Written by Matthew Livingston and originally published at the mattliving.com blog
DISCLAIMER: These are my thoughts and experiences on what can be a deeply cultural, charged and personal topic: diet. There is a lot we don’t know, especially when it comes to what a sustainable diet is. For one, most studies have been centred in high-income Western countries (Jones et al., 2016); it’s also still largely unclear exactly what a “healthy diet” should consist of, nevertheless what a truly sustainable society would look like. Integrating all of these concepts is an enormous challenge.
“Defining what represents a macro-nutritionally balanced diet remains an open question and a high priority in nutrition research.” (Song et al., 2016)
Before coming to the Ranch, I had been vegetarian for about a year and a half, predominantly for environmental reasons. Currently, I would probably classify as a “flexitarian” or “ethical omnivore”, as are most of the denizens here, with the majority of the diet being plant-based. Ideally ~95% of our calories would come from plants, due to extensive research on the health, longevity and environmental benefits of eating a predominantly plant-based diet (1, 2, 3). A 95:5 plant to meat ratio is manifest in all of the Blue Zones (4), examples being Okinawa & Sardinia, where people live the longest and most healthful lives in the world. Allow me to explain how I came to this decision and why I’m sticking with it for now…
My original swap to vegetarianism was influenced by my desire to live “more sustainably”, and healthily, as it is for many people now. I saw the documentary film “Cowspiracy” (bear with me) and this initiated my research into food and agriculture, which carried over into my environmental sustainability degree. It was also enough to shift one of my fundamental behavioural patterns – my diet. It was a little tough going at first, but I soon found that I didn’t miss eating meat much at all. I felt a bit better about myself, “knowing” that I wasn’t contributing as much to global warming, as my research indicated that changing one’s diet can be one of the most impactful ways of reducing your carbon footprint (Aleksandrowicz et al., 2016)…
Fast forward to May 2017, when I travelled to Ridgedale Permaculturefarm in Sweden for my Permaculture Design Course with Richard Perkins. Richard is a proud meat-eater, being particularly fond of freshly line-caught fish, properly cured bacon & sausages, and a nice, juicy steak from locally reared, regeneratively farmed livestock, as viewers of his Youtube channel will know. He was keen to point out that there are in fact “no ecosystems on this planet that exist without animals driving the nutrient cycling” (Perkins, 2016). Ecosystems depend on the cycling of nutrients (and minerals) in order to function, and these nutrients can be accumulated, dispersed and concentrated by animals in such a way as to benefit the whole.
One beautiful example of this is the salmon of British Columbia, that feed the bears, eagles, forests and pretty much everything else that lives there with nitrogen and other accumulated minerals from the ocean when they return to their spawning grounds. Another was the Great Plains of North America, where tens of millions of bison roamed. These prairie lands were extraordinarily diverse habitats for a multitude of co-evolved flora & fauna, micro and macroscopic. Now they have predominantly been turned into endless fields of corn, wheat and soybeans, using fossil-fuel powered machinery and chemicals to maximise profit whilst depleting soil of not only its nutrients, contributing to erosion and nitrogen runoff, but its life too.
Regenerative Agriculture aims to work differently. The challenge is to maintain healthy yields and livelihoods whilst simultaneously enriching soil, biodiversity and ecosystems and improving the system’s ability to regenerate itself. Through various mechanisms, we can actually draw down carbon from the atmosphere and store it in soils and vegetation. What’s more, animals can help achieve this goal. Grazing animals such as bison co-evolved with grasses (which are extremely efficient sunlight accumulators, astronomically more so than our photovoltaic panels), such that massive herds would graze through perennial grasses whilst defecating and trampling the remnants down to create a mulch that left the soil covered, before moving on. The grasses would get a natural fertiliser boost but wouldn’t be eaten down completely, which meant that they could grow back and not have to deplete their soil nutrient reserves. Over time, this kind of rotational grazing, especially when well-managed, can build significant amounts of soil. At Ridgedale, they have employed it, along with other techniques such as Keyline Design, to build over 6 inches of soil in just four seasons. There is even a project called Pleistocene Park in northern Siberia that hopes to repopulate the Mammoth Steppe, which historically supported one of the largest densities of herbivores in history and could function as a massive carbon sink. Surely we need animals as a part of our (agri)culture, then?
Well, you might point out that ruminant animals like cows and sheep that we are now cultivating in extremely large numbers produce methane as a part of their digestion, a greenhouse gas with ~30 times more “global warming potential” than CO2. Greenhouse gas accountancy is a complex topic and there is still significant debate as to whether the sequestered carbon pays off the methane produced during the lifecycle of the animal (see Garnett et al., 2017 & P.P.S.); that said, it’s also possible that the earth historically supported much larger numbers of herbivores, many of which were likely driven extinct by humans thus contributing to ecosystem disruption, as discussed in Sapiens and elsewhere (7, 8).
Another common argument is that eating animals is calorically inefficient when we could eat what we feed them. I would say this is a partially valid point in that animals, especially cattle, often need more land and water to produce than their plant-based counterparts, but it’s less valid when discussing purely grass-fed animals whose rumens are evolutionarily designed to digest grass, which most of us humans obviously don’t do very well; this suggests that if you want to obtain food from a parcel of land that wants to be grassland, you could force it to be not grassland, or you could manage and eat animals that are designed to live in and perpetuate that ecosystem. The Sustainable Food Trust goes so far as to say “the only sustainable way to obtain food from grassland is to graze it with ruminants”, which does sound a bit extreme especially considering that rabbits and geese are just two examples of non-ruminants that can be grass-fed. Livestock especially are getting a lot of bad rap due to the significant environmental damages of deforestation for pasture (an example of forcing an ecosystem to be something it doesn’t want to be) and their methane and nitrous oxide emissions (Steinfield, 2006; Stoll-Kleemann, 2015; many others).
Whilst not negligible, I’m concerned that many of the livestock systems under scrutiny aren’t representative of best-practice regenerative methods and that there is definitely the problem of reducing a living creature to the efficiency metric of its greenhouse gas emissions per kg of meat without considering all of its other beneficial functions and services; this metric has led people to the conclusion that “landless systems” or feedlots are better for the environment (Garnett et al., 2017), despite animal welfare being known to be abysmal and where wastes are concentrated and rarely dealt with properly. These factors go against the principles of regenerative agriculture and thus wouldn’t be allowed to continue; yes, grass-fed cows and other ruminants require more land, but we could limit the amount of land devoted to raising them and thereby reduce the total stock and consumption. In this manner, by allowing animals and ecosystems to express their true functions and behaviours according to the co-evolutionary properties of the animals and their environments, it might be possible for humans to yield ethically sound animal-derived food that positively contributes to the whole-earth system.
There are also a few points I would like to discuss with regards to plant-based (especially vegan) diets. Vegetables and whole grains, which form the staples of most healthful plant-based diets, as well as fruits and nuts, obviously take some amount of energy to produce, thus we need to consider where this energy or fertility comes from. We also need to consider where the dietary fat, protein and vitamin B12 will come from (amongst other nutrients/minerals) when meat is abstained from completely; I believe it is possible to meet your protein needs on a plant-based diet (Ranganathan et al., 2016), but doing so in the dead of winter in a temperature climate in a sustainable manner might be more difficult (are the Inuits an unsustainable people?)
Even the “most sustainable”farming methods I am aware of (which may or may not be organic certified) acknowledge that the inputs to grow food ultimately have to come from biological nitrogen fixation, conversion via animals, or inorganic elements (chemicals). For example, compost is vital to almost all organic, traditional and regenerative farms, and often incorporates animal manure, which adds additional nitrogen and biology to the soil and ultimately to the plants. The only exceptions I can think of to this would be Jean-Pain compost (which uses only wood chips and water) and Masanobu Fukuoka style rice and winter wheat cultivation, where the straw from the previous crop was left on the field as mulch and nutrients. Even the ancient and incredibly successful Meso-american Chinampas systems, as well as the rice cultivating nations of China, South Korea and Japan, have utilised ferti-irrigation techniques comprised predominantly of the wastes of fish as nutrients. Thus, since no sustainable farming methods can use inorganic chemicals derived from fossil fuels, most consumers that eat a purely plant-based diet are still deriving their nutrients from (the functioning and inclusion of) animals… Perhaps the question then becomes can, should and how would we integrate animals into our farming systems without eating them?
I’m still considering the implications of these questions and my position on the frequency and type of my animal consumption. We’ve had four “Pig Parties” in the four months I’ve been here at the Ranch, and chicken about once a week on average, all of which was reared and slaughtered locally in Mastatal. This corresponds pretty well to a 95:5 plant:meat ratio (see P.P.P.S.). For the first of the two pigs I visited the farm where it lived, died and bore witness to how it was processed; for the second we had an intro on how to properly butcher a pig. I think this is a crucial missing link for the majority of meat consumers and we need to continue building awareness of the realities of industrial slaughterhouses. Both of the animals I visited lived outdoors in tropical home gardens, feeding on bananas and other food scraps, although I’ve now been told it’s likely they were fed some concentrated feed. Pigs will eat just about anything, including chickens – they are probably the ultimate organic material recycling animal. Feeding farm animals to other farm animals is illegal in many parts of the world, but we need to always be searching for ways to turn “waste” into food, and pigs are one effective way of doing so. They in turn provide manure to feed back into the ecosystem and, when the time is right, are themselves converted into protein, fat and flavour for dozens of people for multiple meals. They can also provide piglets so that the system can continue, perhaps indefinitely. Without pigs in this system, you would have to replace the dietary protein and fat, which in our climate would likely come from more annual beans and palm oil from cleared forest land, as well as find another method of recycling the food scraps (vermi-compost is great, but doesn’t provide food in return).
Based on this discussion, I would like to present my initial take on a scale to classify diets based on their ability to be sustained, from best to worst:
- Local regenerative
- Local organic certified
- Non-local regenerative
- Non-local organic certified (many vegetarians/vegans in cities)
- Local conventional
- Non-local conventional (most consumers)
Where locality is on a scale from hyper-local (within 5km), to local (within 50km), to regional (within 250km), to non-local (further than 250km). Another important variable that goes hand-in-hand with locality is seasonality. Thus a checklist for regenerative dietary choices might be something like:
- Is it local? (as the crow flies to place of origin): <=5km — <=50km — <=250km — >250km — Don’t know
- Does it come from your garden, your nearest farmer, your nearest market, or another country?
- Is it in season?: Yes — No — Don’t know
- Are you regularly eating avocado, chocolate or coffee in winter in a temperate climate? What can you eat and drink locally and seasonally to replace imported goods you habitually desire?
- Are you consuming fermented foods and beverages? The Japanese have one of the strongest food cultures (called Washoku 和食) and longest lived people in the world, and 5/6 of their staple food ingredients are fermented foods. Fermentation is not only extremely beneficial for your health, but ties in beautifully with preserving the abundance of the harvest.
- Was it produced regeneratively?
- Did it build soil and/or sequester carbon?: Yes — No — Don’t know
- Did its production support local farmer(s)/community? Yes — No — Don’t know
- Did it use no chemicals and no or very little fossil-fuel powered machinery in its production? Yes — No — Don’t know
It is my guess that many consumers would tick No or Don’t Know for every field, whilst falling into the worst category (non-local conventional). We need to shift first from ignorance to awareness before we can shift to understanding and action – behavioural change is flipping hard! All I can say right now is the link between diet and planetary health is crucial in navigating our transition towards a sustainable prosperity.
Let me be clear: plant-based diets are absolutely a big part of the solution, and there are many cases (including the average Western diet) where meat consumption should be reduced, but nevertheless animals aren’t the enemy. Vegans, vegetarians and ethical omnivores have a common enemy, and that is industrial agriculture (especially feedlots, which are completely awful). Meat in moderation, i.e. Meat Mondays as opposed to Meatless Mondays, may be a way forward for many people, rather than jumping straight to 100% plant-based diets based on quinoa and avocados shipped in from someplace slightly more exotic. I think this better follows the Transition Ethic that Rob Hopkins thoroughly emphasises via the Transition Network, by meeting people where they’re at – there is an irrepressible demand for meat due to complex sociocultural factors that will take time to shift away from, but if we can make ethical compromises that simultaneously shift mindsets, we will be well on our way to a more symbiotic relationship between humans and Nature.
May The Triforce (Plants, Animals and Fungi!) Be With You!
P.S. Follow the debate here, and here.
P.P.S. For the adventurous you can read my Regenerative Agriculture Brief and explore the references there too!
P.P.P.S. Three meals a day with chicken for 52 meals and pork for 12 meals in a year = (365*3-(52+12))/(365*3)*100 = 94.2%.
References, a.k.a. some of the things I’ve read:
- Aleksandrowicz, L. et al., 2016. The Impacts of Dietary Change on Greenhouse Gas Emissions , Land Use , Water Use , and Health : A Systematic Review.
- Badgley, C. et al., 2017. Organic agriculture and the global food supply.
- Beuttner, D. & Skemp, S., 2016. Blue Zones: Lessons From the World’s Longest Lived. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, vol. 10 • no. 5.
- Davis, K.F. et al., 2016. Meeting future food demand with current agricultural resources.
Garnett, T. et al., 2017. Grazed and Confused? Ruminating on cattle, grazing systems, methane, nitrous oxide, the soil carbon sequestration question – and what it all means for greenhouse gas emissions. FCRN, University of Oxford.
- Gephart, J.A. et al., 2016. The environmental cost of subsistence : Optimizing diets to minimize footprints.
- Hathaway, M.D., 2016. Agroecology and permaculture : addressing key ecological problems by rethinking and redesigning agricultural systems.
- Jones et al., 2016. A Systematic Review of the Measurement of Sustainable Diets.
- Perignon, M., et al., 2017. Improving diet sustainability through evolution of food choices: review of epidemiological studies on the environmental impact of diets.
- Perkins, R., 2016. Making Small Farms Work: A Pragmatic Whole Systems Approach to Profitable Regenerative Agriculture.
- Ranganathan, J. et al., 2016. Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Future. World Resources Institute.
- Reay, D.S. et al., 2012. Global agriculture and nitrous oxide emissions. Nature Climate Change, 2(6), pp.410–416.
- Smith, P.S. et al., 2014. AR5, WG3, Ch 11, Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU). Ar5, Wg3, pp.811–922.
- Song, M., et al., 2016. Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality.
- Steinfield, H.G., 2006. Livestock’s role in climate change and air pollution. Livestock’s Long Shadow. Environmental Issues and Options, pp.79–123. Available at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM.
- Stoll-Kleemann, S. & O’Riordan, T., 2015. The Sustainability Challenges of Our Meat and Dairy Diets.
- Weber, C.L. & Matthews, H.S., 2008. Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. Environmental Science and Technology, 42(10), pp.3508–3513.
- West el al., 2015. Leverage points for improving global
food security and the environment.