Richard Oppenlander, Food Choice and Sustainability
Dr. Oppenlander is a consultant, researcher, and author whose award-winning book Comfortably Unaware has been endorsed as a must-read by Ellen DeGeneres, Dr. Jane Goodall and Neal Barnard, among many others. Dr. Oppenlander is a much sought after lecturer on the topic of food choice and how it relates to sustainability, all within the framework of fresh perspectives and critical insights.
He has been a key note speaker for several conferences and festivals and has presented lectures and workshops at numerous universities and corporations. Dr. Oppenlander also serves as an advisor to municipalities in the U.S. and to a number of world hunger projects that are designing programs from his multidimensional model of sustainability.
Dr. Oppenlander has spent 40 years studying the effects food choices have on our planet and on us. He started an organic, vegan food production company, operates an animal rescue sanctuary, and is the founder and president of the non-profit organization, Inspire Awareness Now.
Caryn Hartglass: Hey everybody! I’m back, and it’s time for the second part of It’s All About Food here on January 21st, 2014. How are you doing? As I mentioned before, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org about anything. I’d love to hear from you. Let me know what you’re thinking, especially when it has to do with food. Okay, let’s move on because we have some very serious things to talk about. I am going to do that with my next guest who has written a pretty incredible book. Dr. Richard Oppenlander is a consultant, researcher, and author whose award-winning book, Comfortably Unaware, has been endorsed as a must-read by Ellen DeGeneres, Dr. Jane Goodall, and Neil Barnard among many others. He is a much sought after lecturer on the topic of food choice and how it relates to sustainability, all within the framework of fresh perspectives and critical insights. He has been a keynote speaker for several conferences and festivals, and has presented lectures and workshops at numerous universities and corporations. He also serves as an advisor to municipalities in the US, and to a number of world hunger projects that are designing programs from his multi-dimensional model of sustainability. He has spent 40 years studying the effects our food choices have on our planet and on us. He started an organic vegan food production company, operates an animal rescue sanctuary, and is the founder and president of the non-profit organization, Inspire Awareness Now. Welcome to It’s All About Food, Dr. Oppenlander.
Richard Oppenlander: Wow, hi Caryn! Thank you so much for that wonderful introduction. I want to take just a moment to take you for your work over the years in spreading awareness.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you!
Richard Oppenlander: It’s always encouraging.
Caryn Hartglass: You know, every time I talk to another incredible vegan that’s doing great work, I keep thinking, “Maybe it’s this food that’s powering us to be able to do all the different things that we do!” You’ve got an incredible little resume going on here…what don’t you do?
Richard Oppenlander: Well, I haven’t changed everybody in the world to eat the most healthy food yet!
Caryn Hartglass: We have a lot of work to do, don’t we?
Richard Oppenlander: We do.
Caryn Hartglass: You wrote this book, Food Choice and Sustainability. I imagine you spent many years on this book.
Richard Oppenlander: Yeah, I have, actually. The precursor was my first book, Comfortably Unaware, as you know, but this one is sort of a compilation of everything. I think more importantly it’s timed very properly because, as you know also, the word “sustainability” has been frequently misused, if not abused. It rarely, if ever, positions food choice and it never positions the choices of raising and eating and slaughtering animals in any sustainability projects of efforts that I am aware of. This is why I wrote the book essentially.
Caryn Hartglass: You almost make it sound like the word “sustainability” is a bad word.
Richard Oppenlander: It’s a great word if it’s designed correctly and I guess that’s the whole role of the book. We need to incorporate food choice, specifically the raising and eating of animals, into sustainability efforts, or we will never reach true sustainability. The devastation that is taking place right now as we speak is jeopardizing not just the animals or our individual human health; it’s jeopardizing our survival as a species. And if that seems a little dramatic then that also becomes part of the problem. We just don’t want to hear about it, which is one of the reasons we’re in trouble and why I wrote the book. The story needs to be told and it needs to be told through an unfiltered lense.
Caryn Hartglass: It is a dramatic story and we all need to be doing something yesterday, and we’re not. The question is, are we going to be able to get this information out in time? The earth will take care of herself, but whether we’re on it is another question.
Richard Oppenlander: That is the question, isn’t it? The Gaia theory is exploding on us because a species has the tendency to adapt and make its own environment and integrate it in a symbiotic way whether we’re here or not. I think that’s the issue that we’re confronted with until we understand the devastation first that’s taking place, and then recognize that we have to do something about it, and then what we have to do about it. There’s a timeline issue, there’s a series of disconnects here, and you summed them up in the way you just stated that because the final disconnect is actually extremely important.
Caryn Hartglass: Game over.
Richard Oppenlander: Yeah, we’re in overshoot mode right now. We’re taking from and doing more to our planet than what it can sustain. It would almost take two Earths to sustain what we’re currently taking from and doing to it, most of that because of our choice of food.
Caryn Hartglass: This is an intense book, it’s over 400 pages, small print. There’s a lot of information in here, and it’s a great reference and resource for anybody who wants to get all of this information out there. Let’s start the way you start in the beginning. We’ll touch on a couple of topics here in our short time together. Climate change…this past weekend we had a little article in the New York Times Sunday Review Nicholas Kristof Column. I like to read his from time to time. I don’t know if you read him, but he sounds like he’s somebody that I think we can manipulate a little bit. It sounds like he’s learning a little more than he wants to know about animal agriculture, but he doesn’t talk about it in this column. He talks about how it seems like there’s very little discussion about climate change in the media, and that 77% of humans seem to be more believing that the aliens have visited the earth versus the 44% that believe humans are causing climate change. We have some serious problems there, and nobody is talking about how food can make a difference.
Richard Oppenlander: Well, right. So you just hit on a number of different disconnects, and that article I think actually if you not only read through it very well but also take a step back from it, it actually displays our ultimate disconnect which is that climate change is happening, and all scientists will tell you that. There are a few people who don’t believe it, but it is happening. The most important aspect of that is what we can do about it. The anthropogenic greenhouse gases, the human-induced greenhouse gases that are being created, it’s somewhere between 30 minimally and 51% that are caused, or derived from, livestock. At least four different researchers, independent of each other, have quantified those and explained them and documented them. So the issue is that, and you’re exactly right, we don’t have nearly enough time to expound on all this. I do in my book, but I can summarize by saying that each year, our leading policy makers, government officials, non-profit organizations, and researchers meet in the climate change conferences supported by the United Nations, and agriculture, the umbrella topic, is postponed until next year, postponed just about every year. Livestock, the raising and eating of animals, and their contribution, is never discussed. And yet up to 51% of all greenhouse gases that we produce are caused by livestock. That doesn’t include the greenhouse gases due to our demand to eat fish, the fuel processing, transportation, etc. It’s a very large issue. And the larger issue, I think, is, “Why? Why aren’t the organizations mentioning it?” I have a lot of those types of answers and theories and perspectives in my book as well.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s the big question, “Why?” I’m very aware of the numbers you’re mentioning, the 51% of human-induced greenhouse gases was put forth by Jeff Anhang and Robert Goodland who unfortunately just passed away in December. We miss you Robert.
Richard Oppenlander: That’s right.
Caryn Hartglass: There are some other people out there like Frank Mitloehner, who debates against this and says that livestock can actually improve climate change. Unfortunately he’s been hired by the USDA to work with them on this.
Richard Oppenlander: Well, Caryn, a couple things about that. One is, also Allan Savory.
Caryn Hartglass: Allan, yeah.
Richard Oppenlander: I wrote a nice review of that, that people can find online now. Basically, here’s where we are. Livestock now occupies 45% of the entire landmass on Earth. They’re also the most destructive force for our rainforests, which are being destroyed in the Amazon. Up to 90% of the lost Amazon since the 1970s has been due to livestock and crops to feed them. The issue is this. The reason it’s so difficult for them to address this correctly, or to suppress it and shove it under the rug a little bit, is because of a couple reasons. One is that it is so culturally ingrained, they even sell, most likely, and consume animal products. How do we expect our leaders to change if they themselves are doing something that they can’t change for themselves? Secondly is that they’re afraid. They’re very much afraid of losing their audience or their platform, because 98% of the people in the rest of the world consume animal products. So they feel as if they’re going to lose their platform, even if they were very much aware of all these facts and figures and took it seriously. They’re also very, very concerned about the powerful meat, dairy, and fishing industries which control one to two trillion dollars worth of goods and policies, meaning subsidies, as well as their budgets for marketing. So it’s a very large-scale problem that we have on all those levels.
Caryn Hartglass: The thing about climate change that’s especially scary, and we’re going to talk about some of the other things in your book, is that it seems like once we’re really into the significant warming of the earth, there’s no turning around.
Richard Oppenlander: Right. What you’re talking about are tipping points, and it’s very well established by the International Energy Agency and most of the IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they all agree that we only have a three-year window of time from now to drastically reduce them.
Caryn Hartglass: Until 2017.
Richard Oppenlander: That’s the real issue. And if you look at it carefully, the easiest thing we can do is just stop eating animals. For instance, most of the money that’s being devoted or set aside now by the United Nations is going to renewable energies, but it’s projected by most experts to take at least 20 years and another 18 trillion dollars to develop. Obviously we have a tipping point in three years, and if you do the math, we don’t have 20 years to wait, and we also don’t have 18 trillion dollars. The easiest solution is just to do what is obvious and take away, reduce, or eliminate the 51% due to livestock.
Caryn Hartglass: It sounds so sweet and so simple, doesn’t it?
Richard Oppenlander: Well, yeah. It is.
Caryn Hartglass: Here’s just one more climate question, and I don’t know that you have the answer, but Earth has a long history, and we know through all kinds of evidence that the climate has changed dramatically every 100,000 years or so. How do we know that the climate is really going to be affected by what we do? I know that we’ve seen more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but the earth and nature is so powerful. How do we even think that we can have such a big impact?
Richard Oppenlander: You’re asking a very large scientific question, and I can answer part of that by saying that, yes, there are fluctuations, and everybody who has studied it will attest to that. I think the issue at hand, Caryn, isn’t so much that we are causing entirely every single effect we see. I think the larger question, the overriding question here, is, “What effect do we have on greenhouse gases that are then contributing to climate change?” It’s sort of intrinsically related in a linear pattern. For instance, if you look at almost all scientists and climatologists that are involved with anything to do with the history of our planet and climate, they will agree that we are going through a period of time where the climate change is accelerating faster than any other time that we know of, certainly, in our history. They also agree that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are heavily contributing to that. So therefore, we have a choice. We have a choice to just let it go and continue on, or we have a choice to reduce those things that we have the ability to reduce. We may not be able to reduce many of the other aspects of greenhouse gas emissions, for instance non-anthropogenic methane production by various faults and things like that, but we certainly can do something about our habits and our choices.
Caryn Hartglass: We don’t hear this enough, and the real problem are humans on the earth. If we weren’t here, I don’t think we’d be seeing all of these problems.
Richard Oppenlander: That’s right. Another good example, I don’t know if you’re going to move on to this topic right now, but I think as an example it segues pretty nicely…our oceans are being destroyed, and our oceans are one of the moderators of our climate. Obviously, they’re the ones that drive our climate. Our oceans right now are becoming more acidic, warmer, and they have the oxygenation occurring faster than any other time that we’ve seen in the last 300 million years. At that time it took, I’d say, most researchers felt that somewhere around 95% of oceanic life became extinct. And it took 30 million years to recover. And so most of the drivers for that warming and acidification can be directly related to the greenhouse gases that we’re producing. So, again, if 30 to 51% are being produced by our food choices on land, and at the same time the oceans are becoming acidified by the carbon dioxide, we’re completely depleting all of the life by fishing and by the types of destructive methods that we’re using by fishing. Eighty-five percent of all fish have been depleted or overexploited. So if we’re doing that, those are our choices Caryn. They’re not something that Earth happened to have changed and evolved. We’re actually devolving now because of our choices. I don’t know if that’s the right term, but we’re going backwards and it’s seriously affecting the earth in many, many ways. Those are just a couple, climate change and our oceans. We’re also depleting our freshwater.
Caryn Hartglass: You talk a lot about a lot of things in this book, and the oceans and the fish and the extinction of a lot of species of fish, and yet people are continually getting the message to eat more fish. Half of the fish today is farmed.
Richard Oppenlander: Right, that’s right. There are a couple issues with that.
Caryn Hartglass: Big issues.
Richard Oppenlander: Yeah. One is that, you’re right, the USDA came out about two years ago in 2012 suggesting that Americans double their intake of fish. What that’s going to do is actually just create more depletion and more devastation because of the fishing methods, but also the targeted fish are being depleted whether they’re being titled as sustainable or not. There’s really no such thing as sustainable commercial fishing right now, regardless of whether MSC, or Marine Stewardship Council, puts a label on it. There are many reasons for that, that I expand on in my book. But also because of the devastating effects, or the damages of various intertwining ecosystems that are actually infinite in quantity. There’s no human that can calculate that equation infinity. In the oceans, we just go in and pluck things out and hope that somehow they’re going to recover, but they’re not. You mentioned other species, I mean that’s just in our oceans, but it’s been estimated that somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times the amount of species are going extinct per year than we’ve had for the previous several thousands of years.
Caryn Hartglass: I know a lot of people are eating more fish because they’re encouraged to do it, and there are many of my listeners that are very knowledgeable about the food system but still believe fish is an important food. The thing is, people need to understand how we’re getting fish today. It’s not a couple of rugged ruddy fisherman and a boat and a line. It’s obscene, what’s happening. You mention the word infinity as if the ocean was infinite, and it’s not.
Richard Oppenlander: That’s right.
Caryn Hartglass: Can you talk about trawlers and the nightmare that’s going on in our oceans?
Richard Oppenlander: There are really a couple of different ways that our oceans are being destroyed. I mentioned one of them initially, which any frank discussions about depletion of our oceans really have to begin with, land-based animal agriculture, which we just highlighted. That’s what’s causing the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing devastation in the type of water that we have in our oceans. But in terms of life, yes, it’s affecting our oceans and sea life in a number of ways. The first is, of course, the target fish. We go after massive amounts of target fish with various methods of trawling, both bottom trawling, which many have heard about as being destructive, but there’s also middle-level trawling, and there’s also longline fishing which causes serious issues. There’s pursing, which just scoops up every little living thing within a mile radius. Some longline fishing methods extend between 30 and sometimes 100 miles behind a boat and they catch every single thing that’s even swimming near that.
Caryn Hartglass: I can’t imagine it.
Richard Oppenlander: No, I mean, to give you an example, there’s a swordfish breed in Canada that was labeled sustainable just a year and a half ago by MSC, and yet for every 20,000 swordfish they catch, they catch and kill 100,000 sharks and they also catch and kill about 1,000 to 2,000 loggerhead and leatherback turtles that are nearly extinct. And yet the fishery was labeled sustainable. That’s the way it is with most fisheries. They just do so much damage to the target fish themselves, but also collateral damage of bykill, and then also destroying ecosystems that depend on that. For instance, we’re taking krill at the rate of about 1.5 million tons per year from the Antarctic, and yet baleen whales such as blue, white, and fin, all the species of seals, and many other sea life, depend on that krill for their life. There are other ways, I guess getting back to what you said, we don’t have nearly enough time to discuss all these human aspects, but there are so many more beneficial ways and healthier ways to derive health benefits from other food sources than from fish.
Caryn Hartglass: Then there’s our government…
Richard Oppenlander: Of course.
Caryn Hartglass: …which seems to move slower than anything out there, and is the last to discover what’s important. We like to think that we have a safe food system, that we have a regulated food system that protects us, brings the best to us. And even these certifications that you were just mentioning, that you go into great detail in your book, these different certifications by companies that tell us which fish we can eat and which we can’t, and they’re not even telling the truth. How do people know what to do? Who do we trust?
Richard Oppenlander: Okay, so let’s separate out what you’re asking. In sort of an arching way, an overarching way, I can say that you’re exactly right that much of it is in the hands on our government, but you’re asking policy makers that are stumbling over so many different things, and they’re biased in so many different ways. And by the way, our Food Bill still hasn’t been established since 2012. There’s been so much time, effort, and money tied into that. But they are really operating under the wrong pretense as well, and the wrong definitions. They’re not defining “sustainable” well at all either, or “healthy food”, and that’s something that I expound on quite a bit in the book as well. But to answer it a little bit better, I think that the easiest thing to do is just, first of all, start searching for and understand more about the benefits of purely plant-based food. I’m not talking about taking a few little baby steps here and there. I’m talking about, for every bite of food that you eat that’s plant based, you’re going to be saving lives and you’re going to be saving our planet’s life. In the most recent lectures that I give I ask everybody to consider being superheroes or heroes in every single thing they eat, because that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re most likely, collectively if we all do this, we’re going to be saving our own species, let alone every other species on Earth. So first off is to understand that. Then look for those types of food items because no matter what the government does, if you understand that the basis of healthy eating really comes from healthy agricultural production, and what very, very finite and few resources that we have to produce this with, for a burdening population expected to be over nine billion people by the year 2050. So as we go along, we’re going to have to find the most resource-efficient foods. I call it finding the most optimal relative sustainability, the ones that you can produce with the least amount of resources that will affect our health in the most optimal way, and create the least amount of greenhouse gases, or effect on climate change, and be the most compassionate. So we start looking at, what food is it that I can put in my mouth that I could have grown, especially in a collective manner globally, that fits that? It has to be plant based because it’s just extremely inefficient, not to mention not being compassionate or unhealthy to human health, to eat these animal-based products. I think that’s the first step no matter what the government is going to be telling you. We have to start finding solutions on our own. Eventually the government will have these tasks in front of them, either by a collective movement, or they’ll be realizing where all of our freshwater is going, and where all of our land is going, and why all of our healthcare costs are so high in our country. It’s going to hit sooner or later, and then they’ll have to make changes.
Caryn Hartglass: You mention freshwater, and you talked more before about sustainability. Let’s just mention our aquifers for a moment. We have farmers all over the country, and in other countries actually, draining at alarming rates these aquifers that contain incredibly beautiful freshwater that was created in the ice age.
Richard Oppenlander: Yeah, 15 million years ago. That’s such a large problem now. I first want to point out that most people in an argumentative mode would say, “Well, the water is all constant on Earth.” And that’s true. Water, as an entity, is constant, but the consumptive form that it happens to be in is not. In fact, it’s projected that in just 14 years there’ll be a 40% shortage in freshwater. That’s because of how it’s being used right now, and about 29% of all freshwater withdrawals in the world go to livestock. It’s terribly inefficient and it may require 100 to 400 times the amount of water to produce a pound of meat as it would for a pound of a much higher nutritional value of plant-based foods. And you’re right about the aquifers. Typically in the United States, there are quite a few, but a couple that come to mind are the Ogallala that provide freshwater, as you said, where it was actually created back in the ice age, back 15 million years ago or so. And we also have the San Joaquin, we have other areas, there are some areas in the North China Plain that are being drawn down at an alarming rate. They’re all typically on average being drawn down at a rate between three and seven times their recharge rate. That means, you can just calculate out very quickly, that if you knew the amount and the volume of these aquifers, we’re going to be out of water, out of those aquifers, especially Ogallala in the next 15 to 20 years.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s going to be very interesting in the next few years. We have this climate change tipping point predicted for three years from now. Although, some people had predicted 2010 and now we’re at 2017 and God I hope we can push it out further because I don’t see much happening in three years. I would like to see it. How do you feel?
Richard Oppenlander: Well, of course the reason I’m even talking to you right now, or why I wrote the book…
Caryn Hartglass: Because you’re hopeful.
Richard Oppenlander: Yes, I’m very optimistic. Otherwise I’d probably crawl up in my own little sustainable fragment of the world and do everything that I know is right and feel sorry for everybody else. But the thing about sustainability is that we all are in it together. Not only is there a disconnect between what we don’t know about our unsustainable habits and how it’s related to the animal agriculture and our food choices, but we also don’t really have a good feel that we have to all go on this ship together. Most of the people in the world and most organizations and policy makers are on this very large ship and are trying to get to sustainability, but are going in a different direction because of food choices and properly positions. I’m circling us back around to what we started out with by saying that we all have to do the right thing together, or none of us will make it. The timelines now are very, very clear and I think the reason you’re hearing it’s been pushed out a little bit is because those researchers are being a little bit more optimistic that we can still change it around. If you look at all of them collectively, the tipping point in a number of areas is already gone. We’re already past them. For instance, the 2,000 to 40,000 species that are going extinct each year, the tipping point is obviously over for them. The tipping point for most of the fish in our oceans is over. I’m talking about our lifetime, and future generations from now, that we can somewhat see in the distance. As you said, if you apply anything at all about the Gaia theory, or something anywhere remote to that, there’ll be other species inhabiting the earth. They just may not be humans.
Caryn Hartglass: We just have a few minutes and I have one last quick question. You traveled a lot around to collect information for this book, and I imagine you visited some farms. Did you talk to meat producers, or animal product producers, and share with them your thoughts on how you thought we need to eat more plants and less of what they were producing?
Richard Oppenlander: Let’s quickly look at a couple things you just said. I have visited maybe 300 or 400 farms all over the world, especially the ones recently that have been promoted as the most sustainable, using that word again. So I of course would hop on a flight and see why they’re the most sustainable, and they’re not. So not only did I record the reasons they’re not sustainable, because they all involve a much higher level of inefficiency than if they just changed it entirely over to plant based systems. The second thing is that I will always talk to them about it, but it’s on the exit. Otherwise I would be probably dismissed from their farm earlier because they’re all under the belief that they’re doing something sustainable. If you really talk to the grassfed operators, they’ll tell you that factory farms are still going to be needed. That’s a whole other topic. They all feel that animal agriculture will be sustainable, but when you really nail them down and talk about numbers, they’ll tell you that parts or portions of animal agriculture are not sustainable. As a whole, we have to find ways to make sure that they just move their operations over into certainly a much higher level of sustainability by transferring all their animal based agriculture into plant based. That includes in developing countries. It is a very large topic and we don’t have enough time to cover it now, but it’s a shame that most of their land has been eroded and destroyed due to their pastoral methods with cattle. We just need to do this globally and we still have a lot of problems.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, well, thank you Dr. Richard Oppenlander for writing this book. I wish I could do a kind of vulcan mind meld where everybody gets this information instantly, but we have a lot of work to do.
Richard Oppenlander: We do. I thank you very much for the opportunity Caryn and for all you’re doing. Let’s keep moving things forward with a smile on our face. The most important thing is to keep inspiring others to become aware.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s right! Thank you so much!
Richard Oppenlander: Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, we’ve come to the end of the program and I just want to wish you a very good week, and a delicious one. I’m Caryn Hartglass, you’ve been listening to It’s All About Food, and we’ll be back next week! Bye!
Transcribed by Emily Roberts, 5/8/2014