A (Mostly) Vegan World: Plantf*ckers Can Save Us All
Summary: As many of you know, we’ve had this on the pod-docket for months. It’s finally time to unf*ck our food system and talk about veganism. We decided not to pursue this topic from a moral or ethical perspective, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a story about justice. 40% of the world’s working population is in some way employed in the food and agriculture sector. A third of all food is wasted. 50% of the earth’s land has been cleared for livestock and farming. Overfishing and chemical runoff is destroying marine life. In our pursuit to feed the world, we’re killing the planet and ourselves in the process. Today’s episode examines the cycle of madness that is the industrial agriculture and food supply chain. So while there are no tips on how to “go vegan,” the conclusion (spoiler) is that we all better figure out how.
Hunting, gathering and eventually farming of crops and livestock would consume every waking thought of humanity. Depending upon the resources available in a particular part of the world, society revolved around the planning, cultivation, storage, distribution and consumption of food. Fishing, farming, hunting. Our relationship to food was intimate.
For centuries, the world’s population grew slowly. During the black plague in the 1600s, population actually stagnated after so many people perished. Through the Enlightenment to the preindustrial period, the population on earth surged as agricultural techniques were shared among cultures and we developed new farming methods during what is known as the agricultural revolution. Agriculture still informed every aspect of life, from economics and trade to daily existence.
The Industrial Revolution brought about innovation on a scale never before seen in the world. In a matter of a few decades, there would be a great urban migration as the population continued its upward surge. But while this presented new economic possibilities, it also brought us further away from the production and manufacturing of food. Food would now need to be generated and transported at scale to feed the growing urban population.
Two world wars would curb the European population, but the rest of the world continued its unmitigated surge, with the U.S. and Europe following suit in the post-war baby boom. The wars would also transform the production of food from natural to industrial. Higher birth rates, longer life spans, global trade agreements, technological innovations to increase yields of crops, livestock and fishing guaranteed abundance, and the world’s population exploded from 2.5 billion in 1950 to nearly 8 billion today.
MANNY: That…is a lot of fucking.
So much fucking, indeed. So much so, in fact, that we’re fucked.
Framing the Issue
“We now have to decarbonize the whole food system within 30 years. Secondly, we have to stop expanding [the] agriculture international ecosystem; we need to feed humanity and recognize we’ve come to the end of the road of just expanding land. We’ve translated 50% of the whole land area on the planet into agriculture. Half of earth’s surface is under agriculture. We must halt loss of biodiversity, we must radically improve productivity of water so that we reduce pressures, and we need to start cycling nitrogen phosphorus.”
That’s Professor Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at the EAT-Lancet Lecture at the University of Oslo in 2019. There’s a lot packed into this statement that helps us frame the issue of food in today’s world.
Before going further, I want to state what this episode is not.
This isn’t an episode on morality. At least not on an individual level. It’s not about animal rights and abuse. Dietary health. Obesity. Heart disease. Diabetes. Cancer. It’s not about rights either. The right to hunt. Or the right to clean food and nourishment.
This is a story of survival. Yours. Mine. Our species.
But I recognize that many of the Plantf*ckers who have written in to us approach the subject of food in much the same way as 99. It’s emotional. It’s moral and ethical. And if these are your motivations for living a vegan lifestyle or perhaps a vegetarian, pescatarian or even a kangatarian or other form of sustenance, you are more than validated and seriously ahead of the game. And as we’ll discover together today, you’re probably doing more to save our species than almost everyone else you know.
But for most people, being vegan is unattainable, either by economic or geographic circumstances, or by ignorance. And I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. As much as there is a great deal of information available on the benefits of a plant-based diet for people and the planet, the propagandic forces of industry are overwhelming.
Because most of us are so far removed from the food cultivation and harvesting process and society is organized around the industrial food supply chain, one is forced to actively pursue a plant-based lifestyle because the dead food lifestyle is cheaper, faster and passively available in abundance.
I’m sure many of you watched Don’t Look Up over the holiday break. It’s a film about the dangers of ignoring science and allowing corporations to drive life and death decisions through the lens of invention and profit. It’s a fun, yet blunt piece of art that uses our response to an extinction event as an allegory for ignoring climate science. It’s great timing to frame our episode today because, apart from the moral and ethical implications of the industrial food supply chain, there is very real science behind the seismic role that industrial agriculture plays in the destruction of human and planetary health.
The good news is that governments and NGOs are entirely awake and understand the implications of the science. The bad news is that they have almost universally ceded the authority and ability to do anything about it to mega corporations that are, as we’ll cover later on, painfully and purposefully behind the 8 ball.
So we’re setting the table, so-to-speak, to open our minds to what’s at stake for the world so we can listen clearly to the experts, the economic opportunities, and the calamitous prospects of doing nothing.
Science is amazing. It’s why we think it can save us all. American ingenuity and all that crap. We first have to acknowledge the areas of truth within this sentiment, while acknowledging the dangers of believing it will all be okay because someone else will figure it out.
The industrialization of food and agriculture has enabled the population to grow to the staggering 8 billion figure that is projected to increase to 10 billion by 2050. This is indisputable. Life expectancies doubled, and in some cases tripled, over the past 150 years. These are remarkable achievements in human evolution and why it’s so difficult for some to understand the downside of industrialization. Population growth and increased life expectancy are tangible and real.
If you had a time machine and traveled back two or three hundred years to deliver this little piece of news, you would be met with astonishment. In fact, it was believed by man—even during the agricultural revolution—that the earth was already at maximum capacity and incapable of carrying more of us on it. This idea is known as Malthusian theory—a concept attributed to a man named Thomas Malthus—and was stubbornly resilient for a time, despite clear evidence to the contrary. And because we just introduced an Enlightenment thinker and theory, you know what that means Unf*ckers!
Tell Me A Story
“I think I may fairly make two postulata. First, that food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.”- Thomas Malthus
This was the opening salvo of Malthus’ paper, titled On the Principle of Population, originally published anonymously in 1798. Malthus would continue to refine his paper and eventually take credit for it, propelled by the outsized response to his theory. Essentially, he theorized that human reproductive capacity was geometric in nature. We can spit out lots of babies and will do so because we love to fuck. But the planet was only capable of producing food arithmetically because there’s only one planet. He believed that humans would always fuck and make too many humans and eventually outpace the planet’s ability to feed them, thus entering what he called the “cycle of misery.”
So in Malthus’ view, every few generations we would fuck too much, make too many humans and then they would starve and die, causing the cycle to repeat over and over again. This type of economic modeling, which is more sociological than economic, is referred to as Malthusian.
Malthus was a contemporary and friend of great thinkers such as Ricardo and Hume. He might have been entirely too pessimistic and no fun to be around, but his essay had a profound effect on economic thinking of the times, even though the evidence was all around him that the population was in fact increasing, and our ability to feed people was expanding. While he allowed for growth attributed to the so-called “New World,” like many philosophers of the time, he had a pretty big blind spot when it came to Asia.
Malthus would soon be used as an example of economic thinking gone wrong, much in the way Hubbard would one day predict the era of peak oil in the 1970s. He simply didn’t factor in advances in production that increased yields and the opening of global trade routes. But I’m willing to give Malthus a little slack here because, as we’ll discover, while he might have been entirely wrong about our capacity to increase production to meet demand, there’s strong support for his concept of the cycle of misery that we’re heading into.
How Did We Get Here?
In the pursuit to end world hunger, whether the motivations are noble or driven by profit, the result is a spiral into madness. We’ve covered the earth in chemicals and pesticides and burned the nutrients out of the soil; created a system where overfishing threatens marine population and runoff pollution in the waterways and oceans has contributed to a die-off of coral reefs required for breeding and cleaning the water. A system that requires more and more land to satiate our desire for meat, resulting in deforestation that simultaneously releases excess carbon into the atmosphere and diminishes our ability to capture it. And we’ve bred livestock so plentiful that they might belch us into extinction.
This is the paradox of mass production. Industrial agriculture reduced “the number of undernourished people, from approximately 35 percent of the population in developing countries in 1970 to 13 percent in 2015,” according to published accounts by Roser and Ritchie in 2020. Over the same period, however, the number of people with micronutrient deficiencies and those who experience obesity have increased dramatically. So the trade off was less starvation, more health issues. Experts refer to this phenomenon as “hidden hunger.”
In The Economics of Sustainable Food by Nicoletta Batini, the author builds a case for a new way of thinking that pulls together economic and political policies in what she calls a “portfolio of policy measures” that can inform governments and NGOs around the world. Recognizing that beta programs in countries like Denmark, Bhutan and the Netherlands can be instructive, but the world needs a comprehensive plan to manage the intricacies of the food cultivation and distribution infrastructure.
Here’s Batini, whom I will pull from a lot today:
“Agriculture is estimated to be responsible for 21 to 37 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions because of the release of carbon dioxide from deforestation to claw back land for pasture and feedstock crops and from burning fossil fuels to power farm machinery and to transport, store, and cook foods; the release of methane from ruminant livestock; and the release of nitrous oxide from industrially tilled, heavily fertilized soils and liquid manure management systems.”
And these circumstances don’t only apply to the land, as Batini notes.
“Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and hence in the ocean’s surface waters, has increased by almost 30 percent. In response, those surface waters have become steadily more acidic, and structures made of calcium carbonate, such as shellfish and coral reefs, have begun to dissolve, gradually disrupting the functioning of the marine food supply chain.”
In our scientific pursuit of maximizing food production, we have abused the land and oceans. Normal agricultural practices ensure regeneration of both soil and marine life, but the combination of over-production and chemical applications have put us in a perilous situation, one that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which laid bare the fragility of the global food supply chain. So much so that the United Nations estimated that up to “811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020, a 20 percent increase in just one year.”
The United Nations also estimates that food systems have contributed up to 80% of biodiversity loss and up to 70% of freshwater, desperately needed for irrigation and, of course, drinking. So, along with NGOs and government agencies across the world, they have put together a five part goal to:
Nourish All People
Boost Nature Based Solutions
Advance Equitable Livelihoods, Decent Work and Empowered Communities;
Build Resilience to Vulnerabilities, Shocks and Stresses; and
Accelerating the Means of Implementation.
And purchase organic, fair trade, shade grown, bird friendly native roasted coffee at www.UNFTR.com
(Okay, that last one is not a pillar of the UN food systems plan. But it is a pillar of the UNFTR plan.)
It’s a lovely outline of a plan to coordinate thousands of suggestions that must be individually interpreted and collectively implemented at scale to produce a positive outcome for people and planet, in accordance with best practices and sustainability initiatives, as detailed by stakeholder nations and NGOs. It even ends with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. and a determined next step to have a “two-year-stock-take” where the secretary general checks back in with the committees and subcommittees to see what progress has been made in outlining organizing principles.
In other words, it’s every country for itself.
More “Industrial” than “Agricultural”
Like so many of our episodes, this is a story of corporate avarice and the government's inability to rein it in.
Most are familiar with one of the great agro-villains of the modern era. Monsanto. Monsanto is now part of Bayer after completing a massive buyout for more than $60 billion. The deal was attractive enough to Bayer to look past the multitude of lawsuits against Monsanto from farmers and stakeholders all over the world, estimated to be somewhere around $10 billion in payouts and settlements. Imagine being so big and profitable as to withstand that type of expense? Good lord. To understand the magnitude of the problem is to know just how big and far reaching their impact has been over the past several decades.
Monsanto—I’ll keep referring to it as such—has always been a pretty shitty company. Responsible for chart topping hits like DDT and Napalm, the company that started off producing saccharine in the first part of the 20th Century, went on to become one of the largest and meanest agribusinesses in the world. Today, Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds cover 80% of farmland worldwide, but it’s perhaps best known for producing Roundup, an herbicide that preserves the plants that come from their seeds while killing weeds. It has also been linked to cancer, kill off of bees and is believed to be an endocrine disruptor.
According to DNB, Monsanto still employs more than 20,000 people globally, and here’s the thing…I’m sure there are those at the company that don’t feel right about what they do. But I’m willing to bet that most feel as though they are doing good in the world. And this is where we have to understand the powerful force of both propaganda and actual results. Crop yields from Monsanto seeds are enormous. And because they’ve closed the loop on the growing system by supplying the seeds, the fertilizer and the herbicides and pesticides, it’s hard to argue against because they have effectively eliminated any basis of comparison.
Monsanto is a special kind of evil, but they’re not alone in their fuckery. On the manufacturing end of things, you have companies like John Deere. In his book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk, by Mark Bittman, the author provides a complete historical account of food, dissects the issues that plague the modern farm and warns of the evils of the junk food industry. In speaking of Deere, Bittman says:
“Financing tied farmers to equipment, chemical, and seed producers—and of bankers as well. And while Deere & Co. showed good will toward struggling farmers, its success in financially bonding those farmers virtually ensured that creditors remained profitable in the long term. It’s also among the chief reasons why industrial agriculture is so difficult to change today. Today, the company’s margins are almost four times as great from providing credit than they are from sales.”
Bittman goes on to highlight several other bad actors, such as the United Fruit Company, which literally worked hand-in-hand with the CIA during the 50s to overthrow the government of Guatemala.
“United Fruit operated with more than impunity: It had the protection of the U.S. government and in particular the CIA, which enforced the company’s colonial power by funding agitators, performing elaborate cover-ups, stoking civil wars in El Salvador, Columbia, and Honduras, among others, and even engineering entire regime changes.”
United Fruit was so successful cornering the market on bananas and taking land by force that bananas are now the world's fourth largest crop. So we’ve got demon seeds, evil bankers and literal coup d'états. Sweet.
Most refer to the growth of big agro as the “Green Revolution,” a phrase coined by William Gaud in 1968 in the capacity of director for International Development in the United States:
“These and other developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution. It is not a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution.”
Like any Greek tragedy, this is the beginning. The rise before the decline. Scratch below the surface, and we’re just now beginning to understand how ugly and devastating the Green Revolution has actually been.
According to Batini’s research, “Historically, humans used more than 70,000 plant species for food. With modern, mechanized farming, only 150 species are under cultivation and only three—wheat, rice and maize—provide nearly 60 percent of all calories that humans consume from plants.”
There are a number of problems with this development as corporations have spread and consolidated land, machinery, supply chains and distribution. The first is that our diets are fucked up. We’re missing so many of the core nutrients our bodies need, which results in obesity and malnutrition that appears to look like people are fed, when they’re actually undernourished with empty caloric intake that provides little value to the human body.
In terms of the planet, our emphasis on monoculture has led to extreme overuse of both freshwater and soil, both of which need to regenerate. This goes for the oceans as well. And both land and sea have been polluted by the industrial chemical applications required to maintain these massive monocultures that it’s beginning to affect yields and quality. So microbes and insects necessary for healthy soil are dying on land, and critical breeding systems are rotting in the ocean.
The Green Revolution might have worked on the surface for several decades, but we’re now beginning to pay the price for it. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the revolution is the clearing of land to make way for crops to feed livestock. And the more people we welcome into the world, the more land is required to increase this cycle of madness.
As Bittman notes, “The truth is that the Green Revolution was never about ‘feeding the world.’ That was, and remains, the public relations spin. Rather, it was a front for selling American agricultural machinery, chemicals, and seeds—sales that were aimed mostly at farmers or investors who had the substantial capital needed for land and equipment.”
And it wasn’t all as economically sound as it seems. In fact, most of these major industrial farming and fishing operations have only survived as the result of government subsidies and artificial price supports. Again, Bittman:
“In the Philippines, ‘price supports for rice increased by 50 percent. In Mexico, the government purchased domestically grown wheat at 33 percent above world market prices. India and Pakistan paid 100 percent more for their wheat. British scientist Gordon Conway elaborates, ‘By the mid-1980s the subsidies were 68 percent of the world price for pesticides, 40 percent for fertilizers, and nearly 90 percent for water.’”
And the one piece of evidence that the so-called Green Revolution might have been more about corporate and government interventions and controls than science is China. China continues to skew the numbers globally because of the sheer size of its population. China followed no such intervention, rather they pursued land reform that offered tracts to peasants, investments in irrigation and direct payments to the actual farmers rather than corporate behemoths. The result was an increase in yields and fewer hungry people in China, as the government recognized that the forced urban migration they were undertaking as part of their long-term economic plan would require food outputs to increase to feed hungry city dwellers.
And so, as Bittman concludes, “If you exclude China, the number of hungry people in the world actually increased during the heyday of the Green Revolution despite increases in yield.”
Waste Not, Want Not
Then there’s waste. Bittman estimates that the world wasted 1.6 billion tons of food in 2015, nearly one-third of what it produced. Talk about market inefficiencies. Beyond the horrific notion that people still go hungry and a third of food production is wasted, there are planetary and climate consequences to such irresponsible corporate behavior.
The number of livestock—cattle, poultry, sheep—is now three times greater than the human population. The amount of waste generated by livestock and other processed animal food is twice that of the waste produced by humans annually. But that’s not the only type of waste that is problematic. Methane emissions from livestock are incredibly potent and have gotten out of control. This is an important one to understand because most people call bullshit on cow belching killing the planet. But it’s a very, very real problem. Here’s how it works, according to Bittman:
“Although methane, which is the most emitted gas by cattle and is released through belching, does not linger as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it is initially far more devastating to the climate because of how effectively it absorbs heat. In the first two decades after its release, methane is eighty-four times more potent than carbon dioxide… If we eliminated all methane and nitrous oxide emissions from livestock today, we would dramatically increase our chances to stabilize the 1.5 degree C increase in temperature by 2050 as recommended by the IPCC because these GHGs have much stronger heat trapping potential over shorter horizons than carbon dioxide.”
All told, the agri-food industry makes up somewhere in the range of 35–40% of what is called net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, so if we’re going to hit the IPCC targets, this is the area we must focus our attention. Livestock alone account for as many GHG as all the emissions from the transportation industry.
Unfortunately, and as usual, while the scientific community, NGOs, the UN and most governments of the world recognize the problems and know what must be done, corporations have control. And they’re doing very, very little about it, no matter how many sustainability reports and ESG filings they make to try and attract investors. (If you go to Bayer’s Monsanto website, it’s stunning how much of their corporate information is dedicated to promoting these initiatives.)
According to something called the Coller FAIRR Protein Producer Index, a collaborative investor network dedicated to raising awareness of ESG risks from livestock, i.e. protein production, the global value of the protein market is around $1.6 trillion. That’s a lot of money, but it still only represents about 2% of total global GDP. This is good and bad news, and here’s why.
When we think about restructuring and redefining interconnected global markets, it can seem pretty daunting. We’re talking about reforming a $1.6 trillion industry, and that’s just protein from livestock. But then again, it’s only 2% of GDP. So anything’s possible. But it will take massive coordination and heavy handed regulatory intervention from all governments because, as the FAIRR index points out, “In 2020, of the 34 facilities assessed by FAIRR, discharges of nitrogen and phosphorous were consistently in excess of 500% over the maximum allowable limit, with outlier events from Tyson, which resulted in nitrogen discharge that was more than 8,000% in excess, and phosphorous discharge more than 12,000% in excess.”
What’s interesting about FAIRR’s approach is that they consider the whole picture both upstream and downstream. For example, they track the issues related to the production of soy, which is “the second-largest driver of tropical deforestation after beef, and 70-75% of all soy becomes livestock feed.” So you can begin to see how these closed systems require more and more land consumption and deforestation. Now, despite the known problems with this system, according to FAIRR, only one European meat company provides full traceability of soy sources and only two Asian companies provide similar tracing.
The bottom line is that the FAIRR Index illustrates both the magnitude of the problem and the unwillingness of corporations to do anything about it.
One final note on waste. You know that island in the Pacific made up entirely of plastic? Turns out that today it’s the size of France, and growing exponentially, with the United States being the largest contributor. Related, but not entirely relevant to our story today. Except that it’s also estimated that one fifth of this garbage island is composed of debris from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan a few years ago. Those back-to-back events not only ruined 5% of Japanese farmland when it flooded with saltwater, but it released that much garbage into the ocean. So the link here is that more of that is in store for us if we fail to reach the IPCC target.
Every story has an inflection point where things went off the rails. For us, it was in 1840 when a German scientist named Justus von Liebig declared that nitrogen was what made manure perfect for growing crops. This led corporations and governments to mindlessly pursue nitrogen to the exclusion of all other nutrient formulations. The only problem was that it was really hard to find in pure form back then.
One day, European travelers discovered a Latin American secret. A little something called guano. Or, if you’re a fan of Ace Ventura, you’ll know that guano is literal bat poop.
Guano was so powerful and rich that it was like a miracle drug for the soil. And in typical white European fashion, they began raiding these countries of bat shit and using it to build bigger and higher yielding farms. As Bittman remarks, “According to reductionist analysis, soil and plants quite simply needed nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus.” Didn’t consider “the hundreds of elements and compounds and trillions of microbes.”
Some feel that if this nitrogen packed solution wasn’t discovered that Europe and America might have pursued alternative farming methods with more nuance and diversity, instead of driving toward the huge monoculture giant yield mentality that pervades. We’ll never know. But this we do know, the New World had a secret weapon called the heartland that was flat, gathered tons of rain and was extremely fertile. Just what a young country needed to build a massive system of food production to feed a growing population moving to cities and expanding from coast to coast. It all led to where we are today, which is—if I may—a little batshit.
But, like we said earlier, changing our dietary habits as a species isn’t exactly easy. It takes education, access and understanding of what our bodies need. We know what the planet needs, and that’s for us to change what and how we eat.
Food scientists at the United Nations, the World Health Organization and countless organizations are aligning behind something called the “One Health” initiative, designed to change our thinking and policies toward food to reduce antibiotic resistance, prevent global zoonotic pandemics from diseases that jump from animals to humans, hold the line on the IPCC 1.5 degree limit and beat back obesity and micronutrient deficiencies.
Collectively, they are advocating for a global dietary transformation that doubles our consumption of plant-based food and reduces our intake of less healthy foods like meat, dairy and processed food with added sugars by more than 50%. That’s bold, but the idea is spot on. If we as eaters, consumers of food, don’t demand change and have affordable access to the right types of food, then corporations, especially within a global capital market system, have no incentive to alter their behavior. They’ll simply ride this thing into the ground while extracting every last penny they can along the way.
So, on an individual level, what does this mean? There are a ton of resources out there, obviously, that can help guide people on how to begin converting their diets and a lot of really positive news on the horizon from cultured meat grown in labs, vertical irrigation systems that can produce agriculture yields beyond traditional hydroponics with less water use and organic farming innovations that are more environmentally friendly, profitable for farmers and regenerative in nature.
But there’s the question of supply and education. Getting people to understand what’s out there, and making it available and affordable to consumers. And there are several types of diets that would be more beneficial to our bodies from semi-vegetarian or flexitarian, pescatarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, vegan, and whole-food, plant-based diets. According to Penn State University, here are some basic definitions:
Semi-vegetarian or flexitarian diets are primarily vegetarian, but include a small amount of meat, poultry, fish, and seafood. They might include dairy foods and eggs. This flexible type of eating is a good starting place for individuals looking to incorporate more plant-based meals.
Pescatarian diets are also primarily vegetarian but include shellfish and fish.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian diets include eggs and dairy products but exclude meat, fish, poultry, and any products that contain these foods.
Vegan diets are entirely plant-based, excluding all animal-derived products and ingredients. Animal foods are one of the primary sources of vitamin B-12; therefore, vegans should include B-12–fortified foods such as cereals, nutritional yeast, and some plant-based beverages and take a B-12 supplement to ensure adequate intake.
Whole-food, plant-based diets, like vegan diets, exclude all animal-derived products and ingredients. This diet is centered on whole and minimally refined plant-based foods. Highly refined foods that include bleached flour, refined sugar, and oil are excluded or minimized in this diet.
So, if these are the types of diets that will ultimately help save our species and our ability to inhabit the planet, things have to change upstream. And if corporations lack the incentive to change their behaviors today, then there will have to be a concerted government effort to raise taxes on intensive animal and fishing operations and to shift subsidies away from these enterprises to local, diverse and sustainable operations that meet the growing demand for plant-based foods.
Relying on measures like incentives or trade offs, in the way we’ve approached failed carbon offsets, won’t work. Remember that if Monsanto can afford to foot the bill for $10 billion in cancer related lawsuits without blinking, these types of incentives or fines just won’t get it done.
The good news for farmers is that there is growing evidence that a return to basic biodiverse and organic practices are actually more profitable than conventional modified monoculture seed farming with pesticides and herbicides.
The best example of this is something called the Rodale Trials, which began in earnest in 1981 through the Rodale Institute. Rodale has been running the longest side-by-side comparisons of organic and conventional grain cropping systems in North America, and the findings are very encouraging and surprising:
“The Rodale Trials have concluded after decades of comparative research that organic farms are competitive, with conventional yields after a 5-year transition period and produce yields up to 40% higher in times of drought. Farmers earn 3-6X greater profits. Organic farms leach no toxic chemicals into the waterways, use 45% less energy and release 40% fewer carbon emissions.”
Resources like Rodale, the EAT-Lancet Planetary Diet, the UN Food Systems Summit and so many more have carved a very clear outline for what needs to be done. Leaving the two missing ingredients of consumer demand and government regulation.
Bring It Home, Max.
“According to the OECD estimates,” writes Batini, “subsidies to agriculture in fifty-three OECD member countries amounted to $705 billion per year.”
This needs to end. This money should be shifted toward regenerative fishing and organic farming programs that can scale. And the reason it needs to happen, both immediately and over a sustained period of time, is that it takes between three and five years, according to Rodale, to completely convert conventional operations into organic systems before turning a profit. But once these systems convert, as we mentioned earlier, they wind up being far more profitable than the insane fucking system we currently maintain.
Other policy recommendations from Batini, and others she references throughout her collection, include:
Limiting the acreage per country or region that can be dedicated to monoculture crops in relation to polyculture or rotating crops
Strict limits to the number of livestock per farm and per acre
Reducing the barriers and costs to converting to organic agriculture
Labor market measures to promote farming jobs
It’s true that organic farming requires more labor, but in the larger context of employment, that’s actually a good thing because it means bringing more jobs back to rural areas that are struggling to convert their economies to match the current economic landscape.
In the ocean, the policy measures should be similar. Granting large tracts of open ocean to farming seaweed might sound a bit nuts, but Batini estimates that, “If less than 10 percent of the oceans were to be covered in seaweed farms, the farmed seaweed could produce enough biofuel to replace all of today’s fossil fuel use while removing 53 billion tons of CO2 per year from the atmosphere, restoring pre-industrial levels.” This is because seaweed is capable of trapping and storing five times the amount of carbon dioxide as trees.
All told, the IPCC report claims that such policy reforms and flipping the global intake of food from animal to plant-based could reduce emissions by the amount emitted currently by the United States and India each year. By reducing the amount of food waste, we can eliminate another 8–10% of carbon emissions as well. And the procedural changes would effectively halt deforestation and give the earth a fucking break already.
As citizens, we can only do so much. Our job is to create demand. Demand more plant-based and organic products. It’s the government that has the ability to affect change. After all, our food supply today is exactly the result of government programs and interventions. The chemicals used in industrial agriculture were developed for chemical warfare in World War II. Farm subsidies encouraged farmers to create monoculture. Subsidized crop insurance programs and commodity price supports offset risks in the market and during poor growth seasons. Our trade agreements create advantages for domestic fishing and agricultural producers. This isn’t about free markets. As we have proven time and time again, there is nothing free about our market systems and no industry exists outside the government’s purview.
It’s all about what we have chosen to value, who we choose to elect to leadership and what we demand of them when they’re in their jobs. And to bring this all the way back around, this starts with getting money out of the system so the corporations that currently run the world no longer have the means and ability to access and influence the political system. The For the People Act in the United States is the first step to making all of this a reality, which is why it’s so important for us to connect these dots together.
The bottom line is that capitalism is not built for this type of planning, which is why aspects of the economy that align with human imperatives require centralized planning or, at a minimum, strict regulations and incentives to manufacture a positive outcome. The one negative thing I’ll say about a vegetable today is that carrots don’t work when you need to shift the corporate economy.
Fuck the carrot. Use a stick.
We need to beat our government and the corporations that control it into submission and take back control of our food supply, and it starts with robbing them of their source of funding and access to control the levers of power and installing progressives in office who believe in science, understand what’s at stake and are willing to legislatively control the narrative going forward.
Because as we demonstrated in our Climate Industrial Complex episode and our shows on corporate propaganda, we have the money. The military is poised to accept $780 billion to fight imaginary foes around the world, when we’ve seen the enemy and he is us. These funds need to be reallocated with warlike speed and determination to lead the world into a new, greener and plant-based era because, if we do this, the rest of the world will follow. For now. But once again, as we talked about in our China episode, we’re going to lose the pole position at some point and be fighting from behind.
Why would we accept defeat when victory for the country, for the species and the planet is within our grasp? It just doesn’t make sense.
Many of the Plantf*ckers listening today are probably familiar with The China Study, the seminal book by T. Colin Campbell that linked cancer and other maladies in the western world to our reliance upon animal proteins. Whether the biological science behind the China Study is correct or not, and there’s always debate about this, it caused a shift in the thinking of many westerners and brought many into the plant-based world. Others, like 99, simply recoil at the horror of industrial animal production. And some just like the way it makes them feel.
Like I said, no matter your entrance into the world of plant-based diets, you’re doing more to help the planet than nearly everyone else on the planet. That’s just a fact. One by one, carrot by carrot, you are actually living the change that we need to see in the world, and we need more of you in order to survive. On this, the science is clear.
Thank a vegan. Love your mother. Become a Plantf*cker.
Here endeth the lesson.
Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).