ARID — and land not suitable

Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing. Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: ARID.

THE SUN beats down. The grass is yellow. Flatness, wide horizons and dryness are what you feel out there in the vast tracts of grazing land. These are marginal lands, so-called because they are marginal to any sort of economic use. To any sort of economic use other than grazing, that is. Yet, these are the lands that some vegans propose to cultivate for vegetable crops and grains. We’ll get to why that won’t happen shortly.

Before I upset any vegans who might stumble across this story, let me say I have no hostility to the practice. Like most people, and most farmers, I am opposed to animal cruelty in agriculture. The vegan food I have eaten has been good and wholesome. That is not the issue. What is, is the ecologically-impoverished views of some vegans.

That gets back to why those grazing lands would not be used to cultivate grains and vegetable crops were grazing to be phased out. Their soils, which presently support a hardy grassland of species adapted to the ecological conditions, generally lack the mineral content, the soil organic matter and the fresh water availability necessary to irrigate fields of grains or some other vegetable crops. The ecological conditions are unsuitable.

But there are underground water resources, some will say. Sure. The Great Artesian Basin underlays regions of marginal land, and with artificial fertilisers or a regime of crop rotation and legume incorporation, soils might be improved to agricultural standards. We could then see those vast monocultures of crops like we have on better quality soils.

Monoculures, huge expanses of a single crop? Yes, that is what you would get because industrial agriculture produces in monocultures. For sure, there are other ways but their use by farmers is presently minimal. The skill and knowledge for extensive mixed cropping isn’t there .

Critics of vegarianism and vegetarianism point to the use of soy compounds as meat replacement in those diets, products like tofu and tempeh. They say that soy cultivation is a major monoculture industry around the world and, in the Amazon basin, is responsible for deforestation. It also uses large qualtities of agricultural chemicals, which themselves can cause ecological damage and pollute waterways. Critics need tread carefully in the Amazon Basin example, though, for a portion of the Amazon’s crop goes to feeding feedlot cattle in the US. Vegans can turn the argument on its head and say that producing soy for meat causes deforestation, which causes soil nutruent-depletion as forest cover is felled and burned, which causes the use of synthetic agricultural inputs to replace lost nutrients, which causes environmental pollution. Meat for food, they might add, is evil.

Elsewhere, though, it is those soy monocultures that support a non-meat diet and, according to critics, the ecological damage caused by monoculture cultivation is the true cost of a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Vee ponders animal-free farming

Vee, a friend of mine, a hard-working woman in her fifties with a career in the healing professions, is interested in buying a small farmlet on the South Coast of NSW. There, she would grow a modest amount of marketable crop. That would be possible. The soils are fertile by Australian standards, water plentiful though weather patterns have been somewhat erratic of late, and there are a number of farmers’ markets at which she could sell what she grows. Only thing, though, is that Vee is a vegan.

She asked John, another friend who has a small property in the region, about small scale farming without keeping animals, something a vegan could not do. John is an educator in the permaculture design system as well as a landholder (permaculture is a design system for sustainable human settlement, and one of its applications is food production).

He said that small scale farming without the use of animals would be possible but it would mean more work for Vee. This is because, in permaculture design and in some other farming systems, animals use used to take advantage of their innate behaviour. In permaculture, this is called their ‘function’. It is why some practicing the design system, as well as others, put chooks (‘chickens’ to non-Australians) into a garden after the crop has been harvested. It is why cattle might be introduced to a field to graze crop stubble and fertilise the soil with their manure. Using animals like this, by allowing them to express their natural behaviour of grazing, manuring and scrarching the soil, is to creatively use those functions as part of a farming system based on the idea of the cultivated ecology.

As John and many others would explain, narural ecologies incorproate both plants and animals in their systems. Forests have birds, grasslands have kangaroos. All have an ecological role. In permaculture, food producers attempt to make use of the natural behaviour of animals that evolved in natural ecologies in their farming and market gardening systems. By expressing those behavours the animals contribute to productive farming systems while enjoying a diet and an existence far superior to chooks kept in batteries and cattle kept in feedlots.

The arid

The area Vee is interested in moving to is far from arid. Aridity doesn’t start until you cross the Great Dividing Range and the extensive but reasonalbly-well -watered farming country beyond, country that extends for hundreds of kilometres until dryer conditions take over. Then, you are in the arid lands.

In contrasting Vee’s prospective small-scale farm with the extensive cattle runs of the arid interior, I want to suggest that it is only in well-watered country, like Vee is contemplating moving to, that producing for a vegan diet may be feasible, though it would involve more work that other farmers would invest in their crops. Her idea is feasible while that proposed by some of her vegan colleagues, of converting arid lands to cultivation, holds great risk of ecological damage.

I don’t think vegans have done their homework on this. Not all, of course, propose turning dryland into farmland and I comment on it here because it is an idea that comes up repeatedly. I think it would serve vegans well to acquire a little ecological and farming knowledge so they can come up with ideas on food production that are feasible.