Todays article is a guest post written by a man I massively respect, Ryan Andrews. I first came across his work in Alan Aragon’s research review in a fascinating article entitled “eating to prevent the apocalypse”. It was the best article I had read which comprehensively compiled the research surrounding eating to support the environment, in an evidence-based but non-intimidating way. I find that often the information on this topic can be scaremongering and extreme. In fact the situation is extreme, extremely worrying, however Ryan talks about it in a rational and digestible way which outlines what we can actually do to make a difference. And it doesn’t mean giving up everything you love.
I ask that you read this interview with an open mind. We tried to create a post which is short, sweet and accessible. In condensing the information we have only touched on a few points which you may want us to explore in more depth. If you have any further questions then tweet me and I can work with Ryan on a future article dressing them!
So, what is your background?
I started to get involved in nutrition (and fitness/health) at the age of 14. Until the age of 20 I was a nationally competitive bodybuilder. I studied nutrition and exercise in undergraduate/graduate school. In grad school I worked as a research/teaching assistant, and started to develop a new level of respect for the scientific process. After grad school, while I was completing my dietetic internship, I started to develop a new level of respect for counseling and "real world" behavior change (which is often veeerrrrry gradual). Having experience and respect for both the "research lab" and the "real world" has allowed me to look at nutrition problems through a unique lens.
I should also mention that the way I view food and nutrition really started to shift on a deeper level early in grad school. See, during this time I took an ethics in research class, and I was learning about using animals in research (and feeling a bit unsettled by it). After several discussions with a lab assistant, I had an epiphany:
My daily food choices influence factors beyond my own health.
In other words, what I choose to put on my plate each day has a ripple effect that extends to farm laborers, animals, and the environment. This was when I started to not only consider how food influences my body, but how food influences factors outside my body as well.
What is your approach to nutrition now?
Well, beyond foundational principles that your readers are probably familiar with (e.g., eating mostly minimally processed plant foods, drinking plenty of water, knowing and respecting body cues for hunger/fullness), I’ll talk about something that has probably had the biggest influence on my own nutritional path: Making choices with the greater good in mind.
One of the most common things I’ve heard over the past decade from my nutrition clients is how much they struggle with motivation and willpower to eat "healthy". I don’t think this is because human beings are going through an epidemic of willpower depletion, rather, I think it’s because sometimes when we are making nutrition choices, we emphasize our self-interest a little bit too much, and this creates blinders to how our choices influence the rest of the world.
Think about all of the things we do with the greater good in mind:
- We donate blood
- Help someone cross the street
- And so forth
These are things that can be challenging, no doubt. However, these kinds of behaviors don’t require soul crushing levels of willpower and motivation. Rather, these behaviors are more effortless because they align with our "bigger-than-self" goals. These are the goals that go beyond our own self-interest and allow us to feel hopeful, grateful, and inspired.
Essentially, when a cause is bigger than us, we’re more likely to stick with it long term, without having to white knuckle it with willpower reserves.
This is something I apply to my own eating. I keep my "bigger-than-self" goals in the forefront of my mind, and it really makes for a more effortless and rewarding journey.
Right, let’s get into the nitty-gritty. Talk to us about animal agriculture?
Well, first off, I would discourage anyone from thinking about animal agriculture in terms of â€˜good’ or â€˜bad’. Context matters, and the role that animals play in agriculture varies enormously across the planet. Animals might be an essential source of labor on farms in certain regions. Or animals might be a source of food security, converting otherwise inedible vegetation into calories/nutrients when access to a variety of other plant foods isn’t available.
It’s even possible for animals to be part of an integrated crop/livestock system that has environmental benefits, such as sequestering carbon in soil, efficiently using water, and rebuilding ecosystems.
The amount of animal products we consume in developed countries doesn’t allow for this kind of sustainable farming system to flourish. There are just too many people eating too many animal products to allow it. In the US for example, we consume 225 pounds of meat/fish per person per year (compared to only 7 pounds of beans per person per year).
The demand for animal products is so high in the UK, US, and Canada that we’ve become reliant on CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) for efficiency. This is where the vast majority of meat, dairy, and eggs come from. And this has led to some really scary environmental consequences, including:
- Excessive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – GHG emissions can be directly from the animals themselves (e.g., digestion and waste products) or from the resources that go into raising the animals (e.g., growing feed, clearing land to grow feed/graze, etc.). Livestock production is the largest source of methane and nitrous oxide, two gases with even more global warming potential than carbon dioxide. It’s well established that eating a plant-based diet will lead to fewer GHG emissions. Just how much? It’s hard to say exactly, but estimates start around 12% less (when the diet still includes a fair amount of animal products) and going all the way to nearly a 70% reduction (a vegan diet).
- Excessive water use – Only 1% of the world’s water resources are fresh and accessible. While there are many variables to consider with how water is used in food production (e.g., is it from rain? Irrigation? How much water is polluted as a result of producing the food?), on average, one calorie of animal product requires about five times more water to produce than one calorie of plant product (this excludes tree nuts, which are quite thirsty). When it comes to water, a plant-based diet requires less, with estimates starting around 16% less (for those diets including some animal products or relying more on tree nuts for calories) and going up to nearly a 60% reduction in water use (a vegan diet with smaller amounts of tree nuts).
- Inefficient conversion of plant matter into animal matter – If you have a plot of land and you can use it to grow crops directly for humans, that would be the most efficient way to feed people. If you have a plot of land that’s too hot, cold, steep, or dry to grow crops that humans could consume directly, this is a prime opportunity for livestock to convert existing vegetation into food and energy. While these kinds of landscapes exist, we can only support 30% of the current livestock population on them. This means that 70% of livestock make for a very inefficient use of land and other resources in our efforts to produce food.
- An amount of waste that doesn’t allow nutrient recycling – Every day in the U.S. 24 million farm animals are used for food. These 24 million animals are consuming lots of feed and producing lots of waste. The feed contains protein, and protein contains nitrogen. Of all the nitrogen livestock consume from their feed, over 90% is excreted in manure/urine. Small amounts of manure/urine can play a role as a fertilizer on crop/livestock integrated farms. However, large numbers of animals in small areas produce an amount of manure/urine that’s simply too much for land and water to absorb. It becomes a source of pollution. When there’s too much nitrogen, it escapes into water (contributing to dead zones) and air (contributing to nitrous oxide emissions).
Ok, that’s a lot to take in! But what about fish? Surely that’s ok?
90% of fish stocks are exploited or overexploited. If this kind of overfishing (and pollution) continues, we can expect to see a complete collapse of world fish populations by 2048. That’s only 31 years!
Beyond eating less fish, another sustainable solution is to expand the variety of species consumed. There are more than 1,700 different species of seafood, meanwhile developed nations rely mostly on tuna, salmon, and shrimp. This drives exploitation.
Other seafood that tends to be more sustainable includes filter feeders like clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops.
Damn. Is there anything else we should consider?
There are four other areas I would encourage you to be aware of when it comes to sustainable eating:
- Wasted food – In the US we discard about 25% of the food we bring home. We forget about it, don’t use it, it goes bad. When we discard this food we’re essentially discarding all of the resources that went into producing it. Further, food that enters the landfill is a major contributor to carbon dioxide and methane production. In fact, if all of the world’s wasted food was represented as a country, it would be the third highest GHG emitter, behind the US and China.
- Organic food production (or something similar) – Soil is a really big deal. The goal of organic production is to sustain soil for the long haul by adding compost, using cover crops, minimizing tilling, ensuring a variety of species, and minimizing synthetic chemical applications. If we want to be healthy, we need healthy soil.
- Food variety – Eating a variety of foods is important for all sorts of reasons, but in terms of the environment, two big reasons are 1) pollinators and 2) soil. See, lack of diversity in plants means lack of diversity in pollinators and soil. Without healthy pollinator diversity we can say goodbye to about 35% of food production around the world. Further, soil that isn’t diverse isn’t as resilient to drought or floods, or as productive in general.
- Local food – Most of us are familiar with the benefit of fewer transport miles, but this actually isn’t very substantial environmentally, especially compared to all of the other factors discussed above. More than anything, supporting local farmers means you are probably supporting sustainable crop/livestock practices, techniques that align with organic production, and a wider variety of crops.
So what can I do?
Depending on what circles you run in, all of this information might be brand new to you. Hopefully you don’t find it paralyzing, but empowering. Here’s a summary of the big takeaways:
- Find your minimal effective dose of animal products. Optimal intake for the environment would probably be around 10% or less of total daily calories. But for most people in developed countries, any decrease would be an improvement. Get them from systems that have sustainable crop/livestock integration. Eat more roots/tubers, legumes, whole grains, seeds, and ground nuts. These are the most environmentally friendly sources of calories and nutrients. How much we can benefit the environment with our diet mostly hinges on the amount of animal products we consume.
- Be conscious of where you waste food. Consider if you might be able to use leftovers, plan meals, compost scraps, or buy "visually unappealing" produce.
- Aim to support farms/farmers who are practicing more organic/sustainable methods. Eating locally often accomplishes this.
- Expand your food variety. Try new recipes. Order something different at a restaurant.
A Note From Zanna…
I know that reading this article can be overwhelming, upsetting or even angering. This is a natural feeling. All I ask is that you don’t dismiss this article. That you don’t ignore it. That you don’t continue on without reading a little more and digging a little deeper.
The reason why I respect Ryan so much is that he has a balanced and rational approach. He doesn’t expect everyone to give up all animal products and he understands the value of high quality, ethical and sustainable farming practices (e.g. grazing cows on pasture and their benefits for the soil). Everything he says is backed by evidence and he isn’t afraid to use a reference (or twenty)! I hope to collaborate with him more and more over the coming months, so let us know what you want to see.
If you want read further into this topic, subscribe to Alan Aragons Research review and read Ryan’s full article in the April 2017 issue. If you’re interested in making changes toyour lifestyle, join the Living Consciously Crew Facebook group!