Paleo and Confused
It used to be so simple. Like many left-leaning college-age kids, I was spoon-fed the conventional wisdom that a vegetarian diet is optimal for health, animal welfare and the environment. I read the PETA brochures being handed out in the quad and began a series of attempts at vegetarianism. My sentiment would get a boost from time to time after acquiring new material, such as my hippy ex-girlfriend's copy of Eating Animals. Before moving to the Southwest, I was for the most part pescatarian, meaning I ate seafood but no meat. Living in New Mexico, far away from any fresh seafood but close to local, humanely raised grass-fed beef, I rethought the equation a bit but still kept all animal products fairly minimal.
But I ate these animal products because I had a weak will and a passionate love for surf-and-turf. I wasn't strong enough to go with my family to Ruth's Chris and order the vegetable medley while everyone else chomped down on filet and ribeye. And yet, I still knew that a vegetarian or vegan diet was ideal: respecting animals, feeding the world's population, and achieving the best health and fitness possible. Back in college, my best friend's girlfriend (now his wife) was vegan, and she was in great shape and seemed perfectly healthy. Everything jived, and the environmental-fitness-humane paradigm worked: The fewer animal products I consumed, the better, across the board.
It's not so simple anymore. I've opened up a Pandora's box of nutritional knowledge, and in doing so have become aware of my own ignorance. I know a lot more about the importance -- indeed the essentiality -- of animal fat and protein. Based on anthropological and contemporary scientific evidence, I have grown more and more convinced that the human body has evolved over millions of years to thrive off of eating animals, and that it suffers greatly when deprived of this nutrition source. Plus, I feel so much better when I cut out dairy, minimize grains, and center meals around animal protein, and thousands of paleo dieters agree.
In other words, my whole paradigm is all kinds of F'd up!
My philosophical standpoint
I also want to eat food that, calorie for calorie, contributes the least to environmental devastation and climate change. So if it takes 11 times more fossil fuel to produce meat protein than plant protein, and 40 to 100 times more water to produce beef than wheat, then I take into consideration how my food choices are contributing to our environmental crisis, and whether these food choices could support a global population hurdling towards 7 billion.
Lastly, of course, I want to eat food that contributes to my health, fitness and longevity. And that's what Zack's Nutrition Facts is about, so no further detail needed here.
The Vegetarian Myth
So luckily there's a book about this exact subject! It's called The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith. Whenever I quote in this post, assume it's this book. I found out about the book in an unfortunate manner: Paleo dieters chastising vegans on the Paleo forums. I've encountered a lot of paleo sheep (in the figurative sense, that is) waving off vegans who have questions and interest in a veg-style paleo diet. These paleo cyber-bullies generally say, "Just read The Vegetarian Myth, then you'll understand," as if the book somehow puts to rest all the dispute about food justice and sustainability. I don't want to do that here. As you'll see, I have compliments for the book, as well as some criticisms.
Lierre Keith can be described as a radical, militant eco-feminist. She was a vegan for 20 years. During this time, two things happened: First, her health disintegrated to the point where she couldn't stand upright for more than a few minutes. Second, she began gardening and exploring "Vegan" agriculture, realizing it's utterly impossible to produce any food without the help of animals or fossil fuels. These two elements frame the entire book.
My take on The Vegetarian Myth can be summed up as: Great idea, poor execution. As this thoughtful review points out, Keith cites many references from the internet, and even Wikipedia. Especially in the nutrition section, there isn't much original research and there are few references to original studies. It's more a clumsy amalgation of other authors, whose credentials may be questionable. Plus, there are more "ibids" in the endnotes than a college political science paper written by yours truly the night before the due date with a hangover. I will say, though, that Kieth goes into more detail than I've seen on the perils of soy, which will be the subject of my next post.
My other qualm with the book is a general arrogance towards vegetarians and vegans. I would have liked to see an ex- twenty year vegan take a nurturing, helpful and compassionate tone instead of a holier-than-thou attitude toward her former cohorts. I bet a lot of curious vegetarians were turned off.
The philosophical sections, on the other hand, are original and thoughtful. Keith makes several brilliant points that truly shake -- if not collapse -- the moral high ground of vegetarians and vegans. I summarize the most relevant of those points below. They are all somewhat related derivatives of the same general idea: animals comprise a necessary, integral piece of the moral and sustainable puzzle.
1) Annual monocrops (the species of plants that live for one year, deposit seeds, and then die) comprise the basis of agriculture itself, and they are devastating to the environment. They require the constant clearing and re-clearing of natural, perennial habitat (think old-growth forests, prairies, wetlands). The process of plowing and tilling destroys topsoil, sucking it dry of its life and nutrients to the point that only synthetic nitrogen fertilizer manufactured from fossil fuels can create growth. In agriculture, all native plant and animal species are treated as intruders -- pests that must be destroyed. Further, the water demands of these annuals result in drained rivers and depleted aquifers. Keith asks vegans a direct question: how many species of animals have gone extinct, and how many rivers have gone dry, due to the spread of these annual monocrops?
I sat in an activist conference. We were radical, righteous, and wrangling over food. The conference had served only vegetarian meals, but a growing number of us found that inadequate. Was there room for a range of options? No, because innocent animals shouldn't have to die. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, there was a whole shelf of lettuce in the fridge. Where was it grown? Who knows, besides far, far away. Probably California's Central Valley, where the waterbirds were once so thick over the Sacramento River that they blocked out the sun. But the river and its wetlands have been bled to death for agriculture, to grow lettuce, tomatoes, artichokes: non-violent, vegetarian, inherently more sustainable than animal source foods. Or such was the stand taken by my comrades.
...What can feed humans on twelve inches of rainfall a year? Extend the question with the clause: without destroying such a brittle environment? A brittle environment with a river running through it? Why go through all the trouble of damming up and destroying a river, a river dense with fertility and food, and then all the work of planting onions and alfalfa and wheat, when you could just sit back and wait for the fish, year after year from now until forever? Is this insane, or is it just me?
Keith goes on to blame agriculture for all the world's problems, and call civilization the root of all evil. While she makes good arguments, I don't see it as black-and-white as she does, and we disagree on the nature of progress and the beneficial aspects of civilization. But then, I'm a white American male, not an impoverished female servant in Cambodia. But I digress.
2) Properly raised meat is not the environmental nightmare I thought it was. According to VegFam, a 10 acre farm can support 60 people growing soybeans, 24 people growing wheat, 10 people growing corn and only two producing cattle. The nutritional deficiencies of the above foods notwithstanding, let's look at the bigger picture regarding those two cattle. As I discuss above, growing monocrops requires the wholesale destruction of native habitat and the death of the remaining topsoil. Without animal manure, monocrops also require fertilizer made from fossil fuels and a great deal of water. These monocrops are then shipped to a feedlot and fed to cattle, whose manure is considered a waste product that needs to be disposed.
Wendell Barry describes this process with a brilliant quote: "Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm — which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commercial fertilizer. The genius of America farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems."
But what if you take annuals out of the equation, and go back to the one solution described by Berry? The above VegFam stat assumes grain-fed cattle. (I talk about the ridiculousness of grain-fed livestock, the foundation of factory farming, in my budget post.) On ten acres of land, Joel Salatin, one of the "high-priests" of sustainable farming, can produce 3,000 eggs, 1,000 broilers (chickens), 80 stewing hens, 2,000 pounds of beef, 2,500 pounds of pork, 100 turkeys, and 50 rabbits. All while restoring the topsoil. Only the chickens get some supplemental grains; all other animals eat grass -- native, perennial grasses that cannot be digested by humans. According to Keith, this totals 6,800,050 calories, which can fully nourish nine people, without counting the organ meats and nutrients from bone broth. It's not the 60 people that soy can supposedly (mal)-nourish, but it's much better than just two from grain-fed beef.
What about water? Again, the stat that it takes 40 to 100 times more water to raise cattle than wheat only holds up in a grain-feeding scenario. Taking the average water consumption of pastured cattle, days to reach market weight, and pounds per cow (not even counting the useful fat and bone trimmings), Keith calculates that a pound of pastured meat requires only 122 pounds of water. But that pound of beef contains almost twice the calories as a pound of wheat. At this point, beef and wheat are about even in terms of water needs. But the meat contains essential protein and fat nutrients that aren't found in wheat, and the meat originates from a natural perennial habitat rather than a clear-cut agricultural wasteland propped up by nitrogen fertilizer.
In sum, pastured livestock can convert the cellulose found in naturally occurring grasses -- which humans cannot digest -- into high quality digestible protein. All while fertilizing the ecosystem with manure. This is not the environmental plague that vegetarians associate with meat production.
3) Someone has to die for you to live. It's the circle of life. I've never questioned this basic tenet of the universe, and have focused my grievances not on animals' deaths but rather on the manner the animals were treated during their lives. Vegetarians and vegans, though, don't believe animals should have to die for their sustenance. They try to force this philosophical ethic onto nature, but nature is not willing to negotiate.
Keith recounts a visit to a vegan farm. She saw the operation as a noble but doomed attempt to create sustenance from the land, without the domestication or consumption of any animals. It is a chilling anecdote of malnourishment and forced compromises with an unwavering planet. The farm's produce was so delicate that nobody was allowed to walk on the grass. The farmers apologetically explained they need birds for nitrogen-rich manure, pigs and goats to clear the land, and draft horses for sustainable logging. Every meal consisted of some form of bread and lettuce, and the bread was sourced from grains imported from 2,000 miles away. All the workers were emaciated, slouching from muscle-wasting. Contrast this dark image with a normal, self-sustaining farm that values and utilizes animals as an integral and logical part of the ecosystem.
According to Keith, some vegans actually want to feed their dogs and cats -- carnivores by nature -- a vegetarian diet. Some vegans dream of creating a fence across Africa, separating the carnivores from the herbivores so no innocent animals are eaten, ignoring the simple fact that the carnivores would immediately starve and the herbivores would overpopulate, all while the land on both sides would die. This sentiment just doesn't jive with the natural order of life.
Keith goes into detail in many other ways, with an extremely interesting account of her own failed attempts at vegan gardening, to make the one overall point: Nature is brutal, and nature isn't sympathetic to our idealism. Life requires death.
My thoughts on Paleo and Sustainability
Can I rejigger my paradigm and retain my identity (or at least hang onto the farce of this identity)? Can I still be a Gym Rat-Paleo-Hippy-Bikeriding-EnviroDude? Or to put it another way, can I repair the hole in my Bro-zone layer?
The Vegetarian Myth provides a starting point. Now, railing against agriculture and civilization as we know it is pretty ambitious. But Keith is a radical, and good on her for fighting the good fight, damn it! However, I'm more realistic (read: complacent). What I got from her book is to keep things local. "What grows near you?" is the question she asks often, and the one you should be asking. Here in New Mexico, the Farmers' Market sells beef. In New Orleans, it sells shrimp. Neither of them (nor any farmer market I've ever heard of) sell grain. It's not a difficult concept, and with some foresight and planning I will strive to keep my diet paleo and local at the same time.
Can we feed the world on a paleo diet? Probably not. But we can't sustainably feed the world on a vegetarian diet either. Thanks to fossil fuels, we've exceeded the Earth's carrying capacity, and we may be screwed either way. But The Vegetarian Myth shows how it may in fact be more environmentally friendly to eat a local, organic and, yes, meat-containing diet, than a diet based on annual monocrops. The latter is an oil- and coal-powered war against the land, while the former is the well-oiled solar-powered food machine we've had for millenia.
These conclusions are far from certain. Keith's book is a great starting point, but more study and discourse are needed to show whether a paleo-locavore diet is indeed better for the Earth. This uncertainty and lack of evidence, though, won't keep me from staying Paleo. Why? Because I am fortunate to have great control over what goes into my body, while I have just about zero control over the behemoth that is global environmental politics. I sure as heck am not going to sacrifice my health to make a muted environmental statement.
What about animal welfare? As I've mentioned, I'm all about humanely-raised animals. The paleo diet encourages pastured meat, which is not only healthiest but also best for the environment. There are certainly paleo dieters who think it's fine to eat factory-farmed meat pumped with antibiotics and hormones. Let me be clear: they're doing it wrong.
I've read in the past that to be a vegetarian is to intellectually evolve, to transcend our brutish, violent existence that includes the need to kill for sustenance. I understand and applaud this sentiment, but there are real, concrete problems with taking your consciousnesses and conscience beyond nature's state of affairs. This is not only true for the planet, whose various ecosystems thrive off of the intricate and sometimes violent interaction between animals, plants and all other forms of life. It is also true for your body, which has evolved to eat animals and -- try as you might -- won't be evolving any further in your lifetime.
As for the nutritional side, I don't think there's any question about the inadequacies of a vegan diet. (contrary to some of the paleo blowhards, I think the lines are more blurry for a vegetarian diet). Keith describes her physical disintegration that came about due to a vegan diet, and her work with a doctor who specializes in recovering vegans. Personally, my friend's wife notwithstanding, I've run into quite a few vegans and they all look pale and sickly, with an alarming lack of muscle tone. Being vegan requires nutritional supplements to ensure the bare minimum in health, such as Vitamin B12, an essential nutrient only found in animals. If this is the case, could cavemen have been vegan? No. We are humans and our bodies require animal nutrients, plain and simple.
So, paradigm salvaged? Not quite yet. There are two chinks in the armor in this Enviro-Paleo premise. First, eating at restaurants gets a lot tougher. If I'm traveling or eating out, and the restaurant serves only factory-farmed meat, do I order a vegetarian dish -- say the soy burger or the fettucini -- and pay the gastrointestinal price? Do I break out a few cage-free hardboiled eggs from my bag? Or do I put my principles where the sun don't shine and order the steak? I would like to think I'd do one of the former, but experience proves different.
Second, I like to work out. It's a huge part of my life. To maintain this lifestyle, I'm literally eating for two at 4,000+ calories per day. Moreover, I strive to gain muscle for no reason other than to have a body that is attractive by our society's standards. While it's certainly a "paleo" behavior to try and look fit so as to better attract a mate and maximize chances of reproduction, it's not like I'm a fireman whose strength could be the difference between life and death. Is this much exercise justifiable on a planet strained for resources, where one in four American children go to bed hungry each night? If I cut back on exercise, I could reduce my caloric requirement and commensurate burden on the Earth. I'm fully aware that the choice between vegetarian and paleo is dwarfed in significance by the choice to exercise more and eat accordingly.
|Stephen Colbert has a wacky take on produce abuse|