Return to Pasture

by Helen Lobato

Millions of people are at risk of getting cancer unless they slash levels of alcohol and red meat in their diets, medical experts have warned in a landmark study. Meat eating has recently come to be regarded as the purveyor of sickness and death and in its place we have been encouraged to consume more vegetables, grains, fruits and legumes. I feel that there is something wrong with this advice and question whether the problem is in the consumption of meat itself or with the industrial food system that produces it.

One of the arguments proffered by some anti- meat eating advocates is that our primate ancestors were vegetarians and therefore there is no need to eat meat. A popular misconception is that the gorilla diet contains no animal products, however the truth is that all of the great ape groups consume some animal protein, consuming insects, insect eggs and larvae. Jane Goodall’s pioneering work discovered that chimpanzees kill and eat monkeys.

The author of The Stone Age Diet, Walter L.Voegtlin asserts that humans were and are carnivorous animals eating chiefly fats and protein, with only small amounts of carbohydrates. He cites the hunter-gatherers of the North American continent who ate mammoth, camel, sloth, bison, mountain sheep, and other small mammals including the beaver. The Australian Aboriginals hunted large game, birds and fish, and smaller marsupials, such as the wallaby, paddy-melon, bandicoot and kangaroo rat.

According to Stephen Byrnes author of The Myths of Vegetarianism it is simply not possible for our prehistoric ancestors to have been vegetarian because they would not have been able to get enough calories or nutrients to survive on the plant foods that were available. The reason for this is that humans did not know how to cook or control fire at that time and the great majority of plant foods, especially grains and legumes, must be cooked in order to render them edible to humans.

Another way of arguing against meat eating is the ethics of the practice. It is often claimed that the livestock that we eat require the land that could be used to farm grains to feed starving people in Third World countries. Even if a large number of people switched to vegetarianism, and the demand for meat in the United States and Europe fell, the need for grain would skyrocket, but the buying power of poor would not improve.

The fact is that about 2/3 of our Earth's dry land is unsuitable for farming and it is the open range, desert and mountainous areas that are suitable for grazing animals. With the world population steadily growing, many think that we are no longer able to afford animal foods because feeding plant products to animals is an inefficient use of potential human food. It would be more efficient for humans to eat plant products directly rather than to allow animals to convert them to human food but the fact is that over two-thirds of the feed fed to animals consists of substances that are unsuited for humans. Animals are able to convert inedible plant materials to human food, and in the process greatly improve both the quantity and the quality of the human diet.

British farmer and researcher Mark Purdey points out that if "veganic" agricultural systems were to gain a foothold on the soil, then agrochemical use, soil erosion, cash cropping, prairie-scapes and ill health would escalate. This destructive monoculture occurred in ancient Sumeria where once-fertile plains were changed into salt flats when the production of wheat took hold.

Animals contribute much to human wellbeing in the form of healthy food and healthy soils. What is urgently needed is the return of the mixed farm, where cultivation of fruits, vegetables and grains is combined with the raising of livestock in a manner that is efficient, economical and environmentally friendly. For example, chickens running free in garden areas eat insect pests, while providing high-quality eggs; sheep grazing in orchards remove the need for herbicides; and cows grazing in woodlands and other marginal areas provide rich, pure milk.

As has already been stated it is not unusual to hear about how meat eating causes ill health but we need to ask just how healthy are vegetarian and vegan diets? It is typical for vegans and vegetarians in the Western world to rely on various soy products for their protein needs. It is not so long ago that soy was only heard of in Asia and eaten primarily as a condiment, but now there is a huge amount of processed soy products forming an integral part of the vegetarian diet. The traditionally fermented soy foods of miso, tamari, tempeh and natto are definitely healthful in measured amounts, but the modern products of the western soy industry are not. This is because these processed soy products are high in phytic acid which is an anti-nutrient binding to minerals in the digestive tract and carrying them out of the body, causing mineral deficiencies, especially of zinc.

Processed soy foods are also rich in trypsin inhibitors, which hinder protein digestion. Textured vegetable protein (TVP), soy "milk" and soy protein powders, popular vegetarian meat and milk substitutes, are entirely fragmented foods made by treating soybeans with high heat and various alkaline washes to extract the beans' fat content or to neutralize their potent enzyme inhibitors. These practices completely denature the beans' protein content, rendering it very hard to digest. MSG, a neurotoxin, is routinely added to TVP to make it taste like the various foods it imitates.

The practice of feeding Soy-based formula to young children in preference to cows milk should be avoided because of its extremely high phytoestrogen content. Some scientists have estimated a child being fed soy formula is ingesting the hormonal equivalent of five birth control pills a day.

The fear of the "Mad Cow Disease," or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), has added to the belief that meat is unhealthy. Rather than a disease caused primarily by cows eating each other, the blame for BSE lies at the feet of a particular organophosphate insecticide which is applied to the backs of the animals. British organic farmer Mark Purdey theorizes that the organophosphate pesticides got into the cows' fat through a spraying program, and then were ingested by the cows again with the animal part feeding.

One of the vitamins that vegans are likely to lack is vitamin B12. There is a common myth that non-meat eaters can obtain this vitamin through their diets but this is not so unless they also eat milk and eggs. Lack of Vitamin B12 leads to anaemia as well as nervous and digestive system damage.

It also needs to be understood that the body's needs for vitamin A cannot be entirely obtained from plant foods. True vitamin A is only found in animal fats and organs meats. Plants do contain beta-carotene, a substance that the body can convert into vitamin A. This occurs in the presence of bile salts. However very little bile reaches the intestine when a meal is low in fat. It is very unwise, therefore to depend on plant sources for vitamin A whereas butter and full-fat dairy foods, especially from pastured cows, are good vitamin A sources, as is cod liver oil.

Vitamin A is really important for our health as it enables the body to use proteins and minerals, is vital for vision and strengthens our immune systems. Lack of vitamin A prevents reproduction.

There is little data to support the claim that meat eating causes heart disease. For example, the French have one of the highest per capita consumption of meat, yet have low rates of heart disease. In Greece, meat consumption is higher than average but rates of heart disease are low there as well.

The belief that meat, in particular red meat, contributes to cancer is also a popular idea that is not supported by the facts. The study which began the meat equals cancer theory claimed that there was a direct, causal connection between animal fat intake and incidence of colon cancer. However the fats were not animal fats but were vegetable fats. Research has shown that it is processed meats like cold cuts and sausages that are usually implicated in cancer causation and not meat per se. Furthermore, cooking methods seem to play a part in whether or not a meat becomes carcinogenic.

One of the real problems with healthy meat eating in the modern world is the way it is grown. Far from the pre-industrial agricultural days when all cattle grazed on pasture, and chickens roamed and scratched for worms and other insects and pigs were able to smell fresh air, animals are confined in pens and sheds for their entire short lives and are forced to eat processed and unnatural grains.

Since we have transferred the production of our animal foods from farms to factories, the human ill health has risen dramatically. Diseases such as cancer and heart disease were rare when animals grazed on grass and were part of mixed farming. Surely this change in how animals are fed and housed has to be seen as a cause for the upsurge in these diseases? Cows living and feeding on pasture typically live through eight to ten lactations (or births) for a total of ten to 12 years. Cows in confinement, fed grain and soybeans, average 1.8 lactations. Cows in confinement are also fed antibiotics, and other drugs needed to cope with such unnatural conditions.

Soil specialist Jerry Brunetti explains why the way cows are fed today causes them to suffer from a range of health problems. Dairy cows are fed grains and soybeans, which have high caloric and nitrogen values. Sometimes rations even include bakery waste, such as out-of-date donuts, candy and pastries. These foodstuffs upset the delicately balanced ecosystem in the cow's rumen.The colostrum (first milk) of such acidic cows has very few antibodies because they are immunosuppressed. Another serious consequence of grain feeding is that cows on grain absorb lower amounts of fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E, even when these vitamins are added to feed.

Confinement chickens and hogs suffer from the same problems. Antibiotics and other drugs are fed to keep the animals alive until the moment of slaughter and steroids are used to get them to that point as soon as possible. (Athletes consuming meat from hormone treated chickens have actually failed their urine tests for drugs!) So delicate are the immune systems of confinement pigs that workers must shower and don sterile garments and masks before entering the facility.

Grass feeding and mixed farming is the first step toward the restoration of animal and therefore human health, not the avoidance of animal foods.