What is the environmental impact of a plant-based diet?
Updated 01 Jan 21
The bottom line. A natural ecosystem produces virtually no plant-based foods that are inedible to humans. Those that are edible contain several toxins and anti-nutrients which make their long-term consumption an inevitable road to autoimmune and metabolic disease. Simply put, plants are short term survival foods for humans, just as they are for other facultative carnivores like canines.
Growing plants for human consumption has been, and remains, the single most destructive human industry on earth. We currently lose 75 billion tonnes of topsoil a year off of the earth's terrestrial surface, primarily because plant-based agriculture damages the soil ecosystem, exposing it to erosion.
Regenerative Agriculture. The answer to many, if not all, of the problems covered thus far is to get back to nature. Not in some superficial ‘we can do it better than nature’ way emanating from western reductionist science, but truly mimicking natural ecosystem processes. There are many farmers & ranchers adopting this approach and the ‘catch all’ for their efforts is called ‘Regenerative Agriculture’.
Holistic grazing, permaculture, adaptive multi-paddock grazing, cocktail cover cropping, et al, all have their place in the broader definition of regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture effectively means using any technique that regenerates natural ecosystem processes, starting with the soil ecosystem. Effectively, farm the natural ecosystem and eat what it produces rather than force the ecosystem to produce what we want to eat.
This is no less than the Neolithic revolution having played itself out and gone full circle back to the Paleolithic. Regenerative farmers/ranchers are simply professional paleolithic hunter-gatherers with modern technology.
At the core of regenerative agriculture is a focus on soil health. As foundation of all complex life on earth, soil health is critical to the earth’s terrestrial ecosystems. Rebuilding soil health consists of following 5 principles:
Limit disturbance. Limit mechanical, chemical and physical disturbance of the soil. These all destroy soil structure and soil life.
Armour. Soil must always be covered. Soil cover prevents wind/water erosion, evaporation of soil moisture and killing soil biology by overheating.
Diversity. Maximise diversity of both plant and animal species. Natural plant ecosystems have dozens and sometimes hundreds of plant species that live in symbiosis with each other and the soil microbiome.
Living roots. Maintain a living root in the soil for as long as possible each year. Living roots feed soil biology with root exudates (simple & complex carbohydrates + some proteins). The soil biology, in turn, convert parent subsoil material into biologically available nutrition for the plants. Perennial mid-succession grasses, forbes and legumes root more deeply and have the greatest below ground biomass. Therefore, they produce more biomass per season than any other plants and sequester more carbon in the soil, through a deeper layer, than any other plants.
Integrate animals. 70% of the earth’s terrestrial surface are perennial grasslands. Most agriculture is now conducted on these former grasslands. Grazing herbivores are essential to the healthy function of these grasslands and stimulate nutrient cycling through their interaction with the plant ecosystems. In some cases, carbon sequestration rates have increased as much as 650% simply from integrating animals in the system. Therefore, mob herding grazing ruminants are often referred to as ‘keystone species’ in the scientific literature. Their absence results in a ‘trophic cascade’, culminating in ecosystem failure.
Fortunately, the pioneers of the regenerative agriculture revolution have seen fantastic results. Many ranchers have realised a 300-400% increase in carrying capacity (3-4x as many animals per acre) along with an explosion in the wildlife population. Nobody in the regenerative agriculture space is convinced that they have plateaued the production potential of the natural ecosystem, so there’s more growth to be found. Biomass production has reached 5 times the county average on one pioneering regenerative farm (Polyface Farms in Virginia) and even that farmer is not convinced he has reached the limit of his land’s potential.
There are many who question these results. I had a conversation with the Dean of a local Agricultural College a month ago and she expressed serious reservations about the plant growth claimed by Gabe Brown, one of the world’s leading regenerative farmers. According to her, ‘we know what the maximum growth potential of a plant is, and you can’t exceed that’. I asked how she knew what the maximum was. She replied that one could grow a plant in a growth chamber and fine tune the conditions for maximum growth.
I asked how one simulates the complex interactions of a plant polyculture consisting of 100+ species of plants and their interaction with over 2 million species (yes species) of soil micro-organisms.
The answer was less than convincing. It reflected a technological and chemical understanding of nature, when ecosystems are complex biology first and foremost.
As Dr Richard Teague from Texas A&M University recently stated, ‘The best conservation farms and ranches are 30 years ahead of academia!’
One can produce human digestible plants in a regenerative system, but regenerative agriculture is much more animal centric than conventional agriculture. A diet based on regenerative agriculture is animal based, with a small percentage of calories derived from plants.
Considering the horrific effects that plant-based foods have had on human health and the environment, why would we want to eat more? We should be able to enjoy seasonal fruits and berries, but with modern technology and ecological understanding behind us, there is no need to live our lives in survival mode, enduring chronic disease and destroying our planet’s ecosystem in the process.
Eat meat, drink water, lift weights, get some sun, stay healthy. Eat nose-to-tail to ensure you get all the nutrients available from animal foods. Liver, that scourge of many a family, is delicious if cooked properly and lightly salted, instead of turned into burnt shoe leather. Heart, blended into regular ground, makes the juiciest and tastiest burger patty you’ll ever find.
Have some wild berries and honey in the summer if they don’t make you sick.
Pass on a healthier world to the next generation.
There’s a book entitled ‘Cows save the Planet’. The title is a gross understatement.