Ethical omnivores and vegans share many ideas and desire some of the same outcomes. For example, we are all concerned with achieving health through a fair and sustainable lifestyle, we stand for good treatment of animals, and campaign against animal factory farming.

One important area where we differ is that ethical omnivorism is evidence-based, whereas the basis of the vegan movement is ideological. Ethical omnivores don’t subscribe to a belief system, rather we base our choices on observation, careful thought, human evolution, and the latest science.

There is another important distinction between following a plant-based diet and being a vegan. A person may choose to consume no animal products whatsoever (i.e. plant-based) for a number of reasons, but veganism goes much further, insisting on a rigid belief system.

The ethical omnivore movement has no problem with people choosing a plant-based lifestyle, if it works for them. Unlike vegans, we do not believe we have the right to tell anyone what they should or not should not do.

We do, however, take issue with the vegan movement on many of its fundamental claims. We believe that, far from being the ideal solution for the serious challenges humanity face, veganism is actually a misleading and often dangerous dogma.

  1. Is Veganism better for the environment?
  2. Is Veganism better for health?
  3. Is Veganism better for animals?

Is Veganism Better for the Environment?

As with many headline claims, there is some truth here, but that does not make the claim true. The typical plant-based diet has a slightly lower negative environmental impact than the typical omnivore diet. However, that does not mean that eating plant-based is the best or optimal diet.

Not only can farming animals be sustainable, it can actually be a powerful tool for regenerating many types of environment. The key is how the animals are managed. Done right, keeping animals, whether for meat, eggs, and dairy, can build topsoil, increase biodiversity, store atmospheric carbon in the ground, and even protect against drought and floods.

Good vs. Bad Livestock Management

It is extremely important to differentiate between positive and negative methods of managing livestock.

Negative livestock refers to modern factory farming, which treats animals as nothing more than stock units with no value other than profit. Ethical omnivores despise and campaign against the factory farming of animals, because it is worse for the animals themselves, worse for our health, and damaging to the environment.

In these systems, animals are bred to become “productive” as rapidly as possible, often kept in cramped and unnatural conditions (e.g. poultry kept indoors in huge sheds or cattle in feedlots), given the cheapest possible feed, routinely given antibiotics (because they’re kept in unhealthy environments), transported over long distances, and slaughtered using the cheapest methods that can cause great distress.

CAFO image from WikipediaThe CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) is the result of a food system that values profit above environmental and ethical concerns. In these operations, thousands of animals are held in small spaces with no access to grass, and fattened up as rapidly as possible. The unhealthy conditions mean disease can spread easily, so confined animals are often given antibiotics routinely.

The environmental costs of factory farming are considerable. Because animals are kept together in large numbers and not in natural environments, they are not eating their natural range of food, and the fodder they are given must be transported to these central locations.

In addition, instead of being immediately returned to the land as nature’s ideal fertilizer, the animals’ waste must be dealt with somehow. Only in 2018, in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, huge lagoons of pig waste in North Carolina overflowed, causing significant health risks.

It is very important not to judge all animal agriculture by its lowest standards. To do so is either ignorant or intellectually dishonest. Unfortunately, many reports and studies that look at the environmental impact of our food systems make the mistake of taking only averages instead of the best possible solutions.

Is Animal Agriculture Bad For the Environment?

While is can be, it does not have to be, and it is very easy to see how with a little thought experiment.

Just about every area of land has hosted large herbivores for millions of years, from bison to antelopes to mammoths. Over that time, the world has built life-giving soil and an abundant variety of living organisms. If animals were damaging to environments, nature would have developed without them.

In fact, large animals play extremely important roles in nature’s systems. They fertilize areas by moving nutrients around, including uphill from naturally more fertile valleys to higher areas. They also stimulate plants to grow and accelerate the decomposition of dead plant matter.

If the human race is going to find ways of feeding 8 billion or more hungry mouths in a sustainable way, surely we should look first to what already works sustainably, and that means looking to nature’s existing models.

But Don’t Cows Create Lots of Greenhouse Gases?

It is true that ruminants, especially cattle, belch a significant amount of methane into the air. Methane is known to be a powerful greenhouse gas. However, this is not a significant factor in climate change.

We can use the same high-level thinking as before… If there are similar numbers of ruminants on the planet today as in the past (which is very likely), then if they caused climate change with their burps, that would have happened in the past, probably causing the large animals to be wiped out. Clearly that has not happened.

There are another key factor that could mitigate any effect of cattle’s methane production.

When cattle and other grazing animals eat grasses and leaves, this stimulates the plants to grow more vigorously, which pulls more carbon dioxide from the air.

Grasses in particular can convert a considerable amount of atmospheric carbon into stable carbon in the soil, because they push organic sugars out through their roots to attract and feed beneficial microorganisms that in turn help make available nutrients that the plant needs.

Perennial grasses on prairies, savanna, and hillsides all over the world can put root systems down several metres into the ground, which means they can store a lot of carbon. When animals graze on this grass, provided the plant is not eaten all the way to the ground, the grass is stimulated to grow back rapidly, which maximizes the carbon-storing activity.

Many scientists believe that – far from accelerating global warming – this system of using grazing animals to turn atmospheric CO2 into soil could be the best tool we have at our disposal for actually reversing the effects of climate change.

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What’s Really Causing Climate Change?

There are several things we know have contributed to the present environmental red-alert situation.

Humanity has burned a huge amount of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas, peat) over the past 250 years since the start of the Industrial Revolution. We have also cut down a lot of the world’s forests, releasing more CO2 into the air and removing trees that could help to convert it back into oxygen through photosynthesis.

However, there is another major factor that few people know about, which is agriculture.

Simply, whenever soil is plowed, the organic matter in the soil is exposed to the air, which causes some of the carbon to oxidize into CO2. Soil organic matter (mainly carbon) is important for supporting fertility, biodiversity, and also for storing water.

Humans have been plowing for thousands of years, and it is likely that, over its history, human agriculture has released a similar amount of carbon into the atmosphere as all the extra CO2 added in recent centuries by burning fossil fuels.

The problem is that, because the process is much slower, it is hard to notice the loss of organic matter from one generation to the next. As a result, humanity has been locked in a pattern of turning fertile lands into deserts, and then moving on to the next area.

Consider that the area known historically as the Fertile Crescent (“the cradle of civilization”) now stretches from Egypt to Iraq, now primarily desert areas! We also know that the Roman Empire used to source much of its food from North Africa, which means it is likely that the Romans actually created the Sahara Desert from what was once fertile land.

With the invention of bigger and more powerful farm machinery, we can now plow much bigger areas more easily, and plow more deeply, which could convert soil carbon into CO2 faster than ever.

However, there are methods of farming that do not depend on the plow. On smaller scales, the family farms that currently provide 70% of the world’s food can most easily use no-till techniques. There is also a lot of research and experimentation happening in adapting no-till to larger, mechanized farming models.

Mixed farming is another exciting area of research. Farming practices in many areas of the world traditionally used animals together with crops, simply because it can be extremely efficient. Animals can help clear weeds and crop residues from land, fertilizing as they go, converting unusable matter into healthy and valuable food, and leaving the soil more fertile, without the need for artificial inputs.

To conclude, while intensive factory farming of animals is clearly unsustainable, raising animals outdoors on pasture or in a mixed farming system can actually have a positive ecological impact. The vegan argument that “animal farming is destroying the planet” is a falsehood.

What’s more, any food in any diet that either comes from “conventional” (industrial) agriculture or has been transported thousands of miles to get to our table, that’s a model that cannot be sustainable. A sustainable future must be centered on a return to more local farming.

We are not saying there is anything wrong with an organic, locally-sourced, 100% plant-based diet. If that works for you as an individual (see section on health below), that’s great!

The reality is that an omnivorous diet, when sourced using the best methods, can be just as sustainable – or even more sustainable – than a plant-based, organic one.

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Is Veganism Better for Health?

There are a lot of headlines shared about the dangers of eating meat, fish, dairy, and how we would all be healthier and live longer on a diet free from any animal products. But what are the facts?

Our “About” page has facts about meat, eggs, cholesterol, and fish, so we wont’ repeat that here.

So how healthy is a diet that doesn’t include any of those things?

The truth is, nobody knows for sure, because not enough studies have been done on enough people over long enough time. We do know that some people seem to do well on a totally plant-based diet, and we know that many others really do not. The reasons for the variation between different groups are likely genetic.

For example, we now know that some humans evolved in such a way that the gene that allows us to digest lactose in milk remains active (lactase persistence), instead of switching itself off after weaning. That explains why some people can tolerate lactose while others react to it. It is likely that each one of us could respond differently to various foodstuffs. (That’s why ethical omnivores avoid telling any individual what they should or shouldn’t eat: it’s always down to person listening to their own body.)

On the plant side, there is a lot of scientific evidence around reactions to various plant-based foods, including:

  • Nightshade family (potatoes, peppers, etc.)
  • Beans and pulses
  • Wheat and other cereals
  • Nuts

Some plants have built-in natural defences, which can interfere with our biological processes if we don’t have a way to deal with it. Many plants need to be cooked or prepared in a special way in order for them to be palatable.

It is an undeniable fact that many people are unable to get nutrition from various types of plant-based foods, while others have no problem at all. There are some who are unable to maintain good health eating any kind of plant matter (check out Mikhaila Peterson’s story for just one example).

So nobody can truthfully claim that a totally plant-based diet is suitable for all humans.

Another serious issue with the vegan diet is that, despite claims to the contrary, it does not contain the full range of nutrients that everyone’s body needs, including…

  • vitamin B-12,
  • vitamin A (in its complete form),
  • vitamin D,
  • DHA (an essential fatty acid),
  • creatine,
  • and heme-iron.

That means that (nearly?) all vegans can only maintain optimal health through the use of supplements such as B-12 derived from algae. Vegans also struggle to get enough calcium and iodine.

This is a situation that would be practically impossible to maintain without advanced modern technology and commerce, which is why no vegan indigenous tribe has ever been discovered.

There are several health problems that frequently occur with people following veganism over a sustained period, including: lower bone density leading to higher risk of fractureshair loss, joint pain, tooth decay, and more.

A diet with no animal products can be particularly dangerous for babies and small children, and there have been numerous cases of vegan parents being convicted of cruelty or neglect after forcing the diet on their own kids.

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To conclude, it is absolutely false that everybody could thrive or even survive on a vegan diet. Some people may benefit from it as a short-term cleanse (if it encourages them to eat more raw and organic food), while only a minority can maintain full health over the longer term.


Is Veganism Better for Animals?

One of the core ethical questions about diet is this: Is it better for animals to be kept by humans for food and other products?

Clearly, humans are guilty of a lot of animal cruelty, which is despicable. But is the answer to that to stop keeping animals at all?

Ethical omnivores believe that the world should be full of animals, and that it is natural, healthy, and ethical for humans to farm animals – provided it is done the right way. We are 100% against factory and battery farming, keeping animals in cages, and the various cruel practices that go on every day around the world, and campaign for the highest standards of welfare.

We believe that, when done appropriately, farm animals and people live in a symbiotic relationship, where we all benefit. Humans obviously get the food from meat, eggs, etcetera. But what do the animals get? Well, they get a similar deal as a family pet does: shelter, a supply of food, veterinary care, and (hopefully) a quick and stress-free death at the end.

The fact is this: the life and death that a typical farm animal experiences is almost certainly far preferable to a life of a wild animal, facing the stress of predation, competition, fighting, and the risk of parasites and disease, leading to unpleasant deaths in nearly all cases.

The first problem with the vegan vision is: if we stopped farming animals, no animals would be “saved”. Not one. Yes, many would be saved from cruel conditions, but no lives would actually be saved, because every single living thing dies.

And what would become of farm animals if the world suddenly went vegan overnight (or even gradually)? Some vegans will argue that farm animals would be kept in sanctuaries to live out their days. However, those animals would have to be prevented from breeding, otherwise we would get more animals, which would in turn need to be fed and cared for. One conclusion would be that most breeds would either go extinct, or else just remain in small numbers in parks or zoos.

An alternative vegan vision that is sometimes offered is “rewilding”, the idea that, if we didn’t use such large areas of land for animal agriculture, we could tear down all the fences and let the animals go free to live their lives according to their nature. This is a nice romantic ideal, but totally impractical in reality. It could only actually work if the areas were still fenced in (think national parks), which means animals are still in captivity, but in bigger areas.

Another serious problem is the lack of predators. Humans have dramatically reduced the populations of predators big enough to kill farm animals: foxes, wolves, bears, etc. Without predators, we know that herds of animals will overbreed and actually destroy local environments by browsing only their preferred food. We only need to look at the terrible consequences of the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands:

If we have large animals, we have to have predators. Predators keep herds healthy by removing their weaker members, and also keep herds moving in compact groups. That, in turn, has been shown to build soil and move nutrients across large areas.

Without natural predators, and with most land on Earth under human management, it means we must either take up the position of predator in the food chain, or condemn large animals to extinction. Considering that human beings are the only known predator that care about the distress and suffering of its prey, our best option is to continue to live alongside cattle, deer, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, and all the other animals we have lived with for millennia, but to commit to giving them the best lives, the best health, and the kindest ends we can.

To conclude, there is no coherent alternative vegan vision for the world that actually promises a better deal for animals, only extinction.

(Top banner image credit Takver on Flickr)