6. Plant-Based Diets

Few subjects are more fraught with emotion than eating meat., whether one does or doesn’t.

Meat is nutrient-dense, full of fat, protein, calories, and bio-available iron and B-12.  So meat was especially desirable both for our ancestors during most of human evolution, who were often insecure about their next meal, and for the hungry of today.  It’s no wonder that wherever people climb out of poverty, one of their first manifestations of being a little better off is that they want to eat more meat.

As far as feeding the world goes, this could be a disaster.

It was back in the 1970s that Frances Moore Lappe crunched some numbers and calculated that Earth does not have enough farmland to feed all the livestock that would be needed if everyone ate as much meat as Americans did then or do now. (F.M. Lappe, Diet For a Small Planet, Ballantine, 1971, rev.  ed. 1982)  Earth has not grown larger since then, so these numbers have not changed.  The problem is that much of an animal’s feed is converted to hide, hair or feathers, bones, hooves, teeth or beaks, intestines and other inedible parts, not to mention excrement, so it is vastly inefficient to get food by feeding livestock with corn and soybeans that humans could eat directly and then eating the bits of the animals that are of use to us.  With 12-15 pounds of corn and soybeans, for example, you can have 12-15 pounds of food to eat — or one pound of beef.  Even with fish and poultry, the most efficient converters of feed to food, the ratio is four pounds of feed to one pound of food.  Grazing on grass is no better if the pasture could be row-cropped:  among various similar calculations, one typical table shows that on 2.5 acres you could grow one year’s caloric needs for:  one person if you raise beef or eggs;  2 people if you produce milk or chicken;  15-19 people if you produce what, corn, or rice;  and 22 if you grow potatoes or cabbages.  (John Robbins, The Food Revolution, Berkely, CA: Conari Press, 2001, p. 294)  Of course, when animals graze on land that’s too steep or dry for any other agricultural purpose, then grazing livestock usefully yields animal products from otherwise useless land.  But there is not nearly enough such terrain to feed Earth’s humans large amounts of meat.

In fact, what we are doing now is growing huge amounts of corn and soy and alfalfa in very environmentally destructive ways and trucking it to extremely cruel and environmentally damaging “factory farms” in order to create a lot of animal foods that are only apparently cheap because of government subsidies for growing the feed and inordinately lax rules for handling the manure.  If all of this grain and beans were available for direct human consumption instead, we could pretty much eliminate world hunger today by that measure alone.  And in addition, climate change is one of the things threatening crop productivity — and according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock raising is a major contributor to climate change.

Bottom line:  in contrast to most people’s aspirations, a future without hunger will be one in which most people most of the time eat very little meat or eggs or dairy.

The good news:  this is not the end of the world, or even of civilization.  Cuisines that are mostly or all plant foods can be tasty, satisfying, nutritious, and actually healthier than diets focussed on animal foods.

This is how I know:  Some years before I met him, my spouse had reversed a cluster of serious medical problems by adopting a low-fat vegan (no animal foods at all) diet — so when we met, his veganism was non-negotiable.  But his diet during his first wife’s long last illness was so monotonous that I had to learn to cook an adequate variety of vegan meals if we were to eat together.  I thus discovered a world of ethnic cuisines, herbs and spices, vegetable broth as a soup base, really good meat-substitutes:  a vast array of wonderful foods.  I still ate meat when I wasn’t cooking for him, but as I grew acquainted with vegetarian foods my meat-eating dwindled until I just lost my taste for the stuff.  Tastes can change, and plant-centered diets can, I found, be completely satisfying.

Details about how plant-based diets can be nutritious and delicious, and how people can be encouraged to use them, are subjects for future posts.

To start you out, here is a recipe you can both enjoy and feel good about:

Vegetable Bean Chili

Ingredients:  1 large clove garlic; 1 small onion;  1 medium zucchini; 1 small stalk celery; 1 medium carrot; 1 small red pepper; 1 TBS oil; 1 TBS chili powder (optional); 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper or to taste (optional); 1 bay leaf; 1/2 tsp cumin; 1 TBS packed brown sugar; 1/2 tsp basil; 2 15-oz. cans kidney beans (or 1 cup  dry kidney beans precooked to make 2 cups); 2 15-oz. cans diced tomatoes or tomato puree; 1/2 tsp. salt

Directions:  1. Mince the garlic and chop the onion, zucchini, celery, carrot, and pepper.  2. In a soup-size pot, saute the vegetables in the oil about 5 minutes.  3. Add bay leaf, cumin, brown sugar, and basil, and optional chili powder and cayenne if preferred, and cook over low heat until mixture is fragrant, about 2 minutes.  4. Add kidney beans with liquid, tomatoes, and salt.  Simmer 30 minutes.  Serve over rice (brown rice is better nutrition and you won’t notice the difference).

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