Commentary: The Plan B economy

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It might be a little futuristic, maybe a little lefty for many people’s preferences, but the concept of a “Plan B” economy contains proposals that could—and should—connect with animal agriculture and the producers who comprise the profession.

Basically, after filtering out the political rhetoric about rapacious corporations and oppressive regulators, the idea of Plan B is to create a comprehensive blueprint for a more sustainable system of economic activities.

Granted, “sustainability” is a term that carries more buzz than a beehive, but if the conventional definition, which involves utilizing renewal energy, minimizing waste and addressing resource limitations can be accepted, then there is some merit in analyzing what Plan B might involve.

According to the Earth Policy Institute, which has latched onto the phrase as its own intellectual property, the key elements of Plan B involve these key initiatives:

  • Raising energy efficiency
  • Developing renewable sources of energy
  • Expanding the earth’s green vegetative cover

The first two items, for obvious reasons, are tied closely to farming and livestock production. I won’t argue for continuation of the ill-advised ethanol program, but it at least represents a direct response to the urgency of developing renewal energy sources. No matter how much confidence you place in fracking for natural gas or extracting shale oil from North American tar sands, the reality is that fossil fuels are not unlimited—nor environmentally benign.

The sooner they’re phased out, the better.

If farmers, growers and producers were more intently focused on energy production, even if only for on-site consumption, the use of methane, biomass, solar, wind and other “green” systems could collectively make a dramatic impact on national energy consumption. Maybe not enough initially to put a huge dent in the use of oil, coal and natural gas, but definitely the most promising way to ramp up production of renewable energy, and, it should be noted, a practical laboratory to test and develop experimental energy production technologies.

Green’s the game

The other aspect of Plan B, one related to mitigating climate change, gets only lip service from green groups and eco-activists boasting about how many trees they plant for every plane ride or construction project associated with the organizations,. But it’s one with which farmers and producers can directly engage: Maintaining—and expanding—grasslands and forests.

As global population expands relentlessly, albeit at a slower rate than 30 or 40 years ago, the world’s appetite for meat and poultry continues to increase substantially. That might result in significant growth in production in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where livestock and poultry production isn’t always conducted in the most sustainable manner.

At the same time, development pressures, market forces and regulatory pressures are combining to dampen potential expansion of production in North America. Heck, if you own a ranch in the West that’s anywhere near a population center, or within shouting distance of some scenic landscape, you’re probably better off turning it into a golf course/resort/housing development than you are raising beef.

That doesn’t bode well for the need to preserve rangeland, farmland and forest areas, because there’s little economic incentive to maintain private property as some sort of nature preserve. It’s great that we have vast stretches of public lands—national forests and parklands—on which forests can be maintained and livestock can utilize acreage suitable for grazing.

But the multiple environmental goals of a Plan B economy—recycling and reusing resources, conserving topsoil, stabilizing water resources, protecting biological diversity—can’t be fully implemented if only government’s involved. If we limit such initiatives to public lands, or better stated, if we fail to incentivize those priorities so that private-sector producers and farmers aren’t engaged, then those lofty goals are unlikely to be achieved.

With water use alone, we face a coming crisis across the West that can’t be solved with building more dams and drilling more wells. We need to develop technologies that produce food more efficiently, and that challenge includes producers as more than mere partners.

That’s not to dismiss the overriding impact of population, however. The best-laid plans and the most advanced technologies we can bring online can’t cope with unending growth. For example: Nigeria, which is about the size of Texas, already has 167 million people and its population is projected to grow to some 400 million people by 2050.

That’s unsustainable. Period.

But even if growth rates slow down and the world’s population stabilizes, that won’t remove the urgency of Plan B’s other priorities: Renewable energy production and expansion of the Earth’s vegetative cover.

Thus, no matter how rosy or how wretched the remainder of this century unfolds, producers will have a key role to play in it all.

There’s no better group of people to take on that role.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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