A few days ago, my wife and I received a package in the mail from our niece and her husband. It was a book by Matthew Prescott entitled Food is the Solution, What to Eat to Save the World. Since the credo I adopted last year was “Saving the Planet One Choice at a Time” and, since I am “MikeThatFoodGuy”, to say I was excited is a huge understatement!
While 2/3 of the book contains recipes of beautifully photographed and inviting plant-based meals for breakfasts, soups, stews, salads, sandwiches, main dishes, sides, and desserts, the first 1/3 of the book makes the case for why we should eat plant-based foods. And it’s a compelling case.
Consider our personal health care. The American Institute for Cancer Research and the American Heart Association, among other associations, strongly advocate plant-based foods in lieu of animal-based foods. Heart disease, the number-one killer in America, is caused by cholesterol (which is only found in animal products) and saturated fat (high levels of which are found in animal products). By eating more plant-based foods, diabetics can get their blood sugar to drop and reduce or eliminate their dependence on insulin. There are many other examples, but bottom line, we would be far healthier by substituting plant-based food for animal products.
Consider the condition under which animals are raised for food. Most animals produced for food suffer on a massive scale. They are treated like machines. Most of today’s animal products are produced on “factory farms” in contrast to “traditional family farms” of the past. At “factory farms” animals are abused in ways that would be illegal if they were done to a dog or cat. Egg-laying hens are crammed into cages so small they can’t spread their wings. Mother pigs are forced to live in crates so tiny they can’t even turn around. Breeding pigs are impregnated, stand in a cage for months, until time for birth, then impregnated again and returned to their confined pin. Chickens are bred to be “Frankenbirds”, growing too fat and fast for their young bodies to keep up with and suffer crippling injuries as a result. And all of these penned animals are forced to stand in their waste until hosed off. Even “farmed” fish suffer in aquatic tanks that are packed gill to gill, inviting diseases. And the fish that are ripped from the sea suffocate or are crushed by the weight of other fish on the boat deck. Bottom line, today’s animal food production is cruel and many believe is unsustainable.
Consider the impact to our planet. Today, 70% of the Earth’s agricultural land is used for livestock production. That’s about three football fields needed per person every year to sustain the animal-based portion of a standard diet. Agriculture production is the largest source of soil erosion in the U.S with 90% of croplands shedding soil above rates that are sustainable for the long term. Increasing demands for cattle feed and corn-based ethanol are straining over-stressed farmlands with more farmers foregoing rotations of soybeans (which provide more soil protection) to grow more corn. Forests are being displaced in order to meet increased demand for feed crops. As for water used, every pound of beef requires two thousand gallons of water. Hundreds of gallons of water are needed to produce a single pound of chicken or glass of milk and dozens of gallons are needed to produce a single egg. In contrast, vegetables and grains require a fraction of those levels of water. Our animal diet is also a major contributor to water degradation and consumption. Factory farm waste causes massively contaminated runoff which mixes with storm water ultimately carried to rivers and oceans. Factory farms also contribute to air pollution taking a toll on local communities and producing dangerous gases like methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide as emitted waste breaks down. Bottom line, it takes massive amounts of land, water, fertilizer, and oil to produce animal-based products, all of which strain Earth’s resources significantly more than it requires to grow other nutritious and delicious kinds of foods.
And of course, consider climate change. The livestock sector is now a leading greenhouse gas emitter, estimated to be responsible for more emissions than the entire global transport sector. As I discussed in earlier posts (Less Beef, Less Carbon, No Red Meat? and Impossible) animals are not the most efficient way to get protein – in fact one of the least efficient sources. Producing one pound of meat means feeding an animal up to 15 pounds of grains and other crops, requiring massive amounts of farm land to grow huge quantities of crops. Regarding caloric conversion, the most efficient sources of meat convert only 11% of gross feed energy into human food. In other words, nearly 90% of what we put into animals turns into waste. “An inefficient system that taxes our planet’s finite resources in incredible ways.”
A year ago, when I wrote Less Beef, Less Carbon, I decided to eliminate red meat from my diet in an effort to reduce carbon emissions. The logic: less consumption, less demand, less production, etc. And I decided to substitute more poultry and seafood for the red meat. A few months later in No Red Meat? I wrote about my progress and discussed the benefits of Mediterranean diet, with an emphasis on vegetables, fruits, grains and seafood; moderate consumption of poultry, cheese, eggs, and yogurt, and rare consumption of red meat. For me, this step was an improvement on just eliminating red meat.
But now, after reading Food is the Solution, I’m concluding that the previous changes I’ve made are not enough. I can do more; more for my health, and for the planet. I’ve decided to move toward a more complete plant-based diet. So, over the next months, I plan to transition. (I’ve got some poultry and fish in the freezer that shouldn’t be wasted.) And like before, as a guest, I do not plan to refuse a meal prepared by my host. But I believe, every meal I can further reduce my carbon footprint by consuming fewer animal products, will be a positive change, for me, and the planet. It’s also exciting to think about the potential new tastes I will discover as I widen my search for good tasting food. My son, as a New Year’s Resolution, decided to go vegetarian for a month and I applaud his exploration. And with him as an example, I’ve recently tried some new vegetable-based recipes. I recognize that I don’t have to become 100% vegetarian or 100% vegan – I can decide what the right balance is for me, but I appreciate that every vegan day, or every vegetarian day, is one less vote for animal-products. Clearly, by substituting plant-based foods, I will reduce my animal-product consumption. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that “If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains, for example, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half million cars off U.S. roads.”
Speaking of recipes, over this past year (and for my first time) I made a plant-based gumbo, a plant-based chili, and I’m planning to try a plant-based paella. I’ve also been delighted this year by the introduction of new meat substitutes such as Impossible Meat and Beyond Beef (I tried their Italian sausages this past week). And in Food is the Solution, I’ve got another 80 new recipes to consider.
James Cameron, award winning director and explorer, wrote: “Almost every major environmental problem could be solved by a global shift toward plant-based eating.” Cameron may be right and taking steps to eat more plant-based foods is something everyone can do. Matthew Prescott summed up his book by saying: The power is on our plates – let’s use it.
Thank you, Cassie and Seb for opening my eyes a little wider on the importance of food choices as a solution to our planet. I hope others might consider substituting more plant-based foods in their diets and I look forward to any comments or recipe suggestions.