After six years of living and preaching the vegan lifestyle, I no longer follow a vegan, plants-only diet. Instead, I’ve started eating meat again. Here’s why.
This is an important life change I’ve wanted to share with you all since I started eating meat again around four months ago.
But, I’ve been procrastinating on writing this post. Partly because I wanted to see how my body responded to the introduction of meat again, and also because I’ve been a little afraid of how it will be received.
Nonetheless, it was a decision I didn’t make lightly. I’ve quietly pondered about it for some time, and have been researching the benefits of eating meat for over six months now. It all started after I listened to a podcast by Dr. Mark Hyman, ‘Why Vegan Diets May Not Be Good for Your Health,’ with Jayne Buxton.
This took me down a rabbit hole, as it questioned everything I believed in as a vegan; that eating a plants-only diet would improve my health, how it was better for animal welfare, and how it would help in saving the planet from the excess carbon being produced from the animal agricultural sector.
Suffice to say, having the integrity of your beliefs questioned isn’t easy. But I believe that it is important to reevaluate certain ideals we assume are facts every so often, as information changes all the time, particularly in the health and nutrition sector.
I’ve found that it’s not just the amount of information that makes the discussion around veganism and meat-eating hard, but it is more often that, as the listener, you don’t want to hear it, and you may feel resistance to the new information. I am a case in point.
I believe it’s important to inform yourself on both sides of a story, like veganism for instance. Look at the pros and cons for each argument, that way you give yourself a more informed choice when making a decision of what to put in your body.
Six years ago, I decided to go vegan after watching a few documentaries on veganism, such as Cowspiracy, What the Health, and Forks Over Knives. This was based on a one-sided view of the story around animal agriculture and it’s impact on human health and the planet.
Since then, I’ve come to learn that while a plants-only diet may work for some people, it is definitely not for everyone (as with any ‘diet,’ there is never a one-size-fits-all approach to eating), and while others have noted an improvement in their health (which can be misleading at first, and I’ll delve into this further), I did not.
So, here is a little about why I am no longer vegan, and why I started eating meat and other animal products again after six years of eating only plant foods.
Before we begin, I wanted to note that this post is not anti-plants. Neither is it anti-vegan or anti-vegetarian. I love fruits and vegetables and subscribe to the idea that plant and animal foods work hand-in-hand to provide all the nutritional benefits we humans need to thrive.
The Great Plant-Based Con
After listening to her speak about the inaccuracies behind veganism when it came to human health, animal welfare, and the health of the planet, I bought Jayne Buxton’s book, The Great Plant-Based Con, to further my knowledge on the topic, as I didn’t want to rush into anything before I had the information I needed.
I will be citing some her research in this post, along with other sources like ‘The Best Diet for Your Brain,’ a podcast with Max Lugavere.
While there is compelling scientific evidence and anecdotal stories sharing how a plants-only diet did NOT bring about optimal health for many, but caused sever health conditions like nutritional deficiencies, weight gain, recued energy levels, and more, the positive messages about veganism propagated by Veganuary, the Vegan Society, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the vegan community on social media continue to ring loud and clear. Why?
It is believed to be partly due to a 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. This report, ‘Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and options,’ made the claim that 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions were from livestock, making it a greater emitter than the global transportation sector.
What many don’t know, or refuse to note, is that the FAO actually reduced their 18 percent number after receiving challenging allegations made by Dr. Mitloehner. The new number was revised down to 14.5 percent, however, the consequences of that report had already done damage, entrenching the idea that the climate crisis is largely a result of global agricultural farming.
The other problem, is that emissions from animal agriculture are highly variable around the world, meaning they change with each country. People with an anti-agriculture agenda like to cite the global numbers – because they are much higher – to emphasise their point and get people to stop eating animal foods.
Why the Studies Around Meat Consumption May be Inaccurate
In her book, The Great Plant-Based Con, Jayne Buxton shares that, ‘So much of the epidemiological research about the effects of meat consumption has been weak, being based on notoriously unreliable food frequency questionnaires, beset by confounding variables and showing relative risks that are much too small (that is, much below two) to imply causation.’
What this means is that much of the research cited around the negative effects of meat consumption are largely based on inaccurate observations. Good science requires data. Clinical trials tend to provide more reliable sources of information than epidemiology.
We, as observers and laypeople, need to be aware that nutrition research is an imperfect science, with epidemiological research being the most imperfect of all. ‘When epidemiological outcomes are tested in clinical trials, they are proven wrong over 80 percent of the time,’ shares Jayne Buxton in her book, The Great Plant-Based Con.
Epidemiology focuses on patterns of the population at large (observational), while clinical data looks at the effects of specific factors on individuals (practical). One of the misleading notions around meat, in particular red meat, is its link to cholesterol and heart disease.
Debunking the Myths Around Cholesterol
The first thing I want to urge, which is in stark contrast to popular belief, is that cholesterol is vital for life. I know we’ve been lead to believe otherwise.
Cholesterol is a critical building block for the many hormones that are central to the proper functioning of our bodies, it plays a key part in the immune system, and is significant in the proper repair and maintenance of tissues in the body. Without cholesterol, we would have no cell renewal, and no life.
It is also the precursor for synthesis of substances like bile acids, vitamin D and steroid hormones. ‘It has been called the ‘mother of all hormones’ because it plays a critical role in the conversion of ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) into other important hormones such as pregnenolone, progesterone, cortisol and testosterone,’ explains Jayne.
To explain how cholesterol works in the body, Gerber and Cummins, highly regarded figures in the low-carb side of nutrition, refer to the lipoprotein particles as ‘boats’ which help to carry cholesterol around the body to where it is needed. There are three main particles: HDL (high-density lipoprotein), LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and triglycerides which are a type of fat packed inside these lipoprotein particles.
The small, dense form of LDL is the real culprit in heart disease. It’s the result of LDL becoming oxidised in an inflammatory environment, such as that which occurs from insulin resistance.
According to nutritional psychiatrist Dr. Georgia Ede, ‘If you have “high cholesterol” you do not have a cholesterol problem – you have a carbohydrate problem.’ It is important to examine LDL in the context of other values, like HDL, triglycerides, insulin levels and blood glucose. This will provide a more accurate reading of whether or not your blood is full of these oxidised LDL particles. Unfortunately it is common practice by many doctors to measure only LDL values alone, which can produce very inaccurate results.
Cummins and Gerber instead promote the measure of key ratios of triglycerides:HDL instead of the simple LDL reading, which they say is ‘vastly more predictive than the LDL value’ alone.
While statins have been glorified as the most effective solution in the war on cholesterol, the evidence for the efficacy of statins to prevent heart attacks and deaths from heart disease are far less conclusive than we’ve been lead to believe.
According to Jayne Buxton, ‘Ten million people must take a drug to benefit 50,000.’ That’s one in 200 who’s life will supposedly be ‘saved.’ But “saved” is a bit of an overstatement. It would be more accurate to say death would merely be postponed, as these drugs do not cure or heal. As Dr. Kendrick puts it, ‘If ten million people (at very high risk of heart disease) took a statin for a year they would all live on average two days longer.’
Yet this drug is seen as the most practical option to prevent death from heart disease in the medical community.
As most people still believe that LDL is inherently bad, and that eating meat, dairy and saturated animal fats will contribute directly to high HDL, cholesterol continues to be viewed as the culprit for heart disease.
Rather, what we should be concerned about is insulin resistance, a condition far more likely to be improved with reduced carbohydrate intake than with the avoidance of saturated fat found in meat and other animal foods.
Obesity, inflammation and insulin resistance are believed to be responsible for 70 percent of chronic disease, according to Dr. David Harper, research scientist with the BC Cancer Research Centre in Vancouver. Diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, reproductive ill-health, brain and neurological disorders, skin disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and Alzheimer’s have been associated with insulin resistance.
Many experts in the medical field are now coming to the realisation that insulin resistance is proving to be more of a risk factor for heart disease than cholesterol.
What does any of this have to do with eating meat?
Well, simply put, a diet high in plant foods is also a diet high in carbohydrates. When you remove animal fats and protein from the diet, you need to replace it with something else, and that something is often carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are broken-down by the body into a sugar known as glucose, and when that sugar enters the bloodstream, the pancreas responds by producing insulin, which allows glucose to enter the cells in the body to provide them with energy. Overtime, the insulin receptor sites in the cells become less sensitive, meaning more insulin must be produced to do the job. Eventually, cells stop responding to that insulin altogether, leading to a condition known as insulin resistance, a precursor for type 2 diabetes.
Ben Bikman recommends the following levels of carbohydrates for those wanting to reverse or prevent insulin resistance (IR): ‘If you definitely have IR, consume less than 50g of carbohydrates per day; if you show some signs of being insulin resistant, consume less than 75g of carbohydrates per day; if you are not insulin resistant and never want to be, you have more freedom, but would ideally keep carbohydrate intake to under 100g a day.’
Meat and Cancer
The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the American Institute of Cancer Research released a report in 1997 sharing how there was neither any ‘convincing’ or ‘probable’ reason to believe that fat-rich diets increase the risk of developing cancer.
Yet, this message is entirely lost amidst the content on sites such as eatingourfuture.com, a plant-based advocate website. Just looking at the sheer volume of articles sharing the harm to health posed by saturated fat and meat might make you want to avoid meat altogether and adopt a plant-based diet.
‘But these studies and articles are reliant on the same type of weak epidemiology as that used to justify the diet-heart hypothesis,’ shares Jayne Buxton in her book, The Great Plant-Based Con. These studies rely on tiny hazard ratios and weak associations between red meat and cancer. Peter Attia MD says this kind of research is misleading, ‘Interpreting and promulgating statistics in a manner that often exaggerates associations, making things seem more meaningful than they are.’
In 2015, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) completed an evaluation of the carcinogenic risk to humans of red and processed meat consumption. The authors placed processed meat in Group 1 of known carcinogenic substances, which is up there with asbestos and tobacco. But, the WHO later clarified that ‘this [classification] does not mean they are equally dangerous.’
Later, medical professionals and scientists came forward to critique the WHO findings, saying that the statistical risks associated with eating red and processed meat are very small, based mostly on observational studies that used unreliable dietary questionnaires.
If you would like to see a more detailed evaluation on the many failings of the WHO-IARC report, see ‘WHO says meat causes cancer?‘ by Dr. Ede.
Nutritional Value of Plants Vs. Animal Foods
This was a major influence in my decision to start eating meat again, and why I’m no longer vegan: The nutritional value of meat compared to plant foods, particularly when it comes to protein.
Although a vegan diet is claimed to be ‘nutritionally adequate for all stages of human health,’ as quoted by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), they accompany this statement with a list of all the nutrients that need to be obtained via supplements and fortification, which contradicts their claim, admitting that a vegan diet is not complete.
Nutrients that are only found in animal foods include, according to Dietician Valerie Burnazov, ‘preformed vitamin A, B12, D3 and K2 (MK4 subtype), haem iron, taurine, carnosine, creatine, CLA, EPA and DHA.’
All animal foods contain cholesterol, which I talked about earlier as being necessary for life. Plant foods, however, contain a form of cholesterol called ‘phytosterols’ which the body cannot absorb. Similarly, vitamin A in the form of retinol, vitamin D3 which is more bioavailable and potent in the body compared to its counterpart, vitamin D2 (derived from plants), vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA (ALA is the precursor to EPA and DHA and is the form found in plant foods, but conversion is very poor, often being under one percent), essential minerals like calcium, zinc and iron, and quality protein sources lack in a plant-based diet.
Plant protein sources are seen as second-class proteins as they are less complete and bioavailable than animal sources. Even the EAT-Lancet report, whose recommended diet is largely plant-based, shared an admission in it’s fine print that read, ‘animal sources of protein are of higher quality than most plant sources.’
While it is thought that supplementation of these important nutrients can help to side-step this problem of nutritional deficiencies, ingesting these synthetic nutrient forms outside of their natural food matrices is not nearly as effective as consuming them via natural food sources, and may not result in similar nutritional statuses as those obtained via natural sources.
Studies have found that fortifying a low-meat diet with zinc or omega-3 from supplements did not provide the same benefits as those who obtained these nutrients from whole food sources. I share more on why you can’t out-supplement a poor diet, here.
Unfortunately, throwing a few artificial vitamins together to try and replicate a food source is not as simple as we make it out to be. We fail to account for other factors such as our gut microbiome.
According to Tim Spector, genetic epidemiologist, there are thousands of different microbe species which interact with the thousands of different food chemicals to ‘produce over 5,000 chemicals that affect most aspects of our body.’
The Vegan Honeymoon Phase
Many ex vegans, doctors and nutritionists talk about a phenomenon called the ‘vegan honeymoon,’ a phase which can last for months or even years. People find they’re initially helped by going vegan, but after an extended period of time, ill-health starts to set in.
This is what happened to me.
Nutritional deficiencies take time to establish, and often those who report improvements when transitioning over to a vegan diet notice a difference because they switch from a very poor diet to one that is ‘better’ in relative terms.
According to Stephan van Vliet, ‘It might take five years or more for B12 and fat-soluble vitamins to deplete to a level where deficiency symptoms arise.’
For me, my heath problems started about four years after going vegan.
I became very fatigued, and I found it extremely difficult to lose weight, which, as a young woman in my twenties, I thought was very unusual. I had also developed leaky gut, something I never experienced before, and suffered with a candida overgrowth (from all the sugary fruits and high-carbohydrate foods I was eating). Plus, I felt hungry all the time.
I experienced many nutritional deficiencies, the most common ones being zinc, iron and B12. These were what left me feeling tired and fatigued most of the time, no matter how much sleep I got. I was also losing hair, and not just a little, a lot, which really scared me. To top it off, I was on my way to developing insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome (hence the trouble losing weight).
To help with the fatigue, my naturopath suggested that I start including eggs in my diet (as I refused to eat any other animal foods at the time), and I noticed a huge improvement in my mental health, fatigue, and nutritional deficiencies.
A year later I went vegetarian, and a year after that I started a pescatarian diet, which quickly switched to an omnivore diet focusing mostly on animal foods, as I could keep to a high-fat low-carbohydrate regime, which I found worked best for my body.
I didn’t share any of this until now because I was mainly in denial. I wanted a vegan diet to work for me. But as I learnt more and more about the health implications of excluding such a prominent food source from the diet as animal-sourced foods are, it became harder to ignore the facts.
The Anti-Nutrients Lurking in Plant Foods
Eating too many of the wrong plants at one time, or on a daily basis, can lead to severe health problems. Oxalates, phytic acid, and lectins are three of the most destructive compounds to human health.
Believe it or not, plants don’t like to be eaten. So, they’ve developed passive defensive mechanisms, known as antinutrients, to ward off predators.
Oxalates bind to calcium as they leave the body which can lead to problems like nutrient deficiencies, kidney stones (it is believed that 80 percent of all kidney stones are caused by the build up of calcium-oxalate), inflammation, mitochondrial and gut dysfunction, mineral imbalances, urinary tract issues, autoimmune diseases, fibromyalgia, and more.
Phytic acid, on the other hand, ‘not only prevents the absorption of minerals in the plants being consumed but any other minerals found in the meal,’ says Jayne Buxton. A study sited by Jayne in her book, The Great Plant-Based Con, shared that eating oysters (which are rich in zinc) with a corn tortilla (a rich source of phytic acid) ‘completely nullified any absorption of zinc.’
Lectins bind to a sugar molecule known as sialic acid, which is found in the gut and brain. These sticky proteins have the ability to interrupt messaging between cells, and cause toxic and inflammatory reactions in the body.
Symptoms of irritable bowel are another common side effect of overdosing on lectins. Aching joints, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, dementia, headaches and infertility have been resolved once lectins were eliminated from the diet, says Dr. Steven Gundry.
Vegetable oils and soy products are also a cause for concern. Seed oils are known in the industry as refined, bleached, and deodorised (RBD). The high levels of omega-6 found in seed oils can drive a range of health problems such as inflammation and increased levels of oxidised LDL (see section on ‘Cholesterol’ for a review of oxidised LDL particles).
Linoleic acid (LA), a form of omega-6 and not to be confused with alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is an omega-3 fatty acid, can remain in the tissue for many years, taking many years to materialise. Even when disease manifests itself in conditions such as diabetes, obesity, fatty liver disease or cancer, it is not often linked back to seed oils.
In a vegan diet, consumption of large amounts of foods rich in carbohydrates and polyunsaturated fats (a.k.a seed oils) are common practice. To make products like vegan cheeses, mock meats, or dairy-free cream and ice-cream, additives, preservatives, stabilisers, emulsifiers and seed oils are used, making these inflammatory compounds a regular part of a plant-based diet.
Please note that any diet where a large amount of ultra-processed foods are consumed will have these issues, including diets where meat is eaten.
One of the main ultra-processed foods I consumed during my early years as a vegan was the popular vegan butter alternative, Nuttelex. This highly processed margarine contains a host of processed ingredients, including ‘Vegetable Oil (containing sunflower oil), water, salt, emulsifiers (471, sunflower lecithin), natural flavour, vitamins A, D, E, and natural colour (beta carotene).’
While I still opted for what I thought was the “healthier” option, choosing the palm-oil free Nuttelex butter which incorporates coconut oil instead of palm oil into the product, this version still contained ingredients such as vegetable oils (coconut oil only made up 4 percent), emulsifiers, flavour enhancers, colour enhancers, as well as fortified sources of vitamin E and D.
Plant-based meats make up a large share of the processed plant foods consumed by many vegetarians and vegans alike. The list of additives, chemicals, preservatives, and specific food items found in one top-selling brand of meatless burger patties included soy protein concentrate, yeast extract, sunflower oil, methylcellulose, cultured dextrose, soy protein isolate, potassium chloride, and sunflower lecithin. Another top brand had a similar list but replaced the soy protein with pea protein, and substituted sunflower oil for canola oil.
Sara Keough, an eco-nutritionist and technical advisor to Understanding Ag, stresses that the pea protein and soy isolates in these products are of particular concern and can ‘produce many harmful effects.’ She explains that the high heat processing and isolation ‘separates the proteins from their whole food form and generates compounds that are not naturally occurring in food and may trigger inflammation or immune system reactions.’
The Real Story Behind Emissions from Animal Agriculture
In the documentary, Cowspiracy, it claimed that animal agriculture accounts for 51 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), generating more emissions than the entire transportation sector.
‘The fantastical 51 percent number came from a 2009 non-peer-reviewed article by Goodland and Anhang, published in World Watch Magazine,’ says Jayne Buxton. This number was in stark contrast to the the 14.5 percent claim made by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Even this lower estimate made by the FAO overstates the case, as the number for livestock accounts for lifecycle emissions ‘(emissions from rumen digestion and forages, crops grown for feed, processing and transportation),’ says Jayne, while the amount for transportation only accounts for direct emissions (from the tailpipe).
The global estimates for greenhouse gas emissions made by the animal agricultural sector is also inaccurate, as it ‘disguises the enormous differences between countries around the world,’ says Richard Young of the Sustainable Food Trust.
Where and how the beef is produced, and what factors are accounted for in the calculations, makes a substantial difference. Accounting for carbon sequestration and soil regeneration as a result of regenerative agricultural practices also changes these overall emission calculations.
Planting trees is portrayed to be the easiest way to battle climate change and the collapse of biodiversity, however many tree planting campaigns are based on flawed science: ‘Planting in grasslands and other non-forest areas, and prioritising invasive trees over native ones,’ cites Jayne Buxton.
What’s more, forested areas aren’t always superior carbon sink holes when compared to non-forested areas like grasslands and meadows. ‘A study published in Nature in 2021 suggests that they can, in fact, be less effective at storing carbon,’ says Jayne, as ‘grasslands experienced an 8 percent growth in soil carbon’ while ‘forest soils did not store any more carbon at all.’
The reasons why grasslands are more reliable carbon sinks is because they sequester most of their carbon underground, while forests store their carbon mostly in their leaves and ‘woody biomass,’ says Jayne. When wildfires set trees alight, the carbon they formerly had stored is released, while grassland fires do not impact carbon stores, as the carbon is fixed underground in the roots and soil.
Animal agriculture relates back to this as grasslands are often reserved for livestock use. Dr. Christine Jones explains that proper managed grazing with livestock (a regenerative agricultural practice) keeps plants in a vegetative state, meaning that the carbon produced during photosynthesis will stay locked below ground for longer. ‘Without grazing, the plant would recall carbon for use in cell production and growth.’ Managed grazing imitates what herds of herbivores did on wildlands.
CO2 Emissions from Animals Vs. Fossil Fuels
Not all methane is created equal. ‘Methane that is derived from atmospheric carbon,’ explains Jayne, ‘is part of the biogenic carbon cycle and eventually returns to the atmosphere as CO2, making it recycled carbon.’
Methane is a gas with a short lifespan, being destroyed as well as emitted. ‘If livestock herds are stable,’ says Jayne, ‘the methane emitted equals the methane destroyed,’ making the warming impact neutral. When it comes to the debate about methane produce by livestock, Jayne shares that ‘cellulose is a key ingredient for cattle and other ruminants. As they break it down, they emit methane. After 12 years, this methane is converted to carbon dioxide – the same carbon that was in the air prior to being consumed by the animal.’ Thus, it is recycled carbon. This cellulose is produced via photosynthesis, where the pants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and use the energy of the sun to produce carbohydrates like cellulose, which the livestock then eat.
When it comes to how best to protect biodiversity and the planet we live on, there are a couple of different opposing views. On one side, we have those who believe spare agricultural land, particularly from livestock production, should be converted back to wild land and forest. While on the other side, we have people who think the best way to encourage a greater sense of biodiversity is through integrating livestock and crop farming into the land in a mindful manner.
According to farmer James Rebanks, land rewilding could have unintended consequences. Rewilding comes with its own emissions via wildfire and the decomposition of plant matter.
Cows on rangelands also produce manure which plays an important role in supporting insect and bird life. If we are to reverse the relentless decline in biodiversity and natural ecosystems, we must change the way we farm. Anything that shifts the food system further towards monocropping and the use of artificial inputs such as fossil fuel derived fertilisers and soil tillage, will have disastrous ramifications for not only the land being farmed, but insect and bird populations, and the millions of microbes found in the soil (where 95 percent of life resides).
The popular 2018 film, The Game Changers, was a documentary showcasing how a plant-based diet could not only offer significant improvements in athletic performance, health and wellbeing, but is the superior option to a omnivore diet. However, when critiqued by medical professionals that had no vested interest in the vegan agenda, it was found that many of the claims made in the film were inaccurate. The comprehensive analysis done by registered nutritionist, Tim Rees, shows how little of the evidence presented in The Game Changers stacks up. For the full analysis, see here.
There are many similarities between The Game Changers and Cowspiracy, both having the same takeaway message being to ‘go vegan.’ Cowspiracy pushes the idea that the global adoption of a vegan lifestyle is “the only way to sustainably and ethically live on this planet with 7 billion other people,” shares Joshua Finch, an agro-ecologist. Agricultural scientist Karin Lindquist highlights the fact that, “if a film only has one ultimate solution to the world-wide problem of feeding the world and climate change, [and that is] a “plant-based diet” or veganism, then yes, it is a propaganda piece and not an open-ended documentary.’
Kiss the Ground and other excellent films about farming and the environment include The Biggest Little Farm, Sacred Cow and Sustenance. They provide a more well-rounded view of things when it comes to the impact of agriculture on the planet, particularly how important regenerative agriculture is in restoring the world’s topsoil.
To avoid being misinformed, we need to apply a critical eye to the content beneath the headline, questioning motivations of those who are cited, thinking independently, and consulting a variety of sources (ideally with different perspectives) to establish how valid the original claims are.
The Soil Crisis
It is said that we have just sixty harvests’ worth of soil remaining. Due to the destruction of the soil microbiome from current farming practices such as fertiliser inputs and tilling, water retention, flood and drought control, carbon sequestration rates, biodiversity, and the nutrient density of crops are all suffering as a result.
But, farmers like Isabella Tree have managed to turn things around and bring hope for the future. She is famed for having revived the soils at her family’s 1,400-hectare farm using regenerative farming principles. She implemented extensive grazing with free-roaming herds of cows and pigs and saw life return to this once barren landscape.
Rather than eliminating livestock altogether in the hope that it will restore nature and improve the health of the planet, we need to change the way we see things and the questions we’re asking. How can livestock be better managed to improve the health of the land and the ecosystems of which it is apart of?
Why a Vegan Diet isn’t Necessarily More Eco-Friendly
The single biggest thing you can do to help the planet and reduce your carbon footprint is to eat a plant-based diet.
This was the resounding message that was being conveyed when I went vegan, and something I whole-heartedly believed at the time.
However, this isn’t necessarily the case. While we think eating plants will help the planet, what we don’t see are the impacts crops are having on the health of ecosystems.
Soy, for example, is a main staple in a plant-based diet, with soybean oil accounting for 25 percent of global vegetable oil consumption. While an estimated 75 percent of the soy grown is used for animal feed, the feed given to livestock is mostly made up of the by-product and crushed soybean matter leftover from extracting the soybean oil. So, ‘even though more soy (by weight) is consumed by animals than humans,’ says Jayne, ‘the amount that is consumed by humans has a direct impact on the amount of soy that must be grown.’
The more soybean oil that is consumed by humans, the more soy that must be grown to accommodate the demand, directly driving deforestation and damaging the soil via the use of monocropping and chemical fertilisers.
Industrial monocrop agriculture requires tillage, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides like glyphosate, insecticides, fungicides, and other harmful substances which degrade the soil, killing microbes. This leads to erosion of the topsoil, resulting in flooding, and can leach chemicals into our streams, rivers and oceans.
The fact is that all foods impact the environment in some way, and pointing the blame on certain foods based on inaccurate estimates of emissions generated or the land and water use required to produce that food isn’t helpful. How the plant food or animal food was produced is much more important than the food itself.
The questions we should be asking are what impact does that food have on soil health and biodiversity? Is it grown in a sustainable way, without artificial fertilisers that kill insects, ravage the soil, and cause run-off into rivers and oceans? Is it grown locally, or has it been imported, travelling extensive distances to arrive on my plate?
For each food, the answers will be very different.
This is something that I care deeply about and hold close to my heart whenever I make a decision to buy any sort of animal product. It was one of the big reasons I went vegan in the first place.
I’ve learnt with time, however, that following a vegan diet doesn’t necessarily mean I’m sparing all animals from suffering and death.
Farming to produce plant foods involves death, as Australian farmer Matthew Evans documented in his book, On Eating Meat: The Truth About its Production and the Ethics of Eating it, where he shares the animal deaths caused by plant-based agriculture. ‘To grow 400 tons of peas on a single farm in Tasmania, for example, some 1,500 animals have to die each year: deer, possums, wallabies and ducks.’
But it doesn’t stop there, ‘Every year in Australia a billion mice are poisoned to protect wheat,’ says Matthew, ‘around 40,000 ducks are killed to protect rice production, and every apple grower will kill around 120 possums to protect an orchard.’
It has been reported that 50 billion bees were wiped out between 2018 and 2019 alone as a result of pesticide use, disease from parasites, habitat loss and the overuse of industrial farming methods.
Simple slogans such as ‘Meat is Murder’ intrinsically places more value on large, domesticated animals as being more “worthy” than insects, mice, snakes, or birds. Death happens not just because farmers are forced to protect their crops, but because habitats are destroyed to create spaces to grow food.
‘Around 80 billion land animals are slaughtered every year,’ explains Jayne. ‘If you factor in all the small and large animals, insects and bees killed to protect crops, you very quickly arrive at comparable numbers for animal lives lost to the cultivation of plant foods.’
We have a responsibility to properly care for the animals on which we depend on. It does not give us freedom to treat them any way that suits us. We must put respect and compassion at the heart of animal agriculture and food production. Animal welfare matters, and should be built into the strategies we use to farm.
What’s more, meat and dairy aren’t all equal, as Max Lugavere shares in the podcast, ‘The Best Diet for Your Brain.’ When sourcing meat or any animal products, look for labels that read ‘pasture-raised eggs, poultry and pigs’, ‘organic grass-fed and grass-finished meat’, ‘wild-caught fish’, ‘organic, biodynamic dairy’, and the like.
We, as consumers, can help by buying our meat from suppliers who uphold high standards of animal welfare. This is what I’ve really committed to since transitioning to eating meat again: Ensuring that the food that I eat has been produced in a humane, ethical and sustainable way.
While grass-fed and finished beef, or pasture-raised chicken, pigs and poultry are more expensive than standard feedlot meat, the value is worth it, as you really do get what you pay for. Plus, it also means that everybody wins in this scenario – the animals, the farmer, the customer and the environment.
As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor before trying or using any new products. I am not a doctor. All opinions expressed are my own personal thoughts and feelings of the products mentioned. Check with your doctor or health practitioner if you are uncertain about trying out any of the products, recipes or tips mentioned in this post.
Do you eat meat? Are you vegetarian or vegan? Share in the comments below.
Lots of love,