The Sustainability of What We Eat
The federal government recently decided that it would not include environmental impact when updating the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), which they do every five years. Sylvia Burwell, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, co-authored the guidelines and announced the decision on October 6. Their reasoning: while the sustainability of our food choices is important, “we do not believe that the 2015 [Dietary Guidelines for American] are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.” The inclusion of sustainability in dietary guidelines would mean, among other things, a big change to our recommended diet: greatly reduced meat consumption. That is because the meat industry is infamous for doing environmental damage: from the energy put into growing and transporting feed, to the pollution of water, land and air caused by “manure lagoons,” industrial meat production just isn’t sustainable. And while the Ethical Farming Fund believes that meat can be sustainable, my main disagreement with the government’s decision to ignore a food’s environmental impact is in the message it sends to the public: that human health is not related to environmental health. This is simply false. One big reason why: humans are part of the environment. Humans are animals, and like other animals, everything we truly need we can get from nature. You would argue that any other animal’s health is related to the health of its environment, wouldn’t you? Just as biodiversity is a sign of an ecosystem’s health, the quality of the environment is a reflection of an animal’s health, and humans are not excluded from this.
Human health is directly related to environmental health.
When we talk about environmental health as it relates to human behavior, we often (perhaps too often) use the term “sustainability.” A cut-and-dry definition of sustainability is the viability of continuing a certain practice indefinitely. As an example, when you’re trying to get somewhere, a bicycle is more sustainable than a car, because a bicycle runs on human energy and a car runs on non-renewable fossil fuels. Sustainability can also be conceptualized as a closed loop: no inputs and no outputs. (This concept is better described as “self-sustaining” than as “sustainable,” but it’s sustainable all the same.) Unfortunately, there are few systems out there that are self-sustaining. The most successful and long-lived is nature itself. Thus, with sustainability as the objective, nature should be the guide. Solar panels, for example, are a good example of this, as they mimic photosynthesis, a plant’s ability to absorb energy from the sun. (While the solar panel is not a perfect tool just yet, many buildings have been able to create more energy than they use with the power of solar panels.)
It should follow that the most sustainable diet is one that mimics nature. In an industry like agriculture, which is subject to the fluctuations of weather and the trends of the ecosystem, a sustainable system must seek to harmonize with the environment, rather than work against it. Arguably the most sustainable diet would be one that doesn’t involve agriculture at all, eating wild plants and animals, which doesn’t necessitate any fossil fuels and leaves nature intact. (By the way, if maximizing your nourishment from the wild interests you, please take a look at WildFoodism.com, a website created by Adam Haritan, one of the Ethical Farming Fund’s directors.) As destructive as agriculture is to the planet (plowing, pesticide overuse and annual crops all have negative consequences for our limited topsoil supply) it is a ubiquitous part of our everyday life. Is a sustainable diet possible within an agricultural system?
I would estimate that most environmentally-conscious people will tell you that for the sake of the planet, you must reduce the meat you consume or adopt a vegetarian/vegan diet. The basic reasoning behind vegetarianism/veganism is that eating lower on the food chain saves the energy it would require to get calories to a feedlot, for example, where a cow would convert it into mass, which we would butcher into meat. There are other mentionable bi-products of industrial meat production, too: greenhouse gases, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, water pollution from toxic runoff.
Saving energy is an economical reason for avoiding meat, but is a vegetarian/vegan diet the most sustainable diet for our modern lives? If its similarity to nature is any indicator, then no. For one thing, most vegetable farms utilize annual crops (which usually require disturbing the soil each year), grown in monocultures, with bare soil between the plants, making the soil vulnerable to sun damage and erosion. This is not even taking into consideration synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. That is not to say that we should stop eating vegetables, only to shed light on the dark side of our reliance on annual plants. Perennial plants (mostly fruits, trees and weeds, but asparagus is one common perennial vegetable) are much better for soil health because they provide the land with a steady supply nutrients, sequester carbon more readily, and improve the soil’s structure with their root systems.
But apart from a lack of perennials in agriculture, most vegetable farms fall short of imitating nature in one big way: animals. Except for bees and other beneficial pollinators, no animals are desired on vegetable farms; in fact, animals like deer, rodents, and many insects are considered pests. But can you think of any natural ecosystem that does not include animals of all different sizes? No. So how should we expect our agricultural systems to be sustainable, or even natural, if the animal kingdom is not incorporated into them? Animals have an invaluable role in any natural system.
But it is not enough just to put animals on a farm. The livestock must be managed in a way that imitates nature in order to be sustainable. For example, in sustainable livestock systems that include ruminants (cows, goats, sheep), the farmers practice what is called rotational grazing. Rather than putting all the cows onto the pasture, where the animals will eat the best grasses into extinction, the farmer will divide her pasture into smaller sections (called paddocks), and rotate the herd through the paddocks every couple of days. This mimics the herd behavior of ruminants, who form tight packs as an instinctual defense against predators. This form of management feeds more cows on the same amount of land, maintains healthy pasture and improves the quality of the soil more than leaving the cows on a wide open field.
What does this mean for our diet?
What’s best for the environment really is what’s best for us. It is a shame that some are too short-sighted to see this. Agriculture cannot continue for very long if we rely on annual crops, as we currently do for feeding ourselves and for feeding animals in industrial systems. But that does not mean that the presence of livestock in the food system is detrimental--it’s an opportunity to do more good than we could do with plant agriculture alone: replenish topsoil levels, increase organic content, sequester carbon, and make use of land unsuitable for growing fruits and vegetables. In order to secure our own health, we must take care of the health of our planet.