A few vegan proponents crossed a line this week as some issued death threats to the owners of Cafe Gratitude. For people claiming to value all sentient animals, the alleged threats expose a lapse in critical thinking. The controversy also exposes a frank hypocrisy cloaked in the increasingly shrill rhetoric regarding plant based diets.
Plant based eating originally aimed to increase intake of fruits and vegetables, a laudable goal considering the national average holds steady at just over one serving a day for vegetables (and that’s including potatoes), and just less than one serving a day for fruit.
However, more recently proponents promote plant based eating with a not so hidden agenda. Too often “plant based” is merely code for a vegetarian or a vegan diet.
PLANT BASED EATING HIJACKED BY VEGETARIANS
Plant based eating advocates cite everything from personal health to the environment and climate change to elevate their cause. Evangelical vegans lean into the medical community for validation, and they get it.
The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine states that “The vegetarian diet is the optimal way to meet your nutritional needs”, and offer a 21 day vegan kick start support.
The more studied and thoughtful Health Care Without Harm also presses for more plant based foods, more vegetarian food options, and eating a lot less meat though their Healthy Food in Health Care Program. They anchor their position by quoting the UN Food and Agriculture Organization report that claims 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions are directly linked to beef and dairy production.
Nicolette Hahn Niman, a former environmental lawyer, rancher, vegetarian, and author of Defending Beef, challenges this figure, and currently the United Nations Environment Program pegs greenhouse gas emissions at 13% for all of agriculture.
HOW WE GROW FOOD MATTERS
I’m mostly encouraged by the Healthy Food in Health Care effort. I appreciate the push for more locally sourced foods and stepping outside the conventional food supply to offer more organic produce as well as grass fed, pastured and cage free animals products. The report spares no one and pinpoints the great metabolic and environmental harm from chemically intensive agriculture and the industrialized food supply.
However, the program encourages participating hospitals to use a variety of methods to serve less meat, as well as no meat, as if even grass fed meat inherently contributes to environmental and metabolic harm. The lead authors hold positions with the San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility, a advocacy group pressing for greater emphasis on plant foods and more vegetarian options in hospitals.
A 2013 evaluation of participating hospitals in California outlines key parameters of the program and reports the following:
- Offer at least one protein-balanced vegetarian or vegan menu option at each meal for patients and in cafeteria (24/33)
- Cafeteria menu is meat-free one day per week (9/33)
- Patient menu is meat-free one day per week (6/33)
- Reduce portion sizes of meat and poultry offered in patient and cafeteria meals (12/33)
- 50% or more of daily meals served are vegetarian or vegan (3/33)
THE COWS WILL SAVE US
From this report, you would never know that eating meat does not necessarily negatively impact health. You would not appreciate that some individuals actually need more protein to achieve metabolic health. You also wouldn’t suspect that vegans showed higher incidence of cancer, allergies and poor mental health in a study matching vegetarians with meat eaters who also eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
You would never imagine that effectively managed grazing animals actually help sequester carbon and improve soil ecology. Grazing animals enhance water retention and flow, protect against drought, and reverse desertification. Proponents of holistic management tell us that returning animals to the grasslands instead of fattening them in confined agricultural feeding operations (CAFOs) can reverse climate change.
GROWING ALL THAT GENETICALLY MODIFIED SOY HARMS THE PLANET
Conversely, agriculture ranks as one of the most environmentally damaging activities on the planet, especially mono-crop agriculture subsidized by the USDA. Corn, soy, and wheat feed omnivores, vegetarians and vegans alike.
All that plant food, especially genetically modified soy used extensively in pseudo meat products, presents unique challenges for vegetarians. Glyphosate, the most pervasively used herbicide in America, holds a patent as an antimicrobial agent and kills off the very microbial and fungal networks in soil responsible for carbon sequestration.
To make matters worse, the FDA and USDA conveniently decided not to measure glyphosate residue in food during the last 10 years, so we know little about it’s impact on our own gut microbes. During this time the EPA has allowed glyphosate to be sprayed directly onto crops as a “harvest aid”.
COWS OR CROPS: WHAT CAUSES MORE HARM?
Vegans often focus on the welfare of cows. However, many wonder if they ever consider all the other animals killed in the process of growing crops used to produce their food. Matthew Englehart, a former vegan/vegetarian and owner of Cafe Gratitude, learned the the hard way when establishing his own organic farm. In the LAist article linked above he states, “Agriculture is most violent destructive force on the planet. It has caused the extinction of more species then any other activity.”
Maybe vegans and especially organizations leveraging science based principles should rethink their strategy. Is it really a good idea to press for less meat or a meatless diet for all?
Regenerative agriculture honors how nature really works. All living things– microbes, plants and animals– dynamically recycle nutrients. Nature gets the science right.
Ultimately, we need the animals whether we eat them or not. Consumers eating better meat and dairy ensure grazing animals will save the planet. Vegans can do other good works.