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Thursday, June 06, 2019, 00:36
The misunderstandings about veganism explained
By Paul Stapleton
Thursday, June 06, 2019, 00:36 By Paul Stapleton

Veganism is in the news these days. Plant-based meat is making a splash on the stock market and in Hong Kong restaurants. Quite a few celebrities, including Beyonce, Bill Clinton and Madonna have adopted diets totally free of meat, dairy and eggs. And even some food packaging in supermarkets have symbols indicating their product is suitable for vegans. Most of this news tends to cast veganism in a glowing light because of its supposed positive effects on health and its associations with a lighter carbon footprint.

Like any growing trend, however, there is bound to be some pushback, and that came recently in these pages in an article entitled, “Those advocating veganism need to learn more about science”. The article, as the title suggests, claimed that there is a darker side to veganism, which when examined through the lens of science, is left wanting in certain regards.

The first argument given against veganism was to counter the claim that raising livestock unnecessarily occupies huge amounts of land. According to the article, much of the land used for livestock is marginal grazing land that could not be used for other agricultural purposes. Indeed, this is true, but it misses a much larger and more significant point. Today, throughout most of the world including China, domestic pigs, cows and chicken eat soybean meal and corn to fatten them up quickly. Seventy percent of all soybean crops end up as animal feed. And where do these soybeans come from? Well, the plains of the United States are one source. Another source is the land where the Amazon rainforest used to be. Therefore, most of us do not eat organic grass-fed beef and pork that graze on marginal land. But rather, when we eat meat, it comes from pigs and cows fed on soybeans and corn, so in fact, we are responsible for inefficiently using the rich soils of Kansas and Iowa, as well as the destruction of rainforests.

As for fish, the vast fish farms now operating around the world also use soybeans for feed, along with fish meal. In other words, small fish are caught, ground up and fed to big fish. Not exactly efficient.

The fact is that science shows that a vegan diet is healthier than a carnivorous one again and again. Such a diet has also been scientifically shown to have a significantly smaller carbon footprint. The evidence included here is not advocacy of veganism at all. It is advocacy for the scientific method

The second point given against veganism was that meat is denser than plant food, so, according to the argument, it is harder to satisfy one’s appetite. Here, one wonders where the word, “dense” fits into a scientific assertion, but let’s assume it means fats, as opposed to carbohydrates and protein, the three main components of food apart from water. If so, somehow my breakfast of walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and sunflower seeds with soy milk muesli, and my peanut butter and avocado sandwich for lunch isn’t dense enough to satisfy me. In fact, that breakfast and lunch can compete with any carnivorous meal on the density scale.

The third anti-vegan point in the article laments the amount of antibiotics and pesticides used on modern farms. However, the author points out that much of these chemicals are also used on our crops. True enough; however, as stated above, a great amount of the crops grown in the world today end up being eaten by livestock, which ends up on our dinner plates. 

Finally, the author claims that a vegan diet can cause serious malnutrition and he cherry picks a single study of a 14-month-old vegan toddler that was severely malnourished. Well, if it requires an example of a criminal parent who deprives their baby of breast milk, or milk of any sort, to prove a point against veganism, then I rest my case. But further, the author claims that similar stories about health problems among vegans can be found online. However, I would contend that thousands of times more stories related to heart disease and cancer among meat eaters can also be found. Somehow, Bill Clinton, who had heart disease before becoming a vegan has managed to survive quite well in the decade since he became a vegan.

The fact is that science shows that a vegan diet is healthier than a carnivorous one again and again. Such a diet has also been scientifically shown to have a significantly smaller carbon footprint. The evidence included here is not advocacy of veganism at all. It is advocacy for the scientific method.

The author is an associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong.

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