Fourteen nutrition experts predict sustainability will be the top food trend in 2017, followed by plant based protein. In fact, plant based eating has been trending for years. largely on the premise of being healthier for consumers and better for the planet. However I recently visited Biosphere 2 in Arizona and the experience of participants over 20 years ago challenges the notion that plant based eating and plant based protein should replace meat on the menu.
LESSONS FROM A CLOSED SYSTEM
Biosphere 2 was originally created to demonstrate the viability of a closed ecological system to support and maintain human life. Two times, from 1991-1993 and again from March to September in 1994, the closed system sustained 8 humans with a mix of farm animals including chickens, pigs, and goats, and over 3800 species of plants, animals and insects to mimic 5 different biomes: ocean, desert, rain forest, mangrove and savannah.
During the first experiment, participants struggled to grow enough food and significant numbers of animals and plant species perished under harsh conditions that included acidifying “oceans”, decreasing oxygen levels, and other imbalances in the ecosystem.
LESSONS LEARNED ABOUT GROWING YOUR OWN FOOD
The initial group of 8 biosphere participants learned just how exhausting it is to grow all of your own food. Our tour guide commented that participants harvested enough fish to eat this precious protein source only once every four months. The participants mostly subsisted on sorghum gruel for breakfast and easy to grow hyacinth beans, bananas, sweet potatoes, and beets. They drank goat milk, made goat cheese, ate eggs from the chickens and meat from the pigs. Limited coffee bean harvests meant that a cup of coffee became a once every two week indulgence.
However, necessity became the mother of invention. When cockroaches threatened to overwhelm the community, they were collected and fed to the chickens. Consequently each chicken produced one more egg a week. Scientists know we often do our best learning under duress when things aren’t working out as planned.
During the 2 year experiment all the participants lost a significant amount of weight, ranging from 9.1 kg +/- 6.6 kg. That translates to as little as 5.5 pound loss and as much as 34.5 pounds lost. The historian at Biosphere 2 stated that the first group of 8 left the closed chamber at 10% body fat. Despite claims that they never experienced nutrient deficiency, I have some misgivings for a few reasons.
In western medicine we rarely measure nutritional status in routine blood tests. From the data collected, there didn’t seem to be any significant assessment of vitamin or mineral status.
On a metabolic front, all measured metabolic markers such as blood pressure, insulin, blood glucose, and blood fats (ie cholesterol) improved, but that always happens with fasting, extreme dieting, and semi-starvation. More significantly the participants suffered a significant decrease in metabolic rate that persisted even six months after they left Biosphere 2, despite eating as desired and regaining back to their usual weight.
I can’t help but wonder why this data wasn’t better disseminated. Many scientists basically wrote off Roy Walford, MD and his band of enthusiasts, and during the second Biosphere 2 effort scientists that lent credibility to the project left. However maybe we should have paid more attention. I’m thinking that subsequent data published by Walford could have informed the producers and medical team of The Biggest Loser that participants would suffer a long lasting impact on their metabolism, but I digress.
LEARNING FROM FAILURE IS NOT FAILURE
In the day skeptics and the press framed the Biosphere experiment as a bust, however Jane Poynter emphatically challenges the notion that Biosphere 2 was a failure in her memoir, Life in the Biosphere. Many lessons were learned, not the least being the need for animals in a closed system. Linda Leigh, a scientist who engineered several of the biomes for the second group of biospherians, put it this way: “Generally, we humans take our ecosystems apart species by species; in Biosphere 2 we were putting them together species by species, soil by soil, microbe by microbe”.
The participants struggled to manage and balance the ecosystem in the closed system of Biosphere 2. All food was grown organically and bio-dynamically, utilizing every living organism in attempt to produce enough food. The closed system couldn’t tolerate the introduction of industrial chemicals, so that meant no NPK fertilizers and no pesticides. Animal waste (and I assume human waste although I forgot to ask) provided a primary means to recycle nutrients and fertilize the soil.
In biosphere 1 (planet earth) the impact of pesticides and industrial fertilizers draw great controversy. For over 60 years industrial agriculture presumed the necessity of petroleum based inputs to grow enough food, and advocates today continue to insist on the necessity of conventional agricultural. Many of us question that premise.
In fact, regenerative agriculture implementing the best of biodynamic practices seems to match and sometimes exceed industrial agriculture productivity. At the same time the best regenerative practices create far less air pollution and water contamination, increase water aggregates and water flow in soil, and enhance soil ecology by sequestering carbon and increasing organic matter. I am reminded that nature gets the science right, and so do stewards of the land when they learn to work with mother nature instead of trying to manipulate her.
A SUSTAINABLE VEGAN DIET DEPENDS ON ANIMALS
Eating more whole foods, and enough plants foods, forms a strong nutritional foundation for most of us. However, a vegan diet is not inherently healthier for all. After all, semi-starvation offers most of the same metabolic benefits.
Despite the fact that PETA recently declared 2016, and then 2017 “The year of the vegan”, many people need adequate animal protein to support and maintain metabolic health. Instead of glorifying a vegan approach, let’s celebrate an opportunity to grow all food in a more regenerative and productive manner with far less ecological harm.
When food is grown with the most sustainable and regenerative methods, we can let go of any illusions regarding which diet is best. We can lay down the ill conceived moral imperative to eat only (or mostly) plants. Ironically, the cost of growing better food will likely mean we all eat less meat and other animal products.
Biosphere 2 teaches us that inherently even vegans depend on animals to recycle nutrients and maintain healthy diversity above the ground and below. It may be difficult to appreciate the need to effectively recycle nutrients in biosphere 1, but the lessons of Biosphere 2 are clear enough for all of us to understand. We need the animals whether we eat them or not.