Diet and Human Ecology

The biosphere is a delicate and dynamic system of energy, organic and inorganic matter. When we disrupt any part of it, the results ripple out and have far-reaching effects, often seemingly unrelated to their source. We search in vain to find some alien cause. Our attitudes regarding degenerative disease are a good example. When we focus on specific nutrients in our diet we fail to see the bigger, truer picture. We often fail to see how our food choices are driven by emotional and social influences and not physical need.

In 1943 the famed psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper called ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’. This groundbreaking work laid the foundations for the next three decades of developmental psychology. Maslow was looking for defining principles of human happiness, for what makes us feel complete. His conclusions were simple yet profound.

In identifying what he called a hierarchy of needs, he established that we must meet our basic physical requirements before addressing other areas of fulfillment and joy. The first level of need includes Air, Food, Water, Shelter, Warmth, Sex and Sleep. When these needs are attained we seek the second level – Safety, Protection from the elements, Security, Order, Stability and Freedom from Fear. Our desires for love, esteem, self-expression, creativity and the realization of our full potential rest on the foundation of these first two levels. If they are not met, we risk living with constant anxiety, stress and ill health. It would be fair to say that those first two levels are all about health. These considerations need a particular attention now more than ever because we are living in an environment of our own creation.

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The number of people living in urban areas exceeded 50% of the world’s population for the first time in 2014.[1] It looks like it will be 70% by 2050. The WHO report lists resulting health challenges such as poor water quality, environmental pollutants, violence and injury, increased non-communicable diseases (cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases), unhealthy diets and physical inactivity, harmful use of alcohol and increased exposure to disease outbreaks. In an unintended irony one of the few advantages of urban living is listed as access to better health care.

When I started studying food and nutrition, I was intrigued by the connection between what I was eating and the environment. I discovered that many of the foods that had questionable or negative effects on health also had an adverse environmental impact. This should not have surprised me. We do not need new products or even more studies to create a wholesome way of eating. What we need is a new way of looking at the whole issue of food and health. We need a user-friendly, common sense approach to understanding food that is healthy and sustainable for society and the environment. To accomplish this requires us to question everything we have been told about nutrition, and review some very basic questions about the role of food in our life and in our culture.

The word ‘health’ originates in old English, and means to be complete. Food is certainly an important part of being whole – being connected. To be healthy we need to eat food that allows us to operate at our full potential. That potential includes the sensitivity and capacity to adapt to environmental change. Health enables us to nurture the bond between nature and ourselves. Ecology is a central theme of the ancient systems of understanding food.

Ecology is rarely acknowledged when discussing nutrition, and yet is central to understanding our food choices, and how different foods affect us, both directly and indirectly. Rachel Carson, the American biologist, author of The Silent Spring,[2] and the accepted mother of modern ecology, says:

‘If we have been slow to develop the general concepts of ecology and conservation, we have been even more tardy in recognizing the facts of the ecology and conservation of man himself. We may hope that this will be the next major phase in the development of biology. Here and there awareness is growing that man, far from being the overlord of all creation, is himself part of nature, subject to the same cosmic forces that control all other life. Man’s future welfare and probably even his survival depend upon his learning to live in harmony, rather than in combat, with these forces.’[3]

This view of our relationship with nature is more crucial now than ever. Carson’s vision of an evolution in biological science that unifies human life with the environment has been steadily sidelined. If man is ‘a part of nature, subject to the same cosmic forces that control all other life’, then natural law exists for us, as well as for every other creature, plant and aspect of the planet. If we do not learn to cooperate with the laws of nature, we will harm ourselves. We don’t need a degree in environmental science to understand natural law.

We tend to view the world we live in, and all other life except perhaps domestic animals, as ‘other’. But we do not exist outside of the intricate composition of the biosphere. When we examine nutrition as a fundamental aspect of our relationship with the planet we come to a better understanding of the problems surrounding the human diet.

Our belief in human supremacy, often referred to as Anthropocentric thinking, allows us to place ourselves at the center of the universe. We view our uniqueness as a sign of separation from the rest of life that swirls around us and within us. The belief that we are superior to other life forms permits us to use the natural world according to our desires and whims.  As we pull away from any physical interaction with nature we fortify those mythologies that lie at the foundation of our most harmful behaviors.

In ecological studies there are several kinds of relationships between an organism and its environment. The first thing we need to know about any new creature we discover is how it procreates and what it eats. These are the driving forces of evolution; they dictate physical form, function and most behavior.

One class of relationship is called ‘commensalism’, from the Latin ‘to eat at the same table’. These are relationships where one organism gains benefits and the other is not affected. Another type of relationship is ‘mutualism’, where both organisms benefit. In sharp contrast is the ‘parasitism’ relationship, where one organism benefits while the other is harmed. Creating a commensal relationship with the planet is primary for humanity. Our well-being is inter-dependent with the well-being of the planet. It is also the key to a comprehensive vision of human nutrition.

Planet Earth is host to human life. The natural world makes human life possible. Our current relationship with the planet is almost entirely parasitic.  The famous British naturalist, David Attenborough recently referred to humanity as ‘a plague on the planet’.[4] The chemist and co-creator of the Gaia Theory, James Lovelock, said that humans are “too stupid to prevent climate change”.[5]  What does our casual disregard for the environment say about us?

We like to imagine that our relationship with nature is a kind of benign mutualism, one where we take from nature in exchange for nature having the pleasure of our company. The conundrum we face is that our whole economy is based on endless consumption; we are eating up the environment.  But as economist E.F Schumacher said “Infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world in an impossibility”.

Protein provides a good example of a human obsession becoming an environmental problem. Obtaining adequate protein in our diet is easy. A diet with a variety of grains, beans, vegetables, nuts and seeds provides more than sufficient protein for health and vitality. (You can refer to Section Two for some great, protein-rich recipes.) Asians (who eat less meat than westerners) have produced concentrated, vegan, protein-rich foods for centuries, such as miso, soya sauce, tempeh and tofu.

Increasing numbers of people understand that meat is not a good food choice. Some avoid meat for ethical reasons (abuse and killing of animals), some because of environmental impact, and some due to health concerns.  Changing to a macrobiotic vegan diet affects social and personal habits. What if you understand all that but like the taste of meat? What if you like the texture of meat? Don’t worry, a solution is at hand.  Food science is on the way to your door with fake ‘meaty stuff’.

Yes, we can make and sell you soya hot-dogs, lunch meats, imitation steaks and pies and burgers. They can taste like beef, chicken or pork. These products are perhaps culturally fun, but they do not address the issues of good nutrition. Soy is difficult to digest, that is why the people of Asia fermented it. We have to use additives, excessive salt and extensive processing to get the ‘meaty’ taste that mimics flesh. All because we love to indulge our senses.

Bill Gates has recently backed a company called Beyond Meat. The young entrepreneur who started the company is busy producing all sorts of fake meat in his factory. He outlined his idea in an interview with Business Insider magazine[6].

“Meat is well understood in terms of its core parts, as well as its architecture. Meat is basically five things: amino acids, lipids, and water, plus some trace minerals and trace carbohydrates. These are all things that are abundant in non-animal sources and in plants.” 

Here we are again in the ‘food as a chemical delivery system’ world. Beyond Meat has manufactured artificial chicken (it tastes just like chicken) and beef in its facilities in Southern California. Ethan Brown, the brains behind the company, has attracted investment from other big shareholders. In addition to Gates and the co-founder of Twitter, the ex-CEO of McDonalds is in the game as an advisor.

I will lose many of my vegan friends here who think that fake meat is the best thing since sliced bread (and we know how that worked out). Fake meat is being marketed as a solution to the ‘meat problem’. But we don’t have a meat problem. We have a human problem. According to Food Research International, manufactured faux meat uses an equal amount of energy to produce as meat products.[7] Bill Gates is a dangerous guide to environmental concerns, given his enthusiastic support of Monsanto’s GMO’s as the way to feed the world.

Fake meat is highly processed, manufactured food. It includes canola oil (which is always chemically processed), soy protein isolate (a commercial waste product that populates many vegan and vegetarian foods) and several common additives. It is not a solution to creating a healthy diet.

 

[1] World Health Organization, Global Health Observatory data

[2] Silent Spring (Penguin Modern Classics), original publication 1962

[3] “Essay on the Biological Sciences” in Good Reading (1958)

[4] The Guardian, September 10, 2013

[5] The Guardian, March 29, 2010

[6] Business Insider, August 15, 2015

[7] Environmental Impact of four meals with different protein sources, Food Research International, Volume 43, Issue 7, August 2010