Life

How should we change our food habits to protect the planet and our own health? The more obvious answers aren’t necessarily the best ones. By Elizabeth Farrelly.

What does it really take to eat for the good of the planet?

A Charolais bull in woodland pasture, near the village of Aboyne, Scotland.
A Charolais bull in woodland pasture, near the village of Aboyne, Scotland.
Credit: Saperlo / Alamy

Sometime in the future, when history makes its call, the industrialisation of food may look less like a life-saving mid-century miracle than a planetary and public health disaster.

As if to satirise the absurdity of factory-built food, the “chicken-free” niblets on my local supermarket shelf proclaim their chickenness by denying it. No fewer than 49 other ingredients make up this pseudo food. There are several “numbers”, including methyl cellulose, glyceryl monostearate, glyceryl distearate, sodium acetate, hydrolysed lecithin and nisin – a polycyclic antibacterial peptide. Also, palm oil – the production of which herds orangutans towards extinction – two forms of soy, possibly genetically modified, and extracts of 25 different fruits and vegetables, from beetroot to coconut.

This is the current food of virtue. But how real is that halo? Are such comestibles actually good, for us or for the planet?

In recent years global food-faddery has evolved from the gastro-porn of MasterChef and Instagram to the vehement virtue-signalling of veganism and the meat wars. It may seem narcissistic but this obsession with what we put into our mouths is far from trivial. The mists of emotion and politics that surround our food system preclude serious public analysis, which is a shame, because at its heart a moral and existential challenge demands attention.

Can we eat our way to both good health and planetary survival? How, as we dither in aisle three, can we know?

 

Everybody’s favourite eco-zealot, George Monbiot, grabbed headlines when he wrote that the world’s “most damaging” farm products are “organic, pasture-fed beef and lamb”. Noting that some 26 per cent of the world’s non-frozen land is grazed to generate 1 per cent of the world’s protein, Monbiot depicts grazing as more destructive than urban sprawl, and meat growers as engaging in oil-industry-type propaganda.

Feeding eight billion could never be easy. Humans have clearly done the planet more harm than good and it is often hard to envision a future where our relentless population dynamics – explosion, starvation, reduction – don’t push our own species to the cliff edge. Even if we manage to check this progress – say, by educating the world’s women – the food thing demands urgent attention.

Rewilding, however modish, isn’t really an answer. By all means pull up your fences, ban chemicals, eschew the plough, let nature do its thing. Gaia will be fine without us. But we value our lives. So the big problem is how to feed ourselves without destroying the ecosystems on which we depend.

The battle stations are drawn. On one side, the anti-meaters claim that meat is bad both for us and for the environment – that it compacts soil, wastes water and is profligate with land. On the other side, regenerative farmers argue that hard-hoofed ruminants, properly managed, multiply the soil’s living depth and water-holding capacity, build soil carbon, sustain microbes, enhance grassland and increase diversity without the use of chemicals, in a way that cropping cannot replicate, while also supplying nutrient-dense food. Who is right?

 

No doubt we in the so-called global north could eat less meat. We over-consume in part because meat is too cheap – due mostly to industrial farming. Factory farms, feedlots, routine antibiotics, battery chickens and cruel killing methods decrease food value and damage the environment via methane production, toxic runoff and resistant pathogens.

And Monbiot argues there’s an opportunity cost to pasture not being forest. In Australia especially, hard-hoofed animals get a bad rap, being routinely blamed for our notoriously poor and compacted soils. But much of this is about farming practice, not meat per se.

Grazing land can be much steeper, rockier and less fertile than cropping land. The fast-moving, nitrogen-trampling methodologies of managed grazing can regenerate land that would otherwise be marginal. Managed grazing and silvopasture, in which ruminants forage through lightly treed grassland, can gradually reverse desertification. The fenceline between traditional Australian farms and regenerate land typically shows bare earth on one side and lush, butterfly-studded pasture on the other.

In contrast, almost all of the crops involved in Woolies’ not-chicken are routinely grown in heavily pesticide- and fertiliser-dependent monocultures that kill critical insects and soil microbes, deplete soil carbon, reduce hydration and diminish biodiversity.

In addition, much vegan and vegetarian food is heavily processed; filled with emulsifiers, preservatives, antioxidants and “extracts” – of trees, yeast, soy, rosemary and so on. A slew of studies now show a strong positive correlation between ultra-processed food and the ailments collectively known as “diabesity”. And when it comes to lab-made or genetically engineered meat, the long-term health implications are even vaguer.

A recent post on Extinction Rebellion’s Instagram offered a radical solution.

“Eating just one billionaire would do more to prevent climate change than going vegan or never driving a car for the rest of your life.” But there must be more practical paths.

 

Sacred Cow: The Case for (Better) Meat is a book by real food nutritionist Diana Rodgers and biochemist Robb Wolf. Rodgers, then a fine arts major in Portland, Oregon, became interested in “better” meat through trying to self-treat her coeliac disease. The book argues that domesticated hoofed herbivores are essential to a healthy body and a truly sustainable food system.

The health case is built on the human anatomy – the relative lengths of our colon and small intestine, and our mixed dentition – and nutritional needs, that is, for bioavailable iron, B12, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA, which are necessary for brain health. From hunter-gatherer times, they note, we have evolved as omnivores.

On the environment, Rodgers and Wolf cite American figures from the Environmental Protection Agency that show greenhouse gas emissions from livestock are lower than those from cropping, and a small fraction of those from transport. Touching on the work of Allan Savory and others, they note, too, that hard-hoofed ruminants, properly managed, build soil carbon.

Many young farmers are now practising such regenerative methods, though for the consumer it can be hard to know where to start. One way is through a nose-to-tail providore such as The Good Farm Shop, set up by Matilda Brown and chef/nutritionist Scott Gooding, or Laura Dalrymple and Grant Hilliard’s more established Feather and Bone.

After 10 years as a vegan, Brown says she felt constantly tired and hungry. Now she is energised, rarely hungry between meals and delights in food – confident of its nutritional value and ethical provenance.

Another way for the urbanite to trust that their meat lived happily, died well and helped regenerate the soil, is Land to Market, a verification system that inspects and certifies the source farm’s regenerative practices.

Naturally, such methods take time and knowledge, so regen meat costs more. Monbiot notes this with some glee, declaring that if “meat were to come only from regenerative farms … only millionaires would eat it”. Paying $60 for an organic heritage chicken can hurt, especially when the factory-farm version costs $10. But real meat restores respect. And its costs should come down as real food is normalised. Consider the alternatives: a 3D-printed steak will set you back $70 – yes, such a thing exists.

 

The solution is unlikely to be singular. It’s a big planet and we’re complicated creatures. One of regenerative grazing’s many upsides is that, being plough-free, it easily combines with both paddock trees and seasonal cropping. International practitioners, from American farmer Joel Salatin to our own Colin Seis in Gulgong and Charlie Massy near Cooma, have pioneered different methods of combining lamb, duck, chicken and pig farming with seasonal crops on the same piece of land, to benefit both the land and the consumer.

Perhaps the biggest error is what we might call the McDonald’s Fallacy; that eating a daily Quarter Pounder is affordable for us, and for the planet. As environmental journalist Michael Pollan says: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Naturally, those plants should be whole, unprocessed and grown in mixed cultures that enable minimal chemical input.

To my mind, less meat more respectfully grown would be better all round, and more delicious.

This story was modified on September 22, 2022, to correct a reference to Land to Market's base.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "Comfort farm".

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