I admit, my inner teenager gets a kick out of eating and writing about ‘paleo’ dieting. It feels rebellious - a tiny paper cut in the arm of a society built to be alienating and disingenuous. Our culture is sick, and agriculture, and the cultivation of grains, specifically, had a lot to do with creating that illness, so abjuring those grains feels almost like a political statement. A tiny, smugly satisfied and overly self-righteous pop-punk protest.
But grains are more than just the relics of a change in food production that revolutionized human society: without grains, our society could not exist.
Consider the coming food crisis. As Alan Weisman spends much of his book “Countdown” detailing, the growing human population is requiring more and more food to feed it, and the best hope for our multitudes is continuing to increase our yields from grains. Grains provide more calories from less land than any most other agricultural products (with one important exception, noted below), which is why not only are grains fed to human populations, they’re fed to domestic animal populations who clearly didn’t evolve to eat them. And even with those dense caloric yields, Weisman estimates that in order to meet the caloric requirements of the 9 or 10 billion people that experts believe our population is headed for, we’re going to have to increase the yield from grains by as much as 70%.
So it’s not surprising that people are coming to the conclusion that the world could not eat a paleo diet unless billions of people died, as Nathanael Johnson points out in an article for grist.com. The real threat to our species from our agricultural society isn’t just the unhealthy foods that it has normalized - it’s the increase in population that agriculture allowed and incentivized. This made sense to me when I first read it, but I was a little disappointed that Johnson didn’t seem to have done any math on the issue, so I decided to go a little deeper.
The Problem of Meat
The reason that the paleo diet can’t be realistically applied on a wide scale is meat. The meat-heaviness of the diet requires a lot of land to support it. And the large scale production of beef, in particular, is bad for the planet - it contributes to global warming.
A ‘true’ paleo diet would mean hunting and gathering. Estimates for how much land it takes to support one person hunting and gathering are going to be very dependent on the local ecology, but I’ve heard one square mile per person. There are only 57.1 million square miles of land on the planet, and much of that is uninhabitable desert or frozen tundra. So, the earth could only support maybe 20 or 30 million people on a ‘true’ paleo diet. But nobody is arguing for supporting our societies solely by hunting and gathering - we would need to kill off more than 99% of the human population to make it feasible. The real question is whether we can use agriculture to simulate a more natural diet.
So let’s pull some numbers in. Here’s an estimate of how many calories various agricultural pursuits produce:
Feeding the World
by Jackson Lay
August 25, 2014
Potatoes, the wave of the future? Just keep an eye out for blights...
Do we have a moral responsibility to eat in a manner that would work for the world if everyone followed it?
Other vegetables don’t take up that much space, but they don’t produce very many calories either, so we’ll leave them out for the moment. Let’s estimate that an average person needs 2400 calories per day, or 876,000 calories per year.
Now we can see the huge surplus that agriculture produces, especially when we’re farming grains. An acre of land growing wheat can feed 7 people. Growing corn, it can feed 14 people.
But that’s if we only ate wheat or corn. Realistically, how much land does it take to feed someone a balanced diet?
Note that even vegetarian diets end up requiring a decent amount of land, because, as you may have noted, all sources of protein require a lot of land. An acre of soybeans produces only 2.1 million calories per year, which is lower than the yield for pig farmers.
In 2011, there were about 3.45 billion acres of agricultural land being worked worldwide. That’s enough land to feed about 5 billion people on a healthy vegetarian diet, 3.5 billion people on a standard american diet, or a little under 2 billion people on a paleo-style diet. But there are more than 5 billion people on the planet today - so how are they getting fed?
Unhealthily, that’s how. Most get most of their calories from grains and little from lesser-producing vegetables. And most of them don’t get very much meat. According to the FAO, the average american eats 120 kg of meat per year on average. Compare that number to China, where average consumption is about 58 kg per year, or India, where the number is an absurdly low 4.4 kg per year.
What does this show? It shows that the paleo diet isn’t the only modern diet that couldn’t be applied worldwide. We couldn’t feed the world on a standard american diet. We couldn’t even feed the world on a healthy vegetarian diet.
Is there any hope? Any hope at all???
On a macro level, these numbers seem to suggest that we should just give up. The only way to feed our population is to feed them unhealthily. Any individual choosing a diet that’s healthy is choosing a diet that’s going to be bad for the world and unsustainable if followed worldwide.
Now, there’s more potentially out there that we could put to the plow. The FAO estimates that there are 10.2 billion acres of potentially arable land in the world, which is theoretically more than enough to feed 9 billion people on even a wasteful American-style diet. But the land that isn’t currently being farmed isn’t being farmed for a reason: either it’s covered by forests, or else the soil is not particularly good for agriculture. The Amazonian rain forests alone account for 5.5 million square kilometers, or about 1.4 billion acres - should we plow them all down to grow more corn? That’s the direction we’re headed.
What about reducing population growth? We might not be able to feed the world a completely healthy diet as it stands, and we might have to cut down some of the rain forests, but we can at least keep things from getting worse. We’re not going to stop people from having sex, and getting people to wait until marriage isn’t going to help much (think of how fast Catholic couples multiply), but reducing birth rates really isn’t rocket science: it requires education, access to birth control, and empowering women in poor areas. If we can muster the international will to do so, we can ease the burden on the planet and make the coming catastrophe a little less tragic. Of course, in reducing population growth, we're also limiting economic growth, which causes its own problems. Think of all of the hand-wringing going on in any every country where the birth rate has fallen below the replacement rate. Since our capitalist economies are dependent on continuing growth, the less we grow by increasing our population, the more the economy will have to grow by other means or risk collapse.
So are they right about the paleo diet?
If your goal is a world where everyone can eat a strict paleo diet, then yes, they’re right, and you’re dreaming. I’m sure the numbers I’ve used in my calculations are off in more directions than one, but the general thrust is pretty clear: we can’t farm enough meat for the world to eat a meat-heavy diet.
But the paleo diet doesn’t have to be a strict, prescriptive diet; it doesn't have to be an ideology. It can (and should) be a mode of criticism. Instead of insisting that it’s only healthy to eat wild vegetables and game, we can apply paleo principles like eating locally, avoiding processed foods, choosing potatoes over grains, and eating less sugar and salt. We don’t know what paleolithic people ate, but we know they didn’t have coca-cola trees, so we can avoid sodas. We can even apply paleo principles to the eating of grains: we can favor locally baked, additive-free whole grain breads over processed wonder breads trucked in from halfway across the country.
It’s true that the paleo diet will not be a valid option for everyone because it’s expensive, and always will be. Meat is expensive, and high quality, unprocessed and healthily farmed meat is even more expensive. That’s another reason we should have sympathy for people who can’t follow the paleo diet - a lot of people simply couldn't afford to. It’s much cheaper to eat the grains and processed foods clogging our grocery stores. This is why paleo dieting and gluten-free snobbery have become so easily lampoonable as affectations of the yuppie upper-middle to upper classes. This is going to be a common refrain in the modern world, as healthcare costs rise and wealth inequality spreads us further and further apart: simply, it costs more to be healthy in our world. So, rich people will be healthier than poor people. Not just because they have better access to health care, but because they can afford more nutritious food.
But who is to blame for this? The wealthy person spending more money on his or her own health is only blameworthy to the extent that their own health makes things worse for the poor - which is true in this case to the extent that meat-based diets contribute to global warming, at least, which like all crises will affect the least well off the most. That might mean that we should reduce our beef consumption, which makes a paleo diet harder to follow, but it also means we should eat locally and organically whenever possible, principles that mesh just fine with a paleo diet. But in other ways, supporting paleo principles if you can afford it may help others. If it creates more demand for healthier foods, it may incentivize more production of healthy foods and potentially lower the prices some.
The Grist of Things
This is all generally maddening, because it’s no individual’s fault that the human race is so overpopulated. In fact, we’ve been able to overpopulate the earth precisely because of the agricultural revolution. It’s a classic rope-a-dope.
As Johnson puts it in his Grist article: “[w]e’re now in the unfortunate position of choosing the lesser of disasters. And when things look bleak, the idea of pressing the reset button is enthralling. When I was younger I was always hoping for radical revolution, but the more I learned about history the more disappointed I became in revolutions. When you wipe the slate clean and kick out the bastards, a new set of bastards always take over. The deep structural problems that were there from the beginning always reemerge.”
He’s absolutely right about that. A paleo diet couldn’t cure the world on its own, and wouldn’t even if it was possible. And he’s also right on when he says, in his conclusion, “[t]here’s a lot of good coming from the paleo movement… but watch out for the ideology that often goes with paleo purists - the assumption that the only way forward is to find our way back to Eden.”
But he’s wrong as well: he’s wrong in thinking that the paleo diet is about finding a “static vision of the past.” True, there are paleo snobs out there, but the paleo diet, and Atavism generally, aren’t about going back in time: they’re about applying lessons of the past to our current situation, and not assuming that every change from our evolved state has been positive. And he’s wrong when he writes that “[I]f we really care about human health, and the health of the earth, we need to focus on inequality and poverty. Paleo is just a trendy distraction.”
Trying to find healthy ways to eat is not going to save the world on its own, but we’re also not going to save the world without addressing the human diet. Our diet affects our interactions with the world on every level: it’s all bound up together. I don’t want to sound too negative about Johnson: his article is generally well-written and he seems like a smart writer and a nice guy. I just hope that he doesn’t inspire people to disregard the paleo diet a hundred percent. You don’t have to go completely gluten free to apply the lessons of evolution: even choosing mashed potatoes over rice pilaf the next time you’re at a restaurant is a step in the right direction. A small step, and maybe totally inadequate in light of the massive changes that would need to be made to our society if we really want to change things, but a step in the right direction nonetheless.