7 Billion Cavemen?
by William Green
by William Green: The
Grok the caveman
gnawed his roots and venison in rhythm with the seasons, with no
grain to fatten him and no State to control him. His paleo/primal
lifestyle is just the sort of nonconformist, individualistic, thumb-your-nose-at-the-establishment
idea that libertarians eat up, and it's hard to argue with the basic
premise: our bodies are not evolved for eating bread, but for hunting
and gathering. It's also hard to argue with sustained
weight loss and increased health and fitness. But after I wrote
Anarchist's Diet, one primal enthusiast emailed this question:
"Could a grain-free world sustain 7 billion people?" This is a good
question, since Grok's world included, at most, 15 million or so.
But I think the primal lifestyle is not only healthy, but ethical
and responsible. Here's why.
problem with a shift back to meat and vegetables is pretty clear.
Cattle burn roughly 90% of the calories they consume, converting
only about 10% of the calories in the plants into meat and fat.
That means eating meat is a less efficient use of the sun's energy
for feeding people. To simplify a worst case scenario, let's assume
that all 7 billion of us eat nothing but grain and require all of
the current crop production to survive. If everyone switched to
a 100% carnivorous diet, 90% fewer people could be supported, and
enormous food shortages and price increases would follow.
is grossly oversimplified, of course. We are already
using about 40% of world grain production for livestock feed,
and the primal diet replaces grains not only with meat, but with
increased intake of vegetables. And perhaps more importantly, according
data, as much corn is currently being used for fuel as for feed,
so switching grain from fuel to feed alone could increase available
feed stock by 100%.
we go further, we should acknowledge that similar food supply problems
have been caused by the production of ethanol
and biodiesel, and the same problems would likely be caused
by large scale adoption of organic
farming practices or the elimination of genetically modified
crops. Chemical fertilizers and genetic technologies have increased
crop yields by
a factor of five since the 1930s, and could not be dispensed
with without massive food supply issues. In fact, it seems to me
the same problem would be caused if everyone on the planet simply
increased their intake of vegetables like lettuce and tomatoes,
which have a low calorie content and much less efficient than grains
for sustaining 7 billion people.
But why should
we consider such worst case scenarios as likely? The grim scenario
above assumes stagnant technologies and levels of crop production.
Similar pessimistic and simplistic assumptions made both Thomas
Malthus and Paul
Ehrlich famously and embarrassingly wrong with their predictions
of mass starvation and famine. I see no reason why doom and gloom
predictions and worst case scenarios should be correct this time.
We are not even close to the absolute upper limit on Earth's
primary productivity, which is theoretically limited only by
solar energy (and perhaps limits on the theoretical efficiency
of photosynthesis and available plant nutrients).
is why estimates of the maximum population Earth could support have
ranged from <1 billion to 1000 billion. The median upper estimate
in all of the literature he reviewed was 12 billion. As Joel
Cohen wrote, "Such estimates deserve the same profound skepticism
as population projections. They depend sensitively on assumptions
about future natural constraints and human choices." That is, who
can tell what factors will change in the future? Who can tell what
innovations humans will come up with to increase food supplies?
And even if
7 billion can't live primally, is that a reason for me to eat grains?
How are we to decide such things? The real question is not "Could
a grain-free world sustain 7 billion people?," but "Will my abstinence
from meat really help others?" Will other people really get more
or cheaper food? Will they be healthier and happier? And how do
these considerations weigh against my personal benefits and costs.
in the USA went vegetarian, feed grain would rot in massive storage
piles and grain prices would initially plummet (barring government
intervention). But what are the chances production levels would
stay high? A more likely scenario is that farmers would abandon
grains and many would stop farming altogether. Demand for biofuels
might increase to make up the difference, but then the prices would
be just as high. Either way, it's not as simple as it seems. It's
an example of Hazlitt's One
And the rotting
piles would demonstrate that we don't live in some Nirvana in which
surplus food is instantly and efficiently distributed to all those
in need. Amartya Sen has argued that famines
are primarily political. And when we do send food directly to
starving nations, if it ever gets there at all, the effects are
often hard to predict, and even
damaging to local economies. How much less predictable or effective
is a simple reduction in my personal intake of meat?
It seems to
me, guilty feelings about taking too big a piece of the pie are
caused by sloppy thinking. There is no zero-sum game in food yet,
and there may never be. And who knows, a gradual shift away from
grain and toward a more natural way of life may be just what this
world needs. So when I weigh these nebulous, uncertain, unpredictable,
and even unlikely potential negative outcomes of meat eating against
the obvious benefits to me and those around me, it seems clear.
For now at least, I will choose more health and vitality, and I
will hope for and look forward to the day when 7 billion (and counting)
can do the same.
[send him mail] teaches chemistry
and biology at a government
school and operates a private
tutoring service. He writes as the Hartford
Libertarian Examiner and at williampgreen.com.
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