John Buell

Diet and Sustainable Agriculture

As the saying goes, never let a crisis go to waste. But how we “use” crises makes all the difference. 9/11 might have been an occasion to re-examine US military deployments around the world as well as Middle East policy. Instead, a well- organized right mobilized and intensified public fears to amplify a surveillance state and further to entrench crony capitalism and the military industrial complex. Other major crises surely are coming. Food and water shortages may well dwarf any of the burdens peak oil or collapsing stock markets have imposed. More likely, crises in each of these domains are likely to interact and amplify each other, adding to the destructive force.

Food insecurity is already growing more prevalent even in some of our most affluent communities. Jim Harkness, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, points out: “Extreme weather events that disrupt farm production, such as last year’s floods and this year’s drought, are part of a new normal consistent with climate change. Failure to accept this reality has enormous implications for farmers and consumers.”

Such events can become an occasion for panic, for resort to more corporate agriculture such as genetically modified crops and intensified use of fertilizers and pesticides to boost crop production. The recent Stanford University study challenging the health benefits of organic produce and endorsing pesticide use as key to feeding a growing planet may be seen as an opening salvo in the coming food wars.

But the current drought, shortages, and food insecurity can become an occasion to rethink not only how we produce our food but what we eat as well. As for food production, we might start by adhering to the old adage of saving for a rainy—or dry—day. Harkness reminds us: “Historically, government- and farmer-held buffer stocks of grain helped stabilize markets in times of excess or scarcity. In the 1990s, we sold off government-held buffer stocks of grain in the name of “efficient markets,” leaving the cupboard bare when disasters strike. Harkness adds: “And how about increasing resilience at the farm level with incentives for environmentally friendly farming? Sustainable practices, like perennial crops that improve the soil and require less water, are enormously popular among farmers.”

What we eat also has a big impact on what we produce. And what we eat is hardly healthful. T Colin Campbell, author of the China Study, a work that explains the relative absence of cardiovascular disease in rural China, suggests that: “The present range of dietary protein for the vast majority of the population is about 11-22% of calories (average of 17%), with three-fourths of this protein provided by animal-based foods…. A whole food plant-based diet of mixed vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains and tubers can easily provide the RDA of about 8-10% dietary protein, based on long established experimental evidence (since 1943) that this is more than enough protein. Increasing protein above the RDA of 8-10% up to an average of 17% is generally obtained by consuming increasing amounts of animal-based foods. Furthermore, increasing dietary protein from about 10-12% to 20%, for example, eventually increases risk for most people for a large number of diseases and conditions.”

Vegans have long made an ethical case for a plant based diet. One vegan friend of mine said she can never eat “anything with eyes.” I cannot go that far, though I respect and am increasingly moved by this perspective. What is clear is that Americans need and deserve more and better public research from scientists who do not depend on corporate ties. As consumers, we also need packaging that provides more comprehensible information.

Americans spend hundreds of billions a year on cardiovascular procedures. A large percentage of patients who undergo these procedures find they must do so again in a very few years. There is good reason to believe that radical changes in diet could ease this burden. And at the very least we must do as much nutritional research as we currently do on drugs and medical interventions.

Cardiologist Caldwell Esselstyn, whose work gained prominence when former President Clinton underwent bypass surgery, points out that it is absurd to call dietary change radical, while treating incisions to open one’s chest as “conservative.”

A plant based diet is also one that can be both more local and less resource intensive. John Vidal, writing in the Guardian (UK) points out: “Adopting a vegetarian diet is one option to increase the amount of water available to grow more food in an increasingly climate-erratic world, the scientists said. Animal protein-rich food consumes five to 10 times more water than a vegetarian diet. One third of the world’s arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals. Other options to feed people include eliminating waste and increasing trade between countries in food surplus and those in deficit.”

Perhaps the combined weight of medical costs, patient suffering, resource scarcity, can come together with the appeal of vegan cookery can combine to give us a more sustainable agriculture.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2015

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