Vaclav Smil has a lot to say and is never shy about saying it. He’s written more than 30 books about energy, ecology, food and agriculture, China, the U.S. and more. He's in the process of publishing three more within 12 months: Harvesting the Biosphere (MIT Press; December 2012), Should We Eat Meat? (Wiley; June) and Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing (MIT Press; October).
He fielded this Dumb Question by phone from the University of Manitoba, where he’s Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Environment and Geography.
Dumb Question: What does "sustainable agriculture" mean?
A: It fundamentally depends on how you want to feed people. If 7 billion people [want] 100 kilo[gram]s of meat as Americans do, that's a different proposition from people eating at an Indian level, which means, basically, a little bit of chicken maybe twice a year. Basically a vegetarian diet.
DQ: I want everybody in the world to be able to shop at a Fairway --
A: You see that's just the thing… What is the "fair way"?
DQ: No, no, no. I want everyone to be able to shop at a Fairway grocery store like they have on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, with lots of organic food.
A: Okay, okay. So that means 100 kilos of meat per capita and that's a different proposition. Most of the people -- look at India, 1 billion-plus people -- meat consumption is like, whatever, 10 kilos. I just finished a new book on it. It's coming out in May, called Should We Eat Meat, so I have all these figures in my head. Even in Europe, Germany's now down. Meat-eating is down sharply in Europe.
Australia, Canada, United States -- 100 kilo-plus per year per capita. If you want to feed people at that level it's a different story altogether. You feed the animals and you lose 90-plus percent of the energy through the metabolic chain.
'If everyone wants to eat like people in Bangladesh, then we would have food coming out of everybody's ears,' Smil said.
So-called quote-unquote organic agriculture is stupidly defined of course, because the plant doesn't care if you piss on it, or you put ammonia from the Haber synthesis on it, or if you put on organic fertilizer from a cow. It's nitrogen, it's nitrogen, it's nitrogen. The only way the organic agriculture should be defined is, it doesn't matter what kind of fertilizer is used, if it's a synthetic nitrogen or a synthetic ammonia or natural ammonia.
You will have [crop] losses if you don't use pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, so you have to plant a larger area. There is plenty of arable land to expand into a larger planting, but then you have to cut down some forest. Or you shouldn't grow the crops for fuel.
This question is predicated on so many assumptions: How much do you want to expand arable land? What kind of diet you want? How much meat you want? How much milk you want? Et cetera, et cetera.
DQ: When I hear a company talking about sustainable agriculture, how should I understand them?
A: You should laugh at them… You laugh at these people who tell you they are sustainable. Where did the trucks come from? Where did the aluminum irrigation pipes, the engines that are pumping the water from the Ogallala Aquifer… How does all that happen? That happens by the sun shining on it?
Today’s American farming is ‘’sustainable’’ only as long as there are incessant flows of fossil fuels to make and power the machinery it uses, to synthesize fertilizers and pesticides and to pump all that irrigation water. Behind every morsel of bread, fruits or meat is a large amount of transformed fossil fuels.
DQ: What's the long-term outlook?
A: Something will have to give. But fortunately it's not tragic. All you have to do is to go from 110 kilos or 100 kilos of meat to 40 kilos and you cut down your fertilizer by half or 60 percent. We can do with so much less and still be healthy and blah blah blah all that stuff… We are just simply overproducing.
If everyone wants to eat like people in Bangladesh, then we would have food coming out of everybody's ears.
DQ: So... should we eat meat?
A: Yes, in moderation. Evolution has made us omnivores, and substantial quantities of meat can be produced by feeding plant matter whose production does not directly compete with growing food crops: crop residues, food processing waste, low-quality grain, and controlled grazing by ruminants. This could translate into an important supply of high-quality protein and dietary iron. The American way is impossible and would be globally destructive. The traditional Asian way -- small pieces of meat cut-up in curries or stir-fries -- is nutritionally beneficial and could be made environmentally acceptable.
Transcript edited for length. Analysis and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.
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