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

Can We Feed the World on the Primal Blueprint Diet? – Part 3

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 statinsregained your fertilitydoubled 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:

Tear up that lawn.

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.

Eat some starch and fruit.

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!).

Eat bugs.

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.

“Rubber, this lovely gentleman is Road.”

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!

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. Love this series, I completely agree with you Mark. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. This year I purchased chicks, I’m enhancing my veggie garden, and I started composting.

    One thing tho, I would recommend that most people eat SOME fruit or starchy carbs, I’ve seen a lot of problems with people going <50g of carbs long term with their thyroid (hair loss, cold hands feet, lethargy). Adding some good primal carbs would be necessary at least a couple days a week, maybe even more. When they dont eat any fruit or starchy carbs even on an average activity level they seem to have these problems. Its turning people off…..

    activia wrote on March 13th, 2012
    • Could also be an iodine deficiency – not that I disagree that for many people remaining <50g carbs long term is counterproductive and unnecessary. I know first hand that those symptoms can all be reversed while still being <50g carbs.

      rarebird wrote on March 13th, 2012
  2. On the farm where I now live, we have sheep and goats, as well as chickens, ducks, and rabbits, and we have a modest vegetable garden and a small orchard. It’s made going Primal a heck of a lot easier than it would’ve been when I lived in a city. I realize I’m really lucky to be where I am, but you’d be surprised at what can be done in little space. A friend is raising rabbits for food in a spare room of her apartment, and also grows veggies on her balcony in the warmer months.

    Also, we have forest and wetlands here, and have happily eaten edible mushrooms such as “chicken of the woods”, blueberries, wild strawberries and blackberries, and herbs from the non-farm part of the property. Any chance of an article on MDA about wild foods as part of a Primal diet?

    Elizabeth wrote on March 13th, 2012
  3. What exactly is the argument?

    “I really like the whole Idea of being lean and healthy, but if we can’t feed the whole world like this today, I’ll stick to pizza ,twinkles and pepsi.’

    Excellent series on an essentially rhetorical question.

    alex wrote on March 13th, 2012
  4. New to Primal. Living in the NW I intend to be more involved in harvesting wild foods that run, swim and graze, hunting and fishing in other words. I already get game meat from a relative but have never had the experience of getting my own, except for fly fishing where I DO NOT do catch and release, unless it is required.


    Taffy wrote on March 13th, 2012
  5. Could we substitute low-carb for intermittent fasting? It seems to have many of the same health benefits.

    A paleo/primal diet also does not have to be high protein. There are hunter-gatherers surviving on almost any macro-nutrient ratio. The main thing to me is: eat real food. We can feed the world without Kellogg, Nestle and Mars and Pepsico.

    Probably the entire world does not have to eat a PB diet. People with a manual job and without a car can probably be healthy on a diet with more carbs.

    Victor Venema wrote on March 13th, 2012
    • Yes, imagine all the land given over to sugar and we get more food/acre by grazing cattle than by raising corn and soy and feeding them to the cattle. Then there is that use of land to raise corn for fuel for automobiles.

      Not to mention the current system is unsustainable even at current levels, we are mining topsoil, natural gas and in some places water to maintain current productivity. This cannot of course, go on.

      Walter Bushell wrote on March 29th, 2013
  6. Read Joel Salatin, all of his books are great, but I just finished “Folks, This ain’t normal” and I’m recommending it to everyone I know who’s old enough to read. It goes right along with what Mark’s saying about waste and lawns and eating home grown pastured meats, etc. Great read, go check it out at your local library!

    Marie wrote on March 13th, 2012
  7. Wish we could have chickens here in town, I miss mine! Definitely have had urban gardens, though…and almost ate a bug today. 😀

    Cathy Johnson (Kate) wrote on March 13th, 2012
  8. Mark,

    I think your wheat yields are bit on the high side. Mid 40’s would more accurate than 71.4 stated. Here is a USDA link to back that up.
    I grew up in Kansas – just sayin’…

    BookMdano wrote on March 13th, 2012
  9. My prefer insects are lobster and crawdads

    Jason Read wrote on March 13th, 2012
  10. TED “eating bugs presentation:

    Other than escargot, I’ll let the chickens eat the bugs for me just now.

    deb b wrote on March 13th, 2012
  11. Thanks. Was a pleasure to read. Hope that folks who haven’t already will take that first step.

    rarebird wrote on March 13th, 2012
  12. I just love the way you write Mark. A joy to spend time reading your prose not to mention I almost always learn something.

    Love this idea even as a mental exercise. You have changed the trajectory of my life (3 years ago) as well as that of my wife and sons.

    And we have a new farmer as we’ve joined a CSA. Small step but an important one…yard chickens just might come next!

    Radford Harrell wrote on March 13th, 2012
  13. “Insects make sense. They are highly nutritious and a great source of protein, fat, and minerals.”

    {shudder} You go first.

    Elenor wrote on March 13th, 2012
  14. So all those bugs I ate as a kid were good for me. I knew my mom didn’t know what she was talking about.

    Nate wrote on March 13th, 2012
  15. Thanks for that caloric analysis. I always assumed we grew wheat because it provided most bang for buck. If what you write is true — John believes nothing! — then it makes even less sense to push grains on us. I didn’t see the caloric yield of a cow or chicken egg.

    Of course so many of us low carb because we need to. We’re recovering carbaholics with chronic ilness. Fast forward to a self sustaining ancestral eating society where obesity and western disease have normalized, upping the “safe” carb content makes sense.

    Of course the barriers to these visions remain strong. The Red Meat Warriors fight hard, and the masses are not yet being won over. Fine, more steak for moi.

    John wrote on March 14th, 2012
  16. Mark, I am not eating bugs.

    rabbit_trail wrote on March 14th, 2012
    • If you eat free range chicken, you are eating bugs.

      Hens and capers are hell on any bug that wanders into their slice of acreage.

      Kristopher wrote on March 14th, 2012
  17. We did two things when we removed our lawn years ago. In addition to putting in a vegetable garden we had the local native plant store design a landscape plan to renaturalize the remainder of the yard. We turned it into a bird and butterfly sanctuary and my husband sold the lawnmower. We now have a wonderful – very low maintenance – nature retreat available by just stepping out the front or back door!

    Francie wrote on March 14th, 2012
  18. The hunter/gather lifestyle dominated before humans had what we now call civilization. This was a time when the density of human population was quite low relative to what it is today. It was the advent of agriculture, with the production of starchy calories that could be stored through the non-growing season (wheat, rice) that higher population densities could be sustained. That, in turn, fostered the development of organized societies and civilization. That change might not have been entirely to the benefit of the health of individuals, but the advantages of civilization did outweigh the dietary advantages of the hunter-gather lifestyle. Civilization won out.

    Perhaps we are now smart enough to recover some of the advantages of that earlier dietary regime without giving up the advantages of civilization. But there are clear limits imposed by the shear density of population that currently exists.

    Craig wrote on March 14th, 2012
  19. I just want to say that, with the number of people eating grains, and with the amount of side effects they are starting to notice from GMOs, I think we will (even in 3rd world countries) reduce population simply by making everyone more sterile (I think if it is happening in pigs, cows, hamsters, and guinea pigs, it is probably also affecting humans), so then the reduced population will be able to eat on a Primal plan. Sounds terribly crass, just written thus – and it’s not like I am unfeeling – but it seems like that’s where is is going…

    Kerstin wrote on March 14th, 2012
  20. I believe grains have caused the over population of the planet.. Without them and fossil fueled agricultural farming we wouldn’t Be in this predicament
    Really enjoyed the vegetarian myth by lierre Keith recommend to all.

    Chris guy wrote on March 15th, 2012
  21. “No more vegans and vegetarians, no more PETA, no more T. Colin Campbell, no more heart disease, no more cancer, no more diseases of civilization.”

    Since obviously eating primal is the save all answer to 100% of people on earth, no exceptions. Vegan or vegetarian diets have never benefited anybody on earth. Everybody should wear a blue shirt and a red hat. Nobody should play the harmonica. bla bla bla.

    what about something more like this:

    “If everybody was more concious of the food they ate, and found the optimal combination of sustainably produced whole foods for that INDIVIDUAL, then the world would better off”

    For some of those people it would be primal, others may find success in lacto-ovo vegetarianism, others a raw food diet. Maybe I’m too open minded…

    Michael Seiser wrote on March 17th, 2012
  22. I’m all for eating insects that are filtered through the bodies of mammals or birds. Eating insects myself makes no sense to me. They are a fine food for my chickens. (I feel the same way about eating flax; let the chickens’ bodies convert that into Omega 3 fatty acids for me.) They already eat all the insects they can catch on their own, and I’m about to start growing grubs for them in a “biopod composter,” which is going to be delivered this week.

    Jeanmarie wrote on March 18th, 2012
  23. Mark, as this is a thought exercise on “if the world went Primal, how will we feed everyone?”, I was wondering if you took into consideration that that would mean big agra would no longer occupy 40% of the world’s arable landmass since there’s no demand for those crops anymore. That’s an awful lot of land for pasturing and organic gardening, was this also factored in? Considering this, maybe nobody actually needs to resort to eating insects or intermittent fasting as a necessity but rather by choice and we’ll have organic vegetables and grass-fed beef and mutton for all…?

    Joseph Florendo wrote on April 16th, 2012
  24. I would like to add something to the argument of sustainability. We can talk all we want about being responsible for our food choices, but the fact of the matter is that our food choices wouldn’t be so problematic if the human population wasn’t continually growing by leaps and bounds. I will probably get burned for stating this, but I don’t understand why this one area is so neglected when we are speaking of caring for our planet. Being responsible for our population should be just as important. And it is caring. Because our grandkids and great grandkids and great-great grandkids are going to be facing it if we don’t.

    Nomad wrote on March 11th, 2013
  25. I think we’re all going to have to be more mindful of what and how we’re eating as the population grows. We are looking at buying a home and one of my main requirements is a backyard (not too easy in DC) to grow a garden and have chickens (which is illegal in DC but I don’t care). I think converting all the grain and soy based crops to pastured farms and responsiblly grown gardens would be ideal and totally feasible.

    Dani wrote on March 13th, 2013

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