Eat food, not too much, mostly plants

It just occured to me that I’ve been pushing what could be seen as a mando-vegan agenda here, on twitter, and in real life. I just wanted to take a moment to clarify. I won’t bother with references, although I’d be happy to provide if anyone asks…

Cheap grain-fed meat is the single biggest problem facing agriculture, medicine, and arguably the planet. People who eat too much meat are undeniably less healthy than people who eat a varied diet. Feedlot beef and factory farmed pork are undeniably harmful to land and water all on their own. Corn and soy grown to feed all those factory farmed animals are a monocultured fertilizer and chemical intensive mess on top of the mess the animals themselves produce. Animal agriculture contributes more to global warming than all of transportation combined (according to the UN’s FAO). And, of course, there’s the animal welfare issues.

If feedlots and factory farms were the only way to produce meat, yes, I would probably advocate a vegetarian if not vegan diet for all. However, there are ways to raise animals that is good for the land, that produce meat that is more healthy for humans, that doesn’t pollute… these methods are especially well suited for land that can’t be used for farming such as grasslands in places like Montana and Texas.

Instead of advocating that each person stop eating meat, I advocate that they stop eating cheap meat that pollutes the earth and their bodies. Choose quality over quantity for all animal products. Instead of filling every meal with cheap meat, have quality meat (or eggs, cheese, fish) once a day or less. Make up the rest of your diet with whole foods (not necessarily Whole Foods).

What I’d like to know is why this is so hard for people to say. Article after article, like this week’s Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food in TIME get sooo close to saying it, but then fail. They tell us “the meat industry is bad” but then don’t take the last step in saying “don’t eat it”. They tell us the cop-out “eat organic” which doesn’t solve the cheap meat problem at all. It’s frustrating and terrifying as industrialized nations like the United States eat more and more cheap meat per capita every year, with developing countries like China anxious to catch up.

I’m also extremely frustrated by groups like HSUS and PETA that say they’re fighting for animal welfare, but are really advocating a vegan diet through what are effectively scare tactics. Eating vegan is great for your body and for the planet, but is not for everyone. If they’d scale back the rhetoric and advocate reasonable life changes that everyone can make, they might actually be able to make a difference. Instead, they’re ridiculed by meat eaters and hated by people in animal agriculture.

My food philosophy is well summed up by Michael Pollan’s now famous quote: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. What’s your food philosophy?

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

14 comments

  1. I ate a slice of meat pie for supper on Sunday, complete with a layer of spam. Does that answer your question? Bwahaha!

  2. I subscribe to the "Scary Cheap" principle. If you look at the price of something, say a $5 all you can eat buffet, and you think in the back of your head, "that is so cheap there must be something wrong", then DON’T EAT IT.

    I use the same principle with anything I buy, including clothes, electronics, and laptop computers.

  3. I am vegetarian, but mostly agree with you. A little fish to my diet could be more healthier, I suppose, but even without fish it’s not so bad.

    Off-top: Do you know, is there any technologies in genetic modification of plants, that don’t use T-DNA (or any other part of bacteria) in any step of modification?

  4. Sergy, I’m a vegetarian too. I’m not a fish eater either, due to issues of overfishing, although there is promise of sustainable fish, for those who choose to eat them, such as tilapia raised in tanks on land fed with algae. I do enjoy eggs, cheese, and other dairy – though I try to chose products from farms that pasture their animals or otherwise attempt to feed them sustainably.

    As for your question, I don’t know your background, so I’d rather provide more detail than less:

    tDNA or transfer-DNA refers to part of a type of plasmid found in Agrobacterium and some other bacteria that contains genetic signals that allow transfer of DNA from the bacteria to plant cells. Scientists remove all other genetic material from the plasmid and replace it with a gene they want, like a gene for disease resistance. They can then use Agrobacterium to shuttle the gene into a plant. tDNA alone can also be used to create random labeled mutations, such as in the Arabidopsis 2010 project.

    Anyway, when this method is used, bits of the tDNA on the ends of the gene of interest can be inserted along with the gene. This is pretty useful because these bits can be sequenced and then used as sort of a bar code to identify particular transgenic events. Research has shown that the tDNA is stable – in other words, once it is inserted into the plant’s DNA, tDNA is no more likely to have random mutations than the rest of the plant’s genome.

    The most important thing to know here is that it doesn’t matter. These little tDNA bits are already present in lots of plants, because Agrobacterium and some other bacteria already exist and do this without any human intervention. The difference is that tDNA plasmids found in nature contain genes that make the plants produce tumor tissue that is nice for the bacteria to live in, instead of the engineered plasmids that only contains genes that we want. tDNA is digested by animals and humans in the same way all DNA is digested.

    All that aside, yes, there are ways to create transgenic or cisgenic organisms without using tDNA. The gene gun can be used to insert linear DNA pieces (contrast to circular plasmids containing tDNA) that only contain the gene(s) of interest. The gene gun has its own issues. For example, it is more likely to insert multiple copies of genes while Agrobacterium is more likely to insert only one copy into the plant’s genome. Each one works better on some plant species and not as well on others. There are a few other ways to get genes into plant cells, but these are the main two.

  5. Thank you for your answer!:)
    Can you recommend some book or article, with information about linear DNA and biolistics? I can’t got the idea of how this gene put himself in plant genome.

  6. Hm. Actually, I’m really sorry to say I don’t know of a single book or article that does a really good job of describing the two methods. That doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of good articles that explain one or the other.

    I like this pictoral step by step from UC Davis about Agrobacterium a lot, but it doesn’t talk about things at the molecular level.

    I’ll keep an eye out for a book. That would be helpful!

  7. I have heard other objections to the use of bacteria in genetic engineering. Thanks to Deborah "They’re putting bacteria in our food" Koons Garcia, it is viewed as a scary practice. Especially when people learn that the common bacteria that is used to store genes and sequences in the long-term is E. coli. Oh noes!

    The kind of E. coli that gives people diarrhea and the kind of E. coli used in labs are two different animals, err, prokaryotes. The former is a virulent pathogen while the latter is a tame, domesticated cell with its virulence removed. It has become the lab-rat of molecular biology, able to make copies of circular pieces of DNA containing your gene, indefinitely, until you need to use it. Usually, genetic engineers will make their genetic construct in an E. coli bacterium, and then transfer it to Agrobacterium to then transfer it into the plant.

    There is always the small possibility that a piece of bacterial DNA could get into the plant, which is why you have to prove to regulators that only your DNA of interest is inserted into the plant and nothing else. Even if something slipped through, the chance of it causing any harm is exceedingly small – DNA doesn’t itself make E. coli dangerous, it is how all of the DNA of the virulent pathogen together tells it how to infect our bodies. Given how difficult it can be to get the gene you want to insert into the plant and work properly, the chance of an intact, functional, dangerous gene from getting into the plant from the bacterium, and actually working in a completely different genetic environment is astronomically small. But it sure sounds scary.

  8. My biggest problem with using E. coli as a lab rat is the stink. I hate the smell of bacterial cultures. Blarg.

  9. Yes, nice "pictoral step by step". Thank you.
    And I am reading now this article.

    But I can’t find something about biolistics:(
    ___________
    To Karl: Escherichia coli is a one species, isn’t it. But let set aside E.coli. Can we transform plant without any help from Agrobacterium? I mean ANY help.

  10. Sure, you can transform a plant with a gene gun, aka biolistics, the wikipedia article on it should be a good place to go first:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_gun

    It works by shooting the gene into the cells, some of which arrive in the nucleus, and some of those get hooked up in the cell’s chromosomes.

    There is also another bacterium similar to agrobacterium that someone has found that can perform the same function, but I forget the name.

  11. <Cheap grain-fed meat is the single biggest problem facing agriculture, medicine, and arguably the planet.>

    There is no question that this statement is true. Most of the world outside of the Americas, animal fat is just a flavoring and meat for special occasions.

    I would add another that is, unfortunately, gaining acceptance and that is ethanol production. It motivates industrial farms to put ever more land under cultivation and convert it fuel for automobiles. Ethanol production requires 20 times more water than gasoline, uses much valuable phosphorus, and produces an astonishing amount of CO2 and other waste. It simply is a technology that is not even close to being perfected. It certainly should not be subsidized by the government, especially on such a vast scale. If you think of all those automobiles in traffic as being vast herds of land mammals you will see that it is, indeed, a really bad idea. Ethanol production is just more carnivorism. It is also raising the price of food and causing starvation in Latin America and Africa. If Cap and Trade passes it will here too.

  12. That is true of grain ethanol, Dad, but there are other biofuels that aren’t so harmful – particularly biofuels from perennial grasses and from algae. Biodiesel from soy and other oil sources are also promising. More research needs to be done of course. Here at Iowa State, we have a newly opened "New Century Farm" dedicated to exploring some of these possibilities, including their impacts on soil and water. It’s so new, they barely have a website up. They’ll also have projects on processing the feedstocks to make fuel production more efficient. I’ve seen it myself and I’m really looking forward to seeing the research that comes out of the plant.

  13. Like I said, let’s do the science, lets get a technology to work before subsidizing it on an industrial scale with borrowed money. What is wrong with seeing what works efficiently with less waste before committing taxpayers money, far into the future, on a project that, at best, creates starvation in the third world? I would think that some sort of modified cyanobacteria would be the best at collecting and storing sunlight as sugar, which is what all plants do. I would think, because of the danger, that a death cycle would have to be an integral part of that one.

    Like government healthcare, besides being anti-Constitutional, lets see it work before jumping off an unknown cliff, like the proverbial lemming, and committing trillions to another astronomical government boondoggle that you will be paying many times over for the rest of your life. Let’s do the due diligence and see what works.

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