What to Eat?
Photo by Stephanie Gross 2010
I have spent my entire life asking questions about our relationship to the earth. Like many people who care to ask such questions, I found myself expressing my love for the planet as an environmentalist and as a vegetarian. I'm still an environmentalist and I still support vegetarianism, but my thinking has shifted as I've looked deeper into this question.
The reason I am asking this question, "what to eat?" at all--that is, a question where the answer seems obvious to most everyone else-- is that I have this annoying tendency to keep asking questions and not settling for easy answers. It was this tendency that led me to get a PhD in anthropology, specifically in an area called, "Human Ecology." It wasn't academic inclination. It was curiosity. And while I didn't intend to focus my research on agriculture when I started out in 1993, I kept getting drawn into it. From the lens of anthropology, food production was not about learning techniques per say, but about questioning them and about analyzing them cross culturally. The last thing I ever thought I'd question was my own diet. In fact, I went into this research with the opposite intention: to prove that vegetarianism was the diet for the whole world. It was with this goal that I spent the next eight years researching every aspect of food production I could.
Long before Michael Pollan wrote his manifesto, "The Omnivore's Dilemma, " I was researching the reality and consequences of the CAFO system of animal husbandry in the U.S. as well as Europe. I also got a grant from the Mellon Foundation to study agricultural methods and population growth in Africa. I was recruited into a multi-disciplinary project in France to research-land use sustainability from Celtic and Roman times to the present with grants from the Social Science Research Council and the Lovick P. Corn Dissertation Fellowship, among others. My experiences/research during this time in combination with my time spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa and my travels in other countries led me to conclude, much to my chagrin, that my vegetarian diet did not exempt me from environmental destruction and killng other life. In fact, some of the vegetarian foods I ate were extremely unsustainable, more unsustainable than some animal products I might otherwise eat. I also saw that vegetarianism wasn't necessarily the best diet for everyone.
Let me back up a minute and say that most foods are not unsustainable. That is, there is nothing inherent in the food being grown to make it unsustainable, but rather the environment in which it is grown is not suitable, the scale on which it is grown is too great to keep it sustainable, and/or the methods used to grow it are destructive. If you'd like to get on with learning more about how I came to this conclusion, rather than wading through my thoughts, please click on the link below.
Clearly the consumption of CAFO foods is contributing to climate change and is unsustainable. American's consumption of CAFO animal products is unsustainable--mostly due to the large tracts of land required to feed these animals and the concentration of their waste in one place-- not to mention supporting a system of food production that is inhumane and damaging to farmers, workers, and the environment. Now that the media and public have finally caught up with this fact, the solution being touted in overly simplistic terms is toward veganism with the assumption that any plant is inherently more sustainable than any animal food . While I support veganism, and in some places/cases, it is the best diet, I have concluded that the plant-animal dichotomy, while easy to think about, allows a lot of facts to slip under the rug.
Rather, the diet that makes the most sense in terms of sustainability, based on what I know at this point about food production, is what I have termed, "The Sustainable Foods Diet." This term moves us away from the overly simplistic dichotomy of plant vs animal as a deciding factor in what to eat and puts the focus on production methods, micro-land use and distance from the eater that food has to travel. In other words it forces us to consider each food in its context rather than broadsweeping food into the current oversimplified plant versus animal categories.
With the Sustainable Foods Diet, we would eat the largest percentage of our foods from our own bioregion, followed by fewer foods from other parts of the country (in Virginia we would minimize foods from California) and the least amount of food from other countries sometimes thousands of miles away . The criteria for what is sustainable would be determined by production methods and matching food production to the micro-farm ecology rather than the plant-animal dichotomy, which also does not consider that some plants and animals are going to be more sustainable than others. This would mean that in some parts of the world people would eat more of one type of plant or animal than in another, depending on what is most sustainable in their bioregion. If you live in Alaska, for example, the most sustainable diet would consist mostly of the foods native to that bioregion, such as salmon. If you live in New England, where small dairies proliferate due to the rocky, sloped landscape unsuitable for crops, then animal products would be one of the primary foods on the menu. You could easily be a vegan in California, but being a vegan in Alaska would require shipping fresh produce from thousands of miles away and then you can't complain about oil pipelines when your food is being shipped half way around the world.
Let's take the point on matching the food produced to the micro-farm ecology: For example, here on our farm, which was ravaged by Hurricane Camille and which is mostly sloping hillsides with not a lot of top soil, vegetable or crop production on any scale would be devastating, causing severe soil erosion. In some places on the farm, the top soil was almost non existant so plowing it up would be impossible. I discovered this much to my chagrin after assuming initially that we would be a market vegetable farm. Who would argue that broccoli, for example, is not a wonderful food and so good for us. Yet, if we plowed our hillsides up to plant broccoli, it would be devastating to the land. However, my neighbor, who has flat land right next door is able to sustainably raise sorghum (or it could be broccoli for our argument) on a small scale without the risk of soil erosion we have on higher ground. Our farm, which is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, fits within the historic tendency globally to use such marginal sloping land for animal husbandry and not crops. In this case, based on our specific farm ecology, crops, or plant production on any scale, is not sustainable.
Another historical pattern in landscapes such as ours is to plant trees, fruit ,and nut trees. We have found that while we can do this on a small scale, on a larger scale here in the south, it is very hard to grow a lot of productive fruit trees organically. It may be that sprayed fruit eaten locally is more sustainable than importing organic fruit all the way across the country and/or world--I don't know.
By the same token animal husbandry might also be unsustainable on our farm, depending on the production methods used. If we were to overstock or use permanent grazing methods, we could likewise cause soil erosion and overload the soil with nitrogen, causing it to run off into the waterways. Instead we use intensive rotational grazing, which requires moving the animals daily to fresh grass with an average recovery time of 6-9 weeks. What is critical to our specific farm ecology is to keep the soil covered in grass and trees to hold it in place. Using bale grazing and intensive rotational grazing, animals have allowed us to rebuild our soil rather than degrade it.
Burning down a rainforest to grow broccoli is no more sustainable than burning it down to graze livestock. Instead, foods need to fit within and take into consideration the mircoecology of the land being farmed. Rainforests and tropical ecosystems in general have fragile soils. In addition, there is the added factor of demand. When we in the West demand more and more palm oil in our processed foods or more and more coconut, this can turn what was a sustainable food crop into one that is environmentally and socially devastating. For example, when large companies like Dole come in and purchase untitled land from the government to produce pineapple, this untitled land often belongs to indigenous peoples who are then removed from their land and/or lose their foraging rights and might be forced into low-wage labor for the company. The company can say that they are boosting "employment" out of this arrangement and everyone in the West sees this naively as a form of social justice.
The big problem with my theory here is that eating such a diet would require some intelligent food agency to assess all these criteria or it would require that we all be less haggard with more time to do our own research. For more information on how I came to this conclusion please read my blog. This blog was also published in Mother Earth News: