Dear Outside Magazine,
I’m hugely disappointed by your recent online article, “Eating Right Can Save the World”. Having a vegan author write a post bashing the paleo diet, and meat in general in defense of the environment, is a huge disconnect in my mind. There were so many inconsistencies embedded within the article, so many un-cited statements, and so much flawed logic, that it was really difficult for me to read.
Firstly, I want to commend you on wanting to explore which diets are sustainable. Eating in an environmentally responsible way is hugely important and not enough people are talking about it. I’m glad you asked one of your writers to attempt to tackle it. Here’s what I think he got wrong:
Why Bash Paleo?
Is it really necessary to say that those on a paleo diet “need to be clubbed”? There was no specific ratio of protein to fat and carbs mentioned in the article, only that paleo is a “meat-centric” diet. This is completely false. The author is claiming that the those on the omnivorous diet are eating more than 60% of the human requirement of protein, then follow that with “They should be clubbed”. By avoiding processed foods, sugar, and monocropped grains, I can assure you that those on a paleo diet are certainly doing better with their carbon footprint than a typical omnivore on a Standard American Diet.
What is the Sustainable Paleo Diet?
I just want to point out that as someone who has studied nutrition and lives on an organic vegetable farm that raises pasture-based meat and chickens for eggs, I can tell you that I eat a ton of vegetables. My diet is not “meat-centric” at all. My typical day looks like this:
Breakfast: Vegetable omelet with pasture-raised eggs and locally grown organic spinach.
Lunch: Big-ass salad of locally-grown vegetables with lemon juice and organic olive oil, topped with roasted pasture-raised chicken, wild-caught fish, or pasture-based herbivores.
Dinner: Locally grown organic root crops, local organic greens sautéed in ghee from grass-fed cows, and a serving of slow-roasted herbivore (lamb, goat or beef) from pasture-raised animals.
THIS is what a my paleo diet looks like. In fact, I wrote an entire book about how to eat a sustainable paleo diet, complete with a full growing guide to vegetables and raising animals for meat and eggs. None of this food has traveled far to get to my plate. In fact, my husband grew or raised nearly all of it. From a nutritional point of view, this way of eating is incredibly healthy. I’m not consuming highly-processed foods, refined sugars, or mono-cropped grains. I also eat lots of local seafood, shellfish, and tons of other vegetables. Certainly I don’t deserve to be “clubbed”.
I do not choose to eat large amounts of tropical fruits (and wrote about the social and environmental issues of eating bananas here), nor meat, fish, nor vegetables that have traveled far to get to my plate. I also don’t consume large amounts of mono-cropped grains nor animals raised in CAFOs.
The article then goes on to say:
“Does eating grass-fed, free-range meat let you off the hook? Not really, because meat takes a toll no matter how it’s raised. Studies actually show that a factory-farm animal emits fewer greenhouse gases than a free-range one, because it lives a shorter life.” Your author fails to cite these “studies”. Are CAFOs really better? Is it truly better to eat meat from animals that have been fed a diet that comes from mono-cropped GMO grains? How is this better than eating meat from animals that have consumed grass? Also, let’s not forget the air and water pollution, and antibiotic resistant superbugs that come from CAFO farming. Is it really logical to say that the carbon footprint of CAFO meat is lower than locally-produced, grass-fed beef? The inputs for CAFO produced meat include fossil fuels used to fertilize massive amounts of soy and corn, the oil used in transporting it to the CAFO, the infrastructure needed to process, package, store and then transport this meat to consumers are tremendous. The environmental outputs are unmanageable. This system is completely not sustainable compared to small scale, properly managed herbivores.
“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 avocados, walnuts and sugar are similarly high in water requirements. The nutrition in grass-fed beef is far superior to rice, avocados, walnuts and sugar. Plus, herbivores raised in a responsible way improve the soil. This can’t be said for those other crops.
Was your author paying attention to the recent Paris Climate talks? There was a huge emphasis on the importance of healthy soil. Let’s look at what can promote healthy soil:
Vegetable farming drains the soil of nutrients. You have to give back to the soil to replenish what the vegetables remove. You need to do this with animal inputs. Healthy soil needs animal poop, blood, and bones as inputs. Here is a great TED talk by Tony Lovell explaining how we can increase soil carbon with the use of properly managed herbivores.
The fact is, you simply can not have a truly sustainable food system, nor a healthy diet without animal inputs. Even the farms that your author interviews like Stone Barns raise animals and use their products to produce healthy vegetables.
Your author does quote Greg Fogel, a senior policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, “The meat you do eat should be grass-fed meat from managed grazing operations,” he says. “Rotational grazing systems recycle manure as fertilizer, improve wildlife habitat, and enhance plant root systems, increasing soil quality, water infiltration and flood control, and carbon sequestration.”
There is a disconnect happening here. Your author says that it doesn’t matter where your meat comes from, and that all meat is bad, and then admits that rotational grazing is important for soil quality.
If we admit that herbivores are critical for soil health, then what are we to do with these herbivores? I say, eat them. Beef is incredibly nutrient dense. Let’s consider some nutrition facts. Here are the top nutrition deficiencies in the US, according to the CDC:
The fact is, beef is listed as the most important source of many of these nutrients on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. It’s a more bioavailable source of protein to humans than plant proteins. It’s a fantastic source of B12, a nutrient that vegans must supplement with in order to stay healthy.
If we are going to raise herbivores for soil health, let’s eat them. They provide great nutrition, and improve the soil. We also use cows for many other everyday products like insulin. 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.
Let’s look again at your article, this time about meat-based substitutes:
“But for anyone who simply can’t get beyond a craving for something meat-like, substitutes that contain no animal products produce about one-third the greenhouse gases of poultry.”
You’re unfairly comparing CAFO chicken meat to… what, exactly? Something like Tofurky? 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.
Let’s compare this to grass-fed beef from a local farm. The cows eat grass (free), yes they drink water, but they also pee a lot of that out and poop, which improves improve the soil (bonus), and provides nutrient-dense, bio-available protein. How is this process less sustainable than making meat substitutes?
Is the real issue because you don’t want to kill a cow?
I think the real issue is actually an emotional disconnect. Let me point out that we humans are animals. We are interdependent on the web of nature. We are naturally omnivores. Our bodies thrive on animal proteins in addition to plants. Life can not happen without death. But, for some reason, many people like to think that we are somehow above nature, like this:
When, actually, we are this:
We are not above natural systems. We are part of them. We are part of life and death of all living things. Humans are animals. We have eaten plants AND animals for our entire existence. Furthermore, being vegan is not bloodless. The Theory of Least Harm explains that very well. When you consider the number of field mice, bunnies, and other critters that are killed in the process of industrial grain farming, then the vegan diet actually looks a lot more violent than many people assume. If we are truly looking to kill the least number of beings to sustain our bodies, then eating large herbivores instead of being vegan is actually the more moral choice.
Towards the end of the article, your author states that an organic omnivore diet is roughly the same as an organic vegetarian or vegan diet:
“Rodale’s organic growing methods deliver other environmental benefits. They use 45 percent less energy and produce 40 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than the conventional growing systems. Other studies confirm the good news. One concluded that an omnivore diet of organic meat and vegetables has an environmental footprint 41 percent smaller than that of a conventional omnivore diet, and an organic vegetarian or vegan diet gets roughly the same benefit. When you consider that the estimated environmental and health-care costs of pesticide use in the U.S. every year is in the billions, I start to feel pretty good about my side of the organic-versus-conventional marital debate.”
So, your author is stating above (without citing any studies) that an “organic” diet has a similar footprint whether it does or does not contain meat.
In closing, your author states the following:
“Still, a few simple adjustments help a lot. Stop worrying so much about not getting enough protein, and remember that plant-based protein is a lot easier on the planet than animal protein. Buy organic food whenever you can. Source your food as locally as possible, and eat seasonally to avoid racking up major food miles. Eat less and waste less. Be open-minded and creative about new cuisines. Relax. Have fun. Sustainable eating isn’t synonymous with masochism.”
Plant-based proteins are not better for the planet than animal proteins. Mono-cropped, GMO soy fields are not a better choice to grass-fed beef. Eating plant-based proteins are not going to solve the major nutrient deficiencies Americans are facing. Vegetable proteins are not going to save our soils. We need to look at natural systems that incorporate both plants AND animals into an integrative, regenerative, and regional food system in order to find a sustainable way to eat.
Eating organically raised plants and pasture-based animals from local sources, while avoiding hyper-palatable overly processed foods that have traveled long distances to get to your plate is the most healthful way to live. This is the heart of the paleo diet, the one you claim advocates of need to be clubbed.
What your author really should have focused on is our reliance on processed foods. This is the real problem. We aren’t cooking from scratch anymore, we cook from boxes. We are actually spending less money on meat and more money on processed foods than ever before. From 1982 to 2012, spending on meat has gone down from 31% to 21 %, while spending on processed foods have doubled.
Vilifying beef just doesn’t make any sense to me on a sustainability or nutrition level. By advocating a vegan diet for sustainability, you are simply opting out of the ability to vote for a truly sustainable food system with your dollar. Sustainable food systems, as I’ve illustrated, need to be regionally based and incorporate animals into their system. We need to end our reliance on processed food, which is causing not only devastating health consequences, but also has an incredibly high carbon footprint.
I dive into this further during my talk at the Ancestral Society of New Zealand, pointing to Brazil’s Dietary Guidelines as a much better solution for Americans than our current policy. Meat is not the villain. Processed foods are.
If you’d like to explore a truly sustainable diet, please consider hiring an author who has an understanding of sustainable agriculture systems, or who is either educated in evolutionary biology or nutrition. It’s simply irresponsible to have an author who is disconnected with how natural systems work. Meat is not the villain. Eating a paleo diet CAN save the world.