Sunday, September 30, 2012

Paleo for the planet.

Back in August, I had the opportunity to attend the Ancestral Health Symposium 2012. Last year, I attended the inaugural event as part of the interview team, and it was a fantastic experience (read my recap). This year, I worked with my good friend and collaborator, Tess McEnulty, to submit an abstract to speak at the symposium. We were honored when the AHS organizers selected our abstract! All of the presentations at AHS12 were recorded, but they won’t be online for a while, so I thought I would give you all a preview of our presentation: Sustainability and world hunger from a Paleo perspective.

In the year 2000, we devoted an area larger than the state of California to the growing of industrial corn, wheat, and soy. I say “industrial” because these are crops that have been developed for yield and are not directly edible by human beings. Instead, they have to be processed. In fact, 70% of the wheat and 12% of the corn we grow goes into processed food products like cereal, pasta, soda, and candy; 80% of the corn and 22% of the wheat is fed to animals.

This system of food production requires a lot of inputs in order to function. According to the USGS, conventional agriculture uses 128 billion gallons of water each day for crop irrigation, whereas domestic usage (i.e. water for showering and washing dishes) totals 2 billion gallons per day. Heavy machinery and chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers rely on fossil fuels and other natural resources that cannot be replenished nearly as quickly as they are being depleted. The beef industry, which relies on corn and wheat for cheap animal feed, also relies on large quantities of antibiotics to keep the cows from dying from acidosis (caused by eating grain rather than grass) and hormones to increase weight given the shortened life span of grain-fed feedlot cows. And this entire system is kept solvent by federal subsidies, which make corn and wheat incredibly cheap.

For all of these inputs, what do we get in return? Feedlots produce lagoons of chemical-laden animal waste that pollute the air and nearby water resources. They are also major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Growing the grains that feedlots depend on has led to increased environmental degradation – loss of species diversity, soil erosion, and depletion of soil nutrients. The processed food we produce in this system makes us sick. The process by which we raise animals makes them sick, and agricultural antibiotic usage has led to drug-resistant strains of disease to which we are susceptible. In the bigger picture, our food supply is quite vulnerable because it is so reliant upon very few crops. Drought, disease, or pests that affect any of these few species could have disastrous consequences for our nation’s food supply. And sadly, we as consumers have very little control over our food. Despite all of these negative outputs, the conventional food system does provide a surplus of (apparently) cheap calories on grocery store shelves. This outcome is often suggested as an end that justifies the means in the face of an expanding population that too often goes hungry.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there were 850 million starving people in the world in 2008. However, global food production provides over 2700 calories per person per day (estimate from 2002, with similar rates of malnourishment to 2008). Of course, neither the calories nor the malnourishment are distributed evenly throughout the world. The above table, using data from FAOSTAT, shows statistics for the ten countries with the highest percentage of undernourished people (38% to 65% of the total population of each country). It also shows the number of calories in the country each day and the estimated average caloric need per person per day, which is based on the age and sex break-down within the country. Of these ten countries, only two actually have fewer calories than the population should require, and even in those cases, the deficit is less than 100 calories per person per day. These numbers tell us that global hunger is not solely a matter of producing too few calories.

In the developing world, hunger is caused mainly by inequality and poverty; people are simply too poor to buy food. Political instability and lack of infrastructure also impair people’s ability to access food. In addition to the hunger problem, 2 billion people do not get enough iron or iodine, and more than 200 million children are deficient in protein and vitamin A to the point that they are developmentally impaired. The situation seems grim given that the world population is expected to rise and global climate change may make resources even more scarce.

In the United States, there are over 3700 calories available per person per day. About 5% of the population reports having to reduce their food intake for financial reasons, although this reduction doesn’t necessarily mean they are getting too few calories. Unlike the developing world, in which starvation is a major problem, Americans have skyrocketing rates of obesity and diet-related diseases. Even the country’s homeless have similar rates of obesity and Type-2 diabetes as the rest of the population.

Americans, on average, consume 70% of their calories in the form of refined grains, vegetable oils, and added sugars – calories created from the three crops we devote so many resources to growing. Calories are not a problem in the US, but it seems like the type of calories we consume are making us very sick.

Worldwide, people are not getting enough nutritious food. In the developing world, distribution limits access to sufficient calories. In the US, nutritionally-poor foods and hidden calories have led to a population that is overfed but nutrient-deficient. At the same time, conventional agriculture is too resource-dependent to be sustainable, is ruining our environment, and provides nutritionally-poor calories.

Big Agriculture has offered their solution to feeding the world sustainably. We should continue to purchase their technology and chemicals in order to increase grain production and, subsequently, add more calories to the world’s supply. This is not actually a solution. We don’t need more calories to feed the world, and this approach will neither produce more healthy food nor improve food access to the world’s poor. And while biotech companies have long promised that genetically-modified seeds will offer enhanced food production in the face of climate change, they have yet to deliver on such promises. Also, poor farmers who adopt these growing practices will not be producing food they can eat, and the additional costs of proprietary seeds and chemicals make it harder to turn a profit and thus afford to buy food.

What if we tried to improve conventional agriculture by increasing efficiency? In a research paper by a group from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota (Foley et al., 2011), smarter use of irrigation and fertilizer could reduce resource usage without reducing food production. However, the crops that would thrive under this more-efficient system include several types of grains, sugarbeets and sugarcane, oil crops, and two kinds of starchy root vegetables. In other words, the same nutritionally-poor foods we currently produce. Improving efficiency may provide us with the same calories for fewer resources, but it will do nothing to improve access to food - so it won’t alleviate hunger - or to improve the healthfulness of the food that is available.

Another solution the group proposed was to consume calories more efficiently. They point out that the number of calories produced feeding grain to cows is far less than the number available from the grain itself. For the same resources, we could eat more calories in the form of processed grains, refined vegetable oils, and added sugars than we can get from eating grain-fed cows. A true statement, but would we be any better off adding these calories to our diets?

Which brings us to the question of diet...

Perhaps we could increase the sustainability of food production by eating the least resource-intensive foods. A study by Eshel et al. (2010) compared the land use and reactive nitrogen (i.e. chemical fertilizer) requirements of different foods. They found that plant foods demand far fewer of these resources than conventionally-grown animal foods, which is unsurprising given that we currently grow plants to feed to animals. More interesting, though, is the list of the ten least resource-intensive foods, which again consists of several types of grains and oils, grapes, and sweet potatoes. Based on these metrics, the best diet would consist of 55% of calories in the form of grains and more than 30% in the form of peanut, corn, and soybean oils. That means consuming even more grains and oils, as a fraction of total calories, than Americans currently eat.

It turns out that vegetables are actually quite resource intensive compared to grains, at least the way they are conventionally grown. In fact, vegetables can require as many resources as animal products. However, these are the most nutritious foods we can eat. This illustrates the importance of considering nutrition along with sustainability. Everything we do has an impact. Every choice we make requires resources. Shouldn’t we strive to make the best use of those resources rather than solely trying to limit our consumption?

Truly sustainable agriculture provides the healthiest food with the least environmental impact. On the other hand, grain agriculture wastes scarce resources because it does a poor job of producing calories that keep us healthy. If we want to feed the world sustainably, we need to (1) empower the poor to alleviate hunger, (2) defend healthy foods even if they come at a higher environmental cost, and (3) support sustainable agriculture to minimize the impact of healthy food production.

Human beings had millions of years to adapt to a diet that included meat, fish, and plants. Research within the ancestral health community has shown that our bodies function optimally when we eat the foods that have been a part of our diet for millennia. However, the exact proportions of meat, fish, and plants that we require to be healthy is not known and may even vary amongst the human population. The ancestral health community can provide an important voice in the sustainability conversation by addressing these issues in order to determine the best suite of diets for both health and environment.

The amount and variety of meat we need to eat to be healthy is still heavily debated. It is certainly possible that even the best polyculture farming systems would require a lot more resources to create meat than plant-based foods, which would make it harder to defend unchecked meat-eating. However, it is important that we focus this discussion on a real choice between healthy options - such as farming systems that incorporate only chickens when growing produce versus ones that focus on grass and cows. Arguing about how grains should be eaten, as junk food or as CAFO beef, will not lead us to an ethical and sustainable food system.

As the last few slides show, there are many ways to get involved - as a consumer, a citizen, and a member of the world community.

Educating yourself is the first step to action. Here is a list of resources.

Acknowledgements: I first want to thank my collaborator, Tess McEnulty, for encouraging me to submit this abstract, helping me seek out all of the data and sources for the material we presented, and being patient when I had to run off to take care of the baby in the middle of our work sessions! I also want to thank Gidon Eshel for useful discussions about the sustainability of different diets. And, of course, I want to thank the Ancestral Health Society and the AHS2012 organizers for giving us the opportunity to present this material and for putting together another stellar symposium!