Can We Eat to Improve the Climate?

Growing, harvesting, processing, and transporting our food takes about 17% of all the fossil fuel used in the United States. With the ambitious goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, consumers are searching for foods that require fewer fossil fuels. Is this realistic?

Quantifying Energy Used for Food

We recently read How the World Really Works, the most recent book by Vaclav Smil, a distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. Smil has published 47 books and more than 500 papers on the research in energy environmental and population change, food production, history of technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy. Bill Gates considers him one of his favorite authors.

In his latest book, Professor Smil explored the improvements the world has made since the early 1800s. He explains “In two centuries the human labor to produce a kilogram of American wheat was reduced from 10 minutes to less than two seconds.” He also talks about the importance of fossil fuels and the world could not provide enough food to feed all of us without them.

Smil also delves into food production and its associated energy use. In fact, he had the patience to calculate how much energy it takes to make a loaf of sourdough bread, raise a chicken, grow a tomato, and eat seafood. He averaged out an itemized estimate using production numbers around the globe.

This sounds like a painstakingly long and detailed effort, with considerations for crop and livestock cultivation; facilities management; processing, production and packaging; and all distribution required along the way. But the results were interesting and surprising!

Bread’s Energy Journey 

Sourdough bread is a staple around the world.

The energy it takes to plant, grow, and harvest wheat is crucial in its production. After the wheat is harvested, it is trucked or goes by rail to the mill to be made into flour.

The initial stages of sourdough preparation require the activation and maintenance of the starter culture, which demands consistent temperature control.

Additionally, mixing, kneading, baking and the use of ovens and other kitchen appliances all contribute to energy consumption.

The energy required throughout this journey for a 2.2 pound loaf of sourdough bread is just about 8 ounces of diesel fuel.

Crude for Chickens

Raising chickens involves a fascinating blend of traditional agricultural practices and modern energy considerations.

To maximize production, it is critical to maintain a suitable environment for the birds. They must be fed the right mixture of grains, minerals, and vitamins.

The utilization of electricity for consistent temperature control, ventilation, and lighting, especially in large-scale operations, underscores the intrinsic relationship between energy usage and the well-being of the birds.

Once the chicken is fully grown the birds are transported to the processing facility which turns them into breasts, thighs, and other cuts for the grocery store.

The entire energy for 2.2 pounds of processed chicken is about 11 ounces of diesel.

Holy Tomato!

Tomatoes can require many factors and sources of energy, depending on whether they are grown indoors or out.

Photosynthesis uses the sun’s energy to grow tomatoes outdoors for over eight months. Yet for the 35% of global tomatoes grown indoors, the energy inputs are significantly more because of the substantial energy required to provide heat, light, and nutrients, not to mention the energy needed to make the greenhouse itself.

But even tomatoes grown outdoors require crude oil to make the plastic clips, wedges, sheets, and gutter arrangements for successfully growing a tomato crop.

The energy utilized in production encompasses diverse inputs, from solar energy and traditional machinery to electricity and embodied energy, making its energy calculation highly complex.

The answer for this beloved fruit is not simple, but Smil calculated that, growing 2.2 pounds of tomatoes uses about 21.9 fluid ounces of diesel fuel, on average.

Fuel for Farmed Salmon 

On average, the energy consumption for seafood production is relatively high.

It takes approximately 23.6 ounces of diesel per 2.2 pound serving, just slightly more than the energy needed for tomatoes.

For example, salmon, a popular seafood choice, is predominantly farmed, which involves significant energy expenditure for fish feed production, transportation to farms, and ultimately to consumers.

Unless sourced locally from specific regions like Chile, Norway, Scotland, or Western Canada, considerable energy is expended in the entire process from farm to table.

Of course, one can imagine the amount of fuel used to catch, freeze, and transport wild-caught fish. Professor Smil suggests that opting for sardines, which are rich in omega-3s and have lower environmental impacts, can be a more sustainable choice.

Is Energy Estimation Possible?

We were shocked when we found out that raising 2.2 pounds of chicken required just a third of the energy needed to cultivate the same weight of tomatoes. This proves that our food system is much more complicated than it appears.

We wrote about climate conscious eating and pointed out that it is not just about the energy used, we have to also consider water.  To grow just one ounce of nuts takes anywhere from 3.2 gallons to a whopping 28.7 gallons for almonds.

Farming takes multiple kinds of energy. Human energy – plain old hard work and effort.  Solar energy – sunlight for photosynthesis.  Wind – for pollination.  And just as important, fossil fuel energy, including diesel and gasoline for farm machinery, plant equipment, and transportation.

Used appropriately, energy increases productivity and distribution across our food system, therefore increasing profitability for farmers. Without that energy, the whole system collapses.

End of story, turn out the lights, dinner is over.

“Our food is partly made not just of oil, but also of coal that was used to produce the coke required for smelting the iron needed for field, transportation, and food processing machinery; of natural gas that serves as both feedstock and fuel for the synthesis of nitrogenous fertilizers; and of the electricity generated by the combustion of fossil fuels that is indispensable for crop processing, taking care of animals, and food and feed storage and preparation.”

– Prof. Vaclav Smil

The complexities of our food system are vast. As we push our cart through the grocery aisle, how do we really know whether the food we eat is farmed sustainably and uses energy and water responsibly? Are you curious?

  1. Would you pay more to know exactly how much energy and water was used to make the food you are eating?
  2. Would you like to see it on a label?
  3. Would it affect your food choice?

Can dairy & meat help fight cancer?

Dietary nutrients play a crucial role in providing your body with energy, building blocks, and regulatory molecules. How all these nutrients work together is not always clearly understood; however, this recent research from the University of Chicago and Emory University shows a nutrient found in meat can help your immune system fight cancer.

What is TVA?

TVA, or trans-vaccenic acid, is a long-chain fatty acid found in meat and dairy from grazing animals, like cows and sheep. Published in the journal Nature, the research focused on the impact of TVA on CD8+ T cells, a critical component of the immune system responsible for infiltrating tumors and destroying cancer cells.

The study found that higher levels of TVA in the blood correlated with a better response to immunotherapy treatments, suggesting TVA’s potential as a nutritional supplement in cancer therapy.

Dr. Jing Chen, the study’s senior author, emphasized the importance of understanding how nutrients and metabolites from food influence health and disease. Chen’s lab and postdoctoral fellows Hao Fan and Siyuan Xia assembled a library of 235 bioactive molecules derived from food and screened them for their ability to activate anti-tumor immunity in CD8+ T cells.

This is when researchers discovered something pretty interesting about the natural fat called TVA, found in beef, dairy, and even human breast milk. Notably, our bodies don’t make it, but when we consume it, most of it sticks around in our bloodstream. This fat seems to have a knack for switching off a specific part in our cells that is usually turned on by other fats we get from our diet. When TVA flips this switch, it sets off a chain reaction that helps our body cells grow and stay alive.

What’s really exciting is that when scientists gave mice a special diet with extra TVA, their tumors grew much slower, and their immune systems got better at invading and attacking these tumors. This could be great news for cancer treatments. In fact, in early tests with people who were getting advanced cancer therapy, those with more TVA in their blood seemed to respond better to the treatment.

This could mean that TVA might one day be used to help our immune system fight cancer more effectively, although there’s still a lot to learn.

What we do know is that this research could change the way we think about certain fats in our diets and their role in keeping us healthy.

Key Findings on TVA

Boosting Cancer Treatment with TVA:

  • People with higher levels of TVA in their blood responded better to a type of cancer treatment called immunotherapy, suggesting that TVA might be applicable in helping cancer treatments work better.

Activating Important Immune Cells:

  • The researchers looked at many different molecules from food to see which could help the immune system fight cancer. They found that TVA is good at activating a specific type of immune cell called CD8+ T cells. These cells are essential because they help hunt down and destroy cancer cells.

Reducing Tumor Growth in Mice:

  • In experiments with mice, the ones that ate food with more TVA had smaller and slower-growing tumors, especially for melanoma and colon cancer. This shows that TVA might help slow down or reduce the growth of some types of cancer.

How TVA Works at the Molecular Level:

  • The study used advanced scientific methods to figure out exactly how TVA works. They discovered that TVA turns off a certain receptor on the cell surface, which is usually activated by other types of fatty acids from the gut. By doing this, TVA starts a chain reaction in the cells that’s important for cell growth and survival.

Making Immune Cells More Effective:

  • TVA changes the way genes work in CD8+ T cells, making these cells better at getting into tumors and fighting them. In experiments, when this specific receptor was removed from these cells, they weren’t as good at fighting tumors anymore, which shows how important TVA’s role is.

Real-World Evidence from Cancer Patients:

  • When they looked at blood samples from people getting a type of cancer treatment called CAR-T therapy for lymphoma, they found that those with higher levels of TVA responded better to the treatment. Also, in lab tests, TVA helped make a cancer drug more effective at killing leukemia cells.

Sources of TVA

The findings from the University of Chicago study on TVA and its impact on the immune response to cancer offer intriguing insights into the complex relationship between diet and health. However, translating these findings into practical lifestyle and dietary changes requires careful consideration.

TVA has some potentially substantial health benefits, suggesting that specific components of these foods could have beneficial health properties, which challenges the blanket notion that all aspects of dairy and meat are detrimental to health.

Despite its potential benefits, it’s crucial to remember that the study does not endorse excessive consumption of red meat and dairy. Most dietary guidelines advocate for a balanced diet that includes a variety of food sources. If you’re considering increasing your intake of dairy and meat to incorporate more TVA, it should be done in moderation and as part of a balanced diet.

Applying These Findings

The study contributes in a meaningful way to the evolving understanding of meat and dairy in our diet. While overconsumption, particularly of processed meats and high-fat dairy products, has been linked to various health issues, this research indicates that certain components of meat and dairy can have meaningful health benefits. It underscores the need for a nuanced view of these food groups, focusing on quality, quantity, and the overall dietary pattern.

A well-rounded diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats is still the cornerstone of good nutrition. The potential benefits of one specific nutrient, like TVA, don’t negate the importance of a diversified diet. There are bioactive compounds in many fruits, vegetables, and legumes that are important for your health.

The study hints at the possibility of plant-derived fatty acids having similar beneficial effects. Those following a vegetarian or more plant-based diet might look into research on plant-based fatty acids and their impact on health—keeping in mind the bioavailability of fatty acids in plants vs. animal proteins.

And for those with specific health concerns, such as high cholesterol or heart disease, consulting with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian before making significant dietary changes is advisable.

Digging In: Regenerative Ranching

Little Belt Cattle Company is a family-owned and operated working cattle ranch and premium beef company founded by two former special operations veterans, Greg Putnam and Tim Sheehy. Together, they have built a local sustainable supply chain of the highest quality grass-fed and grain-finished premium beef that is raised, finished, and processed in Montana.

Greg talks to us about the challenges and excitement of taking care of approximately 8,000 head of cattle. He speaks to the hard work and dedication of multi-generation ranches, as well as similarities between the military and cattle ranching.

How to live to 100…and beyond

The concept and research surrounding Blue Zones originated years ago from the work of Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and explorer, along with a team of demographers and researchers. The journey to identify and understand these unique areas began with a demographic and geographic study of regions with unusually high numbers of centenarians and low rates of chronic diseases.

Origins of these Demographic Studies

The concept can be traced back to the early 2000s when demographers Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain identified a region in Sardinia, Italy with an unusually high number of people living to 100 and beyond, called centenarians. They marked these areas with blue ink on a map, which led to the term “Blue Zone.” Dan Buettner, in collaboration with National Geographic and with funding from the National Institute on Aging, took the concept further. He assembled a team of scientists and researchers identify other areas in the world with similar characteristics.

Through this extensive fieldwork, data analysis, and interviews, Buettner and his team identified additional regions that met their criteria for longevity hotspots. These included Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece in addition to the initial region in Sardinia. The team focused on areas with high longevity rates, low incidence of heart disease and other chronic illnesses, and a high proportion of healthy elderly individuals.

Buettner’s work and the concept of Blue Zones were popularized through a National Geographic cover story in 2005 titled “Secrets of a Long Life.” He went on to author several books on the topic, including “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest,” where he detailed the lifestyles, diets, and practices of people living in these zones.

As you can imagine given this intriguing research, Blue Zones sparked a significant interest in longevity studies. Buettner and his team continued their work, turning the focus towards applying the lessons from Blue Zones to communities and cities around the world.

Key Contributions and Impact

The research in the documentary highlighted the importance of lifestyle factors, such as diet, physical activity, social engagement, and stress management, in promoting longevity and reducing the risk of chronic diseases. Buettner and his organization have worked on initiatives to help transform cities and communities in the United States, applying principles from the Blue Zones to improve public health and wellness.

The research on Blue Zones represents a groundbreaking approach to understanding longevity, emphasizing the role of environmental and lifestyle factors in shaping health outcomes. As we often write and research about here at Dirt to Dinner, it is about both mind and body health.

How can I live to be a Centenarian?

These centenarians didn’t just start these habits at age 80, this lifestyle has been an integral part of their entire life. Improving our health now in all these aspects of daily living will affect our health as we age.

Dietary Practices: Foundation of Health and Longevity

  • A diverse range of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, forms the bedrock of daily nutrition
  • Meat is consumed in significantly smaller quantities, often as a small side or a special occasion dish, rather than a daily staple
  • Emphasis is placed on eating foods that are local and seasonal, thus ensuring that meals are fresh and nutrient-rich
  • Concepts like “Hara Hachi Bu” in Okinawa, advocates for eating until one is 80% full, exemplify mindfulness in eating habits

Seamless Integration of Physical Activity

  • Unlike the structured exercise routines common in many cultures, physical activity in Blue Zones is seamlessly woven into daily life and includes walking, gardening, and performing household and occupational tasks that require physical exertion
  • These activities are adaptable and can be sustained throughout life, suitable for a wide range of ages and physical capabilities

Work-Life and Family Balance: A Harmonious Blend

  • There is a cultural disposition towards maintaining a healthy balance between work, family, and leisure, contributing to overall well-being
  • Strong familial ties and active participation in community life centers around multi-generational living and community-centric lifestyles
  • These cultures place a lower emphasis on work-related stress and prioritize leisure and rest, including practices like napping and socializing

Reduced Dependence on Technology and Digital Media

  • Populations in Blue Zone areas prefer real-world interactions
  • Residents talk to each other in person, thus fosters deeper personal connections and community involvement

The Vital Role of Social Networks and Community

  • Strong social ties, encompassing family, friends, and broader community networks provide both emotional support and practical assistance
  • Regular social events, be it communal meals, religious ceremonies, or local festivities, are central to maintaining and strengthening community bonds
  • The depth and quality of these social connections play a significant role in emotional well-being, fostering a sense of belonging, happiness, and security

How to Start Today

The examination of Blue Zones in the recent documentary offers profound insights into the symbiotic relationship between lifestyle, environment, diet, physical activity, and social connections in fostering longevity.

By understanding and integrating these principles, individuals, and communities worldwide can adopt practices that not only extend lifespan, but also significantly enhance the quality of life during those years.

Achieving this delicate balance can seem overwhelming and near impossible. Take it in chunks. Work on one or two things at a time.

  • Get your diet in a good place and work on adopting a Mediterranean-type diet.
  • Follow that up with good physical activity but allow yourself time for rest and recharging with loved ones.
  • Work-life balance in our modern culture is always a struggle, something that many of the Blue Zones don’t face to the same degree as those in metro areas, for example, or those who have demanding roles; just be cognizant of where you spend your mental energy.
  • Do you control your use of technology? Reduce your phone and social media use. Call up or visit with a friend or family member rather than texting them.  Even Instagram and Facebook are not really warm connection points. They take you out of the present, and can often cause unneeded stress.