The Paleo diet, Sustainability and Economic Growth
I really wanted to get this thing up for Earth Day but I was passed out in a cannabis induced haze. Well, actually, I took part in a Specialty Health presentation on insulin resistance and cancer. Gary Taubes, Dr.’s Peter Attia, Tara Dall and lil-ol me presented on the associations between cancer and insulin resistance. I put a few of those links up recently.
So, here we were feeling just a teensy bit smug. The Paleo/Ancestral Health concept is growing by leaps and bounds, we’ve taken over the iTunes health category, are all over the news, infiltrating the UFC, receiving major academic backing, we have some Randomized Controlled Trials brewing, we are stimulating the shift to grass fed meat and permaculture, and I think perhaps most importantly over the long run, we have a well structured risk assessment program that shows this way of doing business not only saves lives, but also money. That SHOULD be something to be proud of. I should be able to sit down on Earth Day, roll a big reefer-o-rama and just enjoy myself (I’m being metaphorical here folks…I do think drugs should be de-criminalized/legalized, but personally I can’t stand pot…not my cup of opiates).
But, I can’t enjoy myself.
Why? Because given my position in the Paleo Sphere, I am a apparently larger contributor to the End of The World than Beelzebub. To quote Openheimer (who was quoting the Upanishads) “I am Shiva, the destroyer of Worlds.” You see, I’m advocating the consumption of meat, the adoption of biodynamic farming (mixed with smart inputs of technology and even “fossil fuels”…I’ll get to that later) and a shift away from government subsidized grain-centric food production and THAT friends is going to destroy the world, according to our Vegan brothers and sisters. Here is a piece from the NY Times and a similar piece from the Examiner.
So, when we roll out data from long term, paleo/low carb interventions that have been run under metabolic ward standards (they are getting kicked off soon) and this data shows amazing benefit for everything from cancer to cardiovascular disease prevention, it will not matter. Because the riposte from academia, the media, and even the government will be: “This way of eating will drive global warming which will destroy the world.” These folks have argued (and lost) the health argument. So, time to change tactics.
If you argue against this climate change idea in any way, shape or form, you are an un-caring, meat eating bastard (Bitch?). End of story. Not beating the Climate Change drum might be more criminal than arguing against the Patriot Act in the post 911 world…
I’m going to largely ignore tackling whether or not the data supports climate change is an extension of increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations from burning fossil fuels. I’d really be labeled a wacko if I went down that road, so instead I’m going to look at some details surrounding our food production and what it would mean for the global economy if we followed the recommendations of the Vegans.
Something you need to understand is this sustainability/global warming story will be the “Saturated Fat” of the 2010’s and beyond. The concept is accepted as fact, any information to the contrary will be vigorously attacked. End of story.
I don’t know if y’all notice but when I write for the blog or talk on the podcast I do my best to not paint topics in a black/white fashion. Even on the topic of gluten (which I really do think is bad) I may call it Satans Excrement, but my Greasy Used Car Salesman pitch is remove it for 30 days, reintroduce, see how ya do. The results are typically sufficient to convince people via their own experience that gluten may not be something they want to play with. Well, this situation is a bit different. I can’t ask you to “try out” a global economic and food policy, see how it goes, then make a decision. To some degree this comes down to a matter of “faith” but this faith is built on things like thermodynamics, economics, markets and innovation. The points I’ll make have precedent, follow natural laws and patterns and have been consistently accurate in describing economic growth/change, whereas the predictions of the Malthusian doomsayers have been consistently wrong.
With this in mind I’m going to throw out a few “absolutes” for you to chew on:
1-Global food production can ABSOLUTELY keep pace with population growth over the next 100 years. The next 100 years will likely be a significant hurdle, but if we do not scuttle the global economy we should see an increased standard of living throughout the world, and the inevitable decrease in birth-rate which accompanies this increase in wealth and education. If people are “provided” freedom, markets and education, birth rates drop, societies TEND to stabilize. Projections are that in less than a century most of Africa, Central America, India and China could have a standard of living similar to that of the US in 2006…IF markets and freedom are the norm. This means the vast majority of the human race will be lifted out of poverty, disease and a dodgy future. But this all happens if and only if economic expansion is allowed to run it’s course.
2-Blocking the development necessary to “limit green house gases” as is generally recommended from the Vegan/Al Gore scene will DOOM the developing world to a continued poverty level existence, lack of infrastructure, short lives, despotic rulers and the generally shitty existence these places have experienced post British and Dutch colonialism. I’d argue that a contraction in US colonialism needs to occur for these changes to really take affect, but that’s a topic for another place and another day.
So, from what nether region am I pulling these opinions? Check out this piece from Reason which considers the Malthusian manifesto, the Limits to Growth.
The Limits to Growth (LTG) predicted massive famine as a consequence of resource scarcity and ECONOMIC CONTRACTION*. It just so happens to have been dead wrong. As economies expand people gain freedom, technologies get cleaner, birth rates drop. I’d argue the world generally get’s better, and this from the Paleo guy who does cast a whistful eye to a bygone era.
There are a few key points to take away from this:
1-The doomsayers have been beating the same drum of economic/environmental collapse for over 50 years. Every prediction these people have made with regards to population, resource scarcity and economic contraction have been not petite mal wrong, but Grand Mal. Let me say this another way: These people have been making specific predictions based around computer modeling etc and are consistently wrong. Yet somehow we keep turning to them for advice on financial and economic policy.
2- The Vegans and folks like Al Gore recommend that we MANAGE (ie government run, top down) a PLANNED ECONOMIC CONTRACTION*. They would FORCE a global economic policy to limit growth, thus avoiding the release of green house gases. This, so we do not “destroy” the environment and imperil the millions of people who live near the ocean.
So, on the one hand, a century from now, we have most of humanity lifted out of the grips of poverty, safe housing, consistent medicine AND some climate change (which may or may not have a damn bit to do with what we have been up to) on the other hand, we have MORE of humanity circling the drain as we have manufactured a global economic recession such that industry grinds to a halt and the climate will do what it has always done, eventually, change.
The reason why this is a particularly thorny issue is for many, meat eating is a quasi-religious issue with a misplaced sense of morality winning out over economics. These “discussions” move in an interesting circularity. First the health dangers of meat eating are bandied about, like the Red Meat piece that I commented on recently. Once we put that to rest (ish) we move to climate change and morality. We can easily move our way through this topic if we are willing to put a little skull sweat into considering the scientific implications. Then we run up against the morality issue. You are an evil, dare I say “un-evolved” person if you eat meat. Leire Keith tackled this topic in her book the Vegetarian Myth, I’m not going to devote a significant amount of time to it here as I find questions of morality banal. The topics people typically bicker (or kill each other) over are better addressed by economics than sniper scopes and suicide bombers. In this meat/morality case the Vegan makes an argument something to the effect “eating animals is morally reprehensible…we do not need to do this any longer…” Now this completely ignores the critters killed in the routine farming of grains, legumes etc. It ignores that economic investigations indicate that something which looks remarkably like a paleo diet actually REDUCES the number of animals killed.
Joseph Campbell observed:
“Vegetarianism is the first turning away from life, because life lives on lives.”
This does not mean that we can or should be cruel in how we obtain our food, quite the contrary. But this recognition of the biodynamicism of life is as real and intense as anything in creation. It acknowledges the expiration date we all carry while embracing that we are not above nature, but an inseparable part of it.
It’s not ugly enough
Several years ago, I think it was 2005 or 2006, I was asked to be on a panel talking about the pro’s and con’s of grass fed meat (I cannot for the life of me find the news piece on this, it seems to have disappeared). The topic had arisen as the local Co-op in Chico, Chico Natural Foods, was floundering after the evil corporate giant, Trader Joe’s came to town and appeared to be driving them out of business. CNF had historically been a vegetarian only store and like similar co-ops, had also experienced serious problems remaining financially viable. The #1 complaint of the folks who shopped at the co-op, those silly “owners” of the store due to the communal nature of the business structure, was that they could not do all their shopping at CNF as they did not carry grass fed meat, pastured poultry, or wild caught fish. So, folks were forced to go elsewhere to do their shopping (which interestingly also means more fossil fuels burned, but when you have a moral agenda, some of the details can be overlooked in the name of the Cause). So, CNF was facing economic ruin, one of the primary issues was losing people to other stores as they could do all their shopping at S&S Produce or TJ’s. So, the question was being raised “should CNF offer meat, fish, poultry etc?” Somehow I ended up on a “pro-meat panel” with a couple of other folks. It was a farce, as there was not direct debating allowed, and I and another guy (a vegetarian who oddly was on the pro-meat panel) realized this was just an attempt to let off steam, the decision to carry meat had already been made, this was just an act to try to prevent a peasant uprising within the anti-meat, co-op members. After this whole thing wrapped up I spent some time talking to a few of the hardcore vegans at this event and things were…tense. All the stuff I’ve talked about here were considered: health, sustainability even the morality/least harm topic. What finally emerged when I was pushing the grass fed meat, biodynamic farming thing was really interesting and it is something I’ve heard from other vegans. It makes sense why the NY Times piece was written and why everyone form Monsanto to StarBeam at CNF is concerned about permaculture and grass fed meat: If you change how animals are raised, if you make the system more humane, less ghastly, the vegans will no longer have the shock value that often flips a person towards that way of eating.
If you improve the system you will get fewer vegan converts.
An interesting byline to this story is another natural grocery store in Chico, S&S Produce saw a barely perceptible dip in sales in the first few months after Trader Joe’s came to town. The differences between S&S vs CNF are interesting:
1-Family run instead of Co-op (Evil “profits are the driver)
2-Since it’s inception S&S always had a butcher shop in addition to the produce, supplements etc.
3- S&S was a short walk away from Trader Joes. Chico Natural foods was on the OTHER SIDE OF TOWN. We normally need to live in the Quantum Mechanical world for locality to not influence systems, yet, CNF experienced more economic hardships from TJ’s coming to town, despite being far, far away. Hmmm. Quantum entanglement, or perhaps it was a poorly run business that had ignored some of the primary needs of its constituents and was consequently failing?
Should it all be “Organic?”
The New York Times piece is interesting in that it paints a hopeless picture of even trying to improve the current food system. The ONLY viable option apparently is creating Planet of the Vegans. McWilliams dismisses the notion of permaculture as producers will “cut corners” and we will be right back where we are now. How this same process does not apply the fossil fuel dependent grain production (which he ignores), and how the economics of farm subsidies do not play into this is intriguing. The current system is propped up by taxes which are reallocated to grain production (Farmer Welfare?) in a way that makes grains artificially inexpensive, and grass fed meat and biodynamic farming artificially expensive. Now all that considered, we are NOT going to feed the world, create prosperity etc. without fossil fuel inputs. Windmills in the right place are fine (although rough on the local avian population) but many of the alternative energy sources are a farce when we consider ROI. Silly physics and economics rearing their ugly heads again! If the FED can print money, can’t we just make energy from nothing?
We need to be both selective and smarter about how we tackle these problems. Some “organic” practices are smart. Some conventional intensification approaches are smart. The combination is where optimization occurs. McWilliams lambastes Joel Salitin for using corn for his chickens (Which Joel addresses in his response I linked to above). Used selectively we get better inputs and outputs, better efficiency, less waste…stuff just works better. This inability to understand nuance is a tax on all of us. It’s a “don’t understand physics and economics” tax the same way gambling is a tax on folks who do not understand statistics.
The very topic of “Organic” or natural is backwards and divorced from reality. Economically, environmentally, we benefit from the smart application of intensification (fossil fuel inputs) AND biodynamic practices (keeping nutrients near the production centers). Under current “Organic” practices one may not use nitrogen fertilizer, produced by the combination of methane (natural gas), heat and carbon dioxide (the Haber process) as it is “synthetic.” One can however use FISH which has been caught (no accounting for fossil fuels in this!), processed and instead of being fed to people, is plowed into the ground to enrich the soil! As the Reason piece I linked to makes clear, the US alone has what appears to be hundreds of years of natural gas reserves, but we are hamstrung by various political and environmental policies that makes natural gas development and use as popular as a bean burrito eater in an elevator.
If we step outside the Organics topic and just ask “what can we grow that is most efficient, both nutritionally and calorically”, grains do not win, things like sweet potatoes and cassava do. This piece is interesting in that it looks at corn, cassava and sweet potatoes as bio-ethanol sources. Surprise, surprise, the root vegetables win when it comes to grams of carbohydrate produced per unit of land. I have a series of posts planned looking at the diets of the Okinawans and one of the recurring themes one observes when looking at the long-lived Okinawans, is how much more nutritious the sweet potato is vs the grain crop rice (this appears to be one of the key dietary distinctions between mainland Japanese and Okinawans) but caloric yields are far superior from these tubers relative to rice. Famine was largely unheard of in Okinawa until a shifting away from the sweet potato towards the less nutritious, more resource intensive rice crop. Since I mentioned it I’ll also take a swipe at Bio-ethanol. For our modern world to work we need energy, lots of it. It takes a certain amount of energy to get oil and gas out of the ground, but the net energy-gain is positive…shoot, it looks a lot like Optimal Foraging Strategy!
Here is the nifty thing about bio-ethanol: it REQUIRES more energy than what it produces. It is a net loss. But the hippies, vegans and corn producers love it. The US has spent tons of money subsidizing a failed technology, one that requires more energy than it produces…yet I doubt we will see a piece from McWilliams addressing this buffoonery.
We should be in this together
The Vegans should be happy about permaculture and Paleo. We have accomplished things they never did and they have been around much longer and have been better organized than the Ancestral Health movement. Unfortunately they are hung up on morality in lieu of reality. I don’t like tooting my horn too often but I’ll share a story I’m pretty proud of:
I was in the Whole Foods store here in Reno back in December, about a month after we moved here. I wandered up to the meat counter to do a bit or perusing and the woman behind the counter asked “Are you Robb Wolf?” I was a bit surprised but replied to the affirmative and she proceeded to tell me how important both I and the Paleo movement have been to bringing grass fed meat to Whole Foods. There has been significant internal strife in the stores as the meat dept has expanded in lock step with the increasing demands of the folks wanting grass fed meat. Whole Foods has an unabashed vegan agenda, but they are apparently not so high-minded to bypass making a buck or three off us evil meat eaters. Instead of an either/or us/them agenda we should be working together because the outputs of what we are talking about in this Ancestral Health movement are a hell of a lot better than the current model. To some degree I understand and empathize with the morality piece. I killed a 650lb elk with an atlatl, butchered it and ate some of the liver while it was still warm. You get a reality check from shit like that. It’s intense and you feel for the life you have taken. But life and death are inseparable parts of Living.
When I was a kid I played some pretty rough games, one was Red Rover. Premise: two lines of kids face each other. Each side interlocks arms, and taunts the other side to “send someone over.” A kid on one side takes off running, and tries to crash through the barrier on the other side, slicing through the interlocked arms of two of the opposite team members. If the runner wins, he or she takes a person back with them to their team. If the linked up kids win, they keep the runner. The interesting thing is even though you start off with two teams, you end up with only one. I’d like to link arms with the vegans, ask farm subsidies, and the current model to “come on over” and knock those frackers on their collective asses.
My hand is outstretched and ready to hold onto anyone willing to fight. We’ll see if anyone on the other side can set down their morality and help us ALL to win.