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From Vegan to Paleo, Farm Practices Matter More Than End Product

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A solution to the raging food wars between vegans, paleos, and everyone in between is to recognize that good, bad, or terrible farming practices are far more important than the end product that lands on dinner plates, according to a recent post on Resilience.org.

From legumes to beef, most of our food “is impoverishing the soil and contributing greatly to the tragic and catastrophic loss of biodiversity” because of the way it is produced, writes first-generation permaculture farmer Alex Heffron. But that reality is invisible to most consumers who “are far removed from the fields that were once rich in topsoil, and are now desert and dust.”

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“Vegans will point to their evidence for why their diet is going to save us from apocalypse, and paleos the same,” he adds. “But we need to go beyond this largely binary argument and look at what we’re really talking about,” looking beyond “what is farmed” to how it’s produced.

Heffron points to a typical vegan diet that consists largely of grains and legumes. “Grains and pulses tend to be grown in mass monocultures on a continuous system of cropping, which means in practice thousands of acres of the same crop, grown in the same place, year after year, with liberal usage of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizer, and quite often plenty of ploughing,” he writes. This relentless extractive cycle ultimately “leads to a collapse of the local ecosystem, impoverishment of the soil, and eutrophication of water courses, amongst other harmful effects.” And for bonus points, “it also requires vast quantities of fossil fuel.”

But by the same token, “most people (including paleos) who eat meat source it from the supermarket, and the vast majority of the meat on sale comes from animals finished in feedlots.” Heffron says vegans are “absolutely correct” that animal food chains use up more land and energy than grains and legumes fed directly to humans.

But even so, “neither system of farming is desirable, and neither diet is good for the environment, if the food is produced in this manner. It’s a lose-lose scenario.” In a win-win, he adds, all food products, from pulses to hamburgers, would be the end result of farming practices that were not purely extractive, but instead nourished the soil and its interdependent ecosystems.

That means grains and legumes must be “sourced from farms that practice no-till or low-till,” do not rely on fossil-based fungicides and fertilizers, “sow green manure to help build fertility between crops,” and work to increase soil carbon year after year.

And animals raised for their meat must be fed a diet consisting 100% of pasture and food waste, and always in outdoor settings. “In lowland situations, [animals are] integrated with arable farming,” he writes. “In upland or highland situations they’re managed in a way to support biodiversity and wildlife, be that integration with trees, or conservation grazing.”

Critically, “the grazing animals have access to a diverse pasture, and are managed in a way that mimics their natural behaviour in the wild, such as mob grazing.”

But to even begin that conversation, “we need stop focusing on what we eat, and start focusing on how the food we eat is produced,” Heffron concludes. “I don’t care if you’re vegan or paleo, we can all do that.”