I want to get to a point straight up today.

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Photo by Stephanie Gonot

I’ve been travelling around learning about meat production and reading more and more on the subject. A few weeks back I shared how I eat my meat, which prompted debate and more questions. I’ve read some more…and more…and figured y’all might like to do the same.

First up, before I get to the great meat reads, I’ll clear a few things up:

* My food philosophy is always about how to get the densest nutrition for my ethical buck. This means balancing things up, making the best decision with every food choice. This means there is no “one right answer”. I value local over organic. I appreciate for many, a mainstream supermarket is their only shopping option (the closest bourgeois farmer’s market might be a two hour drive away). And I value sustainability first and foremost (both of the planet and of our food systems), ahead of my own hedonistic needs (taste, texture, convenience and even health).

* I’m not a scientist. I’m a journalist, a conduit. I take dense information and share it in a way that’s most appropriate to the readers here on this blog. And this is a personal blog where I make it very clear that these are my personal experiences and interpretations. As always, I keep reading and learning, with my eyes wide open. I encourage the same of everyone here.

*  I live in Australia where many of the stats bandied around about the amount of water and grain to produce meat are a moot point. I explain, why below (eg: the bulk of beef and lamb in Australia is grass fed, raised on arid range land that can’t be used to produce grain etc). Thus, most of the popular factoids do not apply to Australian meat.

So, to this end, some extra reading and ideas to digest:

1. The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability, by Lierre Keith

Lierre was a vegan for 20 years and switched to sustainable meat eating for ethical, environmental and health reasons. Indeed, this positioning makes her take very compelling. She has thoroughly explored every possible argument put forward for not eating meat (many of which are familiar to me from years of wrangling with the issue myself), and very much reluctantly comes to the conclusion, on every front, that a diet inclusive of meat is the only way we have a chance of saving the planet, and ourselves. It’s a complex book to wade through; the arguments are involved. And, to be honest, her circa-1991 feminist vernacular can be hard work and a little slanted. But compelling nonetheless.

All those arguments about meat production taking up more water, more land and causing more emissions? She pulls them apart and shows they only hold when unsustainable meat farming practices are cited. That is, when meat is fully grain fed (which is rarely the case in Australia).

But the more compelling food for thought comes when she pulls apart the unsustainability of a vegan/vegetarian/grain-based diet.

* She highlights the insanity of current agriculture which requires, on average, more than a calorie of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food energy for humans. A vegetarian/vegan diet is, basically, a fossil fuel-burning diet. This is only one of many nails she bangs into the “Meat eating produces more CO2” coffin.

* She explains why she wound up with irreversible and crippling (literally) health conditions, then makes the startling point:

vegetarians become anorexics and bulimics.

Up to 50 per cent of women seeking treatment for eating disorders are vegetarian. It’s not a loose correlation, nor one that feeds the other way. The lack of tryptophan, the precursor for serotonin, and zinc sets off a biological chain reaction that leads to the emotional state that triggers disordered eating. She cites various studies that show the nutritional deficiency causes the behaviour, not the other way around. The damage from this cycle is long-lasting. “Even years into their recovery, all it takes is a few hours of tryptophan depletion to send some bulimics into relapse. That’s one, maybe two skipped or inadequate meals.”

Shit. And wow.

The book is brimful of such reflections. Get it. Read it. But be delicate before onpassing to your vegan loved one.

2. “49 Reasons to be a Vegetarian: a Rebuttal”, by Jenny at Nourished Kitchen

This is not an annotated read, but does give a good overview of nutritional points to think about, as well as environmental and ethical factors. It’s all about HOW you eat and buy your meat, summed up by rebuttal #5:

The claim: Tropical forests in Brazil and other tropic regions are destroyed daily, in part, to create more acreage to raise livestock.

Jenny’s rebuttal: No argument here: don’t buy your meat from Brazil, buy it locally.

3. “I’m not a Vegan Anymore”, a post by Alex Jamieson

Alex is girlfriend to Supersize Me‘s Morgan Spurlock and she recently shared why she switched to eating meat. I don’t mean to flag a bunch of unhappy vegans to make any particular point. But I thought it might be interesting for meat eaters and non-meat eaters alike to be aware of the tough issues a waivering vegan faces. I should highlight, she also realises she’d developed an eating disorder from being a vegan.

4. Meat: A Benign Extravagance, by Simon Fairlie

I’ve only just started reading this one. But this much I’ve gathered: Fairlie’s a British farmer and former editor of the Ecologist magazine and he convincingly tears apart the theory that being carnivorous is bad for the planet. He argues for moderation and being aware.

Again, Fairlie’s argument is about the HOW of farming and eating meat. For example, the global average conversion ratio of useful plant food to useful meat is not the 5:1 or 10:1 cited by almost everyone, but less than 2:1. If we stopped feeding edible grain to animals, we could still produce around half the current global meat supply with no loss to human nutrition. In fact it’s a significant net gain. It’s the second half – the stuffing of animals with grain to boost meat and milk consumption, mostly in the rich world – which reduces the total food supply. Cut this portion out and you would create an increase in available food which could support 1.3 billion people. Fairlie argues we could afford to use a small amount of grain for feeding livestock, allowing animals to mop up grain surpluses in good years and slaughtering them in lean ones.

Note once more with emphasis: In Australia, lamb is almost wholly pasture fed and most beef is too. Grain is used in times of drought etc. And in such cases only grain that’s not fit for human consumption is used.

He also combats the water argument (that it requires 100,000 litres of water to produce every kilogram of beef). He points out that this claim arose from the absurd assumption that every drop of water that falls on a pasture disappears into the animals that graze it, never to re-emerge.

Then there’s the “livestock are responsible for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions” line. Fairlie shows that this claim – based on studies in the Amazon – attributes all deforestation that culminates in cattle ranching in the Amazon to cattle. In reality it is mostly driven by land speculation and logging.

But, as I say, I’ve only just started reading it…

5. “I Was Wrong About Veganism”, by George Monbiot

Fairlie’s Meat: A Benign Extravagance famously convinced Guardian journalist George Monbiot (my thinking woman’s crumpet) that he was wrong about veganism. Monbiot makes the invaluable point – which I cite often, myself – that:

“By keeping out of the debate over how livestock should be kept, those of us who have advocated veganism have allowed the champions of cruel, destructive, famine-inducing meat farming to prevail. It’s time we got stuck in.”

6. “The Importance of Animals“, by Anna Krien.

I think this is an important, reflective read, if you want to explore your thinking further.

7. “Its the Gut Not the Meat”, a post by Chris Kresser.

There was a report in the New York Times a few weeks back claiming red meat causes heart disease. As is so often the case, the study was problematic to the extent that, really, it made no point at all. That’s my take…you might like to form your own. Kresser’s rundown explains it all very neatly. Chris Masterjohn has also published a detailed analysis of the underlying – and flawed – data in the study. Chris has also pulled apart the “meat causes inflammation” argument.

8. Also from Chris Kresser: red meat – even grain-fed – is best.

I could bang on about all the nutritional reasons for eating red meat, debunking all the myths about it somehow correlating to various modern ills, but Chris Kresser does it better. It’s worth a read if you tend to avoid red meat because you’ve been worried about cancer and cholesterol etc.

There’s also this read about whether grass-fed meat is better for you than grain-fed. Grass-fed is. But two things: the difference is not too huge, especially if the PUFAs are your concern. The other is – yes, once again –  that Australian meat is predominantly grass-fed and so it’s not really a concern for us anyway. Our farmers are doing the right thing to start with! Again, Chris Kresser highlights a few factors, including the effect of CLA:

Conjugated linoleic acid CLA exhibits potent antioxidant activity, and research indicates that CLA might be protective against heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Beef is one of the best dietary sources of CLA, and grass-fed beef contains an average of 2 to 3 times more CLA than grain-fed beef. This is because grain-based diets reduce the pH of the digestive system in ruminant animals, which inhibits the growth of the bacterium that produces CLA. It’s interesting to note that as a whole, Americans consume far less CLA than people from countries such as Australia, where grass-fed beef tends to be the rule rather than the exception.

9. My favourite read: The Australian perspective, by Professor Mike Archer

My close mate Rosie alerted me to this paper, which she consulted on. It outlines two really important factors.

1. The Australian perspective…with citations. “In Australia 70 per cent of the beef produced for human consumption comes from animals raised on grazing lands with very little or no grain supplements. At any time, only 2% of Australia’s national herd of cattle are eating grains in feed lots; the other 98% are raised on and feeding on grass.”

2. The fact more animals are killed to produce a vegetarian diet. At least 55 sentient animals die to produce 100kg of useable plant protein, two are killed to produce the same amount of useable meat protein.

25 times more animals are killed for a vegan diet 

10. Finally, The China Study: fact or fallacy, by Denise Minger

A lot of people who don’t eat meat cite The China Study, a book by T. Colin Campbell that makes links between meat eating and heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Denise has devoted her life to systematically pulling apart nutritional arguments like the one in this book and does it in the most balanced way. Few are able to fault her scientific precision and she pretty much debunks the whole “plant food diet only” line. She applies her scalpel to Forks Over Knives, too.

I hope this post has been fruitful. My aim is not to swing anyone one way or another, but simply to provide the best reads that have helped me come to my own (always shifting, always malleable) conclusions, and that have helped me garner full respect for all takes on the issue. Feel free to share your thoughts and reads below…with full respect, please! Also, please note I have previously worked with the Target100 program which connects consumers and farmers to promote sustainable solutions to meat supply. This was a short-term paid role, however the opinions in this blog post are my own.

 

Have your say, leave a comment.

  • Michelle

    I just watched Denise Minger speak on PaleoCon about The China Study. I actually had The China Study on my ‘want to read’ list. Not anymore. I find with nutritional information these days you just don’t know who to trust and it’s frustrating for anyone without a degree in nutrition. The China Study is by a very well respected and highly qualified man, if you can’t trust him and his thoughts on nutrition than what hope do we have to do our own research? I am seriously considering studying nutrition purely for my own benefit. I’ve just started the 8 week program and love Sarah Wilson’s food philosophy and the first thing I did when I finished watching was google ‘Sarah Wilson China Study’ to see what her thoughts were. Spot on!

  • Michelle

    BTW for anyone wanting to debate anything, lets use facts not our opinions. Quote studies, debate them, let us debate the topic intelligently..

  • Michelle

    ALSO for IQS Team if you are still following this old post, what are your thoughts on The Milk Documentary?

    I watched it and was CONVINCED, wrote a post about it for my blog, then asked Professor Caryl Nowson from Deakin University (Better Health Channels article “Milk – facts and fallacies” have stated that it the information has been produced in consultation with and approved by Deacon University) what he thought about the link between dairy and osteoporosis….

    His response:
    All these papers have been published in high/good quality journals, but they are either reviews with expert opinions derived from epidemiological studies or epidemiological studies that point to associations of different nutritional factors with bone health, but none represent definitive data as none are randomised controlled
    trials. It is important to view them within the framework of levels of evidence as outlined by NH&MRC.

    I feel like I just go around in circles!

  • yogz

    Sarah, you sound like the average woefully ignorant meat-eater using all kinds of ridiculous arguments to justify your love of flesh. Are you Australian ? Australia is one of the top 3 biggest consumers of beef (grass fed I suppose) AND has the world’s highest rates of bowel cancer.

  • CC

    Kavisha,

    “Boring” really shouldn’t come into the issue of health and ethics. Yes, we are all different, but we are all still members of the same species. It is a position of the American Dietetics Association (and the Dieticians of Canada) that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” The same people whom “thrive off a meat based diet” would be expected to also thrive off an appropriately planned vegetarian or vegan diet. I agree with embracing diversity, but not at the expense of other sentient creatures.

  • CC

    Allison,

    There is evidence to make the statement that animal products are difficult to digest. There are a number of sources, but here is one from The Comparative Anatomy of Eating by Milton R. Mills, M.D.:

    “In conclusion, we see that human beings have the gastrointestinal tract structure of a “committed” herbivore. Humankind does not show the mixed structural features one expects and finds in anatomical omnivores such as bears and raccoon. Thus, from comparing the gastrointestinal tract of humans to that of carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores we must conclude that humankind’s GI tract is designed for a purely plant-food diet.”

  • CC

    Sarah,

    I would like to draw your attention to the following review of Keith’s book:

    http://www.amazon.com/review/R3M4LC3USB5H3S?ie=UTF8&ref_=cm_cr_rdp_perm

    At the time, the review’s author was working on an archaeological PhD on hunter-gatherer diets, subsistence, hunting and transition to agriculture.

  • Kelseah

    I think the myth that it causes eating disorders comes from the wrong place. Why am I vegan?? It makes me feel great, and nobody knows this better than another vegan. I personally believe it is much healthier and I dont feel held back by my choices… It has NOTHING to do with losing weight. If someone makes being veg or vegan a reason to loose weight and they have no idea what to feed themselves then yes, they are on the road to an eating disorder. But that has nothing to do with the lifestyle choice and everything to do with their own sickness.

  • Kelseah

    You actually dont. A common “old school” thought process. On a side note: are you even aware that many vegetables and fruits contain carbs? Oh the humanity! You’re literally saying that humans were created imperfectly (doesnt matter what your stance is on creation), and that it took us however many years to realize maybe we should drink the milk of a cow so that our bodies can function? What a laugh.

  • Kelseah

    I dont believe I have a hungry look personally, people think vegans are always hungry… Im sure its because our metabolisms are faster so our food actually processes quickly and converts to energy faster than others… so they think “wow you’re always hungry” yes, and I have the ideal body too! However I agree that ALOT of veg and vegan people do it wrong. “I cant have meet, cheese or dairy?? That fine Ill just eat tomato pasta EVERYDAY!” and then get fat and wonder why it didnt work….

  • Kelsea

    Awesome comment!! 🙂

  • kelsea

    I dont like how you assume her opinion is uninformed. I’ve read 2 of her mentioned books in my path to becoming a vegan and I feel her opinion and many commenting are extremely uneducated. Good try 🙂

  • kelsea

    Love love love your post, as a vegan this article was ridiculous…

  • kelseah

    You are extremely confused if you’re worried about one single vitamin not being in a plant based diet. Do me a favour and use your google machine and type in “vegetables high in zinc”. WOW! So if I eat peas, shitake mushrooms, lentil sprouts, sun dried tomatoes, lemongrass and cabbage I wont be zinc deficient…

  • a

    Honestly, you’ve gotta be beyond deluded to think that everyone on the planet can eat Free Range . Its. Impossible. It. Wont. Work.

  • lauren

    I’m looking for guidance in the argument to the meat vs. plant based diet, specifically in regards to sustainability, but I found each of these resources to be complete and utter dribble. Please link me to some actual scientific literature, I am studying science and find scientific journal articles far easier to decipher than some fluff talk written by someone with a lower IQ than me.

  • Karise Dell

    I just don’t want to contribute to another sentient creatures torture and suffering, simple as that. Not so bothered about the rest.

  • Luci

    Wish I had the time to read all of this but as a committed vegetarian I’ll pass.
    Study the Gerson therapy and you won’t find an animal in it! Nothing has to die for me to live…..oh…and am an animal lover!

  • Sophie

    George Monbiot has since changed his stance again on veganism.

  • Cha R-g

    Wow. Blown away. To each his own plate, I say.
    Sarah, I forgive you for writing this. I am still a fan.

  • O’Mafonzie

    How incredible that people can read a piece like this and then set up a long rant pro or contra. Sarah, being human, has opinions, knowledge and an agenda. If you don’t agree with her, don’t read. If one had to spend all their time rebutting every blog on the net it would be a full-time job. Being an advocate for some organisation or idea does not automatically discredit a person or preclude them from publicising : otherwise those vegetarians and vegans rudely espousing their own cause here should think again…
    I found this interesting: food for thought. A reason to do some research of my own. Sarah, your blogs are sometimes a pain and sometimes a pleasure ?. I read them regularly and have great respect for your dedication and honesty. I don’t always agree with you. Duh. Neither you nor I have perfect knowledge or wisdom.
    Thank you for your efforts to add to the knowledge and idea banks of the world!

  • Marnie Frost

    You said twice that 25 more animals die as a result of veganism – but where? How? I can’t find the evidence. I’m not picking a fight – I really want to know!

  • Barbara Paz

    Who in the meat industry is paying your salary?

  • Barbara Paz

    In the final analysis, the overwhelming majority of the population can be extremely healthy and eat an abundance of good nutricious food WITHOUT killing animals; so why kill them?

  • Suminy6

    ooooh! so much reaction from the meat-eaters defending their choice to eat the flesh of sentient beings—!!
    Maybe just OWN it guys…you don’t mind being part of an industry, mega or cottage, gross or quaint that kills defenceless animals to satisfy an appetite for blood & flesh…
    I could at least respect ppl that own their carnivourous urges, rather than dressing them up in perspectives on nutrional superiority’…

    Comprehensive and intelligent choices for a wholistic vegan/vegetarian is required yes; but my vegies /beans outta my garden having more impact than a cow,chicken, sheep, pig being raised for slaughter having more impact—awww-thats a porky!!

    I’m always so disappointed that folks are so reactive to their desire to eat meat—youre foing to do it anyway…save your self the guilt… cheers…

  • RobinSun

    Personally, i miss eating red meat; but the thought of contributing to the raising of beautiful, sentient beings for the purpose of salughtering them and eating them breaks my heart. I am kind of a hypocrite, because I do eat eggs, and I also lean towards believing that animal meat and byproducts such as gelatin (from naturally raised, grassfed animals), may contribute to better health. Nonetheless , it is the willful killing of a living creature that makes it impossible for me to eat meat. I do respect meateaters’ choices for health, and also realize that plants may “scream” too! I guess I my body has not evolved enough to get my nutrition and sustenance from air and sunlight!

  • Bodiless Voice

    This is precisely the kind of high-quality information that is ignored outright by most vegans I know, in favor of broad-brushstroke type thinking that fails to acknowledge actualies. Thank you for your excellent post! I was a vegan for four years, and I love what I learned about my body and myself during that time. I now eat that way about 60% of the year, and include animal products in my diet on a seasonal basis. This feels the best for me at present, and I deeply respect conscious food choices generally. . .which does indeed mean different things for different people, at different times. Imagine that?!

  • shirley

    Yes I agree actually, I do think being vegan is probably more spiritual, but the blood group diet shows (not sure if it is scientifically based) that different blood groups are meant to eat meat, some vegan and some can tolerate dairy pending on blood group. Sarah is probably blood group O who are meant to eat meat according to this book, but I don’t know if the book and it’s findings have any sort of back up. I just don’t like suffering animals, and I think overpopulation is the real issue and cutting down of forests.