Healthy Eating to Save the Planet

A couple of years ago, I realised that my training in Naturopathic nutrition taught us a Systems Approach to health through the naturopathic philosophies.  A Systems Approach theory stresses the interactive nature and interdependence of external and internal factors in an organization or system. Nothing exists in isolation, everything is connected and more like a network or web than a simple logical structure.  It is how life is, complex, chaotic and often unpredictable.

We learnt how organs and tissues are inter-connected and what affects one system will have a knock-on effect on other systems and tissues.  The human body cannot be likened to a car where if a part fails, you just replace with a new part.  Instead, if there is a problem in one organ, its lack of optimum function will be affecting other organs, and very importantly, the problem organ is probably being affected by less than optimum functioning elsewhere.  In a systems approach there cannot be a magic bullet solution, as all the issues have to be addressed until there is enough good function in the whole body to facilitate self healing.  Besides naturopathic medicine, other medical paradigms with a systems approach include Chinese 5 Element medicine and Indian Ayurvedic Medicine.  In the farming world, permaculture takes a Systems Approach and has developed it massively.  Some people might call this a holistic approach, one of considering all the possible causes and implications and how all parts of a system relate to each other.

Increasing knowledge (hopefully the wisdom of the years)  and reading is confirming my view that everything in life is inter-connected on some level. 

However in the world at large, the general approach is a more linear one of 0ver-simplifying problems into single cause and effect.  

For example, to take food and health, we know that what we eat affects our health and there is lots of evidence to show that how we farm affects our food, which in turn affects our health.  At the same time we are increasingly becoming concerned about climate change and sustainability and how what we eat can affect that. However if we only look at this from a simplistic perspective it is easy to jump to inappropriate conclusions.

So first let us look at what is health?  It could be simply, the absence of disease.  But there are plenty of people who do not have a disease who could be assessed as unhealthy so it is about more than the absence of disease.  Health could be considered to be when a person has the optimum function of the physical and mental body leading to a feeling of vitality.

Likewise, there are numerous definitions of living sustainably.  Some see it as living in a way that maintains the Earth’s status quo, or perhaps living in a way that does not undermine the ability of the Earth to support life.  There is another quote which more all encompassing than this.  A recent Quaker text, quoted in Resurgence magazine says:

living sustainably “should spring from a place of love rather than from fear” and that, although we may struggle to describe it, it might well be characterised by words such as “care, respect, love, symbiosis, honouring, valuing, hospitality, stewardship, nurture, humility, adaptation and accommodation, peaceable living, interconnectedness, awe, wonder, relationship, harmony, consecration, sacramental or holy living”.

For both ‘health’ and ‘sustainability’ there is no simple definition, rather each is descriptive title for a much larger and deeper meaning of the concept.

I want to illustrate the problem of simplistic linear thinking by linking health and sustainability, and then to offer a more complex solution to some of our current problems.

Throughout January, there have been many companies and organisations promoting a vegan lifestyle for health and for sustainability.  The advice is to give up eating animal products which produce high levels of CO2 and methane (another greenhouse gas) in favour of a completely plant based diet which will go a long way to averting climate change, and thereby promote sustainable living.  Consequently, the land used to farm animals could grow crops to replace the meat production.  In addition, this will dramatically reduce animal suffering.

There is good linear logic to this but the actual facts behind the headlines ‘Eat Vegan Save the Planet’ tell a different story.

There is no doubt that in general we all eat too much meat and that it is bad for our health to do so. A large proportion of the meat consumed is farmed in unsustainable ways which is cruel to animals, promoting huge suffering.

Rainforests are being cut down so farmers can grow soya to feed to cattle being intensively farmed in small areas.  Most cattle, wherever they are reared, are fed on grains to fatten them up to increase profit margins but grains are not their natural food.  

In UK, 70% of land is in agriculture and this includes uplands and moors where sheep are farmed.  Of all the land in agriculture, just 36% of the total is under crops and arable.  The remaining 64% is in pasture – that is for farming animals.  Half of arable land is growing cereals, a large proportion of which is fed to cattle to fatten them up.  

If we all stopped eating beef, and dairy products, then theoretically more land would be released for growing food crops for humans, as well as the land currently growing cereals to feed to animals.  However, most of the land under pasture is not suitable for growing crops.  The reason it is in pasture is because it is not possible to grow food crops the modern way with sophisticated heavy machinery.  Often the land is too wet, or with heavy clay by rivers or in flood plains, or it is too steep or inaccessible or the soil is too thin such as on hills and moorland.  So if farms stopped producing meat, most of the 64% of agricultural land, currently in pasture, could not necessarily be used for large scale growing of crops.  The land currently growing cereals to feed to cattle could however, be used for crops for people.

If people are not eating meat or dairy products, then another source of protein needs to be available.  Plant protein foods include pulses such as lentils and beans, plus nuts, and seeds.  There is some protein in grains but they need to be eaten with pulses to provide the full spectrum of essential protein constituents.

When it comes to eating healthy sustainable food we should be looking to eat locally produced food, to keep food miles low and reduce emissions for transport.  This can be a problem for the protein part of a vegan diet in UK.

Currently, the UK produces little plant protein and most of the protein in a vegan diet comes from abroad.  Lentils, beans, nuts and seeds could be grown here but not much is.  This could of course be changed, though the range of plant protein is going to be restricted by what will grow in our climate (almonds, cashews, walnuts, pistachios and many other nuts only grow in warmer climates).   Soya will grow in UK but there are good health reasons why it should not be a major part of the diet. 

Soya beans are high in plant oestrogens, which may be problematic for people suffering from hormone related conditions (except for women in peri-menopause). They have a high level of goitrogenic compounds which suppress the function of the thyroid gland, and they contain a high level of oxalates which bind with minerals like calcium and magnesium making them insoluble and unusable by and in the human body.  Most of these problems can be reduced by turning the soya into tofu as the Japanese have done for many centuries and tofu is a relatively healthy food.  Turning soya into texturized vegetable protein or TVP provides a protein food but in a highly processed way with concerns for health, plus quite a lot of ‘embodied energy’ used in the processing of the soya beans, so it should not be an option for the climate conscious.

If everyone who currently eats meat were instead start to eat a lot more conventionally farmed plant foods, the net result could actually be an increase in the use of fossil fuels to make the necessary fertilisers, pesticides, insecticides and herbicides and consequent increase in CO2.  In addition, large scale arable agriculture leads to soil degradation and loss, leading to higher use of fertilisers and loss of carbon from the soil.  Conventional agriculture is not sustainable and contributes to climate change.

If you want to go vegan and reduce your planetary footprint then you have to eat only organic or preferably permaculture produced food.  In fact we should all, meat eaters and vegans, be eating from small scale organic producers.

There has been quite a bit of research showing that eating meat can lead to cancer and other chronic and often fatal conditions, which is, of course, of great concern.  However more detailed research into the source of the meat eaten,  suggests that the meat that is so unhealthy comes from animals fed on cereals.  Many cattle are fed on grass during the warm part of the year when the grass is growing but are fed on cereals during the winter because there is not enough grass, or they are ‘finished’ on cereals in order to put on weight.  Eating cereals causes the animals to make an unhealthy type of fat that would not have existed in the animals our ancestors ate. Cereal fed beef fat is pro-inflammatory and cancer promoting and it is low in a chemical called CLE which is anti-inflammatory and health promoting.  Beef which are raised only on pastureland throughout the year do not have this damaging type of fat and are actually health promoting.  After all our ancestors often thrived on a mixed diet, and in winter time there were few plants around so they ate a lot of meat then, and cancer was a very rare disease.

So, if we are to source at least some of our protein locally,  save on food miles, and cut fossil fuel use in transport, then it would make sense to eat meat that is 100% pasture fed. In addition, the high levels of methane gas which have been recorded being released from cattle would seem to be a result of the grain diet they are fed, while pasture fed animals release much lower levels of methane. Eating animals, not just cattle, raised on land unsuitable for arable crops would make good use of pasture producing animals that are healthier, and even better, preserve pasture land which is good at sequestering carbon, thereby reducing the carbon foot prints of consumers.  In an ideal world, animals that are raised sustainably for local consumption would be slaughtered locally by the most humane methods available and not in large abbotoirs (but that is another story).

You can buy certified pasture fed beef on-line from small farm producers. See https://www.pastureforlife.org/news/100-grass-fed-certification-mark-approved

To summarise, eating conventionally grown plants on a vegan diet will not necessarily reduce the production of CO2 and methane or reduce fossil fuel use.  It is not necessarily a healthy approach to eating either.

A sustainable and healthy diet is one where a large proportion of the diet is made up of locally produced organic or permaculture grown plant food, with a small amount of pasture fed beef plus some organic free range chicken and eggs.

The subject of lamb production is another complex issue from a more Systems Approach.  The feeding patterns of sheep are such that wherever they graze they dramatically reduce the biodiversity of the landscape.  In reality, our so-called beautiful Lake District fells are sheep induced deserts with few species of plants, animals or insects. 

Pasture land by contrast, can have a much higher level of biodiversity and pasture land is a good sequester of carbon,  much better than conventionally farmed arable crops.  Going several steps further along this track, we should support rewilding our landscape – biodiversity and soil sequestration is the answer to climate change.

Conclusion

To support a sustainable lifestyle

Eat a lot less meat.

Eat some certified pasture-fed meat

Eat lots more vegetables, but only organic, biodynamic, permaculture grown ones.

Buy from organic farms, small-holdings, mixed farms and farmers markets where possible.

Buying food from small farmers supports sustainable agriculture and carbon sequestration.

 

References

Rewilding by Isobella Tree – there are lots of supporting references here.  Highly recommended reading.

Statistics from Wikipedia using information from DEFRA – in a more digestible form!

Some Stats

70% of UK land is in Agriculture

36% of all agricultural land is arable

64% of all agricultural land is pasture.

50% of crops are grains, a large proportion of which is grown as animal feed.  Of all cereals grown, wheat accounts for 65%.

Soil nutrient levels have dropped continually since the 1920’s.

Levels of nutrients in standard vegetables have therefore also dropped.

1926 MaCance made first analysis of vegetables

1940 McCance and Widdows produced  The Chemical Composition of Foods

100grams of different veg, fruit, cereals, meats, seafoods, beverages, sugars, preserves, sweetmeats, condiments and dairy.

In 51 years – to 1991 there has been

49% loss of Na

16% loss of K

24% loss of Mg

46% loss of Ca

27% loss of Fe

76% loss of Cu

Carrots have had a 75% loss of Mg

Broccoli has had a 75% loss of Ca

You need 10 tomatoes in 1991 to get the same Cu content as in 1 tomato in 1940

NPK  fertiliser encourages plant growth without the plant being healthy or having good nutrient levels.

In 2019, we are 28 years on from the date of the last big study so it is to be expected that levels will have dropped even more.

The soil is sick, so plants are sick which can only lead to sick people.

About Helen Cranston

Helen's primary work takes her to Sinai, Egypt as Project Manager for the Makhad Trust. She continues to work as a Nutritonal Therapist on an occasional basis and has over 20 years experience.
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