Guest post written by: Conor O’Higgins
Turning vegetarian is the best thing you can do for the environment.” Heard that one before? I used to believe it too. That was when I was living in a city and had never grown a scrap of food in my life. Since then, I’ve traveled the world, planted trees, started community gardens, and farmed fish. I learned something I’d like to share: it’s a myth that a vegetarian diet is more sustainable than an omnivorous one. The best thing for the environment is not a food system that grows only plants – it’s one that grows vegetables, fruit, fish and animals all together in symbiosis, with minimal grains and legumes.
The vegetarian lobby argues that we use a lot of land, water and other resources to raise cattle. This is true – the way we raise cattle uses a lot of resources. But it’s wrong to conclude from that that we should stop raising animals altogether. It means we’re raising animals the wrong way.
Factory farming – where cattle are churned out like Ford Model Ts and are not integrated into an ecosystem – is indeed environmentally harmful. Then again, so is factory-style production of soy, rice or other plant-foods.
The environmental arguments against meat-eating are not against meat-eating at all; they are arguments against factory farming of livestock, which all paleo advocates should likewise oppose. In an ecological system of farming, animals are environmentally beneficial. Let’s look at why –
Plants are designed by evolution to live in symbiosis with animals. Remove animals from your farming system, and plants suffer in at least three ways. First, they are vulnerable to slugs and other pests that animals would eat. Second, they miss out on manure. Third, they are deprived of the soil-conditioning services that animals provide by digging and scratching. Farming animals intelligently will complete the ecosystem and actually boost the yield of plant-foods – something that has been proven by permaculturists all over the world. One example of this is the ‘chicken tractor‘, where chickens prepare the soil for vegetables. Plant yields jump when animals are farmed alongside them.
Of the systems of ecological farming, the most successful is permaculture. Permaculture is explicitly against vegetarianism*, rather wary of grains, and works best with a diet based on meat, fish, fruit and vegetables – more or less a paleo diet. Bill Mollison, the founder of permaculture has said, in his characteristically uncompromising style, that all city-dwellers should be forced to eat carnivorous diets. Why? Soil depletion. It is simple: when you grow a plant and remove it from a farm to feed city-dwellers, all the minerals that went into growing that plant are gone from the farm system. This rapidly depletes the soil. On the other hand, when a cow is raised in a field, the nutrients it consumes over its lifetime mostly stay in the field, so the system can sustain itself for a long time.
Some of you have probably experimented with growing your own food. I bet you started with vegetables, right? You probably found it’s quite easy to meet a good proportion of your vegetable needs without much space or effort. It’s easy to be self-sufficient for vegetables. It’s only slightly harder to be self-sufficient for meat or fish, so when people push on to the next level of food-independence, they nearly always do it by adding small livestock like chickens, ducks or rabbits. But I have never heard of anyone on a quest for self-sufficiency decide to start growing grain. Why? The math is simple –
- Growing vegetables requires about 200 square feet per person.
- Raising a few rabbits or chickens requires about 100 square feet per person.
- Farming your own fish requires about 200 square feet per person.
- Growing your own wheat (half a pound a day), would require at least 6000 square feet per person
As I said, this supposes you are using permaculture or a similar method. There are definitely wrong and wasteful ways to grow paleo-type foods, but no permaculture design, however great, will sustain a person on grains with much less than 6000 square feet.
This leaves us with two options: either we do without starches, or we get them from our veg patch in the form of tubers such as sweet potatoes. If you’ve been around the paleo movement, this advice should sound familiar! If you’re still unconvinced that grains are bloating your agricultural footprint, take a look at some ballpark figures for the yield (in tonnes per hectare) of 8 starchy foods:
- Lentils 1-2.5
- Rice 3-5
- Wheat 2-8
- Corn 7-11
- Yams 15-25
- Potatoes 40-50
- Taro 26-65
- Sweet potatoes 25-96
It couldn’t be clearer: if we want to feed the crew of Spaceship Earth with small, sustainable, garden-scale food systems – throw out the grains and legumes! Horticultural societies like the Kitavans, Yamamoto and Kuna understand this. They do not necessarily avoid starches, but get their starches strictly from (gluten-free!) tubers, not from grains. In other words, they live sustainably by following the sort of diet the paleo movement advocates.
But the environmental impact of grains gets worse. Tubers can be grown in a small space and then picked by hand, which leaves these societies with pretty easy lives with lots of leisure, unlike the bleak existence of subsistence grain-farming communities. Grains and legumes, on the other hand, need to be threshed and ground before they are edible. This requires machinery and labor.
Abandoning grains takes us a long way from a neolithic ‘farming’ paradigm to a more sustainable, more efficient, and more leisurely hunter-gatherer-horticultural ‘gardening’ paradigm. The invention of grain-based farming was an environmental and societal disaster as well as a nutritional one.
* Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, by Bill Mollison, section 2.7