Biotechnology / Environment / Food Security / Genetics / Opinion piece / Policy / USA

Greening our meat: A vegan conservationist speaks out, and considerately, on controversial food issues

Meat, ink and watercolour on paper (15 x 11″), created 25 April 2012 by artist Kristy Modarelli for the The Aldas Project: 366 Drawings for Good, a year-long project conducted by artist in 2012.

Vegan and conservationist Mark Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, the largest environmental non-profit organization in the Americas, had an interesting response this week to a question about eating meat and genetically modified foods—two of the most durable of the hot ‘foodie’ topics of the North, with vegetarian and carnivore consumers, organic and high-tech farmers, passionately entrenched in diametrically opposing views.

‘This week, I was asked an interesting question as part of the Q&A session following a talk I gave . . . .

‘To paraphrase journalist Marc Gunther, who moderated the evening: “You are a vegan. You also lead the world’s largest conservation organization. Why doesn’t The Nature Conservancy make changing people’s diets one of its strategies? Wouldn’t changes in diet lead to better environmental outcomes? And what about GMOs?”

‘Indeed, I have been a vegetarian for a long time, and I recently became a vegan. . . .

‘But it’s not quite so simple. Here’s why. . . .

‘[A]s global incomes rise, we will see—among many other positive outcomes—a trend toward improved nutrition. Tradition and culture suggest that this will mean an increase in protein-rich diets.

‘Instead of trying to change this trend, I think we should focus on producing more meat from existing pasture and farmland. That means paying more attention to soil health, water conservation and agricultural extension, giving farmers the support they need to produce more and do it smartly.

But in a time of shrinking budgets for many governments, in too many places public funding for agricultural research and extension is declining. This trend is disturbing. We should invest in solutions, even when public funding is tight. . . .

‘Getting more from land already under cultivation is key. Nevertheless, some expansion of farming and grazing is inevitable. So another vital challenge is to channel that expansion to areas where it will do less harm. This process inevitably involves some trade-offs, but we have the science to identify where controlled expansion could take place with relatively fewer environmental impacts and costs. . . .

‘Technology is also important. Precision agriculture, for example, could be a game-changer. By targeting inputs like water and fertilizer more accurately, farmers can improve environmental outcomes and produce more while using less.

Yet it’s still unclear how we can bring those technological changes to the people who could most benefit from them: smallholder farmers without access to the capital and knowhow available to richer farmers in richer countries. Making technology more accessible so that its benefits can be more widely shared is a major challenge.

‘Another agricultural technology we should consider carefully is genetic modification. The National Academy of Sciences has found no adverse health effects from GMOs, and also concluded that they can be environmentally beneficial in some ways.

Yet having a thoughtful debate on the merits and risks of GM foods has become nearly impossible. The arguments are often based not in science but in ideology.

‘Like all new technologies, biotech products should be carefully assessed on a crop-by-crop basis and appropriately regulated.

We would also be smart to put more focus on making GMO technology available to lower-income farmers, given the potential benefits that climate-resilient GMO crops could bring to the developing world. . . . We need passion on our side, but not at the expense of sound science and open minds.

‘My answer to Marc Gunther’s question is far from simple. . . . [I]n my view, our biggest hope for widespread change lies in “greening” our meat, for those who choose to eat it.’

Read the whole opinion piece by Mark Tercek in HuffPost Green: A new diet for the planet?, 1 May 2013.

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