Some inconsistencies in food environmentalism

Sometimes environmentalists propose ineffective measures to improve public health and environmental sustainability. These ineffective measures are the result of irrational opinions held by those environmentalists. Sometimes these irrationalities consist of clear and simple inconsistencies in their ideas. Finding these inconsistencies does not require scientific knowledge or empirical investigation with complex statistics. Mere logical thinking is sufficient. Here I give a few examples of irrationalities in food environmentalism, i.e. related to sustainable and healthy food production and consumption. These examples demonstrate that food environmentalists, who have the good intention to make the world better but sometimes choose counterproductive means that make the world worse, are benefitted by more rational-critical thinking.

Resilience and food waste

Food waste is considered a serious problem by environmentalists. Almost one third of all produced edible food is wasted, i.e. not eaten directly by humans (when given to farm animals or used as compost to grow food, the food waste is eaten indirectly). However, there is a trade-off between reducing food waste and increasing food production resilience. This is the trade-off between efficiency and redundancy.

Efficiency can be defined as the minimum amount needed to achieve the desired result, divided by the actual amount with which the result is achieved. Think of efficient use of land: the minimum land area needed to feed the population divided by the actual land area used for food. Food waste is inefficient, because it involves more usage of land than is actually needed.

Resilience means that a system can handle a disruption in the sense that it can continue to achieve the desired result when the system is disturbed. Increasing crop biodiversity increases the resilience of our food system. A resilient, biodiverse food system has a lot of redundancy: while having many species may seem redundant, it is often safer to have so many species, because if something happens to one species due to a disruption, other species can take the blow and provide the agricultural services.

This trade-off between efficiency and redundancy is not always acknowledged by food environmentalists. A concrete example is an agro-ecological farm that makes use of crop biodiversity to increase resilience. The farm had different varieties of cabbages. During a summer heat wave, the savoy cabbage failed, but there were plenty of other cabbage varieties that resisted the drought. Hence, the farm was resilient: the drought did not significantly disrupt total vegetable production. But what if there was no heat wave that summer? Then there was actually too much food. With the savoy cabbage on the table, for example, the white cabbage would not all be eaten. Some cabbage would be wasted. Environmentalists may complain that the crooked cucumbers are not sold in the supermarkets and are therefore wasted, but this is part of the resilience of our food system. If wasting less food means decreasing food production, it can decrease the resilience of our food system, because of a decreased redundancy. It is difficult to say if our current food system has too much resilience (too much food waste) or too much efficiency (not enough food waste).

Instead of simply focusing on reducing food waste, food environmentalists can look for opportunities that improve both efficiency and resilience and do not involve such a trade-off. One example is reducing animal farming: animal farming is generally not efficient, because it requires a lot of resources (e.g. land for feed crops) to obtain only small amounts of protein. Most of the feed crops are wasted, because they are turned into animal manure that causes eutrophication in the rivers and coastal seas. Animal farming contributes to climate change, making global food production less resilient.

Other examples of highly efficient and resilient food production are cellular agriculture (e.g. producing cultivated meat without the animal), fermentation agriculture (using micro-organisms to produce protein), vertical agriculture (indoor farming) and floating agriculture (floating farms on the sea). These food production methods are land-free: they require only a little bit of land. Hence they are highly land use efficient. And they are resilient, as they are protected from many environmental conditions such as pests, freezing weather, droughts and floods. We also need more research on resilient foods that can deal with the most extreme catastrophes. Seaweed and air-based protein are examples of very promising resilient foods, and ALLFED (the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disaster) is an organization that researches resilient foods.

Golden rice and fatty rice

As a second example, we can look at the opposition of food environmentalists against genetically modified food. Consider golden rice, a GMO rice variety that contains high levels of beta-carotene (provitamin A). Golden rice could save tens of thousands of lives per year in developing countries, at a very low cost of less than 20 dollar per healthy life year saved. Opponents argue that golden rice is no solution to the hunger problem, that it does not contain enough beta-carotene to completely eradicate vitamin A deficiency, that it promotes a one-sided diet of rice, that it causes a monoculture of only one rice variety, that the golden rice genes that cause the beta-carotene production could uncontrollably spread to other, traditional rice varieties, that there may be unknown long-term health risks due to the presence of these genes, that the golden rice seeds would be too expensive for poor farmers, that the companies that sell golden rice seeds could make unearned profits,…

All these arguments against golden rice can be debunked with one simple analogy. Consider fatty rice, a rice variety that has certain genetic mutations such that it produces more healthy fatty acids. Of course fatty rice won’t solve the global hunger problem, the level of fatty acids is not high enough to eradicate nutritional deficiencies, other rice varieties can be contaminated by the mutated genes from the fatty rice, no studies have been performed on the long-term health consequences of fatty rice consumption, companies who sell fatty rice seeds can earn profits,… In contrast with golden rice, fatty rice has one serious drawback: it has lower yields than the most widely used rice varieties. Lower yields means more agricultural land requirements and hence higher impact on biodiversity, higher costs and hence lower profits for poor rice farmers, and higher risks of malnutrition for poor consumers. If environmental activists are against golden rice, surely you expect them to be against fatty rice. But no, food environmentalists are in favor of fatty rice. What I didn’t tell you, is that the fatty rice is a heirloom rice, a traditional rice variety that has been outcompeted from the market by the more productive new rice varieties since the green revolution in Asia. Although fatty rice is not registered as a GMO, it does contain genetic mutations, i.e. genes that are not present in other, more common rice varieties. Without those genetic mutations, the rice would simply not produce so much fatty acids. Of course, fatty rice is not patented by large agrocorporations, but the same goes for golden rice that is sold to the poorest farmers. Big Agro is not making unfair profits from fatty rice, nor from golden rice.

It is very inconsistent to oppose golden rice and promote fatty rice. This inconsistency is due to the opposition against genetic modification in general. This example demonstrates that this opposition is irrational. Genetic modification can improve crops, make them more sustainable for the environment, profitable for poor farmers and healthy for consumers. For example a meta-analysis shows that current GMO agriculture increases crop yields by 22%, increases farmers profits with 68% and decreases pesticide use by 37%. Genetic modification is an important and cost-effective tool to make crops more resilient. As the resilience of crops increases without having to increase food waste, food environmentalists should be more supportive of GMOs.

Cultivated meat and seedless fruit

A third example is the opposition against cultivated meat (also known as cell-based or clean meat), as exemplified by the Clean Meat Hoax website. Elsewhere I wrote about the many irrationalities on that Clean Meat Hoax website. Here I want to address one often heard irrational argument against cultivated meat: that it is unnatural. As cultivated meat has many benefits in terms of environmental sustainability, public health and of course animal welfare, this example demonstrates that the naturalness bias of many food environmentalists can be really harmful.  

Considering the product itself, cultivated meat is as natural as animal-based meat, because they both contain the same muscle cells, and these muscle cells grew with the same biochemical reactions. The essential difference between cultivated meat and animal-based meat, is that the production of cultivated meat does not involve the production of animal body parts other than the muscle tissues. Cultivated meat is just like animal-based meat, but without the animal brains, organs, tails, eyes, skins, hairs,…

Especially the absence of brains makes cultivated meat better in terms of animal welfare (no animal suffering) and environmental sustainability (no high metabolism and feed requirements for the energy-consuming brains), and the absence of lungs and intestines makes cultivated meat better in terms of public health (no risks of zoonotic respiratory infectious diseases and antibiotic-resistant harmful gut bacteria).

But especially the absence of reproductive organs makes cultivated meat unnatural. Cultivated meat is considered unnatural by some food environmentalists, not only because its production process requires some machinery, but especially because the end product (the muscle tissues) could not be achieved by natural processes such as evolution. Animals can naturally reproduce, because they have reproductive organs. That means animals can be born in nature. That means animal-based meat can be obtained by hunting wild animals in nature. But you will never find cultivated meat in nature.

The inconsistency in the opposition against cultivated meat can be demonstrated by comparing cultivated meat with seedless fruit. Farmers have developed fruit that does not possess seeds, just like food scientists have developed meat that does not possess organs. Bananas are the prime example of a seedless fruit, but there are also seedless watermelons, tomatoes and grapes. A cultivated meat burger can be compared with wine made from seedless grapes. Of course alcohol is unhealthy, just like processed meat such as a burger is unhealthy, but the fact that the grapes do not have seeds or the muscle cell culture tanks (bioreactors) do not have organs is not the reason why these products have health risks.

As the fruits do not contain seeds and hence cannot naturally reproduce themselves, such fruits can never have been evolved in nature. Producing these fruits requires human intervention (and machinery). Hence, they are clearly as unnatural as cultivated meat. Yet, food environmentalists are not opposed to seedless fruits. Their arguments against cultivated meat can be easily debunked by referring to seedless fruits. Instead of opposing cultivated meat, it is better to support research and development of cultivated meat (e.g. New Harvest and Good Food Institute).

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