Friday, April 15, 2011

Ignorance and Addiction

I’ve written before about how the “low fat diet is the healthy diet” message has infected so many other disciplines. Those concerned with environmental issues and agricultural policy are not immune to this contagion. Here are two examples.

Mid-April grazing in the Willamette Valley

Environmental Issues

One piece of conventional “wisdom” is that animal agriculture is responsible, in part, for anthropogenic global climate change (formerly known as “global warming”). If that were true, then advocating a diet based upon animal products would harm the environment, while plant-based diets would save it. Hence “Meatless Mondays” and “Meat=Heat” campaigns. Some recent web-surfing took me to the Meat and Livestock Australia web site. Lots of interesting information, including their Red Meat Green Facts and Myth Busting pages. Two of the busted myths are worth mentioning:

Myth: It takes 13,209 gallons (50,000 liters) of water to produce 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of beef

Have you ever heard of “virtual water figures”? I hadn’t. Apparently virtual water figures attribute every drop of rain that falls on a farm to the production of red meat, ignoring that most of the water ends up in waterways, as ground water, or is used by trees and other plants not grazed by cattle. It is obviously inappropriate to use virtual water figures for environmental measurements. A more appropriate figure is from a life cycle assessment that calculates the amount of water used to produce a pound of beef from grazing on farm to exiting the processing facility. A 2009 life cycle assessment carried out by The University of New South Wales for three beef production systems in southern Australia found that it takes 7 to 143 gallons (27 to 540 liters) of water to produce 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of beef (See this link for more information.). That’s a figure almost 100 times less that the myth, at least!

Myth: Livestock produce more emissions than the various forms of transportation, combined.

This frequently quoted figure comes from Livestock's Long Shadow, a report published in 2006 by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). A 2010 review of this report by scientists from the University of California Davis found that the FAO authors calculated greenhouse gas emissions in two different ways, resulting in an unfair comparison (link to abstract). One of the authors of the FAO report, Livestock Policy Officer Pierre Gerber, told BBC News he accepted the criticism. "I must say honestly that he [Professor Mitloehner] has a point; we factored in everything for meat emissions, and we didn't do the same thing with transport". The estimate of anthropogenic greenhouse gases emitted from the world's livestock stated in Livestock’s Long Shadow is 6 times greater than that from the Environmental Protection Agency (18% vs. less than 3%).

I think the evidence shows that animal agriculture is the only truly sustainable form of agriculture we’ll ever hope to have, and that anything else will be a compromise. I was pleased, therefore to find the Meat and Livestock Australia site (thanks to Neil Lane). But as I read down through the list of myths, it happened again!

In response to the myth that “Replacing red meat would be beneficial for people's health” they state that “Red meat delivers nutrients essential for health and wellbeing including: protein, iron, zinc, B vitamins and long chain omega-3s.” Good points, I agree. They then provide a link to “Find out more about red meat and nutrition.” On that page we find the statement “With less than 4% saturated fat, trimmed red meat has the Heart Foundation’s Tick of Approval.”

Sigh …

Agricultural Policy

A colleague from the Healthy Nation Coalition recently asked me about George Pyle’s book Raising Less Corn, More Hell: The Case for the Independent Farm and Against Industrial Food. I am sympathetic to the case that Pyle is trying to make. Our agricultural system is broken, too. I believe that our policy incorrectly favors the largest producers, and subsidizes the production of commodities that are NOT required for human health. But mid-way through his book, Pyle goes wrong. The fact that he was so close to the truth when he did so made it all the more disconcerting.

On page 88 Pyle offers an explanation for why “Poor women of all races and ethnic groups are 50 percent more likely to be obese than are their richer sisters.” He suggests it’s due to the fact that “poor people have diets heavy in starches and sugars, processed foods that are thought to be cheaper and more filling.” I have no problem agreeing with that. Later, on page 89, Pyle writes “the London-based International Obesity Task Force estimates that some parts of Africa have more overnourished children than undernourished ones. (Over-nourished, that is, in the sense of too many sugars and starches.)” And then, on page 90, Pyle writes “By 2004 the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization found another link between hunger and obesity in developing countries, a link also caused by the increasing availability of American-style cheap, fatty foods.“

Wait a minute! Where did the “fatty” come from? He hadn’t made that point in his preceding discussion! He was so close to making a significant breakthrough. But having gone off the rails, he proceeds to destroy the right-of-way. “The hungry people of rural Africa, Asia, and, most maddeningly, of the rural communities that consistently top the list of America’s poorest counties are like the amputated toes of the diabetic or the diseased heart of the cholesterol-loaded person. They are unseen parts damaged by the unthinking efforts of the rest of the body to ensure it is always full.” On page 92, he states “Cheap corn not only translates to cheap beef, which means we eat more of it and get fat” and that beef will “shorten their lives by an indefinite number of years.”

I’ve found it hard to continue reading this book. If he’s this far off on this, how many other factual errors did he make throughout the rest of the book? Until we’ve completely uproot the faulty reasoning that got us into the chronic disease epidemic we now face, we will have difficulty fixing what’s so broken.


And we must remember that we’re not just striving to correct factual error. We’re facing a population that is addicted to carbohydrates. Paul John Scott’s recent article, Are Carbs More Addictive Than Cocaine? might seem like hyperbole, but I don’t think so.

In “Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution” I read the story of a diabetic woman who, by following Dr. Bernstein’s program, had significantly lowered her blood sugars, dramatically improved total cholesterol/HDL ratio (meaning she’d lowered her cardiac risk), reversed the vision loss she had been experiencing, almost completely restored the feeling in her feet, along with some weight loss as a fringe benefit. A critical part of Dr. Bernstein’s program to achieve normal blood sugars is, of course, a restricted carbohydrate diet. After describing all of these improvements in her health, this patient says: “I miss the goodies I give my grandkids, all the cookies, candy bars, ice cream. And the holidays. Everything’s kind of restricted.” If that doesn’t sound like addiction to you, it sure does to me! I understand cravings and missing things I used to eat, believe me! But to have experienced such an improvement in your health, to have been taught so much by the extraordinarily intensive counseling and coaching approach that Dr. Bernstein employs, and to still think that these “food” items are fit food for human beings – let alone your diabetes-prone grandchildren – is frankly breathtaking. Imagine a clean and sober woman saying: “I sure miss the methamphetamine, especially when I give it to my grandkids.”


Bernstein, R. K. 2007. “Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution: The Complete Guide to Achieving Normal Blood Sugars. Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY.

Pyle, G. 2005. “Raising Less Corn, More Hell: The Case for the Independent Farm and Against Industrial Food.” Public Affairs, New York, NY.

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