Why This Pig Farmer Loves the Idea of a Plant-Based Diet

Chris Newman
Mar 6, 2019 · 19 min read
Image for post
Image for post

EAT-Lancet Seeks to Frame a Healthy Baseline Diet within the bounds of the ecologically possible

If you vaguely recall news headlines about an environmentally sustainable diet that recommends eating one hamburger a week, one steak a month, or two eggs a week… then what you’re recalling is the EAT-Lancet commission report:

It’s a long, semi-dense, and sweeping report that touches on everything from natural resource tolerances to tax policy to epidemiology, but it’s to be expected that diet-obsessed Americans immediately zeroed in on the core artifact of the report: its “Healthy Reference Diet” (HRD) — a baseline catalog of various food types and the amounts of each that could be consumed in a healthy and sustainable diet.

The HRD recommends about 66 lbs of meat and poultry per person per year, whereas the average American today consumes 222 lbs per year. Facing the supposed need to reduce our meat intake by 75% to avert planetary catastrophe, we as a society proceeded to lose our collective mind.

The Response

Image for post
Image for post

There’s a widely-held and pernicious belief among graziers — producers of things like grass-fed beef and forest-fed pork (full disclosure: I am one)— that CAFO agriculture is the singular root of all evil in the world of animal agriculture. If people simply valued food more and graziers like us replaced the feedlots of the world, solutions to environmental and health problems posed by animal agriculture would flow naturally.

Unfortunately, even the kind of production I engage in can’t scale to meet even a fraction of the globally skyrocketing demand for meat:

  • There isn’t enough potable water in the world available for the numbers of grass-fed cattle/pork/lamb/chicken/etc. required to feed to world’s projected population in 2050 at even a slice of what we consume in this country.
  • If an appreciable fraction of the finishing beeves of world’s feedlots were turned back onto grass, there wouldn’t be enough grass, even in marginal areas.
  • Same goes for pork: turn them out of the hog houses of Carolina and into the woods in the numbers required to meet current and global projected demand, it’s very likely that they would obliterate the forests even under careful management.
  • Graziers do not want to stare down an economic future where any noticeable percentage of the CAFO herd is turned to grass finishing: prices would go through the floor and shrink margins to a razor’s edge, requiring the amounts of volume that only vertically integrated behemoths like Smithfield can produce.

TLDR; “sustainable” meat can’t scale to global demand, and even if it could, it would mean the end of small, independent outfits like mine, Polyface, etc.

Nevertheless, the common refrain among my cohort is “encourage people to eat good meat, not less meat,” without any serious thought about the huge knot of social/environmental/economic problems coupled to that mantra. It’s the kind of statement that cringeworthy documentaries like Cowspiracy sink their vegan teeth into to “prove” that all meat is evil, no matter how it’s produced.

We’re throwing hostile reactions at the report out of fear that it’s going to turn our customers against our products. And in so doing, we’re committing the same cardinal sin as CAFO operators in prioritizing the preservation of short-term market share over an honest look at the systemic consequences of our methods, and our long-term viability.

But the most forceful pushback I’ve seen against EAT-Lancet came, surprisingly, from a Harvard-trained psychiatrist writing in Psychology Today. In it, Dr. Georgia Ede waxes apoplectic about the report, offering a nearly libelous ten-point takeaway that entirely ignores the commission’s mandate to develop a Healthy Reference Diet within the bounds of what is ecologically possible as the global population marches toward 9 billion souls.

I’ll address each of her points briefly in turn, using her own section titles as headers.

Image for post
Image for post
Oh. (source: DietDoctor.com)

1. Nutrition epidemiology = mythology

EAT-Lancet cites nutrition epidemiology studies quite a lot. These are observational studies of how dietary habits correlate with health outcomes; the operative word being correlate. Dr. Ede spends this section of her essay accusing the EAT-Lancet report of asserting causal relationships between things (e.g. red meat consumption and diabetes) rather than correlative ones, which the report absolutely doesn’t. The report is very careful to say things like “X is associated with Y” or “X is correlated with Y” rather than concluding (falsely) that “X causes Y”. There’s no way she didn’t notice this.

2. Red meat causes heart disease, diabetes, cancer… and spontaneous combustion

This is a strained extension of her first point — taking issue with EAT-Lancet describing the positive correlation between red meat consumption and non-communicable ailments like heart disease.

She also directly contradicts her assertion that the report amounts to a breathless vegan assault on meat when she points out the report’s nuanced and contextually-aware positions on animal protein, such as the one it makes clear in this quote:

[In sub-Saharan Africa] …growing children often do not obtain adequate quantities of nutrients from plant source foods alone…promotion of animal source foods for children, including livestock products, can improve dietary quality, micronutrient intake, nutrient status, and overall health.” [page 10]

There are several instances where she’ll make some point about the report, then cite something from the report that contradicts that point. Instead of simply realizing that her point is wrong… she instead suggests that the commissioners don’t know what’s in their own report.

3. Protein is essential… but cancerous

This… is just number 1 again, with Dr. Ede taking exception to this excerpt from the report:

Protein quality (defined by effect on growth rate) reflects the amino acid composition of the food source, and animal sources of protein are of higher quality than most plant sources. High-quality protein is particularly important for growth of infants and young children, and possibly in older people losing muscle mass in later life. However, a mix of amino acids that maximally stimulate cell replication and growth might not be optimal throughout most of adult life because rapid cell replication can increase cancer risk.

Her response:

Translation: Complete proteins are bad because they cause cancer.

That’s absolutely not what’s being said here, and she knows it.

4. Omega-3s are essential… good luck with that

This may be Dr. Ede’s most blatant mischaracterization of the report, whose authors spend several paragraphs all but begging people to eat fish for Omega-3 fatty acids. The Healthy Reference Diet allows a person up to a whopping 46 lbs of fish per year (since it’s interchangeable with poultry), nearly four times the amount of fish that the average American consumes today.

But because the report dares to briefly mention that plant sources may, with a great degree of uncertainty, serve as an alternative, Dr. Ede becomes unhinged, bizarrely quoting the very first and very last sentence of the entire discussion on Omega-3s…

Fish has a high content of omega-3 fatty acids, which have many essential roles […] Plant sources of alpha-linolenic acid [ALA] can provide an alternative to omega-3 fatty acids, but the quantity required is not clear.

… burying the rest of the text within ellipsis to gloss over this statement from the report (emphasis mine)…

The degree to which omega-3 fatty acids from plant sources can substitute omega-3 fatty acids from fish for other health outcomes is important to determine because plant sources are more widely available.

… so that she can then plagiarize it in her own statement…

The elephant in the room here is that all omega-3s are not created equal. Only animal foods (and algae, which is neither a plant nor an animal) contain the forms of omega-3s our bodies use: EPA and DHA. Plants only contain ALA, which is extremely difficult for our cells to convert into EPA and DHA. According to this 2018 review, we transform anywhere between 0% and 9% of the ALA we consume into the DHA our cells require.

… and accuse the report’s authors of being dangerously irresponsible (by making a strawman argument that the Healthy Reference Diet is a vegan diet)…

Instead of being vague, why not responsibly warn people that trying to obtain omega-3 fatty acids from plants alone may place their health at risk?

… in spite of her own dubious practice of eating a plant-free keto diet and recommending keto diets to children with ADHD and Autism, with nary a warning of the potential risks of doing so.

5. Vitamins and minerals are essential… so take supplements

Here Dr. Ede is complaining that EAT-Lancet is recommending supplements, moments after chastising it for precisely the opposite. A torrent of misleading statements and (even more) strawman arguments begins with:

The drumbeat heard throughout the report is that animal foods are dangerous and that a vegan diet is the holy grail of health, yet EAT-Lancet commissioners repeatedly find themselves in the awkward position of having to acknowledge the nutritional superiority of the very animal foods they recommend avoiding

I read the entire EAT-Lancet report, and not once does it recommend a vegan diet. It simply recommends eating sane amounts of meat — mostly fish and poultry — and allows for no meat, if you so choose.

The remainder of this section is a long screed devoted to 1.) continued false claims that EAT-Lancet wants everyone to be vegan, and 2.) blatant disregard for environmental sustainability being a constraint in the commission’s recommendations.

That second point is why, for example, the commission suggests multivitamins instead of chicken or duck liver (as Dr. Ede does) for menstruating women in need of a mineral boost when at risk of iron deficiency: solving health problems with meat grown on the hoof DOES. NOT. SCALE.

Dr. Ede, in fact, doesn’t mention sustainability or agriculture or animal husbandry at all, save for token mentions in the intro to and conclusion of her essay, and approaches the Healthy Reference Diet under the convenient and fundamentally damnable presumption of infinite ecological abundance.

6. Making up numbers is fun and easy

Dr Ede asks:

How did the commissioners arrive at the recommended quantities of foods we should eat per day… 7 grams of this, 31 grams of that? Numbers like these imply that something’s been precisely measured, but in many cases, it’s plain that they simply pulled a number out of thin air

She cites in particular the HRD’s range of 0–58g of poultry per day, asking further…

Nowhere do they say that poultry is associated with any negative health outcomes, so why limit it to a maximum of 58 grams (2 ounces) per day?

… once again, completely ignoring the fact that the upper limits on consumption of fish and poultry are imposed by ecological constraints.

It’s telling that 100% of Dr. Ede’s citations come from the first 14 pages of the report — the part that addresses human health — and dares not step beyond that into the much more difficult discussion of the environmental impact of people eating 200+ lbs of meat, poultry, and fish per person, annually.

A good point is nearly made here:

If they are this uncertain about the details, how can they in good conscience prescribe such specific quantities of food? Why not say they don’t know? Most people will not read this report — they will interpret the values in this table as medical advice.

Here she is referring to the report’s discussion of the uncertainty and boundary conditions surrounding the recommendations in the HRD. That uncertainty comes from the interplay of incredibly complicated dynamic systems like agriculture, ecology, and food consumption patterns being very difficult to model with surgical precision.

I agree that it may have been better for the HRD to publish ranges of consumption instead of specific amounts, because Dr. Ede is right: most people will not read the report. They will instead rely on experts, many of whom, like Dr. Ede, will deliberately misrepresent it as specific medical advice and vegan proselytizing.

7. Epidemiology is gospel… unless we don’t like the results

Dr. Ede becomes upset when EAT-Lancet advocates eating less than all the meat you possibly can without hurting yourself. She takes this quote from the report…

“in large prospective [epidemiological] studies, high consumption of eggs, up to one a day, has not been associated with increased risk of heart disease, except in people with diabetes.

“However, in low-income countries, replacing calories from a staple starchy food with an egg can substantially improve the nutritional quality of a child’s diet and reduce stunting. [randomized clinical trial]

“We have used an intake of eggs at about 13 g/day, or about 1.5 eggs per week, for the reference diet, but higher intake might be beneficial for low-income populations with poor dietary quality.” [page 11]

… and complains…

Why recommend only 1.5 eggs per week when epidemiological studies found that 1 egg per day was perfectly fine?

… betraying for at least the fourth time the fact that she either didn’t read or didn’t understand the entire second half of the commission’s report, where the production (and, therefore, consumption) of animal proteins are limited by the ecologically possible.

Then there’s this little tidbit from the good doctor:

There is a remarkable paragraph on page 9 (too long to quote here) arguing that red meat was found to increase the risk of death in epidemiological studies conducted in Europe and the USA, but not in Asia, where red meat (mainly pork) was associated with a decreased risk of death. Rather than grappling with this seeming contradiction, the Commission simply dismisses the Asian findings as invalid, wondering if perhaps Asian countries haven’t been rich long enough for the risk to show up yet.

Too long to quote here? The relevant passages are pretty concise, so allow me to quote them for her:

“The authors [of the study] noted that the findings [of red meat being associated with a decreased risk of death] could be due to confounding factors because meat might be more available to individuals of high socioeconomic status, who have better health overall…

Because many Asian countries have only recently become affluent… current red meat intake does not reflect long-term intakes; like for smoking, many decades are needed to show the full health consequences of high consumption.”

The commission didn’t dismiss the Asian findings, they simply reported what the authors of the original study noted as confounding factors that might explain the outlier. Then they used the example of smoking to demonstrate why that note might be valid.

At this point, Dr. Ede is flat-out lying, and relying on you not reading the report.

8. Everyone should eat a vegan diet, except for most people

She begins:

Although their diet plan is intended for all “generally healthy individuals aged two years and older,” the authors admit it falls short of providing proper nutrition for growing children, adolescent girls, pregnant women, aging adults, the malnourished, and the impoverished — and that even those not within these special categories will need to take supplements to meet their basic requirements.

The HRD is not intended to be followed strictly to the letter, as the reports authors repeat multiple times. But Dr. Ede is trying to convince you that it is in order to stoke your outrage. The word “reference” is included in Healthy Reference Diet for a reason: it’s a reference point from which to tailor a diet that’s both healthy for your particular situation and ecologically plausible.

As the report states…

These elements of a healthy diet allow great flexibility because they are compatible with a wide variety of foods, agricultural systems, cultural traditions, and individual dietary preferences. These elements can be combined in various types of omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan diets.

The rest of this section is rounded out with:

  • Complaints about high carbohydrate diets being incompatible with metabolically unhealthy Americans, which would be a fair point if she wasn’t basing the complaint on…
  • False assertions that 60% of total calories are to be derived from whole grains (the diet says whole grains can comprise 0–60% of energy calories, which is 1.) not the same as total calories, and 2.) not necessarily 60%)
  • Patently ignoring that this “high carb” diet recommends about 500g/day of whole grain/fruit/sweetener-derived carbs compared to 811g/day of vegetables, legumes, meat, dairy, eggs, nuts, and even goddamn lard.

Basically, these are the ravings of a plant-free keto fanatic who sees one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world publishing a report that could kick her right in the wallet. Which bring us to her next point…

9. Pay no attention to the money behind the curtain

Of course we had to go here. In her ninth act, Dr. Ede accuses one of the 37 scientists — Walter Willet — on the commission of having conflicts of interest by linking to a Scribd post uploaded by The Nutrition Coalition. The post outlines a series of conflicts that are remarkably analogous to Dr. Ede’s:

  • Willet advocates a vegetarian diet, including little to no red meat. Dr. Ede, on the other hand, advocates a keto diet and consumes no plants.
  • Willett is an Advisor or Scientific Advisor to at least 7 groups/commercial enterprises that promote high-grain, vegetarian diets. Dr. Ede, on the other hand, serves as a paid contributor and medical reviewer to DietDoctor.com, which promotes the benefits of Keto diets. She also gives paid speeches on low-carb nutrition and diets.

We could go on and on with this silliness. And we will. Dr. Ede continues:

The EAT Foundation, which collaborated with The Lancet to produce this report, was founded by Norwegian billionaire and animal rights activist Gunhild Stordalen. EAT recently helped to launch “FReSH” (Food Reform for Sustainability and Health), a global partnership of about 40 corporations, including Barilla (pasta), Unilever (meat alternatives and vegetable oils), Kellogg’s (cereals) and Pepsico (sugary beverages). Make of this what you will.

Gunhild Stordalen is less fanatic about vegetarian diets than Dr. Ede is about Keto diets. Barilla produces lots of products that contain meat, including meat sauces to accompany its pastas. Unilever, like Perdue, is invested in both meat and meat alternatives; they are not trying to put themselves out of business. As for Kellogg’s and Pepsi… soda and breakfast cereal don’t compete with steak for a piece of the American stomach.

“Make of this what you will” = Dr. Ede throwing poop at the wall and walking away, hoping it’ll stick.

10. No to choices, yes to taxes?

EAT-Lancet recognizes the reality that we are very quickly running out of time to make the changes necessary to stem the worst effects of climate change and ecologically extractive agriculture. The notion that public policy — which includes tax policy — may be necessary to guide behavior is something the report is willing to explore.

Dr. Ede, however, predictably argues against the potential role of policy in steering nations toward more sustainable diets under the hallowed rubric of personal choice:

Finding ways to support excellent health and quality of life for the creatures we depend on for our sustenance and vitality is one of our most important callings as caring stewards of our planet and all of its inhabitants. But I’m also a firm believer in personal choice. We each need to become experts in what works best for our own bodies. Eat and let eat, I say.

It’s curious that Dr. Ede spends her entire essay deriding the recommendations of the EAT-Lancet commission as non-scientific, then offers a facile, utterly unscientific conclusion of her own: “eat and let eat,” because pursuit of individual self-interest will magically coalesce into collective benefit. Despite all evidence to the contrary.

Scale and Consequences

Image for post
Image for post

When I got started farming in 2013, our vision was “a healthy, happy world.” I never got into farming specifically to become a grazier; that happened more by circumstance: reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma led me to Polyface Farm, a livestock operation that’s probably the most famous farm in the country. That farm’s proprietor, Joel Salatin, makes convincing and generally correct arguments about the ability of chickens, pigs, and cattle to build soil and restore landscapes, so that’s where I started.

But it didn’t take long to wonder what would happen if the Polyface model really tried to scale… if CAFO beef herds started switching over to rotationally-grazed grass finishing in appreciable numbers, moving millions of head of finishing beef from feedlots to open pasture. There’d be upsides:

  • Monculture grain fields, the overwhelming majority of which are dedicated to livestock feed, could be converted en masse to perennial grass, creating a massive carbon sink where there is now a net carbon emitter
  • The flood of supply to the grass-finished beef market would bring down the price of the product, making it accessible to more people

But… there would also be downsides:

  • Grass-fed cattle take longer to reach slaughter weight. Millions of beeves consuming water and emitting methane* for a full year longer than they would in a feedlot would be a severe, if not overwhelming, counterweight to the environmental benefits of restored grasslands.
  • As I’ve mentioned earlier, I think a lot of independent farmers would go out of business. Our margins are slim as it is; flooding the supply of grass-finished protein with converts from the feedlot would more or less ensure than only aggregators producing incredible volume would survive.
  • The get big or get out ethic resulting from the above would inevitably lead to ecological corner-cutting.

So how’s a grazier to feel, and what’s she to do?

*The Savory institute argues that a flattening of atmospheric methane from 1999–2008 during a steady increase in the size of livestock herds means that livestock is not a net methane emitter. This study in Nature contends that there are confounding factors, attributable to climate change’s effects on wetlands, that masked the livestock contribution.

The Way Forward

Image for post
Image for post
Jefferson may have felt a different way about Black folks owning their own farms… (source: Soul Fire Farm)

“Eat good meat, not less meat” usually envisions a Jeffersonian utopia: large, conventional feedlot producers replaced by legions of independent yeoman farmers serving their local markets. Unfortunately, I believe that vision is overly optimistic. Too many unlikely things have to go right in too little time.

A more likely scenario: Smithfield culls half its pig herd and releases the remaining half (which would be around 6 million of them) into the forest, using its scale to offer oak-finished pork chops at a slight premium of $7.99/lb, while leveraging its investments in synthetic and cultured meats to fill the downmarket revenue gap left by that missing 50%.

With other major producers following suit, this is a nightmare scenario that, in the best case, reduces once-independent producers to serfdom in the service of vertical integrators (typical in the conventional livestock industry today). The worst case puts small producers out of business completely and hastens an ecological cataclysm.

EAT-Lancet’s report does something that small, independent graziers seem to have trouble realizing. By advocating a meat-minimal diet, the Healthy Reference Diet:

  1. Reduces the overall size of the market for meat
  2. Implicitly disincentivizes both the production and purchase of cheap meat.

This is a good thing, because a small market discourages behemoths from flooding it with supply (including lab-grown meat) and squeezing out small producers.

By focusing on the “one hamburger per week” deduction from the Healthy Reference Diet, we grass farmers miss the forest for the trees: concern over our existing customers deciding to buy fewer of our products in the short term blinds us to the the EAT-Lancet commission report describing the ONLY model of a food system that would allow independent graziers to thrive in the long term.

The key question is: how do we bridge the gap from the short term to the long term? And the answer lies in leveraging the key strengths of small farms: customer relationships and operational agility.

Small farmers are in a unique position to communicate both directly and intimately with our customers. I know my customers’ names, their dogs’ names, what their kids like to eat, what they’re binging on Netflix, what they’re allergic to, where they took their last vacation, and whether they prefer fattier or leaner pork. And most of them know the same about me. Let’s be blunt: if your customers don’t trust you enough to influence their opinion of a dietary study coming out of left field from people they’ve never heard of… then you have a much bigger marketing problem than the EAT-Lancet report.

We have to talk directly and honestly with our customers about the impact of their diets. Let them know that it’s OK for them to buy as much meat as they like from you — because the population hasn’t hit 9 billion yet, the world isn’t overflowing with too much grazed beef and pork and chicken yet, and the epidemiological basis of the EAT-Lancet reports conclusions IS correlative: eating good meat — even beyond moderation - is not going to deterministically kill you.

But you also have to let them know how the bridge gets gapped from today to a sustainable tomorrow. They need to understand how you’re going to survive economically in a future where they themselves are eating far less meat (voluntarily or otherwise) for the sake of the environment, and how you square your own mostly-livestock operation with the fact that most farmers won’t be able to.

There’s two ways to address that problem. First, you can keep producing the way you’ve always produced and assume that supply and demand will take care of the problem. Less demand for meat will simply encourage fewer new producers; your farm will survive by selling far less meat to far more people.

And then there’s the second way, which is the way our farm is pursuing: leveraging small-farm agility by diversifying into plants. This has always been our plan — to create permaculture food forests where plant products are the dominant offerings, with animals used purely for their ecological functions. Our farm will ultimately survive by selling a complete diet to a relatively small number of people.

Whichever you chose, just remember: far from the end of the world, EAT-Lancet‘s report is an enormous opportunity. It’s the first detailed science-based report that actually quantifies what a healthy diet looks like within the constraints of the ecologically possible… and it looks really, really good for us.

Chris Newman is a farmer in Virginia’s Northern Neck. He’s tall and skinny and is growing a great and woolly beard for totally non-political reasons. If you like what you’ve just read, please consider a click on that there green heart thing. And if you really like what you just read, maybe you’ll become a patron (contribute as little as $1/month!) so he can spend even more time writing, building foodscapes, and democratizing Local food.

Visit the farm, Sylvanaqua Farms, on Instagram @sylvanaquafarms

Sylvanaqua Farms

Democracy in Food & Agriculture

Chris Newman

Written by

Working toward a sustainable future with Sylvanaqua Farms, the Accokeek Foundation, and GreenMaven. Support it all here: https://www.patreon.com/farmermang

Sylvanaqua Farms

Democracy in Food & Agriculture

Chris Newman

Written by

Working toward a sustainable future with Sylvanaqua Farms, the Accokeek Foundation, and GreenMaven. Support it all here: https://www.patreon.com/farmermang

Sylvanaqua Farms

Democracy in Food & Agriculture

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store