Helping to establish environmentally benign livestock systems - all views are my own

Tag: Beef

Use your head – the Amazon isn’t our lungs

Over the past three weeks, there’s been an abundance of news reports and opinion pieces related to the fires in the Amazon rainforest. It’s not undeserved. At more than 2 million square miles, the tropical rainforest is the world’s largest, not to mention a treasure trove of flora, fauna and landforms. Nowhere on Earth is there more biodiversity. Its beauty alone commands awe and respect.

 

Yes, it’s not surprising that the world should be concerned with the tens of thousands of wildfires that have hit this planetary wonder. What’s confounding is the amount of misguided rhetoric that has sprung forth, not the least of which is that U.S. beef consumption is to blame for the blazes. (For the record, it’s not. Only 0.5% of beef consumed in the United States comes from Brazil – where the largest portion of the rainforest is located – and soy produced there is not fed to U.S. beef cattle.)

 

Make no mistake – I’m not minimizing the wildfires. Neither am I being cavalier about the myriad of issues behind them or the effects they could or will have in the near and long term. The environment is an intricately composed symphony. When one instrument is out of tune or a musician misses a note, the performance is the lesser for it. Maybe not even worth the price of admission. In environmental terms, that means a lot of cacophony in the form of extinction, pollution, climate change and more.

 

Like you, I’ve been reading and listening intently these past few weeks. Elements of some conversations have intrigued me; others have caused me to shake my head. Perhaps the most alarming of all claims is that the Amazon is the Earth’s lungs.

 

The idea here is that such a vast reserve of plant life is responsible for taking a large amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and giving us much-needed oxygen through a process that harnesses solar power to perform photosynthesis. Lose the rainforest and we miss out on all that Obeing “exhaled” by plant life. Without oxygen, we struggle to breathe, and we die.

 

French President Emanuel Macron even went on record to say we’d be without 20 percent of our oxygen if the Amazon rainforest burned to the ground. He isn’t alone. Others are issuing similar warnings.

 

There’s nothing pleasant about the thought of gasping for air, but don’t let it keep you up at night. The Atlantic recently painted a very different picture, which should make us all breathe easier, at least when it comes to our oxygen supply. Kudos to Peter Brannen for tapping into the work of Shanan Peters, a geologist from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, to debunk the lungs myth.

 

Professor Peters points out that oxygen has been accumulating in our atmosphere for billions of years, the byproduct not of photosynthesis, but of wasted plants and animals that exist now as fossil fuels. In fact, we have a glut of the stuff that we humans need to live; our atmosphere is 20.9 percent oxygen. If the Amazon rainforest were to disappear, that number would move downward – by a mere .5 percent, Professor Peters said. In a nutshell, “Humans could burn every living thing on the planet and still not dent its oxygen supply.”

 

As an important aside, our store of oxygen doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. Particles and smog-forming gases that a fire produces are irritants; toxic even. Think of an ordinary housefire where inhabitants suffer smoke inhalation, but on a massive scale.

 

As far as oxygen goes, humans and plants have been in lockstep since the first person walked the Earth, both players in  a cycle whereby plants are able to absorb carbon and convert it to food that nourishes us – or if it can’t be digested by us – nourishes animals that we can digest. The oxygen that’s put back in the atmosphere during photosynthesis is a bonus, but we’d be fine without it. Incidentally, most of it (50 to 85 percent) comes courtesy of phytoplankton in Earth’s oceans, not vegetation in the Amazon rainforest. The microscopic algae serve as the first link in a complex and vast aquatic food chain.

 

We’re not in danger of running out of oxygen anytime soon, so we can relax about that, even if we can’t always sit back and take a cleansing breath.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beef with meat tax and cancer claims

It seems we live in a time when people simply don’t know what to eat. Many of us want to do what’s right for our bodies and our planet, but we’re bombarded with conflicting messages or information that is just plain false.

 

On Nov. 7, 2018, news giant CNN, which touts itself as “the most trusted name in news,” reported a global meat tax could save 220,000 lives and cut health care bills by $41 billion each year. CNN’s report is based on a recent study from Oxford University.

 

“The numbers are based on evidence that links meat consumption to increased risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. Three years ago, the World Health Organization declared red meat such as beef, lamb and pork to be carcinogenic when eaten in processed forms, including sausages, bacon and beef jerky,” it said.

 

My life’s work centers on animal agriculture and air quality, and the goal of feeding a world population that will reach 10 billion in about three decade’s time. Information such as that put forth by CNN concerns me because meat’s connection to cancer has never been substantiated. Neither can one put the blame for heart disease, stroke and diabetes squarely on the shoulders of meat.

 

Peeling back the layers, today I want to take a half-step away from my day-to-day work to focus on the myth (perpetuated by many, including CNN yesterday) that eating meat, especially red meat and processed meat, can lead to cancer. My reason? We need – and will continue to need – animal protein to sustain human life. Without it, we simply can’t get enough essential nutrients for our global population. Buying into an unsubstantiated claim that red meat and processed meat lead to colorectal cancers (CRC) takes our eyes off the ball with nothing to be gained in return.

 

Partly to blame for the misconception is a 2015 study from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO). The report tried to link meat with certain types of cancer, primarily CRC. This year, IARC released the full scientific basis of its finding, confirming just how weak the evidence linking meat and CRC is.

 

For instance, IARC claimed that 800 studies were used in its review, but in reality, nearly all were eliminated. Only 14 studies investigating red meat and 18 studies investigating processed meat were considered, and evidence showed deeply conflicting findings, not clear and convincing evidence. In the end, one has to wonder why it took IARC more than two years to present the evidence used to arrive at its 2015 conclusion, especially if that evidence was so bulletproof.

The message from IARC has been so misleading and has caused such confusion that its parent organization, WHO, came forward several years ago to deflate IARC’s claim and reassure the public that meat should be consumed in moderation as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

 

In addition, the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) states in relation to colon cancer, “There is no reliable evidence that a diet started in adulthood that is low in fat and meat and high in fiber, fruits, and vegetables reduces the risk of CRC by a clinically important degree.” In fact, the NCI takes it one step further, saying it’s “not clear” if diet affects the risk of colon cancer at all.

 

Professors Gordon Guyatt and Benjamin Djulbegovic, two leaders in evidence-based medicine, recently pointed out the minimal relative risk of meat leading to CRC: 1.17. Compare that to smoking, which makes one’s chances of developing lung cancer nine to 25 times greater, or to the fact that when IARC tested 1,000 substances for cancer-causing properties, only one – a chemical found in yoga pants – was found not to cause cancer. Further muddying the waters is the fact that it’s not possible to test meat’s connection to cancer in a vacuum. Other factors can’t be isolated easily, if at all. To that point, Professors Guyatt and Djulbegovic are correct in pointing out that vegetarians tend to be more alert to good health in general. They are more likely to exercise and refrain from smoking, at the same time coming from a higher-than-normal socio-economic class, some or all of which could have a bearing on the development of cancer.

If only cancer could be linked to a single cause. Who wouldn’t wish for that? However, cancer is a very complex disease that simply can’t be traced to one factor, let alone one food source. Genetics, physical activity levels and lifestyle habits (e.g., tobacco and alcohol use) play a role.

 

Putting a so-called “sin tax” on meat would only make it more difficult for consumers to access a food product that is vitally important to human health and survival now and in the future. Adding insult to injury is the fact that its upside (or promise) is negligible at best. There is no credible, science-based evidence to prove it would reduce cancer.

 

-Frank Mitloehner (@GHGGuru)

 

 

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