Wouldn’t a meat-eater taste better than a vegan?

The subject of yesterday’s example on the derogatory use of “ginger”, Jeremy Clarkson, popped up on my radar today with an anti-vegan essay. (He’s apparently basing his attack on a foundation offered by EarthSave.)

The facts it produces, however, are intriguing. Methane, which pours from a cow’s bottom on an industrial scale every few minutes, is 21 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And as a result, farmed animals are doing more damage to the climate than all the world’s transport and power stations put together.

What’s more, demand for beef means more and more of the world’s forests are being chopped down, and more and more pressure is being put on our water supplies.

Plainly, then, EarthSave is encouraging us to go into the countryside at the first possible opportunity and lay waste to anything with more than one stomach. Maybe it wants me to shoot my donkeys. Happily what it’s actually saying is that you can keep your car and your walk-in fridge, but you’ve got to stop eating meat.

In fact you’ve got to stop eating all forms of animal products. No more milk. No more cheese. And if it can be proven that bees fart, then no more honey either. You’ve got to become a vegan.

It’s worthwhile and intellectually honest for both sides to debate the impact of factory farming on land and its consequences. It may be devastating or it may be managable, but this method of food production produces a negative. That is simply not open for debate.

After much gnashing of teeth on how dull and uninteresting a world of only plant foods would be for him, he offers this “tough” question:

There are wider implications, too. Let us imagine that the world decided today to abandon its appetite for sausage rolls, joints of beef and meat-infused Mars bars. What effect would this have on the countryside?

Where now you find fields full of grazing cows and truffling pigs, there would be what exactly?

Going vegan alone will not solve global warming¹. And going vegan without a rational transition period to accommodate the existing animal population and redevelopment of factory farm land into other productive uses would be a mistake. So, while I harbor no fantasies that the world will soon see a mass switch to veganism, I also understand that benefiting from such a miracle wouldn’t be an overnight reality. Not all vegans are “free-range communists and fair trade hippies,” to use Mr. Clarkson’s term.

He then informs us that a much less radical solution may be possible:

So plainly the best thing we can do if we want to save the world, preserve the English countryside and keep on eating meat, is to work out a way that animals can be made to produce less methane.

… We all know that the activity of our bowels is governed by our diet. We know, for instance, that if we have an afternoon meeting with a bunch of top sommeliers in a small windowless room it’s best not to lunch on brussel sprouts and baked beans.

There are more negatives from animal agriculture than just methane, but Mr. Clarkson is actually thinking a little. There may be more than one solution. I have no problem admitting as much because my preferred solution is obviously open to subjective challenge. Working the argument down to a core issue helps.

If only his facts were completely correct:

So if we know – and we do – that diet can be used to regulate the amount of methane coming out of the body, then surely it is not beyond the wit of man to change the diet of farmyard animals.

At the moment, largely, cows eat grass and silage, and as we’ve seen, this is melting the ice caps and killing us all. So they need a new foodstuff: something that is rich in iron, calcium and natural goodness.

He then suggests feeding vegetarians to cows to get those nutrients. I laughed, because it’s a joke. But do you remember his pleasant story about “fields full of grazing cows and truffling pigs”? It’s nice to imagine, especially if we throw in a few rolling hills and a pretty violet sunset. With or without my embellishment, it’s also not generally true. Cows raised in industrial settings generally get less grass and more silage. Their bodies are not designed for the large quantities of grains we feed them to fatten them up and make it easier to raise more cattle in less space. Surely this factors into the debate.

How much will new drugs to reduce methane production help? Even if we can decrease the methane, what would result from actually creating Mr. Clarkson’s idyllic world of cattle grazing in open fields? What happens to the economics of grain and other foods as a result of using land to grow food to raise animals?

Link via Fark, where you can find the usual commentary that not eating animals places you lower on the food chain because animals are ours to do with as we see fit, and besides, humans need protein and that only comes from animals. Oh, and not eating meat means you’re a “sackless nancy” who is also a hypocrite because, come on, we all know that vegans kill many varieties of living beings, like bugs and algae and bacteria. Probably on purpose.

¹ For the sake of this entry, assume global warming is a serious problem that man can halt and reverse.

It’s the lack of protein.

PETA is often absurd and ridiculous, more interested in publicity – no matter how negative the result – than actually furthering its cause. For example:

Citing the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is calling on congressional leaders to give vegetarians a tax break.

In a letter sent Wednesday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), PETA President Ingrid Newkirk stated, “[V]egetarians are responsible for far fewer greenhouse-gas emissions and other kinds of environmental degradation than meat-eaters.”

The letter added that vegetarians should receive a tax break “just as people who purchase a hybrid vehicle enjoy a tax break.”

The flaws are many and obvious, so I won’t bother with them here. What’s important to remember is that, while every member of PETA is a vegan or vegetarian¹, not every vegan and vegetarian is a member of PETA or agrees with its tactics. Assuming that a dietary choice would automatically align someone with a specific group is intellectually shallow. Just so that’s clear, since some commentary doesn’t.

Link via To The People, with additional commentary at Hit & Run.

¹ The vegetarian/vegan debate is sometimes abbreviated to veg*n to include both without the cumbersome use of both words. I don’t know if PETA has any vegetarian employees or activists, or if everyone is vegan. I assume there are a few vegetarians, which is why I included them.

The issue is meddlesome big government.

Here’s an interesting twist on a bad idea, this time from England:

Secret plans to encourage the nation to give up eating meat are being examined by the Government.

A leaked e-mail expresses sympathy for the environmental benefits of a mass switch to a vegan diet – a strict form of vegetarianism which bans [sic!] milk, dairy products and fish.

The change would need to be done “gently” because of a “risk of alienating the public”, according to the document.

The extreme [sic!] policy is being examined on the basis it could make a major contribution to slowing climate change.

Success from this campaign would help, for various reasons. And as a vegan, I’d love such success. People going vegan would help, for various reasons. And as a vegan, I’d love a mass conversion to veganism. I’m not cheering, though, because diet isn’t the government’s business.

But how is this any different than the advocacy we have in the United States, where the government pushes meat and dairy through its ridiculous food pyramid and subsidies for those favored industries?

The majority doesn’t want their tax dollars used to promote my diet. They should understand that I don’t want my tax dollars used to promote their diet. Simply being in the majority does not validate an opinion.

Via Arkanssouri by way of A Stitch in Haste

Update (06/03/07): I’ve struck two sentences that made my aversion to government involvement in promoting specific diets unclear. The new sentences better say what I meant.

Surface Thinking: It’s not just for vegans anymore!

And so the irrational attacks on vegansim continue, this time in the New York Times, courtesy of
Nina Planck, author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why. Consider:

When Crown Shakur died of starvation, he was 6 weeks old and weighed 3.5 pounds. His vegan parents, who fed him mainly soy milk and apple juice, were convicted in Atlanta recently of murder, involuntary manslaughter and cruelty.

This particular calamity — at least the third such conviction of vegan parents in four years — may be largely due to ignorance. But it should prompt frank discussion about nutrition.

As I wrote when this story first appeared earlier this month, was that story about veganism or ignorance? It wouldn’t have mattered if the parents fed their son cow’s milk and chicken broth, such a limited diet still would’ve been inappropriate and insufficient for anyone, much less a six-week-old child. That’s where the story ends. Or should end, if there isn’t an agenda to push. So we get this:

I was once a vegan. But well before I became pregnant, I concluded that a vegan pregnancy was irresponsible. You cannot create and nourish a robust baby merely on foods from plants.

And what support does Ms. Planck offer?

Indigenous cuisines offer clues about what humans, naturally omnivorous, need to survive, reproduce and grow: traditional vegetarian diets, as in India, invariably include dairy and eggs for complete protein, essential fats and vitamins. There are no vegan societies for a simple reason: a vegan diet is not adequate in the long run.

I’m being simple because I don’t realize that people have always done it. That means it’s good. Or I can reiterate something I wrote earlier today and apply it to the last sentence: it sounds correct so it must be correct. It’s a little too simple to say a vegan diet isn’t adequate, so that’s why no vegan societies exist. For example, what about this?

… Cornell University study finds that it is primarily people whose ancestors came from places where dairy herds could be raised safely and economically, such as in Europe, who have developed the ability to digest milk.

Do people from areas where that evolutionary development didn’t occur still need milk?

Ms. Planck provides more incomplete analysis throughout. She often hits upon the correct problem – improper nutrition – while trying to maintain a cohesive narrative against vegansim, even though veganism can provide proper nutrition. When she states that vegans tend to use soy too much in feeding their children because it reduces protein absorption, she blames veganism rather than poor nutritional sources of protein. I could use the same logic she does and end with is fact: cow’s milk can leech calcium and minerals from bones, which is quite different than the desired, advertised result. But I won’t, because relying on such simplicity leads to conclusions like this:

An adult who was well-nourished in utero and in infancy may choose to get by on a vegan diet, but babies are built from protein, calcium, cholesterol and fish oil. Children fed only plants will not get the precious things they need to live and grow.

Cholesterol is a fascinating subject. Vegans never develop high cholesterol because they don’t consume cholesterol in their diet. That would be nice if it were true. It’s not. But it’s equally untrue that vegans have no source of cholesterol. As long as they have a functioning liver and decent nutrition, cholesterol isn’t a problem.

The fish oil nonsense is the winner, though. Pretending that it’s fish oil and not the nutrients in fish oil demonstrates how Ms. Planck whiffed in her argument. Sufficient nutritional intake is the issue. It always has been and always will be, regardless of whether or not we’re discussing veganism. If critics of veganism can demonstrate that proper nutrition isn’t possible, they should do so. Trotting out the stories of a few children who died from ignorant parenting isn’t proof.

Original link via Glenn Reynolds, where he offers this damning indictment against veganism:

I had a girlfriend who was on a vegan diet. She came down with Kwashiorkor. Luckily, the folks at Cornell Student Health diagnosed it quickly, even though it’s a protein-deficiency disease normally found in starving third-world children, because they had seen it so often among women on vegan diets.

Everyone always knows someone. So, let’s see, college-aged adults, surely the most rational, informed people around, eat a diet with insufficient protein, despite all the sources of protein found in nature, and veganism is to blame. Gotcha. Potato chips and lettuce would be a vegan diet, but it’s not a rational vegan diet. Can we please focus on rational and not vegan? Would an omnivore who subsists on chicken tenders and mozzarella face nutritional deficiencies? No, which identifies the true problem here.

Ms. Planck provides sufficient fodder for link goodness. Read her original essay on the irresponsible parents who fed their son soy milk and apple juice. Or read the background information on her New York Times article, offered at her home page, which includes this from a family practitioner she interviewed:

‘… Most breast-fed vegan children will do okay until solids are introduced, as long as the vegan mother is well nourished. Most commonly you see Vitamin B12 and iron deficiencies in vegan children. Vegan families must place close attention to protein sources, calcium, Vitamins D and B12, and iron. Often this can be achieved via fortified foods, but I’ve seen that not all vegan parents want to choose these types of foods. …’

The doctor explicitly states that veganism isn’t dangerous, but poor nutrition is. This is not news. And anecdotal evidence that “not all vegan parents want to choose these types of foods” is different than the claim that veganism is to blame. Do all omnivorous parents choose the types of foods with sufficient nutrition for their children? Maybe I’ll theorize instead that omnivorous parents are lazy because they don’t want to put any thought into nutritional planning for their families, so they just throw a few slabs of meat on the table since the animal most likely got all of its nutrients from plants. I could argue that, and I’d be on roughly the same illogical level as the article Ms. Planck wrote, but I won’t. I have a functioning brain.

Finally, perhaps you’d like to read the description of her book, which portrays the book as more of a polemic against the industrialization of food. I haven’t read the book, but I probably agree with her argument if she’s saying the processed nature of the modern diet is harmful. Again, that’s more about proper nutrition than veganism.

Update (1:47pm): Sherry Colb has an excellent take-down of Ms. Planck’s article, including a legal flaw in Ms. Planck’s use of Crown Shakur’s death to further her anti-vegan message. Thanks to Kip for the link.

Does milk do the brain good?

Find the mistake in this logic defending milk:

We’re pretty darn sure that how much calcium you consume up to a certain age is a key factor in your life-long bone density. More calcium, denser bones, less chance for osteoporosis. All available evidence shows that milk still has a bunch of calcium in it.

Sentence one, no problem. Sentence two, no problem. Sentence three, no problem. But putting them together requires more than those three sentences. Just because milk has a bunch of calcium does not automatically mean it’s effective or efficient at building stronger bones. This is shallow analysis getting a free pass because it’s commonly accepted.

Link courtesy of Veg Blog.

Are we speaking the same language?

I’m always amazed at how little people understand vegetarianism and veganism. Not so much that people don’t grok it to the point of adopting it. I can’t fathom how “consume no flesh” and “consume no animal products” is particularly complicated. Fish is not vegetarian. Chicken is not vegetarian. Cheese is not vegan. These aren’t complicated ideas. Still, the way people persist in being shocked to learn these basic truths demonstrate how little people think about what they eat.

In that context, the journalist charged with telling this story either doesn’t get it, or isn’t thinking about the meaning of the words, only that the word count meets the editor’s need.

Vegetarians who have learned to live without roast beef dinners and bacon sandwiches were yesterday forced to make another major sacrifice: chocolate.

Learned to live without and major sacrifice. Vegetarianism can’t be about choice, because that doesn’t make sense. It must be about willful deprivation.

It came after the makers of Britain’s most popular chocolate bars, including Mars, Snickers, Maltesers and Milky Ways, admitted that they now contain an ingredient derived from a cow’s stomach.

This month, Masterfoods began using animal rennet to produce the whey needed for its products, rather than a vegetarian alternative. Rennet is extracted from the stomach-lining of slaughtered newborn calves, and is used in traditional cheese production in central Europe. In Britain a microbial alternative made from mould is used.

Food manufacturers cheating on their ingredients is nothing new. McDonald’s uses beef and dairy in making its fries. It’s not common sense to think it includes those ingredients. But surprising? No. As long as major chocolate makers include dairy products in their dark chocolate¹, it’s clear how little concern they have for vegetarian/vegan needs.

Here’s the best part, though, courtesy of the journalist:

The admission by Masterfoods presents the country’s three million vegetarians with an ethical dilemma over whether to consume more than 20 best-selling products.

What ethical dilemma? It contains an ingredient derived from an animal’s stomach. That’s not vegetarian.

Paul Goalby, the corporate affairs manager at Masterfoods, told the Mail on Sunday: “Since changing the sourcing of our ingredients we are no longer able to ensure our chocolate will be animal rennet-free. So we made the principled decision to admit it was not guaranteed to be vegetarian. If the customer is an extremely strict vegetarian, then we are sorry the products are no longer suitable.”

They’re admitting it before someone inevitably drags it out. Bravo. That’s an honest move and gives vegetarians full information. But Mr. Goalby fell into the same bizarre non-grasp of what vegetarians choose to eat. He’s off in believing this change only affects the “extremely strict vegetarian”. That term is like saying someone is “a little bit pregnant.” Either you are or you are not.

Link via Fark.

¹ From the Hershey’s website for Special Dark:

Dark chocolate, also known as sweet or semi-sweet chocolate, typically has a higher percentage of cacao solids (cocoa, chocolate liquor and cocoa butter) than milk chocolate.

Well, duh. Dark chocolate shouldn’t have milk. Hershey’s own glossary of chocolate products reflects this. So why does it include milk in Special Dark? I’d guess milk is cheaper than cocoa.

Shallow Fun With Numbers

Andrew Sullivan links to this story and states that the data suggest that vegetarianism is peaking. From the article:

A number of both positive and negative factors have impacted on growth in the vegetarian foods market over the past 7 years (since 1998/1999). …

On the negative side, the number of vegetarians in the population has been in decline since 1999, after peaking in 1997. Nevertheless, continued growth in vegetarian foods sales supports the fact that the market has become more mainstream with maturity, with such foods purchased and eaten by many people who would not describe themselves particularly as being vegetarian. They might see themselves as meat reducers, or might be seeking healthier and more varied diets. Vegetarian foods are claimed to be lower in saturated fat, and contain higher levels of dietary fibre, minerals and vitamins.

Perhaps the data suggest, as a whole, that vegetarianism is decreasing. But is the sales volume of manufactured (i.e. processed) vegetarian foods a sufficient indicator, sans any other data? The sale of a banana is the sale of vegetarian food. The same applies to a cucumber. Even eggs, milk, and yogurt are vegetarian and could be considered applying to the data on vegetarianism. If they’re increasing because people are swapping bacon for eggs at breakfast, that could imply an increase in vegetarianism, or “meat reduction”.

Consider my pattern of grocery purchases. In the past, I’ve relied heavily on manufactured processed vegetarian foods. Over the years I’ve reduced my consumption of those types of foods. Part of that change has been my full evolvement to veganism, but I’ve also focused on consuming less sodium and chemicals necessary to create such processed foods. As such, I purchase more from the corner of the supermarket and less from the middle.

Does this imply that my vegetarianism has decreased because I buy fewer processed vegetarian food than I purchased in the late ’90s? Or is it proof that one data point does not sufficiently represent the market? Again, maybe vegetarianism is in decline. But such a trend, if occurring, can’t be confirmed by this research alone.

Is a balanced diet unnecessary if you eat meat?

There is no need to be specific in placing blame when it’s possible to place guilt by association for those who are unacceptably different.

A Superior Court jury in Atlanta convicted a vegan (VEE-gun) couple of murder and cruelty to children today in the death of their six-week old, who was fed a diet largely consisting of soy milk and apple juice.

Defense lawyers said the first-time parents did the best they could while adhering to the lifestyle of vegans, who typically use no animal products. …

I can accept that veganism is relevant to this story as it pertains to the parents’ approach to feeding their child since the child died of malnutrition. But this child did not die because his parents are vegans. Without a varied diet full of nutrients, a human will die on any diet. Feed a child nothing but shrimp and eggs and he will become malnourished. This is not complicated. These parents were stupid and incompetent. Their son died as a result.

To the reporting, it’s helpful that the reporter included a simple definition¹ of veganism for readers, with a handy-dandy pronunciation guide to go along with it, but veganism expects more than soy milk and apple juice. Anyone capable of stringing two words together should be able to figure this out. Implying that vegans condone such nonsense is irrational.

This story is tragic, of course. A boy is dead who should and could be alive. But the reporting on this story amounts to little more than intellectually lazy voyeurism. “Hey, look at the freaks. This is what happens if you’re a freak. Don’t be a freak.” Please. Try harder or don’t bother.

¹ The word typically makes this definition wrong. Strike it from the sentence.

Catching Up: Food Edition

I didn’t expect to be away for this many days. I’ve been pre-occupied, so Rolling Doughnut has taken the hit. You know the rest, so I’ll just get to a recap of some news items of interest lately.

I first read about proposed changes to chocolate standards via this entry at A Stitch in Haste. From a few days later than the original story Kip linked, the Washington Post summarizes the changes, which would allow “chocolate” to include other vegetable fat in place of cocoa butter and still be called chocolate. (There’s a story in the FDA’s regulation of such, and the politics of this apparently rent-seeking change, of course.) If enacted, this change doesn’t bother me because I like dark chocolate exclusively, even before I limited myself to it through veganism. It simply tastes better. And I care enough to look at ingredients. To the people like me who care, this change will mean little.

For example, it doesn’t harm me as a chocolate lover/buyer if Hershey’s can start calling Whoppers “chocolate”, even though they already contain no cocoa butter. I’m not their customer. I’ll venture a guess that most chocolate buyers don’t have an especially refined palette for the difference. I’m not judging in that; I don’t have a refined palette for many things, so little nuances escape me.

We’re all different. The market for fine chocolate, or real chocolate, will determine how important this change is if it’s implemented. That’s enough. Besides, I’m more up in arms about the fact that companies like Hershey’s advertises its products as “dark” chocolate when it has milk in it.

Next up, following the recent pet food scare, several thousand hogs destined for human consumption appear contaminated with the same chemical (melamine) because they consumed the contaminated pet food. The risk to humans is allegedly small. I don’t eat pork, so I don’t care, mostly. I do find this fascinating:

A maximum of about 300 of the animals may have already entered the human food supply, but the rest of the hogs have been quarantined and are slated to be euthanized, Agriculture Department officials said.

It’s good to know that if animals become tainted, they’ll be euthanized. Humane treatment for the sick is decent. What about the millions of hogs who aren’t sick? Here’s an example showing how hogs are slaughtered. (Warning: Link has graphic pictures.)

Officials emphasized that the human health risks of eating pork from animals fed the contaminated food are very low. The decision to keep those animals off the market — and to reimburse farmers for the losses — was made in the interest of extreme prudence, they said.

If the hogs ate contaminated feed, that sounds like a tort in which whoever bought the tainted feed could sue the feed producer for the damage done to the hogs. Why should the government taxpayers foot the bill for such negligence?

Slow Solutions From Fast Food

So that I show my contradictions on this morning’s post, consider this decision by Burger King:

In what animal welfare advocates are describing as a “historic advance,” Burger King, the world’s second-largest hamburger chain, said yesterday that it would begin buying eggs and pork from suppliers that did not confine their animals in cages and crates.

The company said that it would also favor suppliers of chickens that use gas, or “controlled-atmospheric stunning,” rather than electric shocks to knock birds unconscious before slaughter. It is considered a more humane method, though only a handful of slaughterhouses use it.

The goal for the next few months, Burger King said is for 2 percent of its eggs to be “cage free,” and for 10 percent of its pork to come from farms that allow sows to move around inside pens, rather than being confined to crates. The company said those percentages would rise as more farmers shift to these methods and more competitively priced supplies become available.

This is invariably good. Less animal suffering while they’re alive is the correct action. Welfarist animal policy can promote a valid marginal gain.

But the animals will still die. Does it matter significantly to the chicken that it’s gassed¹ before it dies? Of course it suffers less, but it still dies. And how significant will the change be if we’re talking 2 percent of Burger King’s eggs and 10 percent of its pork? That still leaves 98 percent and 90 percent of animals, respectively, facing the same amount of suffering. Will this be a one-time improvement, or will there be a continual push to reduce the amount of suffering? The answer isn’t clear.

I found the link to this story at the Daily Dish, where Andrew Sullivan wrote this about the decision:

I’m a McDonalds fan, but I’m switching. The more of us do it, the more likely it is that the rest of the food industry will follow Burger King’s lead.

In the past, Mr. Sullivan wrote about the moral implications of using animals for food. He was honest about the qualm he has with how animals are treated, specifically pigs because of their intelligence. Yet he’s also stated that “it should be possible to remain carnivorous and more humane than we currently are.” Now we see the effect of the welfarist approach. How likely is Mr. Sullivan to align² his views and habits further now that he has a way to ease his moral qualm? I’m not suggesting that guilt is appropriate, but there are consequences to providing such moral escape clauses.

I appreciate what the welfarist approach can do. I’m just not overly thrilled at such half-measures. For example, with routine infant circumcision, anything that reduces suffering should be implemented. But I will not cheer increased use of analgesic creams and dorsal blocks, which should be standard even though they are insufficient. The case against routine infant circumcision is not that the child suffers during the surgery and the healing time after. It is important in the debate, but it is not primary. What the child is being denied for the rest of his life, without his consent, is the problem. No amount of compassion diminishes this. The drawbacks of the welfarist argument allows parents to feel better about “their” decision, and consequently think less about the lifelong consequences. Kids will suffer who may not have faced the knife if their parents had been forced to confront the full ramifications of their actions.

Positive changes are useful and should not be abandoned solely because the results won’t live up the hope. They’re just not enough and should be seen as incomplete.

¹ If you eat that chicken, wouldn’t you then eat some of that gas? Consider this article titled Beef diet ‘damages sons’ sperm’ discussing the impact of pregnant women eating beef raised with “growth promoting chemicals”. (Link via Julian Sanchez.)

² I’m not trying to pick on Mr. Sullivan on this. This rationale is not exclusive to him, nor am I perfect in this in the ways it applies to my life.