October 29, 2007 at 12:00AM
By James MacKinnon
A study by Cornell University crop and soil scientist Christian Peters found that the most sustainable local diet for residents of New York State would actually include some animal products. (And by some we mean not much: about 2 oz. per day; e.g., one egg plus a piece of meat about the size of an iPod.)
The research found that livestock can often be sustainably grazed over poor quality agricultural land that would require a lot of effort and energy to farm. You can produce more vegetarian food per acre on good land in New York, but if you raise livestock as well, you can draw food from a larger land base overall. It matters, too, how you produce those animal products. Free-range animals, besides being healthier and happier, are the most environmentally efficient; factory farming sends environmental costs through the roof.
The farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry once declared, "Eating is an agricultural act" - a reminder that real people and real places produce the food that seems to appear magically on our plates."
Today, we need to go further and say, "Eating is an ecological act." The Cornell study emphasizes that local conditions are what count when it comes to deciding the most environmentally sustainable way to eat. Some areas are surrounded by nothing but top-grade agricultural land: in those places, theres little doubt that a wholly vegetarian diet would be the most efficient and sustainable. Meanwhile, the high-fat, meat-heavy diet that many people eat today isn't likely to be sustainable anywhere - it is the least efficient possible use of land and resources. Feeding New Yorkers this conventional diet would use up three times as much land per person as the preferred, low-meat (egg-and-an-iPod) diet described above.
That extra land isnt available. While a more efficient diet could feed 50 percent more New Yorkers on local food, the study found that it would still only add up to 32 percent of the states population. We continue to believe that local food systems' productive power is consistently underestimated, ignoring the volumes of food that can be produced on marginal land and even in our cities. Nonetheless, New York appears to be an example of a place that must, for now, rely on food from farther afield. Which raises the question: What does it mean when the way we build our cities makes it impossible to live sustainably?