Tag Archives: biodiversity

Is a vegan diet less sustainable than an omnivorous diet?

References to one particular study on diet and land use requirements keep popping up around the web, from various blogs and news organizations.

rude-151093_640Most of them have been quick to jump on this study because it seems to offer them an opportunity to thumb their noses and blow raspberries at the vegan community, for example, “Sorry vegans: Sticking to a meat-free, dairy-free diet is NOT as good for the planet as you might think”. Many of them start with some kind of elbow to the rib, something about how we like to think we’re better than everybody else or some such nonsense. Some are more respectful.

What all of them have in common is a serious lack of understanding of the specific point made by the authors, and even the authors themselves seem to miss the forest for the trees. I’ll explain.

First, here’s a link to the specious article under discussion: Peters et al. 2016. It’s licensed under the CC attribution license and available for everyone to read for free (yay!).

salad-1570673_640The key measure under investigation was the carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural land – basically, the annual per capita land requirements vs. amount of land available for food production when that food is in keeping with different diets. More simply, how many people can be fed with the amount of land that we have? The authors look at various levels of omnivorous diets, lacto-ovo and lacto-vegetarian, and vegan, as well as 2 variants of current consumption.

They begin with 2 fundamental assumptions: there is a relationship between diet and sustainability, specifically, “dietary change is essential for meeting future human food needs”. Agreed. Second: “sparing land from conversion to agriculture may be important for protecting biodiversity”, so it’s vitally important to understand how dietary patterns impact land use. So far, so good.

cows-1029077_640The authors caution against simplistic thinking because, though animal agriculture is the most land-intensive, the largest fraction of land it uses is for foraging and grazing, often on non-arable land – land that can’t be used to grow any crops for human consumption, though grasses and other ‘weeds’ will grow which the animals eat. So, as they point out, eliminating animal agriculture does not necessarily mean turning all its land over to cultivation.

So, I can definitely see where they’re coming from. It’s a logical argument. If we want to make the most of our land for food production purposes, then we need to use it for what it’s good for. Attempting to make non-arable land supportive of crops causes environmental devastation (just look at the Aral Sea crisis). And it’s clear from the numbers in Peters et al. (2016) that the most efficient use of land for food would include using non-arable land for animal agriculture.

There are 2 implicit assumptions the authors are making which are simply untrue. First, that there is such a thing as an omnivorous diet that is healthy. Nope. Not only is the ingestion of animal products devastating to human health, but the killing and handling of dead animals causes psychological disorders in the people who do that kind of work, and passes unknown numbers of diseases on to anyone who handles raw meat, producers & consumers alike.

Second, that the most efficient diet in terms of land use is the most sustainable diet. Efficiency does not equal sustainability, and animal agriculture is far too devastating to the environment to be considered as part of the future of a sustainable food supply. The following information and more is available on the Cowspiracy website’s fact sheet.

  • ocean dead zones, water pollution, & habitat destruction are largely driven by animal agricultureclean-1223168_640
  • livestock and their byproducts account for 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions
  • animal agriculture is the leading driver of desertification
  • the U.S. could feed 800 million people with just the grain that is currently fed to livestock (that’s more than double the current U.S. population and slightly more than the total number of starving people in the world, according to United Nations World Food Program statistics)
  • more than 80% of the world’s starving children live in countries who export their grain to feed livestock, which are then consumed by people in wealthier countries – an absolute crime against humanity

What I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t actually matter what the most efficient use of land is, because any animal agriculture at all does more harm than good and, if we turn over all the currently arable land to cultivation for human consumption, we could easily feed the global population with room to grow, and if we eventually do outgrow it, we can still work with what we’ve got and use our technology to find better solutions like vertical farming.

Something I often hear vegans say, and see in vegan blog posts is that we don’t need to consume animals and their products to be healthy and happy, but we can make a much stronger statement than that – because it’s true – consuming animals and their products at the rate we currently do is not only antithetical to human health & happiness, but even to our survival as a species.

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Why GMOs Don’t & Won’t Help the Hungry

Let’s ask a question that no one asks. Why are we looking for a technological fix to the problem of hunger and nutrition deficiency?

Is it because it’s the best way to solve the problem, or is it because it’s the best way for companies that engage in genetic engineering to make money off rich and poor alike?

Dangers

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I know what you’ve been told, but it’s simply not true. It’s propaganda. GE crops aren’t really meant to save the world from hunger. They’re meant to make money for Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, et al. The seeds have to be purchased anew each year – a ridiculous thing to ask of a small rural farmer in a poor country (or any other farmer, for that matter), so that’s making life harder for them, not better. They have to increase the amount of pesticides they use on the crop, which is both more expensive and leads to exposure to toxic chemicals, causing health problems of all sorts, including lymphatic cancers and leukemia, not to mention the environmental damage caused by the same chemicals. And let’s not forget that GMOs also attack from the inside out, causing intestinal and digestive problems, neurological disorders in children who ingest them or whose mothers ingest them while pregnant, DNA damage and cancers, and the list goes on.

GMO crops often need more water than their non-GMO counterparts, largely because they’re meant to be high-yield, leading to wasteful water usage which contributes to the severity of droughts and pollutes more water. Since they’re high-yield, they also rapidly deplete the nutrients in the ground, and there’s no crop rotation to let the soil renew itself – you can’t plant anything else in the same spot because of the herbicides that are now in the soil. Malnutrition is, in fact, increased by using GE crops because of the way it causes massive declines in biodiversity, which is important not just for nature, but for our own diets and health.

Take the example of ‘Golden Rice,’ which was genetically modified to include more vitamin A, as well as to be high-yield and pesticide resistant. They said it was going to be the savior of southeast Asia, where there’s high incidence of blindness due to a common lack of vitamin A in the diets of many of the region’s poor, who eat a lot of rice because, well, that’s what they grow a lot of since it’s so cheap. There are a few problems with that plan. For starters, all the problems described in the previous paragraph apply, and there’s an important health risk to consider: if you eat a lot of rice, and not enough of other things, vitamin A isn’t the only thing you’re deficient in, so your problem isn’t really solved. Also, eating large quantities of vitamin A over a long period of time has been shown to lead to vitamin A toxicity.

Now step back and ask yourself how this is saving the world form hunger. Right. It’s not. It’s just not a great solution, to go from eating lots of regular rice to eating lots of vitamin A-fortified, pesticide-laden, environmentally destructive rice.

Alternatives

How about educating communities about nutrition and getting farmers to set aside more land for growing things other than rice, such as dark green leafy vegetables, carrots, pumpkin, mango – these all contain beta-carotene which the body processes into vitamin A, and contain other nutrients as well. Now we can have crop rotation, far less water usage, a balanced diet, more fertile soil, no negative effects on health, and it’s not costing the farmers anything because they don’t need all the toxic chemicals and they can save their seeds, use them for the next growing season, and share them with other farmers. There’s just one major problem with this plan – Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta won’t make any money.

Bees & Butterflies & Alternative Energy

We have to stop using massive amounts of insecticides & herbicides. Obviously. But it may take some time to get there, so what can each of us do in the meantime to help our little buddies who are suffering mass extinctions?

Win – win

There’s a company in the UK getting it right. Unlike fossil fuel extraction methods, solar power doesn’t destroy the immediate environment in which production happens. So we’re already a step ahead, but that’s not enough for the folks at Solarcentury, who have decided to do what they can to support biodiversity in their country.

They are about to begin planting indigenous flora throughout their solar parks that bees and butterflies love, and that promote native biodiversity in general. They envision their solar parks as wildlife sanctuaries, and it’s not just for bugs; it’s estimated that 97% of wildflower meadows in the UK have been lost since the 1940s. They’ve found an ingenious way to make human interference in a natural landscape beneficial. The CEO of the company pointed out that solar parks actually provide a wider array of wet, dry, shaded and sunny areas than completely open fields, making it a perfect place to promote biodiversity. Win – win.

How bee-friendly is your land?

You could easily follow their example at home and make your land a refuge for bees and butterflies, who are fighting to survive and could use all the help we can give them. Frankly, it also has the potential to be more beautiful than a grass lawn. It may not be the right thing for everyone to do. Of course, you can also have gardens, but they do require more care. One of the nice things about attracting bees, butterflies and other pollinators, though, is that they do help you out with that.

There are more benefits, too. Many of the plants that attract bees and butterflies also attract hummingbirds. Many are also edible, including herbs like fennel and basil. You just have to make sure you let them go to flower, but you were going to do that anyway so that you can save the seeds, right?

See how synergistic it can all be? When you begin to recognize it, it seems so inane of us to have commercialized this process to the point of destruction. Nature takes care of all this with relatively little intervention on our part and here we are wasting valuable energy and resources (non-renewable ones) engineering plants that lack the nutritional value of natural plants, while creating robotic bees (yes, it appears Monsanto IS involved in that project) just in case that’s the only way they can survive. Well guess what? We’re next.

What to plant

Here are a few resources to learn more about the plants that pollinators love, and other potential uses for some of them, as well as a helpful hint for people with allergies, and more.

21 best plants for pollinators

No-fail plants to attract hummingbirds, butterflies & bees

Bee balm: for butterflies & bees

10 things you can do to help save the bees

Safe Seeds

Make sure your garden is GMO-free

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You might think that if you’re growing veggies in your own garden at home that means you’re not in danger of using GM seeds or supporting their corporate parents via profit-margins. Unfortunately, if we dig a little deeper, we find out that it’s not quite so simple. Companies like Monsanto are interested in profit, which means they aren’t just selling GM seeds. They want to control as much of the market as possible, so they also gain your unwitting support by selling standard seeds.

We use the expression garden-variety to mean bland, boring, average. Heirloom crops are anything but. They’ve been naturally honed over generations to produce plants that are ideally suited to their native environments, that have the most exciting flavors and, frankly, they look pretty cool.

One of the first things you notice about heirloom crops, before you even have a chance to taste them, is their incredible variety and vibrancy. They’re exciting, they dress up your garden and your plate, but they’re important for a very different reason:

Science

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You can tell what nutrients are in fruits and vegetables based on their color. That’s why it’s important to ‘taste the rainbow’ (not the sugar-filled one). Eating a large variety of different-colored fruits and veggies is a great way to ensure that you and your family are getting the nutrition you need. Here’s a basic guide to see which colors indicate which nutrients, and what they do for your body.

Now tell me you’d rather eat one of those anemic tomatoes from the grocery store than that beautiful ‘Black from Tula’ in the image above. Want your kids to be more into veggies? Go heirloom, and make sure they participate in the growing process, too. If they feel like an important part of the process, they’ll be more interested in the results.

Even if you only have a window sill available, you can still take advantage of your space. Try out heirloom herbs. They are said to have more potent flavors than those grown in large-scale agriculture. It’ll do wonders for your pesto. You can also get flower seeds, so if you don’t have a vegetable patch, find some organic heirloom flowers to grow in your home.

PatatesNeed another reason to start growing heirloom crops? How about we start with biodiversity? Most of us have heard of Ireland’s potato famine. A large percentage of the potatoes being grown in Ireland at that time were of a single variety. The lack of genetic diversity in Ireland’s potatoes was one reason why the potato blight had such devastating effects there, but less severe effects in other European countries that were also affected by the disease. Heirloom seeds come from varieties that have been around for a long time and help increase resiliency. Strength in adversity through diversity. If drought or disease kill some, others will survive.

What’s in a seed?

A much more interesting question than “what’s in a name?” One of the things you find when you unpack a seed is self-sufficiency. If you want to decrease your dependence on food sources that you can’t trust and that have decidedly myopic policies, growing heirloom fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers is key. When you buy seeds from places like the Seed Saver’s Exchange, a non-profit organization by the way, you’re not investing in a greedy corporation, you’re investing in a group of people with a measurable degree of moral fortitude. You’re investing in sustainability. You’re investing in yourself and your family.

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