Tuesday, September 8, 2009
The Ecology of Grass and a Compact Green Cuisine
By late summer, settlers moving across Illinois or Iowa in the 1850s would find themselves in a sea of grass, sometimes reaching as much as nine feet in height. At first, in choosing their homesteads settlers passed over the prairie for the more familiar woodlands located near rivers, but soon farmers discovered the incredible organic richness of the thick prairie sod. Once the challenge of breaking the sod up was overcome with new, larger steel-bladed plows, settlers swarmed to the prairies much like the locust that sometimes infested them. Today the boundaries of the old tallgrass prairie largely define the spatial extent of our modern corn and soybean agricultural economy. Less than one percent of the original prairie remains in small remnants, most confined to areas too rocky to plow. These remaining remnants suffer potential extinction for lack of the fire needed to fend of the invasion of woodland species. Without fire, forests would have marched across the tallgrass landscape, and the environment early settlers found would have been entirely different. Because of the virtual disappearance of the tallgrass ecosystem, grassland birds such as the Prairie Chicken, Sandhill Crane, and Baird’s and Henslow’s Sparrow are among the most threatened in the central U.S. Prairie invertebrates, such as the beautiful regal fritillary butterfly, and a number of wildflower species, such as the prairie white-fringed orchid, Mead’s milkweed, and prairie bush clover, face endangerment as well. These along with hundreds of other species have been replaced mostly by corn and soybeans.
No one describes the wonders of corn more incisively than Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling Omnivore’s Dilemma. You can’t see it, but in the grocery store, corn is everywhere—in steaks, pork chops, chicken, eggs, dairy products, soda, beer, margarine, baked goods, and on and on. You will find it at the drugstore as well—in toothpaste, cosmetics, disposable diapers, and vitamins. Corn finds its way into trash bags, cleaners, joint compound, wallboard, linoleum, fiberglass, and biodegradable water cups at my neighborhood espresso shop. You can’t easily escape the reach of corn.
Corn has prospered as a species in human hands because of its versatility. Among the grasses, corn produces more seeds per plant than any other, and through plant breeding these seeds have been enlarged and filled with an abundance of starches, proteins, and oils. Even in the pioneer days corn had a multitude of uses such as the essential ingredient for brewing beer and distilling whiskey, feed for growing hogs, winter silage for livestock, fuel for stoves, grain for flour, and a toilet paper substitute for the outhouse. No wonder we humans have become so adept at helping corn along on its road to evolutionary success.
Corn’s triumph as a plant is mirrored in U.S. production statistics. Each year we produce 9 to 11 billion bushels using roughly 30 of the 120 million plus hectares under row crop cultivation. This amounts to about 35 bushels for each of us requiring roughly 1,000 plus square meters of cropland (a fifth of a football field). Corn clearly takes up much space. Corn production also absorbs a huge amount of energy, about 31 gigajoules per hectare, equivalent roughly to the amount of energy in 230 gallons of gasoline. This means each of us on average consumes an equivalent to about 24 gallons of gasoline a year in the form of corn. In short, corn hogs both space and energy, and in the process adds to greenhouse gas emissions.
Of all the corn produced in the U.S. about 47 percent goes for animal feed consumed mainly in feedlots or, more technically, confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The later term covers not only feedlots for beef, but crowded chicken houses and hog barns. Another 26 percent or so ends up in the production of ethanol, although this amount took a nosedive recently because of the recession beginning in 2008. The rest goes into a variety of products including high fructose corn syrup (our favorite sweetener for soft drinks and many other foods), dextrose and sucrose, corn starch, cereals, and our favorite alcoholic drinks.
We could now easily bring up some of the health horror stories associated with corn and the environmental problems corn causes. There wouldn’t be much point in doing this if we couldn’t replace corn with something else. So let’s turn the sequence around and talk about the possibility of plowing under about half our corn fields and turning them back to grass. On this grass we can feed beef, restore some tallgrass prairie, help out grassland birds, sequester some carbon, and create a slug of rural jobs. In the process we can dump corn-based ethanol production, which absorbs more fossil fuel energy than it creates, and do some favors for the environment.
Settlers, and later scientists, marveled at the depth of black, unplowed, carbon rich, organic prairie sod. Accumulating evidence suggests that this soil built up over time to such depths in part because of grazing. Perennial prairie grasses periodically shed portions of their carbon-filled roots, adding to the soil’s organic matter. Episodic, intense grazing by bison and ungulates apparently accelerated root-shedding and re-growth. After grazing, plants redirect energy from roots to shoots and allow some of their root biomass to die off. Clipping off the top of grasses by grazers jump-starts plant productivity by cutting back on self-shading and resetting grass height to its level of most rapid growth. Plant biomass increases below ground by even more than above once the shoots recover. With accelerated root growth and periodic shedding induced by grazing, deep, dark, carbon rich prairie soils built up over the centuries.
Rich organic soil sequesters carbon, and busting the prairie sod and exposing it to air caused much carbon in the soil to be released back into the atmosphere by setting off the breakdown of organic matter at the hands of oxygen-using, CO2 emitting microbes in the soil. Putting a permanent grass cover on previously plowed landscapes curtails such carbon releases and restarts the process of carbon accumulation in the soils, and carefully managed grazing accelerates the carbon accumulation process. The conversion of cultivated land to grass can result in as much as a metric ton of carbon accumulation on each hectare (slightly less than two football fields) per year. Studies in the U.S. suggest that improved pasture management alone on a hectare of land can lead to an average added annual carbon accumulation of about a half a metric ton. If carbon allowances are priced at $100 a metric ton, farmers could earn an extra $50-100 a hectare (or $20-40 an acre) for pasture agriculture. This of course assumes a system where carbon allowances can be created by sequestering carbon, which seems like an eminently reasonable idea. Since, the profit from $3 a bushel corn adds up to about $250 a hectare ($100 an acre) up to 40 percent of the profit from corn can be alternatively earned by letting grass grow and be clipped from time-to-time by grazing animals.
The beauty of intensive pasture management is that you need neither a huge amount of land nor a huge amount of equipment to make a living. Joel Salatin, a pioneer in practice pasture management and one of Michael Pollen’s heroes, describes in simple terms how one can do it on a 100 acres (40 hectares) of Midwestern grain farmland by putting it into grass. According to Salatin, one could buy 200 calves at 500 pounds each in the spring for roughly $80,000, put 260 pounds on each by grazing them over the summer, and sell them in the fall for $114,000. After taking of $4,000 for fencing, water line, mineral and vitamin supplements, and fuel, we have $30,000 left, which is a whole lot more than the $10,000 you could earn from corn. Add to this the $2,000-$4,000 from carbon sequestration, and one is up to at least $32,000, which is not bad for a summer’s work of moving cattle around each day from paddock to paddock and the electric fending you would need to keep them eating in the right spot. The income is probably underestimated here because of the premium price one can get for grass-fed beef, but more on that shortly.
The secret to pasture farming is in the timing. Once grass is sheared off by grazing, the plant sheds some roots, adding to soil fertility and carbon stores, and devotes its energy to re-growing the above ground shoot. During “the blaze of growth,” photosynthesis drives the increase in both shoots and roots. The time to put the cows back on a paddock is after completion of the “blaze of growth.” Cows should be continuously grazed, but moved from paddock to paddock making sure they clip off only a first bite. An electric fence is repositioned after each move to make sure the cows stay where they belong. According to Salatin, he spends no more than thirty minutes a day moving the cows around. This leaves plenty of time for complementary farm enterprises to add further to income. Check out one of Salatin’s books for ideas about additional ways to earn income on a pasture operation, or Michael Pollan’s discussion of Polyface Farm in The Carnivore’s Dilemma. Don’t miss the one about the mobile chicken coops that can be moved around in the wake of the cows to perform a pasture cleanup as well as to grow some free-range chickens much in demand in the market for organics meats these days.
Of course for every corn farm we plow up, we lose the corn we need to support feedlot beef. A forty hectare farm (nearly 100 acres) can produce 15,000 bushels of corn or alternatively 52,000 pounds of beef under Salatin’s intensive pasture system. Since 15,000 bushels of corn weighs in at roughly 840,000 pounds, and since feedlots convert roughly 8 pounds of corn into a pound of beef, we would be giving up 105,000 pounds of feedlot for 52,000 pounds of grass-fed beef. So if we got rid of the feedlot system and switched to pasture beef, we would need to cut our consumption in half or else double the amount of land devoted to feeding beef cattle. If we give up corn-based in favor of pasture-fed beef, we will save roughly 13 percent of the corn we produce. We can save another 26 percent or so by getting rid of corn-based ethanol production. We could easily double the amount of land devoted to feeding beef cattle by converting 13 of the 26 percent of corn lands now used for ethanol into beef pasture. In short, we don’t need to give up any beef at all, and we would have 13 percent of corn lands left over that could be devoted to something else such as tallgrass prairie restoration or grassland bird habitat, but more on that shortly. Finally we could save another 5 percent or so of corn lands by shifting to grass-based dairy farming for a grand total reduction in corn production and acreage of 44 percent. Let’s talk first about why we want to dump corn-based ethanol. Then we will take up the feasibility of switching to grass-based dairy.
The problem with corn-based ethanol is simple—the total production system from the corn itself to its fermentation and refining into ethanol absorbs more fossil fuel energy than it produces. Fermentation takes place in a mix of corn and water to produce a solution containing 8 percent ethanol. This liquid then needs be heated to evaporate off and capture the ethanol. A hectare’s worth of corn requires about 31 gigajoules of fossil fuel energy to grow, 30 percent of which is taken up for nitrogen fertilizer alone. Another 49 gigajoules gets used up in the fermentation and refining process, and the result is about 2,900 liters (1,100 gallons) of ethanol containing roughly 62 gigajoules of energy. About 80 gigajoules goes into the process, but only 62 come out—29 percent more energy is absorbed than produced. Unsurprisingly, the government needs to subsidize the process to keep it profitable to the tune of $3 a gallon including the normal subsidy for the corn itself. In short, ethanol production under present-day technologies makes little sense either energetically or economically. Corn-based ethanol is a waste of fossil fuel resources and would not otherwise be produced were it not heavily subsidized. Carbon emissions would actually decline if we simply used fossil fuel directly instead of converting it into ethanol.
Rural landscapes dominated by corn and soybean farms, such as those in the state of Iowa, have experienced an emptying out of population in recent decades as the optimal farm size has increased over time. The essential economic virtue of this phenomenon is the realization of what economists refer to as economies of scale. As the size of the typical farm grows, average operating costs per farm decline. Today row crop farming is a capital intensive business requiring huge investments in capital equipment, the costs of which need to be spread over many units of output. Converting corn to grass and taking beef production out of the feedlot and putting it back into the pasture returns farming to a more labor intensive business based less on big capital investments and more on a deep knowledge of grass ecology. In the process, efficiencies get transferred from fossil fuel consuming big machinery, to intensive pasture management based on human capital as opposed to the physical kind. As more experience is gained in pasture management, nothing precludes a rise in grass-based beef productivity. Research shows that pasture grass has the potential to create more plant-based energy than corn. It’s a matter of figuring out how to capture it through efficient use of pastures.
The dairy business today experience’s the same kind of trends facing corn and soybean agriculture—the number of dairy farms is shrinking while the average size of dairy herds is increasing. The Wisconsin countryside epitomizes the rural landscape we know and love—red barns, corn silos, cows grazing in pastures, and small towns dotting the landscape. While this vision still holds true in much of the state, it may not in the future given current trends. Since 1960, Wisconsin has lost more than 80 percent of its dairy farms even though dairy production increased by about 20 percent. As time marches on, each dairy farm gets bigger and each cow puts out more milk.
The growth of organic dairy, rooted in intensive pasture management, may be the savior of the traditional farm landscape in Wisconsin and elsewhere. While cows are often seen in pastures, corn remains the essential feed in the dairy industry and dairy operations are starting to look like feedlots inside of big milking sheds. It doesn’t have to be this way. Converting corn fields to pasture and adopting intensive pasture management allows dairy farmers to make a decent living with anywhere from 75 to 100 cows on from 100 to 300 acres. The amount of land required per cow is in truth a bit less for pasture-based than for conventional corn-based dairy operations, although conventional milk output per cow is a bit more than for pasture cows. The real difference between the two is in the structure of operating costs. Conventional dairies require much larger upfront investments in equipment and much greater expenditures on fertilizers and pesticides because of their dependence on row cropping for corn. Grass-based dairies don’t need all the machinery required for growing corn and as a consequence have much lower fixed costs to worry about than conventional operations. Lower fixed costs means less of a need for growing big to spread costs over more units of output. Cows magically harvest their own feed and spread their own fertilizer on a pasture-based dairy operation, something that has to be done with energy-demanding machinery for corn-based operations. Because they get more exercise, spend less time feeding on grains, and crank out somewhat less milk, grass-fed cows are healthier, require fewer veterinary visits, and produce more milk over their lifespan than their corn-fed compatriots. All this drives down costs and increases the annual net income earned per cow for pasture operations in comparison to the corn, meaning that pasture-based can earn a decent income with smaller herds than the corn-based dairies. The efficiencies of harvesting grass with cows offset the scale economies of harvesting fossil fuel intensive corn with energy sucking equipment, feeding it to the cows, and then using still more a fuel-demanding equipment to spread the manure on row crops. Since land requirements for producing an equivalent amount of milk from pasture as from corn are roughly the same (less land per cow for pasture than corn offsets the somewhat less milk productivity per year), converting corn to pasture in dairy shouldn’t have much affect on total output.
Now that we know corn production can be cut by 44 percent if we deem it the right thing to do, it’s time to explain why we should. Remember, the beauty of doing it is that we loose nothing. We get rid of uneconomic and environmentally unfriendly ethanol, and by replacing feed corn and ethanol lands with pasture, we can still raise the same amount of beef cattle and dairy cows.
First, converting corn to pasture will cut down on carbon emissions and absorb some of the carbon already in the atmosphere. Second, doing so will cut back on something called the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Third, we can probably save grassland birds from extinction and expand tallgrass prairie habitat giving a variety of threatened species a shot at survival. And finally, we will all end up being healthier eating grass-fed beef, and we can treat ourselves to a more interesting and tastier beef-based cuisine. Let’s begin by reviewing the reduction in carbon emissions forthcoming by switching from corn to pasture.
Corn production adds to greenhouse gas emissions in a variety of ways. First, corn uses a huge amount of fossil fuel energy, 31 gigajoules a hectare. Burning fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide emissions. Second, the process of producing corn and the fertilizer that goes into corn adds to greenhouse gas emissions through the breakdown of humus in expose soil and nitrous oxide emissions from both fertilizer production and the application of fertilizer to corn fields. Nitrous oxide is greenhouse gas that is more potent than carbon dioxide per unit weight. Third, for corn transformed into ethanol, the distilling and refining process itself absorbs a substantial amount of energy (49 gigajoules for a hectare of corn) and creates a significant volume of carbon dioxide emissions. Tad Patzek, a scientist at UC Berkeley, has crunched the numbers and come up with the total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions associated with producing and transforming a hectare of corn into ethanol and estimates that in the process roughly 9 metric tons worth. This turns out to be about 3 metric tons more than if we simply burned an equivalent amount of gasoline. So by converting a hectare of ethanol corn land to pasture we can save 3 metric tons of emissions, and we can inject roughly another ton into the soil for a total of 4 metric tons. This would sum up to a total of about 32 million metric tons of CO2 emissions reduction (4 tons times the 8 million hectares converted to pasture). Add to this another 5 plus million tons CO2 injected into the soil on feed corn lands converted to pasture (1 ton times 5 million hectares converted to pasture) and we are up to 37 million metric tons CO2 reduction. It doesn’t end there. We still need to account for the CO2 (equivalent) reduction from the fossil fuel energy saved and nitrous oxide emissions avoided by not producing the feed corn. This amounts to roughly another 4 metric tons per hectare and brings our grand total reduction in CO2 to 57 million metric tons by converting beef and dairy feed corn and ethanol corn lands to pasture grass. This equals almost 1 percent of our current emissions or roughly 400 pounds for each of us. A percentage point here and a percentage point there, and soon we are talking real emissions reductions.
One of the environmental disadvantages of grass-fed cows is their higher rate of methane flatulence in comparison to their feedlot brethren—about three times as much. The global warming potential of methane is a about 23 times that of carbon dioxide, meaning that methane is dangerous stuff when it comes to climate change. Basically, a cow gives off more gas eating tougher to digest grass than corn. But this doesn't mean that feedlots do better in terms of their total greenhouse gas emissions—they emit huge amounts of ammonia and methane from their manure ponds. Switching from feedlot to grass-fed beef will on net reduce methane emissions as far as I can tell from the research. A grass-fed heifer on rotational-grazing will give off about 65 grams of methane per cow day, but a feedlot dairy cow gives off at least 330 grams a day, taking into account manure pond and other emissions from wastes.
Now for the “dead zone,” an area of up to 20,000 square kilometers that forms off the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico each summer. Here the bottom waters become “hypoxic”, a condition formally defined to occur when dissolved oxygen in water falls below 2 milligrams per liter of water. Without enough oxygen, fish and other organisms suffocate if they don’t move away in time. The condition results from an excessive injection of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, into the Gulf waters from the Mississippi River. These nutrients stimulate algae blooms in the Gulf, and as the algae sink and die, their remains come under attack by microorganisms that decompose the dead organic matter and in the process suck up dissolved oxygen. The famous gulf shrimp, an essential ingredient of New Orleans’ cuisine, cannot survive in these waters. The nutrients that feed the dead zone largely originate in the farm fields of the Midwest where heavy application of fertilizers enrich the runoff that ultimately ends up in the Mississippi. Corn is heavily implicated because it is the Midwest’s primary row crop and a huge amount of nitrogen fertilizer is applied to corn lands. Increased nitrogen inflows into the Gulf appear to be the primary cause of dead zone emergence and expansion over the last fifty years. Switching half the corn lands to grass will staunch substantial flows of nitrogen to the Gulf and should help shrink the dead zone which is so harmful to local biodiversity. Less corn in the Midwest will be a significant benefit for nature in the Gulf of Mexico.
Grass will be a benefit for nature in the Midwest as well, particularly for grassland birds. Grassland birds, as one would expect, need grass, and it doesn’t matter too much what kind. In the spring and early summer, grassland birds require grass that is tall enough to nest in and extensive enough for protection from nest raids by raccoons and crows and infestations of nest parasites, such as Brown-headed Cowbirds. A nest predator tricks other species into raising its young by laying eggs in their nests. Grassland birds face this problem only if they have little choice but to nest in small fields near edges where cowbirds can easily spot them. In short, grassland birds like big fields lacking in nearby perches for predators or parasites, such as trees or buildings. Hayfields can fit the bill as well if, of course, farmers restrain themselves from mowing until after grassland bird nesting is done. With a conversion of corn to pasture farming and the accompanying need for hay as winter feed, grassland birds will have a greater shot at survival.
Even better, converting corn to grass will open up opportunities for actually restoring tallgrass prairie. Remember, we won’t need all the corn land we convert to grass for beef. We will have 10 percent left over (about 3 million hectares) that could be restored to native forbs (wildflowers) and grasses. The restoration of an ecosystem almost driven to extinction has never been attempted before. To bring back the tallgrass prairie is a huge challenge and this is not the place to set out the details of such an effort. The richest tallgrass landscape types long ago fell to the plow. Nonetheless, prairie sod remains in rocky areas too rough to cultivate. Conservation groups already target many of these areas, such as the Flint Hills in Kansas, for protection and restoration. Restoring these areas to natural prairie will require shifting them away from managed pasture to a less intensive, more natural grazing regime. Natural prairie requires infrequent, intense grazing to flourish, not the repeated, closely managed grazing of pasture farming. Bison ranging over large areas on their own do a better job than cattle in maintaining natural prairie. Natural prairie also flourishes in the presence of fire, something that could be reintroduced to a landscape free of pasture farming. The idea is simple—shift pasture off of remaining prairie sod to newly planted grass on old corn-lands. Old prairie sod often pops back quickly to natural prairie through burning to eliminate exotic plants that compete with native species. Fire releases remnant, suppressed, fire-adapted prairie plants still existing in the sod.
The tragedy of tallgrass prairie decline is that the richest of the plant community types on the deepest soils fell first (the so-called wet and mesic prairie types) and most completely to the plow because they occupied the best land. To repeat, most of the remaining tallgrass remnants occur on rocky, thin-soiled uplands unsuitable for cultivation. To bring back the prairie with its full array of plant community types will require replanting. While restoring prairies on previously cultivated landscapes is a tough challenge, recent experience by researchers supports its feasibility. The most productive pastures seem to be those that contain a diversity of native grass species, an idea that stands to reason since those species have stood the test of biological time by adaptation to local conditions. One path to highly productive pastures may be through prairie grass restoration.
After reading about the wonders and profitability of intensive pasture management, farmers will unlikely run right out and start plowing under their corn. Nor are they going to rush out and protect grassland bird nests in their hay fields, restore prairie sod to a natural condition, or plant grass on their corn fields and buy a herd of cattle. Farmers stick to the familiar unless given clear incentives to do otherwise. Then they will change there ways.
The best example of this responsiveness is the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. The initial purpose of the program at the time of its creation in 1985 was to take highly erodible cropland out of production to reduce topsoil erosion. Later the program placed more emphasis on wildlife habitat increases and water quality improvements from sedimentation reductions. Under the CRP, the U.S. Department of Agriculture signed contracts with participating landowners who removed eligible cropland from production for 10-15 years and planted it in grass or other vegetative cover in return for an annual rental payment and half the cost of establishing permanent cover. The average rental payment since 1985 has amounted to about $50 an acre ($125 a hectare), and the amount of land currently enrolled is around 34 million acres (14 million hectares). Clearly, farmers will substantially alter the use of their lands when given the right incentives.
So how do we get farmers to shift from corn to intensive pasture management and prairie restoration? One option is to extend CRP to include corn land conversion to pasture, grassland bird habitat, and tallgrass prairie. On top of this, farmers could sell carbon emission allowances based on soil carbon increases as well as make money from beef production using intensive pasture management and other complementary farm enterprises of the kind Joel Salatin employs on his Polyface Farm. To encourage grassland bird and prairie habitat conservation, a premium annual rental could be paid for such efforts much as it is in the current Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) established in 1997 for environmentally sensitive lands. All this could make shifting to pasture and protecting habitats hugely profitable in comparison to corn. Instead of needing thousands of acres to farm profitably, farmers could do well on 200-300 acres. The country side in Iowa, Illinois, and elsewhere would refill with farm families, igniting a rural economic resurgence. The fossil fuel requirement for farming would drop dramatically as would greenhouse gas emissions. Fertilizer laden runoff would virtually disappear and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico would shrink. What could be better?
There is one other huge benefit from replacing corn with grass—a healthier beef supply. Not only would our cuisine be more compact in the sense that it would absorb less of the fossil fuel energy space subsidy and require less land in environmentally harmful corn production, but it would be better for us. Let’s explain.
When you go in for your physical exam, your doctor tests you blood for cholesterol as we all know and he tells us about the good (HDL) and the bad (LDL). The bad plugs up our arteries while the good helps keep our blood flowing. The bad increases our risk for heart attacks and strokes while the good reduces it. For starters grass-fed beef contains much less saturated fat than corn-fed. Corn feeding causes a cow to add weight rapidly, an economic benefit, but more of that gain goes to fat than it would for an equivalent gain in a grass-fed cow. Equally as important is the composition of fat in corn-versus grass-fed beef. Omega-3 fats come from plant leafs and algae while Omega-6 comes from seeds—i.e. corn. Omega-3 keeps the blood flowing and reduces inflammation while Omega-6 does the opposite. Since Omega-3 fats occur at especially high concentrations in fish, your doctor will suggest fish and fish oil supplements to increase the amount of your good cholesterol. In corn-fed cows the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is very high, while in grass-fed it is very low. Like fish, grass-fed beef is really good for your vascular health. Cows evolved on grass—they are ruminants with the equipment to break down the tough cellulose found in grass. If cows fed on corn were not butchered within a few months of their arrival at the feedlot, they would eventually die from enlarged livers and other corn-induced health problems. Corn is not good for the cows, and corn-fed beef is not good for us. If you want to increase your good cholesterol, you don’t have to eat increasingly rare fish species suffering from overexploitation. Instead, pick up some grass-fed beef next time you go to your natural foods store.
There is another way we could make our cuisine more compact and reduce our space demands, leaving more for nature—eat less meat. What is the world’s most tasty cuisine? Now I know we in this country easily rise to anger in the face of what we see as French arrogance, but we have to admit the French really know how to cook and enjoy great meals, and they do so without putting on very much weight. The U.S. suffers from an obesity rate of about 31 percent, while only 9 percent of the French are too fat. How do the French manage to eat so well and stay skinny? A big part of the answer is portion size. The French simply eat smaller portions, especially meat. While the French eat slightly more pork per capita than us, they consume only half as much chicken and 60 percent as much beef. The French consume annually 90 kilograms (196 pounds) of meat per capita, while we Americans take in roughly 125 kilograms (275 pounds). We could enjoy life just as much as the French and be healthier by cutting our meat consumption by a fourth, reaping the environmental rewards of less land in corn and other animal feeds (such as soybeans). Since we devote roughly 28 percent of our corn lands to feed for pork and poultry, eating 25 percent less meat would cut acres in corn by another 7 percent (on top of the 44 percent reduction already proposed). By doing so, we would further cut CO2 equivalent annual emissions by 10 million metric tons and open up another 2 million hectares plus a fourth of our beef pastures for other uses such as prairie restoration, free range chicken and hog production, and maybe even solar electricity generation. This kind of a move to a compact green cuisine would result in a more compact human use of the landscape.
In her provocative little book, French Women Don’t Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano charmingly explains the virtues of what I would call a compact cuisine. French women eat chocolate, enjoy good wine, and love the pleasures of preparing, talking about, and enjoying great meals. Yet they manage to keep their slender figures from youth through old age. Compact eating leads to a shapely compact body. But how can one take so much pleasure from food without getting fat? Coming from the Midwest where high-volume eating is endemic, on my first trip to France, the first big difference to jump out at me was the dramatic contrast in body shape between Americans and the French. Yet it is the French who are known for great cuisine—incredible food stands out as a key reason why we all love to visit Paris.
How do the French manage to keep their weight in check even though they eat such wonderful food? In essence, for the French less is more. They enjoy a variety of foods, but consume each kind in moderation. They savor each bite and enjoy fully what they taste, but don’t take too many bites. They eat at meal time, but don’t snack in between; they walk all the time, and take the stairs whenever they can; and they orient their social life around the preparation and enjoyment of meals. In short, the lesson of the French is simple: enjoy the pleasures of life, but don’t let them take over and run you. On a daily basis, the French spend more than twice the time eating meals at home than the Americans and they have refrained from letting that time shrink as it has in the U.S. and elsewhere in Europe. The lesson I think is this: devote time to the simple pleasures and one can enjoy life more and become healthier in the bargain.