Diet for a Modern World

In 1971, Frances Moore Lappé published her landmark book, Diet for a Small Planet, ushering in the modern vegetarian movement. Diet for a Small Planet advocated environmental vegetarianism: an ecological and humanitarian diet that could help conserve our use of the global landmass while fighting poverty, hunger and disease.

Diet for a Small Planet was a product of the cold war pessimism of its time. Much like Paul Ehrlich’s alarmist Population Bomb(helpfully subtitled “race to oblivion”) Lappé’s is concerned with coping with life on a planet burdened by a growing population and limited resources. In many ways, it’s a phenomenally optimistic book: Lappé believed a vegetarian diet could preserve resources and save the world! And she was right.

But I think it’s time for an update that reflects our changing world.

Problems are Inevitable and Solveable

Hands down, the best book I read in 2017 was physicist David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity. In it, Deutsch advocates rational optimism based on the following:

  1. Problems are inevitable
  2. Problems are soluble
  3. Solution create new problems that must be solve in turn.

We shouldn’t be depressed simply because there are problems in the world. Problems have always existed, and will exist for as long as our species lives. But that shouldn’t lead to pessimism, or to

Why Veganism is the Best Diet for a Modern World

A vegan diet does three very important things that we need to do in order to continue to progress as a species. First, it reduces our dependence on other species. Why is this important? Well, over the past 10,000 years, the number of humans on this planet has grown exponentially, but so has the population of livestock and pets! As Bill Gates pointed out in his review of Vaclav Smil’s book, Harvesting the Biosphere, if it were not for modern agricultural advances, our love of

biomass pets livestock humans modvegan

domesticated animals would have already overwhelmed the planet’s resources. Fortunately, we do make advances. If crop yields remained where they were in 1900, we’d need 4x the current quantity of agricultural land to feed the population. Agriculture has grown far more efficient over the past several centuries, and thanks to modern developments, like genetically modified and edited crops, we can continue to improve in this area.

By reducing our dependence on food from domesticated animals, we can start to address lack of biodiversity. As you can see in the graph on the left, even though humans represent a significant amount of the planet’s mammalian biomass, it’s still a drop in the bucket when compared with our domesticated livestock and companion animals. When humans stop breeding livestock for food, we will free up a significant amount of land – both land used for animal farming, but also land used to grow crops that are fed to animals. This will significantly relieve the pressure placed on wild animals and help put an end to the mass extinction of wildlife.

It will also drastically reduce the demand for antibiotics. Most antibiotics produced in the world today are used by livestock, and this poses a major threat to human health. While I’m certain that scientists will develop many new and better antibiotics in the future, it makes no sense to risk human health in order to raise domesticated animals for us to consume.

A Vegan Diet is the Most Economically Viable Diet

Secondly, plant protein is less expensive than its animal counterpart, both in dollar terms (beans are cheaper than beef, even with subsidies) and on a more basic, physical level. Thanks to the second law of thermodynamics, there is always energy loss when we transfer energy from one form to another. When plants harness the sun’s energy and that energy is transferred to animals, and then to human animals, there is energy loss at each step in this process. By consuming the energy directly from the plants, we cut out the middleman and increase our own share of the plant energy.

When Frances Moore Lappé wrote Diet for a Small Planet a vegan diet was often unhealthy, thanks to lack of B12 supplementation.  Fortunately, for almost everyone reading this, B12 deficiency is a problem that should never affect any of us, thanks to widespread affordable B12 supplements. And if you’re thinking that sounds a little unnatural to you (you’d rather get your B12 from food), know that over 90% of B12 supplements made are fed to livestock! So when you eat milk, eggs or meat to get “natural” B12, know that the animal has simply eaten the supplement for you.

If the last year taught me anything, it is that businesses recognize the potential for plant foods to make a profit. Whether it’s Danone purchasing White Wave Foods, or Maple Leaf acquiring Field Roast, plant-based foods make money. So much so, that they represent a credible threat to entrenched industries. Soon, heritage industries like dairy and meat will need to adapt and evolve, or they will face extinction in the face of the efficiency of plant-based alternatives.

Veganism Is a Rational, Beneficial Way to Reduce Suffering and Make the World A Better Place

Finally, if eating animals were essential to human health, I have every confidence that we’d figure out a way to keep doing it in spite of the environmental and economic hurdles. But it’s not a necessity. Animal foods are unnecessary, and they’re also worse for our health.  The only thing that keeps us eating them is romance and inertia, and as I’ve argued before, nostalgia is a disease. Keeping millions of animals in captivity is wasteful, unkind, and unhealthy. And we can do better.

Also, I should point out that a vegan diet does not need to mean beans and rice for eternity. Thanks to the innovation of companies like Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek, we are producing meat and eggs from plants that compete with “real” animal products in terms of taste and texture. And thanks to biotechnology and the profitability of plants and the power of innovation, these foods will only get better as time goes on. In the future, we will feel sorry for people who have to resort to eating meat that comes from animals instead of plants.

I hope 2018 will the be the year the vegan mainstream moves away from pessimism and towards genuine progress!

2 Responses to “Diet for a Modern World

  • First of all, can we just take a moment to appreciate that awesome sweater you’re wearing in the video? So cool!!

    Second of all, the fact that most B12-supplements are given to livestock is kind of mind blowing 😮

    • Haha, thanks! It’s definitely mind boggling when you consider how many additives we need to give to farmed animals to keep them healthy. Between vitamins and antibiotics, it’s amazing that people consider animal meat more “natural” than alternatives like plant-based meats. Have a great day!

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