Recently, I received an email from Food Democracy Now urging me to tell President Obama to support the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s recommendation to include sustainability and issue clear guidance for reduced consumption of animal products and more plant-based foods in the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
What is your definition of sustainable?
In theory, including sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines (the food pyramid) is a fantastic idea. The problem is when you start to define sustainability in regards to food. My husband and I manage a small-scale farm where participate in the National Organic Program in raising vegetables and berries and we raise chickens, sheep, goats and pigs according to the principles of the Federal Organic Standards. To me, “sustainable” means farming in a way that requires as little input and has the least impact on the land as possible. The broader sense of “sustainable food” includes other aspects of the business including: producing safe and nutritious food, paying workers a fair wage and treating them with dignity, humane treatment of animals, protecting the wild habitats and preserving biodiversity, financially sustainability , and educates our future generation.
Here is a paragraph from the sample letter provided by Food Democracy Now:
“How food is produced also has a big impact on public health and the environment. More sustainable and humane food production methods that do not rely on the routine use of antibiotics, hormones, chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides are better for the environment and public health.”
The above statement sounds great, except the letter also says this:
“There is a strong body of scientific evidence showing that a diet with less meat and more plant-based foods is better for our health and the health of the planet.” (no scientific citations provided)
The Food Democracy Now blog post about this topic goes onto say:
“The science is clear: a diet with less factory-farmed meat and more sustainable plant-based foods is better for our health, our pocketbooks and the planet. And eating more locally- and organically-produced foods — from both plant and animal sources — is even better” (no scientific citations provided)
The truth is, there are no randomized control or double-blind, placebo-controlled trials comparing a “healthy” (no processed foods) plant-based diet to a similar diet with the addition of sustainably-produced meat. The only studies that exist compare vegetarian or vegan diets to a standard american diet (i.e. junk food). When you compare someone who eats fast food, soda, fries and burgers to someone who eats lots of kale you will find the person eating the kale generally has better cholesterol and other markers. There needs to be several well designed studies on diets void of processed foods with sustainably-raised meat and ones without, over a series of years, in order to prove that meat alone is the culprit to our growing obesity and other health epidemics.
The nutritional argument for eating sustainably raised meat:
Meat is more satiating (1) and bioavailable as a protein than plants to humans (2). Yes, your heart can beat if you do not have meat in your diet, but animal protein is a far more absorbable protein to humans. In addition, in order to derive the same amount of protein from animal products, you have to eat many more calories of plant based foods (3). With the overconsumption of calories and specifically carbohydrates causing so many health problems across America, it makes sense not to push a diet that has excess calories.
Plants are also laking in key nutrients, which must be supplemented by individuals consuming a plant-based diet. I know many readers are going to comment on this post saying that they lost lots of weight and feel amazing once they turned vegan. Yes, I agree that temporarily you can feel fantastic, and for most people, their cholesterol and other blood markers will show great improvement. However, consider what you’re cutting out when doing a plant-based cleanse diet: the processed foods, sugars, and possibly a lot of alcohol that you consumed when you were eating your old diet. Once these nutritionally-void foods are removed, it’s easy to feel good. After some time though, your body’s need for protein growers stronger. Your body can start to lose muscle tissue and health problems start to arise. Anemia, Vitamin D, B12, Calcium and other mineral deficiencies can also arise from a diet lacking animal-based protein.
The environmental reason to eat sustainably-raised meat:
Contrary to what most urban, disconnected-from-nature folks think, you absolutely NEED animals to grow vegetables in a sustainable way. You need their blood, bones, and poop to feed the soil. The only alternative is to use chemical fertilizers, which end up in the water, poisoning our rivers and lakes. On a conventional vegetable farm, chemical herbicides are also used. These have devastating effects on butterflies, bees, songbirds, frogs, and countless other animals. Additionally, large mono-cropped fields of grains and vegetables destroy the habitat of numerous animals, leaving them nowhere else to build nests or find their optimal foods. This is the main problem with GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms). The GMO plants are resistant to many of the harsh chemicals so farmers can liberally spray toxic chemicals without damaging their crop. The result is damage to everything else: the weeds, the soil, the insects, the birds, the frogs, and because these large doses of chemicals invisibly wind up on the unblemished crop, we unknowingly consume them in large quantities. Chemicals like glyphosate have been shown in studies to contribute numerous poor health outcomes. (4)(5)(6)
The argument that Food Democracy Now makes in the letter is to eat a more plant-based diet. The problem with this is that they do not define what type of farming these plants are supposed to come from. A diet rich in mono cropped, GMO grains and vegetables is not a sustainable one for the environment or for our health.
Farming is a natural system. We need both plants and animals to produce healthy food. Our bodies also need both plants and animal based inputs in order to thrive. We need more REAL FOOD. The argument to eat a more plant-based diet in order to be more sustainable is based on false logic.
The moral issue:
I need to address the moral issue of “killing”, as this always comes up when I post articles like this. I really do understand why people are so conflicted when it comes to avoiding meat for moral reasons. What many folks don’t realize is that many animals are still dying to provide a plant-based diet. When you consider the “The Least Harm Principle”, and add up all of the insects, field mice, birds, bunnies and frogs killed by intensive crop production, billions of small animals have to die in order to feed the world this way. Even if their blood does not end up in your bag of flour or head of lettuce, you can not divorce yourself from the system that brought the food to you. If the goal is to have the least number of deaths involved with your dinner plate, then consuming a large herbivore that was raised in a sustainable way is the moral choice. Read a longer post on this topic here.
The elephant in the room:
What most people who like to argue against eating meat are ignoring is that the real problem with The Standard American Diet is our heavy reliance on high carbohydrate, hyper-palatable processed foods laden with chemicals, added sugars and fake fats. Consider all of the resources required to produce these packaged foods. From the production to the processing, packaging to marketing, processed foods are the biggest threat to our sustainability. Why not make a suggestion to the Obama administration to reduce our dependence of processed foods in favor of real foods?
The way we’re headed, the food pyramid could end up looking like this:
If price is the issue, something to consider is how much Americans are spending outside the home on food. We spend 1/2 our food budget at food that we don’t even make ourselves:
And when we do go to the grocery store, we’re not spending our money on healthy food. Also note that we’re spending LESS of our grocery dollar on meats (down from 31.5% to 21.5%). Processed foods and sweet however, have increased dramatically in recent years:
Let’s take a look at some price comparisons of common foods and beverages that American consume on a regular basis:
Average price of a Snickers Bar (in 2012) $1.04 per 2.07 oz.
That’s $.50 cents an ounce.
Average price of a 16oz bag of potato chips $4.26
That’s $ .27 per ounce
Average price of 1 liter (33.8oz) wine $12.09
That’s $ .36 per ounce
Average price of 1lb of chocolate chip cookies $3.49
That’s $ .22 per ounce
Average price of a Venti Starbucks Caramel Macchiato $4.65
That’s $ .23 per ounce
Average price of 1 lb organic broccoli $2.12
That’s $ .13 per ounce
Average price of 1 lb organic carrots $1.02
That’s $ .06 per ounce
Average price of a 5 lb bag of organic red potatoes $4.99
That’s $ .06 per ounce
What about meat?
Average retail price of grass-fed ground beef $7.69
That’s $ .48 per ounce
(That’s less per ounce than a snickers bar)
When considering the food pyramid, it would be fantastic if all of us in the “Real Food” movement made it our common goal to suggest Americans shift away from nutrient-poor, highly palatable junk convenience foods. Whether you choose to eat a plant based diet or not, we should all agree that Americans need is to learn how to cook again, and reduce our reliance on factory-produced food of all kinds. I urge Food Democracy Now to reword their letter, shifting the attention from vilifying our meat consumption to access to REAL FOOD, grown in a sustainable way.
For More Information:
Red Meat: Part of a Healthy Diet? by Robb Wolf
Red Meat: It Does a Body Good by Chris Kresser
Why You Should Think Twice About Vegetarian and Vegan Diets by Chris Kresser
The Grazing Revolution: A Radical Plan to Save the Earth, by Allan Savory
Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, by Nicolette Hahn Niman
Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbably Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, by Judith D. Schwartz
The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability, by Lierre Keith