Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Carbon Harvest: Feeding the World

This autumn, harvesters will be crawling in their thousands across 'the fruited plain,' reaping the bounty of the land to feed hundreds upon hundreds of millions of people, The annual American harvest, which passes unseen and unnoticed by most of the U.S. population, is a good time to think about the crops farmers and ranchers are harvesting, and how it is that there are crops to harvest in the first place.

Even in the largely rural Panhandle of Nebraska where I live, where the nearest cities are Denver (pop. 600,000) and Cheyenne (pop. 60,000), people get their food from a store. Most people in the region are physically closer to farms and ranches than their urban or suburban counterparts, and most have seen cattle grazing and tractors tilling and combines harvesting, but like their fellow citizens from the cities and the suburbs, they have little understanding of how crops and livestock become the packaged food items they purchase every week.

For the vast majority of Americans, farming and ranching is but a distant dream. Though fully half the population was either a farmer and/or rancher or worked on a farm or ranch at the turn of the twentieth century, and about 80 percent did so at the turn of the nineteenth century, at the turn of the twenty-first century fewer than two percent of the population were farmers or ranchers. Because of the way farmers and ranchers are counted today, the number of full-time working farmers and ranchers is probably closer to one percent. The remainder of the U.S. population, some 98-99 percent or about 305 million Americans, are two or more generations removed from the farm and ranch.

For those people, harvest is a word they learned to define in school; tractors, combines and tillage machinery are things they’ve seen on television or, rarely, at a county or state fair; the “job” that a farmer or rancher does is a mystery; and few if any can tell the difference between corn and milo, wheat and millet, soybeans and sugarbeets, cows and steers.

This is not to denigrate today’s non-farmers and non-ranchers. There are countless aspects of their collective jobs and environments which they understand intuitively but which farmers and ranchers understand not at all. We farmers and ranchers rely on their knowledge and skills to make our clothes, power our homes, manufacture our televisions and computers and the dozens of items we use every day, on and off the farm and ranch. And most of us, too, buy our food at the store.

The story of how freshly harvested commodities make their way to grocer’s shelves is fascinating, but we’ll cover that another time. This time, let’s take a look at the food plants and animals themselves – where they come from and how they grow. You might just find the story surprising.

It starts with carbon. Carbon is absolutely essential to life as we know it. At the most fundamental level, carbon plays a decisive role. DNA, which is the genetic blueprint and instruction manual for every living organism, which inhabits every cell of every living thing (other than a handful of RNA viruses and the little-understood prion, neither of which really meet the definition of “life”), is made up of  carbon, phosphorus, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen. Take any one of those elements away, and DNA is just a mishmash of decomposing molecules. But carbon is unique in another way. Because of it’s atomic structure, with four valance electrons, carbon provides the vital linkages between the other elements, providing the backbone of DNA. Without carbon, there would be no DNA, and without DNA there would be no life.

But carbon is more than the backbone of DNA. It is the backbone of life in general. Just as it provides the critical linkages in the DNA molecule, it provides the critical linkages in cells, tissues, proteins, amino acids, sugars, starch – and the list goes on.

If you’ve ever seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), you may recall that the threatening entity faced by the crew of the Enterprise, V-Ger, considered the crew of the starship to be an infestation of “carbon-based units.”

While the movie was fiction, of course, all life as we know it, from the tiniest bacteria to the largest whale or sequoia, does indeed consist of carbon-based units. Leaving aside water, carbon is the most abundant element in every animal and plant. The average human, for instance, contains 16 kilograms (kg) of carbon, roughly 35 pounds (lbs), or about 23 percent of total body mass. The ratio is pretty much the same for all animals. When it comes to plants, the carbon ratio is far higher. Consider grass, for instance. Again leaving aside water, and depending on the variety, grass is composed of 75-95 percent cellulose, hemi-cellulose and lignin, all of which are composed of complex carbon-based molecules. Lignin is about 59 percent carbon, cellulose about 42 percent carbon, and hemi-cellulose 38 percent carbon.

In and of itself, however, carbon is little more than ash or a dirty rock. For carbon to become integrated into the very core of every plant and animal on the planet requires quite a feat of natural chemical engineering. Most of that engineering is done via metabolism, where life forms take in raw materials, use what they need, and discard the remainder as waste. The food chain is representative of this process.

From our human perspective, it’s fair to say that plants form the base of the food chain. In the simplest form of the food chain, plants are consumed by herbivores, which are consumed by carnivores, which are finally consumed by scavengers. Some animals, including humans, are omnivores, and consume both plants and animals. The food chain doesn’t start at the bottom and end at the top. Rather, it is a continuous strand of links – a closed loop or a continuous cycle. Though we often hear about the “top of the food chain,” in reality, there is no pinnacle. The stuff of life is constantly recycled from earth to plant to animal to scavenger and back to earth.

Though some animals mimic a few aspects of agriculture (a few insects and even fewer animals), man is the only organism on the planet that practices agriculture, or grows his own food. But while man expends enormous energy, huge quantities of resources, and countless hours planting, nurturing and harvesting food plants and animals, all of the real work of assembling elements and nutrients into food occurs naturally.

When it comes to the plants we eat, farmers prepare the soil,  plant the seeds, nurture the growing plants with fertilizer, pesticides, and in some cases water, and then harvest the crop when it reaches maturity at the end of the growing season. This all sounds simple, but if you’ve ever stood at the corner of  a square-mile of wheat or corn and tried to imagine raising such a crop by hand, from tilling to planting to nurturing to harvesting – well, I hope you get the picture.

All of this toil – the countless hours of work by man and tractor and machinery and harvester – is absolutely necessary to feed the human population. Farmers, ranchers, and those in the food supply system free everyone else to do things they couldn’t do if they had to grow and process their own food. Still, all of the work done by farmers and ranchers simply supports and takes advantage of a natural process. If the seeds planted by farmers contained no DNA (and if the DNA contained no carbon), no plants would grow. And man, regardless of the technological wonders he has wrought, cannot make DNA. Only nature can do so.

Neither can man “make” the plant grow. Farmers can support plant growth by providing for proper soil and nutrition and applying pesticides when needed, and in some cases by applying supplemental water, but plants grow by photosynthesis, using energy from sunshine to drive their internal metabolism, which combines elements from the ground, carbon from the air (carbon dioxide) and water from the sky and turns them into growing biomass, and ultimately, food. But man cannot “do” photosynthesis. Only nature can.
And so from nature alone, with a backbone of carbon and a relatively small but vastly important assist from man, springs the staff of life. And many other things that are good to eat, too.

But man cannot live on bread alone, right? I hope you’ll pardon the out-of-context usurpation of that line. Let me put it another way. Man, as an omnivore, lacks certain digestive capabilities, and finds it quite difficult to stay healthy on a diet of vegetation alone. Oh, it can be done, but at the considerable expense of purchasing and consuming the various vitamins and elements needed to maintain human health but not available in vegetation. Or at least not available in a form man can digest and make use of. Happily, those vitamins and elements are available to and digestible by humans in the form of meat. Particularly cooked meat, which is the kind most of us prefer.

And so farmers, in this case often called ranchers, grow meat animals as well. But just as with the farmers who grow crops, ranchers can only support and nurture the meat animals they grow. Animals arise from and grow according to the dictates of DNA, just like plants. And carbon is the backbone of animal DNA too.
Animals have a different metabolism than plants. While plants derive their energy from the sun through photosynthesis, animals – herbivores at least — get their energy from eating plants. In essence, they harvest the sunlight that was harvested by the plant. As we go further around the food chain, predators harvest the energy that the herbivore harvested from the plant which came from the sun.

As the growing season across North America comes to a close and farmers and ranchers harvest the bounty of the land, it’s good to remember that we can only harvest and consume those things which nature provides. We can tweak things a bit here and there, and we’ve done remarkable work in increasing yields and ensuring the quality and safety of the foods we all consume. But we do not control the sun, or the weather, or make seeds germinate or ova quicken. We do not “make” our food. Nature does. And without carbon, not even nature could make food.

Why the emphasis on carbon? For some time now, for more than 25 years, in fact, politicians, self-appointed experts, and an agenda-driven media have been pushing the story that manmade carbon dioxide is pushing the planet into a climate catastrophe. Around the globe, governments are spending hundreds of billions of dollars to mitigate the production of manmade “greenhouse gases” such as carbon dioxide. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency has declared carbon dioxide a pollutant. For a short time, environmental alarmist groups and capitalists – ordinarily the most bitter of enemies – joined forces to make money and sequester carbon dioxide in the ground via the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX). In a Ponzi scheme of ridiculous proportions, speculators could buy, sell and trade so-called carbon offsets through CCX. At one point carbon was trading at $7.50 per metric ton. When CCX folded in 2010 the price was five cents per metric ton – and falling.

Over the last few years legitimate climate science – not the “settled” or “consensus” science invented by climate alarmists – has finally come to the fore. Despite the vocal claims to the contrary, carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” are not driving the climate. Every hypothesis proposed by the alarmists has been shown to be in error or to violate physical law. Every one. Of the 21 ongoing computer climate models operated under the auspices of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.), none have predicted any of the climate changes which have occurred over the last decade. None of the 21 agree with any of the others, in fact. Computer models are ruled by the Garbage In-Garbage Out (GIGO) principle – flawed or incomplete input will only yield flawed or incomplete output.

Just as man cannot make DNA or make food grow, neither can man change the climate. Nature, which does make DNA and does grow food, also runs the climate. And nature is far, far more powerful than man.
So, in fact, is carbon.

So as we celebrate the bounty of harvest this autumn on farms and ranches and in cities, towns and villages, perhaps we should remember that as wonderful as we are – and we truly are wonderful in many, many ways – we would be nothing were it not for carbon.

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