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