Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Searching For The Existentially Correct Diet

I became a vegetarian in 1976. I was going with friends to visit one friend's father’s fish farm near Niota. We were going to ramble around in the woods, then clean some fish, and fry them. My dirty secret is that I stopped eating flesh because I didn’t want to kill the fish.

It’s a dirty secret because I’ve always said it was Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet that converted me. “I’m not unsympathetic to the animals,” I would say, “but it’s really starving people that keep me vegetarian.” Diet promotes the idea that a gram of meat protein represents several grams of grain and legume protein; if we all ate the livestock’s diet, there would be plenty for everybody. Lappe provided tables and recipes that combined different grains and beans to make sure the reader got each of the necessary amino acids. Beef, I think, came in at 21 grams of protein from livestock feed. Other meats, eggs, and milk were more efficient, but each required several times the protein it yielded to grow. I never quit eating eggs and milk.

Mollison has a flesh-versus-vegetable section in the difficult Chapter Two. He discusses the trophic pyramid, the idea that plants use energy from the sun to turn carbon and other elements into food, prey eats the plants, and predators eat the prey. Lower levels are much more massive than higher levels, with seas of grass, lots of bunnies, and very few wolves. This is a simplistic device, he says, except in lab or feedlot. Natural food webs are complex, with animals converting plants we can’t eat into food we can, and feeding those same plants with their manure and shed hair, feathers, or skin. We likewise feed the plants (or should) with our urine, feces, and corpses.

Getting our protein from vegetable sources takes a lot of fossil fuel, erodes soil (which contributes to global warming), simplifies the natural ecology, uses poison, and distorts economies (all soybeans are patented, concentrating wealth). Barbara keeps talking about growing grain and beans, and neither of us has done the arithmetic, but I’m guessing we don’t have room, and that’s probably typical for most gardeners. Mollison says that a lot of grains and beans are grown for export from places like India and Ethiopia where people starve. He says that traditional western farmers only sold animals or animal products. “...if the farm was to survive without massive energy inputs, animals were the only traditional recycling strategy for a sustainable export market.” He stipulates several practices necessary to “efficient” vegetarian diets:

* Crops must be easily grown and processed;

* Crops must be grown in home gardens;

* “Wastes, especially body wastes” must be returned to the garden;

* We must not exploit other people or move food long distances.

Mollison closes the section by saying that the trophic pyramid is valid in showing how poisons concentrate at the top -- a word to the wise -- and that an omnivore is “buffered” from famine by eating from a variety of sources.

Interestingly, there is an article, in the September/October issue of Ode Magazine, which quotes theologian Karen Armstrong as saying that the cave paintings of places like Lascaux were our ancient ancestors’ way of assuage their discomfort at killing their prey. I had always read that the paintings of animals deep inside the Earth were a shamanic means to create abundance. None of us were there 17,000 years ago, and the artists didn’t leave statements, but I like Armstrong’s idea. I can see myself beginning to eat meat again, for reasons similar to my alleged ones for giving it up, but it'll take some doing to wring my first neck.

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