Is what's good for you also good for the planet?

In an OpEd today, Dean Ornish reviews some of the science about eating healthy.  Ornish is famous for curing heart disease through diet and lifestyle change rather than with drugs or bypass surgery.  He's also famous for challenging the Atkins diet, which may help some people lose weight, but is still unhealthy.

Anyhow, one sentence in his OpEd struck me because I think it's what many people presume be true, but I'm not sure whether it really is.  Here it is, in context:
WHAT you eat is as important as what you exclude — your diet needs to be high in healthful carbs like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy products in natural, unrefined forms and some fish, like salmon. There are hundreds of thousands of health-enhancing substances in these foods. And what’s good for you is good for the planet.
[my emphasis]

I'm sure Ornish is right about what's really healthy.  But is it true that what's good for you is good for the environment?  I'd guess he's referring mainly to meat consumption, especially fatty red meat.  Red meat is bad for you and can be costly in the sense that it takes more caloric energy to sustain animals than if one were to consume whole grains, and cut animals out of the picture.

As a first cut, this seems right.  But we are also quite efficient and producing corn and soybeans for animal feed, and we've grown amazingly efficient (some might say inhumane) in the way we raise animals so as to minimize their movement and caloric consumption and thus maximize conversion of feed grains into meat.

And so I wonder: if we were to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish, would that ultimately be better for the planet?  For one, I rather doubt we're nearly as efficient producing calories from fruits and vegetables as we are from corn and soybeans.  Grass-fed, free-range beef may be healthier than corn-fed beef, but it may well be worse for the planet, because it generally uses more land and resources.  And we have all kinds of challenges with sustainably harvesting and farming fish.

Anyway, there is a subculture (organic, eat local, grass-fed animals, etc.) that often goes hand-in-hand with the culture of eating more whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies, fish, etc.  This culture seems to  presume these foods are not only the healthier but also better for the environment.  In some cases this is probably true; in other cases it's probably not.  It's a question that probably deserves more scrutiny.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. It's at least possible that yields could increase for caloric substitutes to grain and grain-by-way-of-meat. We've been fine-tuning agriculture toward grain for some time, investing a lot of infrastructure and R&D.

    I recently heard Bruce Babcock talk about the long-run inelasticity of supply of grain, and I bet you would agree. But I would think suppply of fruits and vegetables might have a bit more elasticity, especially in the long run, and especially from imports. I'm not certain about the "induced demand" story of innovation, but surely if demand shifted out permanently for fruits and vegetables, there could be some supply response.

    (*Disclaimer: personal view stated here; not necessarily shared by my employer)

  3. Production of fruits and vegetables often requires a lot more use of herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides than grain production. If consumers substitute toward more apples, lettuce, and strawberries, that might help the environment in some dimensions but hurt it in others.

  4. John and Jayson:

    I think you both make good points.

    Crop scientists have told me that we haven't put anywhere near the kind of research and development into breeding fruits and vegetables as we have with grains. And where we're probably nearing the limits of grain yields, we may be a long ways off with fruits and vegetables.

    But Jayson's also right: we use an awful lot of chemicals on fruits and vegetables.

    Legumes might be a sweet spot: potentially less chemicals (especially nitrogen which is the big baddie), more potential with CO2 fertilization, and probably more yield potential than grains.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Nonlinear Temperature Effects Indicate Severe Damages to U.S. Crop Yields Under Climate Change

Commodity Prices and the Fed