Thursday, September 04, 2008

Rewilding our diets - having our wildlife and eating it?

Yesterday's post introduced the concept of Pleistocene rewilding and with it the attendant prospect of returning to nature huge chunks of North America (and other areas). As noted this raised certain space-use issues like "where does the modern american species, Homo sapiens, obtain its food and/or shelter?" or "won't mammoths be trashing our crops and lions eating our cows?" Alternatively, even if we have room for both, will our industrial food chain pollute and damage (re)wilded lands? Today I want to think a little about how a rewilded world may marry up with an environmentally conscious food supply specifically can a natural(ish) environment produce the food we need or is industrialisation a must?

My ethical/moral/conservationist's starting point is the basic proposition that if we can produce an equal (or better) quantity and quality of food from land used naturally as opposed to land used industrially this must be a better option (from an ethical/moral/conservation standpoint). Of course the conventional wisdom is that this is not possible. I'm going to use "natural food" and "industrial food" as undefined terms throughout to mean food raised in a natural way (that may or may not be organic) - its a pretty loose concept from my perspective but, like obscenity, I know natural food production when I see it. Its been recognised that natural food may, in some ways, be better in quality than industrial food, more and more frequently however we're seeing suggestions that natural food production may be easier, more efficient and less resource intensive. I'm going to talk primarily about meat here is that is the obvious area to refer to but the same concepts can to an extent be applied to fruit and vegetables - for example in forest gardening.

Guinea fowl

South African Guinea Fowl: delicious and trouble free

Julie Zickerfoose recently posted on her excellent blog about a large herd of bison; one of the very species it is suggested we should be restoring for a natural north American ecosystem. the north American bison has evolved in conjunction with north America's grasses and other plants for thousands of years, inevitably it performs better at grazing those plants than the imported domestic cow. Bison of course would be present in their millions in a truly natural America as would their predators and these together would through their effects on the landscape shape the natural environment. Practically we are unable to restore this situation and as addressed previously natural levels of wild megapredators may be unacceptable. However consistent human harvesting could with careful management keep a reintroduced bison herd to scale as it followed a natural migration and ultimately it could provide a lot of food in a manner more in tune with the environment than modern ranching. If a huge national herd of bison seems to far away consider North America's huge national herd of white-tailed deer - a species that is massively overpopulated is damaging natural lands and is delicious.

bison latrifons

Bison latifrons, an extinct relative of the modern, delicious american bison

On a smaller scale Joel Salatin's farm models the effects and natural behaviours of a number of animal species to produce massive amounts of protein from a small area of land in a manner described as beyond organic. Salatin moves cattle across grass and follows up with turkeys and chickens and rabbits and pigs from time to time in a carefully controlled order. This intensely managed system actually reflects a number of natural behaviours. The birds behave in a similar manner to cattle egrets and guinea fowl - grazing both grass and the insects that follow the cattle. Prairie dogs have been proven to increase grass production so perhaps rabbits can do the same by eating in a different way to the cattle. Salatin's model is allowing him to produce food sustainably and effectively without damaging his most valuable asset- his land. Of course Salatin's cows are unlike the vast majority in the US in that they get to do the most natural thing of all - eat grass. Non-pasture raised herbivores must rank as one of the most obviously unnatural food types in the world and yet now pasture-raised is, bizarrely, a premium product.

tuna 2

Meanwhile the only really wild food most of us eat is seafood like the tuna above - which is proving utterly unsustainable for the most part (with a few worthy exceptions).

The days when natural ecosystem can provide enough food to sustain humanity are sadly long gone. I fear the days when our industry can do the same are shortlived. Perhaps by injecting more natural understanding and complex multispecies systems into our industrial food system we can make it work.

For more on what I've been calling "natural food" I recommend reading "The Omnivores Dilemma" by Michael Pollan, anything written by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall (both his print books and online columns with the Guardian, Independent and Observer) and regularly visiting the Ethicurean.

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