Tag Archives: sustainability

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.

vegan-1343429_1920

Advertisements

Every bite counts: Parts 3 & 4.

Part 3. The People.

staples-2752_640Feeding the world is easy, and we don’t need Monsanto to do it. Did you know that there’s enough crop land in the United States alone to feed 10 billion people? One country could potentially feed the entire global population. So, why aren’t we? Because that only works if we’re not wasting our resources on animal agriculture in all its caloric inefficiency.

One acre of land can produce 40,000 lbs of potatoes, but only 250 lbs of meat.

One acre of legumes produces 10 times more protein than an acre devoted to animals raised for their meat.

70% of the grains produced in the U.S. go to feeding animals raised for food, instead of being grown for people. 80% of the world’s hungry children live in countries with food surpluses, but that food is exported to wealthier countries in order to feed animals that will be used for food. It doesn’t get more unjust than that. “Growing grain for feed instead of food may be humanity’s greatest evil yet.”

Artist: Lovis CorinthThose are all issues that you’ll hear every vegan raise. There is, I feel, a missed opportunity in the vegan movement – people that almost never get mentioned in the discussion on the human victims of this system: slaughterhouse employees. I start out with the assumption that most people who work in slaughterhouses do so because it’s the only, or one of the only, options open to them. This will be the topic of another post in the future. For the moment, suffice it to say that one of the first signs of psychopathy in children is harming animals, so why is it considered normal for someone to kill (certain) animals as an adult? Only because we don’t think about it. Society sweeps that bit under the carpet. Many slaughterhouse workers develop serious mental disorders, including PTSD, from the work that they do, and U.S. communities with slaughterhouses have 166% increase in arrests for rape compared to those without them. It is NOT normal.

The next time you buy a piece of meat, just take a moment to wonder who you paid to kill it for you and what kind of effect your demand for that piece of meat might be having on someone else’s mental health.

Part 4. The Animals.

sheep-451981_640To be honest, this is a much more important issue for me now than it was when I first decided to change to a vegan lifestyle. The environmental and health factors were enough. But, since I’m no longer emotionally invested in the ramifications of being a meat, dairy, & egg consumer, I’ve been able to mentally shine a light on those aspects of consuming animal products that were just too disturbing and painful for me to really evaluate while I was still participating in them. For anyone who has shut off that portion of your ability to deal rationally with the consequences of your actions – I get it!

Empathy is a difficult skill to develop and use because it requires that we open ourselves up to feeling pain and sorrow on behalf of others, and most of us have enough trouble dealing with our own suffering without adding to the burden. In this particular case, it also opens us up to feeling guilt, which is an unpleasant but necessary step on this path. Just remember, pain, physical or emotional, exists in order to help us avoid unhealthy behaviors.

It just doesn’t make sense that we love our dogs and cats like members of our own families, and recognize their individual personalities and their rights as living beings, while treating others as products. There’s some massive cognitive dissonance there, and it takes time to be able to confront that. If you haven’t yet watched anything like the documentary Earthlings, then whatever you imagine the treatment of these animals to be like, you can start by multiplying the horror by 10 to even get close. More than 2000 years ago, Pythagoras said,”For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seeds of murder and pain cannot reap the joy of love.”

In the end, I realized that living as a vegan is the only way for me to align my actions with my ethics.

Save yourself. Save the planet. Save the human race. Save the animals. Go vegan.

vegan-1343429_1920

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

vegan-1343429_1920

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.

vegan-1343429_1920

The Trouble with Antibiotics

The World Health Organization published an admonishment in 2012, called ‘The evolving threat of antimicrobial resistance – Options for action.’ It’s been largely ignored by policy-makers in the United States, but it’s time we start paying attention, because our behavior is contributing in a big way to this threat, and it will affect people all over the world, including ourselves.

A recent study by the CDC (who is also being ignored by the policy-makers, by the way) found that there is a link between use of antibiotics in livestock and antimicrobial resistance in human infections. The study also put a number on them for the first time – more than 23,000 deaths and well over 2 million antibiotic-resistant infections in one year. You can read an article on the report here.

You may have heard people talking, perhaps on the news, about how we need to scale back on our use of antibiotics for our own ailments – true, they are over-prescribed, but that tactic completely misses 70% of the antibiotics used the U.S., which go to livestock. The way animals are raised in feedlots is bad bad bad for a number of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with animal rights. It’s bad for us, too.

Pile_of_manure_on_a_field

So how did E. coli, which grows in the guts of some animals, like cows, get on your spinach? I’ll give you a hint…

Animals raised in crowded conditions are far more likely to get sick, so they’re fed a constant low-level stream of antibiotics, some of which are also used to treat human infections. That constitutes the perfect condition for bacteria and other microbes to rapidly (in evolutionary terms) develop resistance to the antibiotics. The reason they can develop resistance so quickly is partly because they can pass on resistant genes within a generation via plasmid exchange (i.e. direct cell-to-cell contact). This is a quote from the article linked to above:

“The link between overuse of antibiotics in livestock and microbial resistance has been suspected since the 1960s, but Congress, at the behest of the pharmaceutical and livestock industries, has blocked efforts by the Food and Drug Administration to scale back their use.”

click to enlarge

I’d say that’s far too long a time to allow this dangerous behavior to continue, and we’re now reaching a moment in history that could have devastating effects for future generations, and even during our own lifetimes.  Here are a few of the recommendations that the WHO makes in their document:

4. USE OF ANTIMICROBIALS IN FOOD-PRODUCING ANIMALS
4.1 Require obligatory prescriptions for all antimicrobials used for disease control in food animals.
4.2 In the absence of a public health safety evaluation, terminate or rapidly phase out the use of antimicrobials for growth promotion if they are also used for treatment of humans.
4.3 Create national systems to monitor antimicrobial usage in food animals.
4.4 Introduce pre-licensing safety evaluation of antimicrobials with consideration of potential resistance to human drugs.
4.5 Monitor resistance to identify emerging health problems and take timely corrective actions to protect human health.
4.6 Develop guidelines for veterinarians to reduce overuse and misuse of antimicrobials in food animals.
5. NATIONAL GOVERNMENTS AND HEALTH SYSTEMS
5.1 Make the containment of antimicrobial resistance a national priority.

(The evolving threat of antimicrobial resistance – full text pdf of the WHO document)

click to enlarge

If we look at the big picture, we can easily see how devastating it will be if bacteria and other microbes that infect humans and animals develop resistance to multiple antibiotics (what we call ‘superbugs’). It would set medicine back significantly – the risk of infection would be far too high, making routine surgeries and other invasive procedures, down to the simple catheter, fraught with danger.

That is not the world I want to live in. One more reason to support local, organic, and rethink our entire food system. One more reason to be vegan. One more reason to be active in voicing opposition to a corrupt Congress.

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.

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

click to enlarge

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.

%d bloggers like this: