If we would like life on Earth to continue, what should we eat? On one level, this question look silly: how can one person’s diet make a difference in climate change and mass extinction? On a deeper level, our food choices are crucial. They determine our relationship with Earth and with all living things.
Not that your personal diet makes a big difference to anyone except you and those you eat. But changing social norms of eating could make the world healthier and happier. If we change our attitude toward food, we will be better able to fight for the animals and plants that feed us.
We should eat as if Earth were sacred to us. Eat as indigenous people have done; they lived successfully here for thousands of years before industrial civilizations. What would Indigenous approaches to food look like in 2021?
Eating animals – yes or no?
Most indigenous people, even those who gardened, hunted animals for food. Unlike plants, animals (like us) have to eat other living things to survive. But indigenous people respected and honored plants and creatures who gave their lives to be eaten. They did what they could to create habitat for them and regarded them as family.
In places where adequate food can be grown and found, vegetarian and vegan diets can be healthy for individuals and planet. But in drier, higher parts of the world, crops are very hard to grow, so people have to eat some meat. And for genetic reasons, some people seem to need animal protein.
Meat-eating can be done with minimal cruelty. Wild, free-range, and compassionately farmed animals can have pretty good lives until the end. Corporate-farmed animals are a whole different story.
Feedlot cattle, pigs, and chickens are crowded together with no chance to move around. They produce huge amounts of waste which turns into the greenhouse gas methane. Steers need about 410 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. They also consume large amounts (variously estimated at 2.5 lbs — 6 lbs) of commercially grown grain for every pound of beef.
As regards climate change, feedlots are bad, but well-run pastures for cattle are good. Veganism is good, but it’s not the only way.
It’s not just what we eat, but how we obtain the food and treat the creatures we eat. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Native American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer explains the rules of what her people call an Honorable Harvest of both plants and animals.
● Take only what you need. Never take more than half. Don’t waste. Natives in the North central part of North America depend on wild rice that grows in water. European visitors wondered why Natives didn’t harvest more, since food often ran short in the winter. They don’t take more, because they need to leave some to grow back, and some to feed the animals who live there. Contrast that with settlers who killed off the passenger pigeon and almost exterminated the buffalo in a few decades.
● Take only what is given to you — there’s a difference between a free-living fish who bites a lure and one raised in packed conditions on a fish farm. The wild-living ones had happier lives. The fish farms pollute and spread disease.
● Non-food plants deserve to live, too. In an Earth-centered agriculture, farmers would not poison all the other plants and insects with chemicals. They wouldn’t plant monocrops over vast areas. We would integrate the Natural world into agriculture, like on this farm.
● Treat everything we eat with respect and gratitude.
● Share what you’ve taken with others. Give back to the animals and plants by improving their habitat.
These days, people eat food from anywhere, at all times of year. This is not healthy for our bodies or our planet. Shipping stuff and people all over the world is a major cause of climate change and ocean pollution.
Anishinaabe leader and former Green Party candidate for Vice-President Winona LaDuke became a farmer in her 40s. In this TED talk, she describes the health and productivity benefits of growing plant varieties that are right for your area. She showed off dozens of multi-colored varieties of corn which are rarely grown in corporate farming, but do well in different localities and are much higher in vitamins than the usual hybrid yellow sweet corn.
We can eat locally through growing our own, through Farmers’ Markets, or community-supported agriculture (CSAs, those boxes of produce delivered every week.) Some stores try to buy local and tell their customers the sources of what they sell.
Herbicides, mechanized farming, over-irrigation and mono-cropping have worn out huge tracts of land and decimated birds and insects, raising risk of famines. But LaDuke showed examples of small urban farms growing astonishing amounts of food, like these in Milwaukee or these in Cuba. Such farms are feeding thousands of people and building up local economies.
Speaking as a nurse:
● Protein: There are many sources besides factory-farmed meat. In addition to organic, free-range animals and wild-caught fish, there is now artificial, lab-grown meat. It’s corporate, but it seems healthy and tastes good when I’ve tried it. There are also plant-based meat alternatives like Seitan. Tofu is a good source. More adventurous people could try eating bugs and worms, which have been made into some good tasting stuff, and use much less land and water than cattle.
● Beans and nuts, IMO, are the best foods in the world, the life force in a very small package of protein, fat, and carbs. Also, eat fruits and vegetables. Olives might keep us fed in a warming world.
● Commercial grains like wheat and rice are grown with large amounts of chemicals, farm machines, and genetic modification. And they are not strictly necessary. Other starches like potatoes, starchy vegetables, fruits, and yams can replace some of them. Or buy/grow organic grains.
● Eat things that don’t need refrigeration or freezing, shrinking your carbon footprint big time. If you do need a freezer or fridge, get a horizontal (chest) freezer that opens from the top. That way, all the cold air doesn’t fall out when you open it, saving electricity.
Lots of people are panicking over the pace of global warming and the massive changes it will bring about. We could all starve, but if we learn to eat in harmony with Nature, while working to restore Earth, we could slow the warming and keep feeding ourselves. When Cuba’s food and fossil fuel supplies were cut off at the end of the Cold War, they survived by making rapid food changes like the ones in this article. They now lead the world in sustainable agriculture. Maybe we could do that, too.