The Call, Column 45 – Decision 2016: A Report Card on Environmental Advocacy

24 04 2016

(April 24, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Decision 2016: A Report Card on Environmental Advocacy

Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”

~Wendell Berry~

            You can probably tell, if you’ve read my column, that I have a deep concern for the political issues involving the health of our environment, the development of our renewable energy supply, and the sustainability of our agriculture. It’s no secret that these are the issues that I use in deciding for whom to cast my vote.

As I’ve made pretty clear in the past, I believe those three topics to be of the absolute greatest importance to human beings, present and future, and our continued comfortable existence on Earth. We all require food in order not to die, and it is wise to produce (and politically, encourage the production of) that food by means that don’t destroy our ability to do so in the process. We all require energy to heat our homes, power our transportation, and create and share information, and it is in our best interest to invest in renewable, alterative sources, rather than be reliant on fossil fuels doomed to run out in the very near future. And we are all utterly dependent on the Earth’s environment, with our fates as individuals and, even greater, as a species tied intimately to its health – so it might be wise for our governments to prevent localized pollution, and work to stop human-caused climate change while we still can.

Today, we’ll discuss each of the five 2016 presidential candidates – Senator Bernie Sanders, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Former Governor John Kasich, Senator Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump – and their stances on the above issues. I’ll draw from their official campaign websites, along with their voting and opinion records as recorded at OnTheIssues.org, and give them each a grade for their overall advocacy in issues of the environment, energy, and agriculture.

Let’s begin with the Democrats, who are neck and neck in a race that has increasingly become a cage match between bold, anti-political progressivism and politically-expedient moderateness. Both Senator Sanders and Former Secretary Clinton have sections on their websites dedicated to climate change and the related policy, and are in fact the only two of the five candidates who do so, despite climate change being a present and immediate threat to our species’ wellbeing.

Senator Bernie Sanders has a long, proven record on environmental, energy, and agricultural policy, receiving a score of 90% from the League of Conservation Voters. His website includes strong language about the threat of human-caused climate change and its root causes, both direct (fossil fuels) and indirect (the economic drivers that motivate their use). It also includes sections against localized pollution, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of natural gas, and the related infrastructure, and support for small farms and rural agricultural communities. His voting record is pristine when it comes to these issues. He has consistently supported US and international climate change legislation, the adoption of renewable energies to supplant fossil fuels, regulations on localized pollution, GMO labeling, public transportation, and the protection of natural ecosystems; he has consistently opposed offshore and ANWR drilling, unsustainable agricultural practices, and subsidy programs that choke out small farmers.

Bernie Sanders get an A.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton often aligns with the Democratic Party’s views on political issues, including environmental ones, and received a score of 89% from the League of Conservation Voters. Like other areas of her campaign, she has similar language as Senator Sanders on her website, including detailed pages on climate change and energy reform as well as the preservation of small-scale agriculture and rural communities. Her voting record reflects support for climate change legislation, renewable energies, and more sustainability considerations in the transportation industry, and opposition to ANWR drilling, and she has only recently made these issues important parts of her platform. She is lukewarm on nuclear power, and was indifferent-to-supportive of the Keystone natural gas pipeline prior to this campaign. Her campaign has also indirectly benefitted from contributions by the oil and gas industries.

Hillary Clinton gets a B.

And now, for the Republican candidates. Historically, the environment has not been a topic of discussion or debate within Republican primaries, while energy has been, only insofar as our supply is a national security concern (which is one important part of the discussion). This election cycle is different, with climate change coming up during a debate in March. Three of the four candidates at the time – Senator Rubio, Mr. Trump, and Senator Cruz – denied both the fact of human-caused climate change and the value in taking legislative action to mitigate its effects, while Former Governor Kasich took an approach relatively more aligned with the science, accepting the truth of climate change and a certain level of human responsibility for it, and advocating for moderate energy policy. Let’s start with him.

Former Governor John Kasich is the Republican candidate with the highest level of support for pro-environmental action, though his website does not include a section on any of the relevant topics. As mentioned above, he accepts the fact of human-caused climate change and has used his gubernatorial and (in the past) legislative power to affect some change towards greater sustainability, a stance which deviates greatly from his party’s belief. In some cases, he has opposed climate change remediation and renewable energy legislation; in others, he has supported such laws when they make provisions for economic growth. However, he voted against the Kyoto Protocol in 2000.

John Kasich gets a D, with bonus points for being a dissenter.

Senator Ted Cruz does not dedicate a page on his website to any issue related to the environment, agriculture, or energy. He has repeatedly denied the fact of human-caused climate change, instead perpetuating untrue arguments in an attempt to discredit climate science and comparing environmentalism to a religion. He has taken contributions from the fossil fuel industry, which are reflected in his voting record. He has consistently opposed legislative action on climate change, the promotion of renewable energies, and the protection of natural environments, and instead supported pro-fossil-fuel legislation and offshore drilling.

Ted Cruz gets an F, and I’m being generous.

Mr. Donald Trump also doesn’t dedicate any space on his website for issues related to the environment, agriculture, or energy, instead focusing on the important issues of the needlessness of political correctness and the absolute necessity of a border wall. He does not have legislative or other political history to draw from, but has consistently used harsh language (i.e. “hoax”, “con job”, and profanities) to deny the fact of human-caused climate change and other basic tenets of environmental science. He has made negative and factually incorrect statements about renewable energies, animal welfare, and environmental regulations, and supports the complete disbanding of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Donald Trump also gets an F, for not handing in the assignment.

We stand at a cusp in human history, where our action – or continued inaction – on climate change and other environmental issues will decide the fate of humanity. Problems of environmental health, sustainable agriculture, and a renewable, stable energy supply are some of the most important that we face as a nation, a species, and a planet, and we must choose our leaders based on how well they are poised to solve them. Rhode Island’s 2016 Presidential Primary is on Tuesday, April 26th, and I urge you to get out and vote for a better future.

And now that this column is done, I guess it’s time to go put that sign up on my lawn.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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The Call, Column 44 – “For Your Health, the Environment, and the Animals”

10 04 2016

(April 10, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“For Your Health, the Environment, and the Animals”

            Today, we’re going to discuss a topic that I’ve given a lot of thought to in the past year: the nutritional, ecological, and ethical arguments in favor of eating animals.

First, here’s a little background. As some of you know, or may have guessed, I follow a dietary framework called the Paleo Diet, which enthusiastically involves moderate levels of animal consumption. I’ll talk about it more in the future, but needless to say, this has ironically led me to the dark corners of the internet, where the arguments against any and all consumption of animal products are given a pretty elevated platform.

To start, I have the utmost respect for the pure form of ethical vegetarianism and veganism, which is based on an objection to factory farmed animal products. A distinction has to be made between advocates of “animal welfare” – the goal of producing the highest quality of life for our animals – and those of “animal rights” – extending human rights (to life, freedom, etc) to animals, a goal that is inherently hostile to any form of animal agriculture. I have friends and family in the first group, who abstain from animal products as a hugely effective way to protest factory farming.

Not only am I not writing this to question their beliefs, but it is actually more in line with their central goal than opposed. Rather, it’s written in response to those perpetuating the ridiculous and offensively-named “animal rights abolitionism” – the use of government regulation to stop other people from utilizing animals for any purpose, including as pets – and somehow tying it to the largely unscientific environmental and human health arguments against animal consumption.

I don’t care that they believe this – that’s their own prerogative. But this “Triumvirate” of arguments is presented to the public as self-evident fact, and inflammatory opinion-piece films are made to disseminate it. Their false dogma is squarely wrong, but has somehow become the official position of polite society. And I want to do my part to combat that.

For Human Health

            Everyone agrees that non-starchy vegetables and lower-sugar fruits should make up a significant part of our daily calories. Specific numbers don’t matter much, but together with healthy plant fats, that leaves maybe 40 or 50% of caloric needs unaccounted for. We have to get that from some mix of animal foods (meat, milk, eggs) and plant foods (grains and legumes). The Triumvirate would have you believe that this should come mostly from the nutrient-poor sugars in grains and legumes (and low-fat dairy). The best science increasingly says the opposite.

In case you haven’t heard, dietary cholesterol has been exonerated as a cause for heart disease. Cholesterol is a necessary nutrient for brain function, hormone production, and the creation of new cells, which is why our livers synthesize so much of it. But, because we are well-adapted to eating animals, they happily produce less when it can be obtained from our diet; this means that consumption of cholesterol generally has no effect on blood cholesterol levels.

It isn’t even cholesterol that clogs arteries, but damaged lipoproteins (“oxidized LDL cholesterol”) which actually truck cholesterol around our bodies to where it is needed. The net effect of animal fats is to slightly raise LDL levels but actually protect them from becoming damaged/oxidized, while the net effect of concentrated sugars and starches is to accelerate the damage! Together, the nutrient-shaming of cholesterol and saturated fat are the basis upon which the Triumvirate argues against animal consumption; thankfully, that foundation has been destroyed by actual science, and the recommendations are slowly changing.

What’s more, we are “obligate omnivores” – there are nutrients that our bodies require in order to function properly, whose only or most practical source is plants (for some of them), and animals (for others). The required nutrients from animal products include Vitamins B12, K2, D, and preformed A, heme iron, zinc, and other minerals, appropriate forms of omega 3 fats, and complete protein (read more about this on The Paleo Mom’s site, http://tinyurl.com/hevowep).

Indeed, our species has eaten significant amounts of animal products for at least 2.6 million years (about 50% of calories prior to the dawn of agriculture), and have never suffered chronic diseases like the past five decades, which has been coupled with a decrease in overall consumption. As I’ve argued extensively in the recent past, the scientific basis of anti-meat nutritional recommendations is so shaky, it isn’t worth denying our own biology. Animal products are not only not bad for us, but necessary for human health.

Strike one.

For the Environment

            My analysis of this shouldn’t surprise you. Industrial animal agriculture is bad for the environment. But so is industrial plant agriculture. In fact, this is so because animal agriculture unnecessarily relies on resource-intensive monocultures of grains and legumes.

Industrial agriculture is bad for the environment. It uses a lot of fresh water, consumes a lot of energy, releases a lot of greenhouse gases, and causes a lot of localized pollution. But this isn’t inherent to animal agriculture, or plant agriculture for that matter. And that is where the advocacy community loses some of us holistic, systems-minded folks.

People need to eat. And there are a lot of us. Therefore, we must do agriculture. But we also need a properly-functioning planet to live on. So a major challenge of the 21st century is to find ways to do agriculture well, that are also good for the planet. Enter: Regenerative Agriculture.

Without going into too much detail, independent scientists and agriculturalists have constructed a toolbox of agricultural methods, collectively called “Regenerative Agriculture”, which rival the efficiencies of industrial agriculture but do so in ways that actually help the environment. Taking cues from nature – which is full of pastures, forests, and animals, but curiously not grain monocultures – pioneers like Allan Savory, Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, and many ambitious farmers have formulated three important agricultural practices: non-intensive plant agriculture and permaculture (topics for future discussion), and today’s highlight, rotationally-grazed livestock.

Grass-eating animals (ruminants) are essential for the health of the environment. And by feeding them only grass, and grazing them on pastures in patterns that mimic those of wild ruminants, we can create a system that requires very little water, produces no pollution and a gain in soil fertility, and actually has a net effect of pulling greenhouse gases out of the air! Industrial agriculture is a problem, but animal agriculture done this way is the solution.

Strike two.

And for the Animals

            Considering that humans are obligate omnivores (since science generally shouldn’t be discarded in favor of ideology), we have three options to supply those required foods: hunting/fishing, animal agriculture, and artificial meat production.

It is resource intensive to grow meat in a laboratory and, like most reductive science, likely wouldn’t provide a suitable substitute for meat. Also, it is unlikely to be scalable to the population’s demand for meat.

Hunting and fishing is a good solution, but not a complete one. At the current human population, supplying all of our animal product needs from natural populations would devastate them. There are maximum sustainable harvest rates that we should absolutely strive for in order to supply some of the demand, but to surpass them is to take that same right away from the next generation, and 10 and 100 generations down the line.

That leaves animal agriculture. I would argue, since we must raise animals for food instead of hunting them in the wild, we must make their lives better and longer than those of their wild cousins. Guess what? The holistic system I described earlier does just that. This is yet another reason to buy grass-fed, pasture-raised animal products, mostly from large grazing herbivores (red meat).

Even if we’re willing to ignore the fact that we are biological omnivores, the system of ethics by which we decide whether to eat animals is pretty much subjective. The most common framework is the “Least Harm Principal”, which posits that our dietary choices should be made in order to cause the least harm/suffering/discomfort to creatures with brains. The common argument is then: “so we shouldn’t kill animals for food when we can just eat grains and legumes”. But here’s the interesting thing: mechanical harvesting of grains and legumes, which is necessary at current consumption levels, results in the bloody, painful deaths of a significant number of animals living in the grain fields. Estimates actually have it at 25 times as many animal deaths per gram of protein produced in grain and legume agriculture, than in pasture-based ruminant agriculture (http://tinyurl.com/nr5f6m2), so the least harm principal indicates the latter as the best calorie choice in order to reduce animal suffering (http://tinyurl.com/hmqa6pj).

But my ethical approach to agriculture is a little different. It is well-documented that all creatures – plants, animals, fungi, and microbes – suffer in their own way, and limiting our scope of empathy only to those who suffer similarly to us is indefensible. For that reason, I believe in a more nuanced, large-scale method to reduce suffering – using the extensiveness of our agriculture to maximize the biomass production on the surface of the earth, producing the largest amount of healthy, thriving, biodiverse life possible, for the longest time possible. And what’s the best way to do that? Regenerative agriculture, including rotationally-grazed animals.

Strike three, case closed.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.