The environmental ravages of factory farming and meat-based diets have had increasing exposure. John Robbins’ 1987 book on the subject, Diet for a New America, was a best-seller. Then Alan Durning accorded the same facts the full authority of Worldwatch Institute (World*Watch, May/June 1991).
The fact of livestock’s resource gluttony has led many to eschew animal foods. But it’s not that simple. Strictly from the point of view of resource costs, it may be more environmentally sound to raise, and eat, chickens than to drink orange juice or eat fried hash browns.
The subject of diet could hardly be more personal. Many who choose not to eat foods directly derived from animals cite sympathy for the critters involved, and perhaps their own spiritual well-being, as often as they do long-term sustainability. Furthermore, what’s true for a North American may not apply to a Trobriand Islander nor an Inuit. In addition, not everyone agrees on precisely what foods, or what combination of foods, promotes optimal health. Neither is there clear consensus about which ones are actually terrible for you!
Despite all this uncertainty, a lot is said about food choices, and most of it fails to address the complexity of the issues involved. We were glad to learn IC reader Don Matesz has grappled with the question of sustainable diet and come up with the following provocative set of answers. He’ll send more information to readers who mail an SASE to Center for a Sustainable Diet, 4422 Thackeray Place NE, Seattle, WA 98105.
We each consume roughly half a ton of our environment in the course of a year. At this rate, it’s easy to see why no other single activity in which we regularly engage has as much ecological importance as our way of eating.
A diet that’s sustainable for people and planet must consider not only one’s individual health, but agriculture (the well-being of the land), energy (minimizing waste and pollution), and the health of other people – those in one’s own community and those inhabiting Earth’s many other bioregions. The following seven points provide an introduction to the essentials:
1. Choose whole – unground, uncracked, unprocessed – cereal grains as your staple food, forming 50-60% (by volume) of your diet. Whole grains are the most nutritionally balanced and easily digested single food, containing plenty of complex carbohydrates, and sufficient and high quality protein and fat. They provide the most useable calories per acre of land of any food: two adults can be fed for a year on 1/8 to 1/4 of an acre devoted to cereal grain production. Grains, though they require cooking, don’t require energy-intensive preservation technologies like refrigeration. Ideally, they need only be dried in the fields. Once dried, they succumb minimally to pests or spoilage, and store in relatively small spaces.
2. Choose fresh, locally grown, seasonal vegetables as your secondary food – about 25-30% of your diet. A sustainable diet shouldn’t include large volumes of out-of-season, imported and/or artificially preserved vegetables. Canning, freezing, and long-term refrigeration – even done on a small scale, at home – are all energy-intensive and fossil-fuel dependent, in contrast to root cellaring, salt-pickling (as with sauerkraut), and drying. These latter methods preserve or even increase (as in the case of salt-pickling) the nutritional value of foods, whereas the others result in significant nutrient losses.
Buying local produce not only assures you of fresh, nutritious vegetables, it supports strong local agriculture – a key to bioregional stability and sustainable culture. Commercial food production in the US depends on a transportation system which is, in itself, unsustainable, and in an emergency could leave many northern and eastern regions with very significant shortages of food.
Perhaps the best alternative is growing your own vegetables. A surprising quantity and variety can be produced in a very small space, and unused vegetable parts cycle back into your food system as compost.
3. Supplement your grain and vegetable diet with beans and sea vegetables (at 5% of diet, each), and fish and free range poultry products (about 5% of diet). Used in small volumes, beans (which are good soil conditioners) and dried sea vegetables (carefully harvested, from clean waters) enhance both enjoyment and nutritional benefits of a grain-based diet.
The wisdom of traditional cultures worldwide supports some inclusion of animal products in the diet. If left to range freely, poultry can be an eminently ecological aspect of sustainable, small-scale, grain-and-vegetable agriculture: they provide pest control and manure, and their meat and eggs can be nutritionally valuable in small portions. Fish and other aquatic creatures, when harvested from clean waters in small quantities (for minimal ecological impact), or raised in ponds, can also be nutritionally beneficial, and their inedible portions are valuable fertilizers for your garden.
4. Keep nut, fruit, and fruit juice consumption – especially consumption of imported tropical nuts, fruits and juices – to a minimum. Fruits and nuts are very fragile crops and usually require artificial irrigation and pesticides when grown commercially. They spoil easily, so losses are large, even with the support of energy-intensive preservation methods.
When imported from the tropics, fruits and nuts are very expensive in terms of energy costs. And we do a serious disservice to peoples in the tropics when we encourage them to supply these foods (and coffee and other stimulants) for our extravagant dietary habits. The result is that they, too, must import expensive, less-than-fresh foods.
As for juices, they are a wasteful food: it takes 6-8 apples to make one 10-ounce glass of apple juice. Even if you compost the pulp, drinking large amounts of juice is, from an ecological standpoint, not that different from feeding cattle 5 to 10 times more calories in grain than is converted to edible flesh.
On the other hand, if you have a peach tree and it’s bearing fruit, the sustainable thing to do is eat the peaches, and be sure to share them with friends! Of course your home-grown fruits may be sun-dried to extend the length of their "season," and bruised fruits can be juiced.
5. Eliminate or limit consumption of refined foods, including vegetable oils. Refining of foods (brown rice into white rice, seeds into oil, carrots into juice) is wasteful and generally requires fossil-fuel intensive technologies. It takes nearly one and one half pounds of whole kernel wheat to produce one pound of refined white wheat flour. It takes 30 feet of sugarcane (and lots of water) for one tablespoon of white sugar.
Production of vegetable oils is extremely land-intensive and energy-costly. It is very easy to consume in one meal the amount of corn oil extracted from ten ears. Aside from the tremendous energy requirements of oil processing, if you don’t relish the thought of most of the rest of the corn or other seed going to commercial animal feed, you should go easy on the oil.
Unrefined foods simply have greater nutritional value, and thus do more with less – a basic tenet of sustainablity.
6. Buy foods in bulk, not in small packages. Boxes, cans, jars and bags are, without exception, environmentally costly, even if we recycle them. The choice to shift one’s diet primarily to whole grains makes it easy to very significantly reduce the cardboard, metal, glass and plastic you haul around.
7. Cook your food over an alcohol or natural gas stove, not on an electric stove. At best, electrical appliances add to demand for centralized energy distribution, i.e., energy- and materials-costly power plants. At worst, this extra demand helps justify investment in nuclear plants.
And cook your food so that it tastes good! There are many fresh and dried herbs and seeds, and other natural condiments, that make this easy. Sustainability is not about deprivation; it’s about humane solutions that are liveable now and into the future.
The journey to a sustainable culture may look long, but these seven steps will help set us well on the way. Continuing as we are, "against the grain," we’re likely to end up where we’re headed – hungry! On the other hand, if we go "with the grain," we’ll benefit our own health, our Earth, and our fellow beings, human and animal alike.