The physiology of the metabolic processes involved in Vegan, and Paleo diets, does not give a conclusive answer to the superior choice. Vegans claim that a more alkaline diet is the key to good health. Paleos claim that the state of ketosis is perfect and healthy. Ketosis is the process of burning all carbohydrates stored in the liver and deriving energy from one’s own body fat or food just consumed. Nutrition is a fledgling science, and there is an abundance of misinformation about the subject. Even physicians cannot agree about the pros and cons of either of these diets. If there is a correct answer, it probably lies in the middle ground with eating a balanced diet.
Both diets, if followed incorrectly, may have negative health consequences. Ketosis, from the paleo diet, can lead to dehydration, constipation, and kidney stones. Vegans need to take supplements to avoid malnutrition and a deficiency of essential amino acids. Commercially produced vegan surrogates of forbidden foods are not only currently unpalatable but highly processed. To paraphrase one of the best quotes from the films is that for all the cultural influences that helped create the western diet, Americans seemed to have created the only one that kills people en masse.
Michael Pollan's writings explore this quandary of what to eat, with an honesty many fad diet writers severely lack. His philosophy is that food science is relatively young and a balanced diet is best. His book, In Defense of Food, recommends choosing foods that people one hundred years ago would consider edible. This means avoiding foods that are processed and buying whole foods that are unrefined and do not contain artificial ingredients. Pollan even says that whole fat dairy is not harmful to adults, in moderation. This book is great for a less extreme, more reasonable viewpoint on food.
Pollan, as well as vegans and paleos, care very deeply about domesticated animals’ quality of life. According to them, current factory farming is inhumane and horrific. Another factor to consider is the huge environmental cost of raising meat for consumption. A question for those with these concerns is, “In what way can meat products be raised in a more humane and ecological way?”.
There is an inspiring and hopeful Technology, Entertainment, Design or “TED” talk, by Allan Savory in which he shares knowledge gained through a lifetime of experimentation with land management. His thesis is that grasslands have evolved to depend on grazing to complete their lifecycle. Savory has credentials as the father of modern Holistic Planned Grazing, and inspired Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. This farm is featured in film, Food Inc., and Pollan’s book, Omnivore's Dilemma, in further detail. Savory’s work is also respected by the permaculture community.
He overcame a personal prejudice against the damage caused by grazing animals to develop a responsible way to raise them. He found that grasslands that were taken out of use for grazing continued to desertify, erode, and deteriorate. The grasses became more sparse, and the soil became dry and started to become airborne. He found that if grasses were never disturbed, the stalks would lodge and impede the next year's growth. Many places use controlled fires to clear the last year’s debris and keep grasslands healthy. The widespread use of fire adds huge amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere, changing the climate and leading to further encroachment of drylands. The same clearing result could also be achieved by rotating livestock grazing. Cattle quickly overgraze if left in the same pasture for very long. This can lead to loss of biodiversity and desertification. In the wild, ruminants are pursued by predators and kept ever moving to greener pastures and water sources. Savory’s research found that if this process is simulated with the process of rotational grazing, desertification halts and the land repairs itself. The cow manure, instead of being concentrated in feedlots, is spread by the cows themselves throughout the landscape. This simplifies the process and makes many pieces of equipment, such as manure movers, spreaders, and digesters, obsolete.
Savory’s presentation drew criticism based on some wild claims about the amount of carbon that could be sequestered by grasslands. What he says seems to be true, in a very limited technical way. On arid grasslands, rotational grazing would sequester more CO2 than the NH4 the cattle produce. Grazing is definitely better than burning the grass. Savory is the kind of scientist who does wide scale experiments to improve land; his operations are a bit too primitive to have any solid data about his effects on the atmosphere.
Solutions to one harmful effect of cattle are found only to be confronted with the next--methane emissions and pollution, excessive use of use of land, grain, water, oil, pesticides, and antibiotics. The number of potential harmful effects are too overwhelming to justify eating red meat every day. Worse than corn feedlots is the unholy combination of tropical slash/burn agriculture and grazing. Burning rainforests to raise cows leads not only to large amounts of emissions and destruction of habitat, but also leads to “cementification” of the landscape--infertile soil baked hard in the sun. Savory was not the savior of a carnivorous lifestyle he seemed to be at first. The amount of carbon sequestered by agriculture in temperate areas would not be much less than than the amount absorbed by grazing, as compared to benefits to semi-arid climate of Zimbabwe.
Other kinds of red meat, such as sheep and goats, also produce methane and are only better than cows by requiring less grazing land. Pigs reproduce and grow very rapidly compared to ruminants. They do not burp methane, and they can actually digest corn. That is where the benefits end; there is really no way to responsibly free range pigs, and kitchen scraps, their traditional food, are just as efficiently processed by poultry. It is understandable that some religions deem pork to be a taboo to eat. Trichinosis, a condition caused by an invasive parasite in raw or undercooked pork, causes seizures and death. Tuberculosis and swine flu also come from pigs.
Raising domestic “white meat” animals is much more environmentally friendly than raising “red meat” animals. Many cities now allow residents to keep urban laying hens. While there is some risk of bird flu and salmonella exposure, it is very nice to have fresh eggs and the occasional bowl of chicken soup. There really is not enough space in the average urban yard to grow birds for meat. In a survival situation, guinea pig or rabbit meat could be a very valuable and renewable food source.
A major aspect of the paleo lifestyle is the hunting or purchasing of wild meat. Hunting makes the consumption of meat more intimate in that people see the animals alive and take responsibility for killing them. Hunting is less time intensive than animal husbandry. Farm animals have to be helped to give birth, need veterinary care, require protection and shelter, and need to be fed and watered daily. Animals in the wild take care of themselves; if they do not survive, no one loses money or time. The only interaction humans have with wild animals is to kill and dress them. This is a process required to convert domestic animals into food, as well. It could be argued that wild animals have a better quality of life while alive. However, the impact of everyone killing wild animals could be drastic.
What do people imagine when they think of the environment? Almost everyone has a vision of nature as abundant and untouched, with wild animals and mature ecosystems. What if we could return to a near virgin landscape, while at the same time enjoying higher yields and a variety of products? Permaculture is a philosophy of agriculture, that promises just that. Permaculture homesteads are arranged into zones by how frequently systems need maintenance. The first zone is the entryway and actual living space. The second zone includes kitchen gardens, tended animals, and compost piles which must be visited every day. A little farther from the house, in the third zone, are long term projects that do not take much attention, such as beehives and orchards. The seldom visited fourth zone is for wildcrafting plants, harvesting timber, and hunting. The fifth zone, if there is enough land, is left natural to make habitat for native animals.
Domestic animals have other benefits. On a farm, the manure they produce is almost as valuable as the meat and other products they provide. It is common to provide farm animals with excess nutritional supplements to enrich the animals’ manure. To continue traditional annual agriculture on the same land every year requires fertilizer from either chemicals or livestock. Permaculture is much more long term; nitrogen fixing plants are a permanent fixture of a forest garden and layers of organic matter are added to improve yields. Forest gardens are perennial and only require planting, harvesting, and trimming. A forest garden is planted in layers, to provide people with the food, fuel, fiber, and (f)pharmaceuticals they need from a small space.
If the chokehold industrial agriculture has on the government agencies meant to regulate it was ever broken, there are many ways everyday people could have access to wild meat. As with permaculture homesteads, changes could be made to the first zone of cities; people who do not enjoy caring for the land could move to apartments or condos. In the second zone lawns could be replaced with either kitchen or forest gardens. In the third urban zone, there could be more public community produce and agri-forestry. Cities could also establish aquaculture facilities, nut and grain fields. Food could be sourced more locally and eaten seasonally to offset ongoing drought in the United States. In the new fourth and fifth zones, land that is currently used to produce grain to feed farm animals, fuel cars, and make processed food, could be planted with the native plants most important to native wildlife.
Rural communities might never welcome the return of dangerous wildlife, like bison, wolves, and mountain lions; however, ranging of domestic livestock as well as the organized harvests of native animals could feed the country with no fossil fuel input. If we put more effort into clean waterways, fish would provide a renewable food source. While chickens are better for laying eggs, turkeys are a more efficient source of meat and are native to North America. If wild turkeys were encouraged to follow cattle rather than using chicken tractors, no one would go hungry. Deer and elk could also be encouraged to multiply and could be herded and tended. Careful attention must be paid to solve prion disease in these ungulates to prevent infection of people. Small sanitary processing facilities could be built along the range, so animals could be walked instead of shipped. These facilities could be modeled after corrals for cornering herds built by native people. The only time a vehicle would be necessary is to take the meat to the urban areas.
This fifth zone would sequester the large amounts of atmospheric carbon and help restabilize the climate. Nordic countries give their citizens the right to roam the wild areas. This would provide relaxation to citizens, who enjoy the outdoors. While many of these ideas seem farfetched, they are more believable than the truth, that we allowed a corporation to own 30% of the best land in this country, and they give us toxic food.
People with the self discipline to eat vegan or even just ethically this day in age is tremendous, this should not be an issue about will power. Our government should step up and regulate how our food is produced. This need to change, before people even worry about how long they can extend their lifespans. The future should be something worth looking forward to.