It’s not WHAT you eat, it’s HOW it’s produced that matters

photo credit: Meriç Tuna

Few of us really realise that the food we’re eating today is impoverishing the soil and contributing greatly to the tragic and catastrophic loss of biodiversity — we don’t realise because most of us are far removed from the fields that were once rich in topsoil, and are now desert and dust.

This is what needs to change. We need to once again become connected to the food we eat. The real cost of cheap food has been this disconnection from reality.

Food is at the epicentre of the debate about the non-intended consequences of our actions. As a result it’s become an ideological battleground. There are all sorts of tribes within this ideological war, from vegans on one end of the extreme, to paleos on the other. But they’re kind of all missing the point, as far as I can see, though I can see the beginnings of a bigger, more important conversation about farming practice that is starting to develop. (And to keep it simple and illustrate a point I’m going to refer to vegans and paleos only, and not to the multitude of other food sects.)

Vegans will point to their evidence for why their diet is going to save us from apocalypse, and paleos the same. But we need to go beyond this largely binary argument and look at what we’re really talking about.

Vegans argue that livestock farming emits too much carbon and is linked to habitat destruction, and therefore biodiversity loss and species extinction. Both true and valid points. Paleos on the other hand argue that livestock are essential to a healthy farming system, and highlight how much of what is considered vegan is farmed in a highly destructive manner. Both true and valid points.

Vegans and paleos could keep arguing about this until the cows either do or don’t come home, depending which side wins, but I think it’s futile. Instead let’s break the binary, and see where there is common ground — because actually both sides agree with each other on one very fundamental issue.

It’s about how it’s farmed, not what is farmed.

Without wanting to admit it to each other, because primate protocol prohibits it, both sides actually agree with each other on the most important issue.

Two Examples of Bad Farming

Vegan — A typical vegan diet, if such a thing can be considered, tends to include amongst other foods, grains (wheat, corn, barley etc.) and legumes (beans and peas, mainly). Two things that most paleos don’t eat, or eat very little of.

Grains and pulses tend to be grown in mass monocultures on a continuous system of cropping, which means in practice thousands of acres of the same crop, grown in the same place, year after year, with liberal usage of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertiliser, and quite often plenty of ploughing (the deep turning over of the soil). This leads to a collapse of the local ecosystem, impoverishment of the soil and eutrophication of water courses, amongst other harmful effects. It also requires vast quantities of fossil fuel. It’s environmentally unsustainable, and more and more arable (grains, veg, legumes…) farmers are realising this, and pursuing change.

The deep soil that once existed to support this type of extractive farming now barely exists. This is how the vast majority of the world’s soy is grown.

Paleo — A typical paleo diet includes lots of meat and excludes grains and legumes. However, most people (including paleos) that eat meat source it from the supermarket, and the vast majority of the meat on sale comes from animals finished in feedlots. Taking beef as an example, this means that at about 9–12 months of age, once weaned, the yearling calves are sent to a feedlot to ‘finish’ for a period of 4–6 months on a diet that is high in grains and legumes. That’s the paradox. You might not be eating the grains and legumes directly, but you are still eating them, indirectly. And the feedlot itself has its own environmental footprint.

Those grains and legumes are usually grown in the same destructive manner as the grains and legumes that vegans eat. The argument that vegans use here is that it’s more efficient (in terms of land and energy) to feed those grains and legumes directly to humans. And that’s absolutely correct.

Neither system of farming is desirable, and neither diet is good for the environment, if the food is produced in this manner. It’s a lose-lose scenario.

Two Examples of Good Farming

Vegan — The grains and legumes are sourced from farms that practice no-till or low-till — ie. they don’t rely on the plough. Preferably without or with reducing use reliance on pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and artificial fertilisers. They practice a form of crop rotation to balance soil fertility. Maybe integrate livestock or manures. They sow green manures to help build fertility between crops. They’re monitoring soil carbon and working towards its yearly increase. This is perfectly sustainable.

Paleo — The ruminants (eg. sheep, cows and goats) are 100% pasture-fed. In lowland situations they’re integrated with arable farming, in upland or highland situations they’re managed in a way to support biodiversity and wildlife, be that integration with trees, or conservation grazing.

The grazing animals have access to a diverse pasture and are managed in a way that mimics their natural behaviour in the wild, such as mob grazing.

Chickens and pigs are also outdoors, and integrated within a larger farming system, but are fed grain and legumes from the sort of farms discussed in the good example above, but also a large part of their diet comes from waste and by-products.

All totally sustainable and good for the environment.

Can we support a world population of 9 billion people being vegan or paleo. I haven’t got a clue, and neither has anyone else. But most people are going to be in the middle of the two extremes, so we don’t need to worry too much about that. Let’s focus on the basics of soil health, and work from there.

These are simplistic examples used, but they work and they illustrate a point. I’ve ignored the farming of fruits and vegetables and mushrooms. But the same fundamental principles apply in all situations.

It’s possible to have almond milk that’s destructive and cow’s milk that is regenerative, and vice versa. It’s possible to have regenerative soya, and destructive meat.

We need stop focusing on what we eat, and start focusing on how the food we eat is produced. Then we can move towards a sustainable, healthy farming system that provides for all people and doesn’t destroy the planet and its inhabitants in the process. I don’t care if you’re vegan or paleo, we can all do that.