Plant-based for the Planet 2: Other Information and Livestock

In the last post, which I actually haven’t put up until I’ve done this post anyhow, I wrote about how eating whole foods from plants is THE THING you can be/have to be doing for the planet right now. Understandably, people will probably want to know why, which we’ll get to in a moment. As is my style, I’m not going to go into excessive detail nor provide a bunch of references that most of us will never get around to looking up let alone reading. But I’ll give you some ideas of places to look if you want to explore further. Otherwise you could just take my word for it and jump straight into saving the planet, while at the same time looking and feeling better yourself.

Anyhow, last time I hinted that I hadn’t appreciated the environmental impact of diet fully, even when I became plant-based myself. So I’ll tell you the story of how I came to know more about this which will serve the purpose of giving you some great places to be looking if you want more information yourself. Or to direct your friends, family, and workmates, maybe even local politicians, if they’re not avid fans and readers of my writings.

I was introduced to the whole foods plant-based diet in 2009 when I read ‘The China Study’. I actually came across a reference to it in the comments section on RealClearPolitics which I’d become addicted to during President Obama’s campaign for nomination and election. I was actually reading about his healthcare plans, and the commenter had suggested he’d do well to read that book when considering reform of the US health system. Good call! I guess sometimes some good comes from reading the comments section. Because I was fascinated by nutrition and health and that kind of geeky stuff I immediately Google searched for it and came up with a PDF of it (not-so-legal, sorry T. Colin, of course I’ve bought the original now!) I literally started reading and did not stop reading until I had finished, I was fascinated! I ended up recommending it to several of my friends at med school with varying success (but that’s another story). BUT great as it is, there’s only a brief mention of the environmental impact in the book, which just so happens to mention John Robbins. I was a medical student after all, not an environmental studies major so the first place I went was for the medical books referenced (specifically Dr Esselstyn’s).

When I saw Forks Over Knives in late 2010 (at a surprise pre-screening thanks to Dr Esselstyn) there was a little more about the environment, but again only a little part. What really started to open my eyes to the environmental benefits of a plant-based way of eating was John Robbins’ awesome book ‘Food Revolution’. Then of course there was ‘Cowspiracy’ which really does a great job of summarising the environmental aspect – this is the best ‘crash course’ in the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet out there, so if you haven’t seen this yet you must! Finally if you are still after more and want to get into all the gritty details then you should check out Richard Oppenlander’s brilliant and well-titled ‘Food Choice and Sustainability: Why Buying Local, Eating Less Meat, and Taking Baby Steps Won’t Work’, which I picked up from Jim and Suzy Camerons’ (two of the most outspoken and hardest-working environmentalists I know) Food Forest Organics in Greytown. The book is very comprehensive and from what I can tell informed the bulk of ‘Cowspiracy’, it feels like you’re reading the movie at times.

I promised a few points about plant-based and the environment so I had better get started on those! Otherwise this runs the risk of blowing out into even more posts. As it is I’ll just cover one aspect today and start on the others tomorrow.

Let’s start with talking a bit about livestock. At the moment there are about 70 billion of them, and they take up 70% of the available agricultural land and incredibly about 45% of the total landmass on the planet. So as George Monbiot wrote, yes there’s a population problem, but it’s not humans! Plants unsurprisingly take up way less land. Livestock also are the major threat to native animals and to a large extent responsible for the increased rate of species extinction because native species are trapped, relocated, and hunted in order to make way for livestock and crops needed to feed them. The same thing happens with native plants, something we often see in New Zealand as introduced livestock eat and trample them. Livestock also produce huge amounts of waste: a farm of 2500 cows produces more than a city of 400,000 people, because of course they do not have anything like the elaborate sewage systems we do. As a final point for now, livestock strip topsoil from the land at 6 times the rate that plant-based crops do. When you consider that almost all land currently used for grazing could be used to grow food-producing plants and that using animal waste for fertiliser is neither efficient nor safe you can really start to appreciate that there’s no good reason to be inflicting the types of damage upon the environment that livestock do.

Even if this were all there was to it, it would be worth stopping consuming animal products for the sake of the planet. But it’s literally just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. I’ll write more about this next time!

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