Deeply Adapting Diets – meat-free or self-sufficiency?

Deep Adaptation is a useful framework for self-development in these difficult times if it is seen as an invitation for each of us to consider changes in our lives, rather than prescribing answers or behaviours. That is because we are in highly uncertain, complicated, rapidly changing situations where any desire to be certain, correct and impactful could arise from a panicked ego responding to the perception of existential risk. For me, that perspective is important to maintain when we consider our own diet and that of others.

The impact of becoming aware of an impending breakdown in societies leads to many different responses. One area of our lives that can change is our relationship to food. Some people seek to grow more of their own food and be less reliant on industrial agricultural systems. Other people decide to eat less meat and dairy, or give it up altogether. As the issue of diet sometimes leads to heated exchanges on the Deep Adaptation platforms, which reflects lively discussions about this topic in people’s lives, I have been asked a few times to share my perspective on it – particularly in relation to deep adaptation to climate change. Here I am sharing some initial thoughts, as well as my own choices on this issue. In sharing these views, I am not suggesting this is an official position on diet from the Deep Adaptation Forum – we are a diverse group of people who are all exploring the many ways to embody and enable loving approaches to our predicament. Therefore, I have invited two other perspectives on the matter, from homesteader Jane Dwinell and vegan Jonathan Leighton, which I share at the end of this post.

I have now come across many reasons for either vegetarianism or veganism – health, environment, compassion, even social justice. When people discuss the issue of vegetarianism or veganism in person or online, the expression of views can become heated and lead to exaggerated claims on both sides. It is neither wrong nor dangerous to advocate for more veganism, nor is it wrong or dangerous to argue against that position. I understand that for many people who choose to be vegetarian or vegan, they can feel deep pain about the suffering of animals and have been dismissed for years. I also understand how some people may feel personally attacked for their choices, when they hear advocates of vegetarianism or veganism. Whatever our current opinions and choices on diet, we can avoid blaming people for any emotional responses in us when we hear people expressing their views on this matter. If we are annoyed by them then that is neither their fault nor a reason to dismiss the issue they are talking about.

It is good to be interested in cutting our carbon footprints, to do whatever might slow climate change, even though that might be ineffectual due to natural tipping points. Vegetarianism and veganism are relevant to cutting carbon emissions. Some animal foods in particular, mainly grain-fed beef, are hugely carbon intensive. Other animals have far lower carbon footprints. In certain cases, perhaps having your own chickens might lead to lower carbon footprints for your diet (e.g. if it means less imports from across the world, e.g. soy). Something we can all do now is cut down on our red meat and dairy consumption massively or completely, and reduce consumption of other meat products as well. To be coherent on the issue of carbon cuts, we can also look for more local sources of fruits and vegetables. It can also be useful to encourage others to consider such changes and to campaign for changes in business practices and law, such as via carbon taxes, in order to encourage significant shifts. However, carbon reduction is not the main topic when we are looking at adaptation and deep adaptation, so discussing or advocating either vegetarianism or veganism for that purpose is not directly relevant to our assessment of how to reduce harm in the face of societal collapse.

So I would like to move on to what matters for deep adaptation in particular. I think some of the key reasons for vegetarianism and veganism being considered, adopted and promoted that are relevant to adaptation and deep adaptation include the following.

First, there is prefiguring our future diets. Some of us may be relinquishing diets that will not be available as industrial consumer societies begin to break down. There will be less meat and dairy than what most people eat today, given how dependent the meat and dairy industry is on extended supply chains and high energy inputs. But societal breakdowns will also mean less availability of certain processed foods which make vegetarianism and veganism an easier choice for many people now. Can we rely on vitamin, mineral and oil supplements in future? Perhaps not. So, a deeply adapted diet will be place-specific, and might include some fish, meat and dairy (or related products).

Second, there is reducing demand ahead of disruption. Climate change makes it likely, perhaps inevitable, that the world will witness falls in grain production. Global grain reserves are currently only a few months and we currently feed about half of our grain to animals. Furthermore, up to three quarters of global soy production is used for animal feed. As climate change increasingly disrupts our food system, it will be important to divert grains and soy away from meat production at times of crisis. In addition, to reduce the general disruption from such climate impacts, it would be useful to reduce the size of the meat and dairy industry right now. However, given the levels of malnourished people in the world, we are not seeing effective distribution of food now to meet basic needs, either within countries or between them. Therefore, lowering the supplies to meat and dairy sectors will not necessarily lead to better nourishment globally.

Third, there is health. Seeking to be as healthy as possible to avoid sickness can mean, for many people in modern societies with access to good food options, to eat far less meat and dairy than is the norm at present. That does not apply to everyone, as some people have particular dietary needs, or do not find the relevant affordable quality sources of nutrition without meat or dairy. Fish, eggs and honey are another matter, as they do not present problems for health like high consumption of meat and dairy can do. Some forms of meat consumption also present risks for the spread of particular diseases, such as live markets of wildlife that come into contact with bats (the way coronavirus outbreaks in humans are most likely triggered). That is an issue of better procedures and regulations for the meat industry as much as meat consumption itself.

Fourth, there is reducing suffering. As one becomes more aware of our common mortality and our limited agency in achieving progress on the things we care about, particularly in relation to climate change, many people desire to reduce their own involvement in any suffering, of any human or other sentient life. Some people experience this as a shift towards more gentle and loving kindness towards all sentient life, both human and non-human. Some people begin to shift their perspective away from humans as the centre of reality (anthropocentrism), and respect and cherish nature and its various life forms more. For them, becoming more or totally vegetarian or vegan feels like an expression of who they are as they face the predicament humanity is now in. If motivated in this way, people can be as concerned by the number of animals suffering, rather than the carbon footprint of one kind of meat over another.

There may be other reasons for how vegetarianism and veganism relate to deep adaptation, and I am open to hearing them. The four reasons I listed above are not the only issues when considering the dietary implications of deep adaptation. Let’s turn now to some issues which pose questions about whether going meat-free is the best approach after all.

First, there are many people who are malnourished in the world at present – about a billion. That is going to get worse. Poor and malnourished people need to access nutrition however they can get it. In many cases that will mean they will obtain some nutrition through meat, fish, eggs and dairy. It is important, essential, that people do not let their current privilege shape the way they understand what is better or worse as we face collapsing societies. In addition some people who are not poor have health conditions or constitutions which mean they need some fish, meat or dairy to stay well.

Second, many people will be choosing a path of developing their own resilience to the breakdown of societies by seeking to be more self-reliant in food production. In many cases some animals will be involved in their efforts. In addition, some people may be increasing their stores of backup food supply, in case of disruption to normal production and trade. Since the start of the Covid19 pandemic and the increasing disruption of normal food production and distribution, that kind of ‘prepping’ is more widespread. Even vegetarians may consider including some tins of fish and meat in those back up stores, to provide a range of options for nutrition, given that we don’t know how our diets will be disrupted.

For the reasons above, including not pre-determining a path for deep adaptation, decolonising our thinking, and not pretending that one action can sidestep problems of power in societies to deliver a solution, I do not support the argument that for climate mitigation or adaptation people should seek that the whole world should become vegetarian or vegan. However, I deeply respect people who choose that diet and advocate for more vegans and vegetarians, as well as proposing policies to discourage meat and dairy consumption, especially that which is produced in poor conditions and with heavy environmental costs.

So what about me? For 5 months I have been a vegetarian, apart from a few meals of meat or fish during that time. It has been fairly easy for me to do that, as I have the funds and availability of good vegetarian food, as well as access to various supplements. I am open to further changes in my diet, particularly with dairy because of its connection with the meat industry, and I have bought free range eggs. I will continue to eat some fish about twice a month, as well as take fish oil supplements, due to some concerns I have about my own health. I am open to learning more and changing in future, but for now I have also stocked up with a dozen tins of sardines to store in my month of backup food supplies in this worrying time of pandemic. I eat honey and at this time I do not agree with the view that it is wrong to do so.

I appreciate that some readers might be disappointed that I do not promote veganism more strongly or, conversely, some readers might think it is a distraction from more pressing issues. Some people might even feel like this is meddling with personal choices. I mention those reactions, as they sometimes crop up when this topic is discussed on the Deep Adaptation facebook group. I reflected on that ‘red button’ aspect to this topic for a while and decided we can’t ignore such topics to avoid disagreements at this time. Because everything will be changing in our lives in the near future. How we show up with each other as we prepare then move through a collapse in our way of life is key. It is why we have focused on always returning to respect, curiosity and compassion when discussing any issue or choice. Having said that, we can also share our views. So, to be very clear…

As you deeply adapt your diet, if you physically and financially can do it, I recommend you consider eating less fish, meat and dairy, and source any of it – and any eggs – from ethical and sustainable sources. I also recommend you think about and explain to people your dietary choices and (like me) try to practice remaining relaxed during such conversations! You could also read about how to eat healthily on a largely plant-based diet – something I have started to do.

Thanks for reading. This is a contentious topic for many people. I do not have a fixed or final view on the topic. Therefore, I invited a response from a principled vegan and a principled non-vegan, to share their views about diet and deep adaptation. First, Jane Dwinell, who is one of the moderators of the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook group. Second, Dr. Jonathan Leighton, the founder and director of the Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering (OPIS). I have learned from their testimonies and I hope you will find them stimulating. If you work on this topic, please consider engaging the Food and Agriculture group of the DA Professions’ Network. 

From Jane Dwinell:

“For over forty years, I have been a self-reliant homesteader — first in the country, and then in the city. Over these years, I acquired many skills including how to build energy-efficient houses, live off-grid, repair household goods, homeschool children, use herbs for healing, and grow my own food.

From 45 acres to a large backyard in town, I grew all our vegetables, fruit and herbs organically. I preserved our bounty in many ways — canning, freezing, drying, root cellaring, pickling, fermenting, salting, and smoking. I gathered wild foods, usually with children in tow — berries, chokecherries, wild apples, burdock root and dandelion greens. And their bright yellow flowers for wine.

We also raised animals for meat and eggs. We had a hardy flock of Rhode Island Reds for eggs, and would get in a bunch of chicks destined for meat. They lived in a chicken tractor and spent their days happily moving all over the field, eating and fertilizing as they went. Our daughter loved the chickens, had a small egg business, and often showed her favourite birds at the fair. And when it was time to slaughter them, she and her dad would catch them, kill them, and pluck them — giving thanks as they did so. I was left with tidying them up, and packaging them for the freezer.

We had pigs, too, and they were a handful. Smart and sassy, always getting out of a pen that was moved across the field, so they fertilized as they went. More than once, they managed to get in the house, and I’d have to coax them back to their pen. When slaughtering day came, usually on a cold fall day, I would be in the house giving thanks through tears while I was sharpening my knives. When I emerged with pots and pans and knives, I would find the skinned and gutted pigs on a table waiting for me to divide their bodies up into different cuts of meat. I would brush their teeth, simmer the heads, and make scrapple. I would brine the hams and bacon in maple syrup, and then would smoke them with apple wood. I rendered the fat into lard. No part of the animal was wasted.

The cycle of life. We gave these animals a wonderful life, and they gave us fertilizer and food.

I no longer raise my own meat, but still have the reverence for it as I did then. Now I only purchase and consume locally-and sustainably-raised, grass-fed meat, eggs and dairy products. I know this is a privilege. I can afford it, and I like to support my local farmers. When collapse comes — heck, when COVID-19 comes — I am grateful that we in Vermont (USA) have a strong, local food system.

Human beings have always been omnivores. They ate what was available to them. They worked together to hunt and gather. Then agriculture was invented. Then industrial agriculture. With collapse, and adaptation, the cycle will reverse. Industrial agriculture — of animals or plants — will go first with its heavy reliance on fossil fuels. Then we will have agriculture, and we will do our best to raise what we need. That will include animals as we need their fertilizer, and their dense protein. I’ve tried raising legumes, grains, and seeds, and it’s not easy. I’ve watched a year’s crop disappear in a thunderstorm.

Someday we may be back to hunting and gathering. That won’t be easy either. I know my wild foods, and I can fish, but I have not as yet learned how to hunt. I see a big, fat gray squirrel out my window, and I wonder if the day will come when I will have to figure out how to kill it to have something to eat. In the meantime, I grow what I can, purchase what I can’t, and give thanks for all of it.”

From Jonathan Leighton: 

“I would like to first make clear that for me, veganism is not about purity or about trying to assert moral superiority over anyone. It’s about trying to have impact and reducing the amount of suffering caused by my lifestyle. Even the Vegan Society uses the expression “as far as is possible and practicable”. What we can realistically do is a function of circumstances, and even from the perspective of a vegan, perfect can be the enemy of the good.

I do think it is important that when we make decisions about our lifestyle and diet, that we remember that animals are sentient beings capable of suffering greatly, and that the freedom to do as one pleases has limits when that freedom causes unnecessary harm to others. I think most of us agree that factory farming is barbaric and causes tremendous suffering. Pigs and chickens kept in small cages might suffer as much as a dog exposed to the same conditions, and slaughterhouses are houses of horror where animals wait in terror to be killed. The quantities of meat currently consumed could not be achieved without such intensive operations.

But even in the event of societal collapse, I think we should not take lightly the decision to harm another sentient being (ref). The power of nonviolence as a model for the future will depend on the consistency with which we apply it. Despite the failings of our current civilisation, we have made great strides in shifting attention from outer appearance and characteristics (e.g. skin colour, sexual traits, abilities) to inner experience (what is it like for that individual?), and in gradually expanding our circle of moral concern to include non-humans. I hope we will continue with this ethical progress even if conditions worsen.

I would therefore urge that we make informed dietary choices from a place of compassion, and that we take into consideration the actual amount of suffering caused by our actions. Replacing beef with chicken may be better for the environment, but it could mean many more animals being made to suffer. It would be best to disregard popular myths about veganism and explore how to fulfill our nutritional needs and thrive on a balanced plant-based diet – as far as is possible and practicable.

Charles Eisenstein asked in a new essay, “Are we to be survivalists or helpers? What is life for?” Deep adaptation is a peace movement based on authenticity. We can best align ourselves with these principles by trying to apply them as universally as possible.”

The OPIS page on plant-based eating provides detailed information on nutrition and links to reliable sources for learning more:

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