How does nutrition impact natural disasters? – South Coast Herald


KZN has had its share of natural disasters with the flooding now for the second time this year. Hundreds of people have lost their lives, and thousands have become displaced, and homes and livelihoods devastated. We have read and heard multiple commentaries on the reasons for this – overpopulation, especially of vulnerable environments, lack of spatial planning, destruction of the environment and damage to natural vegetation in wetlands, climate change (a dirty word for so many people) and poverty.

There is no doubt that as our world population is increasing, and more demands are being placed upon world resources, destruction of natural systems is becoming rampant.

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I recently listened to a conference entitled “sustainable and healthy eating patterns, from evidence to action”. Five experts in plant nutrition from Australia, New Zealand and the USA presented sobering information on how modern diets impact our environment. A study published in the journal Science, in 2018 showed that animal farming uses 83% of all agricultural land but only provides 18% of our calories and produces 60% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Compare this to plant-based diets which cut land use by 76% and halve greenhouse gas production.

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The amount of energy and water utilised in the production of mostly plant foods – like soybeans, grains, fruit, vegetables – is dramatically less than in the production of animal products. Interestingly the most energy wasteful food of all is beef.

We all have this romantic picture of cows and sheep out in the fields eating green grass, and hens in their natural habitat on the farm scratching in the soil for worms and seeds. But the reality is that 99% of eggs produced in South Africa come from battery factory farms, and 60% of the pork comes from pigs that spend their lives in cramped cages in big buildings standing in their own filth with no exercise or fresh air or sunlight (2013 in Martin Creamer’s Engineering News). These poor animals suffer incalculable trauma, confined to small spaces, exposed to inhumane conditions, at high risks of infection and injuries – all ideal breeding grounds for pandemic viral infections and antibiotic resistant bacteria.

How does this play out on floods and natural disasters? Agricultural practices developed to provide animal feeds for these large factory farms result in massive monoculture, deforestation, contamination of water resources with pollution, and increase in emission of various greenhouse gasses which affect our environment. Overharvesting of our seas is having a devastating effect on sustainability of our fish resources.

Decreasing our dependence upon animal products and increasing intake of plant-based foods is the best intervention we can personally do to reduce climate change.

In our next article we will look at the EAT Lancet study on sustainable agriculture.

Dr Dave Glass, MBChB, FCOG(SA), DipIBLM

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