From Old Stone Age Diet to Organic Vegetarian
& Ensuring Supplies of Fertilizer
This article was inspired by an item in Science (1) describing a study of survivors of ischemic heart disease with impaired glucose tolerance. The experimental subjects were assigned either a typical Mediterranean diet of cereal, dairy, meat, monounsaturated oil, vegetables and fruit or a Paleolithic (‘old stone age’) diet similar to the above but without the cereal and dairy and with a few root vegetables such as potatoes thrown in. There was a striking improvement in glucose tolerance after 12 weeks in the Paleolithic group compared to the Mediterranean—26% achieved normal fasting blood glucose compared to 7% on the Mediterranean diet (rather casually attributed to less lectin from cereal and no casein from milk). Because this population was selected from people already with heart disease and glucose intolerance, it is highly premature to recommend meat instead of milk for the general public.
I have long thought that man evolved as a hunter gatherer without enough time in settled agriculture to have evolved very much more—the ability to digest lactose as adults comes to mind as perhaps the only good example. For all other mammals milk has always been food only for the young. So the authors were justified in thinking that we might be better adapted evolutionarily to a Paleolithic diet than a more modern one. Socialists could justify the argument that accumulated wealth and its extreme social stratification is also recent and depends on settled agriculture, the wealth initially being non-portable--stored grain and domesticated animal herds. Some unintended consequences follow.
Settled agriculture: Slash and burn agriculture came quickly because of population pressure. Anthropologists have observed that such agriculturalists in modern times revert to hunting and gathering when feasible because it is much less work. This occurred on a vast scale in Amazonia when population was decimated by contagion of European diseases from the Andean Incas long before any exploration of the Amazon (2). Recent research shows that an area the size of France had been cultivated there for a millennium or so and the forest grew back before exploration could reveal the previous scene.
Chainsaws and dynamite (for stump removal) are not needed for deforestation. It happened in Japan prior to 300 years ago. The forests were restored by a tyrant who is now respected for this accomplishment (3). Madagascar’s deforestation has persisted for centuries without the benefit of a tyrant to restore it. So, crops of annual plants erode soil. Even clearing forests for grazing destroys other natural capital services such as reduced flooding and avoiding desertification.
Soil erosion: Closer to home approximately 2/3 of topsoil in heavily cropped areas in North America has been lost and is continuing to erode in spite of the lesson of the “dust bowl” of the 1930s. Very recently, some much too steeply sloping cropland is being returned to corn production because of the ethanol fad—the fuel value of the ethanol produced is approximated by the fuel value of the petroleum for fieldwork and the natural gas for distillation required to produce it. The soil conservation service knows corn cropping should not be attempted on fields sloping more than 3% (the maximum grade that a railroad can ascend). The ultimate solutions for stopping soil erosion are reforestation plus perennial food and energy crops (4).
What about the organic vegetarians? It takes about five times as much acreage to feed a person who eats meat compared to feeding a vegan (a strict vegetarian). This is because of all the food consumed by an animal all its life before slaughter—much greater than the calories in its carcass. Note, however, that ruminants do produce human food from roughage that would be inedible for us. This includes dairy products, of course. Mankind will need to recruit many new human vegetarians if we cannot control our population.
Organic farmers are not permitted by their creed to use chemicals. Therefore, they don’t use triple phosphate fertilizer which is chemically concentrated from phosphate rock by a simple process that removes all the non-phosphate rock thus greatly conserving shipping and handling costs (and energy costs—unnecessary CO2 pollution). For this and similar reasons agribusiness tries to redefine organic to cash in, unjustifiably, on the premium price that organic produce deserves. The US happens to have only enough phosphate deposits for a generation or so at the rate of current usage.
Chinese organic fertilizer: Here is a solution, indirectly from China, for enhancing fertilizer supplies including phosphorus without depleting dwindling natural deposits. Not very long after the Maoist takeover in China, the government, in order to control parasitic diseases, tried to prohibit the use of night soil (human waste) for fertilizer. The rural population resisted because they had always used night soil and they knew that crops flourished with it. After a little constructive applied research, the authorities recommended consistently composting night soil (letting it ferment) for at least six weeks before distributing it on the fields. The parasites were destroyed and large areas of China became free of schistosomiasis. For centuries they had been composting night soil, but undoubtedly less effectively.
We can learn from the Chinese experience. We already ferment sewage in sewage disposal plants, but not until after it has been mixed with industrial waste that includes really bad stuff such as cadmium from electroplating. To emulate the Chinese success all we have to do is separate the industrial and domestic waste before it gets to the sewage disposal plant and the resulting sludge would become quality fertilizer, trace minerals included. When I was a child, hardware stores in Indianapolis had green sacks of Milorganite, dried Milwaukee sewage sludge, for garden fertilizer. Soap, detergents, washing soda, small amounts of Chlorox, sodium phosphate (combats hard water) would not interfere. We already have collection points for paint and other hazardous waste that shouldn’t go down the drain. Garbage disposal into the sewage would not be a problem.
Feedlots and other cities: I have done some “back of the envelope” calculations about the quantity of fertilizer that might accrue per year from the excretion of one adult—a little more than two fifty pound sacks of 10-10-10 fertilizer (10% each of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). This is about one person’s share of fertilizer for a subsistence garden. Admittedly, some organization and incentives would have to be worked out; but, in principle, it is a viable plan. Even with Milwaukee’s long experience with Milorganite, there have been some recalls because of contamination, so careful monitoring of early new programs will be in order. Beneficial side effects and efficiencies will also occur, but let us start with pilot projects in some of the most favorable situations such as a sympathetic public and limited local industrial contamination. The manure from farm animals would all be in addition to the fertility salvaged from sewage, of course.
Speaking of manure and efficiencies, more grazing and less feedlot feeding of animals will reduce the need for annual crops thus eliminating much soil erosion (remember, corn is one of the worst). Point source pollution by accumulations of manure at feedlots could cease. Rotating dairy cattle through a series of paddocks of pasture eliminates hauling hay to animals except in winter and greatly reduces the need to spread manure. Do we need a pasture subsidy instead of grain subsidies? (That was facetious). In New Zealand no grain is fed to dairy cows except the few that supply the local liquid milk market in winter. Grass suffices to supply their world-class dairy industry all summer, every summer.
Summary: the findings from the experimental Paleolithic diet are very interesting, but it is too soon to switch from dairy to meat. Here are some more positive suggestions: 1) More grazing for feeding ruminant animals (cows, goats, sheep) will reduce both soil erosion and point source pollution. 2) Emphasize cereal grains for storage to avoid famine and reduce subsidies of them if only to avoid undercutting the prices paid to poor farmers in the underdeveloped world. (Remember why Joseph was in Egypt in the Bible). Nature has seldom been wrong about processes she has fine tuned for eons. We are part of nature. Feedlots and other cities are our creation. Let us continue to fine tune them.
John A. Frantz, MD. NASW
August 16, 2007, revised August 15, 2010
1) S. Lindeberg et al A Paleolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischemic heart disease, Diabetologia (2007) 50: 1795-1807 see also Science 317: p175 13 July 2007
2) Mann, Charles C. 1491 an article from The Atlantic Monthly March 2002
3) Diamond, Jared Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Viking press 2005
4) The Land Institute www.greenlandsbluewaters.org