Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sustainability Reality Check

The nutrition and public health quagmire in the United States has, like a virulent contagion, infected many other topics. “Sustainability” is one of them. Sustainability is a "dialogue of values that defies consensual definition" (Ratner 2004).  Let’s look at the following paragraph from the “Food” section of the Wikipedia page for sustainability (Wikipedia, 2011):

The American Public Health Association (APHA) defines a "sustainable food system"[86][87] as "one that provides healthy food to meet current food needs while maintaining healthy ecosystems that can also provide food for generations to come with minimal negative impact to the environment. A sustainable food system also encourages local production and distribution infrastructures and makes nutritious food available, accessible, and affordable to all. Further, it is humane and just, protecting farmers and other workers, consumers, and communities."[88]

Lots to feel good about in that statement, but not a lot to sink your teeth into. On the face of it, it’s hard to argue with. But we have to dig deeper. Just what do they mean by “healthy food,” “healthy ecosystems,” “negative impact,” “nutritious food,” “accessible and affordable,” “humane,” and “just”? Who gets to decide? Perhaps the next section of that paragraph will provide some insight …

Concerns about the environmental impacts of agribusiness and the stark contrast between the obesity problems of the Western world and the poverty and food insecurity of the developing world have generated a strong movement towards healthy, sustainable eating as a major component of overall ethical consumerism.[89]

Here we have the flawed belief that overeating and sedentary behavior cause obesity. Once again, the “experts” have conveniently overlooked the fact that obesity is NOT caused by affluence and that obesity and under-nutrition have frequently been observed in the same unbelievably poor populations (Taubes, 2010). Continuing with the paragraph …

The environmental effects of different dietary patterns depend on many factors, including the proportion of animal and plant foods consumed and the method of food production.[90][91][92][93] The World Health Organization has published a Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health report which was endorsed by the May 2004 World Health Assembly. It recommends the Mediterranean diet which is associated with health and longevity and is low in meat, rich in fruits and vegetables, low in added sugar and limited salt, and low in saturated fatty acids; the traditional source of fat in the Mediterranean is olive oil, rich in monounsaturated fat. The healthy rice-based Japanese diet is also high in carbohydrates and low in fat. Both diets are low in meat and saturated fats and high in legumes and other vegetables; they are associated with a low incidence of ailments and low environmental impact.[94]

The WHO got it wrong with Livestock’s Long Shadow. (see my earlier post). The circular reasoning of far too many is that since the consumption of animal products is bad for our health, the production of animal products must be bad for the environment. Many others reason that since the production of animal products is inherently bad for the environment, the consumption of animal products must be bad for the environment. Of course these are myths, based upon the great lies of American conventional wisdom on nutrition and health (Diets low in meat promote health and longevity; Physical activity is key to health; Low fat (high carbohydrate) diets are “healthy”) and vegetarian-influenced environmentalism (The production of vegetables, fruits, cereals and pulses (or legumes) is more environmentally friendly than the production of animal products).

Grass fed, NOT lean!
The clear testimony of the archeological record and anthropological research confirms that the human diet has been and should be based upon animal products. The mistaken belief that the healthy diet is a plant-based one, in other words one based upon carbohydrates, has produced an epidemic of chronic disease in the United States. Any conversation about “sustainability” that does not take this into account is pointless and fatally flawed .

The fiscal crisis currently facing the United States is, to a significant degree, driven by the dramatic increase in health care spending. US health care expenditures surpassed $2.3 trillion in 2008, more than three times that spent in 1990, and over eight times that spent in 1980 (CDC, 2010). The share of the U.S. economy that Americans spend on health care has increased from 7.2% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1970 to 17.6% of GDP in 2009 (CDC, 2010). Chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, obesity, cancer, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and Alzheimer’s disease – in other words, metabolic diseases – are taking a heavy toll on health while taking an increasing portion of the health care spending. Chronic diseases account for $3 of every $4 spent on healthcare. That’s nearly $7,900 for every American with a chronic disease (CDC, 2010).

Seventy percent of deaths in the US are due to chronic diseases (CDC, 2010). Chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease are the leading causes of disability and death in the US. About 25% of people with chronic diseases have some type of activity limitation, including restrictions in employment and education (Partnership for Solutions, 2004).

Conventional wisdom states that obesity increases the risk of developing conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.  An opinion informed by recent research understands that obesity is a metabolic disorder and is associated with other metabolic disorders, such as diabetes and heart disease. Obesity is not a cause of metabolic syndrome, it is one of metabolic syndrome’s conditions. This fundamental misunderstanding contributes to obesity epidemic we’re now experiencing .

The rate of obesity in adults has doubled in the last 20 years. It has almost tripled in kids ages 2-11. It has more than tripled in children ages 12-19 (CDC, 2011). Without big changes, 1 in 3 babies born today will develop diabetes in their lifetime (ADA, 2011). Average healthcare costs for someone who has one or more chronic conditions is 5 times greater than for someone without any chronic conditions (Partnership for Solutions, 2004).

Let’s look at the yearly costs due to a handful of conditions associated with metabolic syndrome:

        Heart Disease and Stroke $ 432 Billion (Mensah and Brown, 2007)
        Diabetes $ 174 Billion (ADA, 2011)
        Obesity $ 147 Billion (Finkelstein, et al., 2009)
        GERD (2005) $ 2 Billion / week, $ 104 Billion in lost productivity (IFFGD, 2008)
        All cancers, except lung and lymphoma $ 100 Billion
        Alzheimer’s  $ 148 Billion (AA, 2007)

More than 1 trillion US dollars are represented by this partial list of conditions now thought to be associated with metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is most effectively treated by adopting a low carbohydrate, high fat way of eating. It’s likely caused by eating diets high in carbohydrate (Taubes, 2008). Until that is officially accepted by the massive disease treatment industries and agencies, health care costs will continue to be unsustainable and will threaten the long-term sovereignty of this country. To say nothing of the pain and suffering of millions of people.

Given all this, “sustainable” food production looks a little different. Clearly “sustainable” production of grains, pulses (legumes), starchy vegetables and sugary fruit begs the question “Who cares if we can produce these sustainably if we can’t sustain the health impacts of consuming them?” And the issue of “sustainable” production of animal products begs the question “Can we produce enough of them?”

Grass grows were other crops can't.
Cattle grazing the slopes of the Columbia Gorge. 
The USDA’s Economic Research Service provides census statistics for the individual states. For 2007, they reported there were 44.3 million acres of pastureland, pastured woodland, and pastured cropland in the 26 states east of the Mississippi (including Wisconsin) (USDA ERS, 2011). How many people could be fed from animal products produced on those acres? To answer that question, you need to make some assumptions. One can argue these one way or the other, but they should serve well enough for this exercise.

Consumed forage dry matter (DM) yield pounds per acre (lb/A) = 12,500 (Hofstrand and Edwards 2009)
Conversion rate = 14 lb DM/lb carcass weight (Lincoln University)
Edible yield = 0.76 lb/lb carcass weight (Jackson Frozen Food Locker)
Cooked yield = 0.65 lb/lb edible yield (Canadian Beef)
Cooked meat per meal  = 4 ounces (oz) (Eades and Eades, 2000)
Meals per day = 3

Given the above, 1.6 people could be supported per acre. So if all of the various forms of pasture land east of the Mississippi were managed to this degree, we could feed 71.5 million people. The current population of the US is 307 million (US Census Bureau, 2011). What about the remaining 235.5 million people? How about if we added all of the various pasture land in Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Missouri? That would be enough to feed 108 million people. Okay, how about if we took all of the cropland in these states and converted it to pasture, bringing the totals to 247 million acres of pasture land would theoretically allow us to feed 398.2 million people.

That still leaves a great deal of the United States, but much of it will be less productive and it will be needed to produce the young growing animals needed by this vast pastoral enterprise. It should be pointed out that these assumptions are rather generous ones. They represent high forage DM yields and high levels of grazing management. In The Vegetarian Myth, Lierre Keith cites Joel Salatin’s production from 10 acres of his Polyface Farm in Virginia:

3,000 eggs
1,000 broilers
80 stewing hens
2,000 pounds of beef
2,500 pounds of pork
100 turkeys
50 rabbits

Keith calculates that this is enough to fully feed 9 people for a year. Compare this figure of 0.9 person persons fed per acre and the preceding exercise’s  value of 1.6 persons fed per acre. It should be pointed out that, while Salatin’s pigs and poultry are on pasture, he feeds grain to the pigs, chickens and turkeys. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve written before about how the differences between grain- and grass- finished animal products have been over-sold. But if we’re going to feed grain to livestock, it has to be grown somewhere. In my exercise, I assigned all of cropland east of the 95th meridian, and a bit west of it, to pasture.

Western Oregon pasture and hay ground.
Tremendous potential remains
There are 473 million acres of privately owned pastureland in the US . In addition, the Bureau of Land Management manages livestock grazing on 157 million acres of public lands (BLM,2011). Add to that the 361 million acres of cropland that could be converted into highly productive pasture, and one begins to see just how vast this country’s pasture resource is.

Anthony Bourdain poses a telling question in his book Medium Raw.

“If, somehow, we manage to bring monstrously evil agribusinesses like Monsanto to their knees, free up vast tracts of arable land for small, seasonal, sustainable farming, where’s all the new help coming from? Seems to me, we’re facing one of two scenarios. Either enormous numbers of people who’ve never farmed before are suddenly convinced that waking up a five a.m. and feeding chickens and then working the soil all day is a desirable thing. Or, in the far more likely case, we’ll revert to the traditional method: importing huge numbers of desperately poor brown people from elsewhere – to grow those tasty, crunch vegetables for more comfortable white masters. So, while animals of the future might be cruelty-free, which would allow those who can afford to eat them to do so with a clean conscience, what about life for thos who will have to shovel the shit from their stalls?”

It takes a while to become a good grazier. One really good pasture-based dairyman told me that a New Zealander told him it would take 20 years, and his experience has confirmed that estimate. Where are these folks going to come from? How will they get access to the land? How will they acquire the animals? It’s one thing to talk about it, it’s another to do it. It’s a blessing to be able to afford the extra cost of local, organic and/or sustainable food products, but what if that is not an option? And that, of course begs the question, “Is it worth it?”

And what about the 6.3 billion people in the rest of the world (CIA, 2011)? If the world’s population is going to feed itself appropriately, people will have to learn how to produce animal products that are appropriate to the regions where they live. Research and demonstration will be needed. This will require a great deal of new thinking, purged of the contamination of American dietary and environmental conventional wisdom.


Alzheimer’s Association. Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures 2007. Alzheimer’s Association Web site. Accessed July 19, 2011.

American Diabetes Association. 2011. Diabetes Statistics. Accessed July 19, 2011.

Beef Information Centre. Virtual Beef Nutrition Counter. Canadian Beef. Accessed July 19, 2011.

Bureau of Land Management. 2011. Fact Sheet on the BLM’s Management of Livestock Grazing. Accessed July 19, 2011.

Bourdain, A. 2010. Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. Harper Collins. New York, NY

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2010. Chronic Disease Overview: Costs of Chronic Disease. Accessed July 15, 2011.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2011. Overweight and Obesity. Accessed July 15, 2011.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Office of the Actuary, National Health Statistics Group. 2010. National Health Care Expenditures Data.

Central Intelligence Agency. 2011. The World Factbook. Washington, DC. Accessed July 19, 2011.

Eases, M.R. and M.D. Eades. 2000. The Protein Power Lifeplan. Warner Books, Inc. New York, NY.

Finkelstein, E. A., J. G. Trogdon, J. W. Cohen and W. Dietz. 2009. “Annual medical spending attributable to obesity: Payer- and service-specific estimates.” Health Affairs 2009; 28(5): w822-w831.

Hofstrand, D. and W. Edwards. July 2009. Computing a Pasture Rental Rate. Iowa State University Extension. Accessed July 19, 2011.

International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders .2008. GERD Costs America Nearly $2 Billion Each Week in Lost Productivity. Accessed July 17, 2011.

Jackson Frozen Food Locker. Ask the Meatman. Accessed July 19, 2011.

Keith, Lierre. 2009. The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability. Crescent City, CA: Flashpoint Press.

Lincoln University. Farm Technical Manual. Lincoln University Press. Christchurch, NZ.

Mensah G, Brown D. An overview of cardiovascular disease burden in the United States. Health Aff 2007; 26:38-48.

Partnership for Solutions. 2004. Chronic Conditions: Making the Case for Ongoing Care, September 2004. Accessed July 17, 2011.

Ratner, B.D. 2004. "Sustainability as a Dialogue of Values: Challenges to the Sociology of Development." Sociological Inquiry 74(1): 50–69

Taubes, G. 2008. Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease. Anchor Books, New York, NY

Taubes, G. 2011. Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It. 2011. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY.

United States Census Bureau. 2011. Population of the United States. Accesses July 19, 2011.

United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. 2011. State Fact Sheets. Accessed July 18, 2011.

Wikipedia. Sustainability. Accessed July 19, 2011.

References from Wikipedia quotes:

86. Feenstra, G. (2002). "Creating Space for Sustainable Food Systems: Lessons from the Field". Agriculture and Human Values 19 (2): 99–106. doi:10.1023/A:1016095421310.

87. Harmon A.H., Gerald B.L. (June, 2007). "Position of the American Dietetic Association: Food and Nutrition Professionals Can Implement Practices to Conserve Natural Resources and Support Ecological Sustainabiility" (PDF). Journal of the American Dietetic Association 107 (6): 1033–43.. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2007.05.138. PMID 17571455.  Retrieved on: 2009-03-18.

88. "Toward a Healthy, Sustainable Food System (Policy Number: 200712)". American Public Health Association. 2007-06-11. Retrieved : 2008-08-18.

89. Mason & Singer (2006).

90. McMichael A.J., Powles J.W., Butler C.D., Uauy R. (September 2007). "Food, Livestock Production, Energy, Climate change, and Health." (PDF). Lancet 370 (9594): 1253. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61256-2. PMID 17868818.  Retrieved on: 2009-03-18.

91. Baroni L., Cenci L., Tettamanti M., Berati M. (February 2007). "Evaluating the Environmental Impact of Various Dietary Patterns Combined with Different Food Production Systems." (PDF). Eur. J. Clin. Nutr. 61 (2 ): 279–86. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602522. PMID 17035955.  Retrieved on: 2009-03-18.

92. Steinfeld H., Gerber P., Wassenaar T., Castel V., Rosales M., de Haan, C. (2006). "Livestock's Long Shadow - Environmental Issues and Options" 390 pp. Retrieved on: 2009-03-18.

93. Heitschmidt R.K., Vermeire L.T., Grings E.E. (2004). "Is Rangeland Agriculture Sustainable?". Journal of Animal Science. 82 (E-Suppl): E138–146. PMID 15471792.  Retrieved on: 2009-03-18.

94. World Health Organisation (2004). "Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health." Copy of the strategy endorsed by the World Health Assembly. Retrieved on: 2009-6-19.


  1. well thought post....
    honestly, my care and focus is on properly feeding the US. let's figure that out first. it is going to take a paradigm shift and sacrifice by many to get back to more traditional food production.

    the rest of the world can deal with things as they seem fit.

  2. There are A LOT of people who want to be farmers and who are willing to do the hard work it takes to be successful. However, access to affordable, productive land and even the minimum infrastructure necessary to support success is virtually non-existent.

  3. Thanks, Chuck. More than one paradigm shift will be required! As far as sacrifice, I'm not so sure. One of our favorite phrases, as we enjoy another delicious meal, is "diet food!" The US is not the world's keeper. But since we bear a large responsibility for the current situation, it would seem like the decent thing to facilitate the required changes.

  4. Angel - Agreed. I've been encouraged by the number of young people (as I approach 55, it's an ever-larger category!) who are getting "back to the land." And I agree that access to land and infrastructure are issues. Grass-based production systems of animal products are the best models that I know of for these folks. I do think it's a legitimate question to ask "is 'a LOT' enough?" Thanks for your comment.

  5. @pete
    by sacrifice i mean, there will have to be lifestyle changes by many. like i said, let's figure things out here at home. the rest of the world may learn from us and adapt accordingly.