One of the most perplexing questions regarding the sustainability debate centers on “What should we eat?” While a host of advocates champion one diet or one farming method over others, a comprehensive study delving into the diet-land issue found that a balanced approach works best. Quite frankly, that doesn’t come as news to us.

That conclusion came from a research team from five respected institutions: Tufts University, Mount Ida College, Allegheny College, Syracuse University, and Cornell University. With only one land-grant college in the mix, that further gave an outside perspective to answering the food-land trade-off question.

The team evaluated land’s carry capacity for 10 human diets. The mix included: two traditionally consumed U.S. diets; five omnivore diets with varying degrees of egg, dairy, and meat consumption; a strictly vegan diet; a vegetarian diet with only dairy; and a vegetarian diet with both eggs and dairy. To analyze the matter, researchers accounted for the U.S. agricultural land base, production losses, processing conversions, livestock feed needs, the land’s suitability for crops or grazing, and the land’s productivity.

Carrying capacity for U.S. agricultural lands ranged from 402 to 807 million people in the ten scenarios. That was 1.3 to 2.6 times the U.S. population base. In general, researchers found that land was more productive for diet scenarios with less meat consumption. However, four diets trumped the all-vegan, no-livestock option.

Topping all 10 meal choices . . . the dairy-vegetarian diet. The next three in order were: dairy-egg-vegetarian diet; a 20 percent USDA Dietary Guideline diet with an 80 percent dairy-egg-vegetarian approach; and a diet with a 40-60 mixed tipped toward following 40 percent of USDA guidelines.

It turns out eating and cropping strategies follow centuries-old advice. A balanced approach is best for both the land and people. That’s because some land is more suited to grazing and forage production than row crops. Plus, quality protein and other essential nutrients from dairy, eggs, and meat are needed for a well-balanced diet.

This editorial appears on page 616 of the October 10, 2016 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.
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