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In this episode of Functional Medicine Research, I interview Robb Wolf about his new book and documentary Sacred Cow. We had a great conversation dispelling some of the myths about meat and saturated fat as well as climate change, plant-based diets, sustainable agriculture, veganism, cattle and methane, and the ethics of eating animals.
This was a well-rounded interview packed with information that should help people make better decisions about what they eat but also become educated about the facts around meat. I highly recommend watching the Sacred Cow documentary and reading the book which goes into tremendous detail on these issues.
Full Transcript of Sacred Cow with Robb Wolf Interview
Dr. Hedberg: Well, welcome, everyone, to “Functional Medicine Research.” I’m Dr. Hedberg. And I’m really looking forward to my conversation today with Robb Wolf. And Robb is a former research biochemist, and he’s a two-times “New York Times,” “Wall Street Journal” bestselling author of two books, “The Paleo Solution” and “Wired to Eat.” And he coauthored a book with Diana Rodgers, which we’ll be talking about today, called “The Sacred Cow,” and that explains why well raised meat is good for us and good for the planet. Robb has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world via his top ranked iTunes podcast, books and seminars. He’s known for his direct approach and ability to distill and synthesize information to make the complicated stuff easier to understand. Robb, welcome to the show.
Robb: Doc, a huge honor to be here. Thank you.
Dr. Hedberg: Great. Yeah, I had Diana on last year. And we talked a little bit about plant-based diets and meat and things like that. And then since then, we’ve had the “New Sacred Cow” book that you co-authored, and the documentary, which is excellent. And so, why don’t we begin by…I’d really like to focus on helping the listeners understand some of, you know, the misunderstandings and the truths and the myths about eating meat versus plants and things like that. And so why don’t we start with a discussion about why meat has become a scapegoat. And I think, and you can expand on this, of course, but I think part of this probably goes to Ancel Keys’ work in the 20th century, his promotion of misinformation on saturated fat. Can you take us from that point up to where we are now, and why you think meat has been getting such bad press?
Robb: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting and worth noting the book covers the health, environmental, and ethical considerations of a meat or animal product-inclusive food system. You know, so the raising and the selling and the slaughter and the whole deal. And all of those points are important, and all of those points have some really interesting, historical antecedents, I guess, kind of describing why in different cultures meat would become vilified to varying degrees.
And like, food is an interesting cultural tool for defining self from non-self. Like, if we look within the Abrahamic religions, there are some very specific delineations of what is and is not allowed within, say, Judaism versus Christianity versus Islam. And we see similar things within different Buddhist traditions and whatnot, so I mean it…Or even just within Christianity itself, you have like the Seventh Day Adventists versus, you know, certain rules and followings within Catholicism, you know. And so, it’s interesting that food is a powerful tool for defining self from non-self. And not infrequently it is the beginning point of creating out of accepted groups of people. Like, there’s some pretty ugly historical examples of where the different food practices of one religion or one type of people start being used as a means of, kind of, ostracizing and, kind of, walling those folks off.
But we have these three different pieces that if we’re really gonna do diligence on this topic that we have to address. And, you know, the Ancel Keys piece is interesting in that he was a very well-known biochemist, did some early research that suggested that fat intake, in general, and animal fat intake specifically was, kind of, a linear correlation with cardiovascular disease. And he did this around the 1950s and it was called the Seven Countries Study. One of the problems with this was that he omitted, either purposefully or unpurposely, a bunch of other data that didn’t really fit this linear demarcation. Like, there were places where folks eat far less fat than, say, in westernized countries and have higher incidences of cardiovascular disease. And there are places that eat far more fat than, say, like Western Europe and the United States that have far less. And so there’s really, kind of, a not great overlap there.
And it’s worth noting that Keys spearheaded some really fascinating research. And one of these research projects is something that we could never ever do today, there’s no IRB board that would sign off on this. And it involved a study with thousands of institutionalized mental patients who were fed, kind of, a standard diet and, you know, fairly rich and saturated fat, and then a modified diet that was enriched with, in theory, heart-healthy, polyunsaturated fats from like corn oil and safflower oil and what have you. And what’s interesting is, this is as close to like a metabolic ward study as one is ever likely to have, and it had a lot of people in it. So, you know, the power there is fantastic from a statistical standpoint.
But what they found in this is that the folks that were eating the polyunsaturated fats, their cholesterol did in fact go down. But that actually correlated with increased rates of morbidity and mortality as it relates to cardiovascular disease, more stroke and heart attack. So it was completely counterintuitive to what, you know, kind of, the standard diet, heart hypothesis would put forward. And it’s worth noting that this study was completed, wrapped up, and then never published, and ended up just, kind of, sitting in a basement for the better part of 40 years, until somebody found it. Not that long ago, maybe 2016, 2017, this thing was rediscovered and got a fair amount of airplay. Because it really calls into question all of the Ancel Keys’ original, kind of, findings and suggestions. And it certainly flies in the face of what we’re generally told to follow from the United States dietary guidelines.
So in the book, we kind of detail the work of Ancel Keys, kind of some interesting developments, kind of, socio-politically. Like, Richard Nixon was looking to get reelected and he wasn’t doing so well. And he needed a loyal, conservative base that would support him. And farmers were a pretty good option in that regard. And part of his offerings for building loyalty was re-expanding the farm subsidies programs that had been largely wound down after World War Two. And with this, the subsidies program, these farmers were incentivized to just produce. It didn’t really matter if we needed more corn or soybeans or wheat or what have you, we were just incentivizing that production. And so for several years, we had these huge gluts of food that we didn’t know what to do with it.
And then right around this time, a process had been understood to convert corn syrups into high fructose corn syrup, and make it very, very sweet, very palatable. But it was a very expensive process. But it was right around this this early 1970s that an industrial scale, inexpensive process for converting corn into high fructose corn syrup was developed. And this was the beginning of the relationship also between what we would now, I think, call the junk food industry and the governmental food surplus, you know, kind of, scenarios. So we needed to do something with this food. This food needed a long shelf-life and, you know, these food manufacturers were all too happy to employ their food chemists in figuring out how to make this stuff both taste tasty and also kind of like a Twinkie, like have a nearly infinite shelf-life.
So, some folks present this as, kind of, like this evil cabal of people, you know, twisting moustaches to enslave the masses. And I don’t buy into that stuff at all. But I do think that we are the recipients of a bunch of really dumb luck, that some decisions that were unconnected initially but became connected on the backend ended up leading us to what is our modern, industrial row crop food system, and the dietary guidelines that go along with it that support the perpetuation of basically what that row crop food system stands for.
And so, you know, it’s been a 60-years-long process with that. And there’s back and forth on the topic, you know, one week, high-carb diets are good for you, the next week, low-carb diets are good for you. I think the one commonality within this whole story is that highly processed foods are probably a big problem. And that also depending on the individual, higher or lower-carb diets may be more appropriate given an individual’s circumstance. And you know, we are investigating topics like individualized or personalized medicine.
Like, they’re finding that some people when they undergo chemotherapy, they do far, far better if the chemotherapy is administered in the morning versus the evening, and other people are the exact opposite. And so when we understand things like that, when we understand that, you know, within a population if you give, you know, a thousand people a blood pressure medication, some percentage of those people may see a 10-point reduction, and some people a 20-point reduction, and some people, you see no reduction.
We know that with pharmaceuticals, we know that with the dose response to exercise. But we still haven’t applied that same latitude to dietary practices, that there may be different ways of eating that suit different people better. And that is a lot of what we attempt to unpack in the book, just making the case that there are a lot of different ways seemingly that humans can eat that lead to better health endpoints than what we see in the, you know, kind of, modern Western diet.
Dr. Hedberg: Right. And one of the misconceptions I hear when I talk to people and talk to patients is that there are concerns about meat and diseases like cancer and heart disease. I think there’s just a lot of people out there who believe that meat is bad for you. And there’s really no distinction between the quality or the source of the meat, the type of the meat. And also, as I know you’ll expand on, there is some issues with the research methodology in the studies on meat. And also the types of studies, you know, like an observational study, which doesn’t really tell us all that much about an isolated variable like meat in the diet. So can you help just allay some of the fears to the listeners about meat? And, you know, is it really unhealthy? And does it cause cancer or heart disease?
Robb: Yeah, you know, it is easy to find information like this, and you can find it from the highest levels of government, like the World Health Organization, all the way down to, you know, local news pieces talking about this stuff. So it’s understandable that folks are really concerned about this. You alluded to one of the big problems in this story, which is the type of research that’s being done. And like, in various drug trials, if we are testing whether or not say…well, say like we’re in this, you know, coronavirus pandemic. And so part of what has been happening in the research looking at these vaccines, like what do they do? And do they minimize symptoms? Do they minimize severity of disease? Do they actually provide sterilizing immunity?
And part of what you have to do in that scenario is you give some people the vaccine, you give some people a placebo, and we see where those two populations go. And so that is typically a double-blinded, randomized, placebo controlled trial. And this is the gold standard in, kind of, biomedical science. Not all situations lend themselves to this though. And so it’s very expensive, very difficult to feed large populations of people one type of diet versus another. And even that gets kind of interesting because, you know, can you blind somebody to eating beef versus chicken? And like, is just the perception of eating one versus the other, like will that influence the outcome both for the researchers and the subjects?
And, you know, again, it would be monumentally expensive and very, very long to do a study. You know, can you take 100,000 people, divide them into 2 groups, have them age, gender, ethnically matched, and then feed them 2 identical diets with only 2 different variables in it? And then, you know, track that for 30, 40, 50 years, and see what the end results are? You know, it’s bordering on impossible to do that. So the next best thing that we have, and it’s not really that good, is, kind of, retrospective epidemiological studies.
And it’s worth noting that these studies were really powerful, very, very important with things like smoking, and the connection of smoking to cancer. But in the case of smoking and the development of various cancers, if we were to use, kind of, an arbitrary number…and I’m just kind of using this for a little bit of simplicity. But if the linkage between smoking and cancer was 10,000, when we look at the linkage between meat consumption and various types of cancers, it’s like a 2, the linkage is really, really dubious.And where this comes from, is that they have folks follow what’s called food frequency questionnaires. It’s a retrospective study where they ask people, hey, what did you eat last week, last month, last year?
One of the really prominent studies that has been cited suggesting that, you know, red meat and/or processed meat consumption increases colon cancer risk by 20%, they were asking people to recall what they had eaten as far as 12 years in the past. And there’s a couple of different pieces to that. One is people have terrible memories. And two, people just lie on these things. Like, it’s very well understood that, you know, people will oftentimes fill out what they think that the researchers want them to say. So it’s really unclear, you know, what the actual data is there.
So, a number of researchers like John Ioannidis who’s one of the most respected, kind of, epidemiological researchers in the world, he’s a medical doctor, he suggested that these retrospective studies should never be performed going forward because the data is just so worthless, like, it really is not gold standard data. We should focus only on producing gold standard data and, you know, put efforts elsewhere. But for a moment, let’s just say that this data is legit. Let’s say that it’s rock solid, that there really is some sort of a signal there. Even in that story, the signal is remarkably small, particularly when we compare it relative to, say, something like smoking. But this is where it gets really tricky, and some dishonest things occur.
When we look at the rate of colon cancer across all westernized populations, everybody that lives in the United States, lives in Western Europe, Northern Europe, they have about a 5% chance of developing colon cancer at some point in their life. That’s just, kind of, the background risk profile that we all have. If you take the information from the studies as gold standard, which is not, but if we want to play that game and say that it is, eating processed meat like bacon, a large amount, every day, your whole life, takes your risk profile, in theory, from 5% to 6%. And that’s the absolute risk profile.
So in theory, normal folks walking around, 5 people out of 100 will develop colon cancer at some point in their life. In theory, according to these studies, if they eat red meat every day, their whole life, large amount, it becomes 6 people out of 100 develop colon cancer. Now, I think that that data is super-flawed, and actually really dubious as to if there is a real association there. But the way that this gets reported is that red meat consumption or processed meat consumption is a 20% increase in colon cancer risk. Because the difference between 5% and 6% is 18%. And why not just round up a little bit? And so it is reported as a 20% increase in colon cancer risk.
And that is a completely unethical way to report that. And it’s remarkably sensationalistic and, you know, it just doesn’t actually provide a true risk profile for what people are, you know, trying to make informed decisions around their lives. So that’s maybe one of the more egregious examples of how the association between meat and different disease states have been played out. And it’s worth noting that, you know, when we do interventional trials where folks eat, say, like, a ketogenic diet, or a paleo type diet, or what have you, all of the inflammatory markers, all of the things that we would normally associate with chronic degenerative disease, systemic inflammation, those things pretty uniformly go down in these specific metabolic ward type interventions.
So now granted, we’re not feeding these people these diets for 20, 30, 40 years, it’s short-term. But what we know for sure is that eating a standard American mixed diet that is rich in highly processed foods definitely increases the risk profile for all chronic degenerative diseases. And then when people are put on any type of a Mediterranean diet, ketogenic diet, paleo type diet, like anything that is qualitatively different than the standard American diet, their metabolic health appears to improve. And you know, this happens with a vegan diet, but it also happens with the paleo diet. So, we see similar risk profile improvements in these, what I would consider to be much better studies, although they’re short-term, but we’re actually we know what the people are eating. We track the biomarkers of health and disease. And we see humans benefit on a spectrum of diets, meat inclusive or meet exclusive, so long as we’re minimizing, you know, highly processed foods.
Dr. Hedberg: One of the things that worries me is what is being replaced, or what is replacing the meat. And so we have things now, you know, some public schools like Meatless Mondays, and foods like Beyond Burger becoming very popular. And it’s interesting because I was looking through, I was trying to find the ingredients to Beyond Burger and some of these products, and it’s actually quite difficult to find on their website, and the second ingredient is canola oil. You had brought up some of the polyunsaturated fats earlier, which can be problematic. But I mean, in my, you know, 20 years of researching nutrition, canola oil is not a healthy oil. And so what is your take on an oil like that, and how some of these products that are replacing meat could be problematic?
Robb: Yeah, you know, it’s a fascinating tactic that, let’s say, the plant based people are using, which some of them are still saying don’t eat any meat at all. But others are saying no, no, no, just reduce meat, just reduce meat consumption. Like, you know, surely we don’t need to stop wholesale. But it’s worth mentioning that, on average, Americans consume about, like, 2 ounces of red meat per week. Then we have shifted to much larger amounts of pork and chicken consumption, which, ironically, from a sustainability standpoint, is far, far worse because even conventional feedlot cattle spend 70% of its life on grass, which is highly sustainable.
You know, I mean it’s grasslands and herbivores, these things have been going on in some iteration since vertebrates, you know, got onto the…you know, land-dwelling animals have been there, we’ve had some something like that. And so that is a very sustainable proposition. Whereas harvesting large amounts of grains and soybeans and processing that, and turning it into chicken and pork feed is not a particularly sustainable proposition. So, you know, again there’s a lot of nuance out there that is not really getting well handled.
And, you know, one of the interesting things that popped up in the writing of this book is that one of…There haven’t been a ton of studies looking at this, but we got a few studies that looked at children developing, you know, growing children, and those who had a very low meat diet, a higher supplemented meat diet, and one that had just dairy supplemental to the diet. And again, not a large number, not a ton of studies looking at this. And this was performed in a rural African setting where folks are pretty poor and don’t get access to, you know, a ton of food in general. But what was interesting was that these kids were equal caloric, but they were given more of just, kind of, the starchy food, available things like lentils or cassava or what have you.
The other group had a meat supplement, the other group had…in addition to like the cassava or beans or whatever was kind of the staple diet, the other one had a dairy supplement. The kids that were just given additional calories with, you know, more cassava, more corn, what have you, didn’t do remotely as well as the meat group. And the dairy supplemental group was, kind of, in between and didn’t do as well based off of stature. Like, the kids that were given a meat supplement grew taller, they had fewer infections, they did better academically, they had fewer, you know, health concerns and whatnot.
And so, it’s interesting when would some of these Meatless Monday topics come up. Like, if you just look at the New York school system, upwards of 70% to 80% of the students there are considered low income. Ten percent of the students that attend New York City schools are considered to be homeless. And many of them, the only meal they get in a day is provided by the school. So people will, kind of, offhandedly just quip like, “Why can’t you just have a salad one day instead of eating your steak or what have you?” And one, you know, I think that that’s a personal decision that everybody should be, kind of, making on their own and not necessarily guilted into it one way or the other.
But the more salient point there is that there are a lot of kids in very disadvantaged situations that access to public school food may be the food that they get. And even under the best of circumstances, those meals are not particularly good. But if we pull the paltry amount of dairy or animal products out of those meals, what is left? More starchy, refined grains, and crappy seed oils. And that is just what is there. And, you know, it’s worth mentioning that in the EU, the European Union, vegan diets are considered child abuse, like they are not allowed, they are not legal to be administered to infants or even really children. You need to be 13, 14 before it starts not really being seen as a potentially dangerous and injurious thing to do.
And it’s worth mentioning that the American Dietetic Association, in their website, they say that vegan and vegetarian diets are appropriate across all points of the lifespan. And there is absolutely no scientific literature that supports the notion that children will do well at all on a vegan or vegetarian diet. And you know, social justice topics are a really big, important thing that we all need to look at and consider. But when you think about the reality that one of the greatest defining features between a more privileged kid versus a kid that’s getting a rougher start in life is nutrition.
And so these folks that are already at a remarkable number of disadvantages socio-economically, largely wealthy, white, vegan-centric people are suggesting that the tiny amounts of animal products that they’re getting out of these, you know, public assistance programs should be removed. And there have been some interesting initiatives where, say, like food stamp or EBT type purchases could be used at farmers’ markets, which I think are a great idea. But it’s worth noting, meat and dairy products are forbidden in this process. You can’t buy those. You can buy beans and rice or, you know, vegetables, which all of that is great. And it’s wonderful supporting, you know, community-driven agriculture. But it’s ironic that animal products are not allowed as purchase options within these public assistance programs.
So there’s a really massive bias within all that. And we make the case in the book and the film that the people who are the most negatively impacted by policies like this are the people who were already the most negatively impacted by like every other social-economic consideration that you’d like to throw out there. Middle income and wealthier families are not going to be affected by this, but poorer families absolutely will be.
Dr. Hedberg: Yeah, and that can sometimes be one of the issues with social justice and idealism. Sometimes it’s just not rationable or rational or reasonable. So, what about this idea that people can get everything from plants? You know, I would say in my 17 years of practice, you know, some of the things that I mainly see in vegan and vegetarian patients are vitamin B12 deficiencies and iron, those are really the top two.
And then there’s, kind of, a mix of other deficiencies I see in those particular patients. And of course, I do see those deficiencies in meat-eaters as well. But it’s usually a pretty glaring deficiency where, say, the B12 deficiency is, you know, we’re almost starting to see some permanent neurological issues and some serious anemias and things like that. So can you talk a little bit about, you know, can we really get everything we need just from plants? And how perfect and, you know, almost religious-like in you’re eating, and prep, and things like that does it take to do a well-rounded plant-based diet?
Robb: Yeah, you know what, I think the most honest deal there…and clearly, I have a bias in this. But I think it’s honest to say that it’s very, very difficult to get everything that folks need. And it’s worth mentioning that the…what do they call it now? The RDA, but it’s a recommended daily intake, or RDI recommended daily intake. Those are set at where disease processes begin, if you go below that. It is not titrated for optimum human health. And some of Loren Cordain’s work looking at, kind of, a paleo diet built with modern foods, people eating something like that, you know, meat, seafood, roots, shoots, vegetables, you know, highly nutrient-dense foods across the board, people ended up getting several hundred times the RDIs of most nutrients.
So, you know, there’s a big spread there between when disease starts versus what is optimal for human health, particularly in, say, like, developing humans, like, in utero or small children again. And you pointed out that the B vitamin story is a challenge, iron is a challenge, zinc is a challenge. Plants are tricky in that sometimes they have a lot of nutrients in them, but sometimes it is devilishly hard to get all the nutrients out. There are different anti-predation chemicals, you know, phytates, for example, that bind to metal ions.
So there was a great study that looked at folks eating a zinc-rich meal from animal products, but they consumed corn tortillas with it. And then they had folks that consumed a similar amount of carbs, but it wasn’t from corn tortillas. But corn tortillas have a lot of phytates in it, which are these organic acids that bind very strongly to metals. And it reduced the absorbable zinc for these people by like 85%. So even though there may be a lot of zinc in the meal, if you eat the wrong types of things with the meal, you may not absorb any of it. And iron is another, you know, factor in that story. Elongated omega 3 fats like EPA and DHA, you can get plant-based sources of this, but it has to be extracted from seaweed and put into a supplement form. There’s no food-based sources of EPA and DHA, and these are vital to health.
Some people are better at taking the linoleic acid and elongating it into the EPA and DHA. But not all people are good at that. Like, Northern European folks tend to be pretty poor at that. Different Native American groups are pretty poor at that. Some people from more Mediterranean or Asian lineage tend to be better at that. So there’s some big genetic variations there. Some people are quite good at converting different carotenoids into retinol, into, you know, the usable form of vitamin A, and other people are terrible at it. So there’s a lot of variation within all this.
And it’s worth mentioning that it’s well understood that these nutrients that are of animal product origin are well understood to be more bioavailable, tend to be more in the end state usable form like retinol, like EPA and DHA and whatnot. And so the more plant-based folks raise some valid points that you know some people do better or worse on these things, but this is where it’s a bit disingenuous to say that everybody is going to thrive on this.
And again, for children, infants, pregnant moms, there have been some really tragic examples of parents feeding infants and children a strictly vegan diet, and the children have become very sick, even died. There are examples of vegan moms who are eating an exclusively vegan diet, and their breast milk is so devoid of nutrients that the infants end up, again, getting sick or even dying. And it’s crazy in a way because even as bad as some of the modern, kind of, junk food diets are, you don’t see infants dying of malnutrition even when people are on a rotating deal of like, you know, McDonald’s, Hardees, you know, from one fast food joint to another. Like, so long as there’s some animal products in the mix, we see all kinds of problems, we see hyperinsulinemia, and we see actually an overfed state, but we don’t see these life-threatening diseases of overt nutrient deficiencies.
So, and again, this kind of circles back maybe a little bit to some of this, kind of, you know, marginalized populations, social justice concerns. If you’ve got a small family, you know, family of four living at the margins, parents are working two jobs, they’ve got a couple of kids, how likely is it that they are going to be totally on point with their nutrition and in a spot where they’re going to perfectly supplement their food to make all this stuff work? And this extends even into the developing world where people are being told that their traditional ways of eating and living, which includes animal products, that they should get rid of those because of the, you know, potential damage via climate change. And these people don’t have a CVS or a Walmart to walk to and get, you know, EPA, DHA from a cold-extracted, you know, sea vegetables and stuff like that.
So this is, again, one of these points that it’s very hard to have a nuanced conversation around this. And you can face the ire of regular media, social media. You look like kind of a goofball suggesting that, you know, plant-based diets may actually be injurious to people versus, you know, like, the panacea that they’re sold as. But I think that the science supports that pretty strongly. And again, particularly at the early and late stages of life, I think a person in their 20s, 30s, maybe 40s can potentially get away with this stuff in a more effective way. But I think it’s more speaking to their relative tolerance, not that they’re actually thriving on this scenario.
And I would throw out the additional caveat that if somebody is eating a pretty terrible, you know, standard American diet, and they shift to a whole food vegan-based diet, they’re probably going to look, feel, and perform better until these overt nutrient deficiencies pop up. And this is where they’re really gonna need to supplement in an intelligent way to avoid those problems long-term.
Dr. Hedberg: Yeah, it’s hard to have a nuanced conversation about almost anything these days. And I’ve been thinking a lot about…You know, in the West, you know, religion is dying. And so a lot of people are just looking for meaning and purpose in their lives. And I think in some individuals, you know, just taking a position on something like becoming a vegan or going on a plant-based diet, it does give some meaning and purpose to the individual, and from a place where they probably couldn’t get it compared to how they used to be able to get it past. And so I think that that could be part of it for some people. But unfortunately, when you identify with a particular tribe or position like that, it’s very difficult to have a conversation regarding anything contrary to those belief systems.
Robb: Yeah, and you raise a good point like that. I think that that need for purpose and belonging is very powerful, and it’s very legitimate, you know. And I think that’s a little bit of the social upheaval that the United States is seeing right now, you know, people desperately want to belong to a tribe, to your point. And, man, it gets devilishly hard to go in and provide much commentary, you know, to folks in that scene without really, really putting oneself in the crosshairs, for sure, yeah.
Dr. Hedberg: Right. Right. So one of the other misconceptions out there that I’d like to clarify is this, kind of, you know, negative view of cattle and its effects on the environment. So, a lot of people think they have issues with the methane, you know, is there enough land for the cattle to graze on? Don’t they consume too much water? Aren’t they contributing to climate change, things like that? So can you talk a little bit about those issues and cattle, and try and clarify some of those misconceptions?
Robb: Yeah, you set that up beautifully for me, and I hope I don’t screw this up. But there’s a lot of moving parts to this. But you know, there was a piece that has really made the circles within social media that animal husbandry contributes to 38% of greenhouse gas emissions, you know, kind of, modern animal husbandry. And this was just kind of thrown out there, there really wasn’t much citation attached to it. And it’s been picked up in scientific papers. It’s definitely been picked up by the media. And when you really dig into those claims, what you find is that actually greenhouse gas emissions from cattle and animal husbandry at large is somewhere more along about 3%. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less.
But it’s in an interesting context. You and I are greenhouse gas emitters right now, we’re exhaling carbon dioxide. And that is one of the primary greenhouse gases. Methane is of particular interest from climate change perspectives because it’s a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide is. But it’s worth noting that methane only has about a 10-year lifespan in the atmosphere. It gets exposed to ultraviolet radiation and can get cleaved and it gets degraded into water and carbon dioxide. And then that carbon dioxide becomes part of the carbon cycle. The sun shines on the earth, and if there are plants there to absorb that light, they engage in this process called photosynthesis, where they take carbon dioxide and use it to build the substrates that, you know, all of the rest of life basically feeds upon. And the byproducts of that is a little bit of water and a little bit of oxygen.
And that is a fairly stable cycle, it will go up or go down a little bit depending on how much greenery is around. But by and large, organic living systems are, kind of, in a somewhat stable equilibrium with regards to the greenhouse gases that are emitted versus produced. But where some of the danger comes in on it, so one is that the greenhouse gas emissions from animal products are much, much less than what is generally claimed. The other piece to this story that’s really important to consider is that if we start demonizing all greenhouse gases from any source, then we get into some dangerous areas.
So recently, it was discovered that termites produce monumental amounts of methane. Shellfish on the ocean floor produce huge amounts of methane. Rice paddies producing rice in different locations, also a major contributor to methane production. Because of this, people have suggested that we should eradicate termites, shellfish, and possibly curtail rice production in an effort to mitigate climate change. And this is just insanity. You know, and again, this is, one, they really…when we look at it from the perspective of a cycle, then yes, some is going into the atmosphere, but also some of it is coming back out of the atmosphere. And there’s, kind of, a dynamic equilibrium there that has existed throughout, again, life on Earth, and there tends to be ebbs and flows in this.
And it’s a little bit reminiscent of, you know, like 2007, 2008, when folks were talking about, like, the housing bubble that was gonna happen, and people like Ben Bernanke, he said, “Oh, we’ve offloaded risk,” you know. And I’m a little bit of an econ wonk and like to dig into that stuff. But there’s this hubris that many people have that we have this profound insight and control over nature. And from my perspective, we just do not. And not surprisingly, the 2008 housing bubble exploded, and it nearly destroyed, you know, the global economic scene. And in this case of trying to talk about why we should, you know, remove animal husbandry from the food system, it is a small piece of what is, you know, a rather large and complex puzzle that includes things like termites and shellfish and whatnot.
And we actually had an interesting natural experiment at the beginning of COVID when transportation was largely shut down, and what we…During this time, much less travel occurred via automobiles, trucks, airplanes, the number of grazing animals did not decrease, if anything it increased. And carbon dioxide methane emissions decreased during that time. So the transportation sector is really the place that we should be, you know, focusing some attention. And I’m not actually in the camp that we should, like, wholesale do away with fossil fuels tomorrow, like we don’t have yet good alternatives there. And so, if you really wanna mess the world up, make fossil fuels super expensive, and then people will start cutting down trees and deforestation to feed themselves and cook their foods and stuff like that. But this is a really big topic that we did, is a pretty thorough job of, kind of, pulling out was this, kind of, methane topic. And hopefully, I did a decent job on that here.
But you also raised the water consumption issue. And I don’t want to bore people too much, but when we consider the water usage in the cow story in particular, oftentimes what is thrown out there is that, well, if we just took the food that was fed to cattle and fed that to humans, then we could feed far more people. One problem with that currently is that about 50% of the food that is produced is thrown away. So we already produce more food than what we eat. And so we definitely have some buffer to increase food production even within current models. But one could easily make the case that we’re over-producing calories and under-producing nutrition. So even though there are calories floating around out there, like, are we actually producing enough nutrient-dense food that we can feed humans so that they’re not sick from the food that they’re eating? Which I think is a worthwhile question.
But when you look at the water consumption story, it’s interesting. The water that falls on grass, that feeds grasslands, which 100% pastured meat spends all of its life on grass, even conventional meat spends 70% of its life on grass, but that water is reported as if it was being stolen from somewhere else. So you know, papers have been written saying that cattle are a disproportionately large water hog, that there’s all this water that is allocated to them. But again, this is just water that falls on grasslands. And that’s a good thing. We want grasslands, we want vibrant grasslands. Like, they are, interestingly, a major sink potentially for carbon sequestration. When the grass grows and the grasslands are healthy, and there’s a vibrant interplay between grass and grazing animals, it appears that large amounts of carbon dioxide can be stored underground in the form of carbon. So you know, it really misrepresents what that water is doing.
A good example of some arguably poor water usage is actually almonds. Like, a huge amount of almonds are produced in California, and they’re mainly irrigated with groundwater. And that groundwater is getting pumped out of the ground far faster than what it’s getting replaced. And 70% or 80% of the almonds that are produced in California are then sold abroad, mainly to China. So we’re taking the tiny bit of groundwater that we have left in this most productive bit of farmland, arguably in the world, but definitely in the United States, and we’re mining this water, producing almonds, and then selling it abroad. And so you know, there’s no outcry around almond production or almond milk. And again, I’m not necessarily advocating that we curtail that per se, but let’s just compare apples to apples in the story. Like, if we’re really concerned about water resource allocations, like that is a damn good place to look. And so the water piece is another, kind of, spicy meatball to unpack.
We talked a little bit about the methane story. And you know, again, I think I alluded to this a little bit, some people raise the question of, well, how much more food could we provide to humans if we didn’t feed animals? Conventional beef still spends 70% of its life on grass, it wouldn’t be that hard to convert that to a mainly grass-based approach. Although it’s worth mentioning that there are some places like Northern Canada, even places in Northern United States where overwintering animals with some amount of grain is a smart thing. And people have been doing it for hundreds of years. So we also need to not be so idealistic about things that we create scenarios in which viable, long-term solutions are made impossible because, you know, people become kind of meat elitists.
But it’s worth mentioning that pork and chicken are 100% dependent on, kind of, grain and soybean inputs. And so, if we were to acknowledge a scenario in which a significant amount of resources are, you know, diverted into animal feed, it’s in the case of pork and chicken. But this is kind of a funny aside. But Leonardo DiCaprio produced this film in conjunction with the National Geographic Society before the flood. A very beautiful film, it’s very scary, it’s compelling, you know, it warns us about climate change. It tells us about how terrible animal husbandry is for the planet, specifically cattle. And then it recommends that we eat more chicken and less beef.
And the irony is that enormous amounts of money went into this film, very successful, smart people, and nobody sat down and asked the question, is chicken or beef the more sustainable option of the two? And so it shows you how even very smart, moneyed, connected, world-changing people can get something very, very wrong. Like, it is an easy calculation to make to show that chicken is a terrible option from a resource management perspective relative to cattle.
And prior to the 1940s, before the industrialization of the U.S. food system, there was a saying that came up, like a kind of a political thing, “A chicken in every pot.” And that’s because chicken used to be a very rarely consumed item because most people ate lamb and beef, a little bit of pork, and very occasionally chicken. Because chicken was this, kind of, background item that…people had chickens, but they weren’t raised at an industrial scale because they didn’t exist in an industrial scale. They are a background feature of ecology relative to ruminants and grazing animals.
So, you know, it’s funny, because we’ve been able to industrialize our food system, it’s really papered over the way that ecology in the world works. And so I think it’s easy for people to make this assumption that oh, you know, chickens are small, so probably they don’t take up a lot of resources and whatnot. But they’re a monogastric organism, like they can’t eat exclusively grass and live off that. They can pick at it some, but they have to eat bugs and seeds and some more nutrient-dense items for them to function. So again, I know that that was a lot to cover. I don’t know if I did a great job on it. But those are, kind of, the three big areas that folks bring up with regards to the different environmental impacts that are associated with meat production and consumption.
Dr. Hedberg: Yes, yeah, that tied it all together quite nicely. It’s interesting you brought up water because I think it takes one gallon of water to make one almond. And I think it’s around 254 gallons of water to make a single avocado. And so you know, a lot of the people that are saying these things about cattle and resources and things like that, if you follow the water trail, as you mentioned, to some of these plant-based crops, you’re seeing massive amounts of water usage and depletion. And also large numbers of rabbits and mice, small animals like that, they get killed pretty readily harvesting plant-based crops. And that’s just another thing to think about, you know, in this whole conversation. And let’s talk a little bit about the ethics of eating animals, this is something I’ve thought about for a while. And I was really persuaded by Dr. William MacAskill. He’s a professor at Oxford University. He’s the founder of the Effective Altruism Movement. And he was talking about the ethics of eating animals. He has a really interesting perspective. You can tell he thinks a lot about these things, you know, being a philosopher.
But in any case, he says, if our goal is to have, obviously, you know, happy, healthy humans and healthy, happy animals on the planet, if we decrease our consumption of animals that we’re going to decrease the number of happy cows having happy, healthy lives. And so that’s a net negative because we want more happy, healthy cows living and thriving and being happy. And so, if we all just stopped eating meat or significantly reduced our consumption, we would have fewer happy lives. So how do you look at, you know, is it unethical to eat animals and, you know, the various arguments for and against that?
Robb: Yeah, it’s a really good question. And you know, when we were putting the book and the film together, we agonized over which angle we should start with first. And we actually thought about the ethics discussion first. And as we progress through the book, what we found was that there was a really compelling case, you know, the ethics…it’s an interesting discussion to just say, well, we should kill or harm as few things as possible. And it’s like, okay, I’ll maybe sign off on that.
But then what does that really mean in a food system that feeds a planet, you know? And it’s presented as if there is no death associated with industrial row crop food systems. And there’s actually a really fascinating paper called “The Least Harm Principle.” It was from a professor of ecology, kind of in the agriculture scene, where they did some calculations around how many animals are killed as a consequence of animal husbandry, but then how many animals are killed in the production of wheat and corn and not…you know, small animals, birds, insects, you know, invertebrates, changing of, you know, all these different ecosystems and whatnot.
And what was interesting was that they came back with the least-harm way of eating, arguably, was a grass-centric model with lots of large grazing animals, fruit, nuts, and different root and tubers. And so really minimizing like the grain production and whatnot. And this was the way that we optimized the least harm principle. And ironically, this looks exactly what we recommend for the most nutrient-dense diet also. And so that was kind of interesting. And then it also possibly maximizes total food production, ironically.
So, when you start having a discussion around ethics, you know, you can operate at a very, kind of, knee-jerk response level. Well, it’s bad to kill an animal. It’s like, okay, maybe, but, you know, what’s the context there? And Diana detailed, both in the book and the film, some examples of folks who are or were vegan, and they started a farm. They’re like, “We want to have a farm.” So they started a farm. And they motorred along for a while until they figured out, wow, we can’t grow things without inputs like fertilizer. And for a while, they tried to, kind of, fart around with some, like, vegan, you know, inputs like biochar and seaweed and stuff like that.
But they’re fairly far inland, and they’re like, “Okay, so we’re trucking massive amounts of seaweed from the ocean to feed our farm, this doesn’t seem very sustainable.” So they’re like, “Okay, we need to bring animals in here.” So we’re gonna use the animals to nutrify the soil to grow the plants that we want to eat. And then what they found was that if they wanted that to work, they actually needed to breed the animals. And if you bred the animals, then you started having a problem with like how many you were going to have.
And these folks went through this process of being vegan, and vegan farmers, and then vegan farmers who used animals, and then not vegan farmers anymore, but just farmers, because they realized that they needed to consume the animals as part of this whole lifecycle process. There are some really, kind of, heart-wrenching stories out there of these vegan, you know, oriented folks who do these animal rescues. And they’ve got these very old cows and chickens and pigs and all kinds of different animals. And they’re facing the same end of life dilemmas that we face with, like, our parents and grandparents, and one day we will all face. Like, they’re suffering, they’re not in great quality of life. What do we do with them?
And some of these vegan folks have suggested, well, maybe we need to euthanize these animals. And some people agree with it. And other people say, well, you’re a horrible person, we’ll cancel culture you if you do. But instead, they’re waiting for these animals to “die a natural death,” which maybe that means getting eaten alive from a coyote, which happens in some cases. And like, man, some of the nature show stuff you can find out there where, you know, literally an animal is being…its innards are being eaten while it is still alive. Like that is not a pleasant way to go. And you think about a modern butchering and processing scenario where the animals are kept calm because that makes for better meat and also it’s just an ethical thing to do. And then they are shot once, and they’re gone. And there is a certain amount of…that’s a heavy thing, like, a life is taken.
But one of the biggest challenges in this kind of ethical consideration is that people have forgotten that we are part…life, in order for it to go on, has to have death. You know, there’s a cycle. It sounds very trite, but you know, it’s kind of a “Lion King” cycle of life type stuff. Like, that is actually the real deal. And it’s a tough pill to swallow because we have to face our own mortality and, you know, our own reality that our existence will, at least in this form, not go on forever. And I think that this is one of the…you know, multiple angles. I think that there’s a lot of good intention in these folks oftentimes. I think that there have been examples of animals being terribly mistreated.
And again, I would make the case that pork and chicken, unless it is raised in a truly kind of pastured setting, which makes it far more expensive and much less a mainstay staple, you know, the raising of chickens and pork arguably is a much less humane process versus even conventional cattle production because the cows spend the bulk of their time on grass. And these confined area feeding operations, although not great, they’re a good bit better than the way that pork and chicken spend their whole life. So, the ethics topic is really complex, I guess is, kind of, the long and short of it.
But we ended up looking at the reality that it’s very, very difficult to feed humans a nutrient-appropriate diet without animal products. We looked at the reality that animal husbandry may be a critical feature of mitigating climate change. Like, animals raised properly on grass may provide for a massive carbon sink, a removal of carbon from the atmosphere, and the properly raised grazing animals could be the only tool that we have to reverse desertification. So there’s a very powerful case for animals to be included, from a nutrition perspective, from an environmental perspective.
So then that really changes the calculus around what we’re talking about from an ethics perspective. Like, if it’s hard or possible for people particularly in developing countries to get adequate nutrition without animal products, if there are no other food options available to lots of people because of the environment that they live in, if traditional food ways have included animal products for centuries or thousands of years and now they’re being under siege because a mainly white, Western, vegan-centric population is saying that they’re evil or they’re causing damage to the environment, like is that really okay in this, kind of, you know, woke, modern age where, you know, everybody is supposed to have the sanctity of their life always, kind of, honored?
It changes the story around ethics a lot. And I think it still does default back to, we should endeavor to do the least harm. We should endeavor to have the best quality of life for the animals that we are taking their lives, and eating them, and benefiting from that. But that doesn’t have to be a heinous act. It doesn’t have to be a, you know, a heartless process. But it also needs to be acknowledged that it’s part of a cycle. And that this goal of, like, a bloodless food system, I think it’s laudable, but it’s also pretty misguided, and ultimately, largely impossible to achieve.
Dr. Hedberg: Excellent. So the book is “Sacred Cow,” and the documentary is also “Sacred Cow.” And that’s available on Amazon. And then, how would you like people to find you online? What is your website and your other contact information?
Robb: Robbwolf.com is my main website. I have a community called The Healthy Rebellion, and people can check that out, join.thehealthyrebellion.com. And although I have some social media accounts, I do not…I have an assistant that posts on those, and I don’t curate them at all anymore. Like, social media has just gotten to be a little bit crazy. And so my wife and I do a podcast also called “The Healthy Rebellion.” And that’s kind of the main stuff that I do.
Dr. Hedberg: Excellent. Well, fantastic work on the documentary and the book. I think it’s gonna help a lot of people make a decision about how they want to eat and and who they want to support. So, a full transcript of this will be posted on drhedberg.com. Just go to my website and search for “Sacred Cow” and I’ll have all the links to Robb’s website, and the documentary, and the book. So thank you for tuning in, everyone. Take care. This is Dr. Hedberg. And I will talk to you next time.