The Diet Question

I was eating dinner out last night with several friends and some of their other friends when I was asked a question I get pretty often: “If you don’t mind me asking, and I hope this isn’t too personal, why don’t you eat meat?” As much as I focus on food, agricultural sustainability, and environmentalism as some of my main interest-areas, I typically keep my dietary rationale to myself at the dinner table. There are several reasons for this:

  1. I try to avoid coming across as judging others’ food choices when I in no way do that (I mostly just care about what food I’m putting in my own mouth).
  2. Diet is both a highly cultural and highly individual choice and can bring up quite personal subjects (i.e. environmental ethics, animal welfare, health issues, religious doctrine, etc.)–and can be uncomfortable to discuss for some while eating.
  3. Personally, I view my food choices as tiny votes that add up over time both for my own well-being and the well-being of the environment. I’m happy to share my votes as a jumping-off point for discussion but not as a vehicle to “convert” others.

I do, however, want people in general to become more comfortable discussing their dietary choices, the background behind their food, and the major challenges and solutions for sustainable agriculture. The dinner table is a potentially great place for this, and I hope to learn more about how to best start these sorts of conversations in the future.

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Part of the reason for my own discomfort in discussing these topics is my own personal conflict with diet. The diet I eat right now I usually call “sugarfree plant-based” (some might call it pescatarian), and I’ve been at it for about a year and a half. I try to focus more on what I do put into my body than what I avoid eating, though inevitably I have several restrictions. I mostly look for high-energy/protein sources from plants (beans, nuts, rice), throw in some healthy veggies and leafy greens, and turn to eggs, cheese, and seafood either when I’m craving it or when it’s the most convenient option. Right now I am living at home with my parents so I’m back to eating more eggs, dairy, and seafood than when I was on my own for the past year. They are already very accommodating of my food choices, and I don’t want to complicate family meal prep even more.

My personal “diet journey” started long ago over a life-long conflict with sugar. I have always had an insane sweet tooth. As a little kid I would binge on straight packets of Swiss Miss hot cocoa powder, sneak chocolate baking morsels from the basement pantry, and concoct a beverage I called “maple milk” mixing about 3 tablespoons of maple syrup into a glass of milk and proceeding to chug it down. In high school, both my sister and I were tested and diagnosed with insulin resistance (also known as pre-diabetes). We were advised to consume a sugarfree diet to stabilize our blood sugar levels, help reverse the insulin resistance, and prevent the progression to Type 2 Diabetes.

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I struggled for several years with the sugarfree diet. I would start it, go cold turkey, and then regress and go on binging sprees inducing lethargic comas of sugary stupor. I was an addict. Sugar controlled all my other food choices, my daily energy levels, and my emotional stability. When I was eating sugarfree, I was eating healthily, and I took care of my overall physical and emotional well-being. When I was eating sugar, I let everything go, turning junk food into meals, staying up late into the night, and dragging throughout the day until my next dose of sugar. I finally got control of it and for the past year I have maintained a highly stable sugarfree diet.

My other major dietary choice has to do with the environment. A year and a half ago, I had already started reducing my meat consumption at college but finally decided to stop eating it altogether. I have continued eating eggs, dairy, and seafood throughout this transition period and right now, I am very comfortable with my diet, and feel good about the food choices I make on a daily basis. When I’m back on my own again, I do hope to continue transitioning to an even more environmentally-friendly diet, possibly cutting out eggs, dairy, and seafood even more. I could see myself easily going full vegan in my life on my own but still maintaining a more flexible vegetarian diet when eating with others. I am always conscious of my diet being a burden on others’ cooking plans, or over-complicating social gatherings or outings.

I’ll certainly write more going forward about my personal choices related to meat consumption, food environmental footprints, and sustainable diets, and I’d love to hear from anyone about your own food choices and diet journeys!

Bacon is Complicated

Last night I watched Bong Joon-Ho’s recently-released Netflix film Okja. An extremely complex movie, Okja is thought-provoking, weird, disturbing, and delightful. This moving story of the connection between a girl from rural Korea and her “super pig” companion, Okja, throws the issues of the environment, animal welfare, urban-rural divide, and powerful technology under the mainstream spotlight. What I most enjoyed about the movie is that it does not present a single answer to these questions. Instead, it leaves room for discussion and prompts careful consideration of our current food system.

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There are three main players in this film: the Natural (Mija and her pig Okja bonding in Korean wilderness), the Technological (the well-intentioned but destructive Mirando Corporation), and the Activist (the Animal Liberation Front, the wrong answer to the right question). Apart from Mija and Okja, no character is completely good or bad; most seem like satirical goofballs, if not antagonists. The Mirando Corporation CEO wants to feed the world more sustainably but lies about the super pig’s genetic origins and covers up the swine farm conditions. The Animal Liberation Front activists want to save Okja and the other super pigs but are themselves idiotic, self-righteous, and abusive. In the end, “the natural” survives but so too do the Technological and the Activist forces. With no true winner of the struggle, “Okja” is perhaps a perfect reflection of the obstacles we face in agriculture, sustainability, and technology today.

Besides the obvious questions of environmental and animal ethics, Okja reminded me of something I’d learned about during my time at veterinary school: Enviropig. A genetically-engineered line of pigs created by the University of Guelph, the Enviropig was developed to excrete less phosphorous in its waste, and therefore produce pork more efficiently and sustainably (see diagram below credited to http://www.uoguelph.ca/enviropig/images/Envirogpig-Model.jpg). The Enviropig project lost funding in 2012 and the story seems to end there, but its production raised important questions about genetic modification in animals as one solution to sustainable meat production.

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It’s difficult to wrap our minds around all of these questions and issues. Bacon is complicated. However, going forward, I think films like “Okja” and projects like Enviropig will be beneficial in their own unique ways. One thing I hope to see more of is a distinction between environmental and animal ethics in the realm of agricultural and food sustainability. Often these two issues are muddled and misidentified. Both important issues, they should be considered separately before bringing them together. A GMO pig might be more eco-friendly but ethically-questionable. An organic, “free-range” pig might be more humane but have a higher environmental footprint. Here, the natural and the technological, the animal and the human, the corporate and the activist all come together. It’s at this junction where we’ll find the best answers to a sustainable food future.

Beef and Beans

A recent article published in Anthropocene, an excellent sustainability-focused magazine, addresses the environmental benefits of replacing beef with beans. The article discusses a study which conducted a life cycle assessment (LCA) on both beef and beans, revealing that if the entire U.S. population consumed beans instead of beef over the next few years, we’d already have reached up to 75% of the emissions-reduction targets for 2020. That’s crazy!

I’m all for eating beans, and they happen to be one of my favorite foods: pintos, black beans, garbanzos, you name it. But I’m not sure all of America loves beans enough to commit to that kind of sustainability goal. The beef burger is, after all, the definition of fine American cuisine. Perhaps another solution lies in the increasingly popular Impossible Burger, a plant-based burger that quite possibly tastes, looks, and sizzles just like beef.

Now that we have a great-tasting burger alternative, why not everyone just hop on the vegetarian bandwagon and help save the planet? Sure, that’d be great! I hope to see high-quality meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger continue to pop up in restaurants and stores around the country, and I’m excited to learn about the innovation that gives rise to such products.

But for those of us who aren’t replacing beef with beans or other more sizzling alternatives, there’s companies like BovControl to help push sustainable food production forward. BovControl is a Brazilian startup in the business of Ag Tech, using data and technology to increase the efficiency of beef production. Their mission? To empower farmers and decrease world hunger. While their mission is not sustainability-specific, BovControl allows beef production to expand while making use of resources more efficiently and generating fewer emissions, which when scaled up could have a huge impact on climate change.holstein-cattle-2318436_1920

Climate change is a huge, multi-faceted issue, and animal agriculture is equally as complex. While it’s easy to think about the choice between beef burgers and bean tacos when deciding what to eat for dinner, it takes a lot more thought to consider all of the environmental, social, and economic factors at play. Here, I’ve tried to highlight three different approaches to reducing the environmental impact of beef consumption: advocating reduced beef intake, innovating plant-based meat alternatives, and driving more efficient beef production. Each of these approaches is completely valid, which demonstrates that a variety of innovative, sustainable solutions together will help us achieve food sustainability and security in the future.