Around the US Thanksgiving holiday, we hear chatter everywhere about the food we eat when we gather with family and friends. Historically, Thanksgiving was a time to celebrate the harvest and our gratitude for gifts of the bounty.
In the 21st century and technology era, however, producing the foods we eat has massive environmental impacts. It requires vast tracts of land and huge quantities of water. Food production results in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – from the fossil fuels burned to run tractors and harvesters to the gases released when cow manure decomposes and cows burp and fart. Scientists estimate that food production around the world causes up to 30% of all the GHG emissions people release into the atmosphere each year. It’s time to think about reducing GHG emissions and the impact of agribusiness on land and water by shifting our Western diet patterns to more sustainable, plant-based dietary patterns.
Human food history stretches across 4 millenia. Up until the 20th century, the way we ate was fairly stable, as the ebb and flow of seasons controlled diet and food choices. Nature prescribed times of bounty and severity. In largely agrarian societies, families often grew food to sustain themselves until the following year’s harvest.
Today, food is a measure of both prosperity and healthfulness. As the authors of The China Study state, there are “multiple benefits of consuming whole, plant-based foods, and the largely unappreciated health dangers of consuming animal-based fords, including all types of meat, dairy, and eggs” (p. 14). In essence, not only is a plant-based diet that disdains processed food good for the planet, it is a smart diet.
Food Choices — An Analogy with Gandhi’s 7 Sins
“They who do not know food, how can they understand the diseases of humans?”
— Hippocrates (460–357 BCE) —
In the previous segment in this series, we looked at plant-based diets in relation to two of Gandhi’s famous blunders — “Pleasure without Conscience” and “Knowledge without Character.” In this segment, we’re continuing to attempt to understand plant-based western diets as another tool to save the planet through two more of his 7 prescribed sins. How do “Commerce without Morality” and “Science without Humanity” affect our cultural ways of eating?
There is an urgent need to curb the degradation of natural resources and to limit global warming to less than 2°C, while providing a nutritious diet to a growing and changing world population. A review of 63 studies has shown that the largest environmental benefits come from diets containing the least amount of animal-based foods — such as vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian diets. A 70% reduction in GHG emissions and land use, and 50% less water use could be achieved by shifting western diet patterns to more sustainable, plant-based dietary patterns. Reducing the amount of animal products in a diet and consciously seeking out local, sustainable produce helps boost local economies, too. It also shatters our current reliance on factory farming, which is an unsustainable method of food production.
Commerce without Morality
When you pick up a cellophane-wrapped package of red, shiny meat, it’s hard to reconcile how the supermarket was built upon and continues to perpetuate significant power disparities for both farmers and consumers. These inequities threaten our health, food system, and planet. Political systems in the mid-20th century promoted globalization of the US food system, which solidified the power of US-based multinational agribusinesses and extended their reach throughout Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Family farms surrendered to factory farms that replaced reliance on sunlight with fossil fuels in place of sunlight (think of a metamorphosis of 2 pounds of corn into 4 ounces of hamburger at the rate of 1 gallon of diesel fuel per acre).
US food abundance has associated costs. Widespread policy action is lacking in integrating environmental and nutritional priorities. We can assess the impacts of adopting sustainable diets on GHG emissions, agricultural land requirement, and water use and compare the environmental and health effects between various types of sustainable dietary patterns.
The shift from an organic to an industrial food chain took place in the second half of the 20th century. The use of ammonium nitrate for fertilizer made possible the production of immense quantities of hybrid corn processed into as many synthetic products (cranberry juice, whole-grain bread, toothpaste, aspirin) as a corporate marketing manager cares to germinate and name.
Chemical wastes that now flow south with the Mississippi River from Iowa’s cornfields form a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico equal in size to the state of New Jersey. The environmental damage is the cost of doing business, which is so abundantly successful that it allows for the presence of maybe as many as two billion people everywhere in the world who might not otherwise have been fed.
We can start by analyzing supermarkets as icons of capitalism and call out the corporate chains that make our meal-making so easy with their processed, boxed, prettified foods. The simplicity and abundance that we achieve through a quick sweep of our local supermarket needs to be balanced with the knowledge of the power of agricultural supply chains and the harm that industrial agriculture does to our planet.
We have to distance ourselves from the common US worldview of profit as all to accept that having a purpose beyond profit must take precedence in our food systems. We know that inventing some new chemical fertilizer in one state and putting it into the fields in some other states can bring down essential species of pollinating insects in other states, threatening vital agricultural crops that feed us and employ us.
An article in The Atlantic reminds us that healthy veganism explicitly serves no corporate or industrial gods. In fact, it counters these interests, acknowledging that profits-are-all and that big food companies are not concerned with the growing interest in local sustainable products. Their fear, the authors say, is that people will stop eating animals altogether. It is veganism that keeps them up at night. As long as people keep eating meat, they’re happy.
We can lower our carbon footprints by consuming a broad diversity of nutrient-rich plants. And now is the time to start, on Thanksgiving Day, by choosing more stuffed squash and green bean casserole than turkey and ham.
Science without Humanity
In a single human lifetime, agriculture has more than doubled the amount of soil phosphorus and nitrogen cycling in terrestrial systems. Researchers Townsend and Porder argue that past fertilizer excesses may subsidize future crop growth but are also responsible for a litany of environmental ills: phosphorus runoff has caused widespread freshwater eutrophication, whereas nitrogen’s list of ills includes climate change, marine eutrophication, biodiversity loss, and air pollution.
They say that, as with most aspects of agriculture, predicting the balance between phosphorus losses and storage is a challenge that must integrate biophysical and socioeconomic drivers. Multiple solutions exist that can improve nutrient use efficiency along the path from crop growth to human consumption. These include high- and low-tech management options, policy instruments, dietary changes, and opportunities for N and P recycling (5, 7, 15, 20). Most critically, many solutions are not inventions yet to be discovered. For political, economic, and cultural reasons, they can be difficult to achieve (15), but the choices are in front of us.
Their analysis also revealed a huge variability between different ways of producing the same food. For example, beef cattle raised on deforested land result in 12× more greenhouse gases and use 50× more land than those grazing rich natural pasture. But the comparison of beef with plant protein such as peas is stark, with even the lowest impact beef responsible for 6 times more greenhouse gases and 36× more land.
- Labels that reveal the impact of products so consumers can choose the least damaging options;
- Subsidies for sustainable and healthy foods and taxes on meat and dairy; and,
- The $500 billion spent annually on agricultural subsidies could be much more efficacious if directed to plant-based foodstuffs.
Take Kraft Heinz as an example. When consumers started becoming more food conscious in the last few years, net income dropped 24%. Instead of devoting R&D to more nutritious recipes, the company tripled its advertising expenditures between 2014–2016. Let’s advocate for agribusinesses like Kraft to become healthy food providers. It will help us all and the planet.
A whole-foods, plant-based diet is a way of eating that celebrates plant foods and cuts out unhealthy items like added sugars and refined grains. Plant-based diets have been linked to a number of health benefits, including reducing your risk of heart disease, certain cancers, obesity, diabetes and cognitive decline. Even more importantly, transitioning to a more plant-based diet is an excellent choice for the planet.
We at CleanTechnica want to connect our readers with the consequences of plant-based choices. The morality in food commerce may be apparent, and CleanTechnica sustainability reporting can help individuals as well as responsible companies lead the way toward more visibility into how what we eat is laced with a commerce of morality and humanity.
Stockholm Resilience Centre director and EAT Trustee Johan Rockström has stated that, “If we get it right on food, we get it right for both people and planet.”
For Further Reading: How Food Became Wealth in America, by Lewis Lapham
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