Can Eating Meat Be Good For You? And The Planet?

30 days, 0 vegetables, 99 pounds of meat, 12 poops, 42.5 hours of deep sleep, $950, and -3.1 pounds of carbon dioxide: An empirical analysis of the carnivore diet, regenerative agriculture, and the potential environmental benefit of meat.

Cattle Grazing on Pasture
Cattle Grazing on Pasture
There’s more to cattle than beef and carbon emissions

Are vegetables good for you? Is meat bad for you?

For most of us conscious eaters, these questions seem inconsequential and their answers obvious, easily confirmed by the growing trend of plant-based meat alternatives and the abundance of scientific data indicting meat for our health woes.

Athletes and celebrities like Kyrie Irving, Serena Williams, Joaquin Phoenix, and James Cameron proudly sport vegan lifestyles. Films like What The Health, The Game Changers, and many others praise the benefits of a plant-based diet. In most circles, the supremacy of plant foods is simply unquestioned. It has become an incontrovertible truth, one we’ve all known since as far back as we can remember, echoes of mom saying “finish your veggies” reverberating in our skulls.

But what if we were wrong?

What if you took the two banal questions at the top and flipped them on their heads:

Are vegetables BAD for you? Is meat GOOD for you?

These might be more interesting questions to explore. Asked in this way, instead of confirmation bias tending toward the already widely accepted convention of “plants good, meat bad,” we might try to prove or disprove the opposite.

I am by no means the first one to ask these questions. Apparently, I’m not even in a small minority here. When I first started looking into the carnivore diet, I was astonished at just how many people were experimenting with it and how much information was being shared around it. Even more, I was surprised that… a lot of it made sense.

The main thing that resonated with me was the biological perspective on the organisms we eat for nourishment. From middle school science class, I remember learning that every living organism has two basic imperatives:

  1. survive, and
  2. reproduce.

If you apply this lens to the things we eat, you start to understand how some people might believe that vegetables can be bad for you, that plant foods, not meat, are to blame for the laundry list of our health problems, mostly by way of chronic inflammation.

(Indeed, “chronic inflammatory diseases are the most significant cause of death in the world.” They include stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, heart disorders, cancer, obesity, and diabetes. After the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 49 percent of people hospitalized for COVID-19 had preexisting hypertension, 48 percent were obese, and 28 percent had diabetes. All three are symptoms of chronic inflammation.)

For biological imperative number one, survival, an animal’s tactics include speed, camouflage, claws, fangs, and occasionally poison. A plant, on the other hand, can’t run away or physically fight back. Its first line of defense against being eaten is often a thick barrier, like bark or a cuticle, and possibly hard shells, thorns, or spines. If the exterior defense is breached, a plant’s primary survival mechanism generally comes down to chemical warfare: toxins and enzymes that deter, harm, or even kill animals that ingest them.

Plant metabolites like alkaloids can produce noxious fumes or repugnant tastes, or cause excessive stimulation (caffeine) or lethargy (opioids). Other compounds like glycol cyanide, found in cassava roots, release cyanide upon ingestion. Still more deadly compounds produced by plants, like cardiac and steroidal glycosides, can cause nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, convulsions, or death if ingested.

Importantly, some plants approach survival as a long game, at the species level, with a focus on the second biological imperative: reproduction. They take the view that the best defense (survival) is a good offense (reproduction). A fruit- or nut-bearing plant, for example, offers tasty, high-energy snacks that attract mobile eaters, luring them into taking a bite. Being eaten is the goal here, at least in part, so that the eater may disperse the plant’s seeds and produce life anew for its progeny. Seeds tend to be heavily protected, often coated in antinutrients like phytic acid or containing cyanogenic glycosides like amygdalin, to ensure they stay intact through the gastrointestinal tract or even get discarded.

Ultimately, it seems that a plant’s survival is dependent on wholly or partially avoiding digestion. So what does that mean for us humans, who persistently prey on potentially pernicious plants? Perhaps, not much.

If you believe the hype, some high-performing athletes like Patrik Baboumian stay at the top of their game by eating almost entirely plants. Yet again, other elite athletes like Zach Bitter consume copious amounts of animal foods, while some go as far as eating only meat.

So what’s going on here?

To further examine the validity of this unconventional idea, and possibly the flaws in our conventional thinking, I committed to trying the carnivore diet for a month: 30 days, zero vegetables. Actually, no plants whatsoever. Fully aware of my bias favoring meat, I took on a carnivorous way of eating to collect some empirical data and examine three important questions:

  1. Could meat be good for you?
  2. Could vegetables be bad for you? More specifically to me: Could plant foods be to blame for my chronic pain?
  3. Could meat be good for the environment?

I planned the start of this experiment to coincide with my move from city life to a farm called White Oak Pastures, where they practice regenerative agriculture and I could eat, very literally, farm to table. Because as much as the growing interest in carnivory is health motivated, I also believe the ecological impact of meat- and plant-eating is largely misunderstood and could use some good old N=1 analysis.

But first…

What exactly is the carnivore diet?

Put simply, the carnivore diet consists of only animal products, but there’s a spectrum. My food intake consisted of meat, dairy, eggs, salt, and water. That’s it. I didn’t eat anything that contained anything else. No sauces, dressings, etc. No teas or coffee. The ONLY exception I made was bacon. White Oak Pastures bacon is sugar-free but cured with kosher salt, red pepper flakes, black pepper, celery powder, and cherry powder.

If you want to be (even more) extreme about it, the true zealots eat only beef, salt, and water. Some call this the lion diet. Fun fact: the lion is my spirit animal, so I was tempted to go all out, but I thought having the option of cheese every so often would increase the likelihood that I’d actually make it a full month. And bacon. Hard to live without bacon.

Basically, the carnivore diet is the complete opposite of a plant-based diet. It means no plants whatsoever, Impossible Foods’ imitation heme be damned.

Common concerns about an all-meat diet

Given our pervasively conventional understanding of diet and health, the first few thoughts that jump to mind when considering a carnivore diet are: What about fiber, won’t you get constipated? What about vitamin C, won’t you get scurvy? And WHAT ABOUT FIBER? HOW WILL YOU POOP?!

On vitamin C. As it turns out, there is vitamin C in beef liver and in eggs. Not as much as in an orange, but in the context of a carnivore diet, these sources provide sufficient levels of vitamin C to avoid scurvy and any real deficiency. According to the masses in several different carnivore-focused communities, as long as you’re eating nose to tail, or at the very least supplementing beef liver, vitamin C deficiency is not a concern.

On fiber. Poop, regularity, colon cancer, constipation! You might think a meat-heavy diet would require lots of fiber, but you would be wrong. The supposed importance of fiber in a healthy diet seems to be widely accepted, but it may very well be a consequence of modernization. Effectively, fiber has been recommended for its supposed metabolic benefit, particularly as it relates to mitigating the adverse metabolic effects of a high-carbohydrate diet. The “benefit” is that fiber slows the digestion of food and hinders nutrient accessibility and absorption. But the context in which these effects are a benefit is that of an unhealthy diet. On a healthy diet, or more specifically here, on a diet low in carbohydrates, the effects of fiber are unnecessary.

After a moderate level of research, I felt safe to conclude that the alleged benefits of dietary fiber address problems spawned by the modern American diet in the first place, if they address any problems at all. It’s more likely that dietary fiber is a soon to be anachronistic idea, its health claims part of an attempt to sell more of a surplus crop, itself the result of an outdated farm subsidy. In fact, the World Journal of Gastroenterology published a study showing that reducing fiber actually reduces digestive issues.

And if you’re concerned about colon cancer, at least two double-blind, randomized clinical trials have shown that neither a dietary supplement of wheat-bran fiber nor a high-fiber diet reduced the risk of colorectal adenoma, the precursor to colorectal cancer.

A fiberless diet seems counterintuitive until you think about babies: for the first 6 months of our lives, humans eat absolutely no fiber yet have no problem filling up diapers.

On hydration. While it didn’t immediately jump to mind as a concern, a little research revealed that a meat-only diet can mean increased electrolyte loss leading to dehydration. Because a carnivore diet is essentially an extreme form of a Keto diet, my body would be in ketosis and flushing out more salt. This leads to reduced water retention and can result in dehydration. So I planned on drinking two liters of water per day and being generous with salting my meat. I bought a 1-liter Nalgene to easily track my water intake, aiming for two full bottles everyday.

All that aside…

Could meat be good for you?

According to Dr. Christine Jones, today you would need to eat “twice as much meat, three times as much fruit, and four to five times as many vegetables to get the same amount of minerals and trace elements available in those same foods in 1940” because of soil degradation from extractive farming practices.

While the micronutrient content of meat has decreased, it has not diminished as much as in plants, probably due to bioaccumulation. The animals are doing the work for us, eating and metabolizing plants all day and accumulating important micronutrients in their fat and muscle tissue.

Meat, then, would be a more effective delivery vehicle of micronutrients in addition to macronutrients. By eating only meat, it would seem that I could get more of what I need with less of what I don’t.

If your instinct here is to call out cholesterol and saturated fat, it may be time for you to rethink those longstanding beliefs. Despite the long prevailing consensus to the contrary, I’m confident in the position that saturated fat and cholesterol intake are not actually the underlying cause of our chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease. Modern reviews of the research back this view and continue to invalidate the “faulty but long-held beliefs that dietary intake of saturated fat led to heart disease.”

In fact, most of the nutritional science we have around the diet-heart hypothesis, though large in volume, is based on a rather faulty foundation rife with confirmation bias, cherry-picking, ego, conflict of interest, and politics.

That’s a topic for another time, but suffice it to say that eating meat won’t kill you. After all, it’s not like humans don’t have a long track record of eating a largely animal-based diet, like the Inuit and the Maasai.

Could plant foods be to blame for my chronic pain?

A major reason I did this experiment is that I’ve had chronic neck pain for over 6 years. I have disc bulges in my neck (C5–6 and C6–7) and neural foraminal stenosis in multiple places. Sometimes, this condition can be symptomless. Its causes include general wear and tear over time and trauma, among others. It’s very possible I’ve had this spinal stenosis for a long time (I grew up playing ice hockey) and was just asymptomatic. In my mid-20s, symptoms started to present, ranging from dull aching to sharp pain, muscle spasms to tingling, and limited range of motion to debilitating muscle soreness on the worst days. Doctors have not been very helpful. Their modus operandi is to prescribe varying levels of pain medication. If it gets really bad, my options are to get an epidural or surgery, neither of which sound like good options to me.

I’ve done lots of physical therapy, I’ve seen chiropractors and acupuncturists, none of it was helpful long-term (though I’ve found acupuncture to be the most effective for short-term relief from acute flare-ups).

One thing I’ve learned through monitoring my habits and day-to-day pain is that the pain at this stage seems to be a result of inflammation. Agitation or prolonged strain causes an inflammatory response; nerve compression seems to increase; and therefore pain, soreness, or tingling goes up.

So if I can’t actually fix the root problem (without surgical intervention), I might at least be able to address the tangential cause of the pain symptoms by reducing the inflammatory response. I see two ways of doing that: 1) improving my posture and altering the way I hold up my head and neck, and 2) minimizing the intensity potential of inflammatory flare-ups and reducing overall inflammation.

A carnivore diet might help with method two. By eating an all-meat diet, I’m basically eliminating all inflammatory foods that might be causing a reaction (except for red meat and saturated fat, that is, which are commonly misconceived to be inflammatory; more on that later). I was skeptical, of course, but also cautiously optimistic because I’d heard some incredible anecdotes of people’s experiences with going carnivore and eliminating chronic pain.

Could meat be good for the environment?

The third question I wanted to answer with empirical data from this 30-day carnivore challenge is about ecological impact. Because of the growing hype around plant-based diets as a way to address climate change, it has become vogue to center plants and decry meat. I fear that this idea, while noble and well-intentioned, may be fatally misinformed.

Plant foods have a smaller carbon footprint than industrial beef, fact. Also fact: industrial beef is not the only beef that exists. In fact, it’s a sorely bastardized version of what beef used to be, can be, and should be. Ruminant animals have long played a crucial role in grassland ecosystems, which accounts for slightly more than a third of the Earth’s landmass. These grasslands and their ruminant grazers could play a key role in mitigating climate change through carbon storage and sequestration. Far from being destructive, livestock farming can actually restore degraded lands through proper grazing management.

Regenerative grazing, as it’s called, aims to mimic nature’s cycles rather than the linearity of our industrial processes. This type of farming can actually provide a net benefit to the environment. It helps the land retain more water and makes it more drought resistant. It builds healthy soil and brings life back to degraded ecosystems. It helps put carbon back into the ground. According to a recent Life Cycle Assessment, regenerative grazing may even produce carbon negative beef.

Everything I ate on the carnivore diet

For these 30 days, I logged every single thing I consumed. Every. Single. Thing. They are all compiled in the images below. The weights are raw food weights and mostly approximated, though I did use a food scale for some of it.

Carnivore Food Log Week 1
Carnivore Food Log Week 1
Carnivore Food Log Week 2
Carnivore Food Log Week 2
Carnivore Food Log Week 3
Carnivore Food Log Week 3
Carnivore Food Log Week 4
Carnivore Food Log Week 4

Again, this food log is completely inclusive. The only exceptions are: salt, which I did not measure; the salt and pepper in the Epic Pork Rinds; and the spices from the sugar-free bacon — salt, red pepper flakes, black pepper, celery powder, and cherry powder.

Other than that, everything I put into my body for these 30 days is recorded here.

Empirical data from 30 days of a carnivore diet

In addition to logging my food and water intake, I tracked some other metrics as well, including sleep, mood, energy, cost, and poop frequency. Based on my carefully recorded food consumption, I calculated the net carbon impact of my 30-day carnivore diet, which provides a counterweight to the common chorus about meat’s environmental cost. I also got my bloodwork done before the experiment, so I could do a before and after comparison, but due to quarantine measures around the pandemic, I was not able to get the post-carnivore bloodwork to compare. For now, these other measurements will have to suffice, and maybe I’ll take this up again in the future to complete a bloodwork comparison.

Sleep + Recovery

I wear a WHOOP fitness tracker, which collected some great data for this experiment. It’s similar to the Oura ring, which has gotten really popular in the tech and quantified self communities, but I prefer the wristband over the ring format. They both work similarly, using LEDs to monitor heart rate, heart rate variability, resting heart rate, and respiratory rate. Here are some of my WHOOP statistics from the 30 days of carnivore.

Recovery Score. The Recovery Score indicates how well rested I am and how primed my body is to take on the day. It tends to correlate with sleep, especially quality sleep, but is also impacted by things like meal timing, alcohol, exercise, and caffeine. Green is good, red is bad.

Chart of my Recovery Score statistics from WHOOP fitness tracker.
Chart of my Recovery Score statistics from WHOOP fitness tracker.

My Recovery Score from my WHOOP fitness tracker indicates that I had very poor recovery the first six days. From day seven on, my Recovery Score was good to excellent with the exception of Day 25, when I only slept for 3.5 hours the night before.

Sleep Stages. The following sleep statistics show how much of my sleep was spent in each stage. According to WHOOP, Light sleep is the “physiological process taken to transition to deep sleep.” Slow Wave Sleep, also known as deep sleep, is when physical recovery happens, i.e., your muscles repair and grow. REM sleep is when the brain recovers, including the consolidation and retention of memories.

My average sleep statistics for the month
My average sleep statistics for the month

These are my numbers for average time spent in each sleep stage: 3 hours 30 minutes in Light sleep (46.2%), 1 hour 43 minutes in REM sleep (22.6%), 1 hour 25 minutes in SWS Deep sleep (18.7%), and 57 minutes Awake (12.5%). Compared to the average across other WHOOP users, I spent slightly less time in bed overall and less time in deep sleep, but a higher portion of my time asleep was spent in deep sleep. This is a good sign, especially considering that WHOOP users likely make more of an effort to get quality sleep than the general population.

My daily sleep statistics for the month
My daily sleep statistics for the month

This chart shows my daily breakdown of time spent in each sleep stage. It appears to correlate well with my recovery scores.

Energy + Mood + Poop

Each day, I ranked my mood and energy on a scale of 0 to 10. These qualitative metrics are charted below, overlaid onto my food and water intake, as well as poop frequency.

Chart of my food and water intake, poop frequency, and quantified mood and energy
Chart of my food and water intake, poop frequency, and quantified mood and energy

My mood and energy fluctuate a lot in the first 12 days and then rise to a pretty steady high over the following 10 days. They start to fluctuate again in the final week, likely due to the dehydration I experienced and a night of very little sleep.

I also kept some more detailed qualitative notes on how I was feeling each day. Highlights below.

The first two weeks were an adjustment period for my body.

  • Day 4: Got really tired for a brief moment sometime after lunch, to the point where if I let my eyes shut I would have immediately fallen asleep. Got really impatient and cranky around 7pm.
  • Day 7: Grocery shopping was really challenging for me to not buy a lot of junk food, the colors of the packaging never looked so vivid.
  • Day 8: Got winded easily hiking Providence Canyon, then got really tired. I think I was dehydrated.
  • Day 10: First poop in days. Great mood all day today except a little snappy while waiting to eat dinner. Start of a sore throat.
  • Day 12: Took the day off work, sore throat got worse.
  • Day 13: Exhausted making dinner tonight, prepping for tomorrow. Left shoulder is achey, like I’m getting sick.

The next few days, my body seemed to adjust to the new normal.

  • Day 14: Sick but recovering.
  • Day 16: Not feeling as sick anymore, though I’ve had a bit of a runny nose. Might be allergies.

Into the third week, I started to really hit my stride and feel the benefits.

  • Day 18: Felt really good today. Noticed I could breathe really well and easily through my nose without any effort; didn’t have to breathe through my mouth at all (I’m a mouth breather). Neck pain seems like it’s gone. Any stiffness in the morning gone by night, different type of pain, just soreness from a shitty mattress, not disc related.
  • Day 19: Body feels limber and loose. Like there was something blocking up my joints and muscles before and now it’s gone. If I eat enough, no crankiness between meals.
  • Day 20: This morning I felt the familiar pain from the discs in my neck while driving to work. By night time though, I feel fine again.

In the fourth week, I stumbled a bit with dehydration from sun exposure.

  • Day 22: Felt a little less energetic in the late afternoon, after being in the sun for a bit, probably dehydrated.
  • Day 23: Hard time getting out of bed this morning. Got a little lightheaded in the late afternoon, almost dizzy. Not sure what it was from, feel like I didn’t eat enough yesterday.

One interesting thing was how quickly I was able to rebound after a night of very little sleep. Normally, it would take me at least a couple days.

  • Day 25: Not very productive today after only 3.5 hours of sleep last night.
  • Day 26: Rebounded from the little sleep I got two nights ago, even though I only slept about 6 hours of sleep last night.

On the second to last day, I got really dehydrated, probably from overdoing it on a run the day before.

  • Day 29: Waking up this morning was especially tough for some reason. Hard to describe the feeling, it wasn’t sore but it felt similar in a mental way. Like my brain was awakening from a deep slumber. It was almost painful but went away quickly once I was up and about. Came back though shortly after that. I think I was severely dehydrated. Was weak and fatigued all day, couldn’t stomach eating anything. When I started drinking salt water and broth, it started to go away.
  • Day 30: Felt a lot better today; dehydration thing was scary. Electrolytes would be good to have on hand as insurance.

Key health takeaways:

Energy. Taking a holistic view of the data above, it took about two weeks for my body adjust to the carnivore diet. I definitely got a bit of the keto flu, but it looks like my recovery from sleep had already started surging around then.

In the third week, my mood and energy soared to a consistent high until I got a bout of dehydration on Day 23 from too much sun, and then again on Day 29 from overdoing it on a run.

Mood. I definitely had some severe crankiness when hungry. Getting hangry is sort of a thing for me anyway, but getting enough calories when eating carnivore can be challenging. Eating fatty cuts of meat or drinking bone broth helped.

Hydration. While I felt I was drinking enough water with aiming for 2 liters per day, I obviously needed more on particularly hot or sunny days, or on days with more physical strain.

At the time, I was not in the habit of exercising regularly, but I did feel more energetic and inclined to work out. Hydration is critical on a carnivore diet, and if I were to do it again, I would definitely supplement electrolytes, especially when working out.

Pain. Not including the dehydration spells, my body felt great and my neck pain was almost entirely gone. Some days I would still wake up with stiffness in my neck, but it would be gone by that same night when it used to last for weeks.

There seems to be a lot of debate around which foods are inflammatory or not. One common line of thinking says that red meat is inflammatory because it is high in saturated fat, despite the lack of controlled trials to support this hypothesis.

My experimentation with the carnivore diet, eating primarily red meat and plenty of saturated fat, has made it clear to me that my inflammation is not caused by red meat or saturated fat. It seems much more likely that my chronic inflammation is more related to the consumption of plant foods.

Sleep. I found that I slept really, really deeply — so deeply that it was a little hard to wake up. Not in a way that I wanted to keep hitting snooze like I typically do — it just felt like my conscious mind had to travel a long way from the depths of my slumber to a waking state. It didn’t take long, I was actually quicker to start the day, but it felt like a mental journey. It could have been related to hydration or meal timing. If I go carnivore again, I would try shifting my eating window to earlier in the day and starting with bigger meals in the morning.

I also had vivid dreams almost every night and would remember them in the mornings, which I almost never do. I’m not sure what it means other than perhaps I was sleeping better. It could be fun to try combining that with lucid dreaming.

Poop. I pooped much less frequently, once or twice per week as opposed to my normal once or twice per day. This is perfectly fine and simply a result of not having much waste, like fiber, to excrete out of my body. I was not constipated at all. Eating only meat and fat, most of it gets burned up as fuel so there’s just less often a need to poop.

Costs + Carbon Emissions

In my 30 days of eating a carnivore diet, I ate 99 pounds of meat, cheese, and eggs. The total cost of food was just shy of $950 for the month. And my calculated net carbon impact was -3.1 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent. That’s negative 3.1 pounds, meaning that more carbon was sequestered back into the earth than emitted into the atmosphere due to my way of eating. How can that be?

Chart of total carbon emissions of each food type I ate
Chart of total carbon emissions of each food type I ate

This chart shows my total food consumed, total costs, and total carbon emissions by food type. Contrary to conventional thinking, beef was not the biggest carbon emitter. In fact, beef was the biggest carbon sink because of how it was produced.

All of the meat I ate was from the farm I was living on, White Oak Pastures. This is the same farm from that Life Cycle Assessment with a net carbon impact of 3.5 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent sequestered per pound of beef.

Because the LCA only measured the carbon emissions for beef at White Oak Pastures, I used the conventional carbon footprints for the non-ruminant meats I consumed. For example, for pork, I used the conventional pork number (9 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per pound of meat) even though I ate pork from this same carbon-negative beef farm. Similarly, I used conventional chicken numbers (6 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per pound of meat) for the eggs and poultry I ate.

Most likely, these numbers overestimate the carbon emissions for my pork, poultry, and egg consumption, because they were not conventionally raised. However, the ruminant and dairy assumptions I made should offset that to some extent. For example, I used the White Oak Pastures beef footprint for goat meat, which is raised here similarly to the beef, and for the cheeses, which came from a nearby grass-fed dairy.

In the end, these numbers may not be completely precise, but they are directionally accurate. The larger point is that they help illuminate some of the possible errors in the way we typically tend to think about different foods and their carbon footprints.

While not everyone can eat from a farm they happen to live on, the environmental takeaway from this experiment is consequential nonetheless. It provides a counterargument to the idea that a plant-based diet is the most environmentally friendly. It begs us to question the very paradigm of minimizing our impact, because when our impact is net beneficial, what we should be doing is maximizing it.

Concluding thoughts

History is littered with the consequences of well-intentioned yet ill-informed ideas, policies, and movements. For the sake of humankind, I’m hoping that Impossible Foods’ goal of “removing animals from the food system” doesn’t become one of them.

Livestock farming contributes to climate change, but it can also be part of the solution, restoring healthy soils and an effective carbon cycle. To be clear, only a tiny fraction of meat is currently produced in this way. Most meat still comes from feedlots known as CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations. According to the USDA, “ Farms with confined livestock types accounted for 99 percent or more of all animal units on all farms with livestock” in 1997. There are some important caveats to note here, including:

  • the oddly broad definition of Farms with confined livestock types: “farms with 4 or more animal units of any combination of fattened cattle, milk cows, swine, chickens or turkeys”;
  • the fact that “Farms with pastured livestock types and few other livestock accounted for about 86 percent of all beef cow animal units on all farms,” as opposed to fattened cattle, which basically means most cattle start out on pastures;
  • and the date of the report, which was now 23 years ago, as the demand and therefore supply of grass-fed, pasture-raised meat has since grown.

A more recent statistic says 95% of US beef cattle were finished on grain in 2017, though I could not find the original source and “finished on grain,” while likely, does not necessarily mean finished in confinement.

All that being said, it’s a near certainty that the majority of meat you consume comes from a CAFO, despite any grass-fed connotation on the packaging. That is, unless you bought it directly from the farmer(s) who raised it. And I mean directly, not via some “better meat” branded blackbox with compelling literature on sourcing practices but no farm-level transparency to back it up. Remember, all beef cattle are technically grass-fed for the majority of their life, so there’s a lot of room here for marketing sleight of hand.

In a similar vein, the vast majority of plant foods, from grains to salad greens, are produced in an industrial and destructive system, eco-friendly messaging and feel-good branding notwithstanding.

Even organic farms can be destructive industrial monoculture operations. In a 2019 USDA survey, “the largest organic farms (sales of $500,000 or more) accounted for fewer than 20% of farms but more than 80% of sales.” And while they are generally prohibited from using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, there are many exceptions. In some cases, the National Organic Standards Board may vote “to allow non-organic versions of a substance if it isn’t available in organic form on a scale large enough to support organic agriculture.”

While the environmental virtue of the plant-based movement is well-intentioned, it is at best ill-informed or myopic. At worst, it’s intentionally misleading, exploiting our collective desire as humans in a consumerist economy to do better. Or at least feel like we’re doing better.

Most often, we’ll settle for feeling like we’re making better choices. Because in reality, accounting for all the consequences of our everyday actions, of our very existence, is incredibly hard. On the verge of learned helplessness, we limit our thinking to how we can do less harm, as opposed to more good. But it’s not our fault. Not entirely. It’s the system that’s problematic, rewarding short-term thinking and behavior that exploits people, place, and planet. Plant-based meat alternatives, as well as the vast majority of real plant foods, are still very much a part of that system, organics included.

So this isn’t about meat versus plants, it’s about an industrial system vs a more localized and regenerative system. The former is a false dichotomy; the latter is a very real tension between an outdated incumbent optimized around the narrowly focused goal of efficiency, and a “new” economy that empowers communities, rebuilds our soils, and may very well help save humanity.

To be clear, the cultivation of plants can also be part of a regenerative agriculture system, but they are not so by default. Most plant foods we consume, organic or not, are part of the established extractive system. Plant-based meat alternatives are no exception. They tap into the existing network of vast monocultural cash crop operations. Not only do they deplete our soils and pollute our waterways, they further centralize wealth and power. They exploit cheap labor, depend on synthetic fertilizers, and still negatively impact the environment, all while making us believe they are part of the solution.

Perhaps, then, in some ways, a carnivore diet is a protest. Not a protest against plants, but a protest against plant-based lies. Because if my hypothesis is valid — that I can feel better, be healthy, and have a positive impact on the environment by eating meat — then why are we even bothering with alternative meat junk in the first place, plant-based, cell-based, or otherwise?

When we start to question common assumptions — that meat is bad for the environment, that farming is a zero-sum game, that pesticides and antibiotics are necessary — those questions start to lead us towards regenerative agriculture and its contemporaries, which ironically would mean a return to methods that predate our nation.

And if this regenerative movement coincides with the widespread rediscovery that meat is a health food, then I’m hopeful that we can move past the erroneous battle of meat vs plants and focus instead on the bigger picture.

Originally published at https://www.edlinbetsthefarm.com.

I left NYC + SF tech to learn how to farm in GA. I write more here: edlinbetsthefarm.com

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