This book has nothing to do with the Paleo diet. It will teach you about our bodies’ history of consuming food, how sun exposure effects micronutrient production, how industrial food interacts with our systems and so much more. This book kicked off what has now become a life obsession with the science of food and led to a 30-pound weight drop for me.
I buy this book routinely for friends.
The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health
2006. It came attached to an email from my older brother Clark, who sent me a twenty-six-page essay by Dr. Art De Vany, a retired economist from the University of California. De Vany titled his essay “Evolutionary Fitness.” The title was an academic pun: it referred to “fitness” in the common definition of exercise, as well as “fitness” in the evolutionary biology sense of reproductive fitness, meaning an organism’s overall ability to leave offspring.
In humans the most common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease, where arteries narrow from a buildup of fatty deposits (atherosclerosis). This and other types of heart disease coincide with the suite of health problems known as “metabolic syndrome,” indicated by obesity, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and problematic patterns of cholesterol.
NOTE: What’s the cause?
Over the next few months Mokolo lost about seventy pounds and Bebac lost about thirty-seven, about 15% of Mokolo’s bodyweight and 9% of Bebac’s. Then their weight stabilized, despite the fact that they were eating twice as many calories. When word got out about that, the team received emails from complete strangers telling them with absolute certainty that they had to be mistaken, that their findings broke the laws of physics. Calories in and calories out is all that matters when it comes to weight gain or loss, right? But a gorilla metabolizes a hundred calories of lettuce differently than it metabolizes a hundred calories of gorilla biscuit.
Though it garnered press, the practice had been widespread in zoos for years. A 2001 survey of U.S. and Canadian zoos revealed that nearly half of them had used psychopharmaceuticals on gorillas, including Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, Prozac, Ativan, Paxil, and Zoloft. While these drugs were useful at mitigating the symptoms of mental problems, zoo personnel have increasingly attempted to address the underlying cause of the symptoms: living in a habitat that doesn’t satisfy the actual physiological and psychological needs of a species.
In fact, the quotation “Know thy species” comes from Dr. Jonas Salk, the discoverer of the polio vaccine: “I have been trying to say that it is necessary now not only to ‘know thyself,’ but also to ‘know thy species’ and to understand the ‘wisdom’ of nature, and especially living nature, if we are to understand and help man develop his own wisdom in a way that will lead to life of such quality as to make living a desirable and fulfilling experience.”
“When you put force on bones, they grow bigger and stronger. People back then ate tougher foods, they put larger forces on their jaw, and thus they had jaws large enough to actually fit all of our teeth. And those bite forces may have helped our teeth come in straight.” “And since we all eat such soft foods these days?” I asked. “Smaller jaws.” It felt oddly insulting to hear him say that. In a sense he was pointing out that my growth had been stunted in childhood. I’m deformed. And not just me, but most modern people.
In fact, it’s likely that life expectancy initially dropped after the Agricultural Revolution.
The primary division of labor was gender based. Men were hunters; women were gatherers. This does not mean that men only hunted animals and women only gathered plants. Women sometimes trapped small game or collected marine foods; men sometimes gathered honey, nuts, or fruit. But men pursued high risk food sources that required greater physical prowess, while women pursued low risk food sources that could be obtained while tending to small children. Food was shared (especially large game), though preference was given to those who played a role in obtaining it. There were rarely any completely specialized professions, other than perhaps a shaman.
Almost the entire animal could be eaten or put to use, including bones, organs, and marrow. Roots and tubers were an important food source. The wild predecessors to grains—like wheat, corn, or rice—were negligible until late in the Paleolithic, though some wild grasses were consumed (we ended up domesticating them, after all). Some foods were eaten raw, but a variety of cooking techniques were used. Because of the wide variety of food available and the tribe’s migrations, famine was rare to nonexistent.
Sources of stress were acute (fight, flight) but not chronic (bad boss, credit card debt).
Step even further back, and these early herder-farmers had a memory that goes something like this: Life was good. We ate something we shouldn’t have. Now life is bad. It would be a decidedly brilliant set of cultural rules that would help a tribe of herder-farmers adapt to life in the early Agricultural Age, and its most important new habitat: the city.
The Agricultural Revolution wasn’t simply a revolution in agriculture; it was a revolution in culture. Agriculture led to cities, and cities led to more ideas and infectious disease.
Ideas flourished in early civilization in much the same way that pathogens did: more “hosts” to infect (minds) and more ways for them to spread (conquest, trade, writing). But initially pathogens spread much faster than did effective ideas on hygiene.
There’s much in the Law of Moses that remains mysterious or defies a simple explanation, but it is remarkable how much makes sense from a single point of view: infectious disease.
Far beyond the laws on leprosy, it’s fair to say the Mosaic Law is obsessed with cleanliness, stipulating a lengthy code of personal hygiene and public health—accounting for some 15–20% of the 613 commandments.
Any direct contact with an unclean person (or thing) made someone (or something) unclean. For example, if a rodent carcass touched household objects or fell into food or water, it all became unclean (Leviticus 11:32–38). The idea that germs were transferable by even the slightest physical touch may seem obvious today, but it was an astonishing inference thousands of years before the formal discovery of the germ theory of disease in the late nineteenth century.
Only virgin women could be captured; all other women had to be killed (Numbers 31:15–18). This was a direct result of past experience—see “the Peor incident” (Numbers 25)—when the Jewish soldiers kept all the conquered women alive, had sex with them, and brought a plague upon themselves. Keeping only the virgins would have largely eliminated the likelihood of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
covenants with the Jewish people was a medical procedure that helped combat infection: circumcision (Genesis 17:9–14). In 2012, a task force on circumcision organized by the American Academy of Pediatrics published a review of the costs and benefits of male circumcision. In their estimation the primary benefits are a reduction in urinary tract infections among infants; lower transmission of some STDs, such as HIV and HPV; and fewer cases of penile cancer (often caused by HPV infections).
Famously faceless, abstract, and unsuperstitious, the Jewish God was science.
In an underappreciated moment in human history, Jesus and his disciples didn’t bother to wash their hands before meals (Matthew 15:1–20; Mark 7:1–23; Luke 11:37–41).
Christendom would pay a high price for abandoning the Mosaic Law: the Black Death.
to avoid God’s wrath. Modern researchers have determined that bubonic plague was caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacterium transmitted by two “unclean” species: the fleas on rats.
The authors combined census records from 1878 with cause of death statistics over a seven-year period. They found that the Jewish population could expect to live eight years longer than the Catholic population.
Unlike many other mammals, we cannot synthesize vitamin C. We need to get it directly from fresh food—fruits, vegetables, raw animal foods—since cooking destroys vitamin C.
The cause of beriberi? A vitamin B1 deficiency.
In a process called nixtamalization, Mesoamericans prepared corn with lime, making vitamin B3 available in the process. In the following centuries pellagra afflicted people all over the world who ate heavily corn-based diets—except for Mesoamericans eating corn in traditional ways.
In 1933 the U.S. government began an effort to fortify milk with vitamin D in order to combat rickets.
This was another great advance in public health, but it was solving a problem of our own creation: lives increasingly spent indoors, consuming a nutrient-poor diet. Again, we learned how to not die.
• Energy (intake, expenditure) • Food (type, availability, amount, eating times) • Water (availability, intake, expenditure) • Movement (type, intensity, duration, conditions) • Temperature (external, internal) • Sun (intensity, duration) • Social interactions (type, intensity, duration) These habitat features vary in somewhat unpredictable ways. A physicist can draw up a precise calculation of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, but not of a young boy’s orbit around his mother. In contrast to physics, biological systems tend to be complex and unpredictable, vary in semi-random ways, and contain feedback loops that interact in unanticipated ways. This is why planned interventions often produce unintended consequences in fields as disparate as pharmaceuticals (prescription drugs), economics (central planning), and wildlife conservation (invasive species).
If the lesson of “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature” is to trust our evolved biology, the lesson of “garbage in, garbage out” is to not trust it too much.
Two of the most well-known factors that influence feeling energetic have nothing to do with energy intake: the perception of a serious threat causes the release of adrenaline, and morning sunlight causes us to wake up.
That’s why it’s so important to understand the path our species has trodden: primates, hunter-gatherers, herder-farmers, and industrial producer-consumers. And now, biohackers.
The advice to “Eat fewer processed foods” actually means “Eat fewer industrial foods.”
Consider Cheez Whiz. Before Kraft introduced Cheez Whiz in 1953, there had never been anything quite like it in the history of life on this planet. (There’s still nothing quite like it.) It was developed in a laboratory, produced in a factory, and was made with industrial ingredients and methods—a “miracle” of industrial food science. Other notable “processed” foods were invented or released as the Industrial Revolution spread to food: margarine (1869), Coca-Cola (1886), Crisco (1911), Twinkies (1930), SPAM (1937), the Big Mac (1967), Pop-Tarts (1967), and canola oil (1978).
There is overwhelming evidence showing that an industrial diet is unhealthy. In 2010 the CDC found that 35.7% of adult Americans were obese, as well as 17% of children.
Whole grains? Grains are the ultimate farmer food. Whole milk? Dairy is the ultimate herder food. Eating whole foods means eating a herder-farmer diet.
To the extent that eating more whole foods or organic foods means eating fewer industrial foods, most people can expect health improvements from adopting an agricultural diet.
Cholesterol is an essential precursor to our sex hormones—testosterone, estrogen, progesterone—and if the body doesn’t have enough, it makes more.
researchers can’t actually find a significant, consistent connection between egg intake and cardiovascular disease.
In fact, low cholesterol (intake and serum) is linked to higher mortality from cancer, mental illness, and suicide. Even statins, the popular class of cholesterol-lowering drugs, appear to gain their effectiveness by mechanisms unrelated to actually lowering cholesterol levels.
In a nutshell, an organization founded and led by a zealous vegetarian pressured McDonald’s to re-engineer the preparation of French fries to fit its nutritional dogma, which resulted in making fries less healthy.
In short, hunter-gatherers were opportunistic omnivores—eating mammals, seafood, roots and tubers, a diversity of plants, fruit, honey, nuts, eggs, birds, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. With the advent of cooking a million years ago, an even broader array of species became edible.
1. What to eat: Mimic a hunter-gatherer (or herder) diet. 2. How to eat: Follow ancient culinary traditions. 3. What not to eat: Avoid industrial foods, sugars, and seeds. 4. Make it meaningful: Experiment, customize, enjoy.
The authors suggest that the primary cause of obesity is not our lack of energy expenditure, but eating novel foods that disrupt our metabolism.
Thus animal foods are the single greatest source of calories, but plant foods, due to their low caloric density, constitute greater bulk in the diet. Animal foods tend to come from fatty animals and seafood; plant foods tend to come primarily from starchy roots and tubers.
In fact, the only truly nonessential macronutrient is carbohydrate. People can subsist on a fat and protein diet (called a ketogenic diet), but they can’t subsist on a fat and carbohydrate diet (which lacks essential amino acids) or a protein and carbohydrate diet (which lacks essential fats). This doesn’t mean that zero carbohydrate is optimal, of course, but it does mean that carbohydrate isn’t essential.
Not only do vegetable oils contain the plant toxins discussed below, but they are also notably high in omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids, along with omega-3 fatty acids, are polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). PUFAs are essential to the human diet since the body cannot derive them from other compounds—but they are toxic in large amounts. The typical industrial diet contains far more omega-6s than the body needs, and as a result the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is dramatically skewed toward omega-6s. Since omega-6s have a pro-inflammatory effect throughout the body, they exacerbate existing inflammation.
Even though gluten is associated with the small percentage of people with celiac disease (about 0.4 to 0.8% in the United States), it causes gut inflammation in over 80% of people.
Wheat also contains opioid peptides and wheat germ agglutinin. Opioid peptides are opiates (in the same family as opium, morphine, and heroin) and make eating wheat enjoyable, addictive, and difficult to stop.
Legumes contain many toxins. Lectins are a class of proteins also found in cereal grains. Some lectins bind with nutrients and make them unavailable to the body. Since they prevent nutrients from being absorbed by the body, they are often called antinutrients.
Hunt a wild animal, kill it, thank it, gut it, and get your hands bloody—then share the meat with others. Get your hands dirty: plant a vegetable garden, grow herbs on a window-sill, or gather wild berries. Raise some chickens or learn to butcher an animal. Fish.
In an intriguing 2008 study, two groups of mice, one fasting and the other fed, underwent chemotherapy. The fasting mice were allowed to consume only water for forty-eight to sixty hours before treatment, while the fed mice were allowed to eat at will. The results were striking: the fed mice experienced the typical unpleasant side effects of chemo, whereas the fasting mice “showed no visible signs of stress or pain.” Forty-three percent of the fed mice died (ten of twenty-three), whereas only 6% of the fasting mice died (one of seventeen). In a separate trial in the same study, fasting was also shown not to interfere with killing the tumor cells. Additional work has shown that fasting kills tumor cells on its own. In combination with chemotherapy, it improves the effectiveness of both.
A ketogenic diet—a very low carb or zero-carb diet—has been found to be an effective treatment for a number of neurological conditions, including seizures and Alzheimer’s. High blood sugar is toxic—so when we eat carbohydrate, our body disposes of it as quickly as it can. However, once the carbs have been burned for energy, stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen, or turned to fat and stored in fat cells, most of the body switches back to burning fat for energy. Then, since the brain and blood cells need some glucose in order to function, the liver turns glycogen back into glucose and releases it back into the bloodstream.
If the body stays in ketosis long enough, the brain will start using ketones too, decreasing its requirement for glucose.
diets are successful, it’s because the metabolism turns to body fat. All successful diets are high-fat diets.
But when a horse is kept in a damp stall and doesn’t get to move freely, the hoof is more likely to weaken, split, and rot. Many shoed horses have latent injuries or deformed hooves, which cause them to walk with a modified gait or react fiercely to unknown sources of pain. These problems can be made worse by a condition called laminitis, which causes systematic inflammation of the hoof. Laminitis has been linked to diet, particularly the excess sugars in grain-based feed, and bears similarities to type 2 diabetes.
It doesn’t take a study to know that exposure to extreme temperatures increases adaptation to them; like muscles, the body’s thermoregulatory mechanisms become stronger with repeated stress.
We have only a poor understanding of how these changes may be influencing human health—perhaps even contributing to the rise of obesity. Modern health authorities admonish people to burn more calories, but they completely neglect the body’s largest source of caloric expenditure: heat.
Human movement requires remarkably few calories. Treadmills that report “calories burned” contain a fatal deception: they include the calories burned by the body even by lying on the sofa.
In fact, running an entire marathon burns only about 2,600 calories, the equivalent of a day’s worth of food. Even worse, body fat is a remarkably good way to store energy: a pound of body fat contains roughly 4,000 calories. That means losing a mere ten pounds is the caloric equivalent of running 13.5 marathons.
Not only does the body increase (or decrease) appetite in response to heat expenditure, but it also raises (or lowers) body temperature in response to caloric intake: starvation victims have lower than normal body temperatures. In the face of a severe caloric deficit, the body attempts to conserve energy.
NOTE: Recall friends who say they have no appetite in the summer. Their bodies aren’t expending energy to heat.
The body creates heat in a process called thermogenesis. One method is shivering, when muscle fibers quickly contract in order to generate heat. When shivering isn’t sufficient, the body turns to specialized fat cells called brown adipose tissue (BAT).
Short of liposuction, thermogenesis is probably the fastest way to reduce body fat.
More recent studies have shown minor drawbacks to fever-reducing medications: children take about a day longer to recover from chicken pox when given acetaminophen, and the common cold lasts about a day longer too.
What’s uncontroversial is that chronic infections cause many types of cancer. A paper in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet estimated that globally one in six cases of cancer are caused by infection, the most prevalent being gastric cancer (H. pylori), liver cancer (hepatitis B and C), and cervical or uterine cancer (HPV).
Chronic infections become chronic in the first place due to an insufficient initial immune response.
Previously, bony fish could absorb usable calcium for their skeleton directly from the calcium-rich ocean, but terrestrial vertebrates needed to find a new source of calcium. This meant eating calcium-rich plants (or other vertebrates) and converting dietary calcium into bone, a process that required vitamin D.
Vitamin D is more akin to a multipurpose hormone that the body synthesizes itself with the help of sunshine (and cholesterol). Vitamin D is sufficiently important that cells throughout the body have the ability to generate it.
called the latitude hypothesis, which argues that as humans moved away from the equator to higher latitudes with weaker UV rays, they became vitamin D deficient.
What few realized was that conventional sunscreens did not block all of the sun’s rays—just the kind that causes sunburns (UVb). But sunlight also contains UVa, which causes skin damage even though it doesn’t cause sunburn. In fact, there’s more UVa in sunlight than UVb (twenty to forty times as much), and UVa penetrates the skin more deeply.
By using sunscreen that blocked only UVb, people incurred far more skin damage than they ever could have without it; they would have been better served by using no sunscreen at all, and getting out of the sun before their skin started to redden.
basis. Regular exposure creates a base level of protection and generates plenty of vitamin D.
before we flip off the light—only to wake up exhausted. Most people use electronic alarm clocks simply as a method to wake up in the morning. There are now a huge number of devices that improve upon the standard alarm clock to help people wake up more gently. Many measure sleep cycles and wake people at the optimal time in their sleep cycle. Some wake people with a vibrating arm band, which doesn’t wake their partner. Some even shine UV on the skin. However, there is very little effort focused on the much harder problem of helping people get to sleep on time. Our biological clock helps us both wake up and go to sleep. Waking up is a lot easier after a good night’s rest. A useful technique is setting an alarm clock—not to wake up, but to get ready for bed. Set an alarm for an hour before bedtime. When it goes off, finish up any work on the computer, turn off the TV, turn off any unnecessary lights, and start to wind down for the day. It’s hard to wind down at the end of the day. But if getting a good night’s rest is sufficiently important for high priority missions in outer space, it should also be important for all of us here on Earth.
To look at it from a holistic perspective, the health of a natural ecosystem is different from the health of any individual organism—and predators play an essential role in the health of wild habitats.
Others just abandoned their horses to die, unwilling to pay for humane euthanasia. Recognizing this, even PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) argued for the re-legalization of horse slaughtering—and to their credit they pointed out that they never supported the ban in the first place. Horse slaughtering was quietly re-legalized in 2011.
Species that hitch their wagon to humanity tend to hang around. It’s not due to their hunting skills that there are more chickens than humans on earth.
There’s actually very little shooting in hunting. This may come as a surprise to people whose only experience with hunting is the video game Big Buck Hunter. Among hunters, not only is it frowned upon to wound (and not kill) an animal, but it’s also considered an indication of skill to make a clean kill with one shot, dropping the animal where it stands.
At the same time, traditional agriculture is not exactly a vegetarian utopia. A traditional “organic” farm is a complicated and productive synergism of species. Animal manure fertilizes the soil. Crop rotation harnesses the power of cover crops (usually nitrogen-fixing legumes) to renew soil fertility. Pigs can convert just about any inedible waste into delicious bacon. Sheep, goats, cows, and other ruminants can graze on land unsuitable for crops. Genetic diversity among both plants and animals provides diversification against insects and pests and maintains the overall stock of genetic diversity in the food system. Domesticated animals have always been inseparable from traditional farming at scale: it is possible to herd without domesticated plants, but it is next to impossible to farm without domesticated animals.
A look at the General Social Survey reveals which characteristics correlate with empathy toward animals. In 2008, 1,400 people were asked their level of agreement with the following statement: “Scientists should be allowed to do research that causes pain and injury to animals like dogs and chimpanzees if it produces new information about human health problems.” A person’s sex was more important in determining the response than were political views, religious views, education, intelligence, race, or age.
Given that hunter-gatherer women did more gathering than men did, it’s entirely plausible that women’s initiative and ingenuity were responsible for the inadvertent then purposeful domestication of plants—which led to the Agricultural Revolution, which led to patriarchy. I’m fairly certain that men would have been perfectly content to spend all day hunting game, barbecuing ribs, taking naps, making weapons, planning raids, and having sex.
Eating one hunted deer or pastured cow, nose to tail, creates a smaller blood footprint than does eating meal after meal made from industrial soybeans.
Boycotts don’t work very well when organized by small groups whose views aren’t shared by the general population, and who make unrealistic demands. For small groups with limited resources and goals outside the mainstream, prizes work better than boycotts. If, say, 5% of the population is vegetarian, that means that the market for factory farmed meat is 5% smaller. To any of the big agribusinesses, that 5% hit isn’t going to put them out of business. They can further identify vegetarians as a consumer segment and then turn around and sell them Boca Burgers made with industrial soybeans. However, that same 5% would have a huge impact on the sales of entrepreneurial, ethical farms that are experimenting with alternative food systems.
That means in terms of “starting up” a more humane food system, one can have a far greater impact by contributing money to start-ups that are doing it right than by abstaining from buying products from established players that are doing it wrong. Here’s the kicker: once the big guys see that there’s money to be made by being ethical, they’ll get into the game themselves.
In 2008 PETA switched from boycotts to prizes when it offered a $1 million prize to “the first laboratory to use chicken cells to create in vitro (test-tube) meat if the product were commercially viable by June 30, 2012.” At the time this book was going to press, no one had won the prize—but two labs were close to announcing test-tube hamburgers, and PETA decided to extend the deadline. That $1 million prize money makes a much bigger impact as a carrot enticing innovation than it does as a stick punishing large agribusiness, to which $1 million is a rounding error.
Based on the reported onset of these disorders and the age of starting to eat vegetarian, the paper concluded that vegetarianism did not cause mental disorders. However, it was abundantly clear that people with mental disorders were being attracted to vegetarianism. Why?
Physiologically, there are clear mechanisms by which a vegetarian diet might worsen brain function, such as deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids (which are commonly found in fish) and vitamin B12 (which is almost entirely absent from plant foods).
To the extent a hypersensitive disgust reflex results in destructive behaviors, vegetarianism might fairly be described as a symptom of an underlying immunological disorder.
failure. For better or worse, the rise of vegetarianism owes much to the absurdly destructive advice from the media and conventional health authorities to eat a low-fat diet, counting calories all the way, and a lack of a healthy relationship to food.
Vegetarianism aside, parents have the responsibility to raise children with a healthy relationship to food. Without minimizing the constant challenge of feeding finicky children, we cannot allow kids to subsist on a diet of Tater Tots, buttered noodles, and pizza.
To begin with, a large swath of humanity is never going to stop eating meat. It’s healthy, it tastes good, and it’s been “what’s for dinner” since before we were human. The persistence of meat in our meals seems especially likely given that even vegetarians consume meat-like substances such as tofu burgers and soy bacon. We can expect meat to remain in the human diet for the foreseeable future.
Elements of the environmental movement have wised up to this, and realized that rather than demonizing WalMart (or only demonizing it), cooperating with it to make small tweaks in the supply chain can result in enormous efficiency gains.
The goal isn’t to feed the world but to spark innovation and incentivize incremental improvements by established players.
Another reason to alter the factory farm system is a purely selfish one: preventing antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria is a matter of human welfare.
In the intervening years between the two exhibits, Coe and his generation of landscape architects had led a quiet revolution. Their motto: “Nature is the model.”
This ethos—Nature is the model—is applicable to the health of all species. A holistic, habitat-based approach to human health is long overdue.
Social perceptions of what is “normal” cause a parent to put shoes on a young child’s feet—even indoors, in the backyard, or on a grassy field—which makes it more likely a child will develop flat feet. A bacterial infection doesn’t respond to antibiotics due to the actions of distant people and animals.
It’s never been easier to modify one’s personal habitat. Choose different foods at the grocery store. Join a gym with a motivating and fun atmosphere. Surround yourself with people who maintain healthy habits. Switch from a sitting desk to a standing desk. It won’t be long before all the lights in a house will brighten and dim with the time of day, helping to re-establish a more natural circadian rhythm. Temperature too: the next generation of thermostats is already available, dynamically changing temperature throughout the day (warmer) and night (cooler). Rather than using a jarring alarm to wake up, there are now “sunrise” clocks that use UV exposure to gently awaken you.
Yet it’s not clear whether locavorism is a viable, scalable strategy. At the core of locavorism is the concept of “food miles,” a standard that measures the sustainability of a food based on the distance it travels from farm to plate. The fewer food miles, the thinking goes, the better—as if the pure distance a food must travel determines its overall environmental impact. This concept is deeply flawed, as some leading locavores have acknowledged.
support. It is nearly as naïve to think that organic agriculture can feed the world as it is to think that hunting and gathering can. Given that we are locked into an industrial food system for the foreseeable future—advantages and disadvantages both—where should we go from here?
The entire world population can’t and certainly won’t “return” to a mythical agricultural existence like hobbits in the Shire. So far, the evidence shows that the most sustainable mode of existence for mankind seems to be a Paleolithic lifestyle, living in small-scale roving bands using Stone Age technology.
Once people are more prosperous, they voluntarily have fewer children. In fact, the end of population growth is in sight: peak population will hit in a few decades. It won’t be long before we run into problems associated with population decline since many of our political institutions were set up with the implicit expectation of consistent growth and demographic expansion. In fact, those problems are already coming to the fore in aging, stagnant countries like Japan—and Europe isn’t far behind.
Biology is an information technology, and we are finally learning how to hack it. Scientists are using a patient’s own stem cells to grow organs that won’t be rejected during transplantation. Unborn children can be screened for rare genetic abnormalities that might eventually be fixed with gene therapy.
Not all of these changes will be good ones—and those should be resisted. But without being too fatalistic, all prior growth revolutions—Paleolithic, Agricultural, Industrial—took place without planning or coordinated control. So far, the Digital Revolution is no different. The danger, of course, is that we engineer our way into disaster—but that’s why our design solutions should hew closely to those in the natural world. Nature must be the model.
Our Industrial food system currently feeds the world, but has some serious health, ethical, and environmental drawbacks. While curbing the worst abuses and problems, we also need to realize that industrial agriculture is here for the time being. Higher levels of agricultural productivity are key to global development, which will make people prosperous enough to afford to care about the environment and ethical treatment of animals.
If we are to maintain each of these food systems, that means we need advocates for each of them. We need people who fiercely defend the right to hunt—and who actually hunt. We need hunter-gatherers. We need people who fiercely defend traditional farming, buy local, raise heritage breeds—and who actually farm. We need herder-farmers.
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This post originally appeared at Zach Ware's Notebook.