Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Richard Heinberg and What We Call Food

Richard Heinberg's November Museletter is out. He discusses the need to take a proactive approach towards agriculture to both avoid a food crisis as fossil fuels diminish, as well as to lessen its impact upon the environment -- particularly, to reverse agriculture's contribution to climate change. The way to do this, he says, is to start removing fossil fuels from what he calls "the food system" now instead of doing it when we've no other option. He cites a United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP)'s report on the viability of small-scale organic agriculture in terms of its production equaling that of industrial agriculture and then proceeds to map out this incredible plan, examining all components of the food system, from soil and seed, to labour and distribution. He explains why genetically modified crops, so reliant on transportation and chemicals, will be useless in a world with diminishing oil supplies.

Heinberg discusses the need to shift to natural unprocessed foods and asserts that a "shift toward a less meat-centered diet should also be encouraged, because a meat-based diet is substantially more energy intensive than one that is plant-based". It's funny how although Heinberg has been a vegetarian himself for many, many years, he's so rarely addressed the issue of meat eating and how so much more fossil fuel reliant it is than a vegetarian (or better -- a vegan) diet.

I emailed my friend J. about it. He's an almost-vegan and he introduced me to Heinberg's work a few years ago. J. pointed out that Heinberg is likely aware that bringing up vegetarianism would alienate a large percentage of the population. I don't buy that, though. Heinberg's not afraid to advocate cutting back on our energy consumption, growing our own food in whatever garden space we can muster up, focusing on changing how we view community -- why on earth would he be cowed by fears of following his own assertions about lessening meat consumption to their logical (and optimal) conclusions? The article reminded me of the only reference I've read Heinberg really make to vegetarianism -- his own, as well as with regards to others.

It was a talk Heinberg gave for the Twenty-sixth E. F. Shumacher Lecture in 2006. Actually, the reference happened in the Q&A bit that happened after the talk, when Heinberg was asked why he wasn't addressing how much grain goes towards raising animals for food, and was asked what his stance was on eating lower on the food chain, he responded:

As a thirty-five-year vegetarian I’m a little biased. Yes, meat production is obviously extremely energy intensive and more so in this country than in many other places. [...] Over the past thirty-five years I have found that from a health standpoint many people don’t do well on a completely vegan or vegetarian diet, and I think we have to be realistic and take account of that. I also think, however, that we would be much healthier if we ate much less meat; that would help our collective survival prospects enormously as we go through this transition.
Many people don't do well on a completely vegan or vegetarian diet?? So why this perpetuation of this myth that vegetarianism and veganism aren't healthy? Where does Heinberg get this supposed "data", which sounds especially weird coming from someone who claims he's been a vegetarian for thirty-five years. It was disappointing when I'd first read it, and is still disappointing to read today, after reading Heinberg's weighing of the energy-intensiveness of plant-based vs. meat-based diets.

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