It’s amazing how quiet the nutrition community has been about sustainability issues, especially in light of the Paris Climate Summit currently taking place. Dead air.
The real food movement has an incredible opportunity to have a massive impact not only on human health, but in reversing some of the devastating effects our food production has had on the planet.
Let me back up for a second. Recently, I attended the Paleo Primal Price Foundation’s (P3) inaugural conference where I presented a keynote speech entitled “Sustainability > Dogma”. I’m a huge fan of the real food movements coming together under one large umbrella and hope this new group moves forward in a positive way. They began this new nonprofit as a spin-off from the Weston A. Price (WAPF) organization, citing irreconcilable differences with WAPF’s leader, Sally Fallon. Among the complaints the P3 founders have are Ms. Fallon’s inability to look at the research presented regarding Green Pastures Fermented Cod Liver Oil, done by Dr. Kayla Daniel. And while she did present a compelling case as to why the product is likely not fermented, nor actually made from cod, I am hoping that this issue is put to bed now, and that P3 can look toward the future. Others in the real food community have also posted about Dr. Daniel’s results. Read Chris Kresser’s interpretation on the Cod Liver Oil here.
The next day, I sat in on a town hall style meeting where small groups were asked to critique the P3 mission and principles, and vote on board members. My small, 6-member group took strong issue with the fact that they seem stuck on the past and the negative association with WAPF, as well as the fact that they are overly reliant on Dr. Price’s philosophy. If they are to truly consider themselves “Paleo, Primal AND Price”, then surely some nod to evolutionary biology or science should be mentioned in their mission, not simply relying on one guru. It felt more like the formation of a new religion to me than a nutritional organization. Nutrition is a science, not a religion. Also missing from the mission is what they are actually going to DO. I saw no mention of “education” or “teaching” or “spreading scientific knowledge”. To our group, it seemed that the mission should have an action. Finally, all but one of the 13 candidates running for the four board slots had two minutes to present themselves (one person had to leave the conference early). I was disappointed that one of the candidates, Eric Garza, who has a PhD (studying energy systems and heterodox economics), and teaches courses on “The Real Cost of Food” didn’t make the board. He seemed incredibly knowledgeable. A few of the candidates voted on appeared to have very little experience or much to offer in a positive way. I sincerely hope that this group does not become a bitter “WAPF 2.0”, but instead, can move past its reasons for conception and truly embrace evolutionary biology and science, and in so doing, include those in the paleo and primal camps. Again, nutrition is a science, not a religion.
My keynote speech was about the Anthropocene, which means “The Age of Men”, and is now considered the geologic time we are currently living in. Our geological footprint is visible – we have permanently altered the earth. Pollution from plastics and rising levels of CO2 are a reality. We have altered Earth’s natural cycles. If we do not do something right now (and some think it’s too late) we’re doomed. In the Anthropocene, nutritional dogmas don’t matter. Egos and gurus don’t matter. We need to stop infighting about macronutrients and superfoods and start joining forces to encourage regenerative practices.
What We’re Up Against:
What the real food movements all have in common is the belief that highly processed, hyper-palatable junk food and factory-farming have no place in our diets. They are unsustainable for human health and the environment. These foods are possible, in part, because of cheap oil and ignorance. We cannot continue to accept nutritional information from corporations, and the USDA, which are in the business of supporting factory-farming practices based on their reliance on cheap oil.
What is Real Food?
Real food must support human health, and be ecologically sustainable. Moving beyond those two factors, we must also look at food that gives back to local communities, food that is humane both to animals and to those who produce it. Human rights within the entire food chain are critical (farm workers, processors, cooks, servers, etc.). Real food does not poison the environment or those who live near its production. Real food must not rely on a non-renewable resource for its production and transport, but be regionally grown. Bananas are the #1 consumed fruit in America, and they don’t even grow here!
What Needs to be Done:
It’s time the Paleo lifestyle realizes that in order to move forward with our food movement, we need to make lasting changes. Meatless Mondays are not going to change our food system. Vegetarians are not going to change how meat is produced. Eating a sustainable diet means looking at animals raised outside the factory-farming system, and eating produce that is minimally processed and has not traveled long distances to reach your door.
A New Call to Action:
-> Eat food that is minimally processed and has not traveled long distances to get to your table.
->Buy your produce from local farmers who use organic growing techniques vs. large factory farms.
->Develop, practice and share your cooking skills with your friends and community.
->When eating out, choose restaurants that serve freshly prepared meals and support local farmers (where there are actual people cooking in the back of the house).
->Support the work of organizations that protect our right to choose who we purchase food from (like the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund) and who teach farmers regenerative techniques (like The Savory Institute). Both of these organizations have conferences and we NEED more people from the real food movement showing up at them.
->If you’re a food blogger, share more photos from farmers markets. How about some selfies with your farmer, or goat perhaps? Do more to promote the idea that we need to be buying our food from local sources that practice sustainable growing methods. Talk more about the benefits of eating sustainably raised meat and how your followers can vote with their dollar.
->Spend a day or more volunteering on a farm, learn how to slaughter your own chickens, or even hunt your own meat to better learn about how your food is produced/raised/slaughtered/lived.
->Grow your own food and focus primarily on cooking with seasonal produce (Hey, I wrote a great book about this!)
Before you slam me with all kinds of negative comments about how elitist this sounds, how expensive responsibly raised meat (and meat in general) is, and why you should not eat meat when there’s no need to intentionally kill an animal for food, let me head you off at the pass:
Wait, this sounds elitist!
Yes, there are many groups that would like you to think that eating food produced without harm to the environment or human health is an elitist act. This is absolute nonsense. There are tons of front groups that have a strong influence among politicians and bloggers such as “The Alliance for Better Foods” that practice “Astroturfing”. They argue that we must have GMOs in order to feed our growing population, or that “balance” in our foods (including the consumption of sugar-laden sodas) is an important part of our diet. They help craft the image that caring about food production is elitist. Don’t buy into this! Choosing to spend your money on real food is responsible. (click here for more information on companies that “Astroturf”.)
But it’s So Expensive!
There are other costs that are hidden in the production highly processed food. Consider the resources needed to produce a product like Tofurky. There’s the fossil fuels needed to fertilize and make herbicides to grow the soy and wheat. Then there’s the water needed to irrigate these crops. You then have to use more fossil fuels to harvest and transport the raw materials to a processing facility. This facility is made of concrete, steel, and uses florescent lights, and is probably not powered with solar energy. The processing requires lots of energy and water. The product is then packaged in plastic, stored in energy-requiring climate-control. It is then shipped to stores, using more fossil fuel. What isn’t sold is wasted. What is sold, sells for about $4.49/5.5 oz package or about $1.22 per ounce.
Let’s compare that to some grass-fed beef. The average price according to the USDA is $8.77 per pound. That’s $0.55 per ounce. That’s $0.67 LESS than TOFURKY.
What are the inputs for beef?
How can a product like Tofurky possibly be a better option than grass-fed beef when it comes to protein? Beef has more protein per ounce and requires fewer non-renewable resources. “Typical” beef requires approximately 410 gallons of water to produce, according to this study from UC Davis. In Nicolette Hahn Niman’s book, Defending Beef, she explains that the amount of water for grass-fed beef is closer to 100 gallons per pound to produce. Rice production also requires about 410 gallons, and avocadoes, walnuts and sugar are similarly high in water requirements. I don’t see anyone saying that we need to reduce our rice consumption because of its water impact. Also, when you compare both the nutritional benefits of grass-fed beef and its positive impact on our soils, beef wins hands down. Properly raised herbivores produce urine and manure, which go back into the soil as fertilizer. Their grazing triggers new grass growth. Their trampling on the ground (when managed properly) along with their manure and grazing actually help sequester carbon. This is so much better for our soils (and for our health) than the factory production of fake meat-like products made from mono-cropped grains.
There’s another environmental benefit to consuming pastured-raised animals: they do not need to compete with humans for cropland. Goats, pigs, chickens, cows, and many other animals can thrive on marginal land that is unsuitable for vegetable or grain production.
But I don’t want to kill an animal if I don’t need to!
I really do understand where vegetarians and vegans are coming from when they make the moral argument that no animals should have to die to feed us. It’s a compelling point, for sure. However, what they often don’t realize is that many animals are still dying to feed them.
In 2003, Steven L. Davis of Oregon State University published an article in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics whose thesis was stated in its title: “The Least Harm Principle May Require that Humans Consume a Diet Containing Large Herbivores, Not a Vegan Diet.” In it, Davis explains that many insects, field mice, birds, and frogs are killed by intensive crop production. If all of the 120 million hectares (about 300 million acres) of cropland harvested in the US each year were used to grow foods suitable for a vegan diet, Davis estimates, 1.8 billion animals would be killed annually to support a plant-based diet. The exact figure may be debatable because there’s little data on exactly how many mice, birds, frogs, and other field animals are in each hectare, but the point remains: the vegan diet is not a bloodless one.
It’s fair to ask if there’s a difference between killing field animals like bunnies, field mice, gophers, raccoons in order to consume a vegan diet, and killing farm animals like chickens, pigs, sheep, and cows to consume an omnivore diet. But if our goal is simply to minimize the number of animal deaths, then the more moral choice is to consume larger herbivores, like cows, that have been raised on pasture instead of grains, so that fewer fields need to be cultivated and fewer field animals are killed.
The animal’s quality of life is also important to consider. Was that pig raised in confinement on a cement floor, or was it allowed to “express its pigness,” as Joel Salatin would say, and given space to roam, romp, and play? Was it treated well and respected when it died? Did it suffer, or was its slaughter humane? If we want to make a moral choice about eating meat, we need to think about these questions and seek out humanely raised meat. Labels like “Animal Welfare Approved” and other independent certifications for humanely raised meat are starting to make that a bit easier.
Finally, it’s simply not possible to have a healthy vegetable farm without any animal inputs. We need decomposing animal products for healthy soil. We need animals’ poop, urine, blood, and bones for vital bacteria, calcium, nitrogen, iron, and other elements required for life. Grazing animals provide all of this.
When I post on social media about baby goats, I get an incredible number of likes – but if I post about something really important, like how critical it is that we address pollution, food waste, or factory farming, I’ll get maybe one or two likes.
Help me out, folks. Please consider caring less about how you look naked, how many carbs are in your “paleo brownies”, or whose dogma within the real food community is “more right” than someone else’s.
The fact is, we just don’t know as much about nutrition as we think we do. People are different. Some people can handle a little gluten or a very low carb diet, other’s can’t. A diet isn’t going to work for someone if they’re not going to follow it. Some people are able to spend more time in the kitchen, others are working three jobs and are simply just trying to make it day to day. There is so much about the microbiome, individual variability, and the context of their own situation (stress, sleep, genetics) that it makes no sense to follow a guru making sweeping generalizations about a very specific macronutrient ratio for all the people. Let’s start with a baseline real food diet, eliminating likely causes of inflammation for 30 days, and move on from there, going with what works for the individual.
Let’s move on from infighting and consider the bigger picture of how our food is produced. We need to shift our focus. We need more talk by food bloggers about food politics. We need more people to care. Climate change is important. Your abs are not.