Here's a thoughtful and evidence based assessment of vegan diets from Dr Paul Mason. We've included the transcription below the video.
I'm Dr Paul Mason. Vegan diets are often promoted as being both healthy and ethical. As you're about to learn however this is not necessarily the case.
This is a photo of Sheila O'Leary wearing prison greens after her 18-month-old baby died of malnutrition while being fed a vegan diet.
And this unfortunately was not an isolated incident. In fact after a number of deaths linked to vegan diets Belgium has now introduced laws where parents face two years in jail if they feed their children vegan diets without vitamin supplements and close medical supervision, including regular blood tests.
And even if a vegan diet doesn't kill it can still lead to severe and often permanent consequences. No parent should ever have to live with the knowledge that they've caused their child permanent brain damage.
Nor should they have to watch their toddler's bones snap under the weight of their own body - both consequences of vegan diets.
So, how is it then that diets which are promoted for health benefits could be dangerous to children? Well, it comes down to nutrients, or more specifically, the lack thereof. The most well known being vitamin B12.
There's an awful lot of misinformation surrounding whether or not plant-based foods have B12 so I'll make it simple, there is none.
The amount of B12 you see in the foods on screen here is exactly zero and the deadliness of B12 deficiency has been known for a long time.
In fact, there's a condition where vitamin B12 cannot be effectively absorbed into the body called pernicious anemia. Pernicious - quite literally meaning deadly or harmful. And for a long time this disease pernicious anemia was universally fatal. I'll say that again, universally fatal. It was only in 1925, when the use of beef liver extracts containing B12 began to be injected that pernicious anemia ceased to be universally deadly.
The discovery, in fact, led to the awarding of the 1934 Nobel Prize. The fact is it's impossible to get adequate B12 from any plant food that has not been specifically fortified.
And please don't believe the lie that you can get enough B12 from the dirt of unwashed vegetables, this is simply untrue. Even eating dirt can't save an un-supplemented vegan diet.
And it wasn't until 1972 when B12 was finally synthesised in the lab, and after this following a vegan diet theoretically became possible longer term. And when I say "longer term", I mean for more than about 5 years because that's about how much B12 can be stored in the liver.
So, how does a well balanced vegan diet as promoted by the likes of Dr Michael Gregor here reconcile with the B12 deficient nature of a vegan diet?
Well, understand that the phrase "well balanced" is really code for "needs supplementing", either in the form of foods which have had B12 artificially added, or simply by taking B12 supplements themselves.
And, here's the rub. Even though it's universally accepted that plant-based diets are deficient in B12 necessitating supplementation, and the supplements are both cheap and readily available, the rate of B12 deficiencies in vegetarians, let alone vegans, is staggering. Try 62% of pregnant females, or up to 86% of vegetarian children, or 90% of the elderly.
What other vitamins are often deficient in vegetarian and vegan diets?
Consider for a moment, that if vegetarians and vegans fail to supplement with a nutrient known to be essential, that is cheap and easy to get, what does it mean for other less well-known nutrients, that are only found in animal foods?
Grass-fed steak, for example, contains Vitamins D, B12, K2 and A, the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, creatine, carnosine, carnitine, choline, heme iron, taurine and zinc. All of which are either absent or deficient on a plant-based diet.
So, here's a question, how can a vegan diet possibly be the healthiest diet for humankind when without artificial supplementation it will eventually kill you?
Is the evidence supporting vegan diets valid?
Now, you may be sitting there thinking yeah that makes sense and yet still be a bit confused at how plant-based advocates can site piles of seemingly valid science. Well, they do this by by relying on poor quality science.
Meet the evidence pyramid more formally known as a research hierarchy:
Down the bottom we've got the lowest level of evidence.
The middle layer, in light blue, refers to a weak type of research known as observational or epidemiological studies.
Now, the ranking of observational studies down from the top of the hierarchy reflects their limitations. As the name suggests, they involve the observation of populations and relationships between observations are then interpreted.
For example, the rate of cancer might be compared to the number of bananas eaten. It's important to understand though that just because two observations associate together provides no evidence that one cause the other.
Observational research cannot prove anything. In a legal sense, observational research provides circumstantial evidence.
And, while observational studies do have a place, they really ought to be backed up by experimental research and any researcher who uses observational evidence to prove causation is not only scientifically incompetent they probably don't like cats.
And, here's the rub. Whenever you see headlines demonising red meat they refer to either a link or an association. And, when you see these words you know that the research was observational and therefore the conclusions drawn are almost certainly meaningless.
Another issue is that much of the observational research on nutrition is performed using self-reported food frequency questionnaires, as if asking someone how many eggs they consumed in the previous 12 months could be in any way reliable.
Bear in mind that most people struggle to remember what they've had for breakfast and just in case the unreliability of food frequency questionnaires doesn't confound findings enough, researchers often conflate things like pizzas, hot dogs and hamburgers with red meat.
You don't need an overpriced research degree to know that this kind of conflation is not scientifically valid.
People eating hamburgers are probably also having a side of coke and fries. This is called confounding and it's impossible to control adequately.
Furthermore, how should you categorise this pizza with ham and pineapple, putting aside the fact that they're probably a bad person! ;) Does it get classed as a fruit or a vegetable or a meat?
We also have something called healthy user bias, where non-meat eaters are more likely to engage in healthy behaviours, so when we're constantly bombarded with messaging telling us that red meat is bad, it's individuals who care about their health who are most likely to limit their red meat intake.
So, it ends up that the people who eat less meat are also more likely to diligently exercise, buy organic foods, and sleep 8 hours every night.
Instead of observational research we should seek out randomised control trials shown here in yellow. And, unlike observational studies these can control for the effects of confounders.
In a randomised control trial, subjects along with all of their confounding variables are randomly allocated to one of two groups, and with enough numbers this random allocation means that they're confounding variables are evenly distributed and therefore don't affect the study results.
This research design is considered gold standard and unlike observational studies randomised control trials can show causation. In effect, randomised control trials trump observational research, hands down.
As an aside, you might be wondering what is at the very top of the pyramid. Well, systematic reviews are when researchers collate all the available evidence using unbiased search criteria.
The problem is that even when well performed a systematic review can only be as good as the quality of included studies. Remember, garbage in garbage out, so in addition to study design research can often be compromised by using poor outcome measures.
This is particularly common in studies that seem to promote vegan diets. This often includes surrogate markers which serve as proxies for meaningful clinical outcomes. And the use of proxies or surrogate markers is unfortunately rife.
The utility of some outcome measures is obvious. Did you die? It's hard to argue that this is neither meaningful nor relevant, and it's also very hard to fudge.
What about LDL cholesterol though? A common surrogate marker used in nutritional research and assumed to associate with the chance are dying.
Except the best research we have suggests this association doesn't exist. The overwhelming finding of this systematic review of 19 cohort studies with more than 68,000 participants was that the higher the LDL level the less chance of dying.
There is no credible evidence to the contrary. Use of LDL as a surrogate marker, while being common in nutritional research, is indefensible.
So, you now know to be suspicious the next time you see a vegan wheeling out associational studies based on food frequency questionnaires or similar or experimental designs using weak surrogate markers. You know now how to interpret the quality of some of this science.
Does red meat really cause bowel cancer?
Now, one of the biggest claims made against red meat is that it causes bowel cancer. You may remember in 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) released this two-page report that resulted in a worldwide media frenzy.
Paraphrasing Dr Georgia Ede, who has a great analysis on her website, it's not so much a scientific report as it is a political hit job.
Let's start with unprocessed red meat.
Now, there are more than 800 observational studies in the literature looking at red meat and cancer and the authors of this review considered [only] 29. And even then, things didn't really go so well as the majority that they looked at found no issue with unprocessed red meat.
And, as you know, observational studies are weak anyway. Even if a majority had found an association, it wouldn't have proven anything.
Things get worse though. To support the case against red meat this report turned to experimental evidence. Unfortunately, the evidence was hopelessly, almost comically, flawed.
This chemical is Azoxymethane and it's a known carcinogen, that is, it's known to cause cancer. Especially bowel cancer. In fact it is, and I quote, "used extensively by many investigators to induce colon tumours". That is, it's injected into test animals when researchers want to deliberately induce bowel cancer.
One of the two experimental papers cited in the World Health Organisation report against unprocessed red meat was this study. Sixty rats were both fed red meat and injected with Azoxymethane.
First of all, none of the rats actually developed bowel cancer. But, some did develop precancerous lesions in both groups, the group having the red meat and the group not having the red meat. So, it seems a bit of a stretch to lean on this paper as a basis that red meat causes cancer.
The second experiment cited in the WHO report adopted a similar methodology, except this time a different chemical was injected into the rats - Dimethylhydrazine. Dimethylhydrazine is an even stronger promoter of bowel cancer than Azoxymethane but even then when they used this more potent cancer causing chemical the rats in the study didn't actually develop bowel cancer.
And that, folks, is the sum total of the evidence used by the World Health Organisation to conclude that unprocessed red meats cause bowel cancer.
Now, the story for processed meats is somewhat similar and for a full account I recommend Dr Georgia Ede's excellent website.
The WHO is propagating misinformation
Of course, the story doesn't end there. Despite being atrocious science, the World Health Organisation has propagated this misinformation.
For example, the highly publicised Eat Lancet report from early 2019, which permits the consumption of only 7g of beef lamb or pork every day, references the 2015 report as providing evidence of the cancer risk of red meat.
The Eat Lancet report itself is based on junk science and that has now been referenced more than 7,000 times. An extreme example of the propagation of scientific misinformation all being traced back to two studies in which rats were injected with cancer causing chemicals.
Are there benefits to eating red meat?
So, if we accept there's no credible evidence that red meat causes cancer, are there any benefits to the consumption of red meat? The answer is yes, one of the most important reasons being the sheer number of essential nutrients in red meat which are not only important for our physical health but also our brain health.
I'd like to now submit the premise that eating red meat can make us smarter.
Pictures like this are common in vegan propaganda, the implication being that plant-based diets are good for brain health - although this claim should be questioned in light of the fact that vegan diet can result in permanent brain damage in infants.
Since the onset of plant-based agriculture it seems that the brains of modern humans have shrunk by about 10%.
Compare the 40,000 year old skull of a pre-agricultural man [on the left] with his modern European counterpart and one of the reasons for this is likely to relate to the reduced intake of high quality omega-3 fats in modern man, which, incidentally is also found in grass-fed beef.
DHA improves intelligence
The most important omega-3 is docosahexaenoic acid acid or DHA making up about 20% of the fat in the brain. DHA is a predominant structural fatty acid and thus it is particularly important in the developing brain.
Also handy as far as brain health is concerned is eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA which is converted into DHA readily.
EPA also has several important functions including helping regulate inflammation and clotting. Understand then that plants contain neither DHA nor EPA. Exactly zero.
Instead, the omega-3 in plant-based foods like flax seeds is in the form of alpha-linolenic acid or ALA, and the efficiency of conversion of ALA to EPA in humans is exceptionally poor, being estimated at less than 1 tenth of 1%.
A level that renders ALA supplements effectively worthless and this was shown by this double blind randomised control trial which as you know is a gold standard for research which found ALA supplementation did not increase DHA levels.
Another double blind crossover randomised control trial even found that ALA supplementation resulted in a fall in DHA levels.
Compare that with a high quality randomised double blinded control study looking at DHA supplementation. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers were supplemented with either DHA containing cod liver oil or with DHA deficient corn oil, and at four years of age the children receiving the DHA perform significantly better on a battery of tests assessing intelligence. The paper concluding that DHA supplementation increased the IQ of these mothers' children.
Randomised control trials also provide similar benefits when infants themselves are supplemented with DHA. This study found that DHA supplementation up to the age of 4 months resulted in measurable and significant developmental benefit at 30 months persisting to at least 5 years.
The fact is the benefits of DHA in optimising brain development are likely lifelong. The corollary of this being that diets deficient in DHA such as plant-based diets may result in permanent consequences.
So, to anyone with a child on a plant-based diet, please give them a good quality DHA supplement. Not flaxseed oil. One alternative, and while being a protist, and not a plant, is algae based supplements, which most vegans ought find acceptable.
Creatine supports good brain functioning
Another compound necessary for good brain functioning is creatine which is derived from amino acids. Creatine is only found in animal meat and seafood and while while the body can make about a gram a day, this is far from an optimal amount. Relying on your body completely results in suboptimal levels.
This was shown in this double blinded randomised control crossover trial, again, the gold standard, performed on vegetarian subjects who were supplemented with creatine. This was a crossover study meaning that both groups of subjects received both the creatine supplement and a placebo at different times, so throughout the study subjects perform cognitive testing validated to assess both memory and intelligence.
This chart shows average test results representing performance on an intelligent test over the course of the study. I've highlighted the periods where the vegan or vegetarian subjects were supplemented with creatine in blue. You can see the significant improvements in intelligence which correlated.
And the results for working memory were essentially identical, clear proof of benefit of supplementing with creatine not found in vegan or vegetarian diets.
And don't think this is an isolated finding an example of me cherry picking. This review identified 12 studies which found creatine supplementation improves cognitive functioning.
Iron is important for brain health
Another nutrient important for brain health is iron and several studies have found that iron deficiency impairs the normal mental and physical development of infants.
For example, this double blinded randomised control trial found iron supplementation in infants at risk of iron deficiency boosted mental development.
This randomised control trial finding iron supplementation in low birth weight infants significantly reduced the incidence of behavioural problems, and follow up at 7 years found benefits had persisted.
The corollary to this is that infant diet's deficient in iron are likely to contribute to long-term behavioural issues.
And iron also offers benefit to older children. This randomised control trial studied 81 girls with iron deficiency and it found that eight weeks of oral iron significantly improved verbal learning and memory.
Of course, iron is not just necessary for the developing brain, but also the function of the adult brain. And one of the main mechanisms for this relates to the production of chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters, and iron is a necessary co-factor for the action of two enzymes - Tyrosine Hydroxylase and Tryptophan Hydroxylase - that are responsible for the production of dopamine and serotonin respectively.
This means in an iron deficient state the brain is going to be deficient in both dopamine and serotonin.
This was confirmed by this study a randomised trial of of women age between 18 and 35. So, first of all at baseline study subjects with iron deficiency were both slower at, and performed worse on, cognitive tests. When iron levels were restored improvements in cognitive function were five to seven times greater compared with those subjects who didn't have an improvement in iron levels.
Which foods are a good source of iron?
So, with this knowledge it's fair to say no parent would ever knowingly deny their child a diet with adequate iron. And so, they might turn to Google to find foods rich in iron to feed their children. The same Google which curates, some would say "censors", health related search results in line with its partnership with the World Health Organisation.
Hence, the top result for my search for foods good for iron were plant foods, with no mention of meat anywhere. This is an absurdity!
You see, iron comes in two forms heme iron and non heme. The heme form is by far the most bioavailable and it's only found in meat or seafood.
The iron in plant foods like spinach on the other hand is entirely non heme. In fact, the absorption of iron from spinach is somewhere in the range of 2% to 12%. And despite claims to the contrary, it's unlikely that vitamin C is going to rescue you.
A recent randomised control trial found that vitamin C offered no benefit in improving the absorption rate of non heme iron.
And it's not just spinach that has poor iron absorption. This paper found the bioavailability of iron from five commonly consumed legumes was in the range of 1% to 2%.
The low bioavailability of iron from plant foods is no doubt a major contributor to the rate of iron deficiencies in vegans and vegetarians which is 3 to 4 times greater than the population average.
To promote plant foods as a good source of iron is borderline criminal if for no other reason than iron deficiency is the world's most common nutrient deficiency affecting about 2 billion people.
What other nutrients are more bioavailable in animal foods?
Of course, iron is not the only nutrient that's more bioavailable in animal foods.
The animal form of vitamin A is 12 times more bioavailable than its plant-based counterpart, meaning you need to take 12 times as much beta carotene
compared to retinol, which is found in animals.
Another nutrient that's far more bioavailable in animals is Vitamin D3, which is 2 to 3 times more effective at raising vitamin D stores than the plant-based version - Vitamin D2.
Plants contain anti-nutrients
And, it isn't just that plant foods lack nutrients or that the nutrients they have are in inferior forms, plants also contain other factors that inhibit nutrient absorption.
These are called anti-nutrients - this includes tannins, phytates, oxalates glucosinolates, saponins and protease inhibitors. This means that even when a plant food does contain a nutrient, the absorption of that nutrient may well be impaired.
For example, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale contain glucosinolates, sulfur containing compounds which impair the absorption of iodine, which may impact on thyroid function.
Oxalates found in leafy greens and nuts amongst others can bind to calcium not only limiting calcium absorption but being a major cause of kidney stones.
Phytates found in whole grains and seeds, amongst others, limits the absorption of iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium.
While the tannins in tea, including green tea, can limit the absorption of iron.
So, let's have a look and see what the magnitude of this effect on nutrient absorption might actually be.
This graph courtesy of Dr Georgia Ede demonstrates the normal level of zinc in the circulation after a meal of oysters. See the impact of combining the same meal of oysters with black beans which, like most legumes, contain several anti-nutrients.
The peak level of zinc in the blood is reduced by more than two thirds. That still is not as dramatic as the impact of corn tortillas, which like other grains also contain several anti-nutrients. You can see the addition of corn tortillas to oysters completely blocks the absorption of zinc.
So, how much nutrition from tacos do you really think you're going to be getting?
Is there Vitamin C in meat?
Of course, there is a counter claim that animal foods are deficient in vitamin C. And if you were looking through the USDA nutrient data for beef this is exactly what you'd see.
The thing is Vitamin C levels weren't actually measured when they formulated this data, rather the widespread practice of assumption was employed. It was assumed that the level of vitamin C in meat was zero and it was simply recorded as such without actually measuring it.
When it's actually tested however we actually find that meat actually does contain vitamin C. Which is no doubt what we would have predicted if those working in the USDA were students of history.
Throughout history entire populations have been sustained on meat-based diets. Let's hear from Arctic Explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson who lived with the inuit for a prolonged period.
Qu: This raises the whole question of food, surely you yourself must have longed for a green vegetable once in a while?
Ans: Well I did at first. My first experience was that a ship that was supposed to meet me didn't meet me and I had to become a guest of the eskimos and for 4 and a half months had lived on literally nothing but fish and water. Well we had some blubber, some polar bear blubber, but apart from that and at the end of 4 and a half months I was healthy as I'd ever been before.
Likewise, at the bottom of the world in Antarctica, meat has long been used to treat scurvy. Indeed, there was complete recovery from an outbreak of scurvy during Robert Scott's 1902 expedition with the consumption of lightly fried seal meat and liver.
Indeed, Scott's journal entry from the 15th of October in that year reported "within a fortnight of the outbreak there is scarcely a sign of it remaining."
And even before Antarctica was discovered the use of meat for scurvy was known. In fact, Napoleon's Army used cooked horse meat during the 1801 siege of Alexandria to effectively curb an epidemic of scurvy.
So no, eating too much meat won't in fact cause scurvy.
Are humans evolved to eat meat?
I'd like to now shift gears and address one of the most common arguments I hear against eating meat - that we are not evolved to eat meat.
Remember though that B12 is essential for life and that B12 was only synthesised in the lab in 1972. Of course, there is an alternative explanation that has been put forward - and I promise I'm not making this up - it's claimed that pre-agriculture humans would have dried their B12 through and I quote "accidental ingestion of soil and manure".
Do I really need to scientifically critique that claim?
Some vegan activists will also use scientific looking tables like this one on comparative anatomy the problem is they're full of latent falsehoods.
For example, the assertion that omnivores do not have digestive enzymes in their saliva is clearly false when we look at the research.
The claim that humans don't have a very acidic stomach is also the stuff of fairy tales. This claim is made in the context that an acidic gut is useful for digesting meat. The fact is, however, that the human gut is even more acidic than that of dogs.
And there's also a big difference in the volume of the colon between the herbivorous great apes, in which it represents about 50% of the volume of the gastrointestinal tract, compared to only 20% in humans.
I should also mention that even the so called herbivorous great apes won't pass up the chance of a nutrient dense meal if they can get one.
The fact is, there is no credible science that indicates humans are not designed to eat red meat.
Are vegan diets good for animals?
Now, let's examine the claim that vegan diets are good for animals.
Mice love grain something farmers know only too well but when you combine a vicious appetite and prolific breeding you'll understand why they're abundant in every single field of grain the world over.
It's estimated that the typical grain field houses about 25 mice per hectare in non plague years.
The problem is harvesters don't discriminate between mice or wheat. Any mouse found in a field is at risk of meeting a gruesome death.
Of course it's often claimed that there's no way an agile mice would remain in the path of a noisy harvester. It's well known though that a common response to fear by mice is freezing and this nature paper even detailed the brain circuitry involved in such a response in mice.
So, based on field studies it's estimated that about 60% of mice in the path of a harvester perish given they're about 25 mice per hectare this equates to the deaths of about 15 mice per hectare per harvest.
And this ignores the deaths of other species as well as deaths that result from the use of other heavy machinery such as plowing, harrowing and cultivating.
On the balance of probabilities, 15 deaths per hectare is a gross under estimate. Even more stark however is that machinery only accounts for a fraction of mice deaths. I'll say that again, the proven deaths of rodents by machinery is not the major cause of death.
That honour goes to poisons yielded by farmers, especially in plague years which tend to occur every four years or so. Population densities in a plague can reach up to 3,000 mice per hectare with poison employed capable of killing at least 80% of mice present.
The fact is a lot of lives are lost to make your bread whether you like it or not. Ignorance here is really no excuse and given that vegans generally believe in the equality of all animals, not believing there to be a hierarchy, the death of mice should concern them.
The reality is that there's likely to be less animal mortality following a nose to tail omnivore diet than a vegan diet based on grains which brings me to the concept of intent.
Some vegans argue that because they don't intend for animals to die they bear less moral responsibility and to me this reeks of wilful ignorance. There's no such thing as a diet for which nothing dies, wishing otherwise changes nothing, and my response to this assertion mirrors that of Lierre Keith who wrote the brilliant book The Vegetarian Myth, "it's time to grow up and accept responsibility for your choices".
The impact of monocropping on the environment
I'd like to now discuss the environmental catastrophe that is monocropping.
This is nature in all her glory, a wild meadow, complete ecosystem supported by pollinated insects and animals, it's soil that filters the water and acts as a vast carbon sink.
And this is a monocrop where the diversity of life has been all but destroyed. The major issue is soil. Every time soil is plowed it is depleted trillions of organisms are exposed to the sun with wind and rain free to was soil away.
Combine this with the liberal use of pesticides which alter the microbial communities essential for releasing nutrients within the soil, and you ultimately end up with a pile of dirt, in which nothing can grow.
It's no exaggeration to say this is the big environmental catastrophe of our time that we are ignoring. Consider this, about one third of the world's productive top soil has already been depleted and last year a UN report predicted that, based on our current trajectory, 90% of the world's top soil will be depleted by 2050. Less than 30 years from now.
Given that 95% of the world's calorie intake depends on soil this is an impending disaster the likes of which we've never seen and the cause is clear industrial farming techniques used in monocrop agriculture, intensive tilling and the intensive use of pesticides and fertilisers.
In line with the degradation in soil quality, fruits and vegetables have had significant declines in their nutrient quality over the last 50 years. Without healthy soil we don't get healthy food.
Here you can see the average change in nutrient levels for 13 nutrients from 43 garden crops between 1950 and 1999 and have no doubt 24 years later after this data was collected the picture is almost certainly worse.
Unlike industrial farming, however, ruminant grazing can actually restore top soil.
Perennial grasses are essential for soil regeneration. First of all they bind the soil together protecting against erosion from wind and rain.
Further, as the roots grow and die off they decompose and contribute to the biomass of the soil while removing carbon from the atmosphere in the process. In actual fact, soil currently holds three times more carbon than that in the atmosphere.
Cow manure too contributes to soil biomass significantly contributing to soil quality.
So, we have a choice.
Industrial monocrop agriculture, which within our lifetime could see widespread famine. Or, ruminant agriculture which can restore soil and sequester carbon.
Does livestock use more land than cropping?
Let's now address one of the most common arguments against livestock farming that it requires excessive use of agricultural land.
The United Nations estimates livestock farming uses 77% of the world's agricultural land. It sounds huge, this figure implies that cows are monopolising agricultural land the argument being that if we could only grow crops on this land more food could be produced.
This rich agricultural land is currently used for livestock can you guess why? Good luck getting a combine harvester up those hills. This is called marginal agricultural land, so named because it is unsuitable for cropping.
And world wide, two thirds of all agricultural land is designated marginal. Completely unsuitable for cropping. If it weren't used for grazing it wouldn't produce any food at all.
Here's a map of the agricultural lands in Australia. See all those areas in grey? Basically desert, completely unsuitable for cropping. If these lands weren't grazed that would be completely unproductive, so the claim that we could produce far more food if we simply grew crops on agricultural land used by livestock is questionable at best.
Furthermore, there's no truth to the claims that the land used by livestock is increasing. The fact is there hasn't been any significant increases in the amount of land used for livestock since the 1960s.
Do livestock use a lot of water?
And as well as monopolising land it's often claimed that livestock deplete our precious freshwater reserves known as 'Blue Water'.
The fact is though over 90% of the water consumed by livestock is what we call green water, basically rain water in its natural cycle. This water was never going to form part of our fresh water reserves, it remains in its natural cycle regardless if it passes through a cow or not.
This is not wasted water, in reality far more blue water or fresh water reserves are dedicated to watering crops, 70% in fact.
The use of pesticides in cropping
To finish I'd like to discuss pesticides.
Now, monocrop agriculture depends on vast quantities of pesticides which indiscriminately kill flora and insects alike.
What surprised me, however and not in a good way, was the scale of pesticide use. The y-axis of this graph shows the agricultural use of glyphosate measured in millions of pounds.
Now, understand that as weeds become resistant to pesticides. Farmers respond by using more pesticides, a similar story antibiotic resistance. But, I was genuinely shocked to read this United Nations report which detailed that in 2020 more than 2 billion kilograms of pesticide were used around the world.
In fact, over the last 30 years, annual pesticide use has averaged about 0.37 kg or 0.8 lb for every single person every year and 70% of that was applied in just the last 10 years. Doing the sums, if you're 30 years old, your share of pesticide application is more than 11 kg or 24 lb. Let that sink in.
Of course, this huge number is understandable when you realise how indiscriminately pesticides are used.
This glyphosate product for example has been approved for application to wheat crops 6 days before harvest. Think about that, do you really want your grains to have been sprayed with Roundup less than a week before harvest?
Understand too that glyphosate accumulates in grains and cannot be removed by washing, or broken down by cooking. Once it's there, it's there to stay.
This is why Food Standards Australia and New Zealand was able to find glyphosate in several different types of bread, biscuits, crackers and cereals, including infant rice cereal.
Of further concern to mothers is that glyphosates have also been found in breast milk. Now, one interesting area of research currently being pursued is examining the impacts of glyphosate induced altered gut microbial populations on young children.
Basically, clostridium botulinum, a highly pathogenic bacterium, capable of releasing a potent toxin, is highly resistant to glyphosate.
Which basically means glyphosate exposure can increase its abundance. And my understanding is that this bacterium has been associated with sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in at least two studies, with the paucity of further research to investigate this being somewhat puzzling.
And before you carnivores out there get too smug, understand this potentially impacts you too. It's not an uncommon practice to feed cattle on cover crops that have been sprayed with pesticides, both to prepare a field for cropping, and to save on animal feed.
This 2018 study assessed for the presence of glyphosate in various organs and tissues of cattle. Concerningly, glyphosate seem to be fairly evenly distributed throughout the animals. Though this was noticeably lower in cattle fed with organic feed.
And this potentially has implications for whether or not you consume cattle raised in feed lots, being fed crops adulterated with pesticides, or whether you choose grass-fed and finished cattle. As an obvious aside, consuming the grass raised cattle is also going to be clearly better for the environment.
This study also has some significant findings for vegans too. The level of glyphosate measured in the urine was significantly lower in humans consuming predominantly organic foods and further chronic illness was associated with significantly higher levels of urine glyphosate.
While this isn't proof of cause, in my mind it certainly merits further research.
In closing, nutrients from animal foods clearly offer benefit in terms of intelligence over un-supplemented vegan diets which lack key nutrients required to sustain both body and mind.
Secondly, we must be mindful of poor quality research. The findings often being presented as conclusive when this is far from the case.
We ought to be wary of the many unsubstantiated claims demonising red meat such as at lacking vitamins or causing bowel cancer, while also being aware of the environmental consequences of modern industrial agriculture.
Finally, understand there is no such thing as a diet for which nothing has died.