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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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A Fresh Start

snowdrop-147871_1280It’s been a long time since I’ve published a new blog post. More than 2.5 years, in fact! During that time, I’ve done loads of research and learning, all of which has led me back to one particular change that anyone and everyone can make in order to substantially reduce your carbon footprint as well as your personal contributions to environmental degradation & species extinction, while significantly improving your odds against nearly all of the leading causes of death. It’s an idea whose time has come. And, when you realize the incredible extent of the ramifications of this issue, you begin to see that it presents just as much of a social justice issue as equality of the sexes and eliminating racism.

So, I’ve decided not only to start posting again (now that I finally have some time on my hands!), but also to make a change in the trajectory. The foundation remains very much focused on sustainability, but I will begin to hone in on this one change that has the largest impact on the earth and all its inhabitants – including us humans.

Last October (2015), I went from being pescetarian to vegan – in other words, I adopted a completely plant-based lifestyle. The motivations for making this change are many, and part of what I want to do here is to share them, for those who are not yet aware of the health and environmental benefits. For many people, even if you’re already convinced that it’s the right thing to do, actually making the shift can be an overwhelming proposition, so I also aim to share my experiences, the challenges I face living in a community in which veganism is almost unheard of, what I learn as I go, and anything that might be helpful in transitioning towards the vegan lifestyle. I also welcome questions, concerns, and requests.

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An Unsustainable Food Supply

Fur trappers and traders who came to North America in the 1600s and 1700s had to eat what they could forage and catch. Rabbits were plentiful in many regions at that time, and so they formed the bulk of some trappers’ diets. Those trappers who relied too heavily on rabbit meat often died of malnutrition. Rabbit meat takes more calories to procure than you get back from eating it. That balance is unsustainable, and yet it is exactly how the U.S. food system works.

A little bit of math

It takes approximately 10 calories worth of fossil fuels to produce and transport 1 calorie of food. That means, for a family of four with a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet, 930 gallons of gas per year will be required to produce and transport their food, not including that family driving to and from the grocery store. Since the average household in the U.S. consumes somewhere around 1,000 gallons of gas per year, the way we manage our food supply nearly doubles the already ridiculous amount of fuel each person is responsible for consuming. That kind of imbalance on a personal level will eventually kill you, and what we’re seeing on a national level is no different.

Approximately 15% of the energy supply in the United States goes into crop production, livestock production, food processing, and packaging. A Cornell University professor of ecology and agricultural science did the math for what that means for the big picture: if all of humanity were to go about food production the way the U.S. does, we would exhaust all known fossil fuel reserves in seven years. Wow, that’s wasteful!

Agricultural practices contribute greatly to global warming. Because of the complexity of the problem and the multitude of factors, it’s difficult to arrive at an accurate number, but it’s thought that approximately 33% of contributions to climate change are a direct result of the food supply system. Some of the factors are farm machinery, petroleum-based chemicals used in synthetic fertilizers, the manufacturing processes for agro-chemicals and fertilizers, the processing of major crops like corn and soy into a vast array of derived products, and the distribution over long distances of everything, including the final output. Animal agriculture itself accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions (18%) than all transportation in the globe (14%). (Others argue that the figure of 18% allows a large number of unallocated emissions that are really due to animal agriculture, bringing the figure up to 51% – read more here.)

Let’s take school lunches as an example, if only because a) they need to change anyway as they’re incredibly unhealthy for our children, and b) I can quote directly from an article by Tom Starrs, VP and COO of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation:

“According to 2005 USDA National School Lunch Program participation figures, 29.6 million American school children were served nearly five billion meals at school last year. Typically these meals are highly processed, filled with conditioners, preservatives, dyes, salts, artificial flavors, and sweeteners. Usually they’re individually portioned and packaged, and travel thousands of miles to the school cafeteria.

School meals are commonly delivered frozen, wrapped and sealed in energy-consumptive packaging, and in need of some interval in a warming oven to thaw before being served to students. Studies of packaging and plate waste in school cafeterias indicate that, every day, as much as half, by weight, of these hasty, unappetizing, low-nutrient, highly processed and packaged meals is tossed by students — unopened, un”appreciated”, untasted, unrecycled and uncomposted. The energy needed to collect and transport the waste generated by school lunch must also be added to the net energy embedded in the meal.”

This is no different from food in the grocery store, which travels hundreds if not thousands of miles to get there, and is wastefully packaged to boot.

It’s the Monsanto monster again

A huge amount of agriculture and food supply mismanagement can be traced back to Monsanto & friends. The federal government has been convinced by lobbyists and money to subsidize over-production of monoculture crops such as corn and soy. They are genetically modified crops, grown in petroleum-based synthetic fertilizer, drenched in herbicides and insecticides, then either fed to cattle who can’t digest them or highly processed before going into your own food. Monsanto & friends get extremely-well paid, while you and I foot the bill, twice – once in our tax dollars funding their subsidies and once for increasingly expensive health care to treat our inevitable diet-related illnesses.

Farmers growing fruits and vegetables that are fit for human consumption don’t receive subsidies. It’s really an upside-down system. We should be able to offer farmers subsidies to protect them from a year of drought, blight, etc., but not for purposeful overproduction of nutritionally useless and environmentally damaging crops that serve no purpose but to line the pockets of those in charge of unethical corporations.

Tipping point

With a rising global population, increases in droughts and flooding, and a beautiful planet that can’t take much more of what we’re throwing at her, we absolutely have to make our system more sustainable and energy-efficient if we’re going to survive. None of us can implement that change alone, but we can each make choices in our daily lives that will contribute, and we can urge others to do the same. If enough of us care and get involved, we can and will reach a tipping point where the system will have to change. It’s a top-down problem that we need to try to solve from the bottom-up. We all have to get involved. Buy local as much as possible. Go to farmer’s markets. Grow your own vegetables at home. Start to think about the net energy that goes into your food and the waste that results. Start or get involved in a local community garden, farm-to-school program, or food forest project. Above all, teach your children!

Biotecture

Earthships: hokey name, rad idea

The idea is this (quoted directly from their website):  to have a home that “causes no conflict, no stress, no depletion, no trauma to the planet earth. Just as the human body is a result of the various systems that support it – (circulatory systems, nervous systems, respiratory systems, etc…) so must the Earthship be a product of the systems that support it. In view of this, we have made the Earthship systems both understandable and available to the common everyday human. Systems are generally 25 percent of the construction cost of a home, providing little to no utility bills every month.”

click to enlarge

They’re built entirely from natural and recycled materials, including dirt, tires, and glass bottles. They collect and filter rainwater, making it potable. Electricity is supplied by solar and wind power. There are built-in greenhouses to grow food year-round, and other plants help out with certain aspects of home maintenance. They’re not expensive to build and cost almost nothing to live in.

Probably the most interesting thing about the design is the way the walls are built and how efficient they are at maintaining a comfortable indoor temperature regardless of what’s going on outside. Large, south-facing windows allow the sun to come in and hit the ‘thermal mass’ i.e. the structure of the house, which is composed of car tires filled with compacted dirt. They act like a heat sink, trapping heat, and releasing it slowly if the air cools, reabsorbing it if it gets hot again, keeping your home at a happy 70 degrees (21 C). And you don’t need a team of experts. You can do it yourself. Pretty damn cool, huh?

The other half of the equation

The environment isn’t the only consideration when we talk about sustainability. The way we live our lives should also be psychologically sustainable, not just for you personally, but in a way that doesn’t have a negative effect on future generations. Too many people work jobs they don’t enjoy, or work 2 jobs just to be able to afford all the bills. As a society, we lose out on what those people would have had to offer if they were relaxed and inspired instead of stressed and run-down.

The focus of earthships is really on living in symbiosis with the natural environment, but think of the effects that this kind of architectural ideology would also have on the inhabitants. Parent’s would have more time to teach and support their kids. Without having to worry about where food is coming from or who’s paying the bills, you have a greatly increased ability to engage in projects and activities that interest you and that could be of benefit to society as a whole. These homes bring their inhabitants self-sufficiency.

Self-sufficiency brings self-determination. And that’s something we’ve lost hold of and NEED to get back for ourselves. These buildings do that for you by being “radically sustainable.”

Just to be clear, this isn’t where you go out in the desert or the woods, build yourself a hut with sticks and hunt your dinner. You have modern appliances and comforts, you just do it in a way that’s sustainable and doesn’t require your participation in global destruction on a massive scale.

And what are the sacrifices you have to make? You can’t use more energy than you can produce, but you already know, deep down, that you really shouldn’t be watching Jersey Shore, anyway. If you’re thinking about building your own home, this is definitely something to consider.

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