Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...Tell Me More
Regardless of how well Primal living has worked for you, you’re eventually bound to hear something like the following: “Sure, you’ve lost a hundred pounds, ditched your statins, regained your fertility, doubled your squat 1RM, gotten your diabetic cat off insulin, saved a couple hundred bucks on fancy shampoos, traveled to Southeast Asia and had no problems with the squat toilets… but can you feed the world? Yeah, exactly. I didn’t think so.” What can you do when confronted by such a query? While I sometimes don’t quite get the knee-jerk resistance some sustainability types have to the Primal Blueprint lifestyle, this line of questioning is a prevalent one that deserves an answer. In last week’s installment of this series, I addressed two of the main global sustainability issues commonly raised by detractors or skeptics of the Primal Blueprint – the environmental impact of “all those cows” required to keep us “eating steak for every meal” as well as the (non)issue of supplying 3700 Primal calories for every man, woman, and child on the planet – and today, I’m going to cover something else.
One big point contention with which I actually agree is that to feed a world on the Primal Blueprint diet, concessions would have to be made. We couldn’t all eat steaks and roasts exclusively, as I said last time. People would have to get adventurous. They’d have to try offal and make bone broth and eat goat for the first time. They might have to ditch their zero-carb diet and eat a plant for once. We might actually have to change our ways.
Let’s see what might have to change:
One of America’s biggest crops is lawn turf. To the tune of around 40 million acres, we’re sitting on good old grass in the form of front lawns, back lawns, and golf courses that could easily be repurposed to provide food. Sure, the economic activity generated by kids mowing lawns for allowance and then buying candy is considerable, and ice cream men across the country would protest at the subsequent drop in business, but we could absolutely turn those lawns into productive gardens and chicken runs. If you balk at the labor required, just think of all the labor and hydration you contribute to keep that pristine lawn alive. I don’t know about you, but I find the idea of tending to a wild, bounteous vegetable garden with bare feet and dirty knees rather romantic. So does Robb Wolf.
And it’s actually quite possible. Consider the victory gardens that sprang up during World Wars I and II. At the behest of their governments, folks in the UK, America, Germany, and Canada grew fruits and vegetables in backyards, vacant lots, rooftops, and public parks. In the U.S. during the second World War, 20 million Americans produced up to 40% of all produce harvested nationwide. Decry governmental involvement all you want, because I’m not calling for that. I’m simply showing that the space and ability exists to get it done. It’s also worth noting that victory gardens gave us awesome slogans like “Can the Kaiser!”
Instead of a chicken in every pot, add a few egg-laying chickens to every yard. Feed them kitchen scraps, raise bugs, allow them to forage, and provide feed when necessary. Compost the manure and use it to fertilize your soil. Complain about the dearth of pastured eggs in your area no longer.
Starches are a contested topic in the ancestral health community. A low-carb Primal eating plan is still, in my experience and honest opinion, the best way to lose weight and free yourself from the seemingly-inextricable grasp of the modern industrial food system. The leaner, those who have stalled, those who are active enough to earn them, and the insulin-sensitive among us can benefit from some added Primal starches, like tubers and roots and fruit (and even white rice, as I’ve mentioned before), but when an obese middle-aged person with an as-yet-unfilled prescription for Crestor, an addiction to baked goods, and achy joints comes to me for advice, I’m going to suggest a low-starch, low-carb approach. It just works. That recommendation is not changing.
That said, I question whether we’d really be able to feed the world on a diet of meat and non-starchy vegetables. I’m simply not sure the sheer amount of calories are there. Thus, for this lifestyle to work for 7 billion humans and growing, we’re going to need some calorically dense plants in the mix. Take grains. Why do you think grains are so ubiquitous around the world? They take a huge amount of work to prepare and they come with a lot of inherent nutritional negatives, but they yield a lot of calories per acre.
Romaine lettuce might yield 12,000 heads per acre. At 106 calories per head, that gets you almost 1.3 million calories per acre. That’s okay, and leafy greens are absolutely important in a healthy diet, but they don’t provide a lot of caloric bulk. Not like the tubers. Last year in the US, potatoes yielded 39,700 pounds per acre. At 400 calories per pound, that gets you 15.8 million calories per acre. For sweet potatoes, the national average was 20,800 pounds per acre, or 8.5 million calories per acre. What about fruit? An acre of apples could yield 36,000 pounds of fruit. At 235 calories per pound, that’ll get you 8.5 million calories per acre. An acre of cherries yields 8440 pounds and pack a similar caloric wallop as apples. They’ll get you 2.4 million calories per acre. Not bad, huh?
Meanwhile, wheat yielded an average of 4284 pounds, or 71.4 bushels, per acre. At 672 calories per pound of wheat berries, an acre gets you around 2.9 million calories. “Better” than lettuce, sure, but not potatoes, apples, or sweet potatoes. Corn is more productive at 7.5 million calories per acre (how many will pass undisturbed into the toilet, one wonders), but every grain is outstripped in calories per acre by the humble potato. And considering that we only actually eat about 12% of the corn we produce (the rest goes to animals), no one would even miss it.
Yes, if the whole world were to go Primal, perhaps we couldn’t all eat steaks, roasts, and chops for every meal, and a bunless burger salad on every plate probably might not cut it, but we could produce plenty of calories through Primal-friendly starches and fruits. And they’d be more nutritious than the alternative (whatever we’re doing now). I’m not saying we all have to become Kitavans or anything. We’d just have to, as a people, include more plant foods of sufficient caloric density. I think that’d be okay (especially with all that outdoor gardening we’d be doing!).
Before you log off in disgust, consider a few things that, in my opinion, make insects a wholly viable source of food for humans:
1. Insects enjoy the largest share of terrestrial animal biomass. Heck, ants alone make up about 15-20% of the biomass of land animals. Even if we only focused on wild-caught insects, there are plenty of chitin, mandibles, and thoraces to feed a world of Primal eaters. If we began farming insects en masse (it already happens), we could produce even more.
2. Insects are nutritious. Revisit this edition of Dear Mark in which I discuss their nutritional qualities. Then, check out this PDF entitled, “Feeding Captive Insectivorous Animals: Nutritional Aspects of Insects as Food.” They’re talking about feeding lizards and anteaters and other insectivorous zoo animals, but they could just as easily be talking about the insectivorous animals known as humans. When you look at the tables in the paper, CP is protein content, EE is fat content, and Ash is mineral content, all as percentages.
3. Insects are already on the menu for many people across the world (so there are lots of recipes out there), especially across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Indigenous Australians famously eat the large witchetty grub, Cambodians enjoy fried tarantulas (I know, I know, not an insect), Mexico has the chapulin, the French have their escargot – and those are just a few examples. Besides, modern hunter-gatherers utilize them as food, and it’s likely our ancestors did the same. It’s our birthright.
4. Insects are, well, icky. They aren’t fuzzy and cute. They don’t produce adorable offspring (although I’ve seen some attractive larva in my day). Most importantly, the prospect of their consumption doesn’t induce empathy-based guilt. Simply put, insects are alien beings to us. We don’t relate to them like we do other animals. They frankly frighten many of us, and even many vegetarians and vegans won’t have as visceral a negative reaction to insects as a source of animal protein and fat.
Insects make sense. They are highly nutritious and a great source of protein, fat, and minerals. They are plentiful. There’s already precedent for eating insects (in just about every culture imaginable). And even a vegan will swat a mosquito.
Thinking is easy. Imagining is fun. Getting online and researching a ton of stuff that you could totally see yourself accomplishing someday is all well and good, but what about actually doing the thing? That’s where the rubber hits the road, where thought becomes tangible reality. And if we want to even entertain the notion of feeding an entire world on healthy, well-raised animals and nutrient-dense plants of all (non-grain) kinds, we’ll need some serious self-actualization.
That’s right. We can’t rely on others. We can look to others for guidance or knowledge, but ultimately it’s up to us to make that decision to plant that garden, hatch those chicks, hoof to the farmers’ market despite the rain, and spend that extra $2 on the pastured meat. We talk about those small changes snowballing into something lasting and wide-reaching, and for all the talk of hormones and synapses and neurotransmitters affecting and even directing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, I maintain that the decision – to do anything – rests with our conscious, self-aware minds.
The fun part of all this is that even though feeding the world on Primal is a fantasy, a mere thought exercise, this last factor – the call to self-actualization – is extremely relevant to everyone who reads this. And it’s the most important, whether you want to save the world or lose some weight or, heck, get a job, because anything worth doing requires that the crucial first step be taken by a person to be successful. By an individual who has decided to do so.
Is that you?
Thanks for reading, folks. This is a tough topic with no real right answers. Good points are made on both sides of the argument to which everyone must answer (even us), and I just hope I was able to dispel some myths, assuage some guilt, and provide a bit of ammo for annoying vegan friends. Take care and be sure to leave your thoughts!