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!

Planning for the Future, Learning from the Past

I’ve just returned home after a lot of traveling around the country. I had the chance to spend a week hiking in the three gorgeous national parks of Washington, and I also got to check out Seattle and Portland while I was out there in the Pacific Northwest. After an additional week of family time in the Adirondacks of Upstate New York, I’d say right now my commitment to the planet is replenished and possibly overflowing with a love for wilderness, wildness, and all things “nature”.

Here’s a moment I captured at sunset on the Olympic coast of Washington:

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While on the road (not staring at spectacular sunsets) I was able to dive into a really intriguing book titled 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann. I love learning about the pre-Columbian history of the Americas, so this book was the perfect eye-opener for me to many of the advanced societies that flourished here prior to European colonization. One topic this book really got me thinking about is the history of food and agriculture in the Americas.

The history of human societies, cities, and civilizations inevitably circles around the invention of agriculture. Without agriculture, we would be living as hunter-gatherers, and there would likely be no cities, complex governments, or advanced technologies. (Note: There are of course several groups of people who successfully maintain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle despite their neighbors’ ever-expanding and sometimes destructive modern world. Without agriculture human existence is certainly not “less than”). Agriculture has allowed people to stay in one place and to fulfill different roles in society, but it has also taken a toll on the surrounding environment, on wildlife, on “wilderness”.

The title of this blog is 12,000 Years Young for a reason: in order to restructure agriculture and food consumption so that they are more sustainable and better for human well-being, animal welfare, and environmental health, we must plan for the future by learning from the past. What can the several independent “inventions” of agriculture circa 12,000 years ago teach modern farmers, scientists, politicians, business leaders, and everyday consumers about how to grow and eat food more sustainably?

In 1491, Charles Mann outlines the major agricultural developments that allowed multiple civilizations to flourish in the “New World”. Mesoamerican societies such as the Mayas and the later Aztecs thrived off of maize, beans, and squash; early Peruvian societies such as the Norte Chico developed a complex economy based around cotton production, trading textiles from the inland for seafood from the coast; the subsequent Incas rapidly expanded and colonized the Andean region off of a surplus of potatoes, quinoa, and llama meat. One quickly gets a sense of how much of our modern existence is built off of these developments. Mann mentions in his book that about three-fifths of modern-day crops originated in the Americas: corn, beans, squash, potatoes, quinoa, tomatoes, chilis–all delicious foods we take for granted today.

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But beyond these specific staple crops, agriculture has advanced incredibly due to many of the techniques used by pre-Columbian societies. The most well-known example is the Three Sisters method of growing corn, beans, and squash together, replenishing the soil through legume cultivation. (Note: The story of the Plymouth Pilgrims learning to plant fish-heads around corn is possibly something Tisquantum–“Squanto”–actually learned during his time in Europe, but another interesting agricultural technique nonetheless).

I’m personally excited to learn more about the agricultural methods that allowed human existence to change so drastically beginning 12,000 years ago. I hope that in developing sustainable technologies and innovative solutions for modern-day agriculture, we can learn from those who came before us. This doesn’t mean we should regress to a local, minimalist approach to farming, which though an important movement is not sustainable or scaleable to feed our future world. We should instead learn from the economically and technologically complex food systems of the past to inform our own advancements. It’s difficult and perhaps impossible to preserve the wildness and wilderness that I’ve recently visited without planning for a better future, and I believe that future began 12,000 years ago.

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.