Food Cultures, Locavores, and A Challenge to Veganism

In America, we don’t have much of a food culture. The answer to the question “what’s for dinner?” often has nothing to do with what our parents ate. A society without a strong food culture is uniquely vulnerable to the marketing of processed food manufacturers, diet books authors and all manner of hucksters. This is increasingly true throughout the western world, but nowhere more so than in America, the country most obsessed by health and food, yet among the least healthy, with the highest rates of diet-related diseases like diabetes and heart disease. We speak of the “French Paradox,” wondering how that culture consumes so much butter, wine and meat and yet has lower rates of heart disease. Michael Pollan has pointed out that the paradox works the other way around as well: how could Americans be so obsessed with their diet and health, yet have such high rates of obesity and diet related disease?

Good food cultures answer the hard question of what’s best to eat both for you and your environment. Most of the time humans have never been very good at answering this question. To be a sustainable farmer is to understand how to nourish the soil so that nutritious, bountiful crops can be harvested year after year. America was once a land of such boundless size and fertility that farmers would plant crops that would rob the soil of nutrients and then move on to fresh land when the harvests inevitably shrunk. The native Americans understood the folly of this method of farming. They opted to plant the three sisters (corn, beans and squash), each nurturing the ecosystem in different ways. The beans pull nitrogen from the air; the squash leaves provide mulch and keep away predators that don’t like their prickly leaves; and the corn stalk provides support on which the beans can grow.

Food cultures distill thousands of years of wisdom about the ecology of the land into a system that allows for a symbiotic relationship between humans and their environment. It’s easy to dismiss food culture as archaic. After all, we don’t often trust the wisdom of our ancestors when it comes to science, philosophy or social norms. And there are legitimate questions about how traditional methods of farming scale up. However, our current methods of scaling up agriculture to feed the world leave something to be desired—to put it mildly. There are good reasons to criticize the sprawling monocultures, the runoff from excessive use of fertilizer, and the energy intensive transportation of food across the world, to name just a few problems with our agricultural system. It’s enough to make you wonder if our ancestors didn’t have a model that we can learn from.

The example of Native Americans and the three sisters is comfortable one for vegans to follow, but what about the role of animals in food culture? Consider the dehesa, a poor countryside in Spain, written about by Dan Barber in Third Plate. Despite it’s magnificent beautify, it was left for peasants in large part because the land wasn’t fertile enough to grow crops. The region is rich in grasses, trees and acorns. The dehesa is now famous for producing one of the most sought after food items in the world: jamon Iberico. In english, “Iberian Ham.” One often associates world-class food with wealth and privilege, but this is not the case in the dehesa. The people are not spoiled foodies. They are poor, but they have a rich history and deep connection to their land and to the animals.

So there are two potential issues that may represent an interesting challenge for advocates of a vegan world. The first concerns cultural imperialism. What part of heritage will be lost in a vegan world? What wisdom of our ancestors will be lose touch with? The second concerns the question of how land can be sustainably used to feed people in certain environments ideally suited to animals. Am I certain that veganism uniformly represents a more sustainable way of eating for all people? Can we go to the people of dehesa and tell them we have a more sustainable and sensible way of eating?

Could there be local cases where morality points us in one direction and sustainability in another? This is where the locavores and vegans start to differ. If Michael Pollan and Dan Barber are right, than it is more sustainable for this region to continue eating as they do. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan has argued that veganism leads to a greater dependence on fossil fuels. Not every region can grow a balanced diet locally. This problem means more food would have to be trucked around the world. Evan has argued that the extraordinary inefficiency of meat production (measured in plant calorie versus meat calorie) means that plants are always more sustainable. The problem comes when a region isn’t good at producing plant calories edible to humans, but it is good at producing a bountiful supply of plant food edible to ruminants, like cows or sheep.

I’m not claiming that the example of the Dehesa is a definitive counter-example against anyone the notion of a vegan world, but it’s a challenge to consider. And for the record, even if veganism is proven to be wildly impractical on a global scale, I’ve made the case that you should still go vegan under present circumstances.

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