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Why I’m Not a Vegan

May 21, 2013, 8:38 pm 
By MARK BITTMAN

“On my recent book tour, I spoke with a number of people about my take on a positive direction for the American diet. I’ve been semi-vegan for six years and in the book (called “VB6,” for Vegan Before 6 p.m.[1] ), I argue that this strategy, or one like it, can move us toward better health.

In the last 30 years, researchers have graduated from the notion that Americans should “eat less fat, especially saturated fat” — the catchphrase of ’80s nutritionists[2] — to widespread agreement that we eat too few unprocessed plants and too much hyperprocessed food, especially food containing sugar and those carbohydrates that our bodies convert rapidly to sugar. There is also compelling evidence that we eat too many animal products (something like 600 pounds per person per year) and too much salt.

None of this is simple. For one thing, we still have much to learn about the composition of plants and the aspects of them that are good for us[3] , although it’s becoming clear that they’re beneficial not so much as a combination of nutrients but as the right package of nourishment, which we might as well call real food. In other words,you’re better off eating a carrot than the beta-carotene that was once thought to be its most beneficial “ingredient.”[4]

And for another, salt and sugar are necessary parts of a sound diet, but so much of each is added to processed food that we’re getting way too much of both. It’s likely that neither would be a concern if we were doing all of our cooking from scratch, but of course we are not.

Animal products have a special place in this discussion, because unlike hyperprocessed foods they have been a part of the diet of most humans since humans existed, and because their concentration of nutrients makes consuming at least some of them convenient and perhaps even smart.

There is, however, a limit to their benefit. Until recently, even “successful” agriculture[5] failed to guarantee unlimited animal products to the masses, but industrial agriculture changed that, and, since (say) 1950, almost anyone in a developed country who could afford (say) a car could also afford to eat meat, dairy and/or eggs as often as he liked.

Although the most convincing research indicates that red meat is the least healthy, it also appears that those who turn to what’s called a “paleo” diet — one comprising primarily meat, fruits and vegetables but not so much in the way of legumes or grains — may avoid some of the pitfalls of the standard American diet but still fall prey to others.

Besides, there are non-dietary reasons to eat fewer animal products. Even if their nutritional profile were unambivalently beneficial, they use too many resources: land, water, energy and — not the least important — food that could nourish people. (To the often-asked question, “How will we feed the 9 billion?” — used to defend a host of objectionable agricultural practices — many of us say, “Focus more on feeding people plants and less on feeding them animals.[6] ”)

And there are two other factors to consider: the industrial production of livestock is a major (if not the leading) contributor to greenhouse gases, and the rampant and nearly unregulated use of antibiotics in that production is making those drugs less effective while encouraging the development of hardier disease-causing germs.

From every perspective, then, it seems we should be eating more plants and less of everything else. “So,” a certain percentage of the people I spoke to this month asked, “why not go whole hog” (forgive me) “and advocate a strictly vegan diet?” Isn’t being a part-time vegan, the more strident demand, like being a little bit pregnant?

To that last question, the answer is, “Obviously not.” A vegan meal has no implications about what your next meal may be; you can be vegan for the better part of a day, or for a number of days of your life. Part-time veganism (which you might also call flexitarianism) is a strategy for integrating the reigning wisdom — eat more plants, less hyperprocessed stuff, fewer animal products — into lives that have, until now, been composed of too few of the first and too many of the second and third.

VB6 is just one such strategy; in my travels, I met people who were “vegan until the weekend” or vegan all but five days a month, or any number of other approaches to achieving the same goal. You might think of patterns of eating as falling on one point or another along a spectrum, and moving toward the plant-based end of that spectrum — as opposed to the end represented by Morgan Spurlock’s “super-sized” diet — is almost always beneficial.[7] It is about eating better, or well, not perfectly, and it must be said that “perfectly” has not yet been defined.[8]

I can see three scenarios that might lead to universal, full-time veganism: An indisputable series of research results proving that consuming animal products is unquestionably “bad” for us; the emerging dominance of a morality that asserts that we have no right to “exploit” our fellow animals for our own benefit; or an environmental catastrophe that makes agriculture as we know it untenable. All seem unlikely.

This much is known, now: We produce most animal products in deplorable conditions, and some of our health and environmental problems can be traced both to dominant production methods and our overconsumption. But we like to eat them, and they’re a pleasurable and even healthy part of many traditional diets and even sound agricultural practices.

So: reduce the rate at which we consume animal products, produce them better and substitute plants for a large portion of them. We’ll improve our health, animal welfare and the state of the environment. Not a bad bargain.

 


1. I eat mostly unprocessed plants before 6 p.m., and then whatever I want afterward. And, in answer to the most frequently asked question: Yes, I cheat.

2. This led to “low-fat” foods (Snackwells is a shining but hardly only example) and the biggest per capita weight gain in American history.

3. Just this week, for example, a new study was published showing that plants may be protective against cancer. I include this not because it’s conclusive but just to show that the work is ongoing.

4. Or, as David Katz has said, “The active ingredient in broccoli is broccoli.”

5. Jared Diamond, in his 1987 article “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” questions whether agriculture was actually an advance for humans, but there is obviously no going back.

6. Reducing waste, sometimes estimated as high as 50 percent of all food produced, is another obvious answer.

7. This is also spelled out in Dean Ornish’s book “The Spectrum.” I’m a long-time admirer of Ornish, and for that reason I asked him to write the foreword to my book.

8. A vegan diet is no guarantee of a good diet, unless the only goal is to avoid killing animals. Sugar-sweetened beverages, French fries and doughnuts can all be vegan.”

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May 23, 2013 · 6:01 pm

Halve meat consumption, scientists urge rich world

Beef carcasses at a wholesale meat market in Paris

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“Beef carcasses at a wholesale meat market in Paris. The quest for ever cheaper meat has ’caused a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health’, a UN report says. Photograph: Francois Mori/AP
 
 

People in the rich world should become “demitarians” – eating half as much meat as usual, while stopping short of giving it up – in order to avoid severe environmental damage, scientists have urged, in the clearest picture yet of how farming practices are destroying the natural world.

They said the horsemeat scandal had uncovered the dark side of our lust for meat, which has fuelled a trade in undocumented livestock and mislabelled cheap ready meals. “There is a food chain risk,” said Prof Mark Sutton, who coined the term demitarian and is lead author of a UN Environment Programme (Unep) study published on Monday. “Now is a good time to talk to people about this.”

The quest for ever cheaper meat in the past few decades – most people even in rich countries ate significantly less meat one and two generations ago – has resulted in a massive expansion of intensively farmed livestock. This has diverted vast quantities of grain from human to animal consumption, requiring intensive use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides and, according to the Unep report, “caused a web of water and air pollution that is damaging human health”. The run-off from these chemicals is creating dead zones in the seas, causing toxic algal blooms and killing fish, while some are threatening bees, amphibians and sensitive ecosystems. “The attention this meat scare has drawn [highlights] poor quality meat. It shows society must think about livestock and food choices much more, for the environment and health,” said Sutton.

The answer, Sutton said, was more vegetables on the plate, and less animal protein. “Eat meat, but less often – make it special,” he urged. “Portion size is key. Many portions are too big, more than you want to eat. Think about a change of culture that says, ‘I like the taste, but I don’t need so much of it.'”

By filling plates with vegetables as well as the meat, people will be better nourished. “Most people don’t notice,” he said, citing a recent UN event at which the chef used a third the amount of meat, more vegetables to make up for it, and more than 90% of guests were just as satisfied.

Sutton was speaking about the rich west, the US and Europe in particular. He wants the change in diet to be pioneered in Europe, as the US will be a tougher nut to crack. The UN scientists said people in poor countries should be allowed to increase their consumption of animal protein, which billions of people are lacking. But if that is so as not to cause environmental harm, the move to meat in the developing world must be balanced with a reduction in the amount consumed in developed countries.

Chicken and pork are likely to be the meats that cause less environmental damage in relative terms, though standards of welfare and the circumstances in which livestock are raised can make a big difference. “Chicken is one of the most efficient [meats] as it grows very quickly and you can collect the manure,” said Sutton. Meat production accounts for 80% of the nitrogen and phosphorus used in farming, according to the Unep report, entitled Our Nutrient World: The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution. These nutrients are produced at great expense globally, but most of them end up wasted through the animals’ manure. In some areas of the world, the nutrients are in short supply, resulting in lower crop yields.

Unep warned: “Unless action is taken, increases in pollution and per capita consumption of energy and animal products will exacerbate nutrient losses, pollution levels and land degradation, further threatening the quality of our water, air and soils, affecting climate and biodiversity.”

The report also set out a variety of measures by which farming could be made more environmentally friendly, from simple steps such as storing fertilisers more securely and using them more sparingly, and capturing greenhouse gas emissions from their production. Nitrogen use could be cut by 20m tonnes by 2020, saving £110bn a year. Reusing waste, such as manure, and treating sewage using modern methods would also save hundreds of billions.”

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February 20, 2013 · 9:01 pm