The Most Important Article you will Ever Read about Future Ag, Food, and Environment
SPOILER ALERT! FRUITS AND VEGETABLES ARE NOT ONLY GREAT FOR YOU BUT POSSIBLY THE SALVATION OF THE AG/FOOD ECONOMY AND ENVIRONMENT!
Don’t panic, you can still eat your cereal and cheeseburgers for the time-being, but prepare for less grain, meat, and dairy in the near-term (and when energy issues are resolved, a mostly fruit and vegetable future).
WHAT IS BEST FOR OUR DIET: Vegetables and fruits (with modest healthy meat, dairy, and grain supplementation) are rapidly becoming the “gold standard” of a healthy diet and central to the “Blue Zone” formula for longevity. The health value is mostly due to superior fiber content and caloric restriction. Long story short, many vegetables are like eating “a bunch of nothin’” (mostly fiber and water), while many fruits contain sugar but plenty of fiber to offset the sweet stuff, plus great micronutrients such as polyphenols. Meat, dairy, and grain aren’t exactly bad when eaten in modest amounts (think the Asian diet here). Grain is a great way to feed large groups of people (and animals) but there are some drawbacks. Meat provides some essential nutrients harder to get elsewhere, and if you eat the “high in Omega-3” variety, good for you. But did you know that “more fruits and veggies” and “less grain, meat, and dairy” has many other benefits? (Schreinemachers, Simmons, Wopereis, 2017)
WHAT USES LESS WATER: Currently, water is a precious and expensive commodity in some parts of the world. Grains are generally grown where there is natural rainfall (ie the Midwest and the Steppe plains), but global warming may change these patterns. Meat and dairy require the most water per calorie produced, fruits and veggies the least, with grain somewhere in between. If rainfall diminishes in the grain belts of the world, fruits and veggies may take their place by necessity (this is already happening in places like arid Mexico). The meat and dairy industry utilize a great deal of grain, so this compounds the water problem. (Armstrong, 2021), (Lovarelli, Bacenetti, Fiala, 2016)
WHAT USES LESS LAND: Many futuristic thinkers are worried about land usage, realizing that most farmable land is already taken up by farmers or human inhabitants, while the world’s population is growing. Prognosticators such as National Geographic expect population numbers to slow and farming techniques (and yields) to improve using GMOs and other advances. However, the new demands for meat, dairy (and grain) from emerging countries such as China and India will put a strain on the world’s ag land resources. For the record, grain requires the least amount of land per acre, while (surprise!) meat and dairy require the most, with fruits and veggies in between. The logical compromise would be to stop feeding animals grain (there would still be plenty of marginal grasslands for free-range meat animals) and replace those lands with fruits and vegetables. It should be said here that corn and potatoes lead the league in yield per acre (by a fairly large margin, which is why they’re cheap). (Reddit, 2019), (weforum.org, n.d.)
WHAT USES LESS ENERGY: The biggest current knock on fruits and veggies is energy usage. Meat and dairy again lead the league in energy used per calorie, while grain uses the least, and fruits/veggies slightly behind meat and dairy. Hopefully, we will solve the energy problem with cleaner and more abundant sources that solve this problem. The fruit and vegetable industry can take advantage of active and passive solar to extend growing seasons, but they will often be labor and energy intensive to plant/weed/harvest (compared to grain). Fruits and Veggies may lend themselves better to biomass conversion than grain (by utilizing energy product from the waste product). (Garza, 2014), (Bomford, 2021)
WHAT USES LESS FERTILIZER AND PESTICIDE: Of course, meat and dairy are less a part of this discussion (unless you consider that grain is used to feed animals, and that meat/dairy can provide valuable organic fertilizers). Simply speaking, fruits and veggies need more pesticide than grain, and less net fertilizer use. This is a complicated generality though, since it depends on how each are grown and consumed. Once again, a great innovation would be to reduce grain production in favor of fruits and vegetables, which are grown in mixed use hothouses (less pests) and lend themselves better to computer metered water/fertilizers. Even row and furrow based fruits/veggies can more or less mimic the hothouse methods (under plastic sheets with driplines). (Heffer, Gruere, Roberts, 2015), (Reinagle, 2011), (fruitsandveggies.org, n.d.)
WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF WE SUBSTITUTED ANIMAL GRAINS WITH FRUITS AND VEGGIES?: For starters, we would have a much better diet, and an opportunity to soak up a great deal more carbon. This is because fruits and veggies are greener, take up less space and use less water, which would also allow more ground cover, less monoculture and better habitat. Assuming the world’s population stabilizes and energy becomes cheaper, even more habitat could be opened up. As for our quality of life, there would be less need for medical intervention and cost, with a healthier populace. Once again, no one would take away your cheeseburgers or breakfast cereals, but they would certainly begin to cost more (with fruits/veggies less due to economies of scale). With clever mixtures of meat/veggies/dairy and various fruit mixtures, people may even learn to prefer this diet.
WHY EXACTLY ARE MEAT/DAIRY/GRAIN BAD?: No one is saying that they are “bad”, exactly, but only that they are consumed in too large amounts (which is somewhat bad for both your bodies and the environment). In history, grain has always been a great way to feed large numbers of people (and you can see why with the land and energy advantages above). However, grain-based civilizations also created class-oriented societies (and sometimes slavery) while meat/dairy/fruit/veggie societies were more diverse, free, and egalitarian. Health-wise, “too much” meat and dairy may be associated with cardiovascular problems while too much grain may be linked to carb overload and unhealthy inflammation in sedentary individuals (with each possibly linked to compromised gut flora due to a lack of fiber). Meanwhile, you generally don’t hear about anyone suffering from eating “too many fruits and vegetables”.
WHY AG/ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS OF FRUITS/VEGGIES ARE ESPECIALLY GOOD: Currently, grains enjoy HUGE government subsidies, while fruits and vegetables generally have none. This implies that grains are almost too susceptible to famine and less sustainable (which is why the subsidies exist). Grains also require HUGE amounts of fertilizer, while meat and dairy animals can require antibiotics and the grain that requires fertilizer. It is MUCH easier to use water and fertilizer more efficiently when growing fruits and veggies, which leads to less damaging ag runoff and eutrophication of clean water. Less water and fertilizer means more environmental dividends, and new technologies are making fruit/vegetable growing more efficient all the time (think vertical growing stacks, solar hothouses and aquaponics here). The “imperfect food” movement will increase efficiencies further. The only thing holding back more efficient fruit/veggie growing is demand, which is now increasing. (css.umich.edu, 2021),(Patterson, 2015)
A SHORT NOTE ABOUT AGE-RELATED EFFECTS OF DIET: Though this is still theory, younger/growing bodies may benefit more from meat/dairy/grain-heavy diets while the elderly may benefit more from high fiber (fruit/veggie) diets (a clue to this may be that newborns crave milk not carrots or wheaties). The fiber benefits in the elderly may be due primarily to less caloric intake and lower inflammatory effects. Seniors are also advised to get enough protein, which is especially beneficial when combined with exercise (a nod to meat/dairy, though protein is also abundant in nuts, legumes, and some vegetables). (healthline.com, n.d.)
BUT WHAT ABOUT FISH?: Fish farming is a wild-card here, ordinarily solving many diet and farming issues, yet also requiring antibiotics and grains to some degree. In the future, aquaponics (the marrying of vegetable growing with fish farming using a common water source), while giving fish more natural food sources (such as kelp, phytoplankton, algae) may be the answer. This may allow the ocean environment to recover, similar to the way land habitats may recover from too much meat/dairy/grain! (Wallheimer, 2020)
This is an extremely important subject, since there are so many health/energy/land use/water/global warming consequences. There is not much in the popular media about changes to ag, but one estimate is that a world conversion to a vegan diet in the next 15 years might reduce global warming by up to 60% (while perhaps substantially reducing world hunger and increasing world health). Even a conversion to Pescatarian (eating fish instead of red or white meat) or Mediterranean diets may create a 20–30% global warming reduction. Personally, I am not a vegan, but I am learning to eat less meat/grain/dairy in favor of fruits/veggies for all the reasons above.