Paleo eaters need to start grappling with issues of sustainability

ribeye steak
CC BY 2.0 Michael Berch

Promoting a meat-centric diet for health reasons is one thing, but such a diet has planetary repercussions that can no longer be ignored.

The Paleo diet is all the rage within the CrossFit community. For the past two years, since joining the local gym, I’ve heard countless conversations about why we need to eat like our Paleolithic ancestors, ditch the horrible carbohydrates, and eat meat, meat, and more meat. “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you bacon and that’s pretty f***ing close,” a meme posted to the gym’s Facebook page stated.

As someone who eats some meat, I can appreciate the deliciousness of bacon, but I find it extremely difficult to listen to the meat-centric mandate of the paleo diet. What irks me most of all is that there is little to no discussion surrounding the actual sustainability and environmental implications of maintaining such a diet.

Many paleo advocates encourage the consumption of organic pastured meat that is holistically grazed in a way that restores soil fertility and reduces the need for water, pesticides, and grain feed. This kind of meat production is ethically superior to the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that stock most supermarket meat counters.

But the reality is that buying pastured, grass-fed meat is far more expensive than buying CAFO meat, and to maintain the sort of eat-meat-multiple-times-a-day model suggested by the paleo diet would probably push it well beyond the means of normal salaries. I guess that cost is why many paleo eaters continue to buy factory-farmed meat, which, in my opinion, defeats the purpose of pursuing the diet for health reasons, as that meat is loaded with antibiotics, hormones and plumping water and is usually contaminated with feces.

Let’s say everyone could afford to buy pastured meat. There’s not nearly enough to go around for seven billion people, all of whom may wish to improve their personal health by the paleo way. In that case, questions Erica Etelson, who should be first in line for animal protein? “Diabetics? Children? Celiacs? Cancer patients? Seniors? Pregnant women? Traditional hunters?”

In her excellent article titled “Can Seven Billion Humans Go Paleo?,” Etelson, who admits to benefiting greatly from the paleo diet, calls on other diet followers to start paying attention to the bigger picture.

“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.”

In “Stone Soup,” Elizabeth Kolbert suggests that the original paleo diet came to an end precisely because there were no longer enough resources (i.e. large, easy-to-kill prey) to support a growing population.

“There’s certainly no turning back now. In terms of emissions, eating a pound of beef is the equivalent of driving 45 miles. Eating a pound of whole wheat, by contrast, is like driving less than a mile.”

Does the wealthy, privileged, meat-saturated West need to feel a sense of responsibility for the billions of other humans who scrape by daily on lentils and rice? Many would likely say no, and therein lies the huge problem of entitlement and the dangerous sense that whoever can afford it should be allowed as much meat as they want. Sadly the planet doesn’t work that way, especially since global meat production is a major player in climate change.

“Paleos obviously don’t want to bring about ecological collapse, but they ignore the unfolding catastrophe at their own peril,” Etelson writes. It’s time for paleo adherents to start paying closer attention to what bacon at breakfast, steak at lunch, and chicken at supper actually means – and there’s a lot more to it than just ripped abs.

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