The Call, Column 44 – “For Your Health, the Environment, and the Animals”

10 04 2016

(April 10, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“For Your Health, the Environment, and the Animals”

            Today, we’re going to discuss a topic that I’ve given a lot of thought to in the past year: the nutritional, ecological, and ethical arguments in favor of eating animals.

First, here’s a little background. As some of you know, or may have guessed, I follow a dietary framework called the Paleo Diet, which enthusiastically involves moderate levels of animal consumption. I’ll talk about it more in the future, but needless to say, this has ironically led me to the dark corners of the internet, where the arguments against any and all consumption of animal products are given a pretty elevated platform.

To start, I have the utmost respect for the pure form of ethical vegetarianism and veganism, which is based on an objection to factory farmed animal products. A distinction has to be made between advocates of “animal welfare” – the goal of producing the highest quality of life for our animals – and those of “animal rights” – extending human rights (to life, freedom, etc) to animals, a goal that is inherently hostile to any form of animal agriculture. I have friends and family in the first group, who abstain from animal products as a hugely effective way to protest factory farming.

Not only am I not writing this to question their beliefs, but it is actually more in line with their central goal than opposed. Rather, it’s written in response to those perpetuating the ridiculous and offensively-named “animal rights abolitionism” – the use of government regulation to stop other people from utilizing animals for any purpose, including as pets – and somehow tying it to the largely unscientific environmental and human health arguments against animal consumption.

I don’t care that they believe this – that’s their own prerogative. But this “Triumvirate” of arguments is presented to the public as self-evident fact, and inflammatory opinion-piece films are made to disseminate it. Their false dogma is squarely wrong, but has somehow become the official position of polite society. And I want to do my part to combat that.

For Human Health

            Everyone agrees that non-starchy vegetables and lower-sugar fruits should make up a significant part of our daily calories. Specific numbers don’t matter much, but together with healthy plant fats, that leaves maybe 40 or 50% of caloric needs unaccounted for. We have to get that from some mix of animal foods (meat, milk, eggs) and plant foods (grains and legumes). The Triumvirate would have you believe that this should come mostly from the nutrient-poor sugars in grains and legumes (and low-fat dairy). The best science increasingly says the opposite.

In case you haven’t heard, dietary cholesterol has been exonerated as a cause for heart disease. Cholesterol is a necessary nutrient for brain function, hormone production, and the creation of new cells, which is why our livers synthesize so much of it. But, because we are well-adapted to eating animals, they happily produce less when it can be obtained from our diet; this means that consumption of cholesterol generally has no effect on blood cholesterol levels.

It isn’t even cholesterol that clogs arteries, but damaged lipoproteins (“oxidized LDL cholesterol”) which actually truck cholesterol around our bodies to where it is needed. The net effect of animal fats is to slightly raise LDL levels but actually protect them from becoming damaged/oxidized, while the net effect of concentrated sugars and starches is to accelerate the damage! Together, the nutrient-shaming of cholesterol and saturated fat are the basis upon which the Triumvirate argues against animal consumption; thankfully, that foundation has been destroyed by actual science, and the recommendations are slowly changing.

What’s more, we are “obligate omnivores” – there are nutrients that our bodies require in order to function properly, whose only or most practical source is plants (for some of them), and animals (for others). The required nutrients from animal products include Vitamins B12, K2, D, and preformed A, heme iron, zinc, and other minerals, appropriate forms of omega 3 fats, and complete protein (read more about this on The Paleo Mom’s site, http://tinyurl.com/hevowep).

Indeed, our species has eaten significant amounts of animal products for at least 2.6 million years (about 50% of calories prior to the dawn of agriculture), and have never suffered chronic diseases like the past five decades, which has been coupled with a decrease in overall consumption. As I’ve argued extensively in the recent past, the scientific basis of anti-meat nutritional recommendations is so shaky, it isn’t worth denying our own biology. Animal products are not only not bad for us, but necessary for human health.

Strike one.

For the Environment

            My analysis of this shouldn’t surprise you. Industrial animal agriculture is bad for the environment. But so is industrial plant agriculture. In fact, this is so because animal agriculture unnecessarily relies on resource-intensive monocultures of grains and legumes.

Industrial agriculture is bad for the environment. It uses a lot of fresh water, consumes a lot of energy, releases a lot of greenhouse gases, and causes a lot of localized pollution. But this isn’t inherent to animal agriculture, or plant agriculture for that matter. And that is where the advocacy community loses some of us holistic, systems-minded folks.

People need to eat. And there are a lot of us. Therefore, we must do agriculture. But we also need a properly-functioning planet to live on. So a major challenge of the 21st century is to find ways to do agriculture well, that are also good for the planet. Enter: Regenerative Agriculture.

Without going into too much detail, independent scientists and agriculturalists have constructed a toolbox of agricultural methods, collectively called “Regenerative Agriculture”, which rival the efficiencies of industrial agriculture but do so in ways that actually help the environment. Taking cues from nature – which is full of pastures, forests, and animals, but curiously not grain monocultures – pioneers like Allan Savory, Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, and many ambitious farmers have formulated three important agricultural practices: non-intensive plant agriculture and permaculture (topics for future discussion), and today’s highlight, rotationally-grazed livestock.

Grass-eating animals (ruminants) are essential for the health of the environment. And by feeding them only grass, and grazing them on pastures in patterns that mimic those of wild ruminants, we can create a system that requires very little water, produces no pollution and a gain in soil fertility, and actually has a net effect of pulling greenhouse gases out of the air! Industrial agriculture is a problem, but animal agriculture done this way is the solution.

Strike two.

And for the Animals

            Considering that humans are obligate omnivores (since science generally shouldn’t be discarded in favor of ideology), we have three options to supply those required foods: hunting/fishing, animal agriculture, and artificial meat production.

It is resource intensive to grow meat in a laboratory and, like most reductive science, likely wouldn’t provide a suitable substitute for meat. Also, it is unlikely to be scalable to the population’s demand for meat.

Hunting and fishing is a good solution, but not a complete one. At the current human population, supplying all of our animal product needs from natural populations would devastate them. There are maximum sustainable harvest rates that we should absolutely strive for in order to supply some of the demand, but to surpass them is to take that same right away from the next generation, and 10 and 100 generations down the line.

That leaves animal agriculture. I would argue, since we must raise animals for food instead of hunting them in the wild, we must make their lives better and longer than those of their wild cousins. Guess what? The holistic system I described earlier does just that. This is yet another reason to buy grass-fed, pasture-raised animal products, mostly from large grazing herbivores (red meat).

Even if we’re willing to ignore the fact that we are biological omnivores, the system of ethics by which we decide whether to eat animals is pretty much subjective. The most common framework is the “Least Harm Principal”, which posits that our dietary choices should be made in order to cause the least harm/suffering/discomfort to creatures with brains. The common argument is then: “so we shouldn’t kill animals for food when we can just eat grains and legumes”. But here’s the interesting thing: mechanical harvesting of grains and legumes, which is necessary at current consumption levels, results in the bloody, painful deaths of a significant number of animals living in the grain fields. Estimates actually have it at 25 times as many animal deaths per gram of protein produced in grain and legume agriculture, than in pasture-based ruminant agriculture (http://tinyurl.com/nr5f6m2), so the least harm principal indicates the latter as the best calorie choice in order to reduce animal suffering (http://tinyurl.com/hmqa6pj).

But my ethical approach to agriculture is a little different. It is well-documented that all creatures – plants, animals, fungi, and microbes – suffer in their own way, and limiting our scope of empathy only to those who suffer similarly to us is indefensible. For that reason, I believe in a more nuanced, large-scale method to reduce suffering – using the extensiveness of our agriculture to maximize the biomass production on the surface of the earth, producing the largest amount of healthy, thriving, biodiverse life possible, for the longest time possible. And what’s the best way to do that? Regenerative agriculture, including rotationally-grazed animals.

Strike three, case closed.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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