Why We Shouldn’t All Be Vegan

A nutritional defense of diversity of diets
January 29, 2019 Updated: January 29, 2019

After decades of increasing rates of vegetarianism, 2019 is set to be the year the world changes the way that it eats. Or at least, that’s the ambitious aim of a major campaign an organization simply called EAT.

Their core message is to discourage meat and dairy, especially the consumption of beef, and the over-consumption of protein.

The push comes as consumer behavior shifts toward a plant-based diet. In the three years following 2014, research firm GlobalData tracked a six-fold increase in people identifying as vegans in the United States. It’s a big rise, although from a very low base. From one percent of the population to six.

A similar story has played out in the United Kingdom, where the number of vegans has increased by 350 percent from a decade ago, at least according to an Ipsos MORI survey commissioned by the Vegan Society.

In Asia, many governments are promoting plant-based diets. The Chinese regime, for example, has issued new dietary guidelines calling on the nation’s 1.3 billion people to reduce their meat consumption by 50 percent.

Meanwhile, flexitarianism, a mostly plant-based diet with the occasional inclusion of meat, is also on the rise.

‘Conquering the World’

Big food companies have jumped onto the vegan wagon. Unilever, for instance, is a very vocal partner of EAT’s FReSH program. Recently, the multinational company announced it was acquiring “The Vegetarian Butcher,” a meat-substitute company. It described the acquisition as part of a strategy to expand “into plant-based foods that are healthier and have a lower environmental impact.” Currently, Unilever sells just under 700 products under the “V-label”—signifying vegan or vegetarian dishes—in Europe.

“The Vegetarian Butcher” was conceived in 2007 by farmer Jaap Kortweg, chef Paul Brom, and marketer Niko Koffeman, a Dutch Seventh-Day Adventist who is vegetarian for religious and ideological reasons. Koffeman is also at the origin of the “Partij voor de Dieren,” a political party advocating for animal rights in The Netherlands. Like EAT, the Vegetarian Butcher seeks to “conquer the world.” Its mission is “to make plant-based ‘meat’ the standard”—and the alliance with Unilever paves the way.

Such a dietary shift would require a remarkable turn in consumer habits. And such a shift would be good for both consumer health and the environment. A key plank of any such strategy would require moving consumers away from beef. But the extreme vision of some of the campaign’s backers is startling. Former United Nations official Christiana Figueres, for example, thinks that anyone who wants a steak should be sent outside.

“How about restaurants in 10 to 15 years start treating carnivores the same way that smokers are treated?” Figueres said during a recent conference. “If they want to eat meat, they can do it outside the restaurant.”

This statement is typical of what social scientists call “bootlegger and Baptist” coalitions, in which groups with very different ideas—and values—seek to rally under a common banner. And this is worrisome. The campaign to “conquer the world” can be simplistic and one-sided, and may have some dangerous implications.

A Skewed View?

EAT, for example, describes itself as a science-based global platform for food system transformation. It has partnered with Oxford, Harvard, and the medical journal The Lancet. But we have concerns that some of the science behind the campaign and the policy is partial and misleading.

It targets the excesses of factory farming and rainforest clearing to raise beef cattle, things we can all agree are problems. But it is mostly silent on things like the nutritional assets of animal products, especially for children in rural African settings, and the sustainability benefits of livestock in areas as diverse as sub-Saharan Africa to traditional European upland valleys.

And even if vegetarian diets improve traditional markers for heart disease, such as “total cholesterol,” they may not help more predictive (and thus valuable) markers such as the triglyceride/HDL (or “good” cholesterol) ratio, which one study found to increase.

More importantly, most nutritional “evidence” originates from epidemiology, which is not able to show causation but only statistical correlations. The associations are weak, and the research is generally confounded by lifestyle and other dietary factors. This raises questions about how to attribute the overall health benefits of a vegan diet. Not to mention that part of the epidemiological data, such as the PURE study, show that the consumption of meat and dairy can be associated with less—rather than more—chronic disease.

A balanced diet? (Its_al_dente/Shutterstock)

Not So Simple

Even if plant-based diets can provide the nutrients people need (with the help of supplements like vitamin B12 and certain long-chain fatty acids) people who attempt to shift over may not ensure they eat a required diversity of healthy foods, and there could be a proliferation of poorly balanced diets with resulting health effects. When a vegan diet fails, for instance, due to poor supplementation, it may result in serious physical and cognitive impairment and failure to thrive, according to research into the babies of one religious community feeding the infants diluted soy milk.

The approach seems particularly risky during pregnancy and for the very young, according to clinical case reports in medical literature. Animal products are nutrient-dense dietary sources—removing them from the diet compromises metabolic robustness. Without sufficient insight into the complexities of nutrition and human metabolism, it is easy to overlook important issues, like the nutrients that can be absorbed from the diet, how nutrients interact, and the quality of different proteins.

The same debate needs to be had about the environmental aspect of a vegan diet. Too fast or radical a shift toward “plant-based” diets risks losing realistic and achievable benefits, like natural grazing and farming techniques that reduce the volume of feed crops going to animals or enhance biodiversity.

A shift toward a radically plant-based planetary diet also ignores the many benefits of livestock—including producing food on land that is not suitable for crop production, and local economies built on livestock production or processing.

Sustainable, ecological, and harmonious animal production can be part of the solution of the “world food problem” from both a nutritional and environmental perspective. The Earth is an extraordinarily complex ecosystem and any one-size-fits-all solution or rapid change risks wreaking havoc with it.

Martin Cohen is a visiting research fellow in philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK, and Frédéric Leroy is a professor of food science and biotechnology at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. This article was first published on The Conversation

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