Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Knock the Head off the pedestal and raise the Hand

A crucial moment for food science occurred 23 March 1886 when the student A.W. Smith entered a calorimeter, a device used to measure the combustive energy of engines. In the small room he studied academic treatises and lifted weights and ate measured quantities of bread, baked beans, potatoes and steak. Meanwhile, thermometers, hygrometers, condensers, fans and pumps measured what occurred.  Wilbur O. Atwater, a professor of chemistry at Wesleyan University with the help of fellow scientists Edward B. Rosa and Francis G. Benedict developed this ‘respiration calorimeter’ to measure precisely the energy provided by food and used by the human body for various activities. Based on this, Atwater created the system to measure that energy in units, known as calories. Finally, there was a common standard against which all foods could be measured.

Many today try to avoid calories, by ingesting low or no calorie food. In Atwater’s time the view on calories was different – they provided a scientific benchmark for feeding the masses. The calorie, Atwater declared, would determine “the food supply for the future”. With this physiological economy the minimum nutritional and energy needs could be determined for different social groups, taking into account their energy use and economic resources. The American government welcomed this new way of quantifying foods which made it possible to compare milk with meat or bread and thus substitute between them while still being able to satisfy basic nutritional demand. If workers could be fed scientifically the wages could be kept lower as there would be no wasteful consumption. The calorie became an important ally in the global expansion of American wheat, its primary export at this time. This went so far that the governor of Michigan, Chase Osborn, in 1920 proposed a system of international trade using the calorie as the currency. In 1925 the League of Nations established a global dietary standard of 2,500 calories for a laboring adult.*

We all know, by now, that calories are a very crude measure of the value of food and that comparing different foods based on their calorie contents is an exercise that may well lead you into eating disorders. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the calorie if one take it for what it is. The problem is that the measure so often become proxy for a complex reality.

In the recent book Head, Hand and Heart David Goodhart** discuss how theoretical, academic knowledge (Head) has gained appreciation and status at the expense of technical, practical abilities (Hand), and social, cultural and emotional skills (Heart). His focus is the work place and how there has been a ”cognitive takeover that has gathered pace over the past forty years. As recently as the 1970s most people left school without qualifications, but now 40 per cent of all jobs are graduate-only. A good society must re-imagine the meaning of skilled work, so that people who work with their hands and hearts are valued alongside workers who manipulate data.”

Photo: Ann-Helen Meyer von Bremen
I believe there are many other analyses that could be enlightened by a Head, Hand and Heart perspective. I prefer to name all three categories as (different kinds of) knowledge, though.

Media and the public debate are obsessed with figures. In many debates proponents throw results of recent scientific reports at each other. New measures are invented to make simple calculations and comparisons possible. Today we talk about carbon dioxide equivalents as a universal measure of green house gas emissions, a unit that bundles highly variable gases with different properties and totally different origins into one measurement – it allows you to compare the climate impact of a wetland in Poland with the impact of a factory for the production of cell phones in China. I see an increasing flow of articles trying to develop an index for biodiversity to quantify the impact of an action on the incredible diverse web of life. It will allow you to, scientifically, compare the biodiversity impact of an off-shore wind turbine in the North Sea with the production of oats in Finland. In the next step measures and indexes are put into models which supposedly tells us how things are and could be. But all the assumptions and simplifications make the results quite meaningless.   

The prevailing scientism is arrogant and tend to look only at what we “know” and disregard all that we don’t know. Most challenges of human civilization (today and earlier) are not met by the application of science alone, or in many cases not even predominantly. By putting too much attention to scientific measures and models, we tend to give too little attention to other perspectives. Certainly food is about a lot more than calories. To begin with there are many nutrients we need and then there is culture, economics, taste, etc. that will determine how and what we eat. And then there is the whole complex of bioavailability and the microbiome in our bodies, which to some extent determine if we will have any use of that we have ingested. Any food discourse that leaves out questions of power, status and access is incomplete.

A manifest example of how wrong it can be was the development of a planetary health diet by the Eat Lancet Commission, using a very limited set of scientific indicators – and models with a very limited number of assumptions - to determine a planetary diet that was supposedly good for both health and the planet.***

I believe we need to resurrect the Hand and the Heart in our world views, and knock the Head off the pedestal.

I am currently, together with my partner Ann-Helen, writing a book about humans, culture and nature and I am stricken by how dominating a narrow narrative of science is in when it comes to discussions about agriculture, conservation, ecosystems functions and forest management. The Heart has also some place in the debate, where people and cultural expressions refer to the soul of the living, the feelings of awe and wonder that fills you in a presumably wild landscape.

But the Hand is mostly absent; the people who are the actual managers of nature - the farmers, the fishermen, the pastoralists, the foresters, the hunters and gatherers - are not much heard. More often they are spoken about or told what to do by an urban middle class that have only a theoretical knowledge of topics they believe they understand better than those that are actually living in and of the landscapes in questions. Other parts of the same class have a very romantic view of the “sacredness of all life”, “Gaia” or similar admirable viewpoints, viewpoints that often give little guidance on how to farm, fish, log, hunt or pick mushrooms.

Of course, there is no reason to glorify those who deal with nature in their daily life. Also indigenous people have exterminated a lot of animal species, destroyed forests or in other ways overused resources. Farmers certainly have depleted water and soil resources, indiscriminately killed wild life and done a lot of harm. Nevertheless, the practical knowledge of the hands of the stewards of landscapes needs to be valued and respected. To that is also the realization that practical circumstances such as available technology and markets are determining their actions more than science (Head) or beliefs (Heart). Many farmers actually know quite well which practices that are ecologically sound, but as long as economic conditions and technology determine their choices, that knowledge is not put into action. Tragically, many farmers nowadays pay more attention to what they are told than their own experiences. 

In addition, to spread, increase and value the knowledge of the Hand is central for a successful transformation of society – in the words of Rob Hopkins “the power of doing stuff”. The knowledge of the Hand will be much more needed in the future to come, as we need more Hands actively shaping the future. In addition, people growing, preparing, cooking and eating food, preferably together with others, are more likely to see through the illusions of the capitalist market economy and when science produce irrelevant results.



* The text about Atwater is found in my book Global Eating Disorder.

** David Goodhart reached fame in by the book the Road to Somewhere where he introduced the clssification of people in 'Somewheres' or the 'Anywheres'.

*** On the EAT Lancet diet see e.g.: 

Five dollars a day is not enough for five a day

Think inside the right box

Affordability of the EAT–Lancet reference diet: A global analysis

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Managing Healthy Livestock Production and Consumption

Plants are the net producers of ecosystems. But all plants will be eaten, wither, burn, rot or in some other way be consumed. Consumers are insects, microbes, fungi, fish, animals or humans to mention the most important. The consumption of plants, the death of plants are as important for ecosystems as their lives. 

Animals are integral to all (or just most?) ecosystems and play a critical role for nutrient cycling and soil fertility. Despite this, there is a prominent narrative that portrays all livestock as inefficient, harmful or redundant. Clearly, there are many things to criticize in industrial forms of livestock production. There are also limits for how many animals can be fed with farmed crops. But the faults of conventional and industrial livestock production should not lead us to shun livestock production all together.

I have contributed a little* to a new book on sustainable livestock production with the title: Managing Healthy Livestock Production and Consumption 

By addressing gaps of knowledge and presenting scientific perspective studies of livestock’s impact on the environment and the global food supply up to 2050, this book is useful for those advocating for sustainable food systems. Existing evidence of the effects of livestock production on food quality and nutrition is reviewed. Livestock production and consumption is a highly diverse topic where current publications only include/focus a single aspect of the issues, for example, greenhouse gas emissions or health impacts, leading to a biased view of the total impact of livestock production. This book clarifies perceptions by presenting sound scientific evidence across livestock landscapes to better appreciate the ecological web of life and the social web of community related to livestock production. It has interesting case studies on:

  • Rotational grazing in the Pampa, Argentina
  • Holistic management of livestock, Zimbabwe
  • Adapting to climate change in grasslands of Inner Mongolia, China
  • Organic livestock management and climate resilience, New Zealand
  • Conservation of native vegetation and traditional camel herding in Rajasthan, India
  • Sustainability of organic dairy production in Tyrol pastures, Austria
  • Feeding spineless cactus to cattle for drought resilience, Kenya
  • Integrated organic livestock-crop production system, Thailand
  • Improving nutrient efficiency through organic management, Madagascar
  • Breeding for gastrointestinal parasite resistance in Merino sheep, Australia
  • Animals for feeding soils on biodynamic farms, Egypt

The contents of Managing Healthy Livestock Production and Consumption are

Section 1 – Introduction
1. Introduction to livestock systems
Nadia El-Hage Scialabba

Section 2 – Animals and health
2. Livestock food and human nutrition
Nadia El-Hage Scialabba
3. Livestock xenobiotics and zoonoses
Nadia El-Hage Scialabba
4. Healthy livestock production and consumption
Nadia El-Hage Scialabba
5. Pesticide safety in livestock products
Andre Frederick Leu
6. Continuous development of animal welfare, with a focus on organic farming
Otto Schmid and Barbara Fruh
Section 3 - Livestock Landscapes
7. Livestock and future food supply
Nadia El-Hage Scialabba
8. Pastoralism as a response to climate change and water security in Mediterranean mountains and forests
Gregory Lazarev
9. Landscape management: ecological engineering in temperate areas
Joel Salatin
10. Let them graze! Potentials of ruminant production outside the feed-food competition Florian Leiber
11. The promises of food without soil and toil
Gunnar Rundgren
12. Livestock as a tool to regenerate land
Nadia El-Hage Scialabba
Section 4 – Stories from around the world
13. Experiences of low-external-input livestock systems
Nadia El-Hage Scialabba
Improving land management through grazing strategies
Subchapter 13.1: Rotational grazing in the Pampa, Argentina
Lorena Agnelli, Oyhamburu Mariel and Delgado Caffe Jorge
Subchapter 13.2: Holistic management of livestock, Zimbabwe
Andrea Malmberg and Jody Butterfield
Subchapter 13.3: Adapting to climate change in grasslands of Inner Mongolia, China
David Kemp
Subchapter 13.4: Organic livestock management and climate resilience, New Zealand
Glenn Mead
Subchapter 13.5: Conservation of native vegetation and traditional camel herding in Rajasthan, India
Ilse Kohler-Rollefson, Hanwant Singh Rathore, and Aisha Rollefson
Subchapter 13.6: Sustainability of organic dairy production in Tyrol pastures, Austria
Wilhelm Knaus, Thomas Drapela, Roswitha Weissensteiner, Heinz Gstir, and Werner Zollitsch
Subchapter 13.7: Feeding spineless cactus to cattle for drought resilience, Kenya
Margaret Syomiti, Samuel Chirchir, John Duyu, and Dana Hoag
Subchapter 13.8: Integrated organic livestock-crop production system, Thailand
Jintana Indramagala
Subchapter 13.9: Improving nutrient efficiency through organic management, Madagascar
Paulo Salgado, Emmanuel Tillard, Stephanie Alvarez, and Philippe Lecomte
Subchapter 13.10: Breeding for gastrointestinal parasite resistance in Merino sheep, Australia
John Karlsson and Annika Karlsson
Subchapter 13.11: Animals for feeding soils on biodynamic farms, Egypt
Angela Hofmann, Helmy Abouleish, and Anne Bandel
Section 5 – Conclusions
14. Full-cost accounting for decision-making related to livestock systems
Nadia El-Hage Scialabba

* My contribution has the title: "The promises of food without soil and
toil" and is about "farm-free" ways to produce foods. I will soon post a summary of my chapter.