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Can Seven Billion Humans Go Paleo?

Advocates of this meat-rich diet trend need to grapple with its impact on the environment

After decades of obscurity, Paleo is now one of the fastest-growing diet trends. A 2013 survey found that one percent of Americans eat Paleo, which is based on the premise that our diets should be based on animals and plants, the way we ate when we were hunter-gatherers. Bestselling books like Grain Brain have redeemed meat’s nutritional profile and convinced many people that their high-carb diets promote unhealthy levels of brain and gut inflammation. I count myself among the throngs of Paleolistas who have benefited from adhering, more or less, to its principles.

cattle at a feedlotPhoto by David OliverMany paleo advocates recommend eating organic, pastured, holistically grazed animal protein. But there’s simply not enough grazing land on the planet to feed enough livestock to put sustainable meat and eggs in front of all seven billion of us three times a day.

But what happens when Paleo really starts catching on, and millions of ill and overweight people eliminate grains and start eating animal protein with every meal? This leads to questions the Paleo community has yet to address: How many inhabitants of our small planet can regularly eat meat without despoiling the environment? And how do we decide who gets to eat Paleo and who’s stuck with grains and tofu?

Many Paleo advocates and consumers are no doubt aware of the environmental issues associated with factory-farmed livestock and commercial fishing — the enormous quantities of water, fossil fuels and pesticides needed to grow cattle, pig and chicken feed, livestock’s fecal contamination of fresh water, aquatic dead zones caused by pesticide runoff, the depletion and collapse of fisheries, heat-trapping methane emissions from the front and back-ends of farm animals … I could go on.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that global meat production uses one-third of the world’s fresh water and that more than 1.3 billion tons of grain are consumed by farm animals each year. In the Gulf of Mexico, aquatic dead zones from pesticide, fertilizer and manure runoff now total an area the size of Connecticut. Much of the runoff originates on heartland farms that produce corn for cattle feed.

Conventionally grown grains and vegetables are an ecological disaster too, but conventional meat production is substantially more resource-intensive, polluting and wasteful. The United Nations Environmental Programme cites meat production as one of the top three causes of ecological problems and one of the main drivers of climate change.

Many paleo advocates recommend eating organic, pastured, holistically grazed animal protein. Holistic grazing mimics the herd activity of wild animals, grouping the animals together to graze on perennial grasses for strictly controlled periods before rotating them to a new area. Though it has its skeptics, many ranchers have found that holistic grazing restores soil fertility and reduces their use of water, pesticides, and feed grain. Meanwhile, emerging research indicates that holistically grazed grasslands sequester large amounts of carbon, more than negating the warming effect of the animals’ methane emissions.

Paleo guru Robb Wolf, producer of a weekly podcast and several books is, as far I can tell, the only prominent Paleo advocate who talks publicly about the sustainability of the diet. Wolf promotes pastured protein and denounces government grain subsidies that prop up factory-farmed meat. He understands that most Paleo wannabes cannot afford pastured meat and advises them to “do the best that they can.”

Wolf’s stance begs the question: How many people can afford pastured meat, assuming it’s even available at their local grocery store or farmers’ market? And what is the national and global production capacity for this kind of meat? An hour of googling suggests that no one really knows, but my hunch is there’s not enough grazing land on the planet to feed enough livestock to put meat and eggs in front of all seven billion of us three times a day.

And there’s certainly not enough fish. According to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization 53 percent of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, and 32 percent are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion. More to the point, “The global fishing fleet is 2-3 times larger than what the oceans can sustainably support.” Most of the developed world now relies heavily on aquaculture, but farmed fish still requires feed made with wild fish.

For indigenous coastal communities, fish is their dietary and cultural heritage; we are taking it away from them by eating fish unsustainably harvested by commercial fisheries. What a sad irony is transpiring — Paleos are contributing to the destruction of the very way of life that inspired the Paleo diet.

The environmental impact of the Paleo diet has not escaped the notice of climate hawks such as Elizabeth Kolbert, chronicler of the tragic and terrifying mass extinction currently underway (The Sixth Extinction: An Unusual History). She argues in The New Yorker that “paleo’s ‘Let them eat steak’ approach is a [greenhouse gas] disaster.”

Another critic of meat-eating is Nicholas Stern, former World Bank vice-president and author of the widely-respected “Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change” prepared for the British government. He advocates a vegetarian diet as part of a global strategy to prevent runaway climate change.

If there’s not enough animal protein to go around without cooking the planet, who should be first in line? Diabetics? Children? Celiacs? Cancer patients? Seniors? Pregnant women? Traditional hunters? A case could be made for any of these groups but, living in a free-wheeling market economy, there is one and only one basis for determining who gets the goods and that is — whoever can afford it.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I find it troubling to see the Paleo community grow — and evangelize — without discussing these issues. Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet, shares this concern: "Any diet that encourages high levels of meat consumption without acknowledging the reality of American meat production is irresponsible. Nearly all of the meat we find in supermarkets and restaurants in the United States today comes from industrial operations and, especially when it comes to beef, is the most energy-intensive, water-intensive, greenhouse gas-intensive way to put protein on your plate."

Paleo dieters are in it for their health… fair enough. But it’s critical to understand that human health is inextricably bound to the health of Earth’s ecosystems. Humans are but one link in the web of life, and that web is being polluted and stretched to the breaking point.

If Paleos want to eat a lot of meat and fish, I’d like to see them get engaged in figuring out how to sustainably produce it. Wolf, to his credit, serves on the board of the Savory Institute, a research and training center for ranchers wishing to transition to holistic management. The next edition of his cookbook will encourage consumers to choose fish that are lower on the food chain and, when I suggested he plug Seafood Watch, he promised to consider it.

Wolf incorporates sustainability issues into his talks but says his audience generally doesn’t want to hear it. “The vast majority want to know about protein, carbs and fat, so they can have abs and fit into their skinny jeans,” Wolf laments. He says that Paleo thought leaders tend to steer clear of the sustainability issue because it negatively impacts book sales. “It’s a buzzkill,” says Wolf.

Which brings me to Lierre Keith, author of The Vegetarian Myth, an important albeit uber-doomy book that gives new meaning to the word “buzzkill.” Keith, a vegan-turned-omnivore, argues that choosing a plant-based diet out of concern for the environment is a tragically misinformed choice based on ignorance of the critical role predators and farm animals play in the food web.

Keith is the first to admit that there’s not enough land to graze enough animals to feed everyone and adamantly calls for population control, a radical agrarian overhaul and the dismantling of patriarchy as the only hope for human survival. Like Wolf, she believes that livestock, properly managed, are essential for restoring topsoil that has been ruined by millennia of plowing and planting vegetables, grains and legumes. And the only way we can arrange to have animals stamping their organic manure into the earth is if we pay ranchers to raise and slaughter those animals for meat. Which brings us back full circle: Our food can and must be produced in ways that restore degraded ecosystems, but there isn’t enough of this kind of food, nor is there any large-scale movement in this direction.

Paleo’s sustainability contradictions aren’t limited to meat. Palm oil is a Paleo pantry staple. A while back, I sent an email to the Weston A. Price Foundation (WPF) criticizing their promotion of palm oil. (WPF doesn’t consider itself Paleo, but its nutritional advice is heavy on animal protein and palm oil). WPF President Sally Fallon Morell fired back a curt reply, referring me to the “Coconut Information Center”.  This website claims that the soy industry has duped environmental groups into believing that palm oil plantations are destroying rainforests when, in reality, the palm industry plays a “protective” role. As EIJ readers are aware, palm plantations spur deforestation just as surely as ruminants belch, but these are inconvenient truths for people with a myopic view of human health.

Paleos obviously don’t want to bring about ecological collapse, but they ignore the unfolding catastrophe at their own peril. Wolf says Paleos are slowly embracing the notion of sustainability and that he gets less pushback now than he did five years ago, but the community is still a long ways from seriously grappling with the unintended consequences of their diet. They should pull their heads out of the sand and start discussing these issues pronto. With so many great minds no longer addled by carbohydrates, they may hit upon some solutions.

Research assistance for this article was provided by Christopher Cook, author of Diet for a Dead Planet.


Erica Etelson
Erica Etelson is a Berkeley-based community activist and journalist.

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I agree with you on many points, but wanted to add some other considerations (with some meandering, I will caution):

The first is that the intake of an excess amount of protein (more than half a gram of protein per pound of lean muscle mass per day) is pro-inflammatory in most cases.

Early Paleo or Low-Carb proponents advocated around up to twice that amount of protein (and most “successful” body builders today presumably go beyond that), but newer scientific evidence has caused many to rethink the notion that high amounts of protein are not only good, but required.

We’re not hyper-carnivores like lions. It’s not like all we ate back in our hunting & gathering days was just pure muscle meat either. Preference was given to organs and bones, which were highly nutritious and, to so-called cavemen(a), probably delicious. Exactly the nourishment that apparently not only kept us going, but helped us kick ass to get us through the toughest of times.

(a) Don’t we spend more time in “caves” today than our ancestors did 20,000 years ago?

So the “updated” protocols that I’ve seen some of the leading experts in the Paleo realm actually call for is basically about achieving a macronutrient intake profile consisting of moderate amounts of protein, low amounts of carbohydrates, and a high percentage of calories from healthy fats.

The other important concept is (intermittent) fasting.
Whether that means skipping protein for a day, or eating nothing at all for more than a day, with or without water. From a biological point of view, the human species is perfectly capable of enduring these kinds of stressors on a regular basis, an ability that was essential to our survival.
Besides survival benefits, growing evidence also suggests that our genetic response to fasting - done in the right context(b), and with acceptable frequency, of course - likely leads to physical outcomes that are not necessarily intuitive: higher life expectancy(c), generally boosting characteristics like being healthier, leaner, fitter etc.

(b) This applies mostly to those not routinely taking in high amounts of carbs multiple times a day and/or living a mostly sedentary lifestyle

(c) “higher” meaning “high quality of life for the longest possible time, which also happens to be considerably longer than today’s averages”. We’re not talking about purely prolonging the process of wasting away in a state of suffering that gets progressively worse . As you might have heard on Mark’s Daily Apple, “Drop dead healthy!” Perhaps not coincidentally, this is also the title of an interesting sounding book by A.J. Jacobs.

My final point is that, if you believe in nutritional concepts that are largely based on observations found in evolutionary biology, the caveat being that there is only little in the way of experimental trials (which does not automatically invalidate the hypothesis, however), the human body actually “prefers” to derive its energy from fat and ketones(d), and does so more efficiently than running on mostly glucose from consuming sugar and carbs throughout the day. Fat and ketones burn cleaner (low inflammation) and give you a higher energy milage, so to speak.
Our over-reliance on grains and sugar, and the fact that glucose is burned less efficiently, ultimately compels us to eat again every few hours, resulting in an overall higher intake of calories to keep this process going.

(d) If “trained” correctly, the body has the capacity to store and access fat, as well as manufacture ketone bodies in the absence of glucose.

A hunter-gatherer lifestyle is probably not best recreated through the consumption of a pound of beef every day - that’d be bad for you if done too often. But Paleo eating doesn’t even have to mean a pound of beef per week. You could go without any beef at all, of course, as humans around the globe have adapted to the ingestion of a wide variety of animals (including bugs) and plants… or nothing at all, for longer periods of time.

I don’t know if it’s possible or how it would all play out if Paleo (or similar eating habits) were to become a global thing, but at least for developed nations, I do see how it could be a sustainable way of eating.

Let’s say I was forced to live in poverty and had to choose between two meal plans that cost the same and were equally easy to access: One meal plan representing a Paleo diet, relatively restrictive in calories(e) versus a grain-based diet that lets me eat twice a day to at least a reasonable level of satiety and has a carbon footprint equivalent to the aforementioned way of eating, I would take the Paleo route without hesitation.

(e) I.e., can’t afford to eat more than 1 meal every other day. Maybe that’s just enough to not be in a constant state of autophagy, with the possibility of occasionally feeling hungry for prolonged periods. This would probably only go well with food and processing methods that keep it or make it highly nutritious and as health-promoting- as possible. Ideally I have the option to take supplemental nutrients that make up for any nutritional shortcomings in the food itself

By ChrisW on Thu, November 03, 2016 at 7:44 pm

I have responded to Chris Clarke’s anti-Savory article here:

By Sheldon Frith on Thu, December 17, 2015 at 3:00 pm

Good discussion considering some of the multiple dynamics involved even when just trying to evaluate one issue. All the ideas have merit (even the Pollan quote though he is an advocate). Too bad our organized societal structures (government & industry) were not objective as opposed to also being advocates. We could use some straight science on these issues & questions.

By J Michael Hayes on Sat, February 28, 2015 at 11:20 am

“A plant-based diet is the most sustainable.” Michael Pollan, author

There is one single industry destroying the planet more than any other. But no one wants to talk about it…

Join the revolution!

By JFC on Sat, February 28, 2015 at 8:56 am

Lorna -

I have feeling that you may take offense at this, but humans are just another animal.
I would absolutely give people aid in the form of birth control before handing out food.
A population that would naturally be dying out or reducing in numbers due to lack of resources will just continue to grow if food is artificially introduced from outside. To maintain that growing population, still more food will need to be supplied.

I 100% agree with you that women in developing countries need access to contraception and education around family planning and birth control.

This does not change the fact that human overpopulation is a growing problem (pun intended) that is largely swept under the rug.

It appears to be considered a taboo or at least a sensitive topic that is not politically correct to raise, and is not dealt with as it should be.

Pretending that a problem does not exist because it is “sensitive” or non-pc isn’t going to fix anything.

By HC on Tue, February 10, 2015 at 8:52 am

HC - there are well over 200 million women in the developing world alone who aren’t able to access contraception. To suggest they “believe that it is their fundamental right to continue to breed like bacteria in a petri dish” is to be blind to their plight. Frequently these women bear their first child in their early teens - and have absolutely no say in the matter.
There is a strong correlation between female education and lower levels birthrates. Maybe if you are concerned about population growth, you could consider donating time or money to one of the many charities that is working to improve womens’ education and human rights.

By Lorna on Mon, February 09, 2015 at 1:41 pm

At the root of all it - climate change, factory farming, all of environmental impact and sustainability issues - is human overpopulation, which occasionally might get a passing mention.

The bottom line is that we need to control our population.
7 billion people is too many. And unfortunately that number just continues to grow.

People like to believe that it is their fundamental right to continue to breed like bacteria in a petri dish without consideration for the consequences and the impact on the planet and other life on the planet, but at some point that is going to have to change.

Either we take responsibility and reduce our birth rate to less than our death rate and gradually reduce the human population to a sustainable level, or at some point there is going to be a major crash as the destruction we are wreaking on biodiversity and our environment reaches a tipping point.

Sadly we are on track for the crash as people just dont want to face the truth, and that tipping point may quietly already have been passed.

By HC on Mon, February 09, 2015 at 3:55 am

If suburban paleos really want their pork, why not raise pigs on their lawns?
Here in Australia, suburban chickens have long been popular - and is becoming increasingly so among middle-class professionals.
It seems to me that raising pigs would similarly work well on a small suburban space - especially as pigs aren’t fussy eaters.
Still - I do wonder if the sheer quantities of meat advocated by paleo diets are healthy. Red meat consumption is well-correlated with cancer rates.

By Lorna on Sun, February 08, 2015 at 8:04 pm

A minor quibble with a fine article:

The Savory Institute may have as its constituency “ranchers wishing to transition to holistic management,” but that’s not what the Institute espouses. I wrote about Savory here:

By Chris Clarke on Thu, February 05, 2015 at 4:21 pm

The author makes excellent point throughout this article. However she’s mostly looking at fossil-fuel powered, grain-centric animal husbandry.

One of the central tenets of paleo revolves around eating a diet that is as close to what we evolved eating.

Well, cows (Auroch, really, but that’s another story for another day), didn’t evolve eating grains any more than we did, which is to say, hardly at all. They eat grass.

But pasture-centric animal practices actually builds soil, sequesters carbon, reduces greenhouse gasses, and can be done with far less petroleum input (possibly zero, if meat distribution is localized).

The problem is the solution. We need to be examining the work of people like Alan Savory, Joel Salatin, Sepp Holzer, and Geoff Lawton.

Permaculture offers the answers to our most pressing problems, we simply need to embrace it on a large scale. The market will make that happen—as energy price volatility destroys its own market capacity, food will be cheaper to produce via permaculture, and permaculturists will have a significant market advantage.

By Luke J. Terry on Tue, February 03, 2015 at 7:45 pm

As both an environmentalist and a Paleo advocate, I greatly appreciate the points that you make here. I spent 7 years being a vegetarian, as to keep my diet in line with my eco-friendly morals. I switched, however, to a Paleo diet during my time in the Peace Corps and I instantly saw many changes in my health, mood, and wellbeing. But then I had to ask myself, “What about the planet?”

One thing that I believe a lot of Paleo/primal followers do wrong is loading up on the meat. The work of Dave Asprey and The Bullet Proof Diet touches on the issues of eating too much meat, but he approaches it from a health stand point. I think of it from a practical stand point:

If armed with nothing but a spear, standing in a field of kale, you have a rabbit before you, ready to run. How good are your chances of killing the rabbit? Pretty shitty. That kale, however, is an easy target. Animals move. Plants don’t. If we are going to adopt a hunter-gather diet, we should recognize that our ancestors likely gathered a hell of a lot more than they hunted.

I eat great locally sourced meat, but I eat it alongside a handful of nuts and a massive green salad. A diet that I feel helps my body without wrecking the planet.

By Tyler Lloyd on Tue, February 03, 2015 at 8:05 am

Peter Ballerstedt has totally researched this and reaches a different conclusion.  For the sake of accuracy as opposed to alarmism, it might be nice if he were to be contacted or respond.

By J Michael Hayes on Tue, February 03, 2015 at 7:21 am

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