In this episode, we discuss:
- Why Jayne felt compelled to write her book in response to headlines touting the benefits and virtues of a meat-free diet
- Nutrients, anti-nutrients, and protein quality in animal-based versus plant-based diets
- The issues of bioavailability, absorption rates, and nutrient displacement
- How a lack of scientific understanding leads to confusion about what you need to survive and thrive
- The prevailing environmental arguments against consuming animal products, including misconceptions about methane, emissions, and land use, and the solutions that lie in biodiversity and regenerative agriculture
- The Great Plant-Based Con: Why Eating a Plants-only Diet Won’t Improve Your Health or Save the Planet by Jayne Buxton
- Jayne Buxton’s website
- Follow Jayne on Twitter @JayneReesBuxton
- Toxic Superfoods: How Oxalate Overload Is Making You Sick—and How to Get Better by Sally K. Norton
- The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability by Lierre Keith
- Learn more about the Adapt Naturals Core Plus bundle or take our quiz to see which individual products best suit your needs
- If you’d like to ask a question for Chris to answer in a future episode, submit it here
- Follow Chris on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook
- Get your free LMNT Recharge Sample Pack when you purchase any LMNT product at Kresser.co/lmnt
- Get 15% off your order at Paleovalley.com/Chris with the code KRESSER15
Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m an advocate of omnivorous diets that include animal products. I think research and evolutionary biology indicate that is the best option for most people. And I’ve spent a lot of time over my career debunking the myths and misconceptions surrounding a 100 percent plant-based diet. I’ve had five appearances on The Joe Rogan [Experience] specifically on this topic, speaking with Joe directly and debating various people. I’ve written tons of articles on my website, had several podcast episodes with people in the regenerative agriculture movement, nutritional specialists talking about the advantages of and the higher bioavailability of nutrients in animal products in general, and so many other topics in this world.
So I’m really excited to welcome Jayne Buxton as my guest today. She’s a Canadian British author who is an active supporter of the Real Food Campaign and public health collaboration, and she has written a phenomenal book called The Great Plant-Based Con, which provides one of the best overviews of all of the issues surrounding a plant-based diet—not just nutrition, but also the environmental and ethical and moral arguments. It’s a fantastic primer for somebody [who’s] less familiar with this topic. It’s also got a lot of new, recent research, so it’s a great read even if you are familiar with this topic. In this show, we’re going to talk about a lot of what’s in the book—the discussion around nutrients, anti-nutrients, protein quality, different biologic needs, and evidence of harm from plant-based diets. But we’re also going to talk about the environmental arguments, methane and emissions, land use, biodiversity, regenerative agriculture, and touch briefly on the ethical and moral arguments, as well. I really enjoyed this conversation, [and] I think you will, too. Let’s dive in.
Chris Kresser: Jayne, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show. Welcome.
Jayne Buxton: Thank you very much. It’s a great pleasure to be here.
Chris Kresser: You and I share something in common, which is skepticism around the benefits, both nutritional and environmental, of a plant-based diet. I’ve had the pleasure of going on Joe Rogan’s show five different times to talk about this and debate various people on this topic. So of course, when I saw your book come out and read it, I wanted to have a conversation with you. What led you to write this book in the first place, given all of the crazy noise out there on this topic?
Jayne Buxton: Well, actually, your appearance on [The] Joe Rogan [Experience] debating—if you could call it that, because he didn’t really follow the rules of debate—James Wilks about [The] Game Changers was one of the things that prompted me to think seriously about this. And around that time, I had already been thinking, “This debate is really very one-sided. It’s out of control.” The narrative in favor of plant-based was getting so strong in mid- to late-2019. The Game Changers came out, [and] you and other people debated the merits of that film and did a great job, I think. But I still kept hearing people around me, particularly young people, saying that they really thought there was something to that. And it worried me. As a mother of kids in their 20s, as a concerned citizen, I thought, “We really have to pump up the noise on the other side. We have to get some facts on the table.” So I took what was at the time a kind of personal research project and decided to put it into a book. And funny enough, my agent, when I first took in the proposal, because I had an agent from previous work, he said, “I don’t think the world is ready for this book.” And then he said, “And I’m not sure you can write it.” He said, “Go away and prove to me that you can write it.” So I went back and did a 130-page proposal stuffed full of quite a lot of the facts that eventually ended up in the book. And he was just gobsmacked. He’d never heard any of this stuff before, which of course, nobody reading mainstream media would have. So anyway, he gave it the green light, and there we go. [The] project was born.
Chris Kresser: Great. Well, I’m sure we have lots to talk about. But let’s start with just a broad overview from your perspective of why exclusively plant-based diets are not the best option for human health.
Jayne Buxton: I think of this in terms of three or four key main points. I think about nutrients, anti-nutrients, protein, and ultra-processed food. And each of those topics influences the question of whether or not a plant-based diet is best for health. If we start with nutrients, I think it’s very clear that animal-sourced foods have certain nutrients [that] are simply lacking in pure plant-based diets. Things like preformed vitamin A, [docosahexaenoic acid] (DHA), [and eicosapentaenoic acid] (EPA). [Vitamin] B12 is a big one. I know you’ve written a lot about B12, [and] I learned a lot from your pieces on that. Heme iron, taurine, you could go on. And then, there are other nutrients [that] are maybe found in plants, but not in the right form, or not in the quantities that we might want. I’m thinking about iodine, and zinc, leucine, lysine, those kinds of things. A lot of these nutrients are things that people don’t think of on an everyday basis. Maybe they think of vitamin D, vitamin A, I don’t know. But I think it’s important that people understand that to get all of those nutrients, you really do have to include animal-sourced foods in your diet. That’s the thing about the quantity of nutrients.
There’s also the whole question of bioavailability [and] absorption rates for these things. And again, this is something I don’t think a lot of people think about. They’ll look at two sources of iron, for instance, and think, “Oh well, I’m getting the same amount from each.” But there’s been some very interesting work done on showing the bioavailability of those things. For instance, Lily Nichols, who [I think is] fantastic and writes about nutrients for pregnancy, showed that to get the same iron absorbed by your body that you [would] get from an ounce of clams, you’d have to eat 57 cups of broccoli. This is the kind of thing you’re up against if you’re trying to eat plant-based. You’re going to have to eat mountains of these foods.
Chris Kresser: Similar comparison with calcium. It’s like 16 cups of spinach to get the same bioavailable calcium that’s in one glass of milk and dairy products. Let’s linger on this for a second because I think it’s one of the biggest misconceptions out there. And in most cases, it’s the fault of the public health establishment not really getting this message across. I mean, most people don’t take any nutrition classes in school. So how would they know? They go into a supermarket, they look at a food label on a particular food, and they just assume that they’re going to be absorbing 100 percent of whatever’s listed on that label. But in reality, as we know, it’s far from 100 percent. Even [with] the most bioavailable foods, it’s not going to be 100 percent.
Jayne Buxton: Even eating meat, you don’t get 100 percent.
Chris Kresser: Exactly. You’re not getting the whole amount. And with plant-based forms of many nutrients, like you mentioned, carotenes [are] a good example. They’re listed as vitamin A on food labels, whereas they’re just a precursor to retinol, which is what actually performs the functions of vitamin A. And yes, carotenes may have some benefits on their own as phytonutrients, but they don’t fulfill the essential functions of vitamin A. So, people look and say, “Oh, carrots have such and such amount of vitamin A,” and they’re one of the people that either is very poor at converting carotenes to retinol or doesn’t do it at all, which there are some of, as you know. And that’s before we even start talking about things like disrupted gut microbiome [and] intestinal permeability, [which] interfere with absorption of nutrients [and] that a very large percentage of people are dealing with in this day and age. So, I really have come to believe that one of the foundational health issues of our time is nutrient deficiency, pure and simple. We tend to think it’s something that only affects the developing world, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Jayne Buxton: You are correct. And I do think it’s a failure of public health bodies. Because how would people know? How are they expected to even find out? Public health bodies, all they need to do is simply put a message so that people then investigate further. But they don’t even do that.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. So, the first one was nutrients. We talked a little bit about that. And that [is] sort of a Venn diagram into anti-nutrients because, as you pointed out, or as we’ve just been alluding to, the bioavailability of nutrients in plant foods tends to be lower than in animal foods. And one of the main reasons for that is anti-nutrients. So talk a little bit about that and how that impacts this discussion.
Jayne Buxton: Yeah, typical anti-nutrients that I talk about are things like phytic acid, which will prevent the absorption of zinc. There are some very interesting studies showing how much zinc you will absorb. Oysters eaten on their own versus oysters eaten with a corn tortilla, and it’s practically zero with the corn tortilla, right? All of these anti-nutrients get in the way of absorption in some way. With oxalates, it’s also calcium, but they also have other harmful effects. I think with something like oxalates, which is maybe the most commonly understood anti-nutrient, I think there’s becoming a greater level of awareness around that partly because of Sally Norton’s great book on this. It will get in with absorption, but it will also possibly give you kidney stones because of the overload of that anti-nutrient. Arthritic joints is another common reaction to that. And yet people don’t know why they might be feeling these things. Because if they go to a doctor, the first thing they’re going to say is certainly not, “Oh, let’s investigate your oxalate levels.” Because the lack of understanding is so widespread. But these are very real anti-nutrients—phytic acid, lectins, oxalates. Another one that I think of as an anti-nutrient, although it’s not spoken of in this way, is excess omega-6 linoleic acid, which gets in the way of absorption of omega-3. We know that we need omega-3, [and] we know that [with] the level of omega-6 versus omega-3, the ratio has become much greater over the past 50 years. And that the level of omega-6s in our adipose, or fat tissue, as it were, is I think about something like 20 to one now. Twenty percent versus nine percent, something like that. And this is having a dramatic effect on our health, as well. There are people who’ve written very convincingly about vegetable oil [and] linoleic acid overload being one of the primary drivers of ill health. I think there’s a lot to be said for those theories.
Chris Kresser: Absolutely. I mean, anecdotally, I have had so many patients over my 15-year career [who] find that seed oil is one of the most offensive ingredients to their health, even more than sugar. If they go to a restaurant and they eat a lot of foods that are cooked in rancid seed oil, they feel worse than eating sugar. And there really hasn’t been a lot of research done on these subjective factors. There [have] definitely been some studies looking at seed oils and cardiovascular disease and other conditions. But some of the more interesting recent research to me is the observation of how seed oils seem to affect the gut microbiome. As we know, the gut microbiome affects just about everything else. We now have studies correlating it with everything from cardiovascular disease to diabetes to cognitive dysfunction, mood disorders, skin problems, hormone disruption. I mean, you name it, the gut is connected. So, if the seed oils are disrupting the gut microbiome, then they’re having this systemic effect on everything else.
I want to go back to something you said about the lack of awareness around nutrient deficiency [and] nutrient inhibitors in the medical and mainstream community. Because, again, I think this is an elephant in the room situation, where if somebody goes to the doctor and they say, “I’m tired, I’m not sleeping very well, [and] I’m a little bit depressed or anxious. Look at this, I’ve got this skin rash here; my digestion is not [good].” What’s going to happen there is, you go to the gastroenterologist to talk about your digestion, and [they’ll] give you an antidepressant for the depression, and [they’re] not really sure what to do about the fatigue. Maybe you should drink more coffee, and here’s a sleeping pill for the sleep issues. It’s this phrase “WNL”—we’re not looking. Neither the patient nor the clinician in that situation is thinking [about] what could be a common factor that is leading to all of these different symptoms and signs and manifestations. It’s probably nutrient deficiency because we know from statistics that the vast majority of people are not getting enough of not just one, but several essential nutrients. That thought process in my experience rarely happens in the conventional medical system, whether you’re talking about the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia, really any country in the world. I’m not aware of that being on people’s radar screen, typically.
Jayne Buxton: Not unless you find a very special doctor. You’re obviously one of those. Or there are Functional Medicine practitioners around who practice this. But yeah, it’s very, very hard to find. And there’s another thing, which is preventing awareness, and this is a bit of a link to the other sort of bad guy that I say is lurking in a plant-based diet, which is ultra-processed food. Because if there’s one thing that’s in ultra-processed food in ubiquitous amounts, it’s seed oils, right? They’re very basic. I mean, try picking up anything in a package that doesn’t have seed oils in it. It’s very, very hard to find. So with ultra-processed foods, you’re getting this double whammy of poor nutrients, all kinds of chemical additives, plus this extra overload of seed oils. That’s why I think the new types of ultra-processed vegan foods, which are being pushed on the market and launched [on] the market in great numbers, that’s an additional burden they’re putting on our health. It’s that seed oil content, which is so, so damaging.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, and these are damaging from two different perspectives. First [is] just the impact of eating oxidized rancid oils. These are polyunsaturated fats that are highly unstable when you apply heat, which of course, in the applications that they’re typically used [for], restaurant foods or fried foods and things like that, a lot of heat has been applied. And those become rancid, and we know now that those can have a lot of negative effects. The other side of that, though, is just the fact that seed oils are virtually devoid of nutrients. Some have a meaningful amount of vitamin E, but that’s really about it. And it’s questionable how much vitamin E you’re going to get when you’re eating rancid, fried vegetable oils anyhow. And they now comprise such a large percentage of calories that the average American takes in. If a large percentage of your calories is devoid of nutrients, then you’re displacing [the nutrients].
Jayne Buxton: It’s that displacement, which is key, actually. Displacement is another big problem with the plant-based diet on its own because if you’re taking out meat, dairy, eggs, and fish, and putting something else in, which is less nutrient-dense, [then] you are displacing all the nutrients, as you say, in your diet.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. I mean, that’s a big one, especially when you consider that 60 percent of the calories the average American consumes now come from ultra-processed, ultra-refined foods. So you can look at that as, essentially, 60 percent of the calories people are eating don’t have any nutrition in them. Is it any wonder we’re suffering from the epidemic of chronic disease that we’re facing now? It’s sort of a “how could it not be that way” situation. People ask me often, “Do I need to completely eliminate grains or foods like that from my diet?” And typically, I’m not super rigid around that, I think. Especially if people can properly prepare them, soak them overnight to reduce some of the phytic acid content [and] anti-nutrients and unlock some of the nutrition. But what I say is, “They should never displace more nutrient-dense foods in a significant way.” Meaning, yeah, if you have a few servings a week and you’re still eating organ meats, meats, fish, eggs, dairy products, and all the more nutrient-dense foods, you’ll probably be able to get away with that just fine. But if those foods comprise the bulk of your calories, as they tend to on a 100 percent plant-based diet, if you think of a quinoa or brown rice bowl with lots and lots of vegetables and not much protein and no animal products, then that’s going to be a displacement. Even though that’s a much healthier diet, of course, we would both agree, than a 60 percent processed and refined food diet. [But] you’re still going to have problems, potentially, even with that whole-food, plant-based diet.
Jayne Buxton: Yeah, and I think those problems build up over time. Maybe we can get to that later in the interview about why it is that some people seem to do okay on that diet. And one of the factors may be that these problems build up over time. You’ve written about [vitamin] B12 deficiency taking sometimes five years or more to show up, right? That’s what happens, and people who have this honeymoon period, thinking, “Oh, I’m getting everything I want. I feel great. I’ve been doing this [for] six months or a year, and I feel fantastic.” It can set in.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, let’s just talk about that now because I think it’s pretty relevant. I have a lot of clinical experience with this, having treated many patients who were transitioning from a plant-based diet to an animal foods diet, who came to see me specifically for help with that, because they knew about my work, and they also knew about my personal story, having done a raw food, vegan, macrobiotic diet myself and experienced the consequences of that and then transitioned back myself. But I’ve seen the full range of responses. There are certainly people out there who can thrive on a plant-based diet for many years. And I think many of those people are supplementing very carefully, and they’re very well educated about what nutrients they need to supplement with—[vitamin] B12, or DHA, [or] some of the other examples that you used earlier. The example I often use is Rich Roll, who’s an ultra marathoner, I think, or just an incredible athlete, and has done very well over the years on a plant-based diet. But I think he and people like him, if we have a whole spectrum, [are] on the very far end of the spectrum. There aren’t very many people like that out there. And then you have people who fall apart within weeks of a plant-based diet and everything in between those two ends of the spectrum.
Jayne Buxton: Yeah, absolutely. And then you have something in between, which is the chegans, the cheaters. They say they’re vegan, but they’re not. So, they’re claiming a benefit for the vegan diet, which is not really true.
Chris Kresser: I met someone the other day who said, and I’ve heard variations of this over the years, “I’m a vegetarian [who] eats chicken and fish.” Or someone even said, “I’m a meat vegan.” And Mark Hyman has kind of perpetuated this to some degree. I love that guy. But this idea of eating meat and then just a whole bunch of plants on top of that, that’s not what we’re talking about here. Because those people are going to be getting meaningful amounts of nutrients from the animal products that they’re consuming. Maybe not the optimal amount.
So let’s talk a little bit about what those factors are. We already alluded to one, which is the capacity to convert precursor nutrients into the full active forms of those nutrients. Which ironically, depends on the presence of many nutrients because each enzyme in that pathway requires nutrients to function properly.
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Jayne Buxton: Yeah, so that was the vitamin A conversion. I’ve also read a little bit about the different enzymes in the stomach that allow you to process different kinds and quantities of carbohydrate. We all have different levels of those. And if you’re on what is almost necessarily a high-carbohydrate diet, if you’re on a vegan diet, because you’re consuming all these beans and pastas and quinoa, if you’re not one of those people [who] has the right amount and quality of the enzymes to process them, you’re going to feel that gastric distress pretty quickly. And that’s one of the most common complaints that you hear about is bloating, gastrointestinal distress, right? I bet you hear that a lot from people. That’s where it hits people first. So, they don’t feel great, they don’t feel full of energy, and they don’t feel comfortable. As for other mechanisms, I think we’re just beginning to explore them [and] try and get a handle on them, because there isn’t much research being directed at this, for the reason that there isn’t much research directed at balancing out the plant-based narrative in general—it’s in nobody’s interest to do it, right? So I’m not holding my breath for any of these wonderful studies to come out soon that show why certain people do well on a vegan diet or not. Because it actually is difficult to be on that diet, yeah.
Chris Kresser: My take, just from the research and also my clinical experiences, is [that] conversion is a big one, especially because conversion relies on nutrients that many people who are consuming [a] plant-based diet are likely to be low in. So it’s a vicious cycle type of thing. Another one is nutrient synergy, which is related but somewhat distinct, where we know that in order to absorb certain nutrients, you need other nutrients to be present. There are all kinds of synergistic relationships like this—with magnesium and vitamin D, copper and iron, and vitamin C and iron. And if you’re not getting adequate levels of certain nutrients in your diet, even if you’re consuming enough of the other ones, you will still end up being biologically deficient in those nutrients. And as we’ve talked about, the high presence of anti-nutrients that interfere with absorption in all of these different cases can manifest differently in different people depending on their gut microbiome, their nutrient status going into the plant-based diet, genetics, epigenetics. Like you said, lots of factors that we don’t fully understand. But I’ve been doing this for long enough to say with certainty that there’s a wide distribution of how that works.
And here’s the real problem with it—let’s say someone was eating a standard American or standard British diet, both of which tend to be pretty nutrient deficient. And then, let’s say they transition to a plant-based diet, and they feel great for the first few months. Well, that feeling great is often more about what was removed, not what was added. They’ve taken out sugar, they’ve taken out processed and refined flour, they’ve taken out industrial seed oils, they’ve taken out a lot of other processed and refined foods, and they’re eating whole, fresh foods. That’s almost certainly going to be a win for most people. And then, maybe six months later, they start to feel poorly. Very few people are going to make the connection [with] feeling poorly to the change to the plant-based diet because what looms largest in their mind is the improvement that they had when they initially switched from the Standard American Diet to the plant-based diet. So, when they feel worse later, what I’ve seen tend to happen is doubling down, like, “Oh, because I had the improvement when I switched to the initial plant-based diet, maybe that’s wearing off and I need to go further. I need to go to the raw food diet, or I need to go to whatever the variation is.” Instead of realizing that it just took six months for the nutrient deficiencies to really take hold. Again, this is a lack of education on this issue in the public narrative.
Jayne Buxton: And it’s not for one to have high-profile vegans speaking very eloquently about just that process. I’m thinking of Lierre Keith, who 14 years ago wrote her great book, The Vegetarian Myth. She talks about how she doubled down. She was told by the vegan community, “You’re not vegan enough.” That’s why. And when she stopped menstruating, there were excuses given that she didn’t need to menstruate because vegans don’t need to menstruate. So there are all kinds of fabricated stories that we can wrap around that whole transition to plant-based. And you’re right, I don’t know what the answer is. Because general education levels are so poor about this. The only thing that will help is people like you, people like me, like Lierre, just banging the drum continually and keeping that message going and hoping it spreads a little wider every time.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. Let’s switch gears and talk a little bit about the environmental argument. Because there are people out there who may accept everything that we’ve said so far in terms of the nutritional benefits of including meat and animal products in the diet, but [for] environmental or moral or ethical [reasons], they choose to follow a plant-based diet. And then, of course, we see all of these celebrities who have turned vegan largely because they claim that it’s going to save the planet, and they’re on their speaking tours, as they’re flying around in a jet all over the world to talk about saving the planet from carbon emissions.
Jayne Buxton: You’re right, you’re right. It’s the number one hypocrisy.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. I’ve talked about this a lot, as well, but it’s always good to revisit because there’s constantly new research being published more and more over the past five to seven years, challenging what I think is now mainstream dogma around meat and animal products and climate change.
Jayne Buxton: Yeah, yeah. So I think the mainstream dogma, if I could pinpoint when the real bad misinformation started to get around, it was the Cowspiracy film, which propagated the idea that cows generate over 50 percent of emissions of all kinds.
Chris Kresser: I remember, yeah.
Jayne Buxton: And that was debunked. The producers of that movie had to admit that they’d made a big mistake, although that wasn’t publicized very much. That number, that 51 percent figure, [is] still is out there. People quote it. They quote it on placards when they’re marching at universities or on the street. Some people still believe it. So that’s one level of misinformation around all of this, which is polluting the debate. But the other problem is that there’s so much else around the emissions from cows [and] the methane from cows, which is completely misunderstood. And that, again, doesn’t surprise me terribly much because it’s a very complex subject. Much more complex than the media tells us it is. So if we say that most people now accept that perhaps cows are responsible for maybe 14 [or] 15 percent of emissions, nobody really understands that the way we measure those emissions is completely unfavorable to livestock. We measure those in terms of life cycle. So we blame the cows for everything, from the things they eat through the transportation to the shop [where] they become a food product. A lot of people don’t realize that we don’t do that with other sectors. Transport is not measured that way. Transport is just measured in terms of emissions from the tailpipe. So when the [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] (FAO) redid those numbers, they found that if you put them on a level playing field, cows will be responsible for 5 percent of emissions versus 15 percent for transport.
So that’s just one, and that’s at a global number level. Those numbers become much more exaggerated when you look at the U.S. or the U.K., where other sectors such as transport, industry, energy, all of those sectors add up to 95 percent or more of emissions compared to what livestock is contributing. I’m talking rough numbers about the two countries, but that’s more or less the way it is. The fact that the media keeps reporting these very blunt numbers without any of the nuances has led people to think that cows are the enemy. They don’t even know that there are other sources of methane. I bet you if you stopped your average person on the street, they would say that methane only comes from cows. When in reality, it comes from industry, wetlands, landfill[s], beaver dams, even peat bogs. It creates some funny old hypocrisies and inconsistencies in the debate because, on the one hand, we’re saying we need to tear up a lot of the farmland [and] get the cows off the land to reduce methane emissions, but we need to reintroduce wetlands and rewet the surface of the earth. Well, by doing those things, you’re just going to be exchanging one kind of methane for another, right? There’s no recognition of that.
The other thing, which I think is poorly recognized, generally, is the ability of well-managed livestock to actually sequester many of the emissions that they generate. The whole notion of a biogenic cycle, where the methane comes out of the cows but is then cycled back in the ground through the action of those cows on the ground. So the cows actually create the conditions in the soil that allow that carbon to be sequestered. And when you look at the research in the past five years, it has come on leaps and bounds in terms of our understanding of how that process happens. And groups like Soil4Climate or the Savory Institute and many others around the world, 3M here in the U.K., are documenting that very act, that process of sequestration, more accurately. And I think the more we can get the numbers around that, the more we’ll be able to combat this misinformation that methane is only a one-way thing. It isn’t a one-way thing.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, this is another four podcasts, really, because it’s a complex topic. It’s actually significantly more complex than the nutritional side of things, I’ve found.
Jayne Buxton: I think so.
Chris Kresser: And [it] requires even more foundational understanding of the whole life cycle, what’s going on, how the measurements are made, how the measurements are fudged, how the comparisons are cheated, like you said, using full life cycle in the case of raising cows, and then only using tailpipe emissions in the case of transport as a category. And several studies over the past few years have shown that regenerative farms using best practices [are] either carbon neutral or net carbon sinks. Like you said, they’re actually taking carbon out of the atmosphere. What’s more, [and] we haven’t talked about this yet, they are just such better places for animals to live. They’re more humane, they’re better places for people to work, [and] they create better communities. I don’t know how it is in the U.K. at this point because I haven’t been there recently, but in the U.S., there’s such a strong movement toward regenerative animal husbandry. If you go to any farmers market, you’re going to have stalls there that are selling 100 percent grass-fed, grass-finished meat. There’s higher consumer demand for it. I know lots of young people [who] are going back into farming and are really excited about this. There’s a palpable movement in this direction because of all the factors that I just mentioned. Not just because of the nutritional value, but because people understand that animals are a critical part of our ecosystem, and just removing them from the food system entirely is incredibly short-sighted and problematic.
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Jayne Buxton: Absolutely. The same thing is happening here. I think one of the gauges of that movement, that increased appreciation of the power of regenerative agriculture, is a festival we have here called Groundswell. Which is, like many of your festivals across the U.S., about bringing those farmers together to understand how best to replenish the soil, raise animals in a humane way, etc. And that has been going from strength to strength since John Cherry and his brother founded it, I think five years ago. It’s just a powerhouse of ideas and thought leadership on that very topic. And I have noticed it since I moved out of London, where I’d lived for 35 years. We moved down here about eight months ago to Wiltshire, which is in the southwest of England, and I’m surrounded by sheep and cows. Livestock farming is a big thing here because you can’t do anything else. You can’t grow anything. The soil is such that it simply doesn’t grow.
All of these farmers, without exception, [who] I meet, and who are increasingly interested in me talking to them and helping them share their ideas and vice versa, are all very much in the thick of this organic, regenerative, soil-enhancing, biodiversity-enhancing type of farming. And of course, you then get the naysayer. This is what we see at a practical level. You see it; I see it. The naysayers, who are operating at what I would call the level of the academic model, are sort of looking from above, and they’re not seeing this. There’s a school at Oxford called the LEAP School, which you’ll be familiar with. One big name there is Marco Springmann. They love to produce models that show that all this kind of farming isn’t really adding up too much, and, anyway, we don’t have enough land to do it. They create an impossibility, which is not based in reality. And I think what we really need to do, and my plea to policymakers and governments, is listen to the farmers. Factor them into the conversation. Understand what they are seeing on their very own farms about how much they can produce of this regeneratively produced food, and factor that into your thinking at least. Don’t just be bamboozled by these numerical sort of high-level fake models, basically, which is what they are.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, yeah, they’re not holistic at all. And modeling is rarely an accurate substitute for on-the-ground knowledge. Farming is something humans actually know a fair amount about [and] have been doing for quite a long time. It’s an area where we’re rediscovering methods that were traditionally used for centuries, if not millennia. And those can produce yields that surprise farmers who’ve been using industrial methods with chemical pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers. There’s, I think, an assumption often that that will produce higher yields. But in some cases, that’s not true. And that’s not even to mention factors like biodiversity, where you have a farm that’s regeneratively managed and using rotation methods and different animals and different crops rather than just a mono crop. The amount of biodiversity that’s present on a farm like that is astronomically higher than what you’ll find in an industrial monocropping operation.
Jayne Buxton: Absolutely.
Chris Kresser: Do you want to talk a little bit about that? Because I think that’s an important factor, too—soil and topsoil and how the methods of agriculture impact our soil.
Jayne Buxton: Yeah. There’s an American farmer who’s also quite well-known over here, Will Harris. You’ll know his name, I’m sure. White Oak Pastures.
Chris Kresser: [He’s] been on the podcast.
Jayne Buxton: Yes, I’m sure he has. One thing I love that he talks about is [that] everybody’s on him to rewild his land, or for farmers like him to rewild some of their land. And he says, “I’m already rewilding within my farm. My farm is a rewilded farm.” It has more species on it already than most other farms, and it shows the potential for what can be done within the farming environment. So I think, unfortunately, the debate is, as usual, polarized. It’s either rewilded or it’s farming. Well, why can’t we have both with this new form of farming, which harks back to some of the old but also capitalizes on our new knowledge about soil, which is deepening and deepening? There have been some great soil scientists in the world. Christine Jones is one of them. And [Kirsten] Kurtz. These women, and scientists like them, are contributing to a much deeper knowledge of how soil is built and preserved.
Again, it’s a plea, really, for us to think in a more complex way. To think in a rounder, more holistic way. That doesn’t tend to happen when governments get panicked, which is what I think they are now. And they’re spreading that panic down the line. In the quest for net zero, they are doing things like requiring farmers to cull 30 percent of their herds. This is happening in Ireland, for instance. As a quick way of getting a quick hit on the emissions board, as it were. Quick reduction, again, in the model. Whether it’ll transpire into any reduction [that] is real is another question. That is a good example of carbon tunnel vision because by doing that, they may get that quick hit, [but] they’re doing absolutely nothing to enhance biodiversity on the farms that remain, nothing to encourage that, nothing to support farmers as they transition to more biodiverse farming. They’re doing nothing at all for the long-term health of the land and the food system. So those kinds of quick-hit, knee-jerk reactions are something we need to fight against. And I think people are. People are fighting back against those.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. It’s like the ultimate vanity metric. It’s just something that they can point to and do a press conference about, but that is ultimately meaningless and not really moving us toward where we need to get to. Well, Jayne, thank you so much for this conversation. I really enjoyed your book. I think it’s important, and [I] highly recommend reading it for folks who haven’t already. It’s called The Great Plant-Based Con. Where can people find out more about you and the book?
Jayne Buxton: I have a website, which is JayneReeseBuxton.com. I’m updating it though, so bear with me. But they can at least find what I’ve written about, [and] they can listen to some of the podcasts I’ve done about the book. I’m also on Twitter [@JayneReesBuxton]. Sometimes I go in and out of Twitter because you have to have a lot of fortitude.
Chris Kresser: Titration.
Jayne Buxton: Absolutely. But I can be contacted that way. And if people DM me and it’s a friendly DM, I always respond.
Chris Kresser: Great. Well, maybe we can compare death threats at some point. Definitely not for the faint of heart, dipping your toe in these waters. I’m sure both of us have had our share of hostile and downright criminal [messages].
Jayne Buxton: Misogynistic. I mean, horrendous, horrendous stuff.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, I’m sure you get even more than I do, in that respect.
Jayne Buxton: [But there’s also] love and support, right? Twitter also has been a great place of learning and love and support around this issue. I’ve had a lot of that, too. So I can’t complain too much. But anyway, hats off [to] you because you have had to put up with it for a long time. I have had a lot of respect for your work, and I’m so glad we got to talk after all these months.
Chris Kresser: Yes, me, too. Once again, The Great Plant-Based Con, check it out. Highly recommended. [It’s a] great book to send to friends and family who need a really comprehensive but accessible overview of the topic. There are a lot of books out there that go into detail on one aspect or the other, like nutritional or environmental, [but] there aren’t that many books that just provide a really great, easy-to-follow overview, and I think that’s really valuable and what we need. So, thanks again, Jayne, for writing the book.
Jayne Buxton: Thank you.
Chris Kresser: Thanks, everybody, for listening. Keep sending your questions to ChrisKresser.com/PodcastQuestion. We’ll see you next time.
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