Erik the Red brought his fellow Vikings to the southwestern shore of Greenland in the late 900s CE. His optimistic naming of the island may not have been entirely inappropriate as natural fluctuations in climate meant that he had stumbled upon Greenland when it was relatively warm.
The Greenland Vikings held on for a few hundred years, but the next time someone from the European continent proactively sought contact with them – in around 1500 CE – they had completely disappeared; their villages, farmhouses, and grand cathedral alike turned to crumbling ruins.
The Vikings brought their European sensibilities to Greenland, including their food preferences. According to Jared Diamond’s brilliant book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the Vikings’ food hierarchy placed beef on the top, with sheep and goats further down. Fish, it seems from excavation of Greenland Viking middens, were barely consumed, if at all.
The problem was that the climate and ecology of Greenland was not suitable to raise cattle. As the Viking population density grew, the amount of land needed to grow fodder to feed cattle during the long, dark winter months impinged upon the society’s ability to grow food grains for itself.
Still, the Vikings persisted. Why?
One of the only ways a Greenland chieftain could display his superior wealth and power was through the size of his home and the quality of meat on his table. Viking chieftains believed it imperative to raise cattle – even if this choice meant his fellow settlers were condemned to starvation and death – in order to preserve his position of relative wealth and status.
It’s hard for us in the modern day to imagine why the Greenland Vikings couldn’t work it out for themselves that their insistence upon raising cattle in land ill-suited to cattle raising was contributing to the collapse of their civilization and their own pathetic, prolonged deaths by starvation.
Reading Diamond’s description of a poor Viking family starving through a harsh Greenland winter in a home rapidly filling with bovine droppings before literally having to carry the sick cattle out to the sparse spring meadows seems like the scenario that might appear in a novel by Kafka. The image seems too grotesque and surreal to be anything but a work of fiction.
Before we, in the modern, developed world, start feeling too smug about the choices the Greenland Vikings made, however, we should reflect upon the logic of our own food system.
I believe there is a good case to be made that, just as the Greenland Vikings of a thousand years ago, our food is killing us.
Not only is our food killing us in a way unimagined by Greenland Vikings – by supplying us with an excess of calories that end up killing us with so-called “lifestyle diseases” – it is also killing us in the same way as the Vikings’ cows killed them – by placing too much stress on our environment.
A 2017 academic paper by Irish researchers notes that:
A growing global population, combined with factors such as changing socio-demographics, will place increased pressure on the world’s resources to provide not only more but also different types of food. Increased demand for animal-based protein in particular is expected to have a negative environmental impact, generating greenhouse gas emissions, requiring more water and more land. Addressing this “perfect storm” will necessitate more sustainable production of existing sources of protein as well as alternative sources for direct human consumption.Future Protein Supply and Demand: Strategies and Factors Influencing a Sustainable Equilibrium. Henchion, et al…Insert Text Above
Farming of animal-based proteins already contributes to roughly 12% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 30% of biodiversity loss, with consumption of animal-based proteins concentrated in developed countries.
The authors of the Irish study point out that as citizens of developing countries become richer, the tendency is for them to begin consuming more animal protein – catching up to the consumption levels of developed countries, which have held pretty much constant since the 1970s.
Already, estimated consumption of animal-based proteins has increased by nearly 60% between 1990 and 2009. With a population of nearly 10 billion people projected for 2050, scientists suggest that demand for animal-based proteins may increase by as much as 78%, were everyone alive consume as much as those in developed countries consume now. (National Geographic has a nice interactive webpage showing the types of animal-based proteins consumed by different countries.)
Considering the present negative ecological effects of the increased harvesting of animal protein at present, you can imagine how severe the effects of almost doubling our production would be.
There are a few silver linings to this cloud.
First, the Irish study authors point out that if the 2050 population would consume only the protein needed by someone living a sedentary life, demand for animal proteins would fall by around 13% from today’s levels.
Second, the Irish study also suggests several alternatives to traditional animal-based proteins which could, if used, significantly reduce the ecological impact of animal cultivation without reducing protein consumption levels.
Presently the most mainstream of these alternative protein sources – vegetable proteins – are capturing a great deal of investor attention. Beyond Meat (BYND) priced its IPO shares at $25. The first trade of BYND in the secondary market was at $46 / share, and now the stock is trading above $175.
In addition to vegetable proteins, the Irish study’s authors point to other good sources of protein that are not presently consumed widely, but which could be farmed more sustainably than through animal husbandry. The list includes insects, seaweed and other algae, and “cultured” meat (that grown using in vitro cultivation techniques as being developed by Memphis Meats and JUST).
You might be game for veggie patties from Beyond Meat, but would you eat a cricket?
Before you answer, consider the tidbit I mentioned in the introduction about the Greenland Vikings – the fact that there is a strange and seemingly inexplicable absence of fish bones in the middens.
While the contention can never be conclusively proven, Diamond speculates that the Greenland Vikings must have developed a food taboo regarding fish that made them consider consumption of fish as anathema.
This taboo – and a taboo against eating seals, which are also plentiful on Greenland – meant that the Greenland Vikings’ civilization crumbled and disappeared while the Inuit civilization, living at the same time in the same land, thrived and prospered.
Yesterday, I was listening to Preet Bharara’s excellent podcast, Stay Tuned, as Preet was interviewing conservative columnist George Will. Will regurgitated an oft-repeated trope on the Right about how the Green New Deal would “outlaw hamburgers and air travel.”
Listening to him speak, I could not help but imagine a half-drunk chieftain in a Viking long-house in 1250 CE ridiculing his starving peasant neighbors for sneaking a taste of a fish to try to assuage their hunger and satisfy their nutritional needs.
While an obviously intelligent man and skillful writer, Will is, for whatever reason, failing to recognize that the carrying capacity of a finite system is something a good deal shy of infinite.
Clearly he does not understand that the only way to build and maintain intergenerational wealth in this century will be by investing in a new paradigm. Intelligent investors take note.