When it comes to food, sustainability has become quite the buzz word lately.
And with that, some assumptions that have proven extremely counterproductive to actually supporting not only sustainability for the production of food, but for supporting human health.
Now we have lab-made GMO “bleeding” soy burgers.
The environmental impact of depending on concentrated proteins from otherwise low-protein foods like legumes, grown in monocultures over vast expanses of what is essentially wasteland, cannot replace traditional farming practices carried out by small farms.
In landmark books like Defending Beef and many others, the carbon cycle has been shown to be a closed loop when cattle are allowed to graze on fields that are otherwise unsuitable for monocrop agriculture. Pasture is best suited to ruminants that are content to be left alone to chew and chew and chew, then poop, and chew some more. Their four stomachs are adapted to breaking down the otherwise indigestible cellulose and turning the plant sugars into proteins and saturated fats for human consumption. The idea that humans can do the same on a plant-based diet is laughable, at best.
We have to redefine sustainability with a focus on what is really ideal for human health, ecological health, and animal welfare. Humans have raised animals this way for millenia, and only in the last century has industrialization corrupted not only our food, but our ideas about how food should be produced.
Where there were literally thousands of different varieties of fruits and vegetables in the early 20th century, now exist only a handful of the once magnificent variety that allowed regional growers to select a variety best adapted to the specific challenges they faced. After WW2, the same corporations that produced the chemical weapons of the first 2 world wars began repurposing those same chemicals as pesticides and herbicides. They also began developing uniform seed varieties that were selectively bred for their ability to resist these chemicals. Variety and competition were crushed, leaving the food production of the world vulnerable to the same challenges that natural selection and variety are best able to withstand.
Humans have been selectively breeding not just plants, but animals for their ability to adapt to environmental constraints as well as for their desirability. Chemical manufacturers sought only uniformity and replaced the natural mineral balance of the soil with NPK fertilizers. Unfortunately, this includes organic farming. In The Third Plate, chef Dan Barber discusses how cooks and consumers have conformed to this unnatural pressure by demanding perfect looking, unnaturally consistent traits in their foods, year-round. Traditional food systems were adapted to seasonal variety, natural preservation, and the inconsistencies that come from the many variables allowed when nature is not strictly controlled. If you’ve ever eaten at one of his restaurants, you can taste what he means by this.
Plants and animals raised in conditions that do not challenge them are bland, lifeless, and highly vulnerable to disease and pests. Even now, chemical-intensive farming is struggling to overcome weeds, diseases, and pests that have become resistant to their chemicals. Natural selection is far more resilient than the test tube.
So, what is sustainable?
Not surprisingly, it’s the very same things that can help us create sustainable health. Foods that our great great grandparents would have eaten in the early 20th century, traditionally raised, prepared, and nourishing for both body and soul. We cannot thrive on meal replacement shakes and vitamin pills. Comfort foods have gotten a bad wrap recently, but for the wrong reasons. They’ve been infiltrated with the same chemical-based agriculture that has crushed variety and small farms.
Hydrogenated oils first began replacing naturally saturated fats like butter and animal fats in the 1930s. Now, it’s almost impossible to buy even an organic hummus, cookie, or anything from the Whole Foods hot bar without finding canola or soybean oil in it. That’s how even those of us trying to eat “healthy” and “organic” find ourselves in the same situation we were trying to escape. Many try to blame sugar, but sugar consumption is actually on par with what it was decades ago, and cannot explain the decline in human health that vegetable and seed oils have created.
Many people try to eliminate sugar, red meat, dairy, gluten, etc, but find themselves still chasing the elusive health they desire. They have been misled into plunging further down the bottomless pit of the industrialized food deception. Fish and fish oils, flax and hemp, almond milk and cashew cheese; foods like these that are loaded with the same omega fatty acids and require the same large-scale agriculture to sustain dominate the health-food and biohacking worlds. Meanwhile, the traditional foods our ancestors produced themselves and thrived on for generations are ignored because of propaganda and profit.
While supplements may be necessary to help us fix the damage of having lived this way for the last few generations, it’s not too late. And once we re-establish our health and happiness, we don’t need supplements to sustain a traditional diet. Otherwise, how could anyone ever dream of a life on their own land, sustaining themselves naturally without the intervention of the supplements? Someone I admire for their incredible vitality in his advanced years calls the supplement industry “big pharma junior,” and I agree wholeheartedly. They push for tests and chemical dependency through biased research intended to sell products by manufacturing a need where one does not exist.
That is not to say that there aren’t “supplements” that have existed for millennia, more like herbs that serve as tonics are remedies. Medicinal mushrooms, roots, barks, and herbs have been stripped of their natural vitality to be proclaimed as the source of the one key chemical identified as necessary for human health, yet these empty promises consistently fall flat. When we return to these gifts of the earth in their natural states, in conjunction with a traditional diet, we find they do yield the promised benefits. It’s time to begin weaning ourselves off the pills and powders, and back onto foods that do not hinder our health.
For me, sustainable health does not mean I am invincible, nor that I have to eat perfectly every meal. It’s the idea of anti-fragility that must permeate both our food systems and our health. Anti-fragility is the idea that something not only gains from chaos and challenges, but needs them to thrive. Our modern food system, reliance on chemicals to produce agricultural products, supplements and pharmaceuticals, and persistence in using various forms of starvation to stay “in shape” are the antithesis of anti-fragility. As we have seen over and over, despite our incredible technological achievements, even the slightest winds of unpredictability can bring everything crashing down.
Sustainability starts with each one of us making the choice to look outside of the current system dominating our choices. We must look to each other to see what we can do to strengthen not only ourselves, but the networks of people creating solutions that allow us to exist outside of the industrial corporatocracy that seeks to extract as much profit from each of us and everything else on the planet as possible. This is our opportunity to create value by valuing that which is truly valuable, rather than that which is most profitable. Spending a little more to buy foods and other products that other humans have created with their own hands may seem more expensive at first, but the return on investment is immediate: the smiles exchanged, the farms maintained, the crafts encouraged, the joy of real food.
Our connection to the earth and each other starts by cutting out the supply chain and going straight to the source. And maybe, becoming a source of something beautiful and nourishing ourselves. Can you imagine your life as something sustainable for your health, your happiness, and your community? What would that look like? What are you doing already that aligns with that vision?
We’d love to hear from you, be inspired by who you are and how you’ve become the change you want to see in the world.