Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Changing Mindsets

What’s the difference between dirt and soil? Well, dirt is the stuff we wash out of our clothes. Soil is the loose surface layer of the earth’s crust in which plant roots develop. Quoting Ralph Inge, “All of nature is a conjugation of the verb ‘to eat.’” And, ultimately, the soil eats us all. We must learn to value our soil. All life is tied to the thin layer of topsoil covering the land. Soil chemistry determines whether civilization can be supported or not. Some civilizations apparently became extinct because they did not understand the importance of their soils. Lierre Keith, in her book “The Vegetarian Myth,” refers to topsoil as “fossil soil” to emphasize the fact that this precious resource takes millennia to form. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, it takes 500 years to form an inch of topsoil. And like fossil fuel, we’re using it up at an unsustainable rate. According to the USDA, one-third of U.S. agricultural land is eroding faster than the sustainable rate. The “sustainable rate” is the acceptable rate of soil loss. There are no figures for the proportion on U.S. agricultural land where top soil is increasing. Perennial pastures improve soil structure and fertility and decrease erosion losses. Pastures build topsoil!

Take an apple and imagine that it represents the earth. Now cut it into quarters and discard three of them, since three quarters of the earth’s surface is covered by water. Now cut the remaining quarter in half. One of these sections represents desert, swamps, mountains, and the Arctic and Antarctic regions, so discard it. Slice the remaining section lengthwise into four equal parts. Now you have four 1/32nd sections of the apple. Discard three of them, as they represent areas of the world which have rocky soil too poor for any type of food production, are too wet for food production, or are urban areas. Carefully peel the remaining section. This small bit of peel represents all the soil which humans depend on for food production (Wyoming Agriculture in the Classroom, 2008).

But wait a minute! What about the grasslands which occupy 40% of the earth’s land surface (World Resources Institute)? “Crop production” and “food production” are NOT synonymous. This is the flawed mindset that agriculture means crop production and that farming means cropping. This mindset assumes that pasture-based livestock systems are less productive than cropping systems, and that pasture-based systems are less productive than confinement systems. These assumptions usually compare single-species pasture-based livestock systems on less productive soils with crop production on highly productive soils. Rarely are integrated, multiple species grazing systems considered, nor are these two philosophies compared on soils of equal productivity. The irony here is that this country’s most productive soils developed under the Midwest’s tall grass prairie. And the prairie was well managed by the Native Americans. But wait! Didn’t the Native Americans “live lightly on the land?” Once again, we’re confronted with a badly flawed worldview.

“When Lewis and Clark headed west … they were exploring not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for Native Americans” (Lott, 2002).

Images of woodlands, unsullied by human presence, and of the Great Plains (or Prairie, in Canada) with its huge herds of bison (Bison bison) may come to mind when we think about pre-European North America. But this popular image of pre-Columbian North America as a pristine paradise is incorrect. When Europeans first arrived in North America, they found anything but a primeval landscape. Instead, they encountered a land significantly altered by humans through the use of fire, sophisticated agricultural techniques, mining, and road and mound building (Mann, 2006).

“At the time of Columbus the Western Hemisphere had been thoroughly painted with the human brush. Agriculture occurred in as much as two-thirds of what is now the continental United States, with large swathes of the Southwest terraced and irrigated. Among the maize fields in the Midwest and Southeast, mounds by the thousand stippled the land. The forests of the eastern seaboard had been peeled back from the coasts, which were now lined with farms. Salmon nets stretched across almost every ocean-bound stream in the Northwest. And almost everywhere there was Indian fire.” (Mann, 2006)

From fire created and maintained prairies and managed forests, to earthworks and settlements, the American landscape by the time of European contact had already endured thousands of years of modification by large Native American populations. The pristine wilderness view, to a large extent, is the invention of 19th-century romantic and primitivist writers like Henry David Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Denevan, 1992). The reality is that the impact of native peoples was nearly ubiquitous, even in areas with comparatively sparse Indian populations. Many scholars now believe there were more than 90 million inhabitants of the New World when Christopher Columbus first set sail for the Indies (Denevan, 1996).

The climate responsible for the eastward extension of the tall grass prairies disappeared thousands of years ago, but manmade fires preserved it in areas such as southern Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and parts of Ohio by halting the process of ecological succession which would have resulted in these areas becoming dominated by trees as the natural climax vegetation (Williams, 1989). Further east, forest management with fire produced an environment that benefited wildlife and humans. The effectiveness of these practices is demonstrated by the observations that bison (Bison bison) once roamed along the east coast from New York to Georgia (Mann, 2006) and that elk (Cervus canadensis) have been observed in every continental state except Florida (Manning, 1997). “When Lewis and Clark headed west … they were exploring not a wilderness but a vast pasture managed by and for Native Americans” (Lott, 2002).

Bison grazing in the Tallgrass Prairie Nature Preserve, Osage County, Oklahoma
The popular misconception of pre-European North America as a “wilderness” reflects a lack of understanding of pre-Columbian North American conditions and practices, and a modern environmentalist ethic (Mann, 2006). “The post-Columbian abundance of bison,” was largely due to “Eurasian diseases that decreased [Indian] hunting,” according to Valerius Geist, a bison researcher at the University of Calgary (Geist, 1998). The huge herds of bison that were described by early European settlers were a symptom of the destruction of the human-animal-environment system that the Native Americans had operated for centuries before European contact, rather than an example of the “natural”, undisturbed grassland-wildlife system. Thus, the massive, thundering herds were pathological, something that the land had not seen before and was unlikely to see again (Geist, 1998, Mann, 2006). The prehistoric human imprint on the North American landscape was masked by the decimation of Native American populations as a result of exposure to Old World diseases, for which they had no immunities.

Charles C. Mann, in his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, writes:

“When the newcomers [European settlers] moved west, they were preceded by a wave of disease and then a wave of ecological disturbance. The former crested with fearsome rapidity; the latter sometimes took more than a century to tamp down, and it was followed by many aftershocks. “The virgin forest was not encountered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” wrote historian Stephen Pyne, “it was invented in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” Far from destroying pristine wilderness, that is, Europeans bloodily created it.

“By 1800 the hemisphere was thick with artificial wilderness. If “forest primeval” means woodland unsullied by the human presence, Denevan has written, there was much more of it in the nineteenth century than in the seventeenth.

“The product of demographic calamity, the newly created wilderness was indeed beautiful. But it was built on Indian graves and every bit as much a ruin as the temples of the Maya.”

Despite the horrible pestilences of the 15th through 18th centuries, the physical health and condition of the plains-dwelling Native Americans were far more robust than those of their contemporary Europeans in the 19th century. Explorers who first contacted the Kiowa and other bison-dependent nations documented that the diet of these people was almost exclusively meat-based. Observations made during the 1830s recorded that it was rare to find a male of the Cheyenne tribe less than six feet (183 cm) tall, while among the Osage people in the Kansas area few were less than six feet tall, and some were seven feet (213 cm) tall (Catlin, 1844). In addition, there was no evidence of the chronic diseases already observed in European populations (Taubes, 2008).

The European settlers suffered from their own flawed mindsets. They referred to the Great Plains as the Great American Desert, because of its lack of trees. This reflected the European farming mindset typical of the 18th and 19th centuries (Manning, 2007). They failed to recognize the value of grassland and its true potential, as well as its unique requirements. Governmental policies and the settlers’ farming practices were ill-suited to the Great Plains. Areas of natural grassland, the result of an interaction between climate, topology, soil, plant, grazing animals, and man-made fire, were plowed out for crop production. The topsoil, our nation’s greatest natural resource, was no longer protected (and increased) by a protective layer of an adapted perennial plant community. When the next drought occurred, as they periodically do in that region, the catastrophe known as then dust bowl began. Top soil was lost at a phenomenal rate. By 1934, The Yearbook of Agriculture announced that “100 million acres have lost all or most of their topsoil, another 125 million acres are about to and 35 million acres cannot grow crops of any kind.”

"The ultimate meaning of the dust storms of the 1930s was that America as a whole, not just the plains, was badly out of balance with its natural environment. Unbounded optimism about the future, careless disregard of nature’s limits and uncertainties, uncritical faith in Providence, devotion to self-aggrandizement - all these were national as well as regional characteristics." Robert Worster

I recently attended the 11th Annual Oregon State University Extension Small Farms Conference. There were many young people among the six hundred people attending. I find this exciting and encouraging, since the average age of this nations farmers, a steady decreasing group, has been increasing for many years. The future of agriculture in this country depends upon young people taking up the calling of producing food for those who don’t. I learned a lot and met a number of interesting folks. It is critical, I believe, that these young farmers understand that grass farming is the agricultural model for the 21st century.
Breaking Prairie Sod, Camrose, Alberta, 1900
from this website 
"The Last of the Virgin Sod"
by Rudolph Ruste

We broke today on the homestead
The last of the virgin sod,
And a haunting feeling oppressed me
That we’d marred a work of God.

A fragrance rose from the furrow,
A fragrance both fresh and old:
It was fresh with the dew of morning,
Yet aged with time untold.

The creak of leather and clevis,
The rip of the coulter blade,
And we wreck what God with the labor
Of a million years had made.

I thought, while laying the last land,
Of the tropical sun and rains,
Of the jungles, glaciers and oceans
Which had helped to make these plains.

Of monsters, horrid and fearful,
Which reigned in the land we plow,
And it seemed to me so presumptuous
Of man to claim it now.

So when, today on the homestead,
We finished the virgin sod,
Is it strange I almost regretted
To have marred that work of God?


Catlin, G. 1844. Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, London. Republished in 1973 by Dover Publications, Inc. New York, NY.

Denevan, W.M. 1996. Carl Sauer and Native American Population Size. Geographical Review 86:385-97.

Denevan, W.M. 1992. The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 82:369-85.

Geist, V. 1998. Buffalo Nation: History and Legend of the North American Bison. Stillwater, MN: Voyager Press.

Keith, Lierre. 2009. The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability. Crescent City, CA: Flashpoint Press.

Lott, D.F. 2002. American Bison: A Natural History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Mann, Charles C. 2006. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Vintage.

Manning, Richard. 1997. Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie. New York: Penguin.

Pyne, S. 1982. Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Stanturf, J. 2009. Use of Fire by Native Americans.The Southern Forest Resource Assessment Summary Report. Southern Research Station, USDA Forest Service. Retrieved 25 January, 2011.

Taubes, Gary. 2008. Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease. New York: Anchor Books.

USGS. 2006. Regional Trends of Biological Resources – Grasslands.Prairie Past and Present. Fig. 2. Retrieved 27 January, 2011.

Williams, G. W. 2002. “Are There Any ‘Natural’ Plant Communities?” in Wilderness and Political Ecology: Aboriginal Influences and the Original State of Nature, in C. E. Kay and R. T. Simmons, eds. Salt Lake City, UP: University of Utah Press. 2002, 179-214.

Williams, M. 1989. Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

World Resources Institute. “Grassland extent and change.” Washington, DC Retrieved 15 March, 2011.

Wyoming Agriculture in the Classroom. 2008. “The Earth as an Apple: Wyoming Science, Social Studies, & Mathematics.” Retieved 15 March, 2011.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Nature Votes Last

Temperature, humidity, soil, sunlight, electricity, vital force, express themselves primarily in vegetable existence that furnishes the basis of that animal life which yields sustenance to the human race. What a man, a community, a nation can do, think, suffer, imagine or achieve depends upon what it eats.

The primary form of food is grass. Grass feeds the ox: the ox nourishes man: man dies and goes to grass again; and so the tide of life, with everlasting repetition, in continuous circles, moves endlessly on and upward, and in more senses than one, all flesh is grass.

From “In Praise of Bluegrass,” an address by John James Ingalls (1833-1900)
Senator from Kansas from 1873 to 1891.
Originally printed in the Kansas Magazine in 1872.

We frequently forget that the law of unintended consequences still rules. Our actions, like medications, have multiple effects. Some effects are desirable, some are undesirable. Without a thoughtful consideration of all of these effects, we cannot make intelligent decisions. And even after such thoughtful consideration, we are still likely to be surprised by some previously unknown effects. A rancher once told me his version of this law – “Nature Votes Last!”

I visited a lovely ranch property several years ago. The owners had recently relocated from an area where the quality of the roads made buying a new car unwise. But now they were driving on good roads, so they had purchased a nice, new, white Cadillac. She loved their new car. While the county roads were asphalt, their long ranch drive was not. He soon tired of washing mud off of their new, white Cadillac. His solution? Pave the drive!

They were in the early stages of developing this property. They hadn’t constructed sufficient interior fencing, so they couldn’t control the movement of their cattle. The cows were pretty much free to wander where ever they chose, and they were very happy that this passive solar energy collector had been installed. Every night they gratefully camped on this warm asphalt. Anyone who’s spent time around bovines knows what they do soon after standing up. So instead of washing mud off her new, white Cadillac, he was washing off … processed forage!

Nature votes last!

For the last thirty years, the official dietary policy of the United States Government has been that every American needs to be on a low-fat, reduced-cholesterol diet to prevent cardio vascular heart disease, obesity, and other chronic diseases. This policy was enacted by people who believed that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol raised the level of cholesterol in the blood, and that this increased one’s risk of developing heart disease. The obvious solution, equivalent to paving the ranch drive, was to eat less saturated fat and cholesterol.

It would be one thing to be surprised by some unforeseen effects of such a sweeping policy, but it’s quite another that they failed to properly consider all of the information before enacting this disastrous policy. These policy makers ignored the fact that there was little data to support their position and a great deal to refute it (Taubes, 2008).

Here’s a quick test (thanks to Barry Groves):

Consider two groups of animals:
    Group one - cattle, gorillas, and sheep
    Group two - humans, lions, and polar bear

Which of these two groups of mammals are “designed” to digest a low fat diet?


Digestion and ingestion are different processes. Clearly the first group of mammals ingest a low fat, high fiber diet. But mammalian enzymes cannot hydrolyze (digest) the cellulose and other complex carbohydrates that make up plant fiber. Microorganisms, however, produce enzymes that can. Herbivorous mammals live in a symbiotic relationship with these organisms. The host mammal possess digestive systems that permit fore-gut fermentation (the cattle and sheep, for example, via their reticulo-rumen), or hind-gut fermentation (the gorilla, for example, via it’s enlarged colon and cecum). In either case, the products of these fermentation processes are short-chain, volatile fatty acids (principally acetic, propionic, and butyric acids). Interestingly enough, 60 – 80 % of a ruminant’s (Pond, 2005) and 66 % of a gorilla’s (Popovich, et al., 1997) energy needs come from these fatty acids. These animals digest a high fat diet!

Humans are meat eating cooks.

Mankind has been consuming animal products, especially fat, for a very long time. Several authors have argued that one of the two critical drivers for the development of our species, Homo sapiens, is the consumption of a diet consisting primarily of organ meats, animal fats, and muscle meats (Kaplan et al., 2000, Stanford and Bunn, 2001, Bramble and Lieberman, 2004). The other developmental driver was the practice of cooking (Wrangham, et al., 1999, Wrangham, 2006). Wrangham’s book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human is a fascinating and very readable examination of this topic.

All living tissue requires energy for maintenance. Our basal metabolic rate, when adjusted for total body size, is the same as other primates (Leonard and Robertson, 1997). By eating a truly nutrient dense diet, one based upon animal products, our ancient ancestors no longer needed to maintain the large digestive tracts required by mammals living on high fiber diets. Our large intestine, or colon, is less than 60 percent of the mass that would be expected from our total body mass (Martin, et al., 1985). In fact, the volume of the entire human gut is only 60 percent of what would be expected from our total body mass (Aiello and Wheeler, 1995). This reduction in human gut size frees up at least 10 percent of the expected basal metabolic rate for our brain’s requirement (Aiello and Wheeler, 1995). In addition, the cholesterol (and other nutrients, including choline) provided by a diet based on animal products provided the vital “raw material” to build the brain (Leonard, et al., 2007). Plant-based diets lack these vital nutrients.

One can wish that our survival did not require killing. But, as Ralph Inge said, “All of nature is a conjugation of the verb ‘to eat.’” Wishing won’t make it so. The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 continues the pattern of recommending carbohydrate-based diets, with restricted consumption of red meat, full-fat dairy, cholesterol, saturated fat, and salt. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee ignored peer-reviewed scientific research demonstrating the harm this approach has caused and will continue to cause (Hite, et al, 2010). Given what we know about our nature, we should not be surprised by the epidemic of obesity and chronic disease we are experiencing in this country, and around the world.

Nature votes last!


Aiello, L., and P. Wheeler. 1995. “The Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis: The Brain and the Digestive System in Human and Primate Evolution.” Current Anthropology 36:199-221.

Bramble, D. M., and D. E. Lieberman. 2004. “Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo.” Nature 432:345-352.

Hite, A.H., R.D. Feinman, G.E. Guzman, M. Satin, P.A. Schoenfeld, R.J. Wood. 2010. In the face of contradictory evidence: Report of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee. Nutrition 26 (2010) 915–924

Kaplan, H., K. Hill, J. Lancaster, and A. M. Hurtado. 2000. “A Theory of Human Life History Evolution: Diet, Intelligence and Longevity.” Evolutionary Anthropology 9:156-185.

Leonard, W. R., and M. L. Robertson. 1997. “Comparative Primate Energetics and Hominid Evolution.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 102:265-281.

Leonard, W. R., J. J. Snodgrass, and M. L. Robertson. 2007. “Effects of Brain Evolution on Human Nutrition and Metabolism.” Annual Review of Nutrition 27:311-327.

Martin, R. D., D. J. Chivers, A. M. MacLarnon, and C. M. Hladik. 1985. “Gastrointestinal Allometry in Primates and Other Mammals.” In Size and Scaling in Primate Biology, W.L. Jungers, ed., 61-89. New York: Plenum.

Pond, W. G., A. W. Bell. Eds. 2005. Encyclopedia of Animal Science. New York: Marcel Dekker.

Popovich, D. G., D. J. A. Jenkins, C. W. C. Kendall, E. S. Dierenfeld, R. W. Carroll, N. Tariq, and E. Vidgen. 1997. “The Western Lowland Gorilla Diet Has Implications for the Health of Humans and Other Hominoids.” J Nutr 127: 2000-2005

Stanford, C. B., and H. T. Bunn. 2001. Meat-Eating and Human Evolution. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Taubes, Gary. 2008. Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease. New York: Anchor Books.

Wrangham, 2006. “The Cooking Enigma.” In Early Hominin Diets: The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable, P. Ungar, ed,. 308-323. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wrangham, R. 2009. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York :Basic Books.

Wrangham, R., W., J. H. Jones, G. Laden, D. Pilbeam, and N. L. Conklin-Brittain. 1999. “The Raw and the Stolen: Cooking and the Ecology of Human Origins.” Current Anthropology 40:567-594.