It seems like almost every week there is a new article published documenting the negative environmental or ethical implications of consuming animal foods. But there are a lot of inaccuracies and misconceptions on this topic that get repeated by the mainstream media. So this week I spoke with Diana Rogers, a dietician and organic farmer who regularly writes about animal welfare and environmental issues in the food system, to set the record straight.
In this episode we’ll cover:
- 06:35 The true environmental impact of meat production
- 14:29 The differences between cropland and pastureland
- 18:20 Herbivores vs. omnivores
- 19: 38 Factory farms and superbugs
- 22:36 Carbon emissions and water usage
- 27:23 The ethical and moral considerations of eating meat
- 39:18 Should parents be allowed to feed their kids a vegan diet?
Chris Kresser: Hey, everybody, it’s Chris Kresser. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio.
Today, we’re going to be talking with Diana Rodgers. She’s a registered dietician with a private practice seeing people via Skype and in her offices in Concord and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and lives on a working organic farm. She’s the author of the Homegrown Paleo Cookbook and Paleo Lunches and Breakfasts on the Go and hosts “The Sustainable Dish” podcast.
Diana frequently writes and speaks about the political social justice of animal welfare and environmental issues in the food system, and she runs the blog SustainableDish.com. Diana has recently written a series of articles about the environmental, moral, ethical, and social issues surrounding meat consumption and dietary choices that we make in general.
So, I wanted to have Diana on the show to talk to her about this because I think for many people, at least at this point, they no longer believe that a vegetarian or vegan diet is the best choice from a nutritional perspective, or at least they don’t necessarily believe that it’s superior to an omnivorous diet that is nutrient dense and excludes processed and refined foods, sugars, etc. But they’re so compelled to consider a vegetarian or vegan diet on the basis of environmental reasons or moral and ethical reasons, and it seems like almost every week there is a new article published documenting the environmental atrocities of consuming animal foods, like water consumption and land use and things like that.
In fact, there was just an article published in The Washington Post called “Meat Is Horrible.” It was written by an intern who just graduated from college and really unfortunately wasn’t qualified to write that article, but nevertheless, it got a lot of airtime and it was filled with inaccuracies and misconceptions that are quite common now amongst the general public and in the mainstream media. So, I wanted to have Diana on the show to talk about this because she has a unique perspective both as a dietician who understands it from a nutritional perspective but as someone who own and operates a working organic farm, is closely connected with the cycle of life, raises animals, food for her own family and also for other people, and has written and spoken about this extensively.
So without further ado, let’s dive in.
Chris Kresser: Diana, thanks so much for coming. It’s great to have you on the show.
Diana Rodgers: Thanks for having me.
Chris Kresser: So I want to talk all about eating meat, producing meat, the environmental, ethical implications of that, and then by extension, the implications of avoiding meat because I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding on this topic, whether we’re talking about the amount of water that you need to produce meat, to the impact of meat production on carbon emissions, to some of the ethical considerations, which I don’t think there’s so much of a misunderstanding there as much as perhaps just not a complete analysis. So, I know that these are all huge topics. We could spend an entire show easily on each them individually, but I wanted to just have a one-place view—kind of an overview of all of these to—and then we can point people in the direction of more information in the show notes for those who want to go deeper.
So, why don’t we start with the environmental considerations of meat production because there seems like a new article in the mainstream press about this on a weekly basis. In fact, there were just a few that you can probably mention that provoked you to write a couple of responses.
Do you struggle with the ethics of eating meat? Learn more…
So, why don’t we start there and then we’ll progress to ethical and maybe even public health considerations.
Diana Rodgers: Yeah, well, first of all I just wanted to say thank you for all your nutritional research on meat because I have been linking back to you in all of these posts and I feel like the nutrition argument has been won, and I can just send them to you, so that’s awesome.
Chris Kresser: Pleasure.
Diana Rodgers: And also, I should mention that Robb Wolf and I are working on a book. We’re just starting the outline now but we should have all these things buttoned up, and definitely, the environmental argument is really misunderstood and the moral argument seems to be the one that just always goes there.
So, the environmental argument, really, there was an article that came out recently in The Washington Post that’s called “Meat Is Horrible,” and it was written by … I did a little research on who wrote it and she just graduated from college this year. She is an intern. I was surprised that The Washington Post actually had her do such a complex topic because I’ve been living on a farm for a long time. I went to school for nutrition, and even I don’t feel like I fully understand everything.
The true environmental impact of meat production
Diana Rogers: Basically, the vilification of meat tends to come from people who have these moral issues with meat and they’re just kind of cherry-picking information to back up their claims. So, there’s a lot of different angles that they hit the environmental piece with, so the first is that, land use, that it takes all these acres per cow and what they’re not really looking at is that there’s a difference between pastureland and cropland, and you can’t grow lettuce everywhere. In northern Africa, really great for olives, really bad for lettuce because of the water issues there. Lots in California used to be okay for growing lots of vegetables, and now you guys are totally running out of water, and so vegetable production is not this holy saint that everyone’s making it out to be and that’s a whole another set of things. But pastureland is a separate type of land that can’t be used for vegetable production, and the grazing of cattle on pasture actually helps improve the soils and so—
Chris Kresser: How does it do that?
Diana Rodgers: Okay, the cows are pooping on the ground and their manure actually has a lot of bionutrients in it, and microbes, and all kinds of great stuff that goes into the soil and actually inoculates it. And actually, on a side note, I should say that people are realizing this and they’re actually, instead of—some people, instead of using cattle to do this are actually just walking around with these big syringes and inoculating soil with cow manure. It’s just so dumb to me, why not just have cows on it?
Chris Kresser: Well, the alternative is also chemical fertilizers, which have been the de facto standard here in the US, right? And what are some of the problems with that?
Diana Rodgers: Right. The problem with that is it completely depletes the soil, I’d like to say, it basically kills—so, soil is not just sand and it’s not just like what people think of as dirt. It’s actually lots and lots of living things, and so we want biodiversity in our gut flora, we want biodiversity out in nature, and we want biodiversity in soil because that biodiversity actually helps sequester carbon.
So, as the plants are going through photosynthesis, carbon is channeled into the plants’ roots and then there’s between 5 and 21 percent photosynthetically fixed as carbon into the soil, and then the fungus and all the other microbiome of the soil actually helps transfer nutrients to the plants, and so we’re having this big problem right now with nutrient depletion and people are suffering from lack of minerals and that’s because we’re not farming properly in nutrient-rich soil. That can really only happen when the soil has a mix of all the stuff soil needs. Basically, lots of compost, deep-rooted plants, and things like that.
So, in addition, these deep roots and all this great stuff that’s happening in the soil actually helps with water retention, so that when the rain falls, the water doesn’t just run away. And so, that’s what’s happening in a lot of really arid places that have turned into sort of dust bowl areas, so they’ve been overgrazed or they’ve been monocropped forever and completely void of any sort of life living in the soil, and now when it rains, the water just flows right away instead of going deep into the soil and being able to be held in the soil.
Chris Kresser: So, none of this is particularly new information is it? Organic farmers, people who were farming prior to the advent of chemical fertilizers, which is for the vast majority of human history, where we’ve been farming and raising animals the last 11,000 years or so, these were the standard practices, using bone, and blood, and manure.
Diana Rodgers: Definitely in vegetable production. And then, the loss of herbivores, the killing of the bison actually contributed a lot of our loss of prairie land all through the middle of the country as well.
Chris Kresser: Wait, there were—how many bison roaming around? What is the estimate there?
Diana Rodgers: I think, well, I see different numbers. I think I’m comfortable saying about 30 million bison.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, so that’s a huge—we should’ve had our atmosphere catching on fire.
Diana Rodgers: Right and it wasn’t just bison. That was just one of the species that was roaming around. We had elk, we had deer, we had all kinds of these “awful” methane-farting animals running all over the place. So the amount of cattle that are here today being raised for food production is—
Chris Kresser: A tiny fraction of that.
Diana Rodgers: Right. So most cattle aren’t just raised in factory sheds and barns like pigs and chickens are. (So actually, if you were to have pick one evil animal to eat from our industrial food system, I would actually argue that cows are the best choice above chicken and pigs, just because chicken and pigs are 100 percent indoors, where most of the cattle actually start on grass.) So, cows are grass fed and then usually, the last portion of their life, they’re moved to a feedlot. But when we’re moving them to the feedlot, they’re standing around and everyone knows what these images are because we’re flooded with them all the time from all these vegan propaganda movies, but it is not great. So, all the manure is completely concentrated in this very anaerobic environment. And the rules are that the manure has to sit for, I believe it’s 90 days, before it can be spread on crops, but that’s pretty much the only rule about it. And so, that’s a really good Petri dish of toxic bacteria that then just gets sprayed directly on our spinach and things like that. So, when we hear about all these E. coli outbreaks and everything, that’s how it happens.
Chris Kresser: Right. So now we’re talking about the problems with conventional meat production are to a large extent symptomatic of a kind of divorce from the natural cycle of input and output that should be happening.
Diana Rodgers: Correct.
Chris Kresser: And you mentioned earlier, I just want to go back to this and highlight this for people that that is also happening in terms of how we use and misuse land. It was understood even by early farming peoples that just growing one crop in a particular place over and over again was not a recipe for preserving soil health, and they also knew how to make use of different kinds of land that weren’t necessarily suitable for plant production. So, one of the arguments we often hear against eating meat is that we can’t possibly feed the planet if everyone’s eating meat and that land use and water use are often pointed to in support of that argument, so let’s talk a little bit more about that.
The differences between cropland and pastureland
Diana Rodgers: Right. So we’re utilizing not very much of our available pastureland by percentage, and I forget off the top of my head what the percentages are (I presented on it at AHS and I should have that presentation up so I have the numbers in front of me). But what people are thinking is that if we just eat only vegetables, then we’ll be pure and we don’t have to have any death and we can feed everybody this way. What they’re not realizing is that well then we’re not using the pastureland at all, because you cannot grow very good vegetables in much of Africa. You can grow some root crops and there are some areas where you can grow vegetables, but there’s a lot of places on the globe where it just doesn’t make sense to grow the variety of vegetables that we need in order to be healthy. And if we’re not going to utilize the pastureland for grazing animals, we’re going to lose the pastureland and it’s just going to turn into dust. And so, if we’re going to preserve the pastureland by utilizing herbivores in order to sequester the carbon and to help grow grass…
So I’ll just walk through what happens when an herbivore is on a piece of pasture. So, as they’re walking around, their hoof prints actually making little indentations which help hold water, and they’re chewing on the grass which stimulates growth. When you cut grass it grows. We don’t want the grass to just biologically break down on its own. We want it to be chewed, digested, and spit out the other end with microbes in it, and that’s really the healthiest way to do it. And then, we want to be moving them around, so we don’t want the animals on the same piece of land all the time. We want to be mimicking what natural herds have been doing forever because they’ve been migrating, and moving away from predators. We can do that now with electric fencing. So, on our farm and Joel Salatin’s farm, and all the really truly sustainable farms, the animals are moved all the time.
On our farm, the sheep are moving around the farm. They’re usually followed by the chickens, which are mobile chickens, who actually can eat some of the parasites that are there if there are any from the sheep, and that actually makes the sheep healthier because it cuts down on the parasite load. If you keep the animals on the same piece of land all the time, once that sheep… it will inoculate all the sheep and make for poor soil. So, by moving them around a lot, you reduce their parasite load, you keep healthier soil and you have healthier animals.
Chris Kresser: That makes an incredible amount of sense.
Diana Rodgers: What you really want to do is instead of having one animal on an entire acre all the time, you would have 30 animals on an acre and then just move it constantly. So, when you hear these numbers of, well, it takes all this land to raise whatever herbivore, a cow, or a sheep, you can’t really compare that to wheat production or corn production. It’s just not fair.
Chris Kresser: Right. The number I think you used in one of your articles, it was from the Tufts study on the sustainability of various dietary produce, was that two-thirds of the surface land in the world is not suitable for vegetable production, and they found that vegetarian diet may be sustainable, but a vegan diet is definitely not sustainable from a land-use perspective.
Diana Rodgers: Yeah, and then I actually e-mailed the professor and asked him a little bit more; if we cut down our consumption of grain-eating animals and increase our consumption of herbivores, how might that look? And he didn’t get back to me on that.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Herbivores vs. omnivores
Diana Rodgers: But I think that we need to consider that. Here at our house, we eat a lot more herbivores than we do chicken or grain-fed animals—we’re more into the grass-eating animals here.
Chris Kresser: Well, it makes more sense from a number of perspectives. I mean, one consideration, which we will talk about more later, the ethical and moral argument, is a single cow can feed a lot more people than a chicken can.
Diana Rodgers: Right.
Chris Kresser: And just from the perspective of maximizing caloric density and value, the large herbivores are a lot more efficient that way than the smaller animals, and as you said, it’s almost impossible to do it yourself, to buy completely pasture-raised chicken or pork.
Diana Rodgers: That’s the number one seller here actually, above lamb, is our pastured pork. Pastured chicken, it’s just really hard for people to wrap their heads around paying $30 for a chicken.
Chris Kresser: For a scrawny little chicken.
Diana Rodgers: A scrawny, stringy, chicken. So, people are just so conditioned, unfortunately.
Chris Kresser: The breast-augmented chickens that we’re used to buying.
Diana Rodgers: That will have a heart attack and die at five weeks if you don’t kill them first.
Chris Kresser: And like topple over forwards because they’re so breast heavy.
Factory farms and superbugs
Diana Rodgers: Right. And we haven’t even discussed—I feel like we’re going in a million directions. This is such a complex topic, but we haven’t even talked about antibiotic-resistant superbugs which are just—it’s really scary what’s happening in CAFOs. If you wanted to have a perfect environment for a major public health crisis, it would be one of these chicken or pork factory farms.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. And let’s be clear, I mean, we’ll get back to what we were talking about. This is an important diversion though, and I’ve written a lot about the difference between CAFO and pasture-raised animal products before, and maybe we’ll do a separate show on that again because I think it’s time for an update, but let me just be 100 percent clear. I in no way endorse or support CAFO meat, and that’s one area where I agree with vegans. I think it’s not sustainable, it’s cruel, it’s a health train wreck waiting to happen, especially because of the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which I think is probably the single biggest reason to avoid eating CAFO meat if you can, of all of the reasons, like the scariest, most potentially serious reason. And so, that’s, I think, one potential area of common ground where we are all recognizing that this modern food system that we’ve created, actually, whether you’re talking about animal products or plants—vegetables, it’s not sustainable.
Diana Rodgers: Right. And I think one thing when vegans say, “Well, I won’t eat meat because I don’t believe in factory farming,” it’s like saying, “I won’t eat vegetables because I don’t believe in monocropped GMOs.”
Chris Kresser: Yeah. You better stay away from wheat and soy. And since soy is in just about in any food that comes in a bag or a box, that eliminates virtually all packaged and processed foods, even vegan cookies, for example, partially hydrogenated soybean oil and a lot of that kind of stuff. So yeah, let’s just agree that this system is not sustainable, but let’s get back to what is sustainable. And so, we’ve touched briefly on water, we talked about land and land use and the importance of herbivores to soil health. I think some of the statistics that I saw in one of your articles were that agricultural soils have lost somewhere between 30 and 70 percent of their soil organic carbon, which is just devastating. I mean, this is like “the stuff of life” that we cannot just easily replace, that we can’t just go to the soil organic carbon store and buy this and easily put it back in, but regenerative grazing of cattle can produce 30 to 40 percent improvement in soil carbon. So, let’s talk just a little more about this in terms of inputs and outputs.
Carbon emissions and water usage
Diana Rodgers: Sure. And I should mention in these studies too about water and the difference between green water and blue water as well. So, when these studies come out, they’re not really looking at what you said, the inputs and outputs, so a true life cycle analysis is where they’re actually looking at the whole entire picture and not just, for example, carbon emissions. So, if they’re looking at pure carbon emissions, yes, cows emit a lot of methane, but then you take into account the carbon sequestration that cattle can have on the land plus there’s microbes in the soil which can also help mitigate some of that methane, it’s actually in a gain, so people have to look at the entire picture. And it’s the same thing with water, when you hear it takes, and again—you’re really good at reciting numbers, I’m not, but maybe you have more—so it takes, I don’t know what, is it 50,000 gallons of water for a pound of beef or something silly, whatever the number is, it’s silly.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Diana Rodgers: And so, what they’re not realizing is that these studies are also looking at, they’re including rainwater in the mix, so there’s a difference between green water and blue water. So, green water includes precipitation, runoff, water needed for the crop growth, and water that is sinking into the ground, so all of that water is being calculated in order to produce that piece of hamburger that everyone’s vilifying so much. And when you actually look at the blue water, so that’s just fresh surface ground water like lakes and rivers and aquifers that the cattle are drinking, the number of gallons per pound of beef is actually a lot more.
Chris Kresser: 410 [gallons]. Yeah, I got that number in my head.
Diana Rodgers: Yeah. I remembered that number too, you beat me to it.
Chris Kresser: All right, so 410, and how does that compare to some other foods?
Diana Rodgers: So, it’s very similar to rice, sugar, avocados, almonds, a lot of these foods that I’m not hearing a whole lot of complaining about. And then, when you look at 100 percent grass-fed beef, Nicolette Niman, in her book Defending Beef, explains that grass-fed beef is a lot closer to 100 gallons of water per pound of beef.
Chris Kresser: So, a quarter of that is required to grow rice and avocados and walnuts and sugar. So yeah, that paints a very different picture, especially when you consider, as we’ve been saying all along here, that these animals are not just completely separate from the rest of the system of cycle of production, that they’re actually improving soil health, they’re sequestering carbon to where there’s a net sequestration of carbon rather than an emission of carbon. They’re increasing biodiversity and they’re essentially depositing into that bank account if we consider the soil as a bank account, which is an analogy that you’ve used. Cropping and planting vegetables is what’s drawing nutrients, but these herbivores are depositing. They’re putting stuff back in.
Diana Rodgers: Correct. And the other thing that just kills me, and this goes back to the nutrition piece, but when people compare beef and the water usage to something like rice or avocados, it’s like “Hmm …” That’s not really even fair because of the nutrient density of beef compared to these other things. And then, you look at these lab-grown meats that they’re making, a product like Tofurky, I have not seen a life cycle analysis on these things, and I have been trying to pin somebody down to do it for us just so we have the numbers for our book. But how much water is needed in the processing and growing of all the soy and wheat that’s necessary to make one package of Tofurky or these lab-grown meats, which I think people are somehow thinking are just created out of magic and no inputs at all. Who is paying for the lab? Who is paying for all the trucking, all the storage required? I mean, even just storing that product requires a ton of energy.
The ethical and moral considerations of eating meat
Chris Kresser: Okay. So, I think we’ve given an overview of the environmental considerations of meat and how it is much more complex than these mainstream articles make it out to be. There are often missing key components of the equation. Having said that, we both agree that CAFO meat is just like, CAFO or conventional farming in general, is not sustainable and really it’s difficult to defend.
So, let’s move onto the ethical and moral considerations of meat because I think some people who are really well informed, who are vegetarians and vegans, people I know, for example, who are friends of mine, they’re fairly convinced on a nutritional front and may supplement and try to take steps to mitigate some of the potential nutritional downsides. They’re even—although some may be concerned about the environmental considerations, the people I’m thinking of are open-minded enough to have read other accounts that include these kinds of variables and they may not be convinced that it’s a bad thing, particularly sustainable, local, small-farm meat production. But the ethical and moral considerations are where they diverge, just the idea of killing another animal in order to feed themselves is objectionable, and that’s what stops them from doing it.
So, we’re now entering territory that’s less about scientific studies and data and objective facts and more about subjective considerations, but I do think you raise several interesting points in the article. You wrote about this on Robb’s website that was coming from your experience as a farmer and someone who raises animals for food, both for your own family and for other people. So let’s talk about a little bit about this because I think there are some things that maybe people haven’t considered.
Diana Rodgers: Right, and I actually did find a study on this out in Finland where they were interviewing ethical meat and non-meat eaters and what was their driving force, and the moral piece is the biggest piece and I remember just messaging Robb like, “Oh my God, we really have to pay a lot of attention.” Even though he and I are both are “poo-poo,” we really have to be very sensitive to this because it’s a really big piece to this. And so, I’ve been asking a lot of people because I don’t really get it personally, because I’m so connected and understand so well that we need animal inputs in order to have vegetable outputs and that we’re just all matter that’s just being recycled, that I just happened to be made up of all these cells right now and one day, these different minerals and everything are just going to be part of a tree or whatever. But not everybody thinks that way. So, what do you do with the people that don’t think that way? So, I talked to Joel Salatin when I was done at an event at Polyface just last month about, you know, what does he say? And I’ve been asking lots of other philosophers, too, how they argue it. And so, Joel was like, “Well, if you don’t think you need death in order to have life, just lay down naked in a flower bed for three days and tell me what happens.”
Chris Kresser: Right.
Diana Rodgers: And he went into it from a Christian perspective because a lot of people who are more religious don’t like the whole matter recycling thing. And a lot of them, which I learned recently from another philosopher, don’t like the “you can kill one animal to save all these other animals.” They don’t like that argument either because who is to say that that one life isn’t going to go on and do amazing things. So that was a shocker to me too. I didn’t really think about things that way.
Anyhow, so Joel was going on further about how humans actually are the only ones that are consciously humane when we’re trying to move an animal to the next phase of its existence. Hyenas and coyotes, they don’t care about that. So, I think one of the big pieces is that if we need the animals for soil health, why can’t we just let them live out a natural life and a natural death. And the idea that a natural death is painless death or a better death than a humane slaughter that we can do with all the technology that we have today is crazy. I think that we’re pretty divorced from the fact that we die, and so that’s part of it and that most people are not part of seeing how animals are raised and how they’re killed, like, that’s not part of their daily existence. Meat comes in a plastic container, wrapped at the grocery store and the only images are the horrible images that we see from these vegan propaganda movies and that’s what people think. They think “Oh, well, a natural death,” and they think of butterflies and daisies and this deer just walking around forever. And unfortunately, life is really great when you’re strong and young and healthy, and life isn’t really that great when you have a broken leg and you’re a herd animal and there’s a hyena behind you, and then life’s not so great.
How even vegan diets cause animal death
Chris Kresser: Right. And what happens with factory farming? Let’s consider a field of a row crop of some kind. What kind of animal is there at risk in that type of operation?
Diana Rodgers: All right, yes. I mean, I like to bring up how many bunnies live in these soy fields and wheat fields because people tend to—when you’re talking about all the different creatures, bunnies are the one that really gets people. So, these fields are teeming with life, they’ve got all kinds of little mammals that are running through them that when a tractor is coming through and harvesting the corn, all those animals die. And then if we think about all the biodiversity that’s lost from spraying of chemicals and all the bees that die, all the butterflies, all the birds that eat bees and butterflies, the loss of the natural landscape from turning a field from either a forest or a pasture to cropland… there’s a lot of devastation that happens from a vegan or vegetarian type diet, so it’s not a bloodless diet.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. I think one of the things you wrote in your article, or during the presentation, I can’t remember, was to consider the way that a group of baby voles might die if their mother was decapitated by a combine versus a quick and humane death of a cow in a humane slaughterhouse. Those are pretty different pictures, if you imagine both of those. But I think for me, one of the things that stands out, and this is again, more of a—it’s less quantifiable—but it’s this profound separation between human beings and nature that seems to pervade modern industrial society. And if you consider a lot of traditional hunter–gatherer populations, this idea would have never even occurred to them because they’re so inexorably intertwined with the environment in which they live. And yet, we, I think, have the sense that we’re somehow, first of all, that we’re different. We’re not animals anymore and we’re somehow removed from all that, and then I think there’s also a sense of loss and separation that’s come from that and that’s actually informing a lot of these discussions.
Diana Rodgers: Right. And I’ve seen, well, first of all in the hunter–gatherer’s society, if you think about what you might have seen on TV about these cultures, when an animal is slaughtered like a goat or something, there’s usually a whole ritual around that, like, they’re honoring it, they’re using all the pieces and it’s a big deal. If they hunt something and bring it back, there’s a celebration and a feast, all this kind of stuff. So, there was a lot more than just throwing some burgers on the grill, whatever. And I am actually writing a piece right now on humane slaughter for a magazine in New England and just got back from a slaughterhouse in Vermont where they actually invite people to come watch. They’ve got a viewing deck and you can watch it. It’s called Vermont Packing House and it’s in Springfield, Vermont. And it’s really quick, they have figured it out. They are Animal Welfare Approved, which is a great organization. I actually just talked to the head of that today, and they have figured out how to make it as humane as it can be versus just about any other death I’ve ever seen. Sometimes, a chicken may have a heart attack from a thunderstorm, so that’s a pretty good way to go. But other than that, I can’t really picture a whole lot of natural deaths that I would want for myself other than something that they do in these slaughterhouses.
Chris Kresser: So there’s another argument that’s often used which is, “Okay, so some of these animals die in the production of my baguette—”
Diana Rodgers: I know where you’re going.
Chris Kresser: “—but I didn’t ask for them to be killed.” It wasn’t my intent that they were killed, whereas if I’m going to eat a burger, I’m fully aware that an animal has lost his or her life in order to feed me, so that’s different from an ethical perspective.
Diana Rodgers: Right. Yes, that’s always a big piece of these arguments, and so that one is pretty easily dismantled because a death is a death.
Chris Kresser: It is. Once you listen to this podcast, you become aware of that. I think there maybe are people who don’t actually, maybe quite a few people, who don’t actually realize that eating plants involves death and maybe more death in terms of individual lives than eating animals, but once you become aware of that, it’s hard to continue making that argument honestly.
Diana Rodgers: Right. I mean, once you’ve heard this—like, I wrote it in really big bold letters on Robb’s site, “so I’m now officially telling you that animals are dying.” Is it still better to eat just vegetables? No, it’s not.
Should parents be allowed to feed their kids a vegan diet?
Chris Kresser: Yeah. All right. So, this is probably going to invite just as many questions as it answers. I think maybe we can finish up by talking a little bit about something I posted on my Facebook page, which in turn you wrote an article about, and it was a news story about Italy where they are considering jail for vegan parents or parents that impose a vegan diet on their children. Why would they possibly consider doing that?
Diana Rodgers: Right. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed the theme here, but all the ones where I know we’re going to get a lot of crazy comments, I post on Robb’s site instead of my own site.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Diana Rodgers: So, I actually brought this up again when I was down at Polyface Farm. There was a panel of us and we’re all sitting there, a bunch of leaders in the nutrition movement, and we’re talking about this libertarian idea that government should stay out and not have anything to do with our food choices at all. And I know a lot of people think that, but I do think that there’s a really big difference between a Standard American junk food diet that can cause obesity, or type 2 diabetes perhaps, and the permanent brain damage that has been documented in children of vegan parents who have been fed a vegan diet. And where these kids don’t have any control over that. So Drew Ramsey—have you met him yet?
Chris Kresser: I have, yeah.
Diana Rodgers: Yeah. So, I was sitting next to him, and he and I were the pretty much the only ones on that panel that were like, “No, no, no. This is really a big deal.” And I don’t know if jail necessarily is the answer, but I think the whole conversation is really interesting because whose responsibility is it when there’s—and is this neglect? So our opinion was, “Yes, it’s neglectful and it’s inappropriate to feed children a vegan diet.” You can do whatever you want with yourself but don’t do this to children because it’s really dangerous, and B12 supplementation doesn’t always fix things.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. It can be a little too late, and if the wrong form is used, it can be inadequate. It’s a really, really difficult topic. I mean, I when I first saw that headline, I was surprised, to be honest. I was like, “Wow! This is crazy,” and I’m someone who knows a lot about the potential issues here and my first reaction was similar to, I’m not a libertarian, but it was similar to that response, because it’s not hard to imagine all of the disastrous things that could happen if the government started levying fines and even imposing jail time on us for our dietary choices, you know.
Diana Rodgers: And that is happening in some places, like I wrote about the sugar tax in Philadelphia.
Chris Kresser: And the Netherlands, that fat tax, a tax on saturated fat–was it Norway or Holland? One of those places. Yeah, so I mean, clearly, anyone who’s listening to this show probably doesn’t trust the government to make those choices. They’ve done a spectacularly bad job at figuring this stuff out in the past, and so why would we want to support them in doing that? I mean, that was my first response, and still, I still feel that way in a lot of respects.
But then I started to think about it further and I considered what if there was, if we just think of something that’s different, not a food-based thing, but what if a parent was giving their child a poison that was known to reduce IQ, cause brain damage, stunt growth, put them at higher risk for virtually every kind of disease both in childhood and later on in their adult life, we would frown pretty heavily on that. We would probably call the abuse and certainly neglect, and parents have definitely have been put in jail for less than that. And for various decisions related to withholding medications from their children, for example, like some religious groups that don’t believe in pharmaceutical drugs or giving their kids supplements even, in some cases, that the conventional paradigm didn’t think were appropriate in that situation.
On the other hand, that same argument could’ve been used for parents who fed their kids cholesterol and saturated fat at the time when it was still believed that those were harmful, maybe not to—you know, those were never associated with brain damage or anything like that. It was maybe a distant increase in heart disease later in life. But I’ll just say it’s a thorny and complicated issue, and at the end of the day, whatever the solution is or the consequence is, I think the thing that needs to happen first before any of that, more urgently, is to increase people’s awareness of what the consequences of this stuff are because then, parents can take appropriate action and—
Diana Rodgers: Form decisions.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, yeah, hopefully. And if they don’t, then that’s really more of kind of a social, legal, philosophical decision about what happens with them, and that’s not something I feel like I have a lot of expertise in or have thought very deeply about, but I just will acknowledge here that those consequences are very real and underappreciated and misunderstood, so that’s where I feel like we can contribute.
Diana Rodgers: Yes. I mean, my whole point to the talk I did at AHS where I was pointing out what’s going on with the US Dietary Guidelines because it’s very vegetarian focused and there are some lines in there. This can be made vegan by substituting more soy for the eggs and dairy. It’s really, really dangerous, and it’s not only dangerous to US citizens, but all the other countries that want to be just like us and follow us. And I think that if somebody doesn’t put a lot of thought behind it and decide that it’s complicated, then they’re not truly thinking. I actually ended up texting Robb over this weekend because I was getting really mad at some of the responses. People had this very knee-jerk, “Uh, I don’t want government—” you know, and I don’t think people were fully understanding how complicated it is, and it just seemed like people weren’t—I was just really upset. And luckily, I just sent you this link to an NPR story about how in Germany, where veganism is really, really popular over there, but there’s a bunch of dieticians that are pushing back. I think that dieticians here need to really push back and I know that, during my education to become an RD, it was not very “easy” to eat meat. All the professors were vegetarian and there were a lot of young vegan women in my program, like, a lot of vegans. And so, it’s very hip, it’s very fashionable, and it seems like the moral, the pure way to be.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. It’s definitely problematic. I think one of the interesting considerations here is just the social and cultural aspects, which we’re hinting at here because I know that article talked about the glam factor of being vegan. I mean, the celebrity angle and people who make a choice not really because they’ve deeply investigated it from a nutritional or environmental or moral or ethical standpoint, but because some celebrity that they admire is doing it. And unfortunately, that is, I would say, probably the most common reason that people adopt a diet, which is why if you’ve ever written a book on nutrition, your publisher wants you to point to celebrities that are doing that kind of approach. I mean, this is the way the world works, unfortunately.
It’s a problem because, like you said, if these choices are not thoroughly investigated, they can have pretty dire consequences, and that’s something that we—all we can do is keep providing this information, and ultimately, for me at least, I don’t feel—with the exception of kids, which I do, that’s where it changes for me. I don’t really try to convince any adult of anything at this point related to diet. I say, “Here’s the information that I have, the scientific literature, and what it says. Make your own decision, knock yourself out.” But when it comes to kids, I think what you and Drew were getting at is like, we have a moral imperative to protect this future generation and that shows up in our law and so many other places. Parents are held responsible for how they educate their kids, like, if you just decide to take your kid out of school and you don’t have a plan, you can be put in jail in some places and that’s neglect. So there really are—it’s a different moral equation or calculation when it comes to kids.
Diana Rodgers: Right. And I want to make it clear I’m not saying I definitely think parents should be jailed for this. I’m also not saying that I think a junk food diet is okay. I got a lot of these accusations, so I’m not saying any of these things. Another panelist suggested that maybe it’s the role of community and that at his church, there was a woman who was feeding her kids vegan and these kids were really teeny and the church members had an intervention, but unfortunately, we just don’t have tight communities like that anymore.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, particularly in large urban environments, which tend to be more secular, that’s not really going to work. In a rural community or a community where the church plays that kind of role, that’s fantastic, and I’m a big advocate of that level of community support, but yeah, like you said, it’s not going to work in a lot of places.
Last thing I’ll say about this because it’s fresh on my mind as I’m writing an article right now about DHA, which is one of the nutrients that vegetarians, and particularly vegans, are most at risk for being deficient in, if they’re not supplementing with preformed DHA. When we talk about a nutrient that’s essential for kids and particularly the developing fetus, this is like at the top of the list. Something like, a large percentage of the dry weight of the brain is DHA. It’s crucial for development of visual acuity, for spatial intelligence.
DHA deficiency has been associated with lower IQ, problem-solving ability… it’s just completely essential. There’s a myth going around in the vegetarian and vegan community that if you eat just flaxseeds or walnuts or some of these plant-based forms of omega-3 that the body can convert those into DHA. No problem, right? But when you actually look deeper, you see that that conversion is extremely inefficient, less than 2 to 5 percent of alpha-linolenic acid, which is the fat that’s in the plant-based food that’s converted into DHA. And that’s kind of a best case scenario because the enzymes that are required for that conversion need a lot of different nutrients like vitamin B6, iron, zinc, calcium, and things that actually a lot of vegans and vegetarians can be deficient in.
And there are genetic differences, and there are sex differences. Women convert far more ALA to DHA, which is probably nature’s way of making sure that they had enough DHA even if they didn’t have access to preformed DHA. Some men have been shown to convert 0 percent of ALA to DHA, and one study I saw, it was 0 percent for men and 9 percent for women. So, if you take an average, that’s 4.5 percent, and that’s what they report in the study, but the average doesn’t tell you that men are converting 0 percent.
So, this explains why—because sometimes you hear people say, “Well, a vegan diet can’t be bad for you because I see people, I have a friend, Jane, that switched to a vegan diet six months ago and she’s thriving.” Well, number one, what did she switch from? Number two, it’s possible that she has some genetic differences and also just the nature of her being female make it less likely that she’s going to immediately become deficient in some of these things. And number three, we have to remember that many of these deficiencies take months or years to develop—
Diana Rodgers: Or show up on the blood panels, right? The B12?
Chris Kresser: Right. And so, someone who does well initially may not do well in three or four years, but the problem is they’re not going to tie it to their diet change at that point because they had already been doing that for a significant period of time. So, this is very complex and there are a lot of these arguments, and as usual the interwebs tend to be pretty superficial and not really consider all of these angles. So thank you so much for coming on and talking about this stuff. Maybe we will have you back for another show about CAFO meat problems with confinement feeding operations for animal products.
Diana Rodgers: The antibacterial superbugs, that’s a really interesting topic and I saw the film Resistance, which was great, and I had the director on my show, but that might be a nice guest for you to have as well in the future.
Chris Kresser: Cool.
Diana Rodgers: Really great.
Chris Kresser: Okay. Well, thanks again Diana. I appreciate your time, and where can people learn more about your work and what you’re up to?
Diana Rodgers: Yes. My website is SustainableDish.com, my books, my podcasts, and how to see me as a patient are all right there.
Chris Kresser: Great. Good luck and we look forward to having you back.
Diana Rodgers: Thank you.
If you’d like to leave a question for me to answer in a future episode, you can do that at chriskresser.com/podcastquestion. You can also leave a suggestion for someone you’d like me to interview there. If you’re in social media, you can follow me at twitter.com/chriskresser or facebook.com/chriskresserlac. I post a lot of articles and research that I do throughout the week there that never make it to the blogger podcast, so it’s a great way to stay abreast of the latest developments. Thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.
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