In my recent Complete Guide to Sustainable Protein, I created a list of the most protein-dense and sustainable protein sources for any diet. Last month, I was fortunate enough to interview Diana Rodgers, RD, LDN, NTP, in order to shed some more light on the sustainability and nutrition of animal- and plant-based protein sources. Diana is a “real food” nutritionist and writer living on a working organic farm in Carlisle, Massachusetts. She runs a clinical nutrition practice, hosts the Sustainable Dish Podcast, and speaks internationally about human nutrition, sustainability, animal welfare and social justice. Her work has been featured in The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Outside Magazine, Edible Boston and Mother Earth News. She can be found online at www.sustainabledish.com. In this interview, we discuss the ills of the modern food production system and how to find healthy, sustainable protein sources.
Diana: I have been interested in food and farming ever since I was a kid. I was always sick as a kid and wasn’t diagnosed with celiac disease until my mid-twenties. I was always very hungry—if you put a full Thanksgiving plate in front of me at any time during my childhood, I would have easily devoured the whole thing! I used to love to go clamming and fishing with my dad, growing up near the ocean. When I was a teenager, I worked on an organic vegetable farm during the summer and continued through college.
When my boyfriend Andrew (now my husband) and I had our first apartment at age twenty, we had a big vegetable garden, worm farm and compost patch. After college, we moved to Portland, Oregon to get “real jobs,” and Andrew hated working for corporate America. We would take off and visit farms on the weekend, and that’s when he learned about CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] farms. He was always an environmentalist and after reading The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry, he decided at age twenty-six to become a farmer. We moved back to Massachusetts, and he enrolled in a master’s degree program in soil science and worked on a farm to get the hands-on experience. He was quickly hired to manage a 250-acre farm north of Boston, where we lived for ten years.
I had been working in marketing for food companies, NPR and then Whole Foods before quitting my corporate job and joining Andrew on the farm. I ran the CSA, farmstand, kitchen and events. I kept getting questions about some of the products we stocked in the store and wasn’t really sure why coconut oil was so good for you, why butter was okay to eat or why grass-fed meat was more nutritious. I decided to learn more, for my own health reasons and to better answer everyone’s questions. I attended a Weston A. Price conference and then enrolled in Nutritional Therapy Association’s course.
After finishing with my NTP [Nutritional Therapy Practitioner] certificate, I wanted to pursue my RD [Registered Dietitian] so that I could practice medical nutrition therapy, dive deeper into the science of nutrition, and to gain more credibility from the medical community. I now have a busy clinical practice plus I write and speak about sustainability and nutrition issues in the food system. I help people learn how to balance their blood sugar, lose weight and fix their guts using real food.
“Modern food production uses tremendous fossil fuels and destroys ecosystems.”
Greg: It’s a popular belief that cattle are one of the biggest agricultural culprits when it comes to consuming water, energy and land and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. But in your article Meat is Magnificent, you make a distinction between grass-fed beef and modern, heavily-processed beef and show how properly managed grazing cattle can improve soil quality and reduce environmental damage. In contrast, what are some of the ecological problems with modern food production and processed foods, both meat- and plant-based?
Diana: Modern food production uses tremendous fossil fuels and destroys ecosystems. When large fields are converted to cropland, habitats are destroyed and the biodiversity of life both above and below ground diminish. This means less birds, frogs, insects AND beneficial bacteria and fungus that nourish the plants and sequester carbon. One of the best ways to actually build soil and sequester carbon is to use ruminants (cows, sheep, and other animals that graze). When they chew the grass, it stimulates growth both above ground and at the roots. Their hoof action creates little pockets to collect rainwater, and their manure inoculates the soil with healthy bacteria.
This entire system does not happen in a large field of mono-crop wheat, corn or soy. Plus, when those grains are harvested, they are heavily processed in order to convert them to the convenient, nutrient-poor junk food that Americans live on. Animals (primarily chickens and pigs) raised in CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operation] are raised indoors eating only grain, which is why grass-fed beef and lamb are a much better choice for sustainability reasons than animals raised on grains. Also, pasture land is largely uncroppable, so [pasture-raised animals don’t] compete with humans for food. Most cattle are raised in areas far too dry or hilly to crop.
Greg: You mentioned how modern food production destroys ecosystems and animal life, a topic you also discuss in your article More Protein, Better Protein. Can you go into more detail about how even a plant-based diet can result in animal death? Is there a way vegans and vegetarians can avoid or reduce these costs?
Diana: Eating a vegan diet does not mean blood is not shed to bring food to the table. As I mentioned in the previous answer, when you eat food that was grown in a mono-crop method (basically, any grain, but even many vegetables) biodiversity is lost to make room for these large and very unnatural fields. They are heavily sprayed, which kills insects, birds, frogs, the soil, and runs into rivers killing fish. Even if they’re organically produced, there’s still blood. When tractors go through and harvest, they are squashing and chopping up bunnies, field mice, etc. Compare this to a cow eating grass. One cow can feed a family for a very long time, compared to the thousands of lives lost in a conventional or even organic mono-crop system.
Vegans and vegetarians can reduce their grain consumption and focus more on legumes, which can benefit the soil because they fix nitrogen. They can also buy their vegetables from small-scale, organic farms in their communities, reducing food miles and supporting better biodiversity. But there’s something important to note: life cannot happen without death. In order to have healthy soil, you need manure, bones and blood. Animals are part of the cycle of any healthy system, including our food system. Acknowledging this is important.
I often then get the question, “well can’t we just have animals to build soil but then not eat them, and just let them live out their lives and die naturally?” This is not necessarily the most humane way to end a life. Animals (just like humans) don’t always just die peacefully in their sleep. Dying at the jaws of a coyote or hyena is not pleasant. Humans have the ability to be “humane” in the way we end an animal’s life. We can make it fast and low stress, much lower stress than most “natural” deaths. Also, animals provide important nutrients that humans need to thrive. In many parts of the world, animals are the ONLY thing that grows well. Think of Africa, it’s a hot dry place. Growing tons of grain or water sucking vegetables is not realistic there, but cattle and goats do very well in those environments.
“Animals are part of the cycle of any healthy system, including our food system.”
Greg: You seem to be arguing that if the goal is being humane and sustainable, the best way to produce those outcomes is not to go vegan but to avoid the modern food production system and eat local, organic produce and grass-fed, pasture-raised meat and animal products. Is that correct? Would the more environmentally sustainable methods you advocate be capable of satisfying the food requirements of a rising global population?
Diana: Yes, this is correct. The current way we’re cropping is ruining the soil and turning it to dust and is completely unsustainable. It’s not possible to continue this way. Our views on how to create food for the masses are completely myopic. We need to consider what will happen in 100, 300 and 500 years from now. Small-scale, integrated farming with both animals and plants mimics natural ecosystems and is the only way to produce food in a healthy way that will be regenerative to the soil. When you produce cheap, nutrient-poor food on a massive scale without considering what will happen to human health or the soil health 100 years from now, you end up with obesity, diabetes, nutrient deficiencies and soil that has been raped of its nutrition.
The same thing happened in the Roman empire—they farmed their way to death. Sure, we can have a population explosion on cheap processed food, but is this a good thing? Do we want billions of sick people walking the planet, polluting it and exploiting the resources? Thinking that we can remove animals from the process of food production is a very naive and reductionist view. Only natural ecosystems can heal themselves, and this means animals AND plants in the mix.
Greg: You talked earlier about the problems with CAFO chicken or pork and you’ve also argued in favor of eating feed-lot beef over CAFO chicken or pork when organic/grass-fed/pasture-raised options are not available. Assuming I have access to sustainably and humanely raised meat, is there a balance I should seek between animal protein sources?
Diana: Because I live on an organic vegetable farm that also raises meat and eggs, nearly all of my protein comes from the farm. I also love to eat fish, and I do eat out, so sometimes I don’t know the source of the meat. I think it’s optimal to do what you can to get the best meat, poultry, eggs and seafood you can afford, as they are the best sources of protein. Legumes like lentils are one of the best plant-based protein sources, for both nutrition and the environment, so I eat them occasionally too.
For more nutrition advice, recipes, healthy lifestyle tips and information on sustainable food, follow Diana Rodgers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, and check out her website www.sustainabledish.com.