Eating Animal Foods can be regenerative – Part 2: Environmental Health, Fertility & Sustainability

This post is part 2 of a 3 part series. If you haven’t already done so, please read part 1 (nutritional point of view) first. Make sure to also read about the intentions I have with this series in the beginning of part 1.

Part 2: Sustainability Point of View

Besides health, sustainability is a big reason why people choose to stop eating meat or animal foods in general. I cannot blame them. Movies like “Cowspiracy” and even official statistics blame eating meat for a large part of our carbon emissions and as such for accelerating climate change. While this might indeed be true for industrially farmed meat, this doesn’t have to be the way we raise our animals.

Eating (the right kind of) meat can help reverse climate change

Animals raised on pasture, especially if raised according to guidelines of holistic grazing (as studied and promoted by the Savory Institute) or used for the maintenance of natural reserves, contribute to INCREASE rather than decrease the fertility of the soil. This is because the plants receive a growth-impulse when being eaten, the soil is worked by the animals walking on it and their manure is a nutrient-rich, natural fertilizer. The problem arises if cows stay on the same spot of grass too long. High impact-short duration grazing however “stresses” the plants enough to grow back stronger, but without depleting them through overgrazing. The more fertile a soil, the higher its capacity to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. This process is called “carbon sequestration”. There are models showing how intelligently grazing animals could reverse climate change to pre-industrial levels within one generation! For more information, read this document.

Grasslands have the capacity to store even more carbon than trees and it’s especially interesting because they store the carbon in the soil, so it does not get released in the atmosphere during wildfires as is the case with trees. However, it’s when we transform grasslands into farmland that enormous amounts of nitrogen are liberated into the atmosphere. Nitrogen is much worse than the often quoted methane and it doesn’t matter whether the crops we grow are meant for human or animal consumption. If on top the fields are fertilized with synthetic fertilizer containing nitrogen, like it is usually done in mono-culturing, THAT’S the real catastrophe for the climate. So eating non-organic plants can actually be MUCH worse than eating grass-fed animal foods…

Enough for everyone?

Some of you might ask now: But are we not just too many people on this planet to cover our needs for animal proteins with pasture-fed animals?? Is factory farming not a logical consequence of our high meat consumption in combination with a rising population? NOT NECESSARILY.

  • First of all, it is a WRONG idea that it is an “either – or”. Cows or other animals were never meant to compete with humans for food, but to live together with us in a symbiotic system of giving and receiving. It is our man-made food system that takes the animals OFF the grass lands and puts them apart in feedlots to then turn the former grass land into fields where crops are grown to feed the exact animals that could have perfectly lived on those former grass lands.
  • Second, there are calculations that IF we turned all those fields that are currently used to grow soy or corn for animal feed (consuming enormous amounts of water and fossil fuel) back into grass lands, we could raise the SAME number of animals. This is because holistic grazing is a rather intense, high impact way of animal farming. It mimics the natural behavior of big grazers in nature, who would always move around in herds rather than on their own. So we wouldn’t even necessarily “lose” quantity of animal foods, while increasing its quality AND reversing climate change to pre-industrial levels (click here for more info).
  • Last but not least, reducing WASTE is another key aspect when talking about sustainability. Currently 20-30% of all animal foods end up in the bin somewhere along the production line! Re-learning to eat from “nose-to-tail” will reduce waste, allow us to benefit from the nutrients of ” less popular” cuts, such as bones (there is nothing as nourishing as bone broth!), soup meat, organ meats… and save you money on top. It doesn’t always have to be the steak!

Why are we not doing it then?

Chances are all of that sounds pretty “un-real” to you. After all, if it was so easy, why are we not just doing it? Well, because the system as it is today is highly profitable… Growing crops and feeding them to animals is just much more lucrative than just letting the animals graze on the same land.

  • Since we are no longer talking about small family-farms, but big industrial farms (when before >50% of people were farmers, today it’s less than 2%), farmers need to buy pesticides (pests develop easier in large monocultures) and fertilizer (since there are no more animals to fertilize the soil). With the invention of GMOs, farmers even need to buy their seeds each season…
  • Meanwhile the animals in the feed lots have to be treated with antibiotics and all other kinds of medication (that are often produced by the same pesticide producing companies) to prevent them dying to soon from all the stress, inadequate diet, horrible hygiene, lack of sunshine, movement and social interaction…
  • When we buy those poor creatures for seemingly little money, and consume them (often accompanied by other highly processed foods, such as sodas, buns, sauces etc.), of course we also get sick eventually, having to buy medication for ourselves (guess from whom…).
  • IF we decide to opt out from that cycle, we can be sure to be marketed “health foods”, such as meat alternatives, soy yogurt, gluten-free baked goods, protein powders… often benefiting the same companies (although they may be called differently). So we move from the left pocket to the right pocket.
  • Still we might end up being sick eventually, because even in the “health-food world” saturated fats, cholesterol and animal proteins tend to be demonized while it is recommended to consume a lot of whole grains, fruit, vegetable oils…

I am aware that this description is rather black and white. But my point is to make you realize that what you’re being told in mainstream is not necessarily in YOUR best interest, but in the interest of the agro-alimentary-industries. Unfortunately they have very strong lobbies and ties to (supposedly independent) governmental, political and even scientific institutions shaping our opinions and determining to a large extent the information available to us.

A vegan diet (often) supports industries rather than local farmers

Many vegans rely heavily on processed foods: all kinds of “fake” meat made from soy or pure gluten (seitan!), vegetable spreads based on sunflower seeds, soy or yeast, vegan chocolate, cookies, desserts, sweetened with agave nectar… What they usually do not realize is WHO they really support when choosing those “clean and peaceful” products. Apart from the fact that most of the ingredients in those products are not as healthy as you are made believe (omega 6, antinutrients, assimilation & conversion issues, risk for food intolerances, effects on hormones), many are produced by a few, mighty, not always so ethical corporations.

Example Provamel, Alpro Soy and Silk

Provamel, Alpro Soy and Silk all belong to “Dean Foods” (which in the meantime has been bought by Danone), a mighty corporation also active in industrial dairy farming (= torturing cows)! Those companies don’t really care about your health nor do they live a “philosophy”. They just see that there is a market for a certain kind of products, so they serve it. You don’t want milk anymore? Here you have soy milk. For them it’s left pocket or right pocket, doesn’t matter. Often they even help creating this market in a first place by telling you how healthy certain ingredients are, when in truth they are not, but just “cheap” to produce, import  and process (often due to subsidies). And by suddenly “wanting” this planet-friendly soy milk, you are (unknowingly) helping them to strengthen their position, and getting rid of unwanted competition in the form of local farmers producing “bad” and “unhealthy” traditional (raw) milk (if it is not yet forbidden due to industry-lobbying). Because in order to get your soy milk (or any other of those processed foods), you need to go to the supermarket or bio shop and thus depend on and PAY FOR a whole machinery of companies, businesses and intermediates. There is no chance you can know who exactly produced the soy in your soy yogurt and how much he earned by doing so. You would have a very hard time to find a local farmer producing and selling soy milk, tofu or soy sausages etc., at least in Europe. 

Going vegan can kill whole animal species

In industrial animal farming, only a handful of breeds are used (the most productive ones, for example Holstein cows). Many traditional, less productive breeds only survive because individual farmers decide to take care of them. However, they need consumers to buy their products, in order to survive. By becoming a vegetarian or vegan, you are not supporting those farmers, but rather industries, as we saw above. Even if you buy your veggies from a small farmer, he also needs animals on his farm, who manure and trample the soil (those who don’t have animals, usually buy manure from another farmer or use synthetic fertilizer, which is not really sustainable). So by not wanting to eat (and thus kill) individual animals, we might actually kill whole species! Instead of opting out of completely, use your money to shape the way animals are farmed.

Even a “Real Food” vegan diet is not a local diet. 

Even if you are one of the “healthy” vegans, not indulging in processed foods, but relying on Real Foods (veggies, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds…), chances are you are still buying most of your food in the supermarket or bio shop, rather than from a local farmer (maybe with the exception of vegetables). That’s logic, since most of the vegan staples are not local foods: Soy from America, Asia or Africa, coconut from the Philippines, avocado from Turkey, Peru or Mexico, quinoa and amaranth from Peru or other Latin American countries, Brazil nuts often from Pakistan, almonds from Spain, macadamia nuts from Kenia, walnuts from California, Chia seeds and Goji berries from China, Olive oil from Italy or Greece,… even lentils and beans are usually imported from Latin America or Asia! And if you are already at the supermarket or the bio shop to buy all those foods, the most convenient option is to buy your (organic) fruits and vegetables as well: pineapple, kiwi and banana from New Zealand, oranges from Spain, tomatoes from Italy or Spain, mushrooms from the Netherlands…

How carbon-footprint friendly is that?? More important still: How RESILIENT is that?

What if retail distribution broke down tomorrow for whatever reason and you’d have to rely on a truly local diet? I am not saying that international trade or import is bad per se and am not claiming that I am never having any of those foods. My point is that I could easily drop those foods and still be healthy eating local vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, butter… while a vegan would get into even more nutritional trouble to cover his or her needs, especially fat-wise. You’d be left with apples and pears (berries, cherries etc only in summer), seasonal vegetables, some walnuts and hazelnuts during certain seasons, local grains (spelt, rye, barley, wheat, oat and millet) and some legumes (peas, lentils, beans). For your fat intake you’d have to rely on flax seed oil or unhealthy canola, corn or sunflower oil (unhealthy since very rich in omega 6, thus highly inflammatory, not heat-stable and usually already rancid when you buy them). Overall you’d ingest either not enough fat or far too many unsaturated fats, increasing your risk for oxidative damage (cancer). 

What if everybody (who cares) became vegan?

If everybody who cares about animal welfare and sustainability became vegan, the most likely scenario would be that we’d only be left with industries determining what we can buy and eat, dramatically limiting our choices and the quality and health of our foods. We’d lose all those small farmers making an effort to raise animals in an ethical way that actually helps to reduce climate change and maintain soil health. With them, we’d lose many animal species and thus biodiversity and thus be responsible for a lot of killing – not even to talk about threatening our own existence!

We need to support what we want to keep and what we want to see grow.

If you want farmers to raise animals in a natural way on pasture, you have to support them by buying their meat, milk, cheese, eggs… . If you opt out of the process by becoming vegan, the only way of farming that will remain is factory-farming! Note: The organic label is NOT a guarantee for grass-fed unfortunately. Organic animals can still be held in a stable most of the time and being fed organic grains. This is why it is so much better to buy directly from a farm where you can SEE and ASK instead of relying on a label in a shop…

Beyond sustainability

I actually feel we have to look BEYOND sustainability, just like we have to look beyond organic. What counts is not to merely maintain status-quo (although that is already better than continuing to degrade and destroy), but to regenerate, to repair the damage we have done. That means we have to emphasize farming practices that do increase rather than simply maintain soil fertility. Holistic grazing can be one way to do just that, as counter-intuitive as it may be for many people. Permaculture, agro-ecology, biodynamic farming… all can provide that – and they all include animals. Industrial organic on the other hand does not.

The question should not be meat or lentils, animal foods or plant foods. The focus should be on Industrial, degenerative food system vs. regenerative food system, with a preference for the latter, obviously. As long as we make this about the meat, we miss the bigger picture.

Go to Part 3: Ethical Point of View


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