8

votes

Must we really concede that paleo/primal for all is not sustainable?

Answered on September 12, 2014
Created June 20, 2012 at 2:49 AM

I read Lierre Keith's book Vegetarian Myth about a year ago (great book!). For those who haven't read it, she responds to the argument that real food (i.e., not vegetarian) for all is unsustainable by saying maybe yes, but growing grain is also unsustainable because it's destroying top soil/farmland. I think it's a reasonable response. But, I'm not sure it's enough to convince the masses because we have been growing grains for a while, and they don't "see" it destroying top soil/farmland.

Mark Sisson wrote a good series on this where he did discuss some of the challenges with primal for all, as well as some good strategies for how it could be made more do-able, but he doesn't seem to give a definitive yes or no on if it's possible:

http://www.marksdailyapple.com/can-we-feed-the-world-on-the-primal-blueprint-diet-part-1/

Robb Wolf also wrote a good article on the topic, but also doesn't seem to give a definitive yes or no:

http://robbwolf.com/2012/05/17/paleo-diet-sustainability-economic-growth/

And of course, there is Melissa's excellent PH post which makes good points on why paleo-based diet is more sustainable than SAD diet, but doesn't focus on if it's sustainable for entire world to be paleo/primal:

http://paleohacks.com/questions/560/how-environmentally-responsible-green-and-sustainable-is-the-paleo-diet/576#576

Anyway, on to my question. After reading Lierre's book, I really wanted to know what kind of population could the Earth support if everyone ate paleo/primal. I sent her this e-mail:

Hi Lierre,

I really like your book. I have one question. In the middle of page 101, you say a 10 acre farm of perennial polyculture in mid-Atlantic can produce 6.8M calories (enough for 9 people) which works out to 1.1 acres/person. On page 124, you say there are 28.2B acres of bioproductive land (after removing oceans, deserts, ice caps, built-up land) or 4.7 acres per person. You say 25-75% needs to be reserved, so that would leave 1.2-3.5 acres per person for food production. It seems then that there is some possibility for the whole world to live off of perennial polyculture food production? If yes, then sustainable living is possible without reducing the world population? I understand that other climates might not support as much production as mid-Atlantic, but this also ignores any fishing which might help offset that.

Am I misunderstanding something? Does this mean I can cancel my vasectomy? :)

Thanks,

Mike

I never got a response, but am thinking maybe you can all can provide some insight. Please hack my weak logic and faulty assumptions. Some weaknesses I can think of:

  • Some bioproductive land may not be as productive as mid-Atlantic
  • Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms (on which Lierre's 6.8M calories/10 acres estimate is based) does supplement his chickens with grain he purchases
  • Bioproductive land estimate includes rain forest, etc? So all that land would have to be clear cut? Maybe not a good idea. Or perhaps used in a less productive way to produce food?
  • Maybe some of Leirre's numbers are incorrect?

What other problems do you see? How much do these affect the answer? Is it actually possible to feed everyone on a paleo/primal diet? If no, how many people could be supported?


UPDATE: Thanks everyone. Very useful responses. I found a few page paper written by Joel Salatin on the topic which is quite interesting:

http://acresusa.com/toolbox/reprints/Sept10_Salatin.pdf

His view is that it is sustainable to feed everyone real food, but his logic is more just saying that growing real food using proper practices is more efficient that growing what we grow today. And that a lot of the assumptions around real food/proper practices being unsustainable are based on old practices and old technology. It's an interesting paper, though it doesn't try to do any sort of calculation like I have above, so maybe isn't real proof.

My big point with this question is that I don't think we should continue to assume/concede that paleo for all is unsustainable. Make the "other side" prove it and then we can poke holes in their calculations. Or, can we do our own calculations to prove that it is potentially sustainable? I think so...


UPDATE: I have since posed a similar question with a simpler calculation here:

http://paleohacks.com/questions/169857/is-1-7-acres-of-agricultural-land-enough-to-feed-someone-a-paleo-diet

7bf306ada57db47547e9da39a415edf6

(11214)

on June 25, 2012
at 03:27 PM

We don't need models. We need principles. Arguing from the principle that we don't know, that this global level of action isn't appropriate because it violates freedom and is almost invariably wrong, we can see the right thing to do is end the subsidies.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 24, 2012
at 08:30 PM

Here is another: http://probaway.wordpress.com/2008/02/14/how-many-people-can-the-earth-sustain/ which is focused on carbon. That means it's not considering alternative energy sources which will have to become more viable/cost effective/etc when fossil fuels get closer to running out.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 24, 2012
at 08:29 PM

Here is the first one I saw with google: http://www.worldpopulationbalance.org/3_times_sustainable This calculation is based on current consumption. E.g., "each American uses nearly 20 acres of biologically productive land and water (biocapacity) per year." This is based on how we produce food today, not how we _should_ be producing food (e.g., al la Joel Salatin).

3eca93d2e56dfcd768197dc5a50944f2

(11697)

on June 23, 2012
at 02:34 AM

We already questioned the studies, but the studies were right. As I said, read more, I can't type in 500 characters what others have researched full books about. The point is, 7 billion people is way too much for ANYTHING (from clothing to power to food) for the size of this planet. Google it.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 11:02 PM

What about to try to undo some global actions that have already been taken? For example, how can we get rid of corn and soy subsidies unless there is a model showing that the alternative to grain agriculture can be sustainable on a global scale? How can we spur investment in technology and process imrpovements in sustainable farming techniques rather than GMO and pesticides? Like it or not, we are part of a global economy.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 10:57 PM

But here, we are all about questioning "the studies." What are they based on? Peak oil? What about alternate energy sources? Top soil depletion? Feeding grain to cattle? Maybe lots of faulty assumptions?

3eca93d2e56dfcd768197dc5a50944f2

(11697)

on June 22, 2012
at 08:28 PM

We are overpopulated, just read studies. We are 7x more than this planet can sustain naturally.

7bf306ada57db47547e9da39a415edf6

(11214)

on June 22, 2012
at 07:46 PM

And then what? Act on a model that is not perfect? We need to be free to act within our little human sphere's of influence. Any global model will encourage global levels of action, which destroy people's ability to do anything. The word sustainable comes down to keeping your job. If you are a small farmer great, but if you are a bureaucrat, your sustainability is a parasitic infection to everyone else.

4b05d725a8332e8e917a4ca58b6e8a1e

(1239)

on June 22, 2012
at 04:20 PM

My cousin is inheriting the 1,700 acre farm in Nebraska that's been in our family for five generations. It's currently entirely in corn production (like they all are), but the first thing he plans to do is convert the land to pasture for grazing. Such a wonderful plan, but you wouldn't believe some of the negative reactions he gets from the "traditional" grain farmers in the area.

Baa413654789b57f3579474ca7fa43d7

(2349)

on June 22, 2012
at 04:06 PM

+1 for the Portlandia clip. Pretty funny. Haven't heard of it before but it looks like I must check it out now.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 03:35 PM

But, how do you know 7+ billion is not sustainable? Are you just assuming that because oil is going to run out? What about other energy sources? If you're not just assuming, then what population can the earth support? 5B, 1B, 500M?

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 03:33 PM

That is reasonable, but assuming everyone on the planet were able to get real food, how many people could the planet support? The number we have today? half as many? a tenth? If nothing else, I'm curious. I understand this is an extremely complicated calculation/question to answer. But so are a lot of other questions in life. That doesn't mean we throw up our hands and give up on trying to get an answer. We make a model, try to simplify/extrapolate and come up with some kind of answer (knowing it's not perfect).

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 03:31 PM

very thoughtful response. thank you.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 03:29 PM

this is a great point. thank you.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 03:28 PM

But, how do you know that? Are you just assuming we are too many? If yes, why do you assume that? If you know it, then how overcrowded are we? 2x, 3x, 10x, 100x? How many people could the planet support sustainably?

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 12:13 AM

Oh, just found this. Haven't read it yet: http://www.acresusa.com/toolbox/reprints/Sept10_Salatin.pdf

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 12:12 AM

Looks like he charges $2K + expenses for speaking engagement... And can we feed the world is the most common question he gets. I'm guessing he's not going to give it up for free in an e-mail... :)

F92a0a13e601a6d302e44a4d4e0e3b91

(367)

on June 21, 2012
at 03:05 PM

I second this, Salatin is one of the few voices who make sustainable farming sound like it could feed the planet. That said, although he personally farms mixed animals and not crops (I believe I am right) he's not anti-grain, more in the WAPF camp, was the impression I got.

03fa485bfd54734522755f47a5e6597e

(3944)

on June 21, 2012
at 01:28 PM

I live out in that empty space, and I've thought for a long time that it's hard for most people living in cities to really understand just how much space there is. Now that most people do live in cities, that skews the populace's vision of what can be done with what's out there.

Medium avatar

(19469)

on June 21, 2012
at 11:36 AM

^^^ This! A human population of 7+ billion is not sustainable no matter what theoretical "diet" we all eat. The oil that the modern agricultural system is built upon is not sustainable and this has the same implications for vegetarians/vegans as it does more carnivorous people. The human population was sustainable when we were hunter-gatherers though, so I think that there is a distinct track-record for that lifestyle that is lacking elsewhere.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 20, 2012
at 07:35 PM

good point. thank you.

F9638b939a6f85d67f60065677193cad

(4266)

on June 20, 2012
at 05:23 PM

One problem is that population growth isn't stable. But that isn't a plus for the growing of grains, either.

B4e1fa6a8cf43d2b69d97a99dfca262c

(10255)

on June 20, 2012
at 01:34 PM

eeeeeeewwwwwwwww!

32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46

(41757)

on June 20, 2012
at 11:06 AM

3D printers now make food. Yummy yummy food extruded through an 18 gauge needle. :P

  • Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

    asked by

    (9402)
  • Views
    5.1K
  • Last Activity
    1261D AGO
Frontpage book

Get FREE instant access to our Paleo For Beginners Guide & 15 FREE Recipes!

11 Answers

best answer

11
510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20898)

on June 21, 2012
at 03:07 AM

Well, I just read this a while ago: back before we killed off all the bison in America, there were more bison living off of the natural grass than there are cows now living off the grain. So if we just let all the midwest farmland go back to natural grass and let the cows and bison roam free, we could get all the meat (and more) that we do now with no real energy inputs to the system. That alone leads me to believe that we could be sustainable. Go look at a satellite image of the US, there's so much empty space that we're not going to run out of it if we use it as ranges for grazing.

03fa485bfd54734522755f47a5e6597e

(3944)

on June 21, 2012
at 01:28 PM

I live out in that empty space, and I've thought for a long time that it's hard for most people living in cities to really understand just how much space there is. Now that most people do live in cities, that skews the populace's vision of what can be done with what's out there.

4b05d725a8332e8e917a4ca58b6e8a1e

(1239)

on June 22, 2012
at 04:20 PM

My cousin is inheriting the 1,700 acre farm in Nebraska that's been in our family for five generations. It's currently entirely in corn production (like they all are), but the first thing he plans to do is convert the land to pasture for grazing. Such a wonderful plan, but you wouldn't believe some of the negative reactions he gets from the "traditional" grain farmers in the area.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 03:29 PM

this is a great point. thank you.

9
3eca93d2e56dfcd768197dc5a50944f2

(11697)

on June 21, 2012
at 03:37 AM

No, it's not sustainable. But that's because we are too many humans in this planet, more than what this planet can naturally sustain. In other words, it's US who aren't sustainable, not the Paleo diet.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 03:28 PM

But, how do you know that? Are you just assuming we are too many? If yes, why do you assume that? If you know it, then how overcrowded are we? 2x, 3x, 10x, 100x? How many people could the planet support sustainably?

3eca93d2e56dfcd768197dc5a50944f2

(11697)

on June 23, 2012
at 02:34 AM

We already questioned the studies, but the studies were right. As I said, read more, I can't type in 500 characters what others have researched full books about. The point is, 7 billion people is way too much for ANYTHING (from clothing to power to food) for the size of this planet. Google it.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 10:57 PM

But here, we are all about questioning "the studies." What are they based on? Peak oil? What about alternate energy sources? Top soil depletion? Feeding grain to cattle? Maybe lots of faulty assumptions?

3eca93d2e56dfcd768197dc5a50944f2

(11697)

on June 22, 2012
at 08:28 PM

We are overpopulated, just read studies. We are 7x more than this planet can sustain naturally.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 24, 2012
at 08:30 PM

Here is another: http://probaway.wordpress.com/2008/02/14/how-many-people-can-the-earth-sustain/ which is focused on carbon. That means it's not considering alternative energy sources which will have to become more viable/cost effective/etc when fossil fuels get closer to running out.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 24, 2012
at 08:29 PM

Here is the first one I saw with google: http://www.worldpopulationbalance.org/3_times_sustainable This calculation is based on current consumption. E.g., "each American uses nearly 20 acres of biologically productive land and water (biocapacity) per year." This is based on how we produce food today, not how we _should_ be producing food (e.g., al la Joel Salatin).

6
32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46

(41757)

on June 21, 2012
at 11:59 AM

Unsustainable? I don't think so. Maybe the meat-centric, one-size-fits-all version is. But take a paleo diet based upon what can be grown locally and sustainably. A sustainable paleo diet in the American midwest is going to be very different than a paleo diet in equatorial Africa or a paleo diet in Japan. Just because the whole world won't be able to gorge on beef and coconut oil, doesn't make it unsustainable.

6
26b0f1261d1a0d916825bd0deeb96a21

(5798)

on June 20, 2012
at 04:02 AM

We'll soon be able to "replicate" food via food synthesizer, so don't worry about it. "Beam me up some steak, bro"! Oh, wait, no, I'm still waiting for my frakken hoverboard...

32f5749fa6cf7adbeb0b0b031ba82b46

(41757)

on June 20, 2012
at 11:06 AM

3D printers now make food. Yummy yummy food extruded through an 18 gauge needle. :P

B4e1fa6a8cf43d2b69d97a99dfca262c

(10255)

on June 20, 2012
at 01:34 PM

eeeeeeewwwwwwwww!

5
Ce41c230e8c2a4295db31aec3ef4b2ab

(32556)

on June 20, 2012
at 03:08 AM

Personally, I would email Joel Salatin. He's the only person you mentioned who actually farms. He speaks on this topic, among others.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 20, 2012
at 07:35 PM

good point. thank you.

F92a0a13e601a6d302e44a4d4e0e3b91

(367)

on June 21, 2012
at 03:05 PM

I second this, Salatin is one of the few voices who make sustainable farming sound like it could feed the planet. That said, although he personally farms mixed animals and not crops (I believe I am right) he's not anti-grain, more in the WAPF camp, was the impression I got.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 12:12 AM

Looks like he charges $2K + expenses for speaking engagement... And can we feed the world is the most common question he gets. I'm guessing he's not going to give it up for free in an e-mail... :)

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 12:13 AM

Oh, just found this. Haven't read it yet: http://www.acresusa.com/toolbox/reprints/Sept10_Salatin.pdf

4
7bf306ada57db47547e9da39a415edf6

(11214)

on June 21, 2012
at 03:09 PM

must-we-really-concede-that-paleo/primal-for-all-is-not-sustainable? The arguments are meaningless. We need real food. If no one else makes real food, I will try to make it myself, for myself and my loved ones. This is the human level view. The sustainability arguments tend to get lost in a faux god's eye view. Sometimes we can tell something isn't sustainable, like the stupidity of putting bees on trucks and driving them up and down California- of course they are dying! But often, the sustainable argument is made by someone blithely assuming they are omniscient and powerful enough to make global level decisions. Just as fancy, multi-variant computer models lead to bad science, this sort of arrogance leads to bad policy.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 03:33 PM

That is reasonable, but assuming everyone on the planet were able to get real food, how many people could the planet support? The number we have today? half as many? a tenth? If nothing else, I'm curious. I understand this is an extremely complicated calculation/question to answer. But so are a lot of other questions in life. That doesn't mean we throw up our hands and give up on trying to get an answer. We make a model, try to simplify/extrapolate and come up with some kind of answer (knowing it's not perfect).

7bf306ada57db47547e9da39a415edf6

(11214)

on June 22, 2012
at 07:46 PM

And then what? Act on a model that is not perfect? We need to be free to act within our little human sphere's of influence. Any global model will encourage global levels of action, which destroy people's ability to do anything. The word sustainable comes down to keeping your job. If you are a small farmer great, but if you are a bureaucrat, your sustainability is a parasitic infection to everyone else.

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 11:02 PM

What about to try to undo some global actions that have already been taken? For example, how can we get rid of corn and soy subsidies unless there is a model showing that the alternative to grain agriculture can be sustainable on a global scale? How can we spur investment in technology and process imrpovements in sustainable farming techniques rather than GMO and pesticides? Like it or not, we are part of a global economy.

7bf306ada57db47547e9da39a415edf6

(11214)

on June 25, 2012
at 03:27 PM

We don't need models. We need principles. Arguing from the principle that we don't know, that this global level of action isn't appropriate because it violates freedom and is almost invariably wrong, we can see the right thing to do is end the subsidies.

3
246ebf68e35743f62e5e187891b9cba0

(21420)

on June 21, 2012
at 12:51 PM

I think it can be done.

Will it be done? Not likely.

It would take radical change along several high-impact powers that be. In the US alone, you would have the USDA, the food lobbies, the land developers, the subsidies, etc... that are concerned with a solution that provides more food - cheaper, not more food - better. They will latch onto Government recommendations for food, and the Government's recommendations for food always follows the science of the lobbies.

The Locavore movement, even with it's oft-hated hipster majority, is part of the resistance.

Sustainability Farming such as Polyface - is part of the resistance (we just need a few more highly visible farms than one in Rural Virginia to make it appear viable to the masses).

Many celeb chefs have been stressing local, fresh - and to that end, Farmer's Markets have been springing up. Some of them are pretty lame, with 1-2 actual farms represented and the rest a mis-mash of shit you'd find at a fair or gun show (you listening, Saint Petersburg Farmer's Market?) - but it's still a step in the right direction.

So yeah, we need more than yuppies, hipsters, and hippies seeking out local food. The world can find a solution (although frankly, the world is overpopulated - as Eugenia said, it's a problem of humanity - not of any particular diet or way to eat).

Baa413654789b57f3579474ca7fa43d7

(2349)

on June 22, 2012
at 04:06 PM

+1 for the Portlandia clip. Pretty funny. Haven't heard of it before but it looks like I must check it out now.

2
03fa485bfd54734522755f47a5e6597e

(3944)

on June 21, 2012
at 01:23 PM

The most honest answer might be that we simply don't know. There are an awful lot of variables when you're talking about billions of people and tens of billions of acres. For a long time, soil has been looked at as fairly static: you have a certain amount of clay, sand, etc., plus N, P, and K, and that produces a certain amount of food. If you want more food, you add more nutrients. But we're learning all the time about the significance of microbes in the soil, and we're just starting to understand the symbiotic relationship between animals and soil and how much the soil benefits from animals grazing on it. It's a lot more complex than, "cow eats grass and leaves behind manure which grows more grass," but we're just starting to get back to that much understanding.

There are also political complications. Large areas of formerly productive land have been turned to deserts by poor farming practices. The stereotype is of the poor goat farmer letting his animals wipe out all the vegetation, which has been used as another black mark against meat, but desertification is also caused by irrigation lowering the water table and leaching away nutrients and quality soil from the surface. Over-cultivation of row crops increases soil runoff and loss to wind. Whatever the many reasons, how do you go into numerous countries and tell people they have to give up the farming practices that are barely keeping them alive as it is? They don't have the luxury of worrying about whether their land will still be productive in 50 years; they're trying to get a meal right now. Unless you posit some sort of one-world benevolent Star Trek-style government, much land has to be considered unavailable for sustainable production in the near term.

As someone else said, it depends on what people are willing to eat. If 'paleo' means buying specialty oils and other items shipped halfway around the world, that may not be very sustainable. The globalist, corporate farming paradigm pushes the same few monocultures for everyone, as that's the most efficient and profitable model for the corporations and governments that run things. But if it means growing animals and plants that are suited to your local conditions, it may be possible to grow a lot more. But that's not something that can be organized on a global scale by large, top-down NGOs; people just have to do it (and have the freedom and property rights to do it).

Ae8946707ddebf0f0bfbcfc63276d823

(9402)

on June 22, 2012
at 03:31 PM

very thoughtful response. thank you.

0
32be195157f00ad15a933b8bb333dcc4

(379)

on January 10, 2013
at 04:53 AM

Who cares if it's sustainable? The bottom line is I'm going to buy the best food for me that is within my budget, and I hope everyone else does to. If that means that farms and corporations start to produce more nutritious healthier food, I'm sure they'll find the most efficient way to go about it. Just because we aren't sure it's sustainable or not doesn't mean everyone should eat poison. That's stupid!

0
Medium avatar

(10611)

on June 22, 2012
at 04:44 PM

Yes to the lifestyle. Hunt-and-gather is the most important part. In terms of what it does for lowering stress, CV health and stabilizing metabolism it's the cure for the greatest Neolithic disease Sedentism. It can be practiced anywhere and the cost is measured in shoes.

I don't consider the diet as sustainable as the lifestyle. I worry about the loss of meat for multiple reasons, both political and economic.

-2
Dd647a31d95d860a1005a046b0664292

on June 21, 2012
at 12:55 AM

I???ve never seen a better endurance and strength workout than theKettlebell Swing. I???ve been following this great program that provides you all the information you need. Please read my review here: http://mikeshonestreviews.com/kettlebell-workout-review/

Answer Question


Get FREE instant access to our
Paleo For Beginners Guide & 15 FREE Recipes!