Tag Archives: environment

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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Every bite counts: Parts 1 & 2.

apple-151989_1280This is the story of how I became interested in veganism, and an overview of some of the major reasons I decided to adopt a vegan lifestyle. It began, strangely, with smelling meat being roasted in the brand-new butcher/deli section of my local grocery store. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t eaten meat from land animals in so long that it didn’t smell like food to me anymore – it smelled like an animal was on fire, and my first instinct was to get the hell out of there. This got me thinking about using animals as food. Why was I suddenly repulsed by it? I’d been pescetarian for several years, but the smell of meat cooking had always been pleasant to me before. I had just decided to stop eating it because I knew it was pretty bad for both my health and the environment (though I had no idea at the time just how bad!). Somewhere in the back of my mind, something was telling me that I was about to embark on a journey that I had been putting off for years because I knew that, once I had the information, I would have no excuse for not changing my life. And that turned out to be true.

So, I did some research, and then I did some more, and some more…

Part 1. Health.

heart-rate-1375323_640It started with diet, nutrition, and the health of the human body, most especially my own. I watched lectures by, and interviews with, medical researchers and physicians like Dr. Michael Greger, Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Milton Mills, Dr. T. Colin Campbell, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, and a number of others, as well as documentaries such as Forks Over Knives, Supersize Me (even though I stopped eating fast food like 10 years ago), Vegucated, and others. I also bought and read How Not to Die by Dr. Greger. What I learned was that the most healthy diet, hands-down, is a whole foods vegan diet. Very simply put, if you completely eliminate animal products from your diet and live on fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, you’ll be one healthy sucker.

At least 68% of disease in the U.S. is diet-related. 14 out of the 15 leading causes of death are direct results of eating meat, dairy, and eggs.

A vegan diet (done properly – you can’t just have potato chips and beer) prevents, treats, or reverses atherosclerosis, multiple sclerosis, prostate, breast, ovarian, pancreatic, and colorectal cancers, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, kidney disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, diabetes, asthma, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, obesity, arthritis, impotence, Alzheimer’s disease, and MANY other ailments. But don’t take my word for it. Follow the links to some of the names above, and look up anything you want on nutritionfacts.org.

Humans are the only meat-eating animals that develop heart disease & other diseases as a result of eating meat, dairy & eggs. That’s because it’s not natural for us. If we pay attention to what the human body is telling us, and the massive epidemic of diet-related diseases which continue to spread and effect more and more people as a greater proportion of the global population includes higher quantities of meat into their diets (partially thanks to the global expansion of fast food giants like McDonald’s), it’s obvious that meat, dairy, & eggs are not what the human body is meant to consume.

Part 2. The Planet.

sustainability-1190327_1280Animal agriculture has a staggering impact on environmental destruction and global warming.

Animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all, yes – ALL!, global transportation combined.

The vast majority of habitat destruction, including 90% of the deforestation in the Amazon basin (a.k.a. the lungs of the planet) is for the purpose of meeting ever-increasing demands for the products of animal agriculture.

Animal agriculture is also the main cause of ocean dead zones and water pollution.

There are 1.3 million known species, with approximately 15,000 new ones being cataloged each day. Estimates of how many truly exist range from 3 to 100 million. Of these millions of species, only one (that’s us) is causing the extinction of tens of thousands of others. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction.

A diet with high meat intake – beef in particular – produces nearly 2.5 times more greenhouse gas emissions, in tons, than a vegan diet, while buying only locally-grown foods does less to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions than giving up meat for only one day per week (Weber & Matthews 2008, Scarborough et al. 2014).

Click the image to go to shrinkthatfootprint.com

Only with what I’ve described so far, it’s easy to see that animal agriculture is one of the most destructive forces on this planet, having a direct negative effect on the entire system, including on our own health. And we’re not done yet.

Parts 3 & 4

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Sustainable Universities

The university system does a lot to shape our world. It molds young people into citizens. The best of universities allow young people to mold themselves within a healthy and supportive environment, but most of them simply engage in indoctrination. I could write quite a long critique regarding that, but it’s not my purpose here,  so I won’t get into it just now.  There are some colleges and universities that have developed a focus on sustainability, but not nearly enough. We need to push for three different areas of change in our university system. This can be done by almost anyone – students, faculty, staff, alumni, prospective students. The areas of change: sustainability of the school itself, courses of study that focus on sustainability and application of knowledge in related areas, like engineering, to problems of sustainability, student organizations and focus groups that engage in discussion and action.

Unless we teach people what it actually means to be sustainable, we can’t attain a level of sustainability that will carry us into the future.

Student body & organizations

Students. The most important part of any school. The raison d’etre of any school. There are so many things that students can do to promote sustainability and to bring the topic into focus for the school’s administration, faculty, and other students. First: make some noise. Start an organization and make yourself noticed. Issue challenges to the entire school and everyone in it, or to other schools, like the “do it in the dark” challenge, in which houses and/or dorms compete for the biggest reduction in energy usage for a month. Have seed-bombing and guerrilla gardening campaigns. Petition the school for an area where you can have a vegetable garden on campus to produce cheap food for students – you can even have a little students-only farmer’s market to raise funds for the organization. Give out free BPA-free water bottles to encourage students not to buy throw-away plastic bottles of water. Ask the school’s bookstore to sell notebooks, flash drives, pens, binders, clothing, etc. made out of recycled and eco-friendly materials. Get involved in boards and committees of the institution in which you have a voice, and can push for change. There are so many things you can do.

Programs of study

This one is trickier. Students, along with staff and faculty with experience in related fields can push for the development of programs focused on sustainability and/or for a focus on sustainability in each related field. It’s really when people come together with experience in different fields and from different parts of the world that we can progress in leaps and bounds and make a huge difference. Look at the programs already available at other universities to see how they’re doing it, and try to improve upon them. If you’re a prospective student, even asking about whether schools have a sustainability program, or have plans to develop one, will help. An increasing interest from the general population can push things in the right direction. If you are a current student, you can aim for this within your own program, and you can encourage all your classmates to study together in the same place, which will collectively reduce the amount of electricity you’ll use by quite a lot over the course of a year. Think of how much more you’d use if you were each studying in a separate room or building all the time.

University & its policies

There are several areas to look at here. Alumni might consider telling your alma mater that you will make donations or donate more if it only makes investments in sustainable businesses and if it implements programs to increase its own sustainability, or you can earmark your donation for sustainability projects, renovations etc. Prospective students should keep this in mind, too. Choose the schools that are most environmentally friendly and that are trying to reduce their carbon footprint. See what you can do in your own department if you’re currently a student. Can you turn in your assignments via email or dropbox rather than on paper? Are all those hand-outs really necessary, or can they be sent to your email or posted on a virtual blackboard? Some students may need a paper copy, but most don’t. Again, there are many things you can do to try to make a difference, especially if your classmates join you.

Detox Your Cleaning Supplies

lego-568039_640You use cleaning supplies on a regular basis, hopefully, so it’s worthwhile to think about both the health and sustainability of your cleaning products. What about making your own? Right off the bat, it’s pretty obvious that you could be sending a lot less material to the landfill. Instead of using a spray-bottle once, throwing it out and buying a new one, you can reuse the same one for as long as it lasts.

It’s also a lot cheaper, pennies on the dollar, even taking into account things like essential oils (tea tree oil is a common ingredient in sustainable cleaning supplies because it’s antimicrobial, antiseptic, antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial) which can feel expensive at the initial purchase, but you use them relatively slowly.

Most importantly, manufactured cleaning supplies are typically loaded with chemicals that are surprisingly damaging to human health, for something that’s meant to be used in our homes on a daily basis. Your house could have as many as 60 toxic chemicals, most of which don’t cause an immediate acute reaction, but chronic exposure, especially in unstudied combinations, can be a very different story. Your home should be an oasis and a safe-haven, not a toxic soup. Here’s a quick list of some of the most concerning chemicals that we find in our household cleaners and why you don’t want them in your home:

Phthalates – These are not required to be listed on labels, and often show up as “fragrance.” You can be exposed to them via inhalation or skin contact, and they’re found in cosmetics, soaps, air fresheners, even toilet paper and vinyl shower curtains. The danger of this is that it’s an endocrine disruptor, which can cause abnormal growth of genitalia and hormone levels during sexual development of boys whose mothers have high exposure to phthalates during pregnancy.

Perchloroethylene (perc) – This is found in carpet and upholstery cleaners, dry-cleaning solutions, and spot removers. It’s a neurotoxin, which means it causes damage to your brain; initial symptoms include (but certainly aren’t limited to) dizziness and loss of coordination. Exposure is through inhalation: that particular smell your clothes have when you get them back from the dry-cleaner. Perc is also classified by the EPA as a possible carcinogen.

soap-41212_640Triclosan – Most hand and dish soaps that are labeled antibacterial have triclosan in them. It’s a probable carcinogen, according to the EPA, and may also be an endocrine disruptor. The most dangerous part is that it promotes the growth of resistant bacteria, not just to triclosan itself, but also to antibiotics. It’s been found in rivers and streams, and must be in oceans as well as it’s been found in dolphins. It’s possible that triclosan is contributing to the deaths of some animals from bacterial infections.

Quarternary ammonium compounds (quats) – Common in both liquid and sheet fabric softeners, as well as items labeled antibacterial, these guys, like triclosan, promote the growth of resistant bacteria. They are also a leading cause of skin irritation, and are highly suspected in respiratory problems.

2-Butoxyethanol – A glycol ether, this stuff is typically found in general-purpose cleaners, kitchen cleaners and glass cleaners. It’s not required to be listed on labels, but the EPA has workplace safety standard levels for it. If you’re cleaning at home, though, you could easily end up with levels that are higher than the safety standards, especially if you’re using these products in an enclosed space. If you inhale a little you can get a sore throat, but too much of it and you can end up with kidney and liver damage, narcosis (i.e., you pass out), or pulmonary edema.

Ammonia – Very bad to breath, ammonia is an ingredient in metal polish and glass cleaner. Also highly dangerous toxic fumes result when mixed with bleach.

Chlorine – You’re exposed to chlorine through inhalation and skin exposure when you use products like toilet bowl cleaner, mildew remover, scouring powder and some laundry whiteners. It’s a possible thyroid disruptor, and can cause acute and chronic respiratory problems.

Sodium hydroxide (lye) – Oven and drain cleaners both use lye, which is another one you’re exposed to both by inhalation and skin contact. If it so much as touches your skin it can cause burns, and breathing it in can give you a sore throat for days.

baking-soda-768950_640The good news is there are loads of recipes out there for natural cleaners that can help you stay healthy and live more sustainably. Here are some great places to look:

How to make a non-toxic cleaning kit

Homemade alternatives to harmful household chemicals (photos)

67 homemade, all-natural cleaning recipes

David Suzuki’s Queen of Green column

 

Manufactured Climate Change Denial

protest-455717_1280There’s a really interesting phenomenon that’s been happening in the United States. In most countries, if you ask people about climate change – whether it’s happening and whether it’s a man-made problem, you get a resounding yes, to the tune of percentages in the 90’s. Japan and the U.K. are notable exceptions, with 78% and 65%, respectively. When American citizens were polled, we came in last at 58%. This information is from an online opinion poll, carried out from July 5 to August 6 of 2012 by the poll group Ipsos for the insurance firm Axa. Read more about it here.

This is truly outrageous if you consider the fact that the U.S. education system, though in sad decline, is world-renowned for good reason, and that most people can learn anything they want, whenever they want. You have only to get on the computer or go to the library and you can inform yourself by watching documentaries and sifting through articles, from both scientists and journalists, with a discerning eye. Of course, most people have no desire to do that, and allow themselves the luxury of believing that it doesn’t matter.

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Boycott list for Koch Industries
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If we approach it from another perspective, it becomes more comprehensible. Charles and David Koch, which I’ve just discovered is pronounced like ‘coke,’ two of the wealthiest people in the world, have essentially manufactured (and funded with over $67 million) the entire climate change ‘debate.’ Koch Industries is well-diversified and in involved in all sorts of things, from raising cattle in Montana to manufacturing spandex in China, but the vast majority of their wealth comes from petroleum.

They financially support a massive team of highly conservative special interest groups, think tanks and lobbyists, whose jobs are to oppose green energy, fight environmental regulations, ease limits on industrial pollution, and influence public opinion, for example by appearing on news programs as “experts” and questioning the legitimacy of science. You can see a profile of lobbying spending data for Koch Industries at the Center for Responsive Politics website opensecrets.org. They’ve been highly successful in their efforts, because the public has fallen for their lies, and the politicians have fallen for their money and influence.

false-98375_640By having managed to convince people to be extremely dismissive of scientific fact and to frame this issue as a ‘debate’ (which it clearly is not) we have enabled a massive section of society to basically say, “Well, the jury’s still out, and there’s really no sense in taking drastic action until we have a clear answer.” This is an extremely dangerous viewpoint and the adage applies here – All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. ~ Edmund Burke. Make no mistake, this can most definitely be called an evil, because it’s a construction of powers-that-be aiming to look after their own short-term financial interests, and nothing else. It’s not based on good science and it’s not founded on principles that include protecting the welfare of society in general and preserving the life-supporting qualities of the environment.

While the majority of society sits back and waits rather than taking action, the real scientists who look at climate change are seeing a growing list of reasons to be very concerned, and are now starting to realize that even the more radical estimates of the changes that we’re going to be experiencing may have been too conservative, in part because greenhouse gas emissions have risen precipitously, which wasn’t expected.

The earth won’t blow up or anything, but complex life is actually quite fragile, and it’s easy to suppose that most of it will not survive drastic changes. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that we’re already well into the beginning of this process, and as fossil fuel extraction and consumption increases (which it is doing), and as we continue to manufacture and spread more and more chemicals which appear in our earth, water, air, food supply and our own bodies, as well as those of many different species of animals, the effects will also increase, becoming more rapid and more drastic. You need only point to the many massive die-offs that we’ve seen in recent years, including fish, dolphins, bees, coral reefs, and certain birds, among others.

It’s notable that there’s far more recognition of the basic truths of this issue in poorer countries. As floods and droughts, etc increase, these are the people who have been effected first and harshest. They have a higher stake in being a part of the solution, while the inventors and perpetuators of the myths of the climate change ‘debate’ are exactly those that stand to lose the least, and have the higher stake in being part of the problem because they have enough money to do whatever is necessary to protect themselves. Most of us don’t have any options in that regard.

We need to work harder to educate everyone about the truth. As long as half our population is being lulled into complacency, meaningful changes can’t takes place, and they desperately need to. Spread this information any way you possibly can, and help fight against the Koch brothers’ multi-million dollar machinations. They’re spending so much of that money on one thing – disseminating information. In this case, we CAN fight fire with fire, without spending much at all outside of time.

Guerrilla Gardening

Meet Ron Finley – resident of South Central L.A. and guerrilla gardener. Even if you’ve never been near the place, you probably have at least a vague notion that South Central is not really where you want to find yourself. But for the residents, it’s home, and many people couldn’t move if they wanted to (and they probably want to). So, instead of jumping ship, this man decided to do something about it; to try to make a difference that everyone in his community could appreciate and anyone could participate in if they wanted.

Food Deserts

South Central L.A. is considered a food desert. That means that the residents don’t have access to healthy foods within a relatively convenient distance, though they often have plenty of access to fast food, and convenience and liquor stores. Food deserts exist all over the U.S., predominantly effecting lower-income areas, where there are, on average, 3 times fewer grocery stores than in wealthier neighborhoods. This is entirely related to the off-balance obesity rates and incidents of type-2 diabetes in these communities.

Why you should get involved

The purposes of guerrilla gardening are to both beautify and provide healthy food for local communities, no matter what their socio-economic status. As the gap between wealth and poverty widens and the middle class shrinks, it’s not just the food deserts that need help. In suburban neighborhoods, many people are struggling more to make ends meet and, as Ron Finley says, “growing your own food is like printing your own money,” and he tells us that about $1 worth of green beans can generate as much as $75 worth of produce.

The effects are much more far-reaching than that, though. These gardens offer incredible educational opportunities for both children and adults, to learn how to be more self-sufficient and to understand and appreciate the importance of fresh vegetables, for health, yes, but for well-being in general. Kids that are out in the garden aren’t out getting into trouble, or sitting in front of a television. They’re learning how to improve themselves and their communities instead of watching fast food advertisements. Another great benefit is that you can control where your seeds come from and how they’re grown. You can buy non-GMO seeds, and choose not to use pesticides. You generate less waste from trips to the grocery store and all the paper and plastic you come away with in addition to your food. This is something worth getting involved with in some capacity, even if you’re just chucking sunflower seeds down a grate or creating graffiti art with moss (link to instructions below). Make whatever difference you can!

Watch Ron Finley’s TED talk. It’s only about 10 minutes long and worth your time!

Learn more about food deserts at the Food Empowerment Project.

Advice and tips on how to get started

Community pages on guerrillagardening.org and a Facebook page – try to find other guerrilla gardeners in your area to team up with

How to make moss graffiti

One Unsustainable Habit

Change just one unsustainable habit today. I hate to say it, but for a very long time I was one of those people who left the water running while brushing my teeth. I cringe when I think about all the fresh, potable water that I wasted with utter disregard. If you do it too, today’s the day to start turning off that water.

Here are some more unsustainable habits to think about changing:

String_bagPaper or plastic? Neither. Bring your own shopping bags. Added bonus – reusable bags are very inexpensive and you can find pretty ones that suit your style. You can also get reusable produce bags for the grocery store, so you can stop wasting all those little plastic bags. Those things are the bane of my existence. I hate them. You can even up-cycle t-shirts to make your own bags. Here’s a tutorial.

Buy local – You’ll save all kinds of resources by buying local. Farmers who sell their fruits and veggies at farmer’s markets typically use more sustainable practices, and don’t unnecessarily package their produce. If you have a local spice and/or tea merchant you might be able to buy from them and use containers you already have. Local merchants are more willing to work with you to help you be more sustainable, something national grocery chains don’t do.

Appliances & electronics – Even turned off, most electronics and appliances still draw power. Unplug them when you’re done using them, or use a power strip that you can simply switch off. Many large appliances can’t really be unplugged without a huge hassle, but things like toasters and toaster ovens can.

plastic-631625_640Bottled water – I’m not a fan of tap water, but I’m also not keen on all the waste generated by bottled water. The solution – a filter. There are several different kinds you can use in your kitchen to filter your own tap water. Many bottled waters are also owned by major corporations like Pepsi, Coke and Nestle that you may not want to support because of their involvement in the anti GMO-labeling campaign.

Make, don’t buy – There are probably several things that you buy on a regular basis which you can very easily make, reducing the amount of packaging waste that you personally generate. For example, salad dressings are fast & easy. They are also a product that often contain fillers and GMOs and gunk that you can avoid by making them yourself.

Towels – Use cloth instead of paper towels in the kitchen. Like many of these other suggestions, it may require a small initial investment but will save you money over time in addition to being a more sustainable practice.

Go Dutch – By which I mean, of course, ride your bicycle. Do you drive to the corner store that’s half a mile away? At a leisurely pace, that only takes 10 minutes to walk. Go by bicycle to get there in just a few minutes. Most trips that Americans take are less than 3 miles. A 3-mile bicycle ride takes around 10-15 minutes, depending on how fast you go.

Take it step-by-step. If you try to change your whole life at once, you’ll just get frustrated and then nothing will change. To really make a difference, you have to really make a change, so set realistic goals for improving your personal sustainability accountability and meet them one at a time. And don’t be surprised if it takes a few weeks to stop making that return-trip from the supermarket to your car to retrieve your forgotten grocery bags from the back seat. It’s all part of the process.

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