Is your green salad really green?
Just because something is plant-based doesn't mean it's necessarily grown in a sustainable manner
Plant-based — a hold-all term we’re being swamped by, for foods not containing animal products — is apparently going to save the world. That much seems to be very firmly lodged in the collective mind of well-to-do urbanites. The divisions of the world into animal, vegetable and mineral is as old as the hills, and is undeniably logical, but when it comes to the current problems with our food production and the possible solutions, these categories aren’t too useful. Why? Because something being plant based per se, in no way responds to the problems. ‘Plant-based’ tells you almost zero about that item’s environmental impact. In fact, the halo around the term is allowing ‘conventional’ industrial crop farming to keep up its destructive game; now cast in the same light as well farmed ‘plant-based’ foods.
Suddenly, we’re less interested in whether the item is grown well, and more concerned that what we’re eating is ‘plant-based’. To choose something on the basis of what it isn’t — in this case the virtue created purely by said item not including animal products — is a curious way to decide that it deserves a halo. Lovely for big business who can now charge more for something that costs them less; terrible for climate change and the environment in general.
Let’s be clear: the production of crops, from wheat and canola oil to almonds and lettuce, in an industrial, centralised manner, is no gift to the world. That ‘plant-based’ per se could be a global solution only makes sense in the urban mind.
A farmer friend calls fields of conventionally farmed crops ‘vegan feedlots’. Indeed, they are. Industrial (and also just plain bad or ignorant) plant-based farming, just like bad meat farming, has thus far managed to destroy millions of hectares of arable land every year. And when it comes to the future of our food, soil destruction is an insurmountable issue. Fossil-fuel based fertilizer, chemical pesticides and ‘conventional’ tilling methods are among the main aspects severely affecting biodiversity, soil, water and GHG emissions, from carbon to nitrous oxide. These things are of course inextricably linked: desertified land speeds up climate change. When land is destroyed, it’s almost for keeps. It takes around 500 years for 2.5cm of topsoil to be created. An estimate from experts is that we have only another 60 years of harvest left, if we keep going with the same agricultural model.
And yes, much industrial crop farming is for livestock in feedlots, which is precisely why those two things should be in same category. The feedlot cattle and the ‘feedlot’ wheat are part of the same reductionist logic upon which our bizarre, short-term-gains food system thrives. Neither of them should be in the same category as holistic, sustainable vegetable, grain or nut farming, of a type which is not chemical dependent, can actually sequester carbon, enriches rather than depletes soil and has far less impact on biodiversity. Is your ‘plant-based’ lunch doing that? Hard to say, right? It’s not the info we’ve been demanding on the labels lately, so we’re all in the dark. Let’s start asking those questions, and perhaps we’ll get a green salad that’s actually green.