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Doniga Markegard and daughters on her family’s ranch

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Our Regenerative Studies class was invited to a special community screening of the new documentary, Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, this past Thursday, November 6 in West Covina. The film turned out to be yet another great opportunity of applying linear and systems thinking to a very important issue that has an impact on society – the beef production industry. The entire industrial production model is degenerative, but none so much perhaps as the beef industry. The film brought attention to animal agriculture as the leading cause of environmental devastation but, in doing so, made some inaccurate statements about sustainability in trying to make its point that all meat (animal agriculture) consumption is bad. When looking at the sustainability of any issue, we cannot forget to “change the lens through which we see the world”, as Janine Benyus would say. This film fell short of that and was, at times, very divisive. The series of arguments based on linear thinking confused many of its viewers and disparaged the selfless work done by people in the sustainable food movement, myself one of them. Instead of vilifying meat and dairy consumers, the film should have commended farmers across the world, both traditional and modern, who are raising animals ethically and responsibly.

The topic of animal agriculture is central to both of the books chosen for this quarter’s Food Justice Club Book Discussion. Both Eric Schlosser, in Fast Food Nation, and Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, wrote extensively about the way in which we produce beef in America. What they make clear and what we continually discuss in class is the concept of systems of systems. The beef industry is a system within our complex food system. It is not possible without the production systems of corn and soy beans (and indirectly potatoes), the political systems of resource and land use planning, corporate lobbying and governmental regulation, the socioeconomic systems of mass media and consumerism, along with the systems of processing, transportation and warehousing, to name just a few. All of these systems, including the beef and dairy industries themselves, are heavily subsidized by taxpayers. As a result, the beef industry should be viewed as one that disappears into a much more comprehensive system, one that is becoming increasingly degenerative and clearly broken. What the directors view as a dysfunctional beef industry is instead just the proverbial “tip of the iceberg”.

The film features co-director Kip Andersen as lead investigator who makes a critical argument early on. He points out the futility of cheerleading for the “less bad” thinking associated with sustainability such as recycling, saving water, changing light bulbs, and bicycling to work. He starts out the film by crediting Al Gore and his An Inconvenient Truth film for inspiring him in his youth but then quickly becomes disenchanted once he realizes that his efforts were not making a difference. It’s the same frustration that I see a lot of people experience. Kip relies on United Nations reports that identify animal agriculture as the leading cause of climate change which he subsequently uses to confront the representatives of leading environmental groups and the Animal Agriculture Alliance, as well as independent scholars. His approach at moving from the least bad to the most bad practices in our economy certainly helps us to see the problem systemically, but it is still based on linear thinking.

Determining the leading causes of systemic problems is based on the Pareto principle, named after economist Vilfredo Pareto. This principle is used in the field of Quality Assurance to improve the quality of any system by identifying the few major causes of its problem. Focusing on the primary cause(s) of our environmental crisis will certainly help us to solve the problem sooner. In this case, looking at beef production rather than recyclable trash is a huge leap forward. However, we do not have just an environmental problem – the environment is not an isolated system. Our problem is a holistically socioeconomic, political, ecological, technological, and cultural problem. The environmental problem is just the easiest to see, measure, and communicate.

The statistics that Kip presents would be alarming to most people – industrial animal agriculture uses one-third of the earth’s fresh water supply, and has led to most of the Amazon’s rainforest devastation and the ocean’s dead zones. One hamburger requires the water equivalent of 2 months worth of showers or 660 gallons to produce. Over 50% of the greenhouses gases that we are monitoring can be traced back to animal agriculture. The larger problem of our animal production system is however not news at all. It was perhaps first brought to the public’s attention with the 1906 publication of The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, and continues today with the likes of Raj Patel and the aforementioned authors, along with numerous exposés on CAFOs and slaughter houses. We have just not been able to put the pieces together and understand the problem from the holistic, systems view and appear no closer to solving the problem.

The metaphors are obvious throughout the film but not acknowledged. The film also looks at the fishing industry and its machine that treats the ocean as a “conveyor belt”. Enormous, industrial-scale nets are used to capture all fish in the vicinity of a targeted species. The excess fish, which includes many cetacean and finfish species, are referred to as bycatch or by-kill and discarded. By-kill ratios can be as high as 20:1. Using the machine model, fishing has been reduced to inputs and outputs to our food system based on linear thinking – exploit and extract at massive scale, then leave behind enormous waste. On the other hand, the featured Sonoma and San Mateo County grass-fed ranch, Markegard Family Grass-Fed www.markegardfamily.com was not acknowledged as an operation designed like nature in spite of the obvious clues. Even though the Markegards understand regenerative animal production well, they were not given much of a chance to explain it. Neither was Allan Savory, who was mentioned later in the film without details about his success at restoring grasslands. Their stories were cut off without any elaboration. Kip quickly turned to some graphics to make his own shortsighted point. He tried to explain why he feels grass fed beef is even more unsustainable than factory-farmed beef.

According to Kip’s statistics, Americans eat 209 pounds of beef per 2014-08-19-cowspiracy-thumbyear on average. He reasons that at this rate of consumption, there is not enough land in North and Central America combined to feed everyone on grass-fed beef. There is no dispute here – our ecological footprint based on U.S. consumption is rapidly approaching 5 earths. In response, Kip suggests that we must convert all of our mountain ranges and cities into grasslands, which still would not be enough. In his simplified analysis, he overlooks the most obvious fact, one that was actually made known at least once in the film – that beef is severely underpriced in our so-called economy. The costs of production, as they are with almost all goods in our industrial capitalist economy, are passed along as externalities to the environment, to taxpayers, and to future generations. This means that consumer demand is also misrepresented. Consumers will almost always purchase more of a product at a lower price, especially artificially lower prices. The 209 pounds of beef that we eat annually would be just a fraction of that amount if we were to pay the true cost of beef, one resulting from a production system embedded in a system of regenerative systems. This means that beef is not the scapegoat that Kip is looking to blame for our environmental crisis. Worse still, grass fed beef is not more unsustainable, but the shining example of a food production system that seeks to internalize all of its costs. Markegard Family Grass-Fed uses no subsidized feed, antibiotics, or hormones, and does not have to lobby Congress for favorable land use policies, insurance programs, protectionist policies, support payments, or market access, all while managing some of the grasslands of northern California. Why would we want to discount a regenerative system such as that? Doniga Markegard is therefore correct when she states that their livestock don’t have a carbon footprint. The production system that she and her husband employ actually sequesters carbon.

Linear thinking leads to many misjudgments about sustainability, including a belief in “silver bullets” like veganism. While veganism is an admirable practice, we will be no closer to solving global warming by making people feel guilty for eating meat. Systems don’t work like that and people become defensive. There is so much more to consider. Grasslands worldwide need to be both protected and grazed and it will take some time to restore buffalo herds to the Great Plains, for instance. Meat and dairy provide vital nutrients and have cultural significance in the diets of various indigenous peoples. In recent studies, meat and dairy from grass-fed animals have higher levels of omega-3 fats and other nutrients. Many crops grown on the farm need the nitrogen that is readily available from animal manure. Additionally, marginalized communities throughout the U.S. do not have much choice when it comes to food. There is an abundance of fast food restaurants and a severe lack of fresh produce in their neighborhoods. Hamburgers are cheap and convenient because of the priority given to commercial fast food cultural influences in urban development. If the demand for fast food were ever to drop off, the industries with the most at stake would simply lobby for even more market advantages than they already have. Overall, this narrow perspective displayed in the film leads to the one greatest fault it has concerning sustainability: its acceptance of the feed the world myth. It goes along with the propaganda that the multinational conglomerate of food and agrichemical corporations actually feed the world when in fact they do just the opposite. The consensus among scholars in food systems, population and hunger is that the people of the world should have the power and the resources to feed themselves. It is only then that they will choose to eat less meat.

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The most recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued last Monday, warns of dire consequences for us all if we continue to live in denial. This has been the sternest warning to date. Our collective indifference towards climate change and failure to act on it is the result of a relentless campaign of climate denial. Many Americans don’t believe the warnings because climate science has been discredited and scientists have been disparaged. But who are these climate deniers? On Wednesday’s Democracy Now! show that featured those who helped write the IPCC report, Tim Gore, head of policy for Food and Climate Justice at Oxfam, joined the chorus of those who accuse the fossil fuel industry of leading this denial campaign. Princeton University Professor Michael Oppenheimer stated that the fossil fuel industry funds groups like the Heartland Institute specifically to confuse the public with contrarian science. Is the fossil fuel industry the only one with their interests at stake?

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Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island is among a small minority of U.S. senators who has tirelessly been pressing his fellow lawmakers to act responsibly and immediately in response to climate change. In a speech delivered at a recent session of the Senate, he likens the deniers to the mythical Hydra, a single beast with many heads. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwCdlXqDcEo&list=TLvTJoU_xQJMP2_8tbG7HpAFWmRLg4KBbQ He also refers to it as a network or apparatus of denial that tricks the public with artfully constructed strategies and polluter propaganda. The deniers, after all, have the same single, finely crafted message of deception. They have direct links to oil and coal interests, unbeknownst to the general public, or are the polluters themselves. Their strategies are identical. They include all of the major TV networks which, for the entire year of 2013, spent only 27 minutes combined during their Sunday morning programming discussing the topic of climate change. Fox News is another of the heads on the Hydra, as Denise Robbins at Media Matters points out. The pundits at Fox News challenge today’s scientific consensus about global warming with their false claim that there was a scientific consensus about “global cooling” in the 1970’s. http://mediamatters.org/blog/2014/04/02/video-the-junk-science-of-fox-news-favorite-glo/198719 Among them all, the Wall Street Journal is declared by Senator Whitehouse as the media outlet champion of climate denial. The Los Angeles Times and Reddit Science, on the other hand, are two media outlets that have forevermore banned discussion of climate denial.

As time goes on, more and more heads on the Hydra are becoming known while others are being chopped off. A growing number of corporations, Least Developed Countries, and American cities, especially in Florida, have now made commitments and taken actions to meet carbon reduction goals. But the Hydra still has many heads and continues to live to serve a political purpose. When will the public finally catch on to this apparatus? How much longer will this climate change denial campaign run? How much longer will this modern day Hydra continue to live?

 

We are living through a very strange time in human history. Climate scientists are nearly unanimous in their conclusion that the planet is experiencing an environmental crisis in the form of global warming. However, public support for the scientists has been steadily declining for the last few years except for the occasional rise during times of record temperatures and drought. The topic of global warming has unfortunately been made a political issue. There is a very well-funded campaign to discredit the scientists and prevent them from reaching the public airwaves. Climate scientists in Australia are getting death threats for speaking “truthfully” on the issue. There is a blackout in the American corporate media of this topic and any news that will challenge the status quo. Instead we are inundated with sports programs, celebrity gossip, trivial news stories, and shows promoting dramatic competition and the latest blockbuster movies. Environmental activism has suddenly gone from a concerted effort to save the planet to one of the greatest acts of terrorism we can engage in. The need for activism in its many forms will not be going away. This makes it all the more important for courses in Regenerative Studies that students discuss the many complexities of sustainability.
As the saying goes, everything is connected, even education. The John Seely Brown video on education is one of my favorites from our course. He demonstrates through his sketches that we design our systems after the way we view the world. If our view of the world is causing us to destroy the planet, then it will also be causing us to destroy everything with a similar design basis. Dr. Seely Brown shows education modeled after industrial agriculture in one sketch, cultivating neat rows of knowledge that separate disciplines from one another much like the crops in a field. In another sketch, knowledge is poured into a student’s head much like a factory worker would pour molten iron ore into a mold. What would education look like if it were integrated and synthesized, as JSB demonstrates? You may get a few chances to experience that in this course, if you know what to look for.