I want to get to a point straight up today.

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 4.18.33 PM
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.