Last October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report stating that our children will be toast if we don’t make substantial progress by 2030. On August 8, they will be issuing another report, Climate Change and Land. In this report they will be considering human land use and, according to a leaked document, will talk about the need to drastically alter both our diet and how we produce food. I wanted to talk about this because there are emotional cultural issues with the former and powerful corporate interests heavily invested in the latter.
Our food production systems are responsible for almost a quarter of our greenhouse gas emissions, and, even if we eliminate fossil fuel use, there will still be considerable emissions from our sick and dying soil. After WWII, an agricultural system known as the “Green Revolution” took over. It involved the intensive use of petroleum for fertilizer, insecticides, herbicides, and for machinery to farm on a much larger scale. Those of you who are old enough will remember “better living through chemistry” was the byline for DuPont. It was thought at the time that the Green Revolution would be the final solution for feeding the world, and, unfortunately, it still is thought to be so by many. Growing our food on mega farms with cheap petroleum products and feeding much of it to livestock raised in large feedlots means cheap food, especially cheap meat.
We now know that the toxic stew of chemical inputs kills our soil and its resilience to floods and draught, sending all of it into our lakes, streams, and oceans. It also created a huge meat industry characterized by sick, inhumanely treated animals, mountains of concentrated manure, and corporate monopolies that have turned once proud farmers into poorly paid factory workers.
As we look to turn around our unsustainable food system, one of the solutions that resonates deeply among many is the need to eat less meat. I believe this is true and that the meat we do eat should be grass fed and grass finished. As the final consumers of this unsustainable system, we must starve out the industrial confined-animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Many of us have decided that going vegan is the single best thing we can do to save the planet. While that decision is helpful for all of us, and we should be grateful for your choice, there is much more to do and consider.
First, we need to know where our plant-based diet is coming from. If we are eating processed foods (the stuff that fills all the center of our grocery stores), unless it is organic and GMO free, we are still contributing to global warming. We can be certain that any corn or soy product not labeled organic is GMO. Even the organics are probably not being grown regeneratively (with cover cropping and minimum tilling), so the soil they’re grown in may still be releasing CO2 into the atmosphere instead of sequestering it.
Second, we have to consider, if everybody became vegans tomorrow, is there enough plant-based food to feed them? A large part of our food system is devoted to producing meat and the corn and soy that goes into it. We need to eliminate CAFOs, but we also need to transition millions of acres to food suitable for humans.
Third, until we get the government to transfer subsidies to regeneratively grown food, most people will buy and eat what they can afford, i.e., the industrial status quo products.
Fourth, there is growing evidence that livestock can be raised sustainably and, in fact, is a vital part of a healthy ecosystem. Raising livestock, per se, is not the ecological evil that CAFOs represent. I respect a person’s desire to be vegan, but I also think that meat is an important local protein source, especially in parts of the world where farming is difficult or not possible.
Arrayed against this change is a group of very powerful corporations that will fight ferociously to maintain the current system. Yet, if we don’t fight them and change our diets so as to not buy their products, we will lose that fight.
One of the most important things we can do to change to a regenerative system is to reduce the scale—more small family farms, more local production and consumption. We can’t be dependent on exotic foreign foods for our nutritional needs.
What we need to keep in mind: ninety percent of the meat at our stores is CAFO meat, and we have to stop supporting that industry. There is grass fed, grass finished beef, free-range organic chicken, and wild seafood. Tell the meat people what you want, and they will increase their supply of sustainable meats. It will be more expensive. Eat a lot less of it. Use meat as flavoring rather than the main dish. Think Thai or Chinese food. Remember that many GMO foods are designed to survive extra herbicide exposure. Are you? If it isn’t GMO free, don’t buy it. Cook from scratch; it’s more fun and tastier too. And the best way to know what you are getting is to grow it yourself.