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Ask the Vegan Athlete

Ask Vegan Athlete Brendan Brazier

Brendan Brazier is a professional triathlete from North Vancouver, and the 2003, 50 km Ultra Marathon National Champion. A successful vegan ironman, Brendan contributes to our magazine with a feature called Ask the Vegan Athlete. Brendan answers questions posed by readers and offers advice to other athletes who choose to eat a plant-based diet.

Brendan is the author of Thrive: a Guide to Optimal Health and Performance Through Plant-Based Whole Foods and his newest book The Thrive Diet. His website addresses concerns of vegetarian athletes, provides a forum for vegan athletes, and includes his schedule of activities.

For more info visit his website at http: //www.brendanbrazier.com

How does what I eat affect the environment?

As of late, three things have caused considerable worldwide concern: artificial global warming, the price of crude oil (and therefore gasoline) and the rapid decline of arable land capable of food production.

These are undeniably grave concerns for us all and have rightfully garnered attention from world leaders. While several schemes have been considered and a few introduced, in an effort to combat the situation, a consensus on how best to address the problem has eluded those in power. Carbon taxes for the greatest polluting companies have been considered as one option. But, financial carbon offsetting has taken hold as the approach of choice. Unfortunately, offsetting doesn't mean using fewer resources or polluting less, it simply means that a financial exchange takes place when fuel gets burned. The money goes into a fund to help clean up the pollution created from the burning of the fuel. While it's commendable that an effort is being made, offsetting is simply a form of symptom treating. It does nothing to address the root of the problem: a seemingly unquenchable thirst for oil.

But, it doesn't have to be that way. There are simple steps that each of us can take on a daily basis by changing the foods we eat. At first glance it may be hard to believe, but that can actually address the root course of what is possibly the three greatest challenges of our time. (The four greatest if you consider the rapid decline of health and the quickly escalating rise of preventable disease.) The solution to all four of these grave concerns is remarkably simple: reduce, or ideally, cut animal products out of your diet. That's it.

According to a recent report conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FOA), livestock production is becoming an increasing threat to environmental sanctity. "Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems," says Henning Steinfeld, senior author of the report.

The report concludes that livestock are responsible for 18% of greenhouse-gas emissions as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent. This includes 9% of all CO2 emissions, 37 percent of methane, and 65 percent of nitrous oxide. These are significant numbers, to say the least. Altogether they combined to yield a total that is greater than all emissions produced by transportation.

The energy requirements of food production

The production, processing and delivery of food all have tremendous impact on our environment, greater than any other industry. In fact, the energy used in producing and distributing food accounts for roughly 60% of the total energy we as North Americans produce. Of that 60%, greater than 85% is generated from the burring of fossil fuel: coal and oil. The combustion of fossil fuel in exchange for energy creates greenhouse gasses. It is now commonly accepted among climatologists and other experts in the field that greenhouse gases contribute to global warming.

One report suggests that for every 10 calories of fossil fuel energy burned in food production, only one calorie of food energy is produced. Obviously this is a matter that has many food producers and environmentalists concerned. If food production uses more energy than it produces, it is only a mater of time before resources run dry, namely fossil fuel. This report however, is based on standard agriculture which includes the raising of animals for food, making it up to 30% less efficient than merely plant-based crop production. Still a strain on resources, however a considerably smaller one, each time a plant-based meal is eaten in place of a meat-containing one, fewer resources are being consumed.

Brendan Brazier Scientists agree that by each of us simply reducing our dependence on oil, we can make a substantial difference. Since food production, from the ground to your mouth, is the largest energy draw that we are confronted with, that is the best starting point. The first and easiest way to do this is to simply reduce the number of steps food goes through from the time it's planted to the time you take a bite. Of course, less processing is better not only from a health standpoint, but also from an environmental point of view. If more milling, heating and refining are required before food can be consumed, naturally more energy will have gone into its production.

Another major consideration is the shift of energy. Every time energy is transferred from one form to another, there is great loss--it is extremely inefficient. Transferred throughout our ecosystem, energy is passed from plant to herbivore to carnivore. With each transaction, a large amount of energy is dissolved. It is estimated that each transfer is only about 5%-20% efficient, meaning that 80%-95% is lost to the environment, mostly as heat. For example, if a person eats a plant, depending on its digestibility and net gain, up to only about 20% of the energy within that plant will be passed on to the person, to use as fuel or rebuild body tissue. Additionally, if an animal were to eat the plant, a similar energy loss would take place. Then, if a human were to eat the animal, energy would be lost again, at about the same rate of return, 5%-20%. Therefore, the energy loss of feeding plants to animals only to eat the animal, greatly reduces energy efficiency. The draw on oil to fuel those extra steps is significant. In fact, the amount of oil we as North Americans consume could by up to 30% if we were all to eat an efficient diet.

Traditional protein production a significant environmental strain

For every seven pounds of feed that goes to a cow, one pound is returned in the form of meat. With arable land rapidly becoming scarce and energy costs souring, eating meat simply does not make sense and is rapidly advancing artificial global warming more so than any other industry.

Traditionally, protein rich foods have been the most resource rich to produce. Protein production has, by far, required the most land to be occupied, the most water to be consumed. and the most energy to be burned. Of course, traditional protein-rich crops comprise animal products: meat and milk. Land must be used to grow the food to feed the animal; in addition, pasture land is needed to raise the animal. From there, the processing and distribution of animal products are labor, therefore, energy intensive.

Of course, most standard crops such as wheat and corn produce very little protein. It has long been desired to have a plant that has a high protein content, enabling it to be fed directly to humans and not having to pass it through numerous extra energy-intensive steps to have it yield a reliable form of protein. Fortunately, that plant does exist and is experiencing a bit of a renaissance: Hemp. Along with its deliverance of numerous nutrients and approximately 35% protein from its seed, hemp is both nutritionally and environmentally superior to most plants. Unlike many crops, hemp can be grown in both hot and cold environments, making use of land that could not possibly produce as high a yield with another crop. Growing much faster than many crops, hemp can be harvested in less time, allowing more to be produced. Naturally resistant to most pests, hemp crops can be grown efficiently without the use of herbicides or pesticides.

Hemp crops have actually been planted in over-farmed fields to "rejuvenate" the soil. Once the hemp has grown its cycle, it gets plowed into the soil to decompose. After a few rotations, the land can then be used for the production of less versatile crops. Hemp can thrive in arid conditions, making irrigation unnecessary, thereby conserving water. Since much of the water used to irrigate crops is far from pure, hemp becomes exempt from the possible health concerns impure water can impose. Unlike the protein sources that exist in the Standard American Diet, plant-based ones, hemp in particular, greatly reduce the burning of oil for production.

Other primary-source protein foods include all kinds of legumes, seeds and pseudo-grains.

Why is meat still inexpensive to buy?

As I write this article in July of 2008, oil has just hit a new record high of $147 per barrel. Never before in history has fossil fuel cost so much. With oil at an all-time high, the end consumer will pay more for everything.

Of course gasoline cost is among the first to rise in reaction to the escalated price of crude oil, yet that's only the beginning. Since absolutely everything takes energy to produce, products that require burning of copious amounts of fossil fuel will cost considerably more. Or at least they should. So why is a hamburger, for example, able to be sold at a fast food restaurant for $1.69, and in some cases, less, yet a locally grown organic apple that uses a fraction of the energy to produce costs the same?

How is it that something with an inordinate draw on fossil fuel can cost the consumer so little? The short answer: government subsidies, namely the Farm Bill. While it was introduced with the best of intensions, the Farm Bill has veered off course and no longer benefits the people as a whole. It was originally brought about with the aim of helping struggling famers make enough money to stay in business. Without farmers and large farms, food would not be plentiful as is it today.

However, the subsidies became misdirected. They began chiefly flowing to support the industries that needed their help the most: animal agriculture. Since raising animals for food places a tremendous draw on fossil fuel use, and the cost of fossil fuel is rapidly rising, the viability of the animal agriculture industry was in jeopardy. It needed government help, and it got it. Had the government not stepped in and bailed out this exceptionally inefficient industry with subsidies, meat would be cost prohibitive to almost all consumers. It the true cost of meat and dairy were reflected in production cost in terms of fossil fuel usage, it would simply be unable to recoup its productions costs. For example, an average hamburger in a fast food restaurant would need to sell for about $35 to recoup its fossil fuel production cost. Clearly this industry would cease to exist; no one would be willing to pay the true cost. However, with subsidies structured as they are, the meat and dairy industries continues to rapidly consume resources at an ever-increasing rate.

But what some may find most disturbing is that we, the taxpayers, are footing the bill. Of course, government gets its money from taxes; therefore, like it or not, we are all paying to support this inefficient and destructive industry. To make matters worse, since the low cost of meat and dairy is due to subsidies, its consumption is rapid and widespread across the United States. This poses another problem: health, or more accurately, the decline of health. As we know, meat and dairy consumption has been linked to numerous degenerative diseases. From Type 2 diabetes, to osteoporosis, to the number-one killer in North America, cardiovascular disease, nearly 100% of these cases can be prevented and reversed by eating a whole food, plant-based diet.

Sadly, as the health of the average American declines, the draw on the taxpayer-funded heath care system rises. As you may know, the US heath care system is a reactionary system. It responds to sickness; it is not designed to help prevent it. So, more accurately, it could be referred to as the sickness treatment system, not the heath care system, since it doesn't acutely care for health.

What can we do?

If each one of us reduces our consumption of energy gobbling animal products, demand will clearly drop. This will, of course, lead to a reduction in production of the farming of animal products, which will trigger a significant reduction of fossil fuel demand and consumption. Once demand drops, so to does price.

A diet comprised of food that was minimally processed and consists of primary source nutrition is the answer. Primary source nutrition means eating solely plant-based foods. Without adding the extra step of feeding plants to animals and then eating the animal, as is the basis for the Standard American Diet, a considerable amount of energy is conserved, about 30% in fact. This 30% is huge. When energy gains measured in the one and two percent rage are termed "significant," 30% is absolutely massive.

Imagine North America reducing its energy usage by 30%! If every North American were to eat a diet that was based on primary nutrition, that is exactly what would happen.

Support companies that use non-renewable resources wisely

Money greases the wheels of our cultural machine; therefore, money has the greatest impact, positive or negative, on what precipitates change. This is good; we simply have to use the power of economics to help ourselves. Not to support corporations that practice poor environmental policies such as unsustainable and inefficient land use, consumption of toxic pesticides, and destruction of old growth forests is only half the solution. As informed consumers, we hold all the power.

Many smaller, environmentally conscious companies are now beginning to grow, attracting more informed customers each year. Supporting these companies is twice as effective as just refusing to buy from ones who are destructive. For example, to buy non-genetically modified hemp foods grown without pesticides or herbicides puts money toward promoting a clean, sustainable industry. If these sustainable industries are able to flourish because of our support, others will see the economic "carrot" of "green agriculture," and they will follow. This is one problem that we can eat ourselves out of.

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