Curious Cook: The Anthropocene diet – Part 1


  • Food News
  • Sunday, 14 Oct 2018

A selection of vegetarian ‘meats’ in Berlin. Photos: Chris Chan

Age Of Humans

We are probably living in a new geological period called the Anthropocene Epoch, replacing the Holocene Epoch which was a relatively warm period which started around the end of the last glacial period around 12,000 years ago.

Like all geological periods, the Anthropocene is defined by observable, distinct changes to the ecosystems and geology of our planet – and it has been proposed that humans are causing a large enough geophysical impact on the planet’s ecology, oceans and geography to warrant defining this new geological epoch.

Anthropocene means Age of Humans, though it is unclear when this period started. It would have begun gradually as the impact of humans on the planet slowly became momentous. Initially, it probably started by increasing deforestation, followed by larger and larger scale commercial farming which in turn changed local fauna by the use of monoculture crops and pesticides/herbicides.

Similarly, towns, industrial sites, transport networks, etc, also introduced other significant impacts; eg. concreting of land, damming of rivers (for hydro-electricity and reservoirs), creation of rubbish landfill sites, air pollution from vehicles and factories, desertification, river pollution by sewage and industrial waste leading to ocean pollution, etc.

Add in global warming, changing weather patterns, mass extinction of many species of fauna, ozone layer depletion, etc, and it is evident we have entered the Anthropocene Epoch. And it might be the shortest epoch in our planet’s history if we cannot stop destroying our environment so zealously.

Berlin

I am writing this in Berlin, Germany, in a country known for efficiency, practicality and environmentalism. It is also a meat-loving country where selling tofu was banned until 1990. So it was a huge surprise to hear Berlin is now the vegan capital of Europe. Every supermarket carries vegetable protein substitutes for meat, and many Germans are cutting down significantly on their meat-eating habits. The consumption of meat in Germany has fallen every year since 2011 and is now under 60kg per person (which is still rather high).

This is in no small way due to major producers offering vegetarian/vegan versions of classic German delicacies, marketed unashamedly using the same techniques as meat-based products, but containing words such as “ohne fleisch” (without meat) or “vegetarische” (vegetarian). The number of vegetarian restaurants and dishes has also increased exponentially.

This contrasts starkly with the United States which is projected to consume more meat this year than ever – the average American will eat a staggering 100.8kg of meat this year (with no signs of any reduction in the future), while food experts suggest it is feasible to reduce consumption of meat in Germany 50% by 2040.

anthropocene diet
Flexitarian restaurants are popular in Berlin.

Flexitarian

A reader recently asked a question which sounded simple but actually had me thinking for days. It was about what makes a good flexitarian diet, in response to an article about ultra-modern foods. It is a timely question as many Germans have said they are moving to becoming flexitarians. At its simplest, a flexitarian diet is just replacing some meat in the diet with vegetarian components.

But being German, some locals have elevated things another level – for example, abstinence from meat entirely for two or three days a week and eating only organic meat the rest of the week. Others would insist on having meat for, say, 50% of their daily protein with the rest made up of non-meat substitutes. And yet another version would be avoiding meat entirely except for social occasions (which is what my daughters do). I consider myself a flexitarian and personally it just involves cutting down on meat in general with no fixed targets. So it seems that being a flexitarian means following a reduced-meat regime without any fixed rules, except the ones you like.

From The Neolithic To Now

Although following a flexitarian diet is very simple, it is something we should all consider doing. The only factor in being a flexitarian is the reduction of animal proteins/fats in food, and many appear to be gravitating to diets of this nature, despite huge pressures from the food industry.

Some people may jokingly argue that being flexitarian can also mean eating some vegetables along with meat, indicating a “flexible” approach to our food. They may not be wrong but it is worth investigating why humans desire meat so much in the first place.

For a start, meat is widely marketed as an important source of nutrition, and this is an easy message to sell (even though it is not wholly true) as humans generally prefer to eat meat. Our evolutionary roots as hunter gatherers leave us today with a propensity for animal flesh and fruits, because that was what we evolved to eat – evidence is ancient human stone tools dating back 2.5 million years used to butcher meat.

Humans figured out around 13,000 years ago it was easier domesticating animals than hunting them. And then around 11,000 years ago, they also found it easier to farm crops than forage plants from distant places. The start of animal husbandry and crop farming is known as the Neolithic revolution – and the availability of a consistent food supply helped create the first civilisations. Note that the earliest humans evolved around three million years ago, while our sub-species (homo sapiens) has been traced back around 200,000 years – so the Neolithic revolution actually happened very recently.

Oddly, human populations did not explode after the Neolithic revolution. This was because deadly diseases spread easier in denser communities, and kept population numbers in check. The world population did not grow exponentially until better sanitation arrived around the 19th century. At the time of the Neolithic revolution, the world’s population of homo sapiens was estimated at around one million to two million, reaching one billion in 1803 and then two billion by 1927 – but in less than 100 years since, it has increased 381% to 7.616 billion today.

Inefficiency Of Food Production

Feeding such a huge population means agriculture on a vast scale, with huge fields of crops such as wheat, corn, soy, etc. It also involves killing over 56 billion animals a year, plus countless billion tonnes of sea life. Despite the image of the food industry being efficient and productive, the reality is vastly different – mass food production is driven by economics, not nutrition.

If not for meat and dairy production, the food industry would shrink very significantly. This is because most of those vast fields of crops end up as food for meat/dairy production, not human consumption. In the US, 36% of corn and 70% of soybeans are grown for animal feed – overall, 67% of US agricultural land is used for meat/dairy production. And much of the rest of US corn is used to produce high fructose corn syrup, an unhealthy source of pointless calories.

Converting crops into meat is notoriously inefficient and polluting – 1,000 calories fed to a cow returns only 30 calories of meat, and each kilo of beef involves producing hundreds of kilos of greenhouse gases and uses thousands of litres of water. For more data, please read “Vegetarian and other dietary tales – Part 4”.

Agribusiness

One current geophysical impact on our planet is agriculture, which is largely controlled by the agribusiness industry. Agribusinesses are responsible for the supply and distribution chains of farming – it provides the crop seeds, animal breeds, pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, feed supplements, medications, antibiotics, land-clearing machinery, farming equipment, marketing, etc.

The agribusiness industry is heavily dependent on meat production, as this provides two streams of profitable clients: (i) crop producers, and (ii) meat producers. It is in their interest to increase meat production and sales because the meat industry is actually the largest consumer of plant crops.

This is a plausible reason why we are continually encouraged to eat more meat, even though large-scale research indicates that consuming too much meat affect lifespans negatively.

Anthropocene Diet?

But even as some countries move away from excessive meat consumption, the marketing of meat simply shifts to other countries. The selling tactics work, as shown by the USA and other developing nations, because the food industry is so dominant. However, the reality is that if there is ever to be an Anthropocene diet, it would need to recognise the realities of nutrition and our environment, not just agribusiness profits. And that starts with eating less meat.

The next part investigates how we got to this curious state.


Curious Cook appears on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.


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