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Why going "vegan" won't save the planet or your health

This is an excerpt from an interview of one of the founding fathers of regenerative agriculture, Joel Salatin. The full interview can be accessed here.

Joel Salatin from PolyFace Farms

In this interview with the Paleo Movement Magazine, Salatin addresses every facet of his “Christian Libertarian Environmentalist Capitalist Lunatic Farmer” description— answering 21 political, personal, general, and hypothetical questions from Eat Paleo Save the World author Karen Pendergrass.

Question 12 addresses the narrative that "veganism or vegetarianism" is the key to reversing climate change. Salatin's realistic response is as follows;

12. Do you believe that vegetarian and vegan diets promote food decentralization, or foster centralization? With your knowledge, do you believe that vegan/vegetarian dietary disciplines have the ability to “Save the Planet” as they profess they can?

I don’t think vegan is any more decentralized than non-vegan. Centralization has much more to do with government regulation and domestic culinary abdication than choice of diet. Beef feedlots are certainly no more or less centralized than square miles of corn and soybeans. I don’t see anything about veganism that makes it less centralized, unless you think gardens are easier to do in small spaces than animals. But even in that, I vehemently disagree.

If we took all the cats, dogs, gerbils, fish bowls—you get the idea—and converted those to small domestic poultry and livestock like rabbits, it would certainly not take any more land or time or equipment and would return tremendous dietary nutrition. Picking up dog flops and putting in the trash to go to the landfill is certainly far more environmentally-destructive than feeding 10 chickens (the average American dog eats and poops as much as 11 chickens) and using their wonderful manure as side dressing on flowers or as a base for compost in the garden.

Processed food, including take-out and fast food—are the two primary drivers are centralized food systems. The other is government regulations, which we’ve already addressed.

Now to the veganism “saving the planet” concept. Because most vegans are on a physically degenerative trajectory, if eliminating humans is the path to saving the planet, I suppose you could make an argument that veganism does indeed save the planet since it rids the earth of humans. But I don’t think the earth was meant to exist without humans; in fact, I think humans heal the earth better than anything—they also destroy the earth better than anything. Most of the time really good stuff has a really bad counterpart—like sex and wine.

Anyone wondering about the role of herbivores in nature needs to see Allan Savory’s stellar performance on TED talks. It explains what I’m going to encapsulate. Listen carefully. The earth’s ecology works like this: the sun sends energy captured by plants through photosynthesis. The most efficient plants are grasses; second are bushes and shrubs; third are trees. The reason the deepest and best soils in the world are not in forests is because grasses sequester carbon faster, build biomass faster, and ultimately build soil faster than any other plant. Herbivores prune grass as it approaches senescence in order to restart the fast biomass accumulation cycle.

The reason all antiquity diets began with either seafood or herbivores (including dairy) was because those options provided the most nutrient dense foods without tillage. Annuals require tillage, or some sort of intensive soil manipulation to keep the perennials at bay. When tillage was crude and energy expensive, grains and annuals were expensive.

In a time of soil erosion, chemical depletion, and energy uncertainty, I suggest that returning to this historically normal foundation for nutrient density through perennials and herbivores is the path of landscape—even foodscape—remediation. On our farm, we practice the holistic management concepts espoused by Allan Savory. These concepts, demonstrated on millions of acres around the world, build soil, restart springs and streams, encourage wildlife, and yield the highest dietary nutritional options available. This is heritage-based bio-mimicry on a grand scale.

To the vegan who thinks it’s sinful to eat animals, that’s a religion and I can’t change that. Just realize that everything is eating and being eaten; if you don’t believe that, go lie naked in your flower bed for three days and see what gets eaten. You cannot have life without sacrifice, whether it’s a dead carrot or a dead pig.

Annuals deplete soil equity; perennials encourage it. Veganism completely depends on annuals rather than perennials, and therefore is an inherently ecologically-debilitating system.

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