Casaubon's Book

Context is Everything

“Context is everything. Breastfeeding is almost universally beneficial in infants, but in an elderly cardiac patient, it can be fatal.” – Spider Robinson

Quite a number of readers suggested I respond to James McWilliams’ piece in the New York Times “The Myth of Sustainable Meat.” McWilliams has garnered quite a bit of attention by critiquing the idea of local food, and in some cases, some of his analyses, as far as they go, are right. For example, McWilliams is quite right that if everyone in America eats as much beef as they always have, but converts to grassfed beef his figures are roughly correct.

“… If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs).”

In this case, the call for sustainable egg production I made last week (in response to a rather better New York Times article, in fact) would seem to be insanely misguided. After all, as several readers pointed out, eggs would be more expensive, and we probably couldn’t eat as many of them. Woah – so that means eggs are totally unsustainable, right?

Well, no, it doesn’t – because while backyard and small scale egg production can’t produce as many eggs as cheaply, we don’t need them to – we need to eat fewer eggs and better ones..

Neither McWilliams absolutism nor Kristoff’s are an appropriate response to the problem of an unsustainable agriculture – any more than “hey, we can’t raise billions of eggs easily in backyards and we couldn’t possibly adjust our diets, so hey, factory farms it is.”

Neither one of these responses represents a viable or useful solution – eliminating animals from agriculture means eliminating all the work animals do, their manure production, their tillage (despite McWilliams’ words about preventing pigs from rooting, most of the small farmers I know use their pigs’ rooting instinct for tillage and to root out intractable weeds) value, pest reduction value, and other abilities. Without petroleum based and industrial fertilizers (the mining and manufacture of which has industrial consequences McWilliams conveniently leaves of the discussion, as he also leaves out the non-infinite availability of some of them), there is no such thing as a viable agriculture without animal production. David Montgomery’s wonderful book _Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization_ will give anyone a clear overview of the radical difference between societies that manure ground and those that didn’t – such an agriculture has a long and important history.

But rather than a point-by-point debate with someone who has already cherry picked his statistics, I think the larger point is this – it is impossible to talk about a sustainable agriculture by making tiny refinements and speaking of broad overviews. Consider, for example, the simple fact of the impact of a cow on grass in different places.

First, we’ll put a cow on my pasture. I live on a steep, rocky hillside in upstate NY, in a place that gets more than 60 inches of rainfall per year. The thin, rocky soil and steep grade on my property is virtually impossible to till, and it would be stupid to do so. What my piece of property can do successfully is grow grass. It grows lots of it, too. The soil won’t support corn, soybeans or anything else that you might want to use to feed human beings – with a buttload of work, I could probably grow a really crappy crop of potatoes, but ultimately, no one would ever bother. The ground is too wet most of the year anyway. So the choice here is between this land going unused, or it being grazed.

If I don’t graze it, I have to mow it a couple of times a year, and since I would rather not mow 8 acres with a scythe myself, that’s a bunch of fossil fuels burned that we’re never getting back. If I graze it, however, land that was unproductive can produce quite a lot of calories – four cows and their calves could live there, producing, annually (this is quite a conservative estimate even for grass alone), about 600lbs of beef and 6-8 gallons of milk daily for human consumption in a six month grazing season.

The northeast and some other parts of the country are filled with land like this – the choice is not between “vegetables vs. meat” but between “unused land grown up to brush or developed” and “the production of meat and milk on grass.”

Land and water averages for the entire country simply aren’t applicable to actual regions in some cases – they may require much more land (20 acres of range or even more in the dryest places) or they may require much, much less (2 acres in mine), Calling it an “average of 10 acres” ignores the fact that the first underlying premise of a local diet is that it is truly local and emphasize appropriate foods for the region. Just because I CAN technically grow rice in upstate NY does not mean it is the best use of time, resources and land. Neither is all land well suited for grazing. Context, as they say, is everything.

Are there places where cows are being raised right this minute that shouldn’t have cows on them? Absolutely. Are there places right now that are being tilled to grow corn and soybeans that shouldn’t be tilled? Absolutely. It is impossible to speak in general terms about what one should do with each piece of arable land – in fact, the difficult and emergent task is to do WHAT IS BEST on each one – best for the land, best for the people who depend on it, best for the wildlife and other creatures who inhabit it.

Setting up strawmen to knock over is ultimately a waste of our time – which is why I don’t think that highly of McWilliams’ enterprise. There is much to be said, and taught by those who choose a vegan diet – that’s one possible response to the question of how to eat well in a society that has overdrawn many of its reserves. It is not a viable answer as a universal response, however – not only is not going to happen for many human beings, but it shouldn’t, since in some places we can produce more good human food by including small scale animal agriculture.

Does that mean, as some would argue, that veganism is a bad response to our food crisis? Absolutely not – I absolutely respect those who make that choice. The problem lies in the attempt to universalize a single diet for all human beings on the planet, or in a nation – that’s just not viable. Instead, the concentration should be on impacts, and on place-specific diets that are appropriate. Is this more complex than simply prescribing what everyone on earth should eat? Absolutely. Does it require more knowledge, more involvement in your food system, more engagement? Entirely. Is it necessary for a good outcome – absolutely.

Consider egg and small animal production. For most of human history, concentrated human settlements have included small animals in them, because the animals effectively made use of human food wastes. Urban areas in the global south, for example, usually produce a significant portion of animal foods and high value vegetables within city limits or just outside them – and historically the global north did the same until the modern era. This allows the use of food wastes to feed small animals which produce eggs and meat on almost no imported food, and then their manures feed small scale vegetable and fruit production within the city or right around it. Chickens, rabbits and pigs are excellent examples of animals that grow well in cities, and this kind of urban agriculture has a long history.

McWilliams rightly points out that Joel Salatin imports some grain to feed his chickens. In rural areas, poultry production aside from geese does come with a grain dependency in general, and this is a real concern, although pastured poultry generally consumes VASTLY less grain than confinement animals. It isn’t perfect. In urban areas, however, this need not be true. It is perfectly possible to raise chickens, rabbits and pigs pretty much wholly on human food wastes in small scale, backyard production. Even were those wastes composted (which the vast majority of them are not in any city, but instead become major methane producers in landfills, something McWilliams purports to be concerned about), the quality of the compost would be higher if they were first fed to small livestock and the manure composted instead.

Could you produce as many cows, chickens, eggs, milk and everything else as we eat now? No, of course not – but I don’t know any serious advocate of local eating who suggests that the obscene amounts of meat most Americans consume are a good idea. So listing off parallels “if we converted all the cows to grass…” doesn’t really make sense. The question is in an appropriate context, how can you optimize the production of FOOD – animal, vegetable and fungal and NUTRITION. Then we can talk about what an appropriate diet looks like.

McWilliams can do what he does because he doesn’t grasp that the local eating movement is no more talking about perfect equivalence than vegans are.. No more McDonald’s hamburgers and pink slime? Well, no big deal, just go to the locavore drive through and get your burgers grass fed as often as before makes as much sense as saying “hey, let’s just go through the veggie-burger drive-thru.”. But that, of course, is not the reality. Eating locally, as anyone who does it discovers, is about dietary change. So, of course, is McWilliams’s prescription for total veganism. Ultimately all sustainable diets depend heavily on dietary change, and on the emergence of knowledge and CONTEXT for your food system.

Local food is regional food – and it differs from region to region. Sustainable food is regional food and is dramatically different from place to place. Recognizing, for example, that geese, who live on grass entirely, are a better poultry option in some places than chickens is a process. Making sustainable chickens an integrated part of urban and suburban backyards, where they can be fed on neighborhood food wastes, rather mostly on feed grains is a process. Learning to love what grows well in your place, whether corn and chiles or potatoes and milk, and learning to accustom yourself to treating foods from far away as luxury items, rather than the basis of your diet is an ongoing process.

The reality is that midwesterners with no forest should not get woodstoves. People with inadequate water for grazing livestock shouldn’t raise them. People in cold climates shouldn’t put up heated greenhouses to eat tomatoes in February. Some people should eat less beef and more rabbit. Other people should eat less chicken and more beef. Everyone should eat fewer animal products, and understand how they grow, that milk and eggs have seasons too, that natural cycles are real and that some things are simply not possible in some places and at some times.

Again, it is a process, however. Am I shocked to learn that not all local food uses less energy currently than would be used in a different system. Only in the Casablanca sense, “Shocked, yes, shocked!” Of course, it isn’t. Of course we haven’t figured it all out – the locavore movement is barely school-aged, having just fully emerged 7 or 8 years ago. Local farmers are still experimenting, and they are still dealing with customers who don’t grasp fully the depth of the necessary dietary shift they are undergoing. At the same time, speaking as someone who will have been farming for a decade shortly, the difference in customer awareness and commitment, and number of emergent farms trying to work these issues out, however, is night and day – the food system is changing radically for the better. But it isn’t perfect and it isn’t instant.

Context is everything here – it is a fundamental misprision of the locavore movement to imply, as McWilliams does, that it is simply about substituting one thing for another. Ultimately, sustainable food is about a fundamental dietary change however, as almost anyone who has ever eaten locally will admit. The answer to “how much of your diet should come from animal products, and what kinds’ is not answerable in terms of whole countries, or even whole regions. It depends on what kind of place you live in, how much rainfall you have, what kind of land you have, who your local farmers are, what they are trying to do, etc… It is place and context specific in ways that simply can’t be generalized. Or maybe it can, as Michael Pollan has done. Eat Food. Mostly plants. Not too much. The specifics of how that works, however, vary widely.

The good news is that place and context specific diets have a long history – many of us before we understood our environmental impact travelled a long way to experience local diets with amazing food – to Tuscany, the French Countryside, regional China, etc… Or we travelled shorter distances to eat the peasant foods of various places because they were so glorious and delicious. The emergence of a glorious and delicious local diet is already underway in thousands of places – and we need not worry that we are not creative enough cooks to make them good. We can enjoy the occasional luxury of foods from far away, and delight in the glory of what we produce locally every day. This will produce a wide range of sustainable diets – something that will require enormous thought, creativity and energy. That this cannot be pigeonholed into an 800 word editorial is not surprising – very few important things can be.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Melissa McEwen
    April 16, 2012

    This is a great post! Thanks for this! It is indeed a nascent movement. I was shocked to learn recently that the science of composting for organic farming is less than a hundred years old. We are looking back towards methods of the past, but we are also developing new scientifically-advanced methods as well.

    Since I’ve gotten involved with sustainable agriculture I’ve been a little dismayed to learn the truth about chicken. Namely that you aren’t going to be able to get the amounts and type (big breast meaty) of chicken that America’s are used to on pasture, unless you use industrial breeds and feed from grain monocultures. My family did chicken totally on pasture this year and our birds were delicious, but very much like the chickens I’ve seen at Chinese markets: dark-meat with not much meat at all. As much for soup as for drumsticks (I ate a single chicken for a month, using the broth in lots of other recipes). But that’s really the sustainable use of chickens- as layers and then as soup. I think it’s hard for some farmers to admit that to themselves, especially since chicken is such a popular product. I’ve seen it at Polyface and I’ve seen it at Stone Barns and several other farms that are considered paragons of sustainable agriculture. In that way, I’m glad McWilliams pointed it out. It’s a good discussion to have on the diversity of production methods out there and some of the fundamental limits we face.

  2. #2 Ruben Anderson
    April 16, 2012

    Sharon, do you have any references for small animals eating and thriving on food scraps? I have done quite a bit of work on municipal garbage, and as more cities implement curbside food scraps recycling (another giant centralized diesel system) I have been asking, “What would composting look like if we built it around the chicken?”

  3. #3 Roy Smith
    April 16, 2012

    Sharon,
    Can you describe (at least in general terms) what kinds of areas are better suited for geese vs. areas better suited for chickens?

    Thanks.

  4. #4 Glenn
    April 16, 2012

    In general we can pasture 1000 pounds of animal per acre here in our part of Western Washington. Or, about one cow per acre. Good soil, mild winters and a widely distributed rainy season (less than two months without rain).

  5. #5 aimee
    April 16, 2012

    On about four acres in western washington, we raise Nubian milk goats and chickens. Usually three goats kid every year, providing me with enough milk (even as they raise their own kids) for family use and enough to make cheese and yogurt. The six to ten kids each year provide meat (the kids provide a very nice, fat carcass at about seven months of age, after a summer of feeding on grass and brush) for us and for friends. Our chickens are strictly egg producers, but they provide some two dozen eggs a week (in season) which is enough to eat and to trade for other local products. Being 100% free range on pasture, they eat very little grain in the spring, summer, and fall.

    And of course, my animals also fertilize the pasture and provide compost for my vegetable garden. Can we feed ourselves on our four acres alone? No way! Maybe it’s theoretically possible, since we live in a very favorable area, but not even close with the amount of work I choose to put in. We do, however, provide most of our own animal products (sometimes we raise a pig) in a sustainable way.

    Since we graze all summer, we do have to buy hay for winter, and I do buy grain for chickens in winter and for goats who are pregnant or lactating. I think every operation requires inputs of some kind, at least from time to time. But I am convinced that our operation, feeding ourselves and a few friends and neighbors, is much less energy intensive and preservative of land, soil, and water than if we were to eat the same amount of meat from industrial sources.

  6. #6 Christine
    April 16, 2012

    Thank you for this post. That NYTimes Opinion article gave me frown lines. As much as I wanted to rebuff him, I don’t have any evidence aside from personal experience that a local and pasture-based diet is any better than a conventional one. The more food we produce for ourselves the less we waste and thus value (and stretch at dinnertime) what we have available.

  7. #7 Milton Dixon
    April 16, 2012

    I’ve been having this same conversation with a friend on facebook. One big problem is that the natural cycles of nutrients have been broken. Fully being aware of the context of a place would include restoring those cycles.

  8. #8 Emily
    April 16, 2012

    My first thought was “where does the fat come from in a Michigan locavore vegan’s diet?” Nuts and sunflower seeds are the only things that come to mind, and those are hard to come by in quantity.

  9. #9 a person
    April 16, 2012

    So close and yet so far. We don’t necessarily need to eat less meat, just be open to more kinds of meat. Consider the sheep, goat, camel or guinea pig, as just a few examples suitable for some specific regions of the United States.

    Also, ‘we’ don’t actually eat that much meat. American meat consumption has flattened out quite a bit, and most of what is consumed is CAFO chicken and farmed fish, which makes the whole cow discussion a bit of a red herring.

    I would rather get everyone more high quality animal protein than start from a vegan-friendly premise that we should only have one perfect pasture-raised egg a week and not a bit more when that diet is by definition nutritionally incomplete without supplementation (which requires a complex technical infrastructure in some ways equal in unsustainability to CAFO production).

    Meat’s great, we should all eat up, and it should be of better quality. Right now the SAD is mostly refined flours and fried stuff and soda, and not actually all that much naughty naughty meat.

  10. #10 Jim Thomerson
    April 16, 2012

    When I was very small, my parents farmed three small fields, about 12 acres total, with a team. They soon caught on that we were mostly raising feed for the team. We sold the team and let the fields go back to pasture.

    My experience in leasing land for grazing is that the lease is for so many animal units. An animal unit is a cow and calf or five sheep. So the question is how many animal units per acre will your land support? I wonder how many chickens make up an animal unit.

  11. #11 a person
    April 16, 2012

    American consumption is about 8oz per day, which across three meals and a snack or two is clearly not this vast amount of meat it’s portrayed as being. Meat is not exactly the majority of industrial-ag produced calories that Americans are wolfing down. It is about 350 calories of the approximately 2000 many Americans consume daily, or about 15% of total diet.

    Can we please stop demonizing meat and pretending that the SAD norm is a 2lb steak daily when it’s more likely 2lbs of tater tots and a 64oz Big Gulp and a handful of chicken nuggets?

  12. #12 vera
    April 16, 2012

    Right on, Sharon.

    And the piece that is always missing from the vegan argument is carbon sequestration. We ought to be converting grain fields to pastures!

  13. #13 c.
    April 16, 2012

    Rueben, I cannot find it right now and it might have been the BBC but I recently read a trial project in a couple of towns in France. They’re handing out chickens to residents to try to cut down on garbage waste. In other words, here are your chickens, please do not throw your food scraps in the municipal pick-up.

    Made me grin :D

  14. #14 Brad K.
    April 17, 2012

    Sharon,

    I have to wonder whether a truly vegan diet is actually all that local, or even sustainable energy-wise. I imagine any diet today imagines uninterrupted use of refrigerators and freezers to make all that delightful food available in quantity and quality, year ’round.

    That might be an interesting perception to challenge.

    McWilliams scoffs at keeping livestock for their manure “all the while doing their own breeding and growing of feed. But they’d better have a trust fund.

    In another context, though, cattle might be used for transport. Steers trained to draught work are called ‘oxen’, but I imagine cows would work as well. But we won’t see oxen on I-35 this week, or horses, either, outside of trailers and trucks. That would take a context shift to thrive in the absence of reliable sources of diesel and gasoline.

    I think there is a major divide in world perception between McWilliams and this blog. Keeping backyard produce and livestock is a function of an informal economy; I don’t think McWilliams sees anything outside the measures and performance of the formal, cash based economy.

    Keeping five chickens in odd moments after work hours and when time is available is impossibly expensive, measured in formal economic terms like return on investment, and cost versus revenue. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a richer garden, and eggs in season. Would the time I spend, and feed costs, etc., be more useful in a cash flow sense? Maybe, maybe not. Informally, though, I really don’t care. I like the chickens, the rooster that crows to me until I answer “Er, er.” Etc.

    Thanks, and blessed be.

  15. #15 WIll
    April 17, 2012

    What does goose taste like?

  16. #16 Greenpa
    April 17, 2012

    Thanks, Sharon. One of the FACTS missing from the NYT, which I admit I was kind of expecting you to dig out, is that McWilliams is a longstanding VEGETARIAN – and a crusader about it. I’m shocked. It was not disclosed, by him or the Times- which is pretty off-kilter. He is also- a history professor. His claims to environmental expertise are rather on the diagonal.

    McBilly also took Joel to task for claiming to practice “rotational grazing” and “holistic” management; his quotes- but failed to cite the originator of both those practices, Allan Savory- who unlike Joel does NOT feed his animals supplements, and is quite successful at how he manages things. (I have no quarrels with Joel- he’s running a business, and he’s good at it; and does not hide his deviant behaviors.) McBill, however, DID hide his vegetarianism, and clearly was pretending to have an unbiased viewpoint to offer- which is not the case.

    Oh, and pasture raised goose tends to taste very much like beef. Really good beef.

  17. #17 Nicole
    April 17, 2012

    @Emily – Biologically speaking, meat has been a poor source of fat until recently. Animals hunted for meat were very low in fat, hence the biological risk of protein starvation.

    I suspect the abnormally low levels of fat in modern vegan diets has more to do with both sanitation and arbitrarily imposing restrictions on a modern diet than any reflection of the limitations of the food itself. The list of things we consider edible nuts and seeds in the 21st century has a lot fewer items than you’d find in the diet of a foraging society 5000 years ago even if they consumed little meat. In addition to plants, grubs and other insects are quite high in fat and often prized food items in non-industrial societies.

  18. #18 NM
    April 17, 2012

    Not to defend McWilliams — he made steam come out of my ears — but, “My personal reaction has been to avoid animal products completely,” he states, in the second paragraph.

  19. #19 NM
    April 17, 2012

    Vegans would not eat insects, although I doubt a foraging society 5,000 years ago would have been strictly vegan. However, seeds and nuts, both of which can be farmed, can be pressed for oil, assuming someone wants to go to the trouble.
    But I think the anti-vegetarian arguments are off-track; some humans will be vegetarian, some will be vegan, and some will eat meat of varying kinds, in varying quantities, because humans just aren’t homogenous.

  20. #20 Greenpa
    April 17, 2012

    NM – well, I’ll be danged. You’re right; there it is; but- I’m not always a careless reader and I did zip over that without noticing. It’s not quite the same thing as saying “I’m a vegetarian.” – and I have to say, I’m still suspicious that he intended it that way… snarl, snarl. :-)

  21. #21 Apple Jack Creek
    April 17, 2012

    Sharon, you just summed up why I changed back to eating meat from being vegetarian: I live in Northern Alberta and I realized that there was absolutely no way I could eat local food and be healthy. There’s a reason that my ancestors (from the British Isles – which have longer growing seasons and less snow, but still have something akin to winter) made blood sausage and slaughtered animals in the fall to see them through winter. You just can’t grow enough beans on the ground I live on to keep you healthy through winter … you need some meat. Not much, true, but my pastures are like yours – they grow quackgrass really, really well. The garden is being coaxed out of clay topped with several years’ worth of composted cow and sheep manure (from my own animals), keeping the cycle fairly small. We bring in hay (from a field very nearby), and ship out a small quantity of meat (from surplus slaughtered animals) but generally we try to use it all as best we can.

    Now if only I could get the darned tomatoes to sprout….

  22. #22 NM
    April 18, 2012

    : } Greenpa, I’ll certainly concede that he just dropped that in and zipped right along; that language is much more likely to mean something to other vegetarians than to those not used to the lingo.
    Not that I have a problem with someone arguing we should just maybe not eat meat. Not realistic, perhaps, but nothing wrong with making the argument. Oughta do it more straightforwardly, though.

  23. #23 Sharon Astyk
    April 18, 2012

    Greenpa, as others have noted he says he doesn’t eat animal products in the article. I also think it would be kind of churlish of me to complain that he’s a history prof given that I was a Shakespearean. I care about the quality of his analysis here, not his personal experience.

    I think that the further north you live, the less likely a totally vegan diet becomes – even vegetarian ones become a project of major effort – pressing oilseed pumpkins or mustard or sunflowers, rather than easily available almonds or olives – much easier to raise geese and pigs for fat and meat, or milk for butter. Historically, cold climate indigenous diets are a lot different than warm ones and the mostly veg societies tend to live in warmer places. That doesn’t mean it won’t be done, and it doesn’t mean I think vegetarianism or veganism doesn’t have a real place in the discussion about diets, but I don’t think veganism (vegetarianism is different, but vegetarians have a harder time playing the animal cruelty card, since raising chickens for eggs and cows or goats or sheep for milk results in extra male animals in the case of dairying and in dead chickens eventually in the case of chicken ;-))

    Re: geese – geese basically just need grass. A little grain in the coldest parts of the winter but they are basically pastured animals that can provide much self care. I think they are a lot more like duck than beef, but it is yummy dark meat with a nice layer of fat on it that could be used. They also produce down, of course, which is valuable. Chickens are great when you can use human food wastes to feed them, and there are plenty of cases where the use of limited grain food is pretty justified. But if you want a really sustainable poultry option, geese are really good. In slightly warmer climates than mine, ducks also do very well, but I don’t think they winter as well in really cold climates – they need too much grain, and my ducks have not been as interested in food scraps, honestly, as the chickens.

    Sharon

  24. #24 Richard Eis
    April 18, 2012

    Actually i’d put “avoid animal products completely” to mean vegan. Not vegetarian… and given the content of the article, if he wasn’t at least a vegetarian he would be quite the hypocrite.

  25. #25 Nicole
    April 18, 2012

    NM, I agree vegans would not intentionally eat insects, but prior to modern sanitation methods, consuming insect eggs and larvae would be unavoidable. Even today, there’s a reason why dried beans are treated with nitrogen, or in the case of the home grower, by time spent in the freezer.

  26. #26 NM
    April 18, 2012

    @ Nicole (from Nicole M.! howdy!) Yeah, I did skip over the sanitation angle you mentioned. Oops, sorry. Makes me curious whether anyone’s actually measured the amount of protein and/or fat in insect eggs and larvae incidentally present in foods. Bleck. Reminds me of one of Sharon’s articles talking about people starving rather than eat things they just can’t or won’t recognize as food.
    But I think there’s more of it around than we’d prefer to think about. Judging, at least, by the miller moths coming out of commercially packaged foods …
    Sharon, “But I don’t think veganism” … rest of sentence got lost, and I wanted to hear it. Though you already made the point about location determining diet, and it’s a good one. Also easy to forget, living, as I do, at least, in a place with a very moderate climate where it’s easy to grow all kinds of things, and to take that ability for granted.
    Richard, I agree, but it’s more a question of clarity in language; vegans are vegetarian. Just not necessarily vice versa.

  27. #27 Rebecca
    April 18, 2012

    NM and Nicole,
    There’s been some work done in India (by Vandana Shiva, I believe) about the change in protein and fat content of the Indian diet since the advent of GMO grains. If I remember the article right, there has been a huge increase in the number of illnesses linked to malnutrition in the past couple of decades and the hypothesis is that its because the amount of insect larvae and eggs present in the traditional Indian diet has declined thanks to pesticides. Indians are traditionally vegetarian and apparently the loss of insects has been enough to push some of them over the edge.

  28. #28 NM
    April 18, 2012

    Wow. I must look that up, thanks.

  29. #29 W-
    April 18, 2012

    Outstanding post! Keep up the great work!

  30. #30 Nicole
    April 18, 2012

    NM & Rebecca, IIRC, Weston Price was the first one to question the effect of sanitation of traditional Hindi diets and make a link between their basic healthfulness in their native land, but then subsequent health declines as immigrants to England.

    A Google of “nutritional value of insects” was disturbingly specific about some things.

    By the way, if you haven’t read Price’s “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration,” it’s a fascinating read and covers a range of traditional and local diets, many of which have nothing in common with each other. Although some of the science is out of date and his work is tinged by belief in the noble savage, the research he and his wife did simply could not be recreated today.)

  31. #31 NM
    April 19, 2012

    Thanks! Local library system has Price’s book, so I’ve put a hold on it. Will also try the google search … maybe AFTER lunch…. ;p
    Tried searching Vandana Shiva and insects, which led to a lot of fascinating speeches and articles, but not to the particular one Rebecca mentioned.
    I thought of this discussion this morning, while washing bolting kale, and finding a little green worm. Must say, I was not moved to eat it. : ) Fascinating subject, though. Probably a fair number of insects and eggs make it into our diets via fresh vegetables, too, but I try not to think about that too much, being squeamish and all.

  32. #32 NM
    April 19, 2012

    Sent this post to a friend yesterday, and she had an interesting ‘Eureka’ moment, when she realized that switching from an industrial farm system to small farms would not require growing everything those industrial farms are growing … i.e. masses of grains to feed livestock, and to make into all sorts of unhealthy processed foods. She said, so many people make the argument that you can’t switch to small farms, because they couldn’t produce everything we are now, and it just hadn’t quite clicked that we don’t need to. And she doubts that most people not immersed in this subject would find that obvious either. Since I just unthinkingly elide those two things into one — change of diets, change of farming systems (not to mention change of economy) — it was a fascinating discussion.

  33. #33 Wow
    April 20, 2012

    I remember a study came out with the statement that, during your life, the average person will eat nine spiders in their sleep.

    I know (really know) of one: my mouth was numb and there were two sore spots at the back of the throat and I’d woken up (as I’d done several times before) from a dream where I’m trying to swallow a wad of paper.

    I no longer like dreaming about being a spy…

  34. #34 Calli Arcale
    April 20, 2012

    NM, I agree vegans would not intentionally eat insects, but prior to modern sanitation methods, consuming insect eggs and larvae would be unavoidable.

    Over at Greg Laden’s blog he has a very funny piece about this, called “Hey, there’s food in my bugs!” Yes, insects in food stores are pretty much unavoidable. He was on an anthropological expedition, and after a while, the bugs in their stores had become so numerous that it was more a case of eating bugs with beans than the other way around. But hey, bugs are good for you! Or, they can be. Fresh protein, as my dad always likes to say. ;-)

  35. #35 Calli Arcale
    April 20, 2012

    BTW, when it comes to sustainability, my personal axe to grind is over the corn subsidies. In my personal opinion, we grow way more corn than we should. Many farmers aren’t even doing the traditional crop rotation (corn-sorghum-soy, though I may have misremembered the order) and are instead relying on fertilizer to replace the nitrogen taken out by the corn; this would’ve been insane fifty years ago, but with corn subsidies, the amount spent on fertilizer is made up by the subsidy. Ethanol made from corn *should* be ridiculously expensive, and no answer to our oil situation — but for subsidies. I think it’s insane. I think we could be raising a lot more cattle on grazing land if we were choosing to do that instead of growing corn on the same land. And yeah; we could definitely stand to eat less meat overall, and to settle for what seems like lower quality but is really just pickiness; people who will only buy sirloin are wasteful, IMHO. And . . . hey, let’s eat bugs! Turkey’s said to have an excellent feed-to-meat ratio, but it’s nothing compared to mealworms. ;-)

  36. #36 Simon
    April 20, 2012

    Since McWilliam’s piece mentioned Polyface Farm (of documentary Food Inc. fame) Joel Salatin issued a rebuttal on Grist on April 17th.
    Here: http://grist.org/sustainable-farming/farmer-responds-to-the-new-york-times-re-sustainable-meat/

  37. #37 Ed
    April 26, 2012

    The piece that is (almost) always missing is waste. The amount of food wasted in the us from far to market, from market to table, and especially in prepared foods and restaurants is staggering.

    Not that I expect people to stop eating in restaurants….

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