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The Fate of Food

            In the book, “The Fate of Food,” the author poses an interesting question. “What will we eat in a hotter and more populous world of the future?”

            With soil quality rapidly decreasing from poor farming practices and freshwater supplies stretched to their limit in much of the world, what will be the fate of food?  In about 300 pages, the book offers a compelling case for an increasingly plant-based diet as an important part of the solution.  Technology is also expected to play an important role, as it has in the past.  This time, however, technology will need to be part of the solution for improving both food quality and food quantity.  If you can’t imagine robots weeding and harvesting lettuce, then you will after reading the book. As for the much-maligned GMO foods, there is ample reason to expect that they will also be needed as part of the solution.

            “The Fate of Food” discusses what foods can be sustainably farmed in the future?  Out of necessity, it will have to be foods that can be grown in a way that preserves the quality of the land, water, and air while sustaining our health and nutritional needs.

            If rising carbon dioxides levels are the primary driving force behind climate change, then it behooves us to seek a diet with a smaller carbon footprint.  While a plant-based diet has the smallest carbon footprint, it’s not clear that everyone will need to abandon all animal protein to reduce atmospheric carbon sufficiently.  However, given that animal protein consumption is still rising worldwide, changes in consumption are needed.  Fortunately, just giving up meat or dairy a few days a week would make quite a difference.

            While the types of foods grown and how they are grown are important for sustainability, minimizing food wastes is also important.  A third of all food grown in the world is wasted.  If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the U.S.

            Wasted food typically goes from our kitchens to a landfill where it decays and emits methane. Of course, there are other unfortunate consequences. Wasted food also represents land that was unnecessarily used to grow the food.  This is land that was probably deforested to keep up with demand.  Growing food that gets wasted also waste labor, water, fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides.  Add to that the cost of transportation, energy to operate equipment, warehouses, refrigeration, and the total cost of wasted food adds up to quite an environmental impact.

            The most expensive food you buy is the food you waste.  By some estimates, the average family wastes $2,000 a year on food that spoils in the refrigerator or is otherwise wasted.  Even more expensive are the foods that rob us of our health.  Fortunately, by thoughtful food management, a plant-based whole food diet can be an inexpensive and very healthy diet.  Granted, some fresh vegetables and fruits are relatively expensive.  On the other hand, foods like carrots, cabbage, potatoes, oats, squash, onions, are quite a bargain.

            For meat and dairy, there is the added environmental methane from cow burps along with manure that gives off greenhouse gas emissions.  Animals eat large quantities of plant calories compared to what they produce, and plants raised for animal food use commercial fertilizers that often end up in streams and rivers that ultimately dump into the ocean where they cause algae blooms and other environmental issues.  The dead zone caused by fertilizer runoff into the Gulf of Mexico now covers more than 8000 square miles.

            Globally, food production generates about one-third of greenhouse emissions.  With about a third of all food that’s grown thrown away, that’s an opportunity to reduce emissions by about 8%.  That savings alone could reverse deforestation.

            Farming has altered the earth more than any other single human activity. Virtually every major river and lake has been diverted to support farming, with about 70% of freshwater being used for farming.  In only the last couple of decades expanding agribusinesses have consumed areas of forest land collectively the size of Peru. Globally, livestock operations produce nearly 5 billion cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep that graze on expanses of treeless land larger than the African continent.

            Switching to plant-based food would greatly improve the situation.  Compared with beans, beef is an environmentally unfriendly food.  It takes twenty times the amount of land to produce a calorie of beef as it does a calorie of beans.  This small change in diet would allow millions of square miles of farmland to be replanted in trees that can draw carbon from the atmosphere back into the ground.

            Ruminant meats like beef and lamb create the greatest amount of greenhouse gasses per pound of food they produce.  To make one pound of beef can require seven to twenty pounds of plant food depending on how it’s raised.  By comparison, farmed fish and poultry create only about one third the greenhouse gasses that beef production produces.  Given that the oceans of the world are already overfished, it’s hard to consider fish as a sustainable food source.  Bivalves like clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops are more sustainable types of animal protein because they don’t disturb the land or need farm-grown feed.  However, bivalves do require a sustainable ecosystem without pollution and without overfishing – both of which are problematic issues in most coastal waters. For more about the species that are considered potentially sustainable visit Monterey Bay Seafood Watch

            Perhaps you are wondering, “If I stop eating beef, will that make a significant impact?” The simple answer is that every little bit helps.  The dilemma is that if climate models are correct, and that’s a big if, the climate problem is so big and so urgent that we are out of time for halfway measures.  In that case, a plant-based low waste diet has to be part of the solution.  While planet-wide diet changes would have to be part of the solution, more changes would still be needed in other sectors of the economy – especially in creating low carbon fuel sources.

            For most of us, farming is out of sight and out of mind.  We buy food with little thought about where it comes from or the impact that our decisions make.  Of course, the demands we create by our purchases is what incentivizes farmers.   A compelling argument can be made that our success as a country may depend on how well we manage this relationship.

            If interested in learning more about what we are likely to eat in the future, read “The Fate of Food” by Amanda Little.  The book is available from the local library.

            Nancy Neighbors, MD

Thoughts to Ponder

  • Most of us generate more planet-warming emissions from eating than we do from driving or flying.
  • In the United States, farm soils are estimated to be degrading 4-10 times faster than they can be replenished. Most tilling dries out the soil, invites erosion, and disturbs the microbiome. The dust bowl crisis in the 1930s is a classic example of poor land management that is still commonly practiced.
  • A significant waste of food begins with shoppers who demand perfect-looking produce, and with the grocers who behind the scenes reject the imperfect fruits and vegetables.
  • Fruits and vegetables under stress from insects, heat, frost, or blight, produce flavors and antioxidants as part of their defense that makes them more flavorful and nutritious.  The unfortunate irony is that the malformed produce that is thrown away is often the most nutritious.
  • Malnutrition isn’t just a third-world problem. There are two different types of nutritional famines. One of them is happening in climate stressed populations with too little food.  The other famine is in developed countries with too much low-quality food.
  • As carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, it accelerates photosynthesis, the process that helps edible plants convert sunlight into food.  While this would seem beneficial, it causes plants to accumulate more carbohydrates and less of other crucial nutrients like minerals and protein.  You might call it the ‘atmospheric junk food effect.’
  • Electric cars may one day play a part in reducing total carbon in the atmosphere.  At present, most recharge their batteries from carbon-based fuels generating electricity in a remote power plant.  It’s odd to have tax incentives for people to buy electric cars that currently have little effect on carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but none to convert people away from meat-based diets that could have an immediate and profound effect.
  • Food shortages displace people that in turn often lead to wars or prolonged conflicts.  Events like these are, in part, what empowered ISIS and led to the Arab Spring uprisings. The countries that most creatively address their food supply challenges will be the ones that succeed.

A Story of Two Burgers

            The impossible ingredient in the Impossible burger is hemoglobin – the iron-rich substance that gives blood its deep red color and familiar taste.  Curiously the flavor of mammalian blood is the taste that meat-eaters crave in a burger. Interestingly, hemoglobin can be manufactured not just by animals but by the root nodules of soybeans. By injecting a snippet of the soybean genome code for hemoglobin into yeast cells, it creates little factories for hemoglobin production.  The result is a pink liquid that gets concentrated into a deep-hued blood flavored serum.  The rest of the product is also made from plant parts.  While Impossible can claim to have a plant-based product, it’s definitely not a whole food.  For many, the product is a fairly convincing alternative to ground chuck.  To Impossible’s credit, their product generates about an eighth of the greenhouse gases created by conventional beef production.

            Beyond’s plant-based meats are made from extruded peas, beans, and soy.  Instead of trying to make it taste exactly like meat, Beyond tries to make it just taste good enough without the blood taste. While Beyond’s product doesn’t taste like beef, it sears and grills well with a satisfying chew.  Although the product is plant-based, the ingredient list lets you know it’s not a whole food.  Major ingredients include powdered pea protein and sunflower oil, and beet juice for the red color of blood.  As advertised, the product has more protein than beef, more omega-3s than salmon, more calcium than milk, more antioxidants than blueberries, and more.  Sadly, a whole food it is not!  For more about substitute meats, read “Meat Substitutes.”

Tips for Aging Persons
 During the Pandemic

            Many countries are easing their COVID-19 restrictions. All the US states are also gradually reopening, although with significant state by state differences. That does not mean there is no need for caution, especially for elderly people. Once restrictions are lifted, new infections will be on the rise, and the elderly will be the first ones to suffer the consequences. Click here to read more

Straight Answers From an Epidemiologist
Who Predicted the Pandemic

            We’ve been told alternatively to not wear masks, to wear masks, to stay home, and to get out and reinvigorate the economy. Hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir both got our hopes up but now have largely fizzled. We’ve heard estimates that as many as two million Americans will die and now, with 100,000 deaths, we’ve heard we’re near the end of the crisis. Is a vaccination forthcoming?  How likely are we to get the disease? And, what exactly should we do with our aging parents who are at the most risk?

            To get some answers, Dan Buettner, The Blue Zones Founder, asks Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., an internationally known expert in infectious disease epidemiology who has advised both Democratic and Republican Presidents. Click here to read more

Can Protecting the Soil Protect our Health

            The soil plants grow in affects their nutritional value to us.  At its best, soil is an amazingly complex mixture with billions of microorganisms per teaspoon of topsoil. While we don’t completely understand how soil functions, what we do know is that the healthiest foods come from biodiverse soil.  Unfortunately, most modern farming methods deplete the soil of its biodiversity through erosion, chemicals, or a failure to replenish the organic precursors needed to support organisms in the soil.

            This unfolding dilemma is perhaps best summarized by Wendell Berry when he noted, “People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.”  For more about how protecting the soil can help all of us enjoy better health read “The Power of the Plate.

Rosemary Olive Smashed Potatoes
Remarkably Easy & Delicious

            Enjoy the satisfaction of a baked potato packed with flavor and the perfect amount of crisp.  To give the potatoes the right taste, blended olives and herbs add the necessary fat while retaining all of the fiber and nutrients missing in olive oil. Click here for the recipe.

Eggplant Marinara Stacks

            When roasted, eggplant has a creamy savoriness to it that can’t be ignored.  The good news is it’s easy to turn this dish into one that’s plant-based, rich in nutrients, and rich in flavor. Click here for the recipe.

By Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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