As I mentioned in Sunday's post I finally sat myself down to watch Forks over Knives, and although the documentary focused mostly on the health benefits of a "whole foods plant based diet" they did lightly touch on the environmental impact. Today's post is sort of a follow up to that but also one that
I have wanted to discuss for a long time, whether or not a vegetarian diet is the only way to go for a better environment.
One of the reasons I became a vegetarian initially was because I did think it was better for the environment. My feelings about the environment were also influenced by growing up Mennonite and we were taught that we were supposed to be good stewards of creation and that meant not using up more resources than we had too and giving of what we had to help people who were less fortunate. In the 1970's there was even a cookbook published call More-With-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre that focused on using less meat, less sugar, more legumes, and even included recipes from all over the world that were contributed by people working overseas. I would hazard a guess that this cookbook was a part of many Mennonite homes of my generation, and I still retain a copy. You can even buy a copy on Amazon.com today! In the wider world in the 1970's there was also a book published called "Diet for a Small Planet" by Frances Moore Lappe which also detailed the use of the world's resources in the raising and consumption of animals for protein. Being the type of "throw my heart fully into everything person" that I was (aka overly zealous college student), I decided that the only way to really do this was to be a vegetarian.
Of course, one of the things I neglected to think about was that neither of the authors of this book were/are vegetarian. When I read the updated version of Lappe's book she stated clearly in the introduction that she is not a vegetarian. I thought that was rather weird at the time, but with my mind filled with images of land turned to dust by cattle and memories of the horrible smells emanating from a pork processing plant near where I grew up, I still thought what I was doing was better.
Fast forward several years to a time when my when my critical thinking skills had improved and I had learned to look at most things through a lens of skepticism, and I learned that it was ok to admit that I could have been wrong or partially wrong about many things. I also realized that for whatever reason my body would no longer tolerate many of the things I had consumed as a vegetarian (first dairy, then gluten, then soy and other legumes, then nuts, ugh!) so if I wanted to take care of my own health I would have to start eating meat again. So, I had to turn to what the research says about our food intake and the environment to see if I could find some way to balance this out.
One of things that complicated my search is that the definition of vegetarian is fluid. I found this out when writing the vegetarian chapter for the Texas Dietetic Association manual and found out that I had to include all the various categories including pescaterian (eats fish regularly) and flexitarian (eats animal products based on the situation). And there are also people who merely eschew animal products for animal rights reasons and may or may not still eat a lot of processed foods, and people who eschew animal products and also eschew anything processed, and people who eat raw only, and people who are ok with cooked food, etc.
One of things that is fairly common among most of these groups (except for those that eat mostly raw) is that there is typically a higher consumption of soy, legumes, grains and grain products (e.g. seitan). If one is not careful where one is purchasing said products, chances are the person is consuming food that is the product of large scale industrial agriculture which can be destructive to topsoil and surrounding land. (Link) So if someone's diet relies quite a bit on grains, including whole grains, and things derived from grains, it is going to be hard not to feed into harmful practices. Also, there is a commonality among groups regarding a reliance on soy and other legumes. Depending on how much one relies on soy and meat subsitutes derived from soy, you might actually be using more energy to produce said products and more farmable land that could be used to locally raise livestock. There is also a use of energy if you have to import things as is the case for the UK. No one is denying that raising grain fed livestock in a feedlot environment is also destructive, but the choice to move to an exclusive vegetarian diet may not work out either. (Link).
One also has to keep in mind that the interaction with food and the envioronment is quite complex. For example, the University of Chicago did a study that indicated that a vegetarian/vegan diet did produce fewer carbon emissions. (Link) However, reducing carbon emissions isn't the only thing that you have to consider when it comes to the environment, you also have to consider how the land is being used. Sometimes land that cannot be used for crops could be used to pasture animals, and the animals in turn can help provide fertilizer for the crops. A study released by the Cornell University demonstrates that a mixed farm (where the crops and animals work together so to speak) provided the most efficient source of land use (Link). Another book that covers what life on such a farm is like and how we might expand this in is the highly entertaining book by Joel Salatin Folks, This Ain't Normal.
So it looks like the evidence is pointing too...a more complex problem that cannot be solved only by going to a vegetarian or vegan diet. There is definitely more evidence that points us away from overconsumption of grains and processed grain products both from a health standpoint and to not influence the erosion of topsoil, but one definitely doesn't need to go the other way in to complete disregard for where your sources of animal protein are coming from or to eat protein without any regard for how much your taking in. I would also say that we have to consider people's individual health history when making a decision. For me, choosing to go back to a vegetarian diet would result in some serious nutritional deficiencies and intestinal distress, other people, as listed in the movie discussed yesterday, are doing well on a mostly vegetarian diet. And if you are choosing to "moderate" remember this post, it's not moderation unless you have some way to quantify what and how much you're eating.