Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
7 Mar

Can We Feed the World on the Primal Blueprint Diet? – Part 2

Last week, I opened the discussion of whether or not the whole world could go Primal. As you may recall, I noted that given the realities of our infrastructure, our policies, and the entrenched interests who wield considerable amounts of power and influence, practically speaking such a dramatic shift simply isn’t likely anytime soon. While it may be true that much of the world can’t access or afford grass-fed beef or other examples of privileged dietary staples it shouldn’t keep those that can from enjoying it. In fact, pulling out wallets can go a long way toward changing the state of things as they are now. That was last week, though. Today, I’m going to address some of the logistical concerns many of you raised regarding a transition to a world of Primal eaters. This is a huge topic beyond the scope of any one blog post, and there’s no magic bullet, but I’ll give it an honest go.

What follows are a few commonly cited logistical concerns folks express regarding feeding a world of Primal Blueprinters, slightly embellished with selective use of punctuation and followed by my thoughts. It may not happen (probably won’t), but it’s helpful, I think, to entertain the possibility of a global shift. First, the most basic concern of all:

“Primal can’t match the calories people are currently eating!”

First of all, we waste a lot of food, folks. A lot. Globally, a third of edible food (PDF) is never eaten, mostly in industrialized countries. A third! It exists and can be eaten by humans, but it simply isn’t. In America, food waste jumps to 40%, or about 1400 calories per person. And when you look at the household level, at actual families bringing food home, 25% of it is wasted. In these studies, the definition of “food waste” is a food loss caused by retailers or consumers; other “food losses” occur in production, post-harvest, and during processing. The food, then, is there. We’re just squandering it.

Second, do people even need the amount of calories they are currently getting? Take a look at this interactive world map of global daily per capita calorie intake. The United States is, unsurprisingly, at the top of the heap with 3770 calories per person per day (up from 3510 calories in the early 90s). Most other developed nations fall in the 3000+ range, while emerging nations like China (2970 kcal/day, up from 2580 in the 90s) and India (2300 kcal/day, same as the early 90s) get by on far fewer. Calories don’t tell the entire story, of course, but it makes you wonder. Do humans really need 3770 calories every day? Unless they’re on a mass gain protocol of whole milk and squats (to which the vast majority of the 3770 calories-eating population of the country is assuredly not subscribing), I’d argue that they generally don’t.

I certainly don’t.

Although I don’t habitually track my food intake, my carbs, or my calories, I’ve done it for the blog on a number of occasions, and I’ll typically come in right around 2500 calories (or maybe even a bit less). Maybe a bit more on an active day, but it stays pretty consistent as near as I can tell. As my buddy Aaron Blaisdell says, I eat When Hunger Ensues Naturally, and since going Primal, my hunger tends to ensue calmly, naturally, and justifiably. Because I’m eating Primal foods, I get hungry when my body honestly needs the calories and nutrients. No tricks, no unnatural spikes in hunger brought on by industrial foods designed to induce ravenous, unnatural eating even though you’re already overweight and replete with energy.

So, yeah, maybe a Primal food system couldn’t match the hypercaloric intake of a sick, overweight population eating foods that dysregulate appetite (both by express design and by evolutionary mismatch) – but the point is it wouldn’t have to match it. I posit that caloric intake and “needs” would spontaneously drop, as they have for the many thousands of people who have already gone Primal. How far might they drop? A study (PDF) from 2000 examined, in addition to other stuff, the average daily caloric intake of extant hunter-gatherer populations. The authors found that average daily caloric intakes generally stayed between 1200 calories and 2700 calories, with one outlier dipping lower and one (the Hadza people of Tanzania) obtaining 4030 calories per day.

(Somehow, I doubt the Hadza were very fat.)

Next up are the myriad concerns folks have with the viability of grass-fed, pastured beef (and other animals):

“There’s not enough pasture for everyone to eat steaks!”

Perhaps so, but:

Grass-feeding cattle can be done far more efficiently. Take the famous (but not famous enough, it seems) Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, whose rotational grazing method gets him 400 “cow days” per acre; a cow day is the amount of grass a cow will eat in a day. Farms in his area average 80 cow days per acre. If everyone converted to his methods, or at least incorporated some of them, we could provide a lot more grass-fed steaks per acre than we currently provide.

There’s more pasture available than most people think. Consider that all cows, even grain-finished cows, generally begin on pasture. You know all those cows you see nibbling on lush grass besides highways? The vast majority of them will end up on a feedlot somewhere. If we keep them on grass, convert the cropland currently being used to grow animal feed grains to pastureland, and make sure to use efficient rotational grazing, yields would increase further.

We’re not just eating cows here. Other animals exist, like sheep, or the goat. We may not see many goats in the United States or Europe, but Africa has 511 million of the things domesticated, and Asia has almost 300 million. Goats produce milk, meat, and can thrive on forage that other animals wouldn’t know what to do with. In fact, incorporating other livestock, like sheep or goats, into your cattle grazing actually increases the overall output of all three. Since sheep, goats, and cattle prefer different types of forage, they work very well together.

Who said anything about eating nothing but steak, anyway? People would obviously have to utilize the entire animal from nose (or beak) to tail. Offal of all kinds would have to be eaten, including various glands, sacs, linings, cartilaginous tissues, skin, fat, blood, and bones that normally get processed into animal feed, discarded, or repurposed for other culinary and non-culinary products. A cow that weighs 1150 pounds live will produce a dressed carcass weighing just 715 pounds. From that 715 pounds, 146 will be discarded as “fat, bone, and loss.”

And now, the environmental impact of all those farting, chewing cattle:

“But grass-fed cattle produce more greenhouse gases!”

Ah, yes, that one. While a couple studies have found that grass-eating cows produce more methane than grain-eating cows (which shouldn’t really surprise you; just imagine the incredible farts you could produce by running pounds and pounds of fibrous grass through multiple stomach chambers), I’m not sure we’re getting the whole story. Feedlot-fed cattle may not fart as much, but they also don’t enrich the soil, generate new grass growth, or create viable sinks for carbon dioxide (PDF). Furthermore, grain-fed cattle consume grains that require the burning of fossil fuels for production and transport – they get “takeout” almost exclusively – whereas grass-fed cattle eat nourishing food at home that requires little to no external input. Overall, the “environmental footprint” of grass-fed cattle is lower.


“Yeah, but everyone knows grazing causes desertification!”

Not when you employ holistic grazing methods, like Allan Savory’s. Savory (who greatly influenced Salatin) has been reversing desertification in African lands by reintroducing cattle and grazing them in a very specific way. Instead of letting them go where they please across the land, he allows them to intensively graze on one section at a time. The cows are densely packed together and allowed to intensively graze. Their hooves break up the hard, barren ground, allowing water to enter and plant roots to gain purchase. Their manure acts as fertilizer, spurring vegetal growth, enriching the soil, and creating a sink for both water and carbon. As a result, once desertified lands are now lush pastures teeming with life and open water.

Hmm, maybe there’s more room for livestock than we think, eh?

Well, that’s it for today. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, of course. I had hoped to get to some of the (many) other logistical issues, but cattle and calories – two incredibly important topics – took up more room than I expected. Before you go, remember that these aren’t meant to be definitive answers. I’m not saying Primal eating will, or even can, sweep the world. I’m simply trying to explore these problems from a different angle than absolute defeatism since a better world is something worth being optimistic about, and because they appear to be of particular concern to many of you reading.

Next time, I’ll discuss and try to counter some of the other logistical concerns. Until then, thanks for reading! Be sure to leave a comment, and see you next time.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. The really important reason is missing. Non grain foods cannot be transported easily.
    To feed the people you have to transport food efficiently. Most of the wastage happens in transportation and storage.

    To really feed the whole world the production will have to get decentralized. People will have to start eating only local food, and not rely on food imported from elsewhere. This would also mean that economies of scale cannot be employed to reduce production costs and labor requirement.

    This would mean that lots of people will have to get into food production. Yes world will be very different to do this :-).

    This probably will be only practical when robots become much much cheaper:-).

    anand srivastava wrote on March 7th, 2012
    • what it means to me is that food company execs will have to settle for a 80′ boat instead of 100′. At the same time more jobs will be created putting more money into our economy, and in the long run it will work like what I call trickle up economics. I could care less if the world eats primal, bit I think that sustainable farming can be immediately profitable and can solve a lot of problems.

      Robert wrote on March 8th, 2012
    • At this point in human history, the transport of grain foods depends entirely on the continued exploitation of non-renewable fossil fuels. When we inevitably run out of this stuff, we will have no choice but to look to totally revamp our food production system, because there won’t be anything to fuel our ships, planes or trucks. Unless by that time we’ve already sucked all the nitrogen out of the atmosphere and replaced it with carbon dioxide, and made the earth’s surface unlivable for anyone who isn’t a prokaryote.

      Cam wrote on March 8th, 2012
  2. There is so much land that is excellent for grazing and marginal at best for cropping in the world, we should eat more animals, yum. Easily transportable, New Zealand has been sending frozen meat to Britain since 1880!

    And pasture raised sheep/cattle are carbon neutral, it’s the mechanical and chemical inputs that enlarge the carbon footprint. My cattle are probably carbon sinks.

    kem wrote on March 7th, 2012
    • And the stupid thing is that your NZ lamb is cheaper to buy in the shops in Britain than our own rather good lambs produced in the fields and mountains within 20 miles of here. Whats that all about?? It’s come by boat half way round the world… so I’m afraid I don’t buy it…. can’t you encourage those Kiwis to eat a bit more.
      Which begs another question, and its a controversial one.. Should we be moving people to nearer the food supply?

      jane wrote on March 8th, 2012
      • Plus all NZ lamb is halal killed by having it’s throat slit.I can’t support that way of killing my food.

        dave wrote on March 10th, 2012
  3. Another point about the methane issue is that there is already innovation under way. Probiotics for sheep have already been developed in New Zealand and they’re using them for their lamb production. The probiotics drastically reduce the amount of methane that enters the atmosphere and improve the health of the livestock. I suspect that within 10 years all of the enviro-savvy ranchers will be using these, making grass-fed meat an extremely low-emission product. Actually even more of a net-reduction than now.

    Stabby wrote on March 7th, 2012
  4. Short answer yes the only way to feed the would is to focus on quality and appreciation. anything that empowers people to eat better food and rely less on the corporate food industry is going to help feed the world.

    leb wrote on March 7th, 2012
  5. Remember the outcry when Jamie Oliver killed the lamb on tv and then prepared it and cooked it. Some of these eat local foods posts reminded me of that. Could I do it? Yes I think so. If I was shown how by my father as a young person. My mother recalls killing chooks in the backyard for dinner and she is 58 (or would be if she was still alive). Skip forward one generation and I’ve never even collected an egg from under a chooks bum.

    Oh for all you Americans… a chook is a chicken.

    Jane wrote on March 8th, 2012
  6. There is loads of badly utilised land here in Britain, the way the EU fund farming by way of subsidies has scewed the way farmers farm.
    Here in the North the uplands are totally unsuitable for cereal production anyway.. they are however great for sheep and goats.
    So why are the fields empty most of the year here? Subsidies to farmers?
    Remember that not all the world are adults requiring those calories either. Not every one of the 7 Billion of us need 2500 cals a day.
    The only way things will change is by changing our own buying habits and through being good ambasadors for a healthy way of life amongst our piers and friends.. remember 6 degrees of seperation? Thats the way to go.

    jane wrote on March 8th, 2012
  7. A look at Salatin and his farming practices. The blog is an interesting read on raising animals in general.

    mrl wrote on March 8th, 2012
  8. May I suggest watching this documentary

    it’s in 6 parts so follow all the links.
    I found it very interesting and informative with regards to the sustainability of agriculture and gives a lot of answers to question “Can we feed the world on the Primal Blueprint diet?”

    gpc wrote on March 8th, 2012
  9. Informative article, thank you! Our household has gone almost completely Primal, and we don’t even eat beef. We don’t like it. We eat a lot of venison. Just got a nice big doe last week that a friend had hit with his truck. We got 25 lbs of good meat from it and a hide to make a new drum head out of. We raise rabbits, chickens, and pigs; and a huge garden on 2 1/2 acres…. the old adage Think Globally, Act Locally? To me that should be all about food.

    Kari wrote on March 8th, 2012
  10. Just imagine if all those fields of corn and wheat in America’s heartland were turned over to kale, or beets, or whatever. Plenty of salad for everyone!

    Scott wrote on March 8th, 2012
    • No, those fields should be in perennial forage crops or pasture. Kale and beets require too much water, and there aren’t enough laborers to harvest them.

      Lyra wrote on March 8th, 2012
  11. “I am self imposed grammer fiend.”

    As in most cases, it’s the message and not the messenger.

    svend wrote on March 8th, 2012
  12. We can do anything we want to.

    What people REALLY want to do, they do.

    Of course, effective sharing of expertise combined with wise planning and action will help too.

    Thank You for having the courage to address a touchy topic and for helping the world to become a more balanced place.

    Christine Marsh wrote on March 8th, 2012
  13. Isn’t most of the rest of the world already eating grass fed beef? Most countries do not allow the use of antibiotics in their meat. If cows eat corn and soy they get sick. If they get sick they need antibiotics.
    The US not only feeds cows with corn and soy but to add insult to injury feeds them with GMO corn and soy.

    Maureen wrote on March 8th, 2012
    • They are also fed on occasion other animals, and corn syrup sweetened manure. our pigs, which are more adapted to eat grain, are fed table scraps. Near Las Vegas there is a pig farm that buys all of the food waste a lot of which is scraped from the unfinished plates at the buffets. Which is better than the anchovies some pigs are fed, but still gross. The anchovies are being over fished, and penguins are starving because of it. Trying to squeeze an extra out of every business venture is killing our planet.

      Robert wrote on March 8th, 2012
      • extra dollar that is

        Robert wrote on March 8th, 2012
  14. I think Craig makes some valid points.

    Yes, the food production and distribution industry could be more efficient. Yes, we could eat less. But I wonder whether our planet can really support 6 billion healthy primal/paleo eaters even on a healthy, waste free, low calorie diet?

    I first read about the relationship between population and the ownership of food production in “My Ishmael” (Daniel Quinn). His point is, when we mass produce food we have surpluses (in some years), and the population increases to meet this level. Then we produce more food to meet the increased population, and the population increases again. The population increases exponentially due to the positive feedback loop which is clearly not sustainable… for any food production method or diet.

    A hunter-gatherer does/did not take more than could be used, the the population stayed stable. Populations used to be controlled by the direct connection between the amount of food available, and the fact that we had to go and get it (collect, migrate etc.) We are so removed from the source and production of our food now, that the checks and balances are no longer effective.

    Jen wrote on March 8th, 2012
  15. I have killed chickens, gathered eggs, and helped dress and butcher wild game. This year, I am overjoyed that I will be able to use a small garden in the yard of my rental home. Many of us would be in good shape and intelligent enough to survive, and maybe that’s the best revenge, to outlive them all.

    SharonV wrote on March 8th, 2012
  16. considering maybe 10 percent of the population has IBS and most of that can be controlled with the primal diet, and of course people with uncontrolled IBS fart A LOT (I should know)…i think that would cancel out the cow farts. also I agree on calories. I eat far fewer calories on this diet (especially when my gut is “stable”.) Some of it must go to wasted fat stores, but i have this hypothesis that a lot of the grains and carb “filler” ends up excreted–maybe those who take in 3500 on the SAD use 2500 for energy, store 100 as flab and flush 900 down the toilet. just a hunch.

    DThalman wrote on March 8th, 2012
  17. I just want to throw the word Permaculture out there. I haven’t seen anyone mention it in the comments yet. But I most likely missed it. Google Sepp Holzer, Google Geoff Lawton & the Permacultue Research Institute of Australia, Google Geoff most famous permaculture video for beginners Greening the Desert, Check out his Urban Permaculture video, Check out Paul Wheaton’s stuff like this on hugelkulture

    Bryan B wrote on March 9th, 2012
  18. There are so many more sustainable ways to farm…if only we’d adopt them!

    Sarah @ The Healthy Diva wrote on March 9th, 2012
  19. Whoops, posted this as a reply rather than a new comment – mods can delete the other on to keep things tidy if they wish

    One of the major issues here is the Worlds huge population, all those mouths to feed.

    Even in this hypothetical situation, we should probably focus on the poorest people on the planet.

    Well, a lot of (3rd world) families are large due to the high mortality rate, so the larger your family, the more chance you have of having surviving offspring, and the more children there are to take care of you when you get ill or are dying. Of course some religions stance on contraception has not helped this situation.

    This off course leads to less local resources to go around, which leads to malnutrition and high mortality, which requires more offspring… and the circle completes. If reversing desertification can happen – and this is the first time I’ve ever heard that it’s possible, frankly I find it amazing – then rather than propping up these societies with grains, they may be able to recover lush pastures to raise livestock. Grasses/plants also filter waste water, so sanitation improves.

    The 1st World provide huge quantities of grains to the staving poor, however I wonder how much additional damage that causes through inflammation? It’s certainly better than death by starvation for the folks involved, but is it the best we can do with modern resources/technology?

    If it were possible for them to have rich lush pasture land to raise animals on, perhaps the mortality rate would drop (remember that vegetation also filters waste water, so that’s a step in the right direction for sanitation), which in turn would reduce the requirement for huge unsupportable families, so in only a few generations, the population growth may slow down significantly.

    Chris Burns wrote on March 10th, 2012
  20. I also wonder what the affect on the economy would be if we all took more responsibility for the source of our food. The main reason we work is to survive, if we lived in communities that provided their own food, then we’d only need to concern ourselves with shelter and luxuries.

    I feel that working as a community would actually satiate a lot of the desires for modern luxuries. TV/Internet etc are social tools now that we don’t socialise in large groups, and a release from the chronic stress of modern work.

    I think the Mormans have it right, other than no electricity and the whole God thing. A strong community, where everyone grows food and cooks together, helps build each others houses, and generally lives within the limitation of the land.

    Perhaps we should all become Pagan – the Paleo Pagans of Earth.

    Chris Burns wrote on March 10th, 2012
  21. And if we improve the pastureland (and don’t get all Taker about it) we can see deer, elk, buffalo and other grazers move in beside our cows to share it. Talk about a variety in the diet. Daniel Quinn also wrote a little book titled “Beyond Civilization” that is worth reading. How to be tribal where you are, who you are and no trips to live in the wilderness required. Quinn is an authentic thinker and well worth reading.

    primalgrandma wrote on March 12th, 2012
  22. I like to turn things around on the vegans. I ask them how things would work if suddenly everyone stopped eating animals and all animal products. What would we do with all the cows, chickens, pigs, etc..? Would we set them loose? Or would the people who had them just be stuck caring for them? Funny, nobody ever has a good answer for that.

    Nancy wrote on March 13th, 2012

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