Is Meat Bad for the Environment? - Dr. Michael Ruscio, DNM, DC

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Is Meat Bad for the Environment?

Debunking common myths about meat and providing a balanced perspective on nutrition and regenerative agriculture with Diana Rodgers

Diana Rodgers—dietitian, author, and filmmaker—speaks internationally about the intersection of optimal human nutrition, regenerative agriculture, and food justice. In this episode, her expertise in and passion for sustainability comes out as she discusses why it’s important to shift away from the anti-meat narrative and instead toward improving our food systems, ecosystem, and health. Listen in to hear why producing and eating meat may do more good than harm.

In This Episode

Intro… 00:08
The vilification and politicization of meat… 04:05
Perceptions of meat around the world… 07:21
The Global Burden of Disease Study… 09:15
The reality of cattle production… 12:56
What’s driving the plant-based meat movement?… 20:58
Misconceptions about emissions… 27:42
How carbon sequestration works… 33:49
Can we feed the population with sustainable agriculture?… 38:45
Food supply is not the issue… 41:44
Is grass-finished beef actually healthier?… 44:29
Final points on cattle, land, and ecosystems… 50:23
Where to learn more… 55:09
Outro… 01:01:50

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Intro:

Welcome to Dr. Ruscio Radio, providing practical and science-based solutions to feeling your best. To stay up to date on the latest topics, as well as all of our prior episodes, make sure to subscribe in your podcast player. For weekly updates, visit DrRuscio.com. The following discussion is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease. Please do not apply any of this information without first speaking with your doctor. Now, let’s head to the show.

Dr. Ruscio:

Hey everyone. Diana Rodgers joined me again today to discuss her great work. She is literally traveling the world, trying to provide a balanced perspective as it pertains to sustainable agriculture and the importance of not sliding into falsely vilifying cows and meat for being over-consumers of water or releasers of carbon or methane. Her wonderful book and documentary co-authored in part with Robb Wolf, Sacred Cow, is great. She’s been on the Joe Rogan podcast, really a wonderful conversation with her today. We discussed how beef– and this was news to me– is probably the most humanely raised of many of the animals, and especially as compared to chicken and pork. I found that insightful, and will outline why that is during the show. How cattle are mostly– and I believe it was 85% of cattle– are grazing on unusable land before they go into the feed lots. That we should be focusing on nutrient production in our food supply, not just volume of production. The importance of looking at food production as an ecosystem rather than, I guess you could say a business or just something that’s optimizing for a volume output.

Dr. Ruscio:

And also, she covers the controversy regarding the accuracy (or lack of accuracy) for the amount of water that it takes to raise cattle. And then also, I’d like to encourage everyone to go to GlobalFoodJustice.org, which is her non-profit that’s helping to power her ability to provide this voice of reason and this perspective in many of the international summits that are slowly sort of phasing out omnivorous eating, and trying to progressively position plant-based dieting and also fake meat. And none of this is intended to be a dig or disparagement towards those who eat a vegetarian diet. That is totally fine. The issue I take is where meat seems to be incorrectly maligned, and this is where I think Diana’s work is really important. If you want to eat a certain way, that’s fine, but some of the legislation or politics right now is trying to kind of push out of the school, food systems, and other areas of the government omnivory.

Dr. Ruscio:

And I think that’s a real problem because then it takes away choice. And that, I think, is something that we really want to fight to preserve. So a very interesting round two conversation with Diana Rodgers. And now, we will go to the show.

The vilification and politicization of meat

Dr. Ruscio:

Hey everyone. Welcome back to Dr. Ruscio Radio. This is Dr. Michael Ruscio, here with Diana Rodgers again, and we will be talking about sustainability, meat– is it good, is it bad, from a climate perspective, from a sustainability perspective– and a few other kind of subtopics I’m sure that we’ll meander our way into. But definitely something that I feel is important to better understand, especially now that this is becoming an increasingly politicized and contentious conversation and argument. So Diana, welcome back.

Diana Rodgers:

Thank you so much for having me. Yeah, it’s gotten really wacky even in the last two years or however long it’s been since we’ve talked.

Dr. Ruscio:

Right? Yeah. Like so many things. It’s just anything where disagreement may accompany… these things are just wedges that seem to be driving people further and further into polarized camps, like so many other things, which is sad to see, because it really shuts down thinking, right? The more polarized things get, the more emotion is involved in an argument, the more people tend to shut down and just fall into confirmation bias and kind of selective citation, etc.

Diana Rodgers:

Yes. And unfortunately meat has become one of these things associated with a certain color of politics, unfortunately. And I know where I live and where you live– oh, wait, you’re in Austin now, yes. But yeah, I’m sure still there as well. You know, people who are health conscious, environmentally conscious and, worry about their impact on the world… of course, they don’t eat meat, right? And of course they love beautiful animals and don’t want to kill them to eat them. And so it’s really become sort of associated with, you know, being a good person.

Dr. Ruscio:

Yeah, or at least it’s growing. I wouldn’t say everyone’s there, but certainly there’s a growing trend that, you know, people are starting to think that if you avoid meat, you’re doing something notably good for the environment. And, you the health issue, it’s almost like that’s been leapfrogged to some extent.

Dr. Ruscio:

That body of literature is one I have looked into, and it’s not really a justifiable argument to say that avoiding meat is better for you. Because typically this is just looking at, let’s say, a Pritikin or an Ornish diet in reference to a Standard American Diet. So yeah, that’s going to look good. Compared to crap, any dietary intervention (within reason) is going to look good. But the comparative trials don’t seem to really fully bore that out. So from a health perspective, that’s an argument that never really satisfied for me. But it now seems that what’s being leveraged even more are these environmental sorts of claims.

Dr. Ruscio:

And you’ve been pretty busy going around the world and trying to… I don’t want to say push back, because I don’t think you’re pushing back just for the sake of pushing back, but you’re trying to help bring into these conversations and these debates, what seems to be the overlooked counterpoint to what I have a sense is a lot of cherry-picking, which happens in so many areas. So I don’t want to pick on the plant-based advocates for cherry-picking because it’s kind of like a human constant, sadly.

Perceptions of meat around the world

Dr. Ruscio:

But in a lot of the conferences, at least from some of the snippets I’ve caught here and there on a quick YouTube clip on occasion, you don’t seem to get a really nuanced perspective. You get the simple sound bites. And I know, again, you’ve been trying to bring the counterarguments to the forefront. Before we get into some of the details, help us understand what you’ve been doing, because I know you’ve been really busy and you’ve been traveling a lot. What’s going on? What are you seeing around the world with this?

Diana Rodgers:

Yeah, so starting in about May of this year, I have been on just a super crazy whirlwind of traveling and speaking. So I was at a methane conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in May. I then went straight to the UK for a few conferences there. I came back, went back to the UK again for more conferences in England (both there and in Wales). And then I was in New Zealand and Australia, and pretty soon I’ll be off to Ireland for the International Meat Summit. And I know it seems like the nutrition argument is sort of to bed, but it’s actually not. And it’s influencing I think people’s…

Dr. Ruscio:

And just to clarify, that’s just from me, right? That’s just from my perspective. Because I looked into the data and I could see, okay, here’s what’s happening. It’s sort of selective citation. If you’re more even handed in your analysis, it’s an untenable argument to say a plant-based diet is definitely healthier. That’s just from me.

Diana Rodgers:

Right.

Dr. Ruscio:

I would agree with you that worldwide or in the greater kind of ethos of the health conversation, that’s still being debated. I still hear people saying things like “red meat causes cancer”, which are just lazy arguments in my opinion. And some of those people I actually know and, you know, you examine the references for their arguments, and they’re not very good. So yeah, certainly that’s just my perspective, not worldwide, if you will.

The Global Burden of Disease Study

Diana Rodgers:

Right. Well, there’s the Global Burden of Disease Study, which… the 2019 version, which was actually published last year, set the tolerable risk exposure of red meat to zero, which has really caused a tidal wave of pushback. So The Lancet published it. The Global Burden of Disease Study is incredibly influential, and the UK food policy is set upon it, it’s the anchor paper that, you know, when you read a scientific paper and they go through the introduction, they’ll say, “well, of course we know red meat should be, you know, zero” <laugh> and then they’ll have the little citation. That’s the Global Burden of Disease. And what happened between 2017 and 2019 was the risk of death from any amount of red meat rose by 37%. And they set the tolerable exposure level to zero, with no evidence to back up any of their claims. So it was completely outside of any of the ethical guidelines.

Dr. Ruscio:

They reported this increased risk, but they didn’t have adequate data to support the statement?

Diana Rodgers:

Exactly. They said they did their own internal systematic review, but they did not provide any of the papers. It’s scandalous.

Dr. Ruscio:

Yeah, I mean that’s… I did hear about this actually. So just for our audience, I do not follow this topic very closely. This is why I’m happy you’re here, Diana, and doing the work that you’re doing. I did hear in some critique (again, I know very little about this), but I heard that, and I almost had a hard time accepting that was true because it just seemed so fraudulent and so ridiculous that you would do a systematic review and report <laugh> none of the data. I mean, every time I read a systematic review, there’s usually a data table– study 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7– and they’ll give you a breakdown on the table. And it’s very easy to follow the breadcrumb trail to the initial evidence from whatever meta-analysis or clinical trial is being summarized. Ridiculous to see that the data supporting a pretty important claim, that it was left out of the paper, it wasn’t included, it wasn’t referenced.

Diana Rodgers:

Yup, exactly. And they didn’t even follow the Lancet’s own guidelines as far as publishing papers for peer review. So this has been something that I’ve been following and some of my colleagues have been following. They are putting pressure on the Lancet to retract– thank you <laugh>. I’m like, what’s the word I’m looking for here? Retract the paper. And they definitely should. And even the authors admitted that there were flaws in the study. But the problem is, meanwhile this paper is still being referenced in other papers. So that’s the big problem, because the Global Burden of Disease is the nutrition anchor paper for then moving forward with other theories. And so that’s one of the topics that we’ll be covering at the International Meat Summit. So it’s the societal role of meat, and they’re looking at nutrition, environment, and then livelihoods and economics, because all of these things need to be discussed when looking at adding or removing a food from our food system, right? You can’t just look at… you know right now, what’s happening is that people are looking at our broken agriculture system, and what is the most sustainable thing that appears? And then how can we make that food for humans? Instead of: what is the ideal diet for humans? How can we farm that in a sustainable way?

Dr. Ruscio:

Which is kind of how we got into this mess in the first place, which was optimizing for ease of mass production and not optimizing for food quality.

The reality of cattle production

Diana Rodgers:

Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Yes. And so instead of looking at pounds of food per acre or calories of food per acre, we need to be looking at nutrients per resource. And amino acids, not crude protein, because there’s a big difference there as well. Someone can still meet their protein needs, but not meet their amino acid needs. And so all of these things need to be considered when you’re assessing whether or not something is environmentally sustainable. And so meat is vilified environmentally as taking up too much land, utilizing too much water, inefficient with feed, and producing too many greenhouse gases. And so why not just eat corn instead of feeding the corn to livestock? And, I mean, it’s very simple. So there’s the feed conversion ratio, so how much grain into an animal per poundage out. And with cattle, it’s two and a half pounds of grain. This is finished… feedlot finishing. And one thing that a lot of people don’t know is that even cattle finished on a feedlot start out on pasture. They’re only on a feedlot for about three months of their life. And when they’re on a feedlot, they’re not getting 100% corn. About half of what they’re eating is stuff that is left over from, for example, the vegetable protein category. So for every pound of plant source protein…

Dr. Ruscio:

Let me back this up just for one quick second.

Diana Rodgers:

Oh yeah, sure.

Dr. Ruscio:

I’m just seeing in my mind, you know, any of the many documentaries that have been made about the horridness of mass cattle production.

Dr. Ruscio:

And these cattle just in these huge… what’s the word I’m looking for here?

Diana Rodgers:

Feedlots.

Dr. Ruscio:

Huge feedlots that are self-contained. And so you’re saying that is not representative of the whole life, but rather the first, what is it, couple of years? They’re having some access to pasture?

Diana Rodgers:

Yeah. So all cows start on a calf-cow operation in, like, Montana or Colorado, or usually a place out in the Midwest or the American West, where we can’t crop that land anyway. And so they’re grazing land that is either too rocky or too dry or too hilly for us to run a tractor and actually… it’s called arable land. It’s not arable land. And so if we didn’t graze animals on this land, it would not be used for food, and the land would actually degrade more, because we need grazing animals on that land in order to keep it healthy. You can’t have that area ungrazed because cattle actually, their impact, their grazing, their manure, actually improves the fertility of that land.

Dr. Ruscio:

And I guess to your point, now that I’m looking back in my memory on all the documentaries I’ve watched, I don’t really recall seeing calves. It was just all kind of big adult cows in these contained, you know, with like the butt out one end and the head out the other and it looks horrid. But yeah, I don’t remember really seeing many, or any really, calves. So yeah.

Diana Rodgers:

And that’s so unfortunate because, you know, people will maybe choose chicken over beef because they have an image of a feedlot. But the reality in industrial production is that…

Dr. Ruscio:

Chickens have it worse.

Diana Rodgers:

Chickens have it, and pigs, have it the worst.

Dr. Ruscio:

This is good for people to know that if they’re only able to get so many animals that are fully, let’s say, grass or range fed, or whatever the equivalent is for chickens and pigs, it’s more humane to focus in on chickens and, you know, chicken and pork, than it is on beef, would you say?

Diana Rodgers:

Would you ask that last question again?

Dr. Ruscio:

So if someone’s thinking, “well, the most important thing for me to do is to buy totally pasture-raised, pasture-fed beef because of that documentary I watched, and the cows are…” But if they only have so much money or so much time or so much budget to put into that type of food, it’s better to focus it on chicken and pork, because they actually have it worse. Because it’s like their whole life cycle is in these horrid conditions, whereas for cows it’s just a slice of their life at the end.

Diana Rodgers:

Right. Or, just buy beef, you know, if you have limited money, I would go for either ground, grass-fed beef, or the organ meats, or if you’re at a grocery store and you just need to get some meat, the most humane, most nutritious, most environmentally sustainable is actually the beef. So beef is about 30% more nutritious than chicken.

Dr. Ruscio:

Wow. That I agree with. This is just fantastic. I I didn’t know this myself, that the beef are actually the more humanely treated and I guess it’s just because maybe it’s just more viscerally noxious when you see the way the beef look. Maybe they’re a bigger animal. It’s more of an emotional pull. I mean certainly the chickens don’t look good in those coops, but I never made that connection that the chickens and the pigs had it harder than the cows.

Diana Rodgers:

Yeah. Well there’s a few reasons why beef in particular has that visceral, you know, association. One is it’s red, and so that reminds us…

Dr. Ruscio:

Yeah, blood.

Diana Rodgers:

It’s also sold in larger packages. So where, like, a chicken breast is smaller and more manageable. And also cows look more like dogs.

Dr. Ruscio:

Yep. Yeah. I mean the face, the eyes. Sure. Okay. Well that’s great. I mean that in and of itself I think is a huge insight for people to be aware of.

Diana Rodgers:

Yes.

Dr. Ruscio:

Okay, so we got derailed from… you were kind of going through this analysis of grain in, pounds out.

Diana Rodgers:

Yes. So I just wanted to point out, so for every pound of plant-based protein that you might see in the grocery store, there’s four pounds of waste from that. So if you picture a soybean, there’s the hull and, you know, all the other parts of the soybean that are not able to be used as soy protein.

Dr. Ruscio:

Yeah. Because that’s highly processed. I think people maybe just should be cognizant of the fact that to get all that protein, there’s a lot of processing that has to occur.

Diana Rodgers:

Correct, correct. And a lot of energy.

Dr. Ruscio:

Yeah, for that processing.

Diana Rodgers:

Like, big factory and all that. And people don’t even eat just soy. So then they have to add other stuff to it and all these other chemicals and make it taste decent, right? But so you’ve got four pounds of fiber, inedible fiber, that’s going to either sit in a pile and emit greenhouse gases and just do its thing, or you can add it to some corn, feed it to a cow on a feedlot, and actually upcycle that nutrient-poor food that is completely inedible to us, or corn, which is just nutrient-poor… it’s edible, but it’s nutrient-poor. And a cow can upcycle that into one of the most perfect foods for humans. So that’s really amazing stuff.

Dr. Ruscio:

And is this part of how maybe the calculations are misleading?

Diana Rodgers:

Totally.

Dr. Ruscio:

So that waste product is going to feed cows, so they kind of lump it into the calculation of the cow, not for the Beyond Burger sort of thing, because the waste product is being used elsewhere.

Diana Rodgers:

Exactly.

Dr. Ruscio:

Interesting.

Diana Rodgers:

Exactly. And only about 42% of the animal is edible. The other parts of a cow, the leather, which now no one wants to use real leather, so it’s all vegan leathers, but the bones get ground into fertilizer. The blood gets used as as fertilizer. There’s heart valves. Insulin comes from cows. And so there’s all these other uses that, you know, when people say, “well it takes 100 pounds of food to feed a cow for only one pound, it’s so inefficient.” We’re reliant on a lot more than just food from that animal.

What’s driving the plant-based meat movement?

Dr. Ruscio:

Good point. Maybe taking a step back, what do you feel is motivating this recent movement and push toward plant-based meat? I mean, some of it clearly is environmentally based, but I can’t help but wonder, and in fact, I pulled up a couple pages in Target, I went shopping in Target on the internet, and I can’t help but think there’s a profit incentive here. I’m looking at two Beyond Burger patties for $4.99, whereas four beef patties are essentially $6.69. So it’s actually more expensive for the Beyond Burger, but I’m assuming their costs are significantly lower. And that makes me wonder if there’s some profit to be made here and that’s what’s driving some of this.

Diana Rodgers:

100%. Definitely. So there’s a lot of money to be made in processing something that’s junk into pretending that it’s not, right? And everyone’s looking for the next big thing to make the money. And so these fake meat companies seem to have struck a gold mine, because they’re playing on people’s guilt about eating animals, and their fear about climate change. And so the marketing used to be “don’t kill a beautiful animal”. But they’ve realized now that if they use the carbon emissions argument, that that’s actually a lot more powerful. So that is more powerful to justify someone’s guilt, right? People make an emotional decision whether or not they want to eat something, and then they back it up with what they can find for science. And so it’s a convenient story that it’s less emissions, but that’s not the whole picture. And it’s really the only leg that the plant-based industry can win on is straight emissions. But that’s not really considering the fact that cattle can actually sequester carbon. So it’s not just about emissions.

Dr. Ruscio:

And I want to come back to the carbon sequestration in a second, but let’s try to make a short list of what’s motivating this. So profit could be one, and I’m assuming within (and very similar to) profit is ease of manufacturing. Even though it’s highly processed, I’m assuming a lot of this is just a truckload of stuff or a few different trucks dump into a factory. This is all automated, whereas with cattle, it’s gonna be a more complicated operation. And this is twofold, right? It makes it more expensive, but it also makes the operation easier to scale when there’s less moving parts. And, you know, not this, start them off as calves in Montana, ship them over to wherever, keep them in a different lot, plump them up. So is that fair for me to say, that it’s easier to produce these fake meat alternatives?

Diana Rodgers:

It’s cheaper, but actually we’re having some interesting ramifications from the war in Ukraine now where fertilizer prices are climbing, so inputs now are going to be higher. You need less inputs to raise cattle on grass, right? You don’t really need much. But in order to plant a mono-crop of soy or wheat or whatever, you need to have consistent weather patterns, which is really also shifting with climate change. Right now we’re having more mega storms, more droughts, so that’s actually making it less stable to be cropping things, and the fertilizer prices. So it’s eating away at their potential profit. They’re not making a profit. There was just a study showing that none of them are actually profitable at all. They’re just buying shelf space to appear to be profitable, but they’re not.

Dr. Ruscio:

I wonder if this is something where they have to hit a certain tipping point of volume and scalability or scale just in general for the operation to be profitable. Do you have any sense… I mean, that’s probably hard to know unless you’re inside one of these companies or a VC firm that ostensibly is funding one of these companies, but do you have any sense on that?

Diana Rodgers:

Yes, I don’t know how close they are. I recently heard that that lab meat is going to be on the market before the end of the year, and they are price competitive to animal-sourced meat. So that’ll be an interesting thing. I don’t know much about it. It was someone who told me a little bit of information, and told me they couldn’t tell me much more <laugh>. But that’ll be an interesting thing. So that’s different than, like, a Beyond Burger. These are people who are actually growing animal tissues in a lab and selling it as meat.

Dr. Ruscio:

Gotcha. Okay. That’s another topic I’d like to talk about. But so as to constrain us…

Diana Rodgers:

I know, there’s a lot of rabbit holes we can go down. So pull me out.

Dr. Ruscio:

So we talked about profit, the ease of manufacturing, maybe not so much, perhaps it’s more scalable, but it really sounds like it’s more dependent upon a global supply chain, which is probably not good, right? Because it’s more fragile. It might be more scalable, but more fragile to interruption. Whereas an enclosed ecosystem like a farm maybe isn’t as able to scale as near infinitely, or just as largely, but it is more protected from perturbations in the global supply chain. Is that fair?

Diana Rodgers:

Yeah, somewhat. I mean, we are seeing diseases… Australia is about to be hit with foot and mouth disease. So, there’s definitely issues within the cattle industry too. But I would say it’s harder to be a crop farmer than it is to be an animal farmer.

Dr. Ruscio:

Sure. Yep, I’m with you. Okay. And it might be easier to market is another one, or at least that seems it’s being figured out of late in terms of what may be really attractive marketing language to use to spur people. Is there anything else that… I just want to try to give people and equip them with what might be happening behind the scenes describing this.

Diana Rodgers:

Oh, well, by pinning meat as unhealthy, it vindicates the ultra-processed food industry, sugar and just processed foods, by making people responsible for their own carbon footprint instead of airlines or oil industry. It actually makes them look better. And so there’s a lot of people benefiting, if it’s not financially, but also just image-wise from telling people that they’re bad for eating meat.

Misconceptions about emissions

Dr. Ruscio:

Right. Okay. So let’s shift over now to what’s wrong with some of the thinking regarding emissions. And, you know, there’s all these claims, they’re all of this same ilk of “it takes a ton of carbon and water to make meat, whereas a plant takes a fraction of it”, you know, and they tack on “and it’s healthier for you, so it’s a no brainer”. On the emissions piece, you hit at some of this, but what do you think are some of the most important points for people to understand regarding what might be wrong or misleading about that messaging?

Diana Rodgers:

So there was a study done that looked at what would happen if we pulled all livestock out of our food system in the US, and what they found is that emissions would only go down about 2.5%, but we would see a dramatic rise in carbohydrate intake and overall calorie intake, and also in nutrient deficiencies as, you know, animal sourced food nutrients… calcium, vitamin A, b12, and some of the essential fatty acids. So that’s where we do need people who are educated on nutrition to really be weighing in and saying like, “hey, those are really bad things.” 70% of Americans are metabolically unwell and we don’t need more carbs and more calories and more nutrient deficiencies. We actually just need more nutrition for humans. We don’t have a food production problem. We have a nutrient problem that’s happening. So in the US, beef only represents about 2.5% of our emissions.

Diana Rodgers:

So telling people individually to, you know, eat one less burger a week or something does nothing. It does nothing. All food has an environmental footprint. The plant-based industry actually has a higher footprint than the livestock industry. And so we just kind of have to have a little balanced perspective on everything. But additionally, we can’t just look at emissions, we have to look at the whole carbon cycle. So this is where there’s an animation in my film that describes this really well, and I have an infographic on this, but it shows the difference between fossil fuel emissions and livestock emissions. And so if you picture, fossil fuels are mining ancient carbon and methane from deep in the earth’s core, and they’re pumping it directly into the environment. So they’re adding mostly CO2, which lives about a thousand years, directly into our air. With cattle, they’re just taking existing carbon that’s in grass.

Diana Rodgers:

So it’s already in our atmosphere. It’s in our environment already. They eat the grass, they emit methane, but that methane after 10 years gets converted into CO2, which is carbon dioxide, which is used again in the photosynthesis process, and water, which becomes part of the water cycle, like rain. And so it’s a circular… yes, they’re emitting, but they’re also returning. And so the plant takes up that carbon dioxide again, it releases oxygen, which is what we breathe, and then the carbon becomes the grass, it becomes the roots of that plant, and some of it, up to 40%, gets sequestered in the ground. And so it’s just a very, very different process than basically injecting straight greenhouse gases directly into our air.

Dr. Ruscio:

Is it that the calculation is misleading because the examination window is too short, so it’s not seeing the cycle come full circle? Is that what you think’s happening? Cause I’m just trying to figure out, where’s the miss coming from here? Because what you’re saying seems somewhat self-evident if these things are occurring in cycles. Where’s the miss there?

Diana Rodgers:

Yeah, I mean, we don’t have more methane-emitting livestock or methane-emitting mammals in the North America than we did before we annihilated all the bison. We just now have cows instead of bison basically.

Dr. Ruscio:

Really, so even with the scaling of agricultural cattle, there’s not an increased headcount? Wow. And where does that come from? How do we know that, you know, how reliable was the counting of bison back in the day?

Diana Rodgers:

Well, there’s a range, but we also had a lot more deer, we had a lot more elk, all of those other animals. So you take those bison numbers and then you estimate in the deer and the elk and the longhorns or pronghorns or whatever they are.

Dr. Ruscio:

So is there some sort of analysis we’ll look at?

Diana Rodgers:

Yes, there is an analysis that we cover in the book.

Dr. Ruscio:

Of naturally occurring density of different animals in a certain landscape, and then from that you can project that with a certain degree of margin or a certain margin of accuracy?

Diana Rodgers:

Yeah.

Dr. Ruscio:

Okay, gotcha.

Diana Rodgers:

And then also if you just look globally at where the methane patterns are happening, it’s fracking leaks, it’s not from cow farms.


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How carbon sequestration works

Dr. Ruscio:

Let’s go through the sequestration piece, because that’s something I have a vague understanding of, but help us understand the cycle, and how cows, other ruminants, whatever animals you think are relevant, help. I guess in some extent, I don’t know if we can say in a corrective way, but, you know, what the other side of the ledger is here with the emissions.

Diana Rodgers:

Yes. So in addition to it being just cycling instead of pumping, you can’t make something out of nothing. You can certainly mine it and pump it into the atmosphere, but there’s no way cattle can actually create more carbon. Like we can’t, you can’t… everything just dies and lives again, right? It’s like death, decay, life, death, decay. That’s how everything is in nature. And so the carbon sequestration happens. So the cow is chewing on the grass, eating, taking in carbon. That actually stimulates the roots to die back a little bit, which is not a bad thing, because as the roots die back, that’s actually more carbon in the soil. Carbon in the soil is just dead stuff, and it creates more life, more microbial life. And, I mean, that’s what soil is. It’s dead stuff and bugs and bacteria.

Diana Rodgers:

And so the more activity, the more cycling you have in that soil, the healthier the soil is. The more spongelike that soil is, the more able it is to absorb rain instead of run off rain. So if anyone’s driven by a big cornfield and you look in between the corn, it’s just bare dirt that is like sandy, it’s crumbly, right? It’s not the same as when you rip up a piece of grass and you, it’s like, it’s hard to rip that up, right? Those roots are really holding that dirt down. And there’s earthworms, and there’s all these kinds of life that’s happening in the soil. And that is something that happens better when you have large grazing animals on it. So grazers evolved with grasslands in order to keep them healthy. You can’t have just a field with no animals grazing that grass, because the grass then will oxidize and just die instead of being biologically broken down and actually cycled back. I’m moving my hands a lot as I’m talking to you because this is really something that’s quite visual. So if anyone’s interested in really seeing this in action, I highly recommend they watch the film Sacred Cow, where we show this.

Dr. Ruscio:

Yeah, it’s a great film. I highly recommend it.

Dr. Ruscio:

Okay. So are there other parts of the cycle that you want to more thoroughly outline or should we… well, sorry, let me pause there. Does that take us full cycle?

Diana Rodgers:

Pretty much, I mean, basically carbon gets sequestered when the roots die back and when then they grow new again. Carbon drips down. So the grass takes carbon deep into its roots, and actually drips it down to the bacterial communities that live down there. And the bacteria eat the carbon, which is sugar, and then they’re feeding the plant all of the different nutrients it needs. And there’s fungal networks too that are underground, that are also eating the carbon and mining all the rocks for all the minerals that that plant needs. So there’s this whole symbiotic relationship that’s happening underground. And as that stuff dies and then comes back to life again, it’s just building and building on itself again. And that’s soil, organic matter, that’s carbon.

Dr. Ruscio:

Right. And this ties in nicely with the whole sustainable agricultural piece, which… it seems to really solve the problem as best, you know, standing on the sidelines, as I’ve been able to tell, it solves a problem for both plants and animals if we’re using a sustainable agriculture system. Whereas mono-cropping is not a great idea, and the agro cow farms or just animal farms in general also don’t seem to be a great idea. You know, they both have weaknesses, and this is where this beautiful, you know, plot rotation seems to provide everything. You have something that mows the grass, fertilizes the grass, tills the grass– I guess the soil to an extent– feeds the animal… And yeah, maybe you can just give a brief outline of that, because I know you’ve discussed that on the podcast before, but this is the other, I think, huge thing that needs to be put more forefront is the beauty of the system that exists.

Can we feed the population with sustainable agriculture?

Dr. Ruscio:

I do want to ask as a follow up to this, just to maybe plant this here. The question about is it scalable? You know, can we feed the population with sustainable agriculture? I’ve heard varying things on this, but let’s maybe start with just giving people that outline and then we can move over to that question of is it sufficient to feed everyone?

Diana Rodgers:

Yeah. Well, it really depends on the environment, what is ideal for that environment. So, you know, what works in Texas is not going to be ideal for Vermont, right? So it’s very different, dependent on what kind of weather patterns you have, rain, all of that. So a really sustainable system might look just like a field of grass, just a prairie, right? It might look more like a savannah with woods. You can also produce food where you’ve got, if you have nice, flat, arable land and you’re growing… I mean, humans are not going to stop eating grains any time soon, right? But once you harvest those grains, instead of plowing them under, you can run cattle on that field, and those stocks can actually be consumed. You don’t have to plow it up, which actually emits a lot of carbon and destroys the life underground and have the animals, you know, pooping on the field at the same time, which is fertilizer for that field. So it’s not like there’s only one right system. There’s very different systems depending on what that landscape dictates, and what that regional population wants to be eating, too. Like, you know, I don’t eat a lot of camel, but camel meat is popular in certain areas. And so it really just depends on, you know, what makes sense in that area. The scalability. Wait, did you have a follow up question?

Dr. Ruscio:

Yeah, so before we go to the scalability. Does this also pose a challenge wherein… and I’m thinking about this… what big business can do will kind of pave a way for a lot of these things taking off, and what is more challenging for big business… well, they just won’t have the dollars and the backing and the interest, you know, it’s a sad reality that is our economy, that is our society. So if you have to conform to different landscapes for what you can grow, that seems to provide a roadblock for businesses saying, “Well, you know, people really like this sort of meat, so we wanna grow a whole bunch of this. And you know, if we can’t do it in a sustainable agriculture model, we have to find a different model that allows us to produce more of what people want.” So I’m assuming that’s another behind-the-scenes factor at play.

Diana Rodgers:

Yeah. But farmers have been doing this… I mean, olive trees grow really well in Northern Africa, right? So it really just depends on that region, what you can grow for food. So yeah, farmers have been doing that for a long time and people have to get more comfortable with eating nose-to-tail and eating the whole animal…

Dr. Ruscio:

Local…

Diana Rodgers:

Things like that. Yeah, exactly.

Food supply is not the issue

Dr. Ruscio:

Okay. And then, yeah, what about the scalability? This is another thing that I’ve heard, you know, “Oh, well, it sounds really good to have a sustainable farm, but that’s only going to help a small group of people, it’s not really going to be able to feed the world.” And I have to admit, that makes some degree of sense to me, but, you know, I haven’t looked at this in nearly the depth that you have.

Diana Rodgers:

So again, I’m just gonna mention that, you know, we don’t have a food supply problem right now. We are actually making much more food than we need. So people who are hungry are not hungry because of food production. They’re hungry because of politics and policies and food distribution issues.

Dr. Ruscio:

I’ve heard that we waste an immense amount of food in this country.

Diana Rodgers:

There is a lot of waste, although some of the things that are considered waste actually aren’t waste. But that’s another topic. But yes, people need to do better at eating what they actually buy, and grocery stores could do better. I mean, like, buying frozen fish, for example, is way more sustainable than buying thawed, fresh fish in the grocery store, because fish is so incredibly perishable that if you just buy it frozen and bring it home and thaw it when you need it, it’s going to be a lot better than that fishmonger having to thaw all those pounds of fish, much of it going bad in the grocery store before it even makes it to someone’s home. But the most wasted food by far is produce. Vegetables and fruit. So meat is the least wasted.

Dr. Ruscio:

Gotcha. And let’s unpack this critique that people will often levy that is, you know, that sustainable agriculture just won’t scale, it has too many limitations.

Diana Rodgers:

Yeah. So in the book, I did go through the numbers, and in the US, we do have enough land to grass finish our entire beef herd right now. So I consulted multiple experts, had them weigh in on it, and we do have the land to grass finish it if we wanted to do that. However, we still do have this situation where, again, the plant-based industry is not going away any time soon. This plant-based protein industry. What are we going to do with that four pounds of waste? There’s no other use for that in our food system or in any other system. And it is pretty sustainable to feed that to a cow and, you know, cut the finishing time down. So I’m not a hundred percent against feedlot finishing. There are more ethical feedlots than others. They’re not all these, like, awful places for the animals to be. We still have a lot of people that need affordable food, and it does cut down on costs dramatically.

Is grass-finished beef actually healthier?

Diana Rodgers:

So, you know, I think there are definitely legitimate critiques about the livestock industry, but I also think that there’s a lot of really unfair “feedlot meat is evil, toxic”, you know, there’s not a huge health difference really between grass finished and feedlot finished beef, which is surprising to a lot of people. But I reviewed the research and I was so shocked about my results that I went to Rob and we actually hired an independent researcher to go through all of it and make sure that we were right. And he came to the same conclusion. Actually Alex Leaf, I think you might know him.

Dr. Ruscio:

Yeah. And that’s really good to know, especially for people who are trying to save that, you know, whatever the delta is between the one or the other, it’s good to know it’s not going to make a huge difference. And also, to maybe offset what I feel like are sometimes fanatical claims, I think these tend to come more so from the carnivore community. They tend to be just a little bit overboard on food quality, which I think, you know, it’s almost hard to say you can’t optimize enough for food quality, because it’s such an important thing. And I think we’ve, we’ve ignored that so much, but man, some of what I see coming out the community is just really overzealous in terms of the messaging. So it’s comforting and reassuring to hear you say that.

Diana Rodgers:

Yes. And especially, I mean, I’m a dietician. I’m looking at, you know, 60% of what Americans are eating is ultra processed foods. That’s my big concern, is just eat real food, period. Eat as close to how the food was produced, shop the perimeter of the grocery store type situation. Like let’s just get people there, and then if you want to spend extra money and support a farmer that is producing with sustainable regenerative practices, I highly encourage that. But, you know, to our global food system, we just need to end the vilification of meat, period.

Dr. Ruscio:

And that’s a good reminder that I think what you and I are both advocating for is just a simple model of eating whole, fresh, minimally or unprocessed foods in this omnivorous nature, right? I’m certainly not advocating for a carnivore diet or a vegetarian diet. If anything, I’m advocating for being a bit temperate and not going too far in any extreme. And that’s where your work is so nice because it just provides some countervailing evidence against what I feel is– another one of many– an extreme movement in nutrition, which is vegetarian and/or plant-based meat alternatives. And there’s nothing against people who want to eat that way. I just want to make sure that we’re not falling into this extremism, which happens, you know, at both ends of the spectrum.

Diana Rodgers:

It totally, totally does. I have a lot of people that come to me that want to go carnivore and they think that I’ll support it. And there have been a couple people that I did think it was an interesting temporary solution for them. One was a compulsive overeater that just really needed that level of non-choice in her life for a little bit, and it really worked with her. And another person was just, I mean they were having some pretty bad gut issues, and it was their choice to go carnivore, and I helped them, you know, with some bone broth, and some meat, and then we slowly reintroduced cooked vegetables. But I think the goal for everybody should be to eat as wide a variety of foods that don’t give them problems as possible.

Dr. Ruscio:

Right. And I agree with you, for some people carnivore is helpful. It’s a small subset. I think many people are using that tool when they really don’t need to. It’s almost like someone who, you know, is going from Standard American Diet to Autoimmune Paleo. It’s like, whoa, <laugh>. It’s like, you don’t need to go that far… you could, but you don’t need to go that far. So I’m with you there, for some people, that what I would consider extreme elimination diet can be helpful. But we want to be good about giving people the straight talk on like, sure, you could go to the extreme, but you can probably get there with a relaxed Paleo template, and maybe a few other, you know, changes to your diet, your lifestyle, maybe something like a probiotic.

Diana Rodgers:

Get some sleep, I don’t know.

Dr. Ruscio:

Get some sleep. These things can really help with repair and tolerance and you don’t need to go quite so extreme with the diet.

Diana Rodgers:

100%.

Final points on cattle, land, and ecosystems

Dr. Ruscio:

Anything else that you feel is… I mean, I know there’s a lot here, but any other points you want to touch on or just remind people of as we get closer to a close?

Diana Rodgers:

Yeah, I mean, I think I talked a little bit about the land use, that, you know, 85% of the cattle right now in the US being raised for meat are grazing on land that we can’t crop. And that’s at this very moment. So even considering all the cattle that are on a feedlot right now

Dr. Ruscio:

Yep. That’s important.

Diana Rodgers:

So there’s the land use thing, they’re not inefficient with land. They actually are nutrient upcyclers, and that’s really cool. We talked about greenhouse gases. You know, I think in my book and in the film we really just talk about overall ecosystem function, and how grazing animals are critical to have healthy habitat. And so we have to stop looking at farms as food production and more as ecosystems. And there are no ecosystems in nature that don’t have animals as part of them. You know, I didn’t talk much about the water, but I can briefly just mention that the majority of the water footprint attributed to cattle is moisture in their feed and not irrigation. So it’s like rain water <laugh>, not drinking water. So when there’s these memes I see about like, “oh, one burger is 10 bathtubs full of water”, that’s really unfair and misleading. And I have more information about that in the book too. So the actual drinking water that cattle are utilizing is far less than sugar, rice, avocados, and walnuts.

Dr. Ruscio:

And that’s because it’s a lot of rain water?

Diana Rodgers:

Yeah, because these cattle are on pasture most of the time, or they’re eating… they’re weighing the moisture in, because they are ruminants and need a high fiber diet, there’s a lot of moisture in grass, and that gets counted as “water”.

Dr. Ruscio:

Mm. Okay. That makes sense. Yeah. Gotcha.

Diana Rodgers:

Yep. And I mean, I think at the end of the day, people just feel really bad about eating animals, and I think are really afraid of the idea of death. I mean, only 30% of Americans have a will. And so I think, you know, just to understand that everything eats and everything is eaten and that’s just how life happens. There’s a children’s book that is called Everybody’s Somebody’s Lunch.

Diana Rodgers:

And I’d like to come up with something even more clever, but I can’t yet. That is just so good. But people just have to realize that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable about it, but that means you should learn more about it. Not put on blinders and just eat a Beyond Burger and think you’ve done your part.

Dr. Ruscio:

Yeah. And this is where I’ve always felt that an ancestral framework, albeit not perfect in every analysis, does provide a very helpful foundation through which to examine the world. And we’ve seen this borne out certainly with sleep and circadian rhythm function, with the importance of exposure to temperature extremes, with the importance of community. You know, with exercise, I mean, to some extent that gets a little bit of a clunky argument because the exercise may not be a great translation from what we’re doing now. You know, cavemen weren’t going to gyms and lifting weights. They were probably doing some type of cardio and other functional movements. So it maps on to some extent. But, you know, time and time again, these things seem to bear really significant fruit. Time in nature, the therapeutic effect of time in nature, is pretty compelling with the ability to improve anxiety. Or in other studies, those who live near blue zones or green zones, oceans or forests, have reduced all-cause mortality after controlling for many of the confounding variables like socioeconomic status, smoking status, drinking status, exercise status. So all of these things are supporting of that ancestral framework. And most of free living hunter gatherers were eating omnivorously, and going through a lot of trouble to obtain animal calories. So I think that’s just really important to use that framework as a guiding analysis.

Diana Rodgers:

Yeah. Plants were consumed when they couldn’t find meat. Meat was always preferred. And it’s what made us human.

Where to learn more

Dr. Ruscio:

Yep. Speaking of where people can learn more about the health impacts of meat, the documentary (awesome), book (also awesome). Where would you want to point people? I’m not sure if there’s anything new that you have out there. I know your Instagram is also cool because you have some of those nice visuals that spell this out. So where should people plug in?

Diana Rodgers:

Yeah, they can find me at Sustainable Dish and that’s my Twitter and Instagram handle (@SustainableDish). And I have a website, SustainableDish.com. I have a course called Sustainavore that helps people learn about eating ancestrally, but then also teaches them– it’s a course version of my book. So it teaches them the environmental and ethical case for why incorporating animal-sourced foods in your diet is important. And then I also started a nonprofit called the Global Food Justice Alliance and that is my advocacy work that I do where I really push back against the anti-meat narrative and try to educate people on why animal-sourced foods are important. And we have a TikTok channel, I have young people that are on there talking to other young people because I’m not one of them anymore. <laugh> You know, just trying to break through to high school and college aged kids on little snippets, you know, in quick 60 second bites about why meat won’t kill you and why livestock are actually really important.

Dr. Ruscio:

That’s awesome. And I’m going over to the Global Food Justice Alliance. Can I donate here? Because I want to donate to this cause.

Diana Rodgers:

I would love it if you donated. That would be awesome. Yes. Thank you.

Dr. Ruscio:

Ah, okay, I see. Make a donation.

Diana Rodgers:

Yeah. We have a Patreon, and then you can also donate directly to the 501(c)(3).

Dr. Ruscio:

And for our audience, I would say this would be an excellent cause if you’re looking for a donation that is important, I would say go here and donate, because this stuff does not happen without funding. And unfortunately there do seem to be a lot of incentives against this sort of work, and it really does require grassroots support. And maybe one thing, one counterpoint, just to bounce off you really quick, I wanted to ask earlier, and I didn’t get around to it, I recently saw a piece about Bill Gates buying up a whole bunch of farmland, and this creating a stir. I didn’t have a chance to go through too much of the article yet, but it seems kind of nefarious that he’s gobbling up and purchasing farmland, and I know he’s tied in, I think with some of the plant-based companies.

Diana Rodgers:

Yes. He’s a major, major investor in plant-based meat industry.

Dr. Ruscio:

Okay. And do you know why, is there a speculation as to why he’s buying farmland? I mean, we don’t know what his intents are, only he does, but can we speculate?

Diana Rodgers:

You know, there’s that tech mindset, right, of like “better living through tech”. And this is very in line with Silicon Valley and this idea that we can just tech our way out is very counter to, I don’t know if you’ve ever read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, but that book is incredible and it’s, you know, there’s the leavers and the takers. And I see Silicon Valley tech folks largely as takers, and more ancestral, regenerative, sustainable-minded people as leavers. So, you know, leaving things better. And, you know, it’s unfortunate because he’s a bright guy and has the ability to get educated, if he wanted to, on all of this.

Dr. Ruscio:

Yeah. Well, clearly, and, you know, this is a little bit of– or a lot a bit of– an ad hominem, but he does not look healthy. And so that tells me that what he’s doing for his health is not on the mark. Again, that’s a loose criticism. You could definitely poke holes in that argument, but it’s one thing to take into consideration. If someone looks healthy, that tells you that they’re probably doing some of this stuff that makes you healthy, and you learn a lot of this by doing, right? Try this diet, try that diet. I felt crappy on that diet. I felt good on this diet. That’s important. If you’re not a participant in the game, in the process, it’s easier, I think, to make bad decisions. And so, you know, again, there might be stuff there that I don’t understand, so take that criticism with a grain of salt. But it is one data point I would put on the table that he does not look to be in good health. And I don’t mean… you don’t need to be ripped, six-pack abs, but he looks very deconditioned and, you know, that’s one thing I find a little bit disconcerting.

Diana Rodgers:

Yeah, you know, that’s interesting, because I saw you the night after I was on the Joe Rogan podcast, and I stupidly read the Reddit streams about my appearance and was really pissed off. So I just want to add in, and if you’re not familiar with Paul Conti’s work… he was on Peter Attia’s podcast, and he just talks about the impact of trauma on health. So I’m just adding that in there because going through some major trauma that I had over the last two years really impacted my health, even though I eat perfectly and, try to move as much as I can and do all the right things.

Dr. Ruscio:

Yeah, and I’m glad you made that point. And that’s why I preface with kind of the grain of salt, if you will. Because I do think there are other factors. So I’d say it’s one of a handful of data points one should weigh when trying to assess should I take health information from this individual. So I’m glad you made that point. I’m going to listen to that Paul Conti podcast.

Diana Rodgers:

Oh my gosh. He was on twice, and I recommend listening to both of them. It was so good I ended up getting Paul Conti’s book afterwards on trauma. Just that he would be a great person to invite on your podcast. I reached out as well. And I just wanted to mention one last thing about Global Food Justice which is I am not industry funded. I am funded by the public. And I don’t take meat industry funding, which makes it very difficult to do my job. But I try to be that independent voice that’s just out there as a mom, as a dietician, as somebody who truly, really does care about sustainable food systems and healthy people.

Dr. Ruscio:

Yeah. Guys, please go over to GlobalFoodJustice.org. You know, if you have some money you can spare, please donate. I’m going to do that right now. I think this is really important, as is the work that you’re doing. Diana, thank you so much for doing the work that you’re doing, and for taking some time to share with us the trenches that you’re in and the battles that you’re waging against some of this… what seems to be craziness. So again, this has been great. Thank you so much.

Diana Rodgers:

Thank you.

Outro:

Thank you for listening to Dr. Ruscio Radio today. Check us out on iTunes and leave a review. Visit DrRuscio.com to ask a question for an upcoming podcast, post comments for today’s show, and sign up to receive weekly updates. That’s DrRuscio.com.



➕ Dr. Ruscio’s Notes

Why Is Meat Seen as “Bad”?

  • There are beliefs that meat:
    • Production takes up too much land
    • Uses too much water
    • Produces excess greenhouse gasses
    • Causes cancer, obesity, and heart disease

 

What Are The Repercussions Of A World Without Meat?

  • If we pulled all of our livestock, people would eat more calories and carbs experience more nutrient deficiencies.
  • Removing grazing animals could negatively impact the ecosystem and our food system.

 

What Can Sustainable Agriculture Help Solve?

  • Food distribution and quality issues
  • Soil health
  • Land restoration

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