Red meat: Human and planet health

There was a fresh three-pronged attack on red meat last week – this time in the BMJ. First, there was an article entitled “Mortality from different causes associated with meat, heme iron, nitrates, and nitrites in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study: population based cohort study”. Second, there was an editorial by Professor John Potter (epidemiologist, NZ) called “Red and processed meat, and human and planetary health”. Third, there was a commentary by BMJ editor, Dr Fiona Godlee, “Red meat: another inconvenient truth”.

The main article – human health

The main article concluded that there was an increased risk of mortality associated with “both processed and unprocessed red meat.” The article proposed an explanation for this: “accounted for, in part, by heme iron and nitrate/nitrite from processed meat.”

Let’s briefly look at both of these parts of the conclusion:

1) The association with mortality and “both processed and unprocessed red meat.

As regards any claims for UNprocessed red meat, this study can be completely ignored because it did not study UNprocessed red meat.  

The starting point for any article attacking red meat is to understand what the researchers defined red meat to be. I have yet to find an article that studies what real food proponents would call red meat: all parts of cows, pigs, sheep, deer, goat etc which have been living freely on pastures. (Real foodies favour ruminants particularly – which excludes pigs – the reason for this will become clear). “Nose to Tail” is a Paleo expression to indicate that the strongest health benefits accrue when the whole animal is eaten and not just the muscle meat (steak). The richest nutrition is found in organ meat (e.g. liver/kidneys) and some of the fattiest cuts are, unsurprisingly, better sources of fat soluble vitamins than relatively lean steak.

The definition of red meat in this latest article was the same as in most recent articles that I’ve studied: “Items included in the red meat intake were unprocessed red meat (beef and pork, hamburger, [my emphasis], liver, steak, and meats in foods such as chilli [hello rice/corn chips!], lasagne [hello pasta!], and stew) and processed red meat (bacon, beef cold cuts, ham, hotdogs, and sausage). White meat included unprocessed chicken, turkey, and fish, canned tuna, and processed white meat (poultry cold cuts, low fat sausages, and low fat hotdogs made from poultry).” I included the definition of white meat (which now includes fish?!) because the article tried to claim that (what they called) red meat and processed red meat were associated with higher mortality, but that unprocessed white meat was associated with lower mortality. I wonder if that could be the fish.

The data used in this study were from the US. What is the single biggest form of red meat consumption in the US? The hamburger. You can tell that the data are distorted by looking at Table 1 in the paper. Average (mean) red meat is reported for the highest intake group as 17.2 (g/1000kcal) for processed red meat vs. 50.3 (g/1000kcal) for UNprocessed red meat. Americans eat three times as much UNprocessed as processed meat? Really?!

Hamburgers should not meet any valid definition of UNprocessed red meat. They also lead to a huge dietary confounder, which has not been adjusted for in this study. Someone here has gone to the trouble of listing out what is in a typical hamburger (McDonalds in this case). The issue may not be the meat (which in McD’s case is free from nasty wheat-based fillers), but the white bun, ketchup/mustard, pickle and optional plastic cheese, which come with each hamburger. This is before we factor in that most burgers are eaten with fries, more ketchup and quite likely a milkshake/sugary fizzy drink. Of course it is highly likely that this entire concoction of junk is associated with increased morality. However, it has nothing to do with the pasture-fed, nose-to-tail, nutrient-dense real meat, which real foodies are constantly having to defend.

2) Just to close off the novel contribution of this article – the hypothesis about “heme iron and nitrate/nitrite from processed meat.” This has been beautifully rebutted by George Henderson in a rapid response to the BMJ, which can be seen here: “Chicken thigh contains an equal amount of heme iron to bacon, and about half as much heme iron as a steak – processed white meats have as much nitrites and nitrite as the red, and many types of fish also supply appreciable amounts of heme iron. These components of meat thus do not explain why the associations of red and white meat tend in opposite directions in this paper…”

So much for the heme iron, nitrates and nitrites argument.

What the study also failed to acknowledge is the unparalleled nutrition in nose-to-tail red meat and how these nutrients would be sourced without red meat, which researchers seem to want to drive us towards.

The editorial – planet health

The argument that deserves attention in this newsletter is the planet one. This was presented in the editorial by Professor John Potter, rather than the main paper. The editorial is on closed view, but the key part that needs addressing is here:

Livestock have colonised more than 30% of the earth’s land surface, mostly on permanent pasture, but this total also includes 33% of global arable land that is used to produce feed…

“This shift from animal protein as a modest supplement to a plant based diet to providing up to 15-20% of total energy has consequences for human health… extensive antibiotic resistance following antibiotic use to promote the growth of livestock; reduction in available human food and consequent hunger, as high value grains and legumes are fed to cattle (more than 97% of global soymeal production is fed to livestock); and higher risks of infected food from animals raised using inappropriate feeding practices or in concentrated animal feeding operations using inappropriate feeding practices.

“Damage to planetary health includes depletion of aquifers (producing 1 kg of meat protein requires more than 110 000 L of water); production of 37% of anthropogenic methane (with 23 times the global warming potential of CO2)… The combination of rainforest destruction for livestock and the production of greenhouse gases by livestock contributes more to climate change than do fossil fuels used for transport.”

(Potter declared no interests, by the way. I would have thought that having been vegetarian since the mid 1970s was relevant.)

Let’s start with a fundamental issue, which advocates of plant diets constantly ignore: soil. If you follow the excellent work of The Soil Association, you will be aware that global soil erosion is a critical issue and saving our soil requires careful balance of animal and plant rotation. As this video (which I helped to make) shows, grazing ruminants give back to the soil with their unique stomach structure. These animals host and regurgitate billions of micro organisms, continually rejuvenating top soil as they do this. By rotating land use between vegetables and ruminants the following occurs: i) vegetables largely take minerals and nutrients from the soil (which we then benefit from by consuming them), but plants usefully provide vegetation cover to minimise soil erosion; and ii) the ruminants give back nutrition to the soil (which is the essence of all real food on this planet) and we also benefit from the nutrition by consuming those grazing animals. This is the symbiosis of real food.

Real foodies would share the outrage expressed by Potter in the extracts from his editorial, but we need to point out where he is completely misguided:

1) It is an outrage that 33% of global arable land is being used to produce animal feed (we’ll assume this figure is correct). Not one square inch of land should be wasted in the production of animal feed. Animals should be grazing freely on the food that the planet needs them to consume – pastures. This is the only way in which ruminants can do their job for us and preserve the stuff of life: soil.

2) It is an outrage that animals are treated so badly that they ever need antibiotics, let alone routinely. Animals should be kept in their natural environment – on pastures, in the rain and shine – and then they rarely get sick and rarely need antibiotics. Antibiotics are needed when ruminants are kept in the horrific environment of concrete floors and sheds and when they are fed grains and soybeans – substances that they can no more easily digest than humans can.

3) It is an outrage that more than 97% of global soymeal production is fed to livestock (again, assuming this figure is correct). Animals (ruminants specifically) are not designed to digest such stuff. Ruminants need to graze and the planet needs them to graze.

4) It would be outrageous to waste 110,000 L of water to produce 1kg of meat. However, this is completely unnecessary. The cows and sheep that I pass on the dog walk every day are getting all the water they need from rain and the grasses upon which the rain has fallen. Again – let ruminants graze.

5) As for the methane argument, which was raised by the Potter editorial…

The ‘farting (burping actually) cows are destroying the planet’ belief has been refuted by Graham Harvey – agricultural advisor to the British Broadcasting Corporation radio programme “The Archers” and author of a number of books about farming and ecological agriculture.

The source for Potter’s claim that “Damage to planetary health includes production of 37% of anthropogenic methane (with 23 times the global warming potential of CO2)…” is Steinfeld et al. “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental issues and options.” FAO, 2006.

Harvey covered this in his most recent book “Grass Fed Nation” as follows: “If you enjoy meat or dairy foods you probably experience the odd pang of guilt. After all, ruminant animals like cattle and sheep burp the greenhouse gas methane, which is known to be 23 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. The reason so many of us hold these views is mainly down to a 2006 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization  called ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’” (ZH – we know we’re talking about the same report at this point). Harvey goes on to say: “A few years later the UN moderated its claim. Grazing animals, apparently, can now be blamed for only 14% of global emissions. But it’s going to have to go a great deal further. The climate campaigners have ignored a huge environmental benefit of grazing animals. Their calculations were based on faulty carbon accounting.”

Over the next few pages of this beautifully written book, Harvey goes on to explain: “Pre-Christopher Columbus the American plains were home to an estimated 60 million bison – with each adult animal weighing a tonne – along with 40 million pronghorns, 10 million elk, 10 million mule deer and perhaps 2 million mountain sheep (Charles Mann “1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus”, Knopf, 2005, p318). All these ruminant animals were pumping out methane, yet there was no global warming. Through natural processes the carbon in the methane was finding its way back to the soilHealthy soils contain a group of microbes known as methanotrophs, which use methane as their sole carbon and energy source. In some soils they are able to significantly reduce methane concentrations, though nitrate fertilisers, pesticides and other farm inputs reduce their activity.” [My emphasis – we must stop agri-chemical impairment of this vital process].

Before going on to share his admiration of Allan Savory’s Ted Talk, Harvey closed with: “Grazing animals play a key role in regulating the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere through the use of soil as a carbon sink. It’s a natural process that has been going on for millions of years. Yet unaccountably we have decided that livestock should be imprisoned in sheds and yards, while we ruin the life of our soils to feed them.”

The commentary – planet health

Dr Fiona Godlee’s commentary was supportive of both the article and the editorial. Her commentary closed with the words: “What can doctors do? We can lobby for more and better research to support clearer evidence based dietary guidelines. And we can lead by example, as our predecessors did with smoking cessation, by reducing our own red meat consumption. Your own suggestions are welcome.”

Here are my suggestions:

1) Stop publishing any article that claims to study UNprocessed red meat until one actually does study UNprocessed red meat. Include the unbeatable nutritional value of nose-to-tail red meat in every article on the subject.

2) Let us stop being merchansiders for fake food companies (cereals and crops) and for agri-chemical companies and, instead support the people who should be revered for their occupations: farmers.

3) Let us all unite (vegans too) to stop the abhorrent captivity of ruminants and to stop the insane feeding of indigestible grains and soymeal to ruminants. Human and planet health needs ruminants grazing the land, or we face the irreversible and catastrophic destruction of soil and, with it, the means of ever producing food again.

It would not surprise me, by the way, if the destruction of top soil is the end game for Monsanto and co. This would give agri-chemical companies complete control of world food production. This is not the plot for the next James Bond movie – it’s happening right in front of our eyes and the BMJ three-pronged attack has just played its part.

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