The food culture across the environmental movement is ideologically attached to a plant-based diet. That attachment is seriously obstructing our ability to name the problem and start working on the obvious solutions. Transition Town originator Rob Hopkins writes, “Reducing the amount of livestock will also be inevitable, as large-scale meat production is an absurd and unsustainable waste of resources.”22 Raising animals in factory farms—concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—and stuffing them with corn is absurd and cruel. But animals are necessary participants in biotic communities, helping to create the only sustainable food systems that have ever worked: they’re called forests, prairies, wetlands. In the aggregate, a living planet.
That same ideological attachment is the only excuse for the blindness to Cuban suffering and for the comments that 30 percent of Cubans are “still obese.” That figure is supposed to reassure us: see, nobody starves in this regime. What such comments betray is a frank ignorance about human biology. Eating a diet high in carbohydrates will make a large percentage of the population gain weight. Eating any sugar provokes a surge of insulin, to control the glucose levels in the bloodstream. The brain can only function within a narrow range of glucose levels. Insulin is an emergency response, sweeping sugar out of the blood and into the cells for storage. Insulin has been dubbed “the fat storage hormone” because this is one of its main functions. Its corresponding hormone, glucagon, is what unlocks that stored energy. But in the presence of insulin, glucagon can’t get to that energy. This is why poor people the world over tend to be fat: all they have to eat is cheap carbohydrate, which trigger fat storage. If the plant diet defenders knew the basics of human biology, that weight gain would be an obvious symptom of nutritional deficiencies, not evidence of their absence. Fat people are probably the most exhausted humans on the planet, as minute to minute their bodies cannot access the energy they need to function. Instead of understanding, they are faced with moral judgment and social disapproval across the political spectrum.
I don’t want any part of a culture that inflicts that kind of cruelty and humiliation on anyone. Shaun Chamberlin writes, “The perception of heavy meat eaters could be set to change in much the same way that the perception of [SUV] drivers has done.”23 Even if he was right that meat is inherently a problem, this attitude of shaming people for their simple animal hunger is repugnant. Half the population—the female half—already feels self-loathing over every mouthful, no matter what, and how little, is on their plates. Food is not an appropriate arena for that kind of negative social pressure, especially not in an image-based culture saturated in misogyny. Food should be a nourishing and nurturing part of our culture, including our culture of resistance. If Chamberlin wants an appropriate target for social shaming, he can start with men who rape and batter, and then move on to men who refuse to get vasectomies—that would be a better use of his moral approbation.
Getting past that ideological attachment would also bring clarity to the bewildered attitude that underlies many of these “radical” writers’ observations about dietary behavior. Accepting that humans have a biological need for nutrient-dense food, it’s no longer a surprise that when poor people get more money, they will buy more meat. They’re not actually satisfied on the nutritional wonders of a plant-based diet. Ideology is a thin gruel and imposing it on people who are chronically malnourished is not only morally suspect, it won’t work. The human animal will be fed. And if we had stuck to our original food, we would not have devoured the planet.
Restoring agricultural land to grasslands with appropriate ruminants has multiple benefits beyond carbon sequestration. It spells the end of feedlots and factory farming. It’s healthier for humans. It would eliminate essentially all fertilizer and pesticides, which would eliminate the dead zones at the mouths of rivers around globe. The one in the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, is the size of New Jersey. It would stop the catastrophic flooding that results from annual monocrops, flooding being the obvious outcome of destroying wetlands.
It also scales up instantly. Farmers can turn a profit the first year of grass-based farming. This is in dramatic contrast to growing corn, soy, and wheat, in which they can never make a profit. Right now six corporations, including Monsanto and Cargill, control the world food supply. Because of their monopoly, they can drive prices down below the cost of production. The only reason farmers stay in business is because the federal government—that would be the US taxpayers—make up the difference, which comes to billions of dollars a year. The farmers are essentially serfs to the grain cartels, and dependent on handouts from the federal government. But grass-fed beef and bison can liberate them in one year. We don’t even need government policy to get started on the most basic repair of our planet. We just need to create the demand and set up the infrastructure one town, one region at a time.
Land with appropriate rainfall can grow two steers per acre. But those steers can be raised in two ways. You can destroy the grasses, plant corn, and feed that corn to CAFO steers, making them and their human consumers sick in the process. Or you can skip the fossil fuels and the torture, the habitat destruction, the dead zones that used to be bays and oceans, and let those steer eat grass. Either method produces the same amount of food for humans, but one destroys the cycle of life while the other participates in it. I can tell you with certainty which food the red-legged frogs and the black-footed ferrets are voting for: let them eat grass.
Repairing those grasslands will also profoundly restore wildlife habitat to the animals that need a home. Even if the rest of the above reasons weren’t true, that repair would still be necessary. The acronym HANPP stands for “human appropriation of net primary production.” It’s a measure of how much of the biomass produced annually on earth is used by humans. Right now, 83 percent of the terrestrial biosphere is under direct human influence, and 36 percent of the earth’s bioproductive surface is completely dominated by humans.24 By any measure, that is vastly more than our share. Humans have no right to destroy everyone else’s home, 200 species at a time. It is our responsibility not just to stop it, but to fix it. Civilizations are, in the end, cultures of human entitlement, and they’ve taken all there is to take.
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Featured image from the Permaculture, Perennial Polycultures & Resistance blog