Food Choices and the Environment

I finished up the first of 3 classes on Plant-Based Nutrition through eCornell last Saturday. There was so much information, especially in module 5 that I spent a good part of the second week on it.

But today I am picking up where I left off with module 3. This one was on food choices, health, and the environment. If you’ve watched Cowspiracy or read/watched anything about CAFOs (concentrated animal feed operations), none of the information presented will come as a shock to you. Mass meat production pollutes the water (with animal waste) and the atmosphere via methane. Also, the increased fertilizer we’re using on crops to feed animals is increasing nitrogen levels in the soil and water. Also, GMOs are putting more herbicides and pesticides into the food and water supply.

The nitrogen or nutrient pollution causes algal growth/phytoplankton which dies and sinks to the bottom of the water where bacteria/microbes consume it and oxygen. These hypoxic and anoxic conditions then in turn cause fish, etc. to die off.

As far as land use goes, we use 2/3 of agricultural land for growing livestock food. We use only 8% to grow food for humans. It’s the number one job of agriculture and is tax subsidized.

And we’re using water at an unsustainable rate, depleting groundwater and mining aquifers, thus taking away from future generations. Did you know that to produce 2,000 pounds of beef it takes 4,000,000 gallons of waters. Yes, 4 million. For comparison, it’s 52,000 gallons for 2,000 pounds of sugar beets, 85,000 for a ton of vegetables, and 102,200 for root vegetables.

I was surprised to learn that according to David Battisti, most crops are reaching their thermal max heat tolerance. A warming of 2 degrees Celsius doesn’t sound like a lot but it sounds like enough to decrease crop yields and lead to more food insecurity.

Then we learned about the impact of several types of fishing on the marine environment. Most of us are aware of the effects of overfishing, but Bruce Monger discusses also long line fishing, trawling, and aquaculture. Long line fishing is where they have lines up to 100 km long with many hooks to catch fish, but they are also catching birds, turtles, and sharks. Bottom trawling for shrimp is really destructive because it also catches other marine critters and affects 150x the area than deforestation. Aquaculture you might know as farm-raised fish, such as salmon. The fish poo causes phytoplankton/eutrophic conditions. Also, they are fed prey fish, such as sardines and anchovies, which are food for larger fish and birds. Also, fish oil comes from these prey fish.

There was a good discussion about GMOs that I’m still trying to wrap my mind around. Genetic engineering to get herbicide resistance is leading to more herbicide (and pesticide/biocide) use and the same company producing the GMO plants is producing the herbicides. Heath risks from the increased biocide use include cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, and endocrine disruption. There is also evidence in animal studies of kidney and liver malfunction.

There was discussion about the top 10 GMO crops and about labeling. The USDA has until 2020 to label GMOs but rather than labeling things clearly, they are trying to circumvent the law but putting on a QR code. So we should look for organic when possible, verified non-GMO, avoid processed foods (so many are made with GMO ingredients), buy from local farms, grow your own food with non-GMO seeds and so on.

I thought all of this was interesting and good information. So far everything has been well-presented and in an order that makes sense. Up next in module 4 is Food Policy and Politics. I was ready to flip a table.