endless quest for increased efficiency, driven in general by a desire to be able to make a living doing what they love, has already aided farmers, at least in America, to grow more food with fewer inputs than at any time in history. Whether you measure milk per cow or corn per acre, they are doing more with less. Although this trend may not be sustainable at the current rate, there is no reason to conclude that people will starve if we keep raising beef.
Capper pointed out another interesting commentary on the ability of modern-day press to understand food production. In a tweet she shared with her followers she said, "Always amazes me when the media despairs that 'Food production uses a lot of land.' Yep, food production is far less important than parking lots."
I hadn't seen this quote and had to go looking for it. Sure enough, article after article lamented the way the Earth's land is used to grow food for people (they probably would love to see the goldenrod fields kept out of production). Reporters seem to enjoy quoting a 2005 National Geographic story, which pronounces ominously, "Food production takes up almost half of the planet's land surface and threatens to consume the fertile land that still remains, scientists warn. The global impact of farming on the environment is revealed in new maps, which show that 40 percent of the Earth's land is now given over to agriculture."
This was cited in a sort of doomsday tone, as if agriculture and growing food were inherently dangerous to life as we know it. Seems to me that not growing food might pose more of a problem, but a lot of things sound good on paper that might not be so delightful in reality.
And how about all the land under those parking lots? If you let a farm field go fallow it will soon grow up to assorted plant life. Let a parking lot go fallow ...
Even goldenrod can come in handy, though. Thomas Edison, propelled by concerns about war and a crisis in rubber-producing areas of Africa, set out to discover a rubber substitute that could be manufactured from wild American flora. After tests on more than 17,000 possible plants he settled on goldenrod. He bred and grew a variety, which yielded 12 percent rubber. His plants grew 10 to 12 feet tall with special cultivation and fertilization, another indication that farming can adapt to produce almost anything if needed.
Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS
is a regular columnist. She blogs