The Ethical Omnivore Movement stands as a counterbalance to the vegan movement, which is currently fashionable, but whose popularity will be short-lived.
Ethical omnivores and vegans actually share many of the same values: sustainability, health, animal welfare… but arrive at very different answers over the question of how to achieve those goals.
The biggest difference between an ethical omnivore and a vegan is that veganism is ideological, whereas ethical omnivorism is evidence-based. In other words, if the evidence showed that eating only plants was better for the environment, for our health, and for animals… we’d eat plants!
On the other hand, vegans frequently maintain the rightness of their creed despite evidence to the contrary. They repeat their articles of faith like a mantra, programming them into their neurons, convincing themselves that they have the answer and that their position will eventually be vindicated and become the norm.
Here’s a message that was recently sent to EOM through Facebook.
I believe this person is totally wrong. Veganism is NOT the future, for many reasons, and it’s easy to understand why simply by looking back at our history so far.
History Has Spoken
The biggest reason is that we already have history. The human race is the result of millions of years of evolutionary history, and that evolution has made us omnivores. History has already spoken.
Animals’ diets do evolve, but it takes a heck of a long time. We have a good picture of how ours has evolved, and it is pointing in the opposite direction. We started out as mainly vegetarian primates and have evolved to be omnivorous, but with meat and other animal products as a vital dietary component.
The history of humans’ diet is marked by two major shifts: one very early, followed by another much more recent change.
The First Great Evolutionary Shift: Hunting
The first major change in our diet when we started scavenging and hunting and eating a lot more meat, which occurred about two million years ago.
In this period, we became less hairy and primarily bipedal, which helped us run long distances to chase down prey. We also developed larger brains as we developed tools and techniques to access more calories (such as using hand axes to break into skulls, and cooking with fire).
As a result, our intestines got shorter because we were getting more calories from meat, fish, and fat (which are almost completely broken down in the stomach) instead of starchy plant matter (which decomposes more slowly through bacterial activity in the gut).
Compare our physiology to that of the gorilla, which eats plants almost exclusively. As you can see from the shape of the animal, the gorilla has a far longer intestinal tract (colon in particular), allowing it to store huge numbers of bacteria that break down cellulose and other plant matter that we cannot digest.
Like most other apes, a gorilla’s brain only uses about 8% of its body’s energy at rest. A human’s much larger brain, however, requires 20% of your available energy. On the other hand, the gorilla’s massive digestive system needs far more energy than our shorter omnivore digestion.
Our digestive systems are actually closer (in terms of proportion of intestine of overall length) to dogs, cats, and pigs than they are to the other great apes.
The evidence clearly shows we have evolved away from a mainly plant-based diet to a more meat-based one. There is no way we could develop or support our huge brains without the far greater amount of calories and nutrients that meat and animal products provide (in particular saturated fats).
The Second Great Shift: Agriculture
The second most significant change in human diet is far more recent, occurring in the last ten or twenty thousand years (that’s just the last 1% of the evolutionary timeline since we became hunter-gatherers).
Agriculture enabled humans to settle in one place and to grow our own food, which we did by domesticating wild animals and plants. Our modern diet contains very few truly wild foods; most of what we eat has been bred from a wild ancestor to deliver more calories with less work, from cattle and pigs to grains and vegetables.
The advent of agriculture enabled us to have more children and also led to things like civilisation (living in permanent towns) and capitalism.
One of the downsides of the change to an agrarian lifestyle is that the cheap energy that agriculture offered came at the expense of variety in diet. Instead of hunting and foraging for whatever foods were seasonally available, we could turn to stored foods such as potatoes and grains, which provided the energy and substance we needed but without the variety of micronutrients that we previously sourced from Nature’s larder.
Interestingly, this seems to have resulted in a backslide in our evolution. As our diets became less varied than those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, archaeological records show that humans actually got shorter and our brains smaller over the last few millennia.
The evolutionary history paints a very clear picture. The awesome and unique faculties of homo sapiens originally came about thanks to hunting and eating animals, whereas the shift away from hunting and gathering to farming has led to a decline in our faculties.
So How Can Veganism Be the Future?
Some people have argued to me that moving away from eating animals and animal products represents the next stage of human evolution.
While I can appreciate this might make sense to some people from a spiritual perspective (although I disagree even on that point), it runs counter to the millions of years of history we have behind us.
Since Weston A. Price first set out on his travels, every aboriginal human tribe ever discovered has meat, fish, and/or other animal products as a significant part of their diet.
And yet there certainly seem to be some people today who seem to do well in the long term on a plant-only diet. That then raises another question…
If we collectively decided that we know better than Nature, and agreed that the world would be a better place if we didn’t keep and eat animals… would a future vegan world even be possible?
I don’t believe it is possible for humanity to go vegan, for a few reasons.
The first major obstacle to universal veganism is human health. Despite the frequent claim that a whole-food plant-based diet is universally healthy, there is simply far too much evidence from people who have tried to survive vegan and have been forced to abandon the lifestyle and diet.
You don’t need a peer-reviewed scientific study when there are so many personal accounts of the vegan diet being insufficient to sustain long-term health. (Here are just a few.)
One obvious group that cannot be vegan is anyone with methylation issues. Because a plant-only diet cannot supply all the nutrients your body needs to support balanced methylation, those who are overmethylated simply cannot be healthy without animal products.
Note: I’m not saying that it is not possible for anyone to thrive long-term on plants alone. Some people may benefit from the cleansing effect of eating only plants, at least in the short-term, but it clearly isn’t a permanent option for everyone.
We also have to consider the sustainability of our diets. A healthy vegan diet needs to include a wide range of plants, which might typically include oils from a variety of nuts and seeds, coconut, avocado, B-12 derived from algae or yeast, as well as a selection of fruits, tubers, and leafy greens.
I live in a temperate climate in England, and grow some of my own food. With my experience, I do not know how it would be possible to produce a sufficient range of plant-based foods to deliver all a body’s nutritional needs for twelve months of the year in a self-sufficient way.
As soon as the oil runs out, or some global catastrophe halts global trade, will mean it is practically impossible to source a complete plant-based diet year-round.
To me, a way of eating that is dependent on shipping, air freight, and other technology is neither natural nor sustainable.
Finally we have the problem of land use. Vegans will often argue that eating plants requires less space than eating animals, and they’re partially correct, but it would be an error to take that information and conclude that we should turn all farmland over to plant production.
According to research carried out in 2010 by the World Bank, 37.7% of our planet’s land area is considered agricultural, whereas 10.6% was arable (i.e. able to be ploughed).
That means 25% of the land can be farmed but cannot be used to produce row crops like grains. This is what is known as marginal land, and includes hillsides, forests, dry grasslands, steppe, etc. All these areas can (and do) host a variety of large animals that can provide nutritious food for humans in a sustainable or regenerative way, but cannot be turned into arable land.
What’s more, what we think of as modern agriculture is totally unsustainable. We are facing a global crisis of soil depletion, with between 40 and 100 years of harvests remaining before the soil is either lost or poisoned beyond use.
Ploughing is one major culprit, as the process steadily causes oxidisation of soil organic matter (carbon becomes atmospheric CO2). Plus, the routine use of artificial fertilisers, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides also damages soil fertility over time.
Veganism is really only viable for a minority of people who live in wealthier areas and it is almost entirely dependent on a global food system of trans-national trade. It is primarily an affluent, urban indulgence that could never support today’s human population, never mind a few billion more.
We all agree that health matters, sustainability matters, and animal welfare matters. But the answer is not to abandon our natural diet and lifestyle.
History will not prove the vegans right. We have plenty of history and it has already proved them wrong.
If humanity is going to have a future, it won’t be vegan, because it must be beyond sustainable, rebuilding our soils and restoring our water and air.
Going back to our pre-human ape diet would be a retrograde step, not evolution. Our next phase of evolution must see us continue to coexist with our domesticated plant and animal food sources in ways that work in harmony with Nature’s laws.