To Eat or Not to Eat Meat

With flexitarianism on the rise throughout the developed world, and everyone from Bill Clinton to Beyoncé endorsing the benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet, it can sometimes seem as though meat is just a bad habit that the majority of us are too weak-willed to kick. But is giving up meat morally superior, healthier, and better for the planet, as its advocates insist? This episode, we fearlessly dive into the long, tangled history and surprisingly nuanced science behind those claims. Listen in now for the truth on Pythagoras, cow farts, and more.

The ideal of a non-violent diet goes back to the origins of most world religions. Adam and Eve's pre-lapsarian diet was plant-based, while in the East, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism all embraced the concept of ahimsa, or non-violence toward living things—even if many Hindus and Buddhists aren't necessarily vegetarian themselves. We speak with author Colin Spencer, Gastropod listener and Jain Purvi Shah, and theologian Jo Ann Davidson to understand the genesis of these beliefs and their evolution throughout human history.

In the 16- and 1700s, new scientific discoveries were employed to adjudicate the question of whether eating meat was morally wrong: author and activist Tristram Stuart explains that, while vegetarian advocates held up the similarity of human and animal nervous systems to condemn the suffering inflicted by meat-eating, their opponents used the newly invented microscope to demonstrate that even the most rigorous Jain is still killing untold quantities of microbial and insect life every time they sit down to dinner. Today, the debate over animal rights and an animal's role as a potential source of food still rages.

But the claims that giving up meat will reduce heart attacks and save the planet—they must be much easier to prove, right? Not so fast: we speak to nutritionist Frankie Phillips, epidemiologist Corinna Koebnick, rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman, and researchers Gidon Eshel and Marco Springmann to understand the science behind a meat-free diet's reported health and environmental benefits—and figure out its flaws. As we discover this episode, nothing about eating meat or not eating meat is as clear cut as it seems.

Episode Notes

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Jo Ann Davidson

Jo Ann Davidson is professor of theology at Andrews University and the author of the article "World Religions and the Vegetarian Diet."

Colin Spencer and The Heretic's Feast

Colin Spencer is a novelist, painter, playwright, and cookery book writer, as well as the author of The Heretic's Feast: A History of Vegetarianism.

Tristram Stuart and The Bloodless Revolution

Tristram Stuart is author of The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times, as well as a food waste activist. You can watch his TED talk on the subject here, and then learn more about the campaigning organization he founded, Feedback.

Frankie Phillips

Frankie Phillips is a registered dietitian and author of this briefing paper on vegetarian nutrition published by the British Nutrition Foundation.

Corinna Koebnick

Corinna Koebnick is an epidemiologist with Kaiser Permanente of Southern California. For this episode, we discussed her research paper on the implications of a long-term vegetarian diet for a healthy pregnancy.

Marco Springmann

Marco Springmann is a researcher at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, based at Oxford University. His paper, "Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change co-benefits of dietary change," was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year.

Nicolette Hahn Niman and Defending Beef

Nicolette Hahn Niman is an environmental lawyer, rancher, and author of Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, as well as Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms.

Gidon Eshel

Gidon Eshel is a professor of environmental science and physics at Bard College. Our discussion was focused on his 2014 paper, "Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States."

Transcript

For a transcript of the show, please click here. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

Comments

  1. Thank you for a thoroughly researched and represented episode. I have been a vegetarian for my entire adult life, after doing research on it in high school. I first decided to because of all the reasons you explore in this episode. These days, however, my reasons are more nuanced. I support the ranchers and cowboys who make their living raising cattle and sheep in the West. I got to know many ranchers while working for the Western Folklife Center, which produces the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. It was there that I learned about the ranchers who are employing Allan Savory’s philosophies in their ranching methods, like Steve and Robin Boies in Nevada; ranchers who struggle with having nowhere to butcher their meat because of FDA rules; and those cowboy poets who still make fun of vegetarians but will have a conversation with one nonetheless.

    One thing we tend to forget about, and so I’m glad your guest Nicollette brought it up, is that there are some areas not suited to raising crops. The High Desert is one such place. The growing season is short and there is little water. It’s a great place for cattle and sheep, though. While I like her idea of small farms, ranches in the desert need a lot of space. The cow to acre ratio is larger in places where there isn’t a lot of vegetation. Families can still operate these ranches (many do), but they can’t be considered small simply because of the amount of land that is required to raise the cattle or sheep (and really can’t be used to grow much else). All that said, I agree that we should de-institutionalize the meat industry. Using land for a feed lot in Kansas or Nebraska, where legumes and other crops can be grown, does seem like a waste of space (and goes against my moral choices for being vegetarian).

    Finally, a challenge that the ranchers who want to raise healthier and more sustainable beef face is the lack of USDA certified and inspected slaughterhouse facilities. This makes it difficult to process their own meat for distribution on a smaller scale, which would help advance the idea of smaller, more local ranches and farms making their meat available.

    I will remain vegetarian, but I love my cowboy friends and don’t want their livelihoods and way of life to disappear. I stay vegetarian primarily for moral and health reasons, not environmental ones.

    Thank you again for a great episode. Every time I thought, “but . . .” you addressed what I was thinking. This is why I love Gastropod.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, and we’re so glad to hear that we answered your questions as they arose! We try to anticipate what our listener might be wondering. As for the word “small,” what I meant was “small-scale,” because even ranches that need a lot of space probably aren’t raising the same scale of cows as in an industrial CAFO. But thanks for sharing your experience with us!

  2. Hello ladies,

    I love the podcast in general but I found you really fell flat with this episode. Your bias for meat eating was pretty apparent throughout the podcast, especially in the section about the environmental impact of eating meat. The counter argument came from someone who was essentially a layman yet you claimed that she delivered a ‘knockout blow’ to the scientifically verified claim that farming contributes negatively to greenhouse gas emissions. It was somewhat irresponsible of you to position the counter argument as equally as valid as the argument (read fact) that farming contributes to greenhouse gas emission because one claim is based on scientific study and the other is based off of conjecture. The whole episode really came across as you trying to justify your meat-eating to yourselves when all the available evidence suggests it’s both healthier and more environmentally friendly to go vegan or vegetarian. There’s a solution to your problem ladies: go vegetarian. It’s obvious you’re feeling guilty about eating meat.

    • Hi Travis:

      Thanks for listening and for taking the time to write with your thoughts. Nicolette actually has written two books on the topic, so I’d say she’s hardly a layman. And when we used the phrase ‘knock-out,’ we were trying to have a little fun with what we know (and passionately believe ourselves!) is a super important topic. I got into journalism because I wanted to report on environmental issues. Her argument is that there is nuance to the science — just as Frankie, in the health section, provided context and nuance for the research that Seventh Day Adventists are healthier and that fewer of us will die if we stop eating meat. Nicolette did have a knock-out punch, we thought, not in the fact that Gidon and Marco’s science is bad (far from it!) but that there’s nuance in the discussion.

      I was a vegetarian for nearly 20 years, and I’m perfectly comfortable with my choice to now eat meat, in small amounts, infrequently. I believe animals can be part of environmentally healthy farms, and that, as someone who lives in New England, I can help support my farmers year-round by including small amounts of meat in my diet. I don’t feel guilty about it. In fact, I feel far more guilty about eating asparagus at a restaurant out of season, when I know it’s been flown in from Peru. I reported on Peruvian asparagus in person in South America, and I saw how this water-hungry crop is draining local aquifers to provide our year-round demand for the spears. Our asparagus is literally taking water away from the people who live there, as well as depriving small-scale farmers of their livelihoods. Vegetables don’t get a pass just because they’re vegetables – they have an environmental impact, too. Food is super complicated. – Cynthia

      • Thanks for responding.
        I just feel in this age of misinformation it’s important for a historical and fact based podcast to take care to not create false parity between to viewpoints when one is clearly in the right and the other isn’t. Nicolette’s attempts to show nuance in the science fell rather flat as it was speculation offering no concrete, researched based counter evidence. She has an obvious pro-meat agenda which is her prerogative but it would do better in the future for you to draw a clearer distinction between scientifically verified fact and what amounts to opinion for the sake of not misinforming your audience.

        Food is a super complicated subject but on this issue the verdict has been rendered rather definitively.

        I always try to eat in season and recognize large scale agriculture has sustainability issues as well, but to say it’s as harmful as large scale meat production simply isn’t true. And even for small scale farming, raising livestock is also allocating resources that could be better spent growing grains or vegetables that would yield more food for a larger amount of people than livestock can provide.

        Anyways, keep up the good work on the podcast. I’ll tune in for the next show. I just thought there was room for improvement in this episode.

    • There’s plenty of science that could have been cited including research done by Nobel Prize winning soil scientist Rattan Lal. Here’s an example: “The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s
      carbon footprint in North America” http://www.jswconline.org/content/71/2/156.full.pdf So people like Dr. Lal, Dr. Richard Teague, Dr. Allan Williams, Dr. Jason Rowntree are all PhD scientists could have made even more and stronger argument than “lay person” Nicolette Hahn Niman . So Hahn Niman’s has plenty of science to back up her arguments. She has also created easy to access resource sites to peruse that material like her Pinterest page – https://www.pinterest.com/defendingbeef/ and an ISSUU site with a loto research papers https://issuu.com/defendingbeef

      Once you understand the soil health aspects and benefits, the importance of ruminants for proper ecosystem function is quite obvious.

      Now what shocked me about this presentation was that the person commenting on health risks just listed relative risks rather than absolute risks. So this “researcher” was just being sensational, since the absolute risks are minimal. Not to mention all of this data he cited is almost exclusively derived via epidemiological studies that don’t account for confounding factors….so the nutritional science is very weak to begin with.

  3. I’m vegan for ethical reasons and see the environmental benefits as just a perk, so I’ve not studied that area much. There was one claim in this episode that really seemed obviously false to me though: raising livestock in the northeast in winter is more sustainable than trying to grow plants there during this season. These animals will have to eat plants, and if you’re either preserving food or shipping it from afar to feed your livestock, why is this better than just doing the same thing for yourself directly?

    • Because the livestock are eating plants (grasses) that humans can’t eat or digest. And these forages can be stockpiled so importing a lot of feed is NOT necessary. Not to mention cattle can still graze in the winter through snow. They do this in the Midwest as well. Not to mention, even in the East, land that’s hilly or has a rocky subsoil isn’t arable. Silvo-pasture also isn’t arable unless it’s cleared. So there’s a lot of land not suitable for crops.

      • I’ve lived in New England. Rocky, hilly Connecticut where people can and do grow crops. You can stockpile the food for yourself. There’s no reason that doing so for your animals is preferable, except for your own personal tastes. And there’s no way a huge herd could forage through the deep winter snow and find enough to survive.

        • Actually herds of ruminants do forage through snow whether they’re out west or in the Northeast. It’s not like bison and elk in large herds didn’t regularly do this. As for using hills for crops, that leads to a lot of erosion and loss of top soil especially with tillage for annuals. Terracing hillsides is how you keep erosion at bay, but that’s a very labor intensive practice that precludes any machinery. Though I doubt all acres of Connecticut are arable, so claiming that they are is rather silly. Though most ranching isn’t done in Connecticut. It’s done out west where there’s a lot less arable land, and what grows best there are various grasses, which is something humans don’t eat and can be stockpiled for livestock.

          Plus every time you pull plants out of the ground, you further deplete the soil of nutrients. So you still have to replenish the soil with more nutrients. The best way to rebuild the soil is through compost including animal manures. Green manures alone don’t have anywhere near the amount of nutrients (especially minerals) or microbial diversity. Plants grown in nutrient deficient soils aren’t as nutritious. .

  4. Hi Nicola and Cynthia,
    I like your show but I have to agree with Travis about this episode. I research nutrition and climate change full time, and after reviewing the many, many ways that our food system could be more sustainable, vegetarianism (or veganism) is it–nothing else even comes close. You blame the industrialized food system, but it’s set up that way to be efficient and to provide lots of food to lots of people at a low cost. This is crucial for global food security, and the land sparing that could occur with plant-based diets is enormous. Yes, some land isn’t arable–who cares? Let it rewild for once. It’s not like we have to farm every inch of land on the planet. I think you missed a great opportunity to emphasize this while making subtle qualifications, instead of focussing on Nicolette’s arguments, which are weak, and casting doubt on a frustratingly ignored path to our survival and to food justice. Animal agriculture is the biggest fresh water user, the main driver of deforestation (NOT limited to Brazil!), causes antibiotic resistance, zoonotic disease, and oceanic dead zones. I could go on.

    You missed the point of animal welfare (not ‘rights’) as being objective ethics, not merely “a belief”. Religion is important but philosophy is a reasoned discipline that you ignored (mentioning Peter Singer doesn’t count). You missed the many innovations in lab-grown meat and insects that have potential to avoid environmental collapse. You weirdly compared farmers having to kill an occasional deer with the mass slaughter that is the meat industry. Boutique farms are nowhere close to solving our problems, and are kind of a bourgeois/romantic response. You missed the fact that meat and dairy boards heavily influence the nutritional and environmental science. I understand that you couldn’t cover everything in this massive topic, but this is a matter of humanity surviving the biggest challenge it’s ever faced, and you downplayed it.

    I highly recommend the Food Climate Research Network for more evidence on this. I’m really sorry for the rant, and I understand that you’re both thoughtful humans. I just feel let down by this one.

    PS
    I swear I’m not a radical ranter.

    • It’s not just “some land that is not arable.” No it’s the vast majority of earth’s land mass that is not arable. In the US only 10 to 15% of the land is arable for crops. Plus land that is arable has been largely depleted of soil nutrients. Not to mention a lot of land that is used for crop production is marginal crop land on which crops can only be grown with a lot chemical inputs and or irrigation.

      Now there is a lot lot more land that is suitable for grazing. grassland ecosystems account for up to 30 to 35% of the earth’s land mass. It takes a lot less “blue water” to grow grasses on this land for grazing. Actually 98% of the water for beef is the water required to grow grasses, feed or forage. In a pastured system, 98% of that 98% is “green water” which is RAIN fall. So little to no irrigation is required in a well managed system. Cattle by improving the soil health actually improve the soil’s ability to retain water. SO the only people who claim beef cattle are water intensive are people who don’t have a clue as to how water footprint numbers are derived. These people just regurgitate numbers with zero understanding what the numbers actually mean.

      In pastured environments is where the vast majority of cattle are raised. Even in the US, 66 mill of the 80 mill head of beef cattle are on grass. There’s only 16 mill head capacity in feedlots where cattle are “finished.” Only 4% of global cattle inventory is raised in the Amazon. Deforestation is now occurring at faster rates in Indonesia and Malaysia than Brazil. The primary driver of deforestation in this region of the world is palm oil…not cattle. In Brazil, the root cause is land speculation. The land is worth more cleared of trees, and claims are held by placing cattle on them. Claims have to be held for five years, Forest Laws in place aren’t enforced by a very corrupt government.

      So again you’re just spouting grossly oversimplified talking points with zero understanding of the underlying issues or any real knowledge of cattle production.

      Now as for sustainability, well managed cattle are used as tools to regenerate land. They do this by building soil health, fertility and soil microbial diversity. This is true in pastured grassland environments as well as integrated crop lands. In integrated systems, cover crops with grazers eliminate the need for tillage, inputs, and herbicides. Tillage, inputs and herbicides all destroy soil ecosystems. Without healthy soil ecosystems you don’t have nutritious plants. Healthy ecosystems also increased water infiltration and retention plus sequester carbon and enhance methane oxidation. So grassland ecosystems are carbon and methane sinks not emitters. Tillage for annuals on the other hand emits a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. So aqain you really have no clue what you’re writing about.

  5. Please be so kind to have this captioned. People who are Deaf or hard of hearing would love to hear what they have to say. Thank you.

    • Hi Anne — We’re an independent podcast made by a team of precisely two, so resources are tight, as I’m sure you can understand! However, we do have a wonderful volunteer, Ari Lebowitz, who is working on an episode transcript, which we’ll get up online as soon as we can.

  6. Hello – long time listener, first time commenter! One of the things that makes methane such a potent green house gas is that it traps 28 times more heat than CO2, so even if methane measurements from cows are off by10 fold, they still have bigger contributions to global warming than Nicolette let on.
    (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/326/5953/716 – let me know if you need access)
    And while it’s true that sustainable farming with rotational crops and free grazing is probably ideal, this is not the reality for the majority of our meat sources. Until we get major changes in how meat is produced, it will continue to be one of the dirtiest sources of food energy we have as humans.

    Has anyone measured the amount of methane in a buffalo fart? I will take a look and get back to you!

    Now, let’s talk about the environmental impact of almonds and chick peas! So much water!!
    I eat mostly vegetarian, and meat when I am at a fancy locavore restaurant. I am also a microbiologist, so I think more about feeding my tiny little gut-resident overlords than my own self.
    Thanks, I’m a super fan and a fellow BU-alum!

    Jess

    • Update: the historical bison numbers quoted are probably incorrect. I haven’t back tracked all these articles yet, but they seem to come from reliable sources:
      http://livablefutureblog.com/2010/07/cattle-burps-and-climate-change-what-about-bison-a-response-to-joel-salatin

      I think we all know that there is no perfect answer to which diet is better, but that the Michael Pollan approach you mentioned is probably the healthiest, both for people and the planet : “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

      • The number of bison (not buffalo) was estimated at anywhere from 30 to 70 million around 200 years ago. The bison though weren’t the only ruminants. There wer also 20 to 35 million pronghorn, up to 30 million elk and 25 to 35 million deer. So the total of wild ruminants far exceeded the current number of current domestic ruminants (cattle, sheep and goats). All of these wild ruminants emitted enteric methane as noted in the article from PSU http://extension.psu.edu/animals/dairy/news/2011/wild-ruminants-burp-methane-too Most methane is emitted from belching due to the methanogenesis occurring in a cattle’s ruminants…not from farts.

    • Hey Jessica,
      I’m with you on the methane. It’s also important to note that cutting back on meat is the quickest way for humans to mitigate climate change because methane is very potent but doesn’t persist in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide. I think it’s 8 years or so, compare to 100 years or more for carbon. This makes it such an amazing opportunity to quickly reduce warming rates compared to, say, telling people to drive less.

      I was confused by Nicolette’s point on measuring methane from cows and how it’s inappropriate to scale up the numbers? I don’t see the problem with the way it’s done–obviously it’s not perfect, but we need to do it somehow. Climate change requires some inferring and she didn’t provide any alternative methods. One last greenhouse gas that wasn’t mentioned on the episode at all is nitrous oxide–super potent, super persistent, and driven by livestock rearing.

    • Grassland ecosystems are methane sinks (See- https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312661017_Annual_methane_uptake_from_different_land_uses_in_an_agro-pastoral_ecotone_of_northern_China ). Meaning that grasslands ABSORB methane rather than emit methane. How? Methanotrophic bacteria oxidize atmospheric methane including enteric methane generated by the methanogens in cattle rumen (methanogenesis). The problem with enteric methane measurements is that they’re done with masks (including SF6 tracers) or in chambers not in intact ecosystems. So organizations like DEFRA that generate the data that’s repeatedly cited only multiply the source emissions by the number of head without accounting for any mitigation.

      Grazing actually increases methanotrophic activity. What reduces this activity are nitrogen inputs. tillage and bare soil. As more and more land gets depleted and receives synthetic nitrogen to boost short term yields, less land functions as a methane sink. Thus more atmospheric methane. Natural gas use including fracking is a huge source of methane emissions. Sourcing methane in the upper atmosphere is a very imprecise science so there is a lot of debate as to what’s caused the most recent rises in CH4.

      Here’s a brief quick overview of methane and ruminants: https://lachefnet.wordpress.com/2016/07/03/la-chefs-editorial-methane-and-global-warming/

      • Thanks for all that information! And for the clarification of burps>farts when it comes to methane. Will read more. And I have also read that we are losing our methane sinks (same is true of deep seabed methanogens as the oceans warm – more of that methane sink is being converted to a source).

  7. Sorry, one last thing. I totally get the “ideal scenario” thing of grass-fed, happy cows with rotational crops and all, but the reality of it would take up much more land, time, crop feed, and energy, and the meat produced would likely cost much more. I get it, but it would be much less resource-efficient than the awful CAFOs we have, and therefore not any more sustainable. Meat just isn’t worth the damage it does and the resources it uses. Maybe chicken? Maybe. I’m hoping people will try insects and oysters.

    • The not enough land argument is a fallacy in regards to beef. Dr. Allen Williams demonstrates why in this article. https://grassfedexchange.com/blog/can-we-produce-grass-fed-beef-at-scale

      People who make this “not enough land” argument don’t understand that cattle is only finished in feedlots for the last 1/3 of their lives. Feedlot capacity is only 16 mill head in the US, the other 66 mill head of beef cattle are already on the land on grass. (Brazil only has 2 million feedlot capacity out of 214 mill head, and Oz has less than 1% feedlot capacity for its cattle. Most of the global inventory of cattle is on grass) Cattle are not like chickens or pigs that go from insemination to cellophane without ever seeing the light of day.

      Costs have more to do with the consolidation of the meat packing industry and how meat is gotten to the market. Crop insurance making corn by- and co- products cheap also impacts cost depressing pricing of the industrial model. The portion of the dent corn kernel that’s fed to cattle is cheap feed. Allow greater access for ranchers to go direct to the market place, and stop subsidizing industrial crops, then pricing will be more similar.

  8. The health portion of this discussion was REALLY weak. To begin with all the numbers the researcher from Oxford used to argue that meat increased various illnesses were RELATIVE risk numbers, which without looking at the data are completely meaningless. Absolute risk is what’s important. On the much ballyhooed IARC for colorectal cancer, based on epidemiology, the relative risk associated with eating red meat was 30%, but the absolute risk was less than 1%. Now looking at cigarettes – smoking increases relative risk 2500% and absolute risk is over 20%. Epidemiological science in and of itself is very limited in terms of its usefulness. It’s largely data crunching to try to correct for numerous variables (confounding factors) that aren’t being isolated.

    And then to discuss childhood deficiencies and not discuss DHA or K2 was kind of mind boggling. Healthy brain development is contingent upon DHA….and healthy calcium utilization for bones is dependent on K2 . Plant ALA conversion to the usable form DHA is really inefficient. Plus probably a lot lot easier to get a kid to eat cheese and eggs than natto for K2.

    • Just a quick note to say you’re absolutely correct on the relative vs absolute risk numbers: as we said, the entire study was set up to compare the impacts of various diets, so it was relative by design! And yes, as we also mentioned, the issue of confounding factors is a big part of why it’s so difficult to definitively say that a vegetarian diet is better or worse or the same as a diet that includes meat. Re. Vitamin K2, there have been very few studies on its impact, and those that have been done on very small numbers of individuals. As a result, health authorities in Europe and the U.S.A. have decided that there is not enough evidence to set a dietary reference level for K2, so it’s impossible to talk about deficiencies. Similarly, there isn’t a general consensus on the best DHA/EPA/ALA ratios for human health, so there aren’t dietary guidelines on intake in the U.S., although the science there is undoubtedly interesting. The issue is this: there are many, many compounds in both animal- and vegetable/fruit/microbial-based products that potentially have beneficial effects, either alone or in combination, and thus removing particular foods from the diet will thus likely alter intake of those chemicals in ways that may or may not have health effects, significant or otherwise … BUT, unless there are dietary guidelines for a specific nutrient, it’s not technically possible for a nutritionist to talk about deficiencies.

      • Given your response, I’m not sure if you understand the difference between absolute and relative risk, since both forms of risks compare different groups within a study (specifically for the studies cited by the researcher from Oxford, meat eaters versus vegetarians). Not knowing the difference between these difference forms of risk is a fairly common occurrence with media people….and many doctors too.

        To illustrate the difference, it helps to use an example. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but the IARC/WHO report that red meat and processed meat were potential carcinogens is a good place to start.

        The scientific press proclaimed that meat increased a 30% increase in colorectal cancer based on a meta-analyse of 800 studies! Wow, pretty scary. But when you looked at the actual IARC summary, first only eight out of 800 studies were cited to make this pronouncement. All eight of those studies were cohorts (observational studies). So there were no animal studies or RCT’s cited.

        (Again I don’t remember the exact numbers) Now based on these cohorts, the non-meat eaters had an occurrence of 2.50 cases of colorectal cancer out of 100, while the meat eaters had an occurrence of 3.25 cases of colorectal cancer out of 100 . So the relative difference was 3.25/2.5= 1.3 or 30% increase while the absolute risk difference was only 0.75% (Note here too if the numbers were 2.5 and 3.25 out of 1000, relative risk would still be 30% though absolute risk would be even less)

        And these were based on cohorts, which rely on food recall questionaires which are notoriously unreliable. There are also a gazillion confounding factors (antibiotics in meat, what else did the person eat or not eat, source of meat, etc) that can’t be controlled or accounted for with stats. So the nutritional science at best gave a very very weak correlation. Conducting a Randomized Control Study over a long period of time would be nearly impossible to do.

        Some people like to counter with the argument about not having an RCT for smoking, but in the case of smoking the relative risk was 2500% and the absolute risk was over 20%.

  9. Here’s another issue I haven’t seen anyone bring up yet. What about the wild animals that must be killed to protect farmed animals? The wolves, coyotes and foxes that are caught in leg traps or shot. Do these deaths balance out with the impact on deer and other “nuisance” animals by crop production? Which is more harmful to natural ecosystems?

  10. Just a note that the main and most important difference Gnosticism and Christianity is the view on who Jesus Christ is. Not on dietery habits.

  11. In terms of methane emissions from enteric fermentation, it’s belching not farting we should be concerned about. Around 98 per cent of enterically produced methane is eructed through the nose and mouth. (See Thorpe, A. (2007) ‘Enteric fermentation and ruminant eructation: the role (and control?) of methane in the climate change debate’, Climatic Change. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10584-008-9506-x)

  12. Thank you for tackling this issue! As a nutrition student and future dietitian, I run into this dilemma ALL the time. I was thinking about this very thing just the other day, and was delighted when this new episode came up on my phone!
    I love listening to your podcast, and have found it an enjoyable addition to my nutrition education 🙂
    Thank you for the thoughtful podcasts!

  13. Thanks for covering such an important issue. I enjoyed the episode, although I have several qualms. Most importantly, it bears mentioning that cattle do not serve the same ecological role that bison did on the prairie. Namely, cattle are far less nomadic and exert huge ecological pressures on water sources. I worked for U.S. Geological Survey in North and South Dakota for two years, where we observed that nothing was quite as detrimental to the biodiversity of the ephemeral ponds (charmingly dubbed “prairie potholes”) as allowing cattle access to them. It’s quite amazing to witness the sort of damage cattle do to a landscape. But maybe all of this just suggests that the most responsible meat production system would call for the restoration of the prairie with bison as a key source of animal meat. Either way, we need to address the magnitude of our meat consumption, if only because it’s difficult to justify a system that demands so much water in a country where access to clean water is not a right.

    Nature Conservancy report on cattle and bison in grazing systems: bihttp://lgdata.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/docs/2515/634345/ABS_WP_4-Fuhlendorf-etal-2010.pdf
    USGS on water footprints of various foods: https://water.usgs.gov/edu/activity-watercontent.html
    Calculate your water footprint: http://www.watercalculator.org/q/household/

    • Yes, Alan Savory’s ideas are controversial, but my understanding is that they are not debunked, and that, in fact, the science on either side is still unclear. For research that seems to support Savory’s thesis, you can look at the work of Richard Teague at Texas A&M, for example: recent papers include “Grazing management impacts on vegetation, soil biota and soil chemical, physical and hydrological properties in tall grass prairie” and “Multi-paddock grazing on rangelands: Why the perceptual dichotomy between research results and rancher experience?”(Another important point to note is that Monbiot is strongly in favor of re-wilding, whereas Nicolette Hahn Niman argues that if land is not being used to grow food, it will likely be developed, and that grass-fed beef herds are thus helping preserve open land.) (And, as a side note, personally, as a Guardian reader of many decades, I’d never take George Monbiot’s word for anything!)

    • All of the papers/articles (like Monbiot’s) that supposedly “debunk” Savory’s methods refer back to two studies by Briske and Holechek. The problem with these two studies is that both compared short duration rotational grazing with continuous grazing practices. Neither study compared holistic or adaptive grazing with continuous grazing. So both Briske and Holechek didn’t even fully know what holistic grazing is since short duration rotational grazing and holistic (or adaptive) grazing aren’t the same thing. Holistic Management is a system of land restoration to restore ecological function…not simply just another way to move cattle through paddocks.

      All the papers/articles supposedly “debunking” Savory also ignored the growing body of peer reviewed research by Teague, Connant, Rowntree, Wong and others supporting Savory’s 30+ years of field observations. You can find copies of many of these papers as well as many others on the soil science by clicking this link put together by DB’s author- https://issuu.com/defendingbeef

      When Mnbiot wrote his paper, Hunter Lovins also provided a reply that cited some of this science plus noted just a few examples of ranchers using holistic grazing methods https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/aug/19/grazing-livestock-climate-change-george-monbiot-allan-savory Holistic management is practiced on five continent and currently over 40 million hectares of land.

  14. While listening to the podcast it occurred to me that Catholicism may be biased in favor of meat eating due to transubstantiation during communion – the belief that the wafer in communion becomes the actual flesh of the Christ. This is not a symbolic body in the Catholic belief system (as it is in other Christian denominations), but the actual body. Someone saying that they never eat flesh would either exclude themselves from Communion, or cast doubt upon an underlying belief.

    Did your experts mention this?

  15. There’s nothing environmentally sustainable or beneficial in feeding animals pounds of feed and gallons of water to get a few ounces of meat. World hunger is still prevalent and here we are feeding the majority of the Earth’s bounty to livestock.

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