You’ve probably heard plenty in the last two years, particularly, about veganism and its benefits for health, animals, and the environment. A significant portion of the U.S. population - over 7 million people according to recent estimates - identifies as vegetarian or vegan. The arguments are damning, I know. I started learning about vegetarianism in summer of 2016 and quickly switched over to ~99% plant-based for about 9 months. I first made the change for my health and the environment after being swayed by Netflix documentaries like Cowspiracy and Forks Over Knives. They were certainly eye-opening, but since then, I’ve found more research and theories about why veganism isn’t the best choice for protesting animal cruelty and global warming. The opposite of factory farming isn’t opting out completely, but supporting its counterpart. I preface this article by making it clear I respect all choices, and understand that veganism is tied into some religions, even. I’m setting out to debunk the myths that influenced my decision to eat plant-based in case anyone else out there is conflicted for the same reasons I was.
MYTH 1: Leaving animals off of our plates is the most environmentally sustainable option.
I think this is one of the biggest reasons people choose to go plant-based. If vegan propaganda doesn’t convince you that meat is horrible for health, it can probably convince you that it is at least horrible for our planet. Environmental arguments for veganism are based on carbon emissions and the fact that methane from cows in the air is the driving force for global warming. Let me just be blunt and say methane = cow farts. While I was still calling my diet “plant-based” I started to wonder how a beautiful, natural animal could really be to blame for global-warming, and even touted as worse than the effect of our burning fossil fuels and producing mass amounts of landfill waste. It wasn’t making sense to me.
When I looked outside of the Netflix documentaries I found information I didn’t know existed about cows and other ruminant animals, and how they actual have a net negative effect on carbon emissions. We were all taught in grade school that green plants photosynthesize by turning water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into sugar that feeds the plants at the roots. These sugar molecules travel into the soil and nourish fungi and bacteria that make up a healthy, rich soil. When the fungi and bacteria digest this material, they return organic carbon which enriches topsoil and makes it viable to continue nourishing plants. Grasses are very efficient in this process, and cows are part of the solution in this cycle, not the problem.
Properly raising cows to imitate Nature involves pasturing them on grass and rotating them with electric fences, similar to how they would move and migrate due to predator pressure on plains. When cattle are raised responsibly in this way, they chomp down on grass until moved by fencing or predators and repeat the cycle on another patch of grass. When grass is eaten, it stimulates the root for regrowth and moving the cattle onto another patch gives the grass time for restoration so it can further sequester carbon from the air. Cows then return carbon-rich manure into the soil and stomp it into the ground with their hooves, contributing to the nutrient richness of the soil that grows their own food. You can picture visually how this cycle looks: carbon comes from the atmosphere, into the plant, into the soil, nourishing the grass, eaten by ruminant animals, excreted in gas and waste, and repeated over again. Nature designed this to work very well, but we’re messing up the process by feeding grain to cattle and not allowing them to pasture.
Another contributor to this myth is water usage. Data about how much water it takes to raise a pound of beef include rainfall (free! And not the cow’s fault…*cue eyeroll*) and doesn’t account for the fact that the water also nourishes the cow’s natural food. Cows are not sitting at a hose sucking up hundreds of gallons of water. Another aspect of this false picture is that grain could save the earth by farming it instead of animals. Unfortunately, we can’t grow grain on the same kind of land that pastures ruminant animals. It’s not the same kind of soil and they don’t happen on the same land. Tilling of the land that is part of monocrop productions like wheat, soy, and corn farming actually disrupt the topsoil and release its precious carbon stores, and also ruin the natural biodiversity of that soil. Life in a wheat field that is not wheat is competition, and big-Ag doesn’t like that. A patch of soil can consistently produce a crop for about 40-60 seasons depending on the conditions and crop species. After that many cycles, the topsoil is essentially dead – void of its essential nutrients. The land needs diversity including plants and animals to nourish it. In the same way that humans wouldn’t expect to be fully nourished by eating only corn, the soil can’t get everything it needs from one measly mono-crop.
MYTH 2: Keeping animals off of our plates is the best way to avoid harming other creatures.
Before going into this, I’ll say that factory farming is something I in no way support. Animals confined in small spaces, so crowded it makes them sick, and not allowed to live the way Nature intended is the horrible reality a lot of creatures in the food industry face and I agree with the vegan community that it’s awful. Let’s zoom out and recognize there is another way to raise and farm animals. Animal activists argue that there is no way to humanely slaughter an animal, but the way I see it is this: humans are the only creature on earth capable of taking a life in a way that minimizes suffering. No other animal can do this. A properly raised and slaughtered animal has one bad day in its life, just like we will. I can personally come to terms with that.
The truth is, we’re so disconnected from our food system because of our privilege to ignore it when we buy pre-cut, packaged meat from a grocery store. There is nothing to remind us that it came from an animal and that something gave its life to nourish us. We live in a modern society where I realize farming our own animals for food isn’t a reality for the whole population. But I think it’s important for people to connect with their food and better understand the circle of life. Everything lives and everything must die. In coming full circle from plant-based life, I’ve extensively pondered the reality of Nature and that it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. Nature is harsh and ugly at times, and death is equally a part of the cycle as birth and life.
That being said, plant-based foods are not harm free, anyway. Think about a vegan loaf of wheat bread. The wheat came from a large monocrop wheat field where the soil was tilled, torn through, and probably sprayed with pesticides. It’s ignorant to pretend there was not life harmed in that process. Rabbits, slugs, mice, and insects that called the land home were killed. And per vegan values, a pig’s life is as the same as a human’s, so a mouse’s life should be equal to the pig’s, right? If so, this isn’t justified, either. There is no way to maneuver around death completely, and it’s a privilege that we live in a way that allows us to pretend there is.
MYTH 3: We have teeth like primates so we are frugivores. We should be eating vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, not meat.
This point is one I really held onto for a long time because of my nerd-alert interest in evolutionary theory and biology. It’s true, our teeth look a lot like the teeth of primates. But if we’re using that as “proof” that we should eat like them, we need to look at the rest of the digestive system. And at that point, the argument falls apart. Primates, in general, have colons much longer than their small intestines. Humans have small intestines much longer than their colons. The small intestine is most efficient at digesting food that is simple, small-volume and dense, and pre-processed by blending, cooking, or fermenting. The large intestine (colon) in human bodies mostly serves the purpose of reabsorbing water from the digested matter and concentrating our waste. In primates the colon is large enough to house bacteria that ferment cellulose and fiber that passed through the small intestine untouched; that process is called “hindgut fermentation”. Humans don’t have enough space or bacteria to do that. Those who say that we should eat the same diet as primates because of our teeth don’t talk about the differences in the rest of the digestive tract. Additionally, evolutionary theory suggests that our differentiation from apes is a direct outcome of humans starting to eat meat and learning how to cook food. Because of meat’s caloric load and nutrient-density, humans were able to spend less time foraging, eating, and digesting, freeing up time and energy for brain and skill development. It does a disservice to the human race to pretend we are the same species as primate. I won’t go further into this since people have different beliefs about evolution, but our potential diversion from primates is an argument that should be considered.
MYTH 4: Meat is to blame for modern disease.
So much poor research circulates about this and it’s exhausting to talk about! I’ll do another post about the details of nutrition in omnivorous diets compared to plant-based, but for now I’ll talk just about the logical argument that allowed me to discount this theory. Our grandparents and great-grandparents ate plenty of meat, butter, and lard, especially those of us of northern European descent and other cold climates that didn’t allow for kale and coconuts and avocados to grow year-round. Heart disease was not a problem at this point up until the 1920’s and on with the industrial invention of refined sugar and vegetable oils, the same time during which our meat consumption has continued to decrease. I think that's enough to chew on...for now!
If you have any thoughts or questions about this article, plant-based eating, or sustainable farming please drop them in the comments! It’s so timely to have conversations about this topic, and there are ample sources of further knowledge. My favorite resource is Diana Rogers, R.D. at sustainabledish.com and her amazing podcast, Sustainable Dish, which features lots of advocates for better meat and farming. You can find her podcast on her website and in iTunes.