LIHUE — Plants could be the key to food security in America, according to a new study, and vegans on Kauai say The Garden Island is the perfect place to try out plant-based fare.
That’s according to researcher Ron Milo at Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, whose research showed America could feed all of its 327 million people, plus an additional 390 million by switching the focus from animal products to plants.
The math adds up for some vegans and farmers on Kauai, like Robert Zelkovsky, who isn’t vegan, but has a diet high in plants.
“I do promote it as kinder, healthier and better for the environment,” he said. “I grow and eat lots of sprouts!”
Michelle Lemay, who has been vegan for nine months and made the switch to a vegan and gluten-free diet in order to heal after a surgery, said she thinks plant-based diets would feed more people as well.
“It makes sense, especially if we were to use the land and resources that go toward growing meat toward growing food,” she said. “We’d have an abundance.”
She secures most of her food through farmers’ markets on Kauai and her diet consists of things like overnight oats with fresh fruit, chia and hemp seeds, quinoa salads and stir-fries made with fresh vegetables. She also throws in the occasional substitution food like almond milk or vegan cheese.
“With the farmers’ markets, it’s reasonable, and there really is an abundance of food that grows here,” Lemay said.
Those home-cooked meals are often simple, she said, using many of the same recipes she did when she was eating animal products, just “veganized.”
When she’s not feeling like cooking at home, Lemay visits places like Eat Healthy Kauai, and Our Place in Kapaa, where the menu is fully vegan and ingredients are usually harvested the same day. Many restaurants around the island have options, she said.
“I go out often around the island and I’ve been finding there’s a lot of places that are willing to substitute or already have one or two options that are vegan and gluten-free on the menu,” Lemay said.
She continued: “I find it easy, because I know I’m going to find something to eat, always. I’m not going to starve. It’s not restrictive.”
At Verde restaurant in Lihue, for instance, manager Jessica Kerber said the vegan tacos are popular.
“I’ve seen more and more people coming in for vegan food over the last year or so,” Kerber said. “I’m not sure if it’s because the trend is growing or if people are searching it out online and they see us on Yelp, so they come here.”
The vegan community on Kauai is vibrant, said Lemay, who is involved in the Vegetarian Society, which meets monthly for food and plant-based lectures.
She’s speaking on May 6, and plans to share info on the availability of farmers’ markets, as well as vegan food options by region on Kauai.
When it comes to food production, farmer Marshall Paul of the Kauai Food Forest said just about anything would be more efficient than growing a cow when it comes to calories, but animals are essential to the success of a farm.
“Because of the essential role of the nitrogen cycle in plants, animal integration of one sort or another is necessary,” Paul said. “Choose the ones that are most efficient and that can fulfill your nitrogen needs.”
“If you really back up and see how the world can be fed, it looks like local, diversified, intensive agriculture is the way to go,” Paul said. “Back up and simplify, localize, diversify and intensify.”
The researchers out of Israel examined America’s eating habits between the years 2000 and 2010, and used computer calculations to remove beef, pork, chicken, dairy and eggs from the American diet, replacing them with plant-based foods that were “nutritionally comparable.”
Those kinds of foods include potatoes, peanuts, soybeans and other plants.
Their model showed that on land that could produce 100 grams of plant protein, growers would end up with 60 grams of edible protein using the land for eggs, 50 grams of protein in chicken form, 25 grams of protein from dairy cows, 10 grams of protein from pigs, and 4 grams of protein from beef.
Eliminating eggs and replacing them with plants that offer the same nutrients would make it possible to feed 1 million additional people, researchers found.
At the other end of the spectrum, swapping plants for beef would result in enough food to “meet the full dietary needs” of 163 million extra people.
In the middle were dairy (getting rid of it would result in food for 25 million more people), pigs (cutting them out would feed 19 million more people) and poultry chickens (without them, farmers could feed 12 million more people).
If beef, pork, chicken, dairy and eggs all were replaced by a nutritionally equivalent combination of potatoes, peanuts, soybeans and other plants, the total amount of food available to be eaten would increase by 120 percent, the researchers calculated.
To put that in perspective, the amount of food that’s currently wasted due to things such as spoilage and inefficient production methods is between 30 percent and 40 percent of what U.S. farmers produce.
“The effect of recovering the opportunity food loss,” the authors wrote, “is larger than completely eliminating all conventional food losses in the United States.”
Downsides cited in the study included a decline in the consumption of micronutrients, like vitamin B12.
Jessica Else is a staff writer at The Garden Island newsapaper and can be reached at 245-0452 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.