Redefining Ethical Omnivorism

If you look up the definition of ethical omnivorism you get this:

Ethical omnivorism is a human diet involving the consumption of meat, eggs, dairy and produce that can be traced back to a farm that raises grass-fed, free range, antibiotic and hormone-free livestock, uses GMO-free feed, and grows pesticide-free produce and greens. Ocean fish consumption is limited to only, sustainably farm-raised and/or ethically and wild caught, without contributing to illegal poaching.” – Wikipidia

There are several things wrong with this definition which are actually unethical.  It’s basically defining organic farming practices, as if that’s the gold standard of agriculture, but organic farming is not the same as ethical omnivorism in my opinion. Ethical omnivorism unfortunately suffers from much of the same misinformation and pseudoscience that engulf  veganism and vegetarianism.  The idea that organic farming is better is a main misconception, and that modern conventional farming is evil with it’s GMO’s, large scale monocultures and use of pesticides.  The truth is that many of the practices of modern agriculture are actually better for the enviroment and for the animals welfare than the outdated and often irrational organic methods. Here I will address the various points from the above  definition  which I think are unethical and should not be part of ‘Ethical Omnivorism’.

‘Antibiotic and hormone free livestock’

This is a huge ethical issue. Denying antibiotics to sick animals means you are causing the animal to suffer and potentially die unnecessarily. This is definitely unethical! Antibiotics have an important place in agriculture, just as they do in human  medicine,  to ensure the welfare of the animals and the health of the herd, although their overuse is an issue the complete abandonment of antibiotics raises more imminent ethical issues regarding the health and welfare of the farm animals. Because antibiotics are not allowed in organic agriculture, many organic farmers resort to ineffective and unproven alternative therapies to treat their animals. Using something that doesn’t work is just as bad as using nothing; the animal suffers and can potentially die as a result. Antibiotics are found naturally in the enviroment in fungi, molds and bacteria, and as a result antibiotic resistant bacteria are also naturally present. This is not a specific man made thing,  while the overuse of antibiotics for non-medicinal reasons is certainly a real problem,  the fears over antibiotic use are often over blown as discussed in this paper Antibiotics in agriculture and the risk to human health: how worried should we be? in which the authors conclude:

“While the concern is not unwarranted, the extent of the problem may be exaggerated. There is no evidence that agriculture is ‘largely to blame’ for the increase in resistant strains”.
tysongrabIn regards to consumer health from eating animal products that have been treated with antibiotics, this is another unfounded fear. In farming there is a minimum withdrawal period between the use of antibiotics and the animal being used for meat, eggs or milk. Animal products are tested for the presence of antibiotics and if detected the product is rejected for sale for human consumption. So there is no antibiotics in your store bought meat, milk or eggs, as explained here:

“The withdrawal period specifies the number of days that must pass after the last antibiotic treatment before the animal can enter the food supply.  FDA uses large margins of safety in establishing safe residue limits and withdrawal times to ensure that the antibiotic has sufficiently cleared the animal’s system before slaughter to ensure safe meat, milk and eggs. ”

It is possible, however,  that antibiotic resistant bacteria can be present, along with a load of other bacteria and pathogens, on animal products as well as on your fruit and vegetables which is why it’s important to properly wash and cook your food no matter where it’s came from. Raw milk is a always bad idea guys, organic or not……

Hormones are  another misunderstood agricultural practice. They are  used to increase the rate of growth , mostly in cattle,  to make them reach market weight faster. The faster they grow the less resources they use and the less effect they have on the enviroment. Side effects for the animals are uncommon and completely unheard of in humans eating the animal products. The levels of hormones used are minimal compared to the hormones you have naturally occurring in your body, so any mode of harm is also implausible as explained in this article from the Veterinary College of Norway:

“It is clear that in most cases the contribution from meat of treated animals is insignificant when hormones have been properly used, and must be considered to be biologically without impact. This becomes even more evident when seen in relation to normal endogenous hormone production in man, as illustrated in Table 5. It will be seen that even for oestrogens, the hormones considered the greatest risk, the maximal contribution from meat (assuming proper use of the hormones) is less than 0.01% in the prepubertal boy who represents the lowest endogenous oestrogen production.”

So while the use of hormones is certainly not necessary, unlike for antibiotics, their use is not generally harmful to the animals and not at all to human health. By causing the animals to reach market weight faster they actually reduce the impact of animal agriculture, specifically cattle, on the enviroment. So maybe hormone use is a actually good thing?

‘Uses GMO-free feed’

The fear mongering against GMO’s is pretty spectacular and infuriating at the same time from a science perspective.  The truth is there hasn’t been any significant negative  effects directly caused by GM crops in the 30 + years they have been used in commercial agriculture. Millions of animals have been studied and fed for decades with GM feed with with no difference in health compared to non-GM fed animals. For example, in a systematic review from 2012 published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology,  researchers looked at 24 long term and multi-generational studies on the health impact of animals fed GM feed. They state:

” Results from all the 24 studies do not suggest any health hazards and, in general, there were no statistically significant differences within parameters observed.”  and  “No sign of toxicity in analyzed parameters has been found in long-term studies.  No sign of toxicity in parameters has been found in multigenerational studies. ”

In an even more in depth review which included 1783 studies over the past 10 years, published in the journal Critical Reviews in Biotechnology,  the authors state:

“The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops”.

This is just another method of creating new and improved varieties of crops, there is nothing hazardous about it. In fact in many cases GM varieties are better for the enviroment than the conventional varieties. They can be made to be resistant to pests and diseases which reduces the GMO_Cartoon_3amount of pesticides used. By enabling the plant to produce it’s own pesticide,  which only targets the specific pests which eat the plant, farmers don’t need to spray the fields  which kills of beneficial insects as well as the pests and washes into the soil and rivers further polluting the enviroment. Crops can also be engineered to be drought resistant, so they can be grown with less water and in more difficult conditions, to be higher yielding to produce more on less land using less resources, and they can even be made to contain more nutrients, like the famous Golden Rice that was produced specifically to combat vitamin A deficiency in the developing world,  where malnutrition causes millions of poverty stricken people to go blind, suffer and die,  and which Greenpeace so violently opposes on ideological grounds because “GMO’s are bad!

‘Pesticide-free produce’
Another myth is that organic farming doesn’t use pesticides, it’s simply not true.  All farming uses pesticides, if they didn’t they wouldn’t get a viable harvest. I’ll let you in on a not-so-secret secret. My husband and I are small  scale farmers, he’s also an agronomist working for an agricultural company and pesticides are his specialty.  There is a whole range of pesticides that are approved and commonly used in organic agriculture, just as for conventional. Whither a pesticide is classed as organic or not isn’t based on how safe it is,  its based on if it’s considered naturally occurring  (with a few exceptions) and this tells you nothing about it’s toxicity. Chemical compounds such as copper sulfate and nicotine,  which are highly toxic,  are considered naturally occurring and so are approved for use in organic farming . Other chemicals which have been synthetically created are not allowed in organic farming (with a few exceptions) only because they are synthetic and not because they are more harmful.  In fact many of the modern synthetic pesticides used today are LESS toxic, more effective and require less applications than the outdated organic pesticides. Yay science!

So these are the things i find wrong and unethical with the Ethical Omnivore definition. There is no need to reject science,  especially when it reduces the harm of agriculture on the enviroment and on the farm animals that we raise for food.  I would like to redefine the term to something like this:

Ethical omnivorism is a human diet involving the consumption of meat, eggs, dairy and produce from sources that use the most ethical farming practices which cause the least amount of harm to the farm animals, the enviroment and the humans who produce and consume the food.  This includes raising animals with access to grazing pasture and providing antibiotics and modern medical treatment when necessary.  Animal feed as well as human grade produce should be produced using the least harmful methods on the enviroment, including the use of GM crops and modern pesticides when these are the more environmentally friendly option. Fish consumption should be sustainably farm-raised or ethically wild caught, without contributing to illegal poaching. Hunting of invasive and overpopulating species such as rabbit, deer and kangaroo is also promoted.”

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Isn’t it better to use the most ethical farming methods, what’s best for the animals for the enviroment and for the people, regardless of whither it’s labeled as ‘organic’ or ‘conventional’? Why reject the most ethical options based on rigid anti-science ideology?

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Producing your own food: Ethical meat

As we are becoming increasingly  aware of the  animal welfare and environmental concerns in agriculture many people, including my husband and I,  are choosing to produce their own food. If you are lucky enough to have a garden you have a few options  for producing your own ethical meat and eggs.  There are several benefits to raising your own animals for food, such as:

1. It reduces your carbon footprint as less fossil fuels are used in production and transportation from farm to plate.

2. You can recycle all your kitchen and garden  scraps, turning waste into food.

3. It also reduces the amount of water used as the more recycled fresh food scraps used to feed your animals (ideally from your own garden or local area) and the more you let them graze and forage food from your garden, the less grain they eat. Grain requires water for irrigation to grow and when plants are transported they take that water with them (some more than others, for example lettuce contains more water than corn) which depletes the water table in the areas where it is grown. This is another reason, together with reducing your carbon footprint, why you should grow your own and try to source local produce as much as possible.

4. It provides a valuable source of rich manure full of nutrients and organic matter to feed the soil in your vegetable beds.

5. And it allows you peace of mind that you are in full control of the process to ensure the animals in your care are properly cared for and don’t suffer.

When producing food in your garden space is an issue which limits which animals you are able to keep. Unless you have a few acres you’re obviously not going to be able to keep something big like a milking cow, so you will be limited to smaller animals. Luckily there are many small animals to choose from which are perfectly suited to a backyard farm! So what’s your options?

Chickens
Chickens are probably the first animal which springs to most peoples minds and they are a fantastic starting point providing a plentiful supply of fresh eggs as well as meat. 5 egg laying hens will provide eggs year round for a family of 4. By keeping a rooster with the ladies and allowing them to breed you will be able to renew your flock and have the odd chicken for the pot when the male chicks mature. Be warned though, roosters crow all throughout the day and early hours of  the morning. Personally I like the noise but if youchick_flock_blog have close neighbors this may become a problem for some, so politely asking them first if they would be bothered by the noise might be a good idea. Keeping duel purpose breeds is a good option if you want both meat and eggs. They have more meat on them compared with the egg layers and still produce a good supply of eggs. The meat birds such as broilers grow fast and can be killed at around 8 weeks. They require more intensive feeding with different feed to the egg layers to provide the right nutrients for them to grow, so ideally they should be kept separately. An option is to raise a few groups of broiler chicks throughout the year, say  30 chicks 2 or 3 times, after you account for losses you should end up with roughly enough to eat a whole chicken a week.
For housing you will need a suitable coup, either portable or permanent, with perches inside for them to roost at night. It needs to be  water tight with good ventilation and properly secured for protection from predators.  Layers also need nest boxes where they feel safe and secure to lay their eggs. They tend to share boxes so they don’t need one each, 1 box for every 2-3 hens is enough. And they will probably have a favorite box or couple  of boxes which they all use while ignoring the others. Iv got 8 nest boxes for my hens and they all tend to use the same one. Iv seen 3 hens all in the one box fighting for space!  Your coup will need a run, protected on all sides including the top to make it secure from predators. This is essential when you’ve got chicks as they make a tasty snack for the neighbors cat! Once all your chickens are fully grown they are usually too big for a cat, although dogs still have no problem killing a fully grown chicken. You will probably also like to let your chickens out in your garden, as long as it is properly secured so they cant escape and dogs cant get in. What I do with my chickens is I keep them in their coup, which is a large converted stone shed with a large run attached, for most of the spring and summer months while I have vegetables growing Eglu_cube_orange_plastic_chicken_coop_with_extension_chickens_in_garden(because they eat the vegetables) and I throw in kitchen and garden scraps everyday, then at the end of the growing season I let them free range over the rest of the garden and close off the run to let the land in there rest. This helps prevent a build up of parasites on the ground. It’s also possible to grow things like winter cabbage in the run to make good use of the space. Portable tractors like the once pictured above are another good option you might consider. This one is from ‘Eggloo’ which is a popular brand although it can be quite pricey if you’re on a budget, but you can easily build a tractor yourself from scrap wood as I have for my rabbits.
Other things to consider is disease prevention and maintaining the health of your flock. It’s easier to prevent ill health than to treat it. Good hygiene is really important. All water and feeders need to be regularly cleaned with soapy water and measurements taken to prevent them from becoming contaminated with feces while in use. Suspending them off of the ground is a good idea.  Chickens poo mostly when they are perched at night so the droppings collect underneath and need to be removed often. Use a bedding material on the floor of the coup which is absorbent and easy to scoop up, I use straw, and clean out the whole coup a few times a year replacing it with fresh bedding. All of this can go on the compost to be used later in your garden. Never put fresh chicken manure on your plants as it is too strong and will burn them, it needs to rot down first into compost.  Regular worming and vaccination is also necessary. And no, garlic ain’t gonna cut it. To ensure your flock remain healthy they need to be regularly wormed, just like for your cat or dog, and vaccinated against the major diseases. These are usually give in the drinking water.  Lice and mites are other parasites which commonly effect chickens. You can get insecticide powders to dust the perches and nest boxes in the coup as well as on the chickens. Once a year the whole coup should be cleaned out and treated. Always speak to your vet about all of these things for disease prevention before you do it as they are the experts and will tell you which products to use and how.
And lastly before you get any animal you should read up on it as much as you can and I also advise joining some groups or forums to speak with other knowledgeable farmers so you know what to expect before hand.


Ducks
Ducks are another good option for your back garden and can be kept in a similar way to chickens, although they don’t need the perches or  nest boxes, they lay their eggs and sleep on the ground. Half a dozen ducks can be kept on a minimum of 50sq feet if you want to avoid destroying the land. It’s a good idea to rotate them as I explained for chickens. They need a water source, but not necessarily a pond. They need to be able to submerge their heads under water and splash their feathers, a large water troff will do the trick  but obviously a pond is ideal. They also need a shelter with dry bedding such as straw. If you don’t have a shed you can make a shelter from straw bales covered with sheet of

Free-range ducks and chickens

corrugated metal to keep the rain out. They sleep on the ground so it doesn’t need to be high. This kind of shelter is good because it is portable so you can move them around your garden onto fresh grass. Allowing them to free range in your garden means they  will find a lot of their food by themselves, eating slugs, insects and grass, but they also need to be supplemented with grain for peak egg production. Ducks lay eggs during the night to early morning so it’s best to confine them until about 10am to ensure you get the eggs and they don’t lay elsewhere in the garden. As with all animals good hygiene and regular cleaning is important to prevent disease and risk of infection.  Speak to your vet about what treatments you need to use for disease prevention.

Geese
Geese are noisy birds – they make good guard dogs! –  and need more space than 61c9e6adabe6bcc1a6c0cae2bc892e97chickens but if you have enough space with green grass they make a very economical table bird.  Geese are grazers and will get all of their nutrition from the grass during the growing season, and if you hatch goslings in the spring they will feed all summer on grass and be ready for the table by autumn. Geese that are kept over winter will need  to be supplemented with grain. Their housing needs are the same as for ducks and they also need access to water deep enough to submerge their heads in. Geese spend more time on land than ducks and a water troff is enough for their needs. They also lay edible eggs but have not been produced for this propose so they don’t lay almost daily like ducks and chickens.

Turkeys
Turkeys grow huge and fast and for this reason have  been commercially exploited. There are now maxi, midi and mini varieties available to choose from. The commercial turkeys HedgerowFarm_Sept2012_0098HedgerowFarm_Sept2012_0098today grow so big they are unable to mate naturally and require artificial insemination.  For this reason it’s best to buy chicks instead of keeping your own for breeding. For the backyard farmer with limited space it’s best to buy in a few day old chicks in the spring and rear them in time for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  They can be kept free range in your garden, but should not be kept on land previously used for chickens as there is a risk of the disease ‘Blackhead’ which chicken are carriers of and is deadly to turkeys. They need to be kept on dry ground to prevent this disease. Their housing requirements are the same as for chickens, with perches for them to roost at night, and they are fed grain same as for broiler chickens to meet their nutritional needs as they grow so rapidly. The time it takes to reach table weight depends on the breed. The  heavy breeds grow to about 14kg in approximately 24 weeks, medium breeds reach about  7kg in 16 weeks and the mini breeds about 4kg in 12 weeks.

Guinea Fowl
Guinea fowl are attractive birds which are members of the pheasant family thought to guineafowloriginate from the Guinea coast of Africa. The meat is white and delicate with a distinct gamey flavor. Commercial varieties are ready for the table at around 9-10 weeks weighing about 0.5-1kg  if kept indoors on grain. They take longer, about 16 weeks, if kept out  free range and supplemented with grain as for chickens. The traditional non-commercial varieties are even slower to mature, taking as long as 6 months.

Quail
Quail are another option for meat and eggs, although they are tiny! For meat they reach just over 200g by 6 weeks of age and consume about 4-5kg of grain in this time. For eggs 4d1eabb3e3678c2aaaef19deb982fd89quail come into lay at around 10-12 weeks old and produce around 300 tiny spotted eggs a year. Because these are very small birds they are easily picked off by predators and for that reason it is best to not let them free range. A coup with a run enclosed on all sides is necessary for protection. A portable tractor is another good option which will keep them protected while still allowing them access to pasture.

Rabbits
Aside from geese, rabbits have got to be the most economical small animal to raise for food. There are two main meat varieties; the California White and the New Zealand White. They can essentially be raised entirely on grass and vegetable/garden scraps during the growing seasons and supplemented with hay over winter, no grain needed. They are quiet, clean animals which don’t smell and wont bother your neighbors.  The meat is white and lean, even lower in cholesterol than chicken. They are very low maintenance to keep if you house  them in a suitably sized tractor, all you need to do is move them  onto fresh grass every day or 2 and throw in your kitchen/garden scraps. Keeping them on grass like this means they get most of their water from the grass they are eating so they require very little drinking water. I use the smallest sized water bottle and they hardly  touch it. I’ve 005built some open bottom tractors to house my rabbits with a ramp up to the box elevated off the ground for them to sleep which keeps them dry when it rains (see picture).  I also cover the whole top with a sheet of plastic in bad weather and provide shade when it’s hot. By moving the tractor there is no manure to clean and they tend not to soil their bed. As for geese this is basically free meat! They are prolific breeders throughout the year,  having litters of up to 10 kits which reach a table weight of about 2kg in around 3 months depending on the breed and how intensively they’re fed. Commercial breeders who feed only pellets have rabbits ready in 9-10 weeks. The usual setup is to have 2 females and a male. The 20111003newzealandwhitefemales can be kept together but the male should be kept separate and only put with the females to breed, otherwise they will ‘breed like bunnies’ which puts too much stress on the females. They can be  bread several times a year, but it’s best give your does a chance to rest between litters, hence why the buck should be kept separate. By breeding both does at the same time,  if one has too many kits they can be spread out between the two does to ensue their survival. Pregnant/lactating does can be supplemented with some pellets, oats and barley for extra calories, but if they are on good quality pasture with a plentiful supply of fresh food and hay this may not even be necessary. It’s a good idea to handle your breeding rabbits, and the kits as well, so they are tame and you can examine them easily. They become pretty friendly and are essentially pets with a purpose. Just don’t get too attached to the babies, makes it too difficult when the time comes to kill them!

So as you can see there are many options for raising your own backyard animals for ethical meat, more than I’ve mentioned here but these are some of the most popular ones. Remember whatever animals you choose make sure you look into it thoroughly before hand so you know what  to expect and can choose something which best suits your space and circumstances. Good hygiene and disease prevention is essential with all animals so you should always speak with your vet to find out what you need to do to ensure your animals are kept in good health and don’t suffer unnecessarily. Alternative medicines are not effective so please don’t use them, if they actually worked they would be classed as ‘medicine’ and recommended by your vet. You should use the most effective treatment available to ensure your animals are fit and healthy and do not suffer from preventable illnesses. There are some serious diseases out there that will kill your whole flock, so vaccination is essential. Some diseases can even pass onto humans.  Some people on the  internet (not vets) recommend things like putting garlic in the water to kill worms but this does not work and the animals will suffer unnecessarily because you are failing to treat the problem. That goes for everything. So please always speak to  your vet!  If you’ve made it this far I hope  this information has been helpful if you are considering raising your own animals ethically for food. The more food we can produce ourselves the better it is for the enviroment and for the animals welfare. So good luck to you!

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My dog is not vegan: she just doesn’t get it…..

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Like so many of us I am an animal lover and I have a dog. I rescued her from the streets in Macedonia, Eastern Europe, where I live. There is a huge stray dog and cat problem here. Most people here don’t sterilize their pets and allow them to wander freely in the streets, resulting in them breeding every year,  the unwanted puppies and kittens then get dumped or sometimes drowned in the river. It’s really appalling. There are no animal welfare laws, most people don’t care about the animals. Everywhere I go I see emaciated mange ridden dogs roaming the streets looking for food in the bins and around restaurants. Some people feel sorry for them and throw them scraps, others see them as dirty pests and throw rocks.  It’s the same story in most of the developing countries of the world. Where people are poor, governments are corrupt and animal rights are non-existent.

It’s thought that dogs have evolved from ancient wolves who started to live alongsideneolithic_settlement-and-wolf-dog-2 humans, surviving just like this, from scavenging on human food scraps. Scientists are not sure exactly when dogs split from ancient wolves on the evolutionary scale, with some suggesting it could be as long ago as 33,000 years. What is known though is that humans and dogs have been co-existing for a very long time, and by the time humans started to transition from hunter-gatherers into farmers, about 10,000 years ago, dogs were very much part of human life.

Gene sequencing is reveling some fascinating traits which separate dogs from wolves. Researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden have compared the genomes of dogs and wolves to look for differences that can help us understand how dogs have evolved.  They’ve spotted differences in genes affecting brain function which they think could potentially affect the animals behavior, as well as, interestingly, genes that appear to have allowed dogs to adapt from the carnivorous diet of their wolf ancestors to an omnivorous diet based on human food scraps.

But just because dogs are omnivorous doesn’t mean they should necessarily be vegan. Given the choice my dog, and I’d expect every other dog, will choose meat over plants every time. My dog always picks out the meat and bones first and leaves some veg in the bottom of her bowl. When I give her an all veggie meal she often turns her nose up at it, looking at me as if to say “what is this?” and doesn’t touch it.  Can dogs survive on a 100% vegan diet? Well, maybe, if it is very carefully planed. It’s certainly possible for dogs, like humans, to be healthy on a vegetarian diet which includes eggs and dairy, but a 100% vegan diet devoid of all  animal products? I’m not entirely convinced. Research in this area is scant and the claims made by vegans are mostly anecdotal or based on weak evidence. For example, a research paper entitled VEGAN NUTRITION OF DOGS AND CATS that I’v managed to find is on a small short term study in which researchers carried out a questionnaire including 174 dog owners, most of whom were vegan/vegetarian themselves. Because of this the answers given are highly susceptible to bias. Owners claimed their dogs health, the shininess of their coat and even their scent improved on a vegan diet. The average length of time the dogs were eating vegan was just 2.83 years.  Of these dogs, 20 were examined by a vet and deemed to be healthy with no apparent diet related negative effects. The authors conclude:

“Supplementation of taurine, l-carnitine, iron, vitamin B12 and vitamin D in both dogs and cats, and additional supplementation of arachidonic acid and vitamin A in cats is recommended. A healthy and balanced vegan nutrition can barely be implemented without supplements. Long term results, a larger group of animals feeding on a vegan diet for more than 7 years and further tests (taurine, niacin, vitamin A, vitamin D,…) as well as generally a larger number of participants would be needed for significant validity. With the information given in this study, the overall impression of participating animals and present results of examinations and blood assessments, the insular disapprobation of a vegan diet for cats and dogs can’t be reasoned, but a vegan diet is not species appropriate for cats and dogs and therefore can not be recommended by veterinarians. ”

Some commercial vegan pet foods may also lack essential nutrients, as explained in this other paper on Nutritional and ethical issues regarding vegetarianism in the domestic dog:

“none of the currently available meat-free diets for dogs or cats base their claims of nutritional adequacy on recognized feeding protocols such as those of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO, 2007). Furthermore, two commercial vegan diets for cats, which the manufacturers claim are nutritionally complete and balanced, were found to have multiple nutrient deficiencies (Gray et al., 2004).”

So without sending your vegan pet food off for analysis you can’t be entirely positive that it is what it says on the packet. Maybe homemade meals would be better? Or maybe not, how are you able to know how much of what is in the meals you prepare for  your dog at home? In fact, recent studies have shown that more often than not homemade dog food is nutrient deficient. And if you’re cutting out whole food groups you definitely run the risk of deficiencies. Vegan humans need to take B12 and often other supplements which are lacking in sufficient quantities in a 100% animal product free diet, so it’s likely that dogs would also be at risk of deficiencies and require the right supplementation.  If you deny  your dog all animal products you need to make sure they are getting an appropriately balanced diet,  including supplements in the right concentrations, which may be hard to do, although not impossible, as discussed  in these two papers on vegan diets for dogs I’v linked to above. If you can find a properly balanced vegan dog food which contains everything your dog needs nutritionally then, based on what little research there is, it’s theoretically possible that dogs could survive on vegan dog food. But there are no long term high quality studies on this subject, no randomized controlled trials, so just because 20 dogs were found to be in good health after a few years on vegan dog food doesn’t mean the results would be the same for all dogs eating vegan their whole life.

Of course there’s no way to stop them from eating meat when you’re not looking! Palatability is another issue. There’s no denying dogs prefer to eat meat, given the choice. My dog often finds bones from outside and brings them home, she’d never willingly go vegan. And why should she, she’s a dog! Omnivorous, yes, but her taste buds are still geared more towards carnivorous and no matter how much I try to explain she’s never going to be convinced by the vegan argument. Is it even ethical to force your dog to eat download (1)according to your ideological views which go against their natural instincts? Forcing your dog, or cat, to be vegan against their will? Personally i don’t think that’s right. Dogs still have a hunting drive. They chase small animals and are capable of catching and killing them. My dog is a good hunter. She’s caught and killed several wild birds. She’s caught ducks a few times from the park which I’v managed to get off  her unharmed and  I now have to avoid the pond. She’s also caught one of my chickens and started eating it alive  before I noticed and came to the rescue -after some emergency medical treatment it recovered – clearly my dog is not vegan. She just doesn’t get it…..

Maybe instead of forcing your pet to go vegan against it’s will,  vegans should just get a vegan pet like a bunny rabbit or a chinchilla.  Or not have any at all. Isn’t keeping pets anti-vegan? Humans keep animals in captivity for their own pleasure, doesn’t using animals for human means goes against veganism? If it doesn’t then vegans shouldn’t have a problem with my backyard hens which are like my pets, I don’t eat them, and if the hens are ok then why not just eat the eggs?

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Humans are omnivores. Not herbivores. Not carnivores.

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Before I begin let me say that I am not ‘anti-vegan’. I think if you are able to abstain from eating all animal products then that is fantastic, and I believe all of us should take steps to reduce our general meat consumption (topic for another post). Today I want to address a claim I often hear made by some vegans and proponents of plant-based diets with an ax to grind such as PETA: the belief that humans are herbivores and we are not physiologically designed to eat meat. This statement is completely false. PETA are wrong. I’ll explain why.

First off let’s define what a carnivore, herbivore and an omnivore is.  A carnivore is an animal which has specialized adaptions for eating meat and cannot survive on a plant-only diet, examples include domestic cats, lions and sharks. If you feed only plants to these animals they will die because they are unable to digest and absorb all the nutrients they need. A herbivore is an animal which has specialized adaptions for eating plants and cannot survive on a meat-only diet, examples of herbivores are horses, rabbits and deer which will also die if you try to feed them all meat. Omnivores are animals which are able to obtain energy and nutrients from both plant and animal sources.  Examples of omnivores are primates such as humans, chimpanzees and bonobos, and also pigs, most bears, dogs and rats. Omnivores are at more of an advantage as they are ‘generalized feeders’ meaning they lack the specialized adaptions of carnivores or herbivores and are able to eat pretty much everything. Omnivores have the ability to survive on 100% plants or 100% meat if  they really have to, such as  when other food sources are scarce, but they usually eat a mixture of both. Omnivores vary greatly in the ratios of meat to plants that they eat and there is no set ratio of plants:meat that an animal needs to eat to make it an omnivore. It doesn’t matter if an animal eats 80%, 90% or  95% plants, all that is required to be classed as an omnivore is that the animal can digest and obtain nutrients and energy from both plant and animal foods, the ratio of plants:meat is not important.  Interestingly, herbivores sometimes eat small amounts of animals such as insects or scavenged meat, either accidentally or intentionally, and carnivores often eat a small amount of plants too. Deer, for example, have been seen eating meat and you’ve probably seen domestic cats eating grass. It is unclear exactly why these animals do this, but it is thought these foods might play a role in aiding digestion, be a way of self-medicating, of obtaining extra nutrients or calories, or perhaps they just like the taste.  Maybe this is why there is seemingly so much confusion as to which box humans fit into, as there is some degree of overlap and animals also evolve over time and can change classification. Dogs for example are considered carnivores, but have evolved alongside humans to eat a more omnivorous diet, compared to their wild wolf cousins who are still true carnivores. Bears are another example, most of which are omnivores except for the Panda bear which eats exclusively bamboo plants. Animals can be further classified as  fruitivore, insectivore etc but i won’t go into that here. The anatomy and characteristics of carnivores, omnivores and herbivores is also not clear cut. There is a lot of overlap because they have all evolved independently , carnivore to herbivore or vice versa, which is  why you cannot say this animal has X therefor it fits neatly in the herbivore box. Instead biologists  look at all of the evidence together; diet, anatomy, physiology, behavior etc to classify the different species. So, now that is explained let’s take a look at some of the claims made by some vegans that humans are herbivores and we’re not designed to eat meat.

To make the argument that humans are herbivores, vegans will compare human anatomy 6bc7850c605c20a41eed182f6d9f35ceto other carnivores.  They will compare our teeth to  tiger teeth and say because we don’t have the same teeth this ‘proves’ humans are not meant to eat meat (see image above). This is a major mistake and a recurrent theme on which their whole argument is based, because humans are not carnivores so comparing us to carnivores is pretty meaningless. Humans are omnivores and should be compared with other omnivorous animals, not to carnivores. When you compare human teeth to our closest living relatives, bonobos and chimps, who are also omnivores, you will see our teeth are pretty similar. Human teeth are just a bit smaller, probably because we learned how to cook food and use tools so there was no longer an evolutionary advantage to having large canines and they have gotten smaller as a result. Evolution favors traits that allow the animal to survive and reproduce better, traits that are not needed gradually fade away. This is the same reason apes don’t have tails, yet retain the tail bone. So yes, our canine teeth are on the small side, but that’s because we don’t need to use them to survive like other animals do. We use our intelligence instead.

Can-I-Give-My-Rabbit-Guinea-Pig-Food-244x300Along with the comparison of teeth vegans will also claim that humans don’t have sharp claws like a tiger either, more proof we’re not mean to eat meat. Again this is a false comparison. Bonobos and chimps don’t have claws, they have hands with nails just like us and they are easily able to hunt and catch prey, including other monkeys.  The fact that we don’t have claws is not proof that humans are herbivores. In fact, there are many herbivores who do actually have claws! Just look at guinea pigs, rabbits or sloths to find examples, all of which eat only plants. The presence or absence of claws does not dictate diet.

Another false argument made is that our digestive system is more like that of a herbivore than a carnivore. They claim that our digestive system is so long and it takes so much time for meat to pass through that the meat is sitting in there and rotting in our guts. This is completely false and nothing more than fear mongering.  In reality our intestines are actually much shorter than herbivores and are more geared towards eating meat than eating plants.  The average length of the human intestine is 6 meters, similar to that of a lion, while herbivores intestines are much longer to enable them to digest tough cellulose. Humans actually have evolved slightly smaller digestive tracts compared with our closest relatives, the also omnivorous bonobos and chimps, which anthropologists believe is because of the higher meat consumption in the human diet.

Eating meat is also thought to have played a major role in human evolution. The extra on-endurance-runningcalories and nutrition has allowed our brains to grow and our intelligence with it.  The earliest well accepted evidence for meat eating is from animal bones found with butchery marks from stone tools dating back 2.6 million years, although evidence has been found dating back as far as 3.4 million years.  It is thought that like modern day humans in Africa, early humans likely used persistence hunting well before the use of stone tools. By walking and running humans are able to track and chase prey over great distances until it eventually collapses from exhaustion, allowing the humans to catch it. Human fossils have also been found dating back 1.5 million years, which appear to show evidence of anemia cause by malnutrition from a lack of meat in the diet. Researchers found lesions on skull bone fragments, thought to belong to a child under 2 years old, which results from a lack of vitamins B9 and B12 which are found in meat. Anemia is common in children around the time of weaning and it’s thought that either the child or the nursing mother lacked enough meat in their diet.

And so we come to nutrition. Probably the most touchy subject for vegans. Yes  I understand that the ADA statement says a vegan diet is healthy and can provide everything that your body needs, but that’s only if you are eating food that has been artificially fortified with extra vitamins and minerals that are either not found at all or are in too low concentrations in a 100% plant based diet. The fact is if we rely on unprocessed food, as our ancestors did, we would not be able to get everything we need just from eating plants. The biggest issue for humans is probably vitamin B12 which is synthesized by bacteria in the guts of animals and then absorbed in the small intestine and transported around the body. Humans can only obtain B12 from eating the meat, milk or eggs from animals. This is because of the differences in the way B12 is synthesized and absorbed  in different animals. Cud chewing herbivores such as cows are forgut fermenters, they have B12 synthesizing bacteria in their forgut and they eat soil while grazing which supplies them with cobalt needed for B12 synthesis. The B12 containing foodstuff then moves into the small intestine where it is absorbed. Humans are different. We are hindgut fermenters. Our  hundguts are located after our small intestine so even though we have plenty of bacteria present in our hindguts we are unable to absorb the B12 because it doesn’t pass through our small intestine. This means we need to get already synthesized B12 by eating food from animal sources which already contains it. Other herbivore hindgut fermenters,  such as rabbits, have the same problem but they get around this by eating their  feces, which contain the B12 synthesized in their hindguts,  passing it through their small intestine where the B12 is absorbed. Obviously humans don’t eat their own feces, being omnivores we get our B12 from eating animal products which already contain it.  If we were truly herbivores we would have adaptions for obtaining B12 from pant sources, like cows or rabbits do.

Like it or not, meat is a highly nutritious and calorie dense food that has allowed humans020_021_Mammoth_Hunters_F-AW_rlhknt to thrive and become what we are today.  Meat is the reason humans have spread all over the world, as they followed animal migrations north out of Africa.  When times were rough meat was likely the predominant food source. Without it we may not be here at all.

But that’s not to say that in today’s modern world you cannot survive without meat. The millions of vegans and vegetarians are testament to that. Today we have lots of food options available, at least in the developed Western countries. As people are becoming more health conscious, we gain more understanding of the role that high fiber diets have in reducing disease risk, and the concerns we have over animal welfare in farming, more and more people are turning to a vegetarian or vegan diet. As a result of public demand more vegan food, fortified with those essential  vitamins, are appearing on supermarket shelves and restaurants are popping up all over the place. I think that’s great. Personally I love vegetarian food and I’m not a big meat eater (more on that later). But I am also passionate about science and factual information, and trying to argue that humans are biologically herbivores and meat ‘rots in our bodies’ makes vegans look more like religious zealots who will say anything to gain followers, even if it is completely bogus.

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Being an ethical omnivore

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Like so many of us, I care deeply about  our planet and all of the life upon it. Fluffy bunny rabbits are cute, those endless cat videos on youtube are funny, and dogs truly are mans’ best friend. But, also like so many of us, I still choose to eat meat. I enjoy eating meat, cheese and dairy. I like scrambled eggs for breakfast and milk in my coffee. I am also well aware of the unethical treatment of  animals in so called ‘factory farming’ systems, and even in some ‘organic’ operations (organic doesn’t mean it’s ethical , I’ll get to that later). So why do I still choose to eat meat and dairy, knowing what I know?

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Well for a start I am a human, and biologically humans are omnivores. We have evolved eating both plants and animals and meat has provided us with nutritional benefits that likely played a part in the evolution of our intelligence. I have an instinctual desire to eat meat and animal products, and, like the vast majority of humans, I have no intentions of going 100% vegan. But, that doesn’t mean I am a blood thirsty carnivore, like a fox in a chicken coup, killing indiscriminately everything with a heartbeat that I come across. It doesn’t mean I am incapable of empathy or moral judgment. And it doesn’t mean that I would willingly support unnecessary animal cruelty and suffering, in fact, I don’t.  I try my best to make conscious food choices  so I know the meat, eggs or dairy I eat comes from ethical sources.

There are other options out there other than intensive indoor factory farming systems. A lot of vegans like to exaggerate how bad things are for farm animals. Using the worst case scenarios (they tell us “just watch the movie Earthlings“) they imply that those horrors apply to all of farming with the intentions of shocking us into becoming vegan. But the truth is most farmers do care for their animals welfare because a healthy animal is going to be much more productive.  As an ethical omnivore I support the most ethical farming practices where the animals as well as the land and the environment are well cared for. 5242078-dairy-cows-grazingRaising animals on pasture using  rotational grazing systems instead of ‘factory farming’   has many benefits which go well beyond the welfare of the farm animals. Using land for grazing instead of growing animal feed means the land is not plowed, preventing erosion, runoff and nutrient loss in the soil. It also preserves habitat for wildlife,  reduces fossil fuel use as tractors are not plowing, sowing or harvesting crops, and reduces water use because there are no crops to be irrigated. The rain waters the grass without the need for irrigation. Pastured animals get either all or most of their nutrition from the pasture meaning less land is used for growing animal feed. The animals also manure the field as they walk around, fertilizing the soil without the need for the farmer to spread manure or fertilizer, and preventing build ups of manure like that seen in indoor systems which pollute the environment.   When you take the animals out of the factory farming system  and put them back on pasture, all those environmental concerns start to disappear.  And of course the animals live better lives, out on pasture with the freedom to roam and graze and exhibit their natural instincts.

Vegans will often claim that killing is never ethical, so in their view it’s not possible to be an ethical person if you eat meat, no matter how well the animals are cared for. But I respectfully disagree. I think that as long as the animals live happy stress-free lives, are provided with their natural environment where they can exhibit their instinctual behaviors, have all their needs met, for good quality food, fresh water, appropriate shelter with clean dry bedding, medical care when needed,  and are killed humanely by the method of least suffering then it is justifiable to eat meat that hasn’t suffered unnecessarily by human hands.

Let’s not forget that farming is not the only way to eat meat. Hunting is another option. And there is a strong ethical argument for hunting invasive species. Wild rabbits and deer,Stop-rabbits-eating-trees.-Plastic-tree-guards for example, are in high numbers and they have a significant negative effect on the environment. By hunting them we help to keep their numbers down and reduce their environmental impact.

Eating bivalves, like muscles and oysters, is another ethical option which arguably vegans should embrace as they lack both a brain and central nervous systems and it’s unlikely they are able to feel pain or have conscious thought, and therefor the ability to suffer, even though they are technically classed as animals. Same thing for eating insects, oysters-lemon-stock-today-inline-150806_477f67ef1a7127c43303ec79e6d3541f.today-inline-largewhile they do have a brain they do not have the same nervous system as animals and are unlikely to feel pain. An insect can loose a limb and carry on without hindrance until it grows back.

Choosing to raise our own animals for food is another ethical option that many of us, even if we only have a small garden, are capable of doing. I keep my own backyard chickens for eggs and meat and I love them like I do my dog. I enjoy watching them out pecking and scratching around for bugs. We converted an old stone built shed  into a roomy coup and fenced off a large area at the back of our garden as a run for them. They spend the summer months in the run (because they destroy the veggie patches)  and I give them all our kitchen leftovers as well as throwing in weeds from the garden every day, and in the winter I let them out to free range in our garden. We keep a rooster and let them reproduce on their own. They give us a plentiful supply of eggs, the odd chicken now and then for the pot and an excellent source of manure for the garden to grow our vegetables. I recommend everyone with a garden should get some backyard chickens, they really are wonderful animals. A joy to watch, really low maintenance and compliment your garden beautifully.

So, while i have much respect for all the vegetarians and vegans out there, it’s great if you choose to do that and I’m certainly not going to stand in your way. But for the rest of us I think there is a case for ethical omnivorism, despite vegans claims that eating meat can never be ethical. I believe when farming (or hunting) is done right and the animals don’t suffer then it is justifiable to eat meat. By being ethically conscious omnivores we can all make more ethical food choices to ensure we don’t contribute to the kind of animal suffering that vegans, and most of us with a moral conscious, abhor.

If you liked this article you can also follow me on Facebook @ The Ethical Omnivore