Thursday, 3 February 2011

The Future Eaters

Much of the argument in favour of vegetarian diets stems from an opposition to factory farms that produce meat from animals kept in appalling conditions and fed an unnatural diet. I certainly don’t think that such practices should be supported. There is, however, a lot of land on the Earth that cannot be used for growing crops, but that can support grazing or foraging animals very well. If we decided to dismiss these as a source of food and persuaded everyone on Earth to become a vegetarian, we would be reducing the amount of land that is available for producing food for humans, and thus putting even greater pressure on the existing cropland. Besides, the monocultural practices involved in much of modern agriculture are responsible for a lot of environmental damage and are certainly not sustainable.
This is particularly true for Australia. According to Dr Tim Flannery, we lose seven kilograms of soil for every kilogram of wheat we grow, whereas kangaroos can roam the country without damaging the soil and can be harvested sustainably to provide us with meat. Thus, it makes sense to include free-ranging animals in a varied omnivorous diet, as long as the numbers harvested are not so great that the species become endangered. It is also useful to consider sources of animal protein that are not commonly consumed in our culture, such as insects. Instead of trying to eliminate ‘plagues’ of locusts by spraying them with pesticides, perhaps we should be looking for ways to harvest them as food.
There is much idealism in the vegetarian movement that deplores the killing of animals for any reason at all, or, in the case of vegans, even the use of foods derived from live animals. It may seem unsavoury to think about in our present-day ‘civilised’ culture, but the fact is that animal foods have played a significant role in the human diet over a long period of our evolutionary history. It may not be wise to scorn the diet of our ancestors and expect to remain healthy as a species. Many people experience severe health problems when eating diets that rely heavily on such vegetarian staples as cereal grains and legumes, and any serious discussion of sustainability must surely include human health as an important factor.
While it is true that human civilisation would not have reached its present level without the advent of agriculture and the mass cultivation of crops, I think it is unlikely that a human diet consisting only of vegetarian and vegan foods would turn out to be truly sustainable.
Actually, this is me re-running some old arguments, in a firm and polemical way, as summarised by one, if memory serves, Barbara Shepperd. Flannery's argument, as a climate scientist, is that Australia has some fairly unique conditions that oblige us to adapt accordingly if we and the ecosystem are to survive. I'm hoping that further research can clarify the extent to which these arguments are unique to the Australian ecosystem. For example,  might Flannery's work be contextualised with respect to Jared Diamond's "collapse" thesis? It would be interesting to read Patricia A. McAnany's edited collection, Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire in tandem with the thesis of "negative classicism" developed by Patrick Brantlinger to see if there were any close parallels in the way they deterministically project the alleged decline (and whether Flannery essentially translates these projections into a scientific idiom). 

For now though, if you want to work out where to place yourself in these debates, ask yourself whether you agree with these related statements:

-- a Pleistocene environment is the optimum for planetary health and provides the healthiest food 
--  a Palaeolithic lifestyle leads to the healthiest, most fulfilling life
--  a Pleistocene environment provides optimal opportunities for exercise, activity, health, well-being and conviviality
--  healthy people manifest the optimal links between planetary health and individual health.
--  healthy, informed people will also act biosensitively, applying the precautionary principle, to optimize planetary health.
If you answer in the affirmative, prepare to defend these positions on health and fitness from an "evolutionary" perspective :

Monocultural crop production destroys healthy soils
Ray Audette comments: 'People seem to think there is something noble about being a vegetarian. But vegetarians don't understand what the role of predators is: to prevent disease. Once people understand how the environment works, they would understand they are not saving animals by not eating them. They are causing more animals to die through [monocultural crop] agriculture, which sterilizes the land and kills off wildlife.' (article by Rebecca Sherman)
Soil health depends upon manure
Plants, insects, animals, fungi and bacteria live together in a complex system of food chains and nutrient recycling. The health of crops depends upon a supply of manure from grazing animals, generally mediated through bacterial, fungal and chemical action in the soil. When this complex system is interrupted, soil quality - and, therefore, food quality - declines.
Mixed farming can be less energy-intensive than crop production
Although the bizarre distortions of industrial/civilized meat production such as battery hens, feedlot pigs and cattle and farmed fish are energy and chemically intensive and pollution-producing, mixed organic agriculture is not. The animals involved contribute to the well-being of the ecology of their system. Mixed organic agriculture is labour-intensive (that is it 'creates jobs' - and can sustain them indefinitely) but it is rewarding for the individuals, families and communities who practise it.
Mixed farming can be less pesticide-, fungicide- and herbicides-intensive than crop production
Well-managed grassland is rarely sprayed with pesticides, fungicides or herbicides yet virtually all industrial vegetable and arable systems receive an average of ten sprayings annually through from the seed stage to the final storage of the produce. 
Replacing meat protein with plant protein
Switching to a vegetarian diet requires replacement of meat protein from vegetable sources, the most common being soy, wheat, rice and legumes. These must be used in combination to get the balance of amino acids our bodies require. On a protein-equivalent basis the greenhouse emissions are, at best, similar (mung beans have about 80% of red meat emissions per gram of protein) and in most cases actually favour meat or dairy as a protein source. Brown rice has about 12.5 times the emissions of red meat per gram of protein, kidney beans nearly five times, chick peas 1.5 times, tofu 5 times. (From Tim Vercoe)
Crops produced in developing countries often contain dangerous levels of agricultural chemicals
Many of the cash crops exported from the third world to the West contain pesticides banned in the consuming countries. The workers who produced them have been exposed to dangerous levels of these chemicals. Often the chemicals have been produced by companies operating or based in the West).
Becoming a vegetarian is a negative protest
It is akin to washing your hands of the issue. By contrast, choosing your meat carefully, as a conscientious omnivore, and insisting on a product from extensive high-welfare farming, is a positive vote for restoring the values of the contract of good husbandry and improving the welfare of farm animals. (From The Ecologist)
Tamir Katz writes (in the US context): 'The common argument is that eating a vegetarian diet saves animals, as well as the environment, since the cattle used to feed us consume many times more grains than humans do. By not eating cattle, we will help protect the environment. However, the problem isn't with eating cattle. The problem lies with the fact that most cattle [in the US] are fattened with large amounts of grain and soybeans instead of following a natural diet of grasses. If all beef farmers raised their cattle on grass by letting them graze in the pastures, there would be no need for all the grain to feed them and, in addition, the meat would be healthier and richer in omega-3 fatty acids ... if this actually happened, vegetarian diets would be causing more environmental damage because humans would be the only ones eating grains and soybeans, both ecologically disastrous crops. If humans ate pasture-fed meat, fish, fruits and vegetables and fewer grains, the environment would be better off. So rather than attack meat eating, attention should go the method by which the beef cattle are raised. You might wonder, what about the poor cattle? Even if they were pasture fed, they would still be killed and eaten. Well, the fact is that producing enough grain to feed human beings who eat no meat would result in the deaths of many more animals, as well as the reduced of animals as a result of turning wilderness areas into cornfields or rice paddies.'
Reforestation made possible by turning arable land over to trees and hunting
Pentti Linkola, envisaging a sustainable agriculture in his native Finland writes: 'Reforesting a significant portion of field acreage is the most notable step that will be taken. This will be made possible be replacing grain with mostly animal protein for nutrition. the resources of inland and coastal waters will be put to good use: annual profit will be reaped from all species of fish including fish species that have been dubbed "junk fish" because of fasion whims and popular prejudice, although they serve equally well for food. The fish catch can be sustainably increased a hundred-fold, so that it will be possible to replace a third or even half of the nutritional content of grain and other plant-food with first-class animal protein. A corrsponding proportion of fields will be forested to contribute to the binding of carbon. Hunting will also be rendered more effective, although it is a less-profitable activity than fishing. Small mammals and highly prolific rodents - and perhaps invertebrate animals too - will be added to the list of game species. Drawing on focused research care will be taken to keep food chains intact and functional through both hunting and fishing.' [3]
Meat production requires more water than crop productionIt takes 13,500 litres of water (in feed and water) to a cow/heifer to produce each kg of industrial beef. One kg of wheat, by contrast, takes around 1000 litres of water. A typical meat-eating US diet requires around 5,400 litres of water a day, whereas a vegetarian diet which was said to have a similar nutritional value [1] required around 2,600 litres daily (figures from Frank Rijsberman). These average figures obscure vast differences, however, between kangaroo meat and any other wild game (which requires water, but does not extract that water from any other human or natural system) and feedlot cattle, pigs or poultry which require massive inputs of water. Sheep meat (in Australia) is predominantly grass-fed (except in drought) and lies between the two. However, note that the figures for the water component of different foods make a rhetorical point rather than a scientifically-valid one in respect of the environment: the water 'embodied' in a food is not lost to the environment; it still exists and is continually recycled. A dairy cow consumes water in grass, disposes of it through urination of defecation where it is taken up in more grass and consumed again. Same water counted twice.
People who kill their own meat develop a compassion for life
The most moral Australians are those who slaughter their own meat, says Dr Tim Flannery, in a new book, Country, which calls for kangaroos to be reintroduced into some areas where they have become extinct. Dr Flannery, the director of the South Australian Museum, said people who killed their own meat developed understanding, courage and compassion for life fundamental to human decency - values 'those of us who receive our meat in plastic trays have little opportunity to achieve'. The sanitization of society from the origins of our food and other resources was exactly why Australians were so disconnected from the environment, he said. 'We must also be willing to face the difficult decisions that are inherent in our role as the most powerful force in the environment. That is why I think people who kill their own meat, in as humane a way as possible, are the most moral of us all. It is as if we are inhabitants of a great feedlot - albeit an urban one - which robs us of control over our lives, in particular our consumption of energy, water, food and material goods. Worse, it compromises our morality. The link between morality and meat-eating occurred to him in the late 1970s when he watched a farmer in western Queensland shoot and then slit the throat of a steer in order to get some steaks for a team of palaeontologists. 'Its end was, I suspect, significantly less painful and traumatic than the slaughterhouse-bound majority, for the creature went from calm grazing to the stillness of death in a few seconds, avoiding the round-up, transportation by road and queuing before the slaughterer at an abattoir'.
Personal health 
There is no evidence that a meat-containing diet consumed as part of a Palaeolithic lifestyle has any deleterious impact on human health. For one thing, vegetarians think often about what they eat, how they exercise, limiting alchohol, avoiding smoking etc. and make conscious choices to avoid certain foods; those who are part of the dietary mainstream are more inclined to eat what comes to them and so will not make choices as frequently. That is, vegetarians are a self-selected group of people who are more conscious of the importance of food and lifestyle choices and so we would expect them to be healthier for that reason alone. Studies that purport to show associations between, say, a form of cancer and meat eating / vegetarianism do just that and no more: they show an association, not a causal link. Such studies are generally reductionist and fail to address adequately the influence of total lifestyle between the two groups.
But just what is meat, and what is not? 
Recent analyses of the genomes of fungi show that they are more like animals than they are like plants. This explains why it is that mushrooms can be advertised (presumably to vegetarians) as " the only plant source of vitamin B12".
1. The Rijsberman figures cannot be for a diet of identical nutritional value, only a similar value as the vegetarian diet will lack vitamin B12 and the fats needed by humans (notably - but not exclusively - the Omega-3s). There is also the issue of whether the selected vegetarian diets, those actually consumed, rather than theoretically feasible, will have as complete a range of proteins. They may also have a potentially less healthy carbohydrate content in terms of glycemic load and may also - in real life in Western societies - contain more processed foods with the usual range of industrial additives. Packaged foods use water in their manufacturing processes (particularly in cleaning - which, in turn, has pollution implications).
2. I sent this letter to our local newspaper on 6 July 2009: "Roland Miller McCall (Save the planet – eat less meat, CT 6 July, p 9) has strung together a series of non sequiturs to convince us we can “save the planet” by becoming more vegetarian. In fact, there is nothing about eating meat that has any impact at all on climate change, let alone on the future of the planet.
"The facts are that some meat comes from ruminant animals which belch methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that quickly breaks down into carbon dioxide and water. Ruminants include cattle, sheep, goats, antelopes, giraffes, yaks and others. Other animals that humans use for meat: pigs, poultry, kangaroos, horses, whales, fish are not ruminants and their methane emissions are negligible. All the listed animals, however, exhale carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas. Humans also exhale carbon dioxide (at about 40,000 ppm).McCall’s argument for eating less meat falls apart at this point. He might as well have urged us to “save the planet” by wearing less wool or leather. His argument can, on the evidence, justify nothing more than a reduction in the global population of ruminants. In fact, if belching ruminants are a problem, we should eat the lot of them!
"Climate change is an important issue, but we have to be wary of single-issue zealots using it to forward their own, unrelated agendas. Especially zealots who tug at our heart strings and slice and dice the facts to suit their predispositions – distracting us from the real game." Back to text
3. Can Life Prevail?, by Pentti Linkola, 2009. Linkola is a retired Finnish fisherman and self-declared deep ecologist. A review of Can Life Prevail? can be found here.     Back to text
ReferencesThe Ecologist, October 2004, published a debate between a vegetarian and a farmer who practised the 'contract of good husbandry'. Some sentences of their debate have been copied into the above (
Tim Flannery, quoted in Sydney Morning Herald, 30 October 2004
Rebecca Sherman, 'Neander-Guy', from the Dallas Observer, 6-12 July 1995
Tamir Katz, TBK Fitness Program, 2003, available from Tamir's site
Lierre Keith, The Vegetarian Myth 2009, this is an outstanding analysis of vegetatianism/veganism written gently and also from within an evolutionary framework. It's an easily-read introduction to human evolution and has many examples drawn from hunter-gatherer life, human ecology and co-evolution
Frank Rijsberman, at the International Crop Science Conference, Canberra Times, 29 September 2004

Tim Vercoe, letter to The Canberra Times, 31 March 2009 (These figures are not referenced and have not been confirmed from other sources.)
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