Humans love technology.
Innovation is fundamental to who we are and has ensured we have thrived to the point that we now dominate every corner of the globe!
But sometimes we take things too far. We struggle to achieve balance, both as individuals and as a species.
We are now facing some significant health and environmental issues that will be extremely challenging for the creative and innovative ‘wizards’ of our society to innovate their way out of (unless Elon Musk can relocate ten billion people to Mars or put us into orbit like the people in Wall-E until the earth regenerates).
The cautious ‘prophets’ of our society are marching in the streets, calling for a halt to the impact of humans on the environment.
As I write this, we’ve had a couple of weeks of disruption in Brisbane, Australia, as a group called Extinction Rebellion, inspired by Greta Thunberg, found more and more creative ways to shut down peak hour traffic to gain attention for their campaign to be part of a citizens’ assembly in the UK.
It’s a little surreal when people supergluing themselves to the road to disrupt traffic as an act of civil disobedience inspired by a teenage girl on the other side of the world becomes commonplace!
I definitely share the concerns of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion. This party can’t go on forever if we continue to use resources faster than they can be replenished.
The ingenious ‘wizards’ and the cautious ‘prophets’ both have a valuable place in our society. We all need to work together to create a solution.
While we can’t turn back the clock, we need to find a way to manage our resources so there is enough to go around for future generations.
This article is my attempt to contribute to the conversation to enable us to manage our limited resources to empower you to make more informed choices about your nutrition to regenerate yourself, your family and the planet.
Whether animal-based or plant-based, our insatiable quest for energy from food has had a devastating effect on our environment.
Regenerative agriculture is perhaps the most exciting frontier that will bring old and new technologies together to grow our food in a way that regenerates our planet and promotes a diverse, thriving and resilient ecosystem.
I’m excited to see that more people are working to develop new technologies and grow food in a way that rebuilds the environment.
Some of the most fertile lands of the past are now desert due to poor management of topsoil. But concerningly, our modern industrial agricultural practices are burning through this precious resource ten times quicker than we have in the past.
The good news is that we are now coming to understand how we can grow more nutritious food that rebuilds topsoil that is teeming with microbes and full of nutrients.
Not only does this style of farming yield more nutrient-dense food that is good for you, but it is also good for the planet (as well as more profitable due to a reduced input of fertilisers and other chemicals).
Livestock can be used to stimulate the growth of grasses which sequester carbon, improve the environment and reverse desertification.
Use of cover crops between row crops, letting the soil rest, minimising the use of chemicals and synthetic fertilisers and injecting animal waste into the soil all help to bring the soil back to life.
Not all of the earth’s surface is level and able to grow food. There is still a place for animals in areas that are inhabitable and that we cannot farm.
Also, as our population grows, we tend to convert agricultural areas to housing estates. So animals, who can use the less inhabitable areas, may become an even more critical part of our food system.
How did we get here?
To make sure we don’t continue to repeat the mistakes of our past, it’s important to understand how we got here. That is, how did we get to the point that we are threatening our future way of life with our current way of life (not to mention the species that have already gone extinct)?
Access to adequate food has always been critical to our ability to grow and thrive and many of the most ingenious technologies that humans have developed revolve around obtaining food.
Optimal Foraging means we instinctively find easier ways to get food with less effort.
It’s not that we’re lazy. We’re just optimised for efficiency in an environment of scarcity.
Our sense of taste and smell is finely tuned to work with our appetite to identify fresh foods packed with flavour.
Until recently, it was safe to assume that food that tasted good was good for us because it contained the macro and micronutrients that we need. We get a dopamine hit when we consume energy and nutrients to make sure we do it again and again.
According to archaeologists, the earliest humans were scavengers who ate mostly plants and sometimes the remains of animals after larger carnivores had killed them and taken the best bits.
Along with our ability to catch fish near the sea to get omega 3, it is thought that our use of stone tools to access the most nutrient-dense and energy-dense parts of other animals was critical to the development of our bigger brains and drove changes to our digestive tract that became shorter because we did not need to consume as much plant matter.
Around 1.5 million years ago, we learned to control fire. Cooking makes food easier to digest, and we can absorb more energy from it.
We grew stronger, more successful and developed spears that enabled us to hunt more effectively. This technology enabled us to support six to ten million people on the earth before the Agricultural Revolution.
Fast forward to ten thousand years ago, the wizards amongst our hunter-gatherer ancestors domesticated grains and animals to ensure food security.
This ingenious technology enabled a step-change in our population growth. With constant food availability, we could make more babies, and fewer people died of starvation.
People like Michael Eades point to the Egyptian mummies with their signs of heart disease, poor bone structure and dental issues as signs of deteriorating nutrition. However, they still would have used the animals to help fertilise and work the land, which would have been incredibly valuable.
While effluent from concentrated animal feeding operations is a toxic waste today, it’s a valuable resource in a balanced ecosystem. We’re only now coming to understand the value of the microbes and fermentation in the animals’ gut that goes into the soil, then enters the plant before entering our stomach to keep us healthy.
The faeces, urine and saliva from untreated livestock are full of microbes that increase the diversity of the soil’s microbiology. Soil is effectively the plant’s “gut”.
Unfortunately, agriculture becomes sterile and nutrient-poor when we remove the animals from the system. This also has flow-on effects to our gut microbiome.
The wizards that changed our nutrition!
The most significant change in our ability to source energy is one you may not be aware of. That is, our ability to create synthetic fertiliser using the Haber-Bosch process.
As shown in this chart from Our World in Data, without the creation of synthetic fertilisers, rather than seven and a half billion people on the planet, we would have less than four billion!
There are many reasons to celebrate this ingenious invention, including the eradication of mass starvation. On the upside, pretty much everyone living on the planet has benefitted from this technology. But, it has also radically affected the rate that we can impact our environment in our insatiable quest for food.
I’m not sure we can put this magic genie back in the bottle, but I think it’s useful to be aware of how we got here so we can make more informed and better manage the planet’s limited resources. If we learn from the past, we are less likely to continue to make the same mistakes in the future.
Meet the ‘wizards’ that made it possible
Plants use minerals and solar energy to grow. While a healthy plant requires many minerals, nitrogen is typically the limiting nutrient.
Bacteria in the soil convert nitrogen in the air into ammonia (NH3) that is able to be used by plants. But the microbes in the soil don’t work as fast as we would like them to, especially in soil that is depleted of microbes (i.e. due to constant overuse to grow crops and separation from animals).
There is plenty of nitrogen in the air, but the plants can’t use it until it is converted into ammonia!
However, this barrier was smashed in 1908 when German chemist Fritz Harber devised a way to take nitrogen (from the air) and combine it with hydrogen (from methane gas extracted from coal seams under the ground) to create ammonia (NH3) that can be used on crops in soil that is depleted of nitrogen-fixing microbes.
A large amount of land that had previously been made infertile through overuse could now be used to grow crops with the addition of synthetic fertilisers. It also allowed the same land to be used year after year rather than having to leave it to rest, incorporate manure or use cover crops to inject nutrients into the soil. We no longer require microbial health or diversity in our soil to get energy from it.
Then, in 1910 BASF Engineer Carl Bosh devised an ingenious method to create ammonia efficiently at scale.
Both men won separate Nobel prizes for their contributions to science and technology.
The Haber-Bosch process was initially used to create ammonia for explosives in World War I. But, after the Great Depression, World War II and the Vietnam War, food was becoming scarce and expensive. So President Nixon, whose popularity was dwindling, appointed Earl Butz as Secretary of Agriculture with a mandate to “get big or get out”.
They used synthetic fertiliser technology, combined with moderen industrial agricultural practices, large scale use of irrigation and generous agricultural subsidies to achieve food security and political stability (see The Biggest Trends in Nutrition for more details).
We no longer have to worry about not getting enough calories! These ingenious wizards had solved food security fro the foreseeable future! As we can see in the chart below (data from USDA Economic Research Service and the CDC), the energy in the food system went from around 3,200 calories to 4,300 calories per person per day!!!
We now manufacture 200 million metric tons of ammonia fertiliser per year using the Haber-Bosch process which uses roughly one per cent of the world’s extracted fossil fuel!
For a more detailed discussion of the history of the development of synthetic fertilisers and their impact on our nutrition and environment I highly recommend reading Chapter 4 of Charles C Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet.
Unfortunately, not all the nitrogen used as fertiliser is absorbed by plants. Nearly half of it runs off into our rivers and oceans where it boosts the growth of algae, weeds and other aquatic organisms.
Overgrowth in the oceans is draining oxygen which has a diabolical effect on ocean life and creates growing dead zones in our waterways. The total cost of unwanted nitrogen has been estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars per year.
High levels of nitrates in our drinking water are associated with increased cancer, thyroid disease, neural tube defects and other diseases.
Large scale farming practices also cause massive losses in topsoil and reduction of species biodiversity, as every other creature is eradicated using fences and pesticides to protect the crops.
The large scale agriculture that synthetic fertilisers facilitate also enables the separation of animals from the land (e.g. confined animal feeding operations and hen houses).
We developed technologies to grow both plants and animals more efficiently, but this optimisation is not without its ethical, environmental or nutritional costs.
What about methane?
Methane, which is critical to the production of synthetic fertilisers, is a highly potent greenhouse gas, with more than 80 times the climate warming impact of carbon dioxide.
While methane is touted as a cleaner alternative to coal, there are significant amounts of methane leaked from the system at every step of the extraction, distribution and transport chain. Once we account for these losses, methane loses its advantage over coal as a ‘cleaner’ source of energy.
The aerial photo below shows the extraction of natural gas with numerous pumps dotting the landscape.
A recent study from Cornell University, using measurements of methane taken around fertilizer production plants, found they leach 28 gigagrams of methane into the atmosphere per year. This is one hundred times more than reported by the industry’s self-reported estimate and far greater than the EPA’s estimate of 8 gigagrams of methane production for all of the industrial processes in America! It’s not just the use of synthetic fertilisers, but their production that has a MASSIVE environmental impact!
And, while there are a range of predictions on when we will reach ‘peak gas’, it is a limited resource that we will exhaust in the foreseeable future. It is likely that food produced using synthetic fertilisers (that rely on methane to to create ammonia) is about to become more expensive!
Whether or not you’re passionate about the environment, we’re going to be forced to find new ways to grow food with less reliance on synthetic fertilisers in the foreseeable future.
Where this gets even more interesting is when we look at the impacts on our nutrition.
This next chart shows the change in available calories in the food system per person since 1910. The purple line shows the change in total calories available, which has been trending upwards with obesity since 1960.
Since we worked out how to extract oil from soy, corn and rapeseed in 1908, the amount of fat in our diet has steadily risen.
Combined with the large scale farming practices and agricultural subsidies implemented in the 1960s, the availability of calories per person (mainly from fat and carbohydrates) has skyrocketed!
Since the lows of the 1960s, energy availability has increased by around one thousand calories per day per person in the US (with similar trends occurring across the globe).
When do we update our goals?
At what point do we decide that we have solved the food security crisis of the sixties and update our goals to ensure we have adequate resources to support a healthy population for the coming decades?
In hindsight, it would have been nice if we course-corrected in 1976 when the US production of energy per person reached a new high of 3,500 calories per person per day, which was higher than the previous peak of 1928.
Back in 1928, we seemed to have enough food to be healthy and happy, but obesity was rare.
Again, in 1976 (the year I was born), everyone seemed to be well-fed, but obesity was rare.
Today, obesity is no longer rare. America is leading the way, with the rest of the world following close behind.
Imagine the benefits on our ecosystem, our health and our economy if we were all able to eat one thousand calories less per day?
Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible for most of us to eat less because of the way modern foods stimulate our appetite and hunger, whilst also yielding more energy in our bodies due to being so heavily refined and easier to process.
Maybe there are some people who are able to exercise self-restraint and treat these as “sometimes foods”, but these people are becoming the minority as more of our diet consists of heavily processed nutrient-poor coloured and flavoured concoctions.
We are optimised to thrive in an environment of scarcity. We now live in an environment of energy toxicity and can’t turn off our survival instincts.
According to the World Health Organisation, we are facing an epidemic of obesity AND malnutrition at the same time!
The good news is that the number of underweight children is trending down. However, the bad news is that the rate of overweight children is rising at a much steeper rate!
Meanwhile, 22% of children under five (151 million) are stunted due to a lack of micronutrients and 51 million children are classified as ‘wasted’.
While we can use synthetic fertilisers to produce food more cheaply and quickly that comes with its downsides. As demonstrated in the project management triangle below (that ironically looks like a Dorito chip), if you do things more quickly and cheaply you will automatically sacrifice quality.
While nitrogen is no longer a limitation, our food system is declining in a number of other essential micronutrients that are critical for our health, including potassium, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus. We now need to consume a lot more of the commonly available food to get the nutrients we need and our nutrient cravings drive us to keep on eating to get the essential nutrients we need.
While sugar, starch and oil may be the most efficient way to create energy, we also need to consider the nutritional content of our food if health and satiety are at all important.
Although we are often encouraged to reduce our consumption of red meat, dairy and eggs to limit our environmental footprint and create a healthy and ‘sustainable’ diet, the amount of these products consumed has either decreased or gone unchanged.
Given our intake of red meat and eggs has decreased since 1977 when the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was introduced,m it doesn’t appear that these often demonised foods are the smoking gun of the obesity epidemic that they are often claimed to be.
I am astounded and frustrated at how often the nutritional conversation goes no further than eating animals vs eating plants. We need to find ways to do both animal and plant-based agriculture that will regenerate the planet and our bodies!
It’s the added fats and oils along with flours and cereals that have grown in parallel with our obesity epidemic. These heavily processed foods are extremely easy to overeat while providing negligible nutrients (see The Biggest Trends in Nutrition for more details on the change in the micronutrient content of our food system).
Our optimised food lists tend to prioritise seafood rather than beef as a more nutrient-dense source of protein. However, beef can still be an affordable way to get bioavailable protein without excessive calories. If managed well, ruminant animals can be used as part of regenerative agriculture to promote carbon sequestration and utilise areas of land that we can’t grow crops and are inhabitable for humans.
While many are turning to a carnivorous diet, to get the nutrients that they are not getting from the modern food system, the fact is that the more the animals we eat are fed with the products of agriculture, the more they will be subject to the same nutrient deficiencies as us.
Who can we trust for advice?
From what I see on Netflix and my Facebook feed, the conversation about ‘plant-based’ nutrition as the great hope to save us from the perils of our meat-eating ways is getting louder.
I’m all for eating as many nutrient-dense vegetables as you can. Our optimised food lists and optimised recipes are full of nutrient-dense colourful plants! But I don’t think that’s what they have in mind when they say ‘plant-based’.
The EAT Lancet Commission (with Harvard’s Walter Willet at the helm) recently released its recommended diet to save the planet. Astoundingly, it seems that their version of a ‘plant-based diet’ ends up being more of the same foods that have fed the obesity epidemic over the past 50 years.
If I were to design a dietary template based on what I know about nutrient density and satiety that would keep you craving to buy more food, the EAT Lancet ‘plant-based’ recommendations would pretty much be it!
The majority of people probably think that a healthy plant-based diet would look a bit like this. Most people would radically improve their health if they ate more of these foods.
But sadly, the official vision of the plant-based diet to save the world doesn’t stack up that well. Our analysis of the EAT Lancet nutritional recommendations scored very poorly in our analysis (see Should you Eat Lancet for more details).
It was even worse than the average of all the foods in the USDA database.
And much much worse than the most nutrient-dense foods that you could choose!
But then it’s not surprising when you see the sponsors who are behind EAT Lancet, which include fertiliser companies, drug companies, synthetic meat producers, insulin manufacturers, and most of the Big Food companies.
A full breakdown of the areas of interest of the companies pushing the ‘plant-based’ message are shown in the table below (courtesy of Tim Rees).
It’s smart that these businesses want to control the narrative to continue to increase their market share by encouraging a ‘plant-based’ diet (i.e. Big Agriculture with soybeans, corn, and wheat which are grown at scale with synthetic fertilisers with patented synthetic meats).
It’s great for business, just not necessarily for your health or the planet. It seems that the ‘plant-based’ proponents are planning to perpetuate the systems that created the problem that we are now facing.
We need to put the planet on a diet!
Imagine the benefit to the environment, our use of natural resources, transport costs, reduction in packaging, our health and our economy if we could eat 500 – 1000 calories less per day while also improving the quality of our food!
Perhaps we don’t have to go back to 1960s levels, but winding the clock back a little through better resource management would go a long way to ensuring a truly sustainable future!
Unfortunately, we are addicted to the easy energy that is only made possible by synthetic fertilisers and fossil fuels. We can’t stop eating these foods, even once we become obese and diabetic, because they’re engineered to maximise palatability by hitting a number of bliss points at the same time.
How do you break an addiction?
One of the key factors in reversing any addiction is to decrease availability and exposure.
If you’re addicted to alcohol, you need to find a way not to be around it. If you’re trying to give up cigarettes, it doesn’t help if everyone is smoking and offering them to you. If you can’t resist the doughnut or cookies, you need to do whatever you can to remove them from your environment and not see them.
Part of the success of the anti-smoking strategy has been to increase the cost of these products and hide them from view in shops, ban advertising, and communicate the message that smoking is bad for your health, your kids and your friends.
Due to a range of proactive strategies, the number of cigarettes sold has declined since the 1960s. Maybe nutrient-poor hyperpalatable engineered food will come with a health warning and be kept out of sight and treated as a recreational drug in the future?
Interestingly, the time that smoking started to tank was about the time the processed food industry and obesity rates began to take off in the mid-60s. It’s almost as if the people who were managing the cigarette companies bought up the processed food companies to implement the same addiction-based business model in our food system when they saw the writing on the wall for smoking?!?!
Possible action steps
I think the weight of evidence is strongly on the side of the fact that processed foods (that are only made possible by the use of synthetic fertilisers created using fossil fuels) are driving an obesity epidemic that is going to bankrupt our economies.
In the words of Greta Thunberg:
“We are using about 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that in the ground. So we can no longer save the world by playing by the rules. The rules have to be changed.”
But it’s not just oil. Our extraction of natural gas may be an even bigger deal! Proactively managing our extraction of methane to be injected into our food system would have a massive impact on our environment, our food quality and our health.
If there was one dial that you could use to optimise food quality and reverse obesity while also allowing our fragile planet to recover, this would be it.
Perhaps we could consider the following options:
- Progressively wind back the generous subsidies for industrial agriculture that encourage farmers to grow nutrient-devoid crops more quickly and cheaply,
- Introduce a tariff on the production and use of synthetic fertilisers and/or the extraction of the methane used to produce them,
- Use the earnings from the tariffs to subsidise regenerative agricultural practices that can demonstrate that they are successfully sequestering carbon and reversing desertification.
These action steps should be monitored and adjusted so that those who profit more from the new system could not continue to benefit from them forever, similar to the Reserve Bank interest rate that is dialled up and down to encourage investment and economic growth.
These action steps could be progressively adjusted as:
- Obesity and diabetes rates returned to 1960s levels.
- The burden on the health system from diabetes and obesity reduced to affordable and sustainable rates,
- Greenhouse gases start to decline to acceptable levels,
- The levels of nutrients in our soils and crops returned to 1950s levels, and
- Desertification and species extinction caused by both animal and plant-based agriculture returned to the levels of the 1960s.
I’m not holding my breath for these steps to be implemented any time soon. Many of the national governments are heavily influenced by lobbyists, so these incentives would need to come from a G7 or G20 level intervention. But in the meantime, it’s not entirely hopeless.
There are other things that you can do if you have the luxury of choosing what you put in your mouth. We (i.e. you and I who have the means to read this on an electronic device with an internet connection) can take action to choose to eat in a way that helps ourselves and also helps the planet.
Invest in nutrient-dense food
Our analysis suggests that a combination of both plant foods and animal/seafood is optimal to ensure you get the broad range of nutrients we need in our diet (check out our free nutrient-dense food lists and optimised recipes).
Plant-based, animal-based and seafood all contain complementary nutrient profiles. While plant-based foods tend to contain more vitamins and minerals per calorie, animal foods and seafood also have preformed versions of a number of micronutrients that we struggle to convert into a usable form from plant-based foods (e.g. K2 vs K1, A2 versus A1, and DPA and DHA versus ALA).
Rather than limiting your nutritional decision to animals vs plants, choosing the most nutritious foods available enables us to create an optimal nutrient profile that will promote health and satiety so you will eat less, which will be good for the planet and good for you.
Meanwhile processed foods that are a combination of refined flour and seed oils tend to require flavours, colouring, bright packaging and fortification to make up for the fact that they are devoid of nutrients and taste without these synthetic additives.
Maybe it would help if you viewed these foods as little packets of fossil fuel to jam energy straight into your body without any nutrients that would be provided by microbial-rich fertile soil?
Prioritising food that naturally contains the nutrients you require to thrive is a wise investment in your children’s future and the future of the planet. Nutrient-dense foods typically do not rely on synthetic fertilisers to produce, nor do they create a monoculture or desertification in their production.
In the past, we used stone tools and fire to maximise the nutrient density of our diet. Today we can use technology such as the Nutrient Optimiser to identify the foods that contain more of the essential nutrients that we are not getting enough of from our diet.
But if you want to take your nutrient-dense journey to the next level, seek out food that tastes good (without artificial flavours and colourings). Seek out a local farm or go to the markets and get to know the people that grow your food.
Vote with your wallet for food that tastes great, is good for you and your family and will regenerate your local environment. Once more people start seeking out nutrient-dense food grown in a regenerative way, the costs will come down, and it will be accessible to more people.
Yes, it’s complex!
I realise that this is a very complex topic. There are no easy solutions, and there are a lot of additional factors to consider.
We can’t turn back time. But hopefully, we can find new ways to use our limited resources in a way that will regenerate our precious planet.
Be a Regenetarian!
So, what’s a “Regenetarian” anyway?
A Regenetarian is someone who endeavours to eat in a way that regenerates the planet, and humanity, starting with themselves and their family.
I want to be a Regenetarian. Will you join me?