Conservation Corner

Sustainability of our food production – part 2

Pauline Lee

Modern agriculture has increased production several-fold in the last half of the 20th century by mechanization and chemicalization, both of which require large energy input. At the same time, the efficiency of modern agriculture has actually decreased drastically if one takes into account the concomitant costs of the energy input and the loss of natural resources (fresh water, forests, biodiversity, productive soil, clean air and stable weather). Last month’s article about the sustainability of our food production illustrated how cattle and dairy production in the Western world is unsustainable as the world population continues to increase to 9 billion by 2050. We need to make fundamental changes in our food choices.

The efficiency of food production drops as the selected food item goes up the food chain and the animal increases in size. Food at the bottom of the food chain is produced most efficiently and costs the least, e.g., seaweed and leafy vegetables. Cattle, being larger and higher in the food chain, cost more to grow. Moreover, most of the former can be eaten but only a fraction of the latter can be used as food. The environmental impact of different foods can be compared by looking at how many pounds of greenhouse gas are produced per pound of the food item:

Beef, 25 lbs.; Lamb, 17 lbs.; Pork, 8 lbs.; Chicken, 3.7 lbs.; Eggs, 3.4 lbs.; Salmon, 3.4 lbs.; Lentils, 1 lb.; Peanuts, 0.83 lb.; Oats, 0.38 lb.; Apples, 0.29 lb.; Onions, 0.17 lb.

Since man’s body can make only 13 of the 22 amino acids needed to build proteins, we must intake the remainder from our diet. While beef and dairy products can provide all the amino acids, vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, asparagus and artichokes can provide some amino acids, too. Grains, less commonly used, with extra amino acids are brown rice, amaranth, oatmeal, quinoa, hempseed and teff. Seeds with lots of amino acids include pumpkin, chia, sesame, edamame (fresh soy bean) all nuts, beans and peas. Even spirulina (a blue-green algae) and nutritional yeast are rich in amino acids. Nondairy butters can be made from peanuts, beans (hummus) and seeds (tahini). Nondairy milk can be made from soy bean, almond, other nuts and hempseed. You can access and click on Food Monster for numerous recipes to use these ingredients for delicious options to meat protein.

The reliance of Western countries on cattle (red meat) and dairy products as one of their main staples is not only unsustainable, but contributes to heart disease, certain cancers and kidney failure. Even though red meat has many nutrients, vitamins and minerals, other vegetarian products (but not sugar) are healthier for us due to their additional nutritional content such as antioxidants, probiotics and fiber. Moreover, they can be produced sustainably for the growing world population. Our food choices must take into consideration their long-term effect on our environment and on our health.