I share many similar views and opinions with Dave Osborn, my father and the author of several guest columns published in the Light, including the recent “Vegetarian versus vegan: Food as Medicine for Us and the Planet.” I agree that current practices in animal agriculture, especially the dairy industry, are inhumane, unhealthy and ecologically destructive. Yet as an omnivore who deeply values the dense nutrients available in well-raised and harvested animal foods, I would like to add some thoughts to the discussion.
There is much hope in the adoption of holistic management practices to sequester carbon and restore native, perennial, drought-tolerant grasslands in intensively managed pastures. Indeed, by supporting those ranchers who are undertaking this challenge, I feel we can have a powerful impact on turning the tide of the climate chaos into which we are heading, as well as provide a more humane and healthy life for animals. Constant rotational grazing, observation and adaptation require a firm commitment to grassland ecology and a substantial amount of labor—not an easy switch to make, especially for a large commercial operation. I have been experimenting and learning about this approach on a small-homestead scale, with chickens and goats, for the past three years. It is difficult, but extremely rewarding.
Products from animals raised naturally on pasture contain a healthy omega balance and a high nutrient content. Unfortunately, though some meat producers are using these methods, it is rare to find dairy ranchers doing so, since it requires a small enough herd to be supported exclusively by available pasture, as well as pasture irrigation, hay production and onsite storage. These efforts raise the costs of production significantly, but with higher costs, perhaps we would begin to value these foods as they once were valued: as sacred and essential, to be consumed with thoughtfulness, love and appreciation.
Another important aspect of dairy foods is rarely discussed in this country: the mutation of the beta casein protein. Confusingly, the mutated version of the gene is named A1, whereas the original gene is A2. Milk from a genetically A2 cow has a significantly different impact on our bodies than milk from those producing the mutated protein. A1 milk acts as an opiate (which is why we love our cheese), crossing the blood-brain barrier and causing rampant inflammation, with associations with Alzheimer’s, autism, arthritis, allergies, gout and more. Unfortunately, A1 genetics are common in our locally beloved black-and-white Holsteins, while A2 genetics are more common in other breeds, such as Jersey and Guernsey cows. The only way to know which kind of milk you are getting is to test each animal. A2 milk is quietly becoming more available in stores in this country, and some who thought they were lactose intolerant or had other negative reactions to dairy are finding that it works for them. Of course, it’s best if you know your farmer or rancher is also pasturing animals in a sustainable and healthy way.
The proteins in milk become less digestible and more damaging when pasteurized (cooked) and concentrated, as in the case of most cheese. Pasteurization in general destroys much of the vitamin and nutrient content in milk. A nice loophole is that butter and cream do not contain much, if any, protein, and thus are not associated with the particular effects of the A1 mutation.
The A1 mutation of beta casein is found solely in cows—not in goats, sheep or any other milk-producing animals. I consume raw goat milk fresh, fermented into kefir, or as a raw cheese. If I have no other option, I choose raw cow’s milk, raw butter and raw cheese from fully grass-fed cows, preferably Jerseys. For more information, see Keith Woodford’s book “Devil in the Milk: Illness, Health and the Politics of A1 and A2 Milk.”
The study Mr. Osborn cites as “overwhelming proof” that vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters is a confusing citation, since there are several Adventist Health Studies comparing varying populations. The study conducted between 1958 and 1966 compared about 23,000 Seventh Day Adventists with members of the general population. The one that studies 96,000 people, all Seventh Day Adventists, was started in 2002 and has continued to the present. These studies, among others by Adventists at their own Loma Linda University, are undertaken to examine the effects of their lifestyle, which include dietary choices as well as other important factors, such as exercising regularly and avoiding tobacco, alcohol, drugs and caffeine. In the study from the 1950s and 60s, the general population was primarily eating a standard American diet, a.k.a. the “SAD” lifestyle. The more recent study includes only Adventists and controls for some of the other influences, but still cannot determine a causal link between vegetarianism and longer life, due to the many factors that must be considered.
Other studies, such as the Health Food Shoppers Study from 1973 to 1979, the Oxford Vegetarians Study of 1980 to 1984, the EPIC-Oxford Cohort of 2000 to 2009 and the Heidelberg Study of 1976 to 1999 all found that “healthy” omnivores lived just as long or longer than their vegetarian or vegan counterparts. If anything, these studies found that other factors played a larger role in determining mortality. The Heidelberg study states: “We conclude that other recommended healthy lifestyle factors, particularly abstinence from smoking, a moderate or high level of physical activity, moderate alcohol intake, and absence of overweight, are important determinants of reduced mortality in both vegetarians and nonvegetarians who already follow a healthy lifestyle.”
There is a lack of research to extend this inquiry to compare “nutrivores”—people eating a healthy, nutrient-dense diet from all wholesome sources, including animals—to those choosing other kinds of diets. Ideally, such a study would not only track mortality, but also quality of life, overall health and well-being. This study would have to be randomized, controlled for all other factors, and extend for at least 25 years. It would therefore be prohibitively expensive. All studies must be funded, whether by a church, a corporation, an institution or some other entity, leading to an inherent bias in the results. When an expensive study yields outcomes that are not beneficial to the group or individual funding the research, results are thrown out or remain unreported and unpublished.
There is little profit to be made by those funding research in encouraging people to eat a diet consisting primarily of wholesome, organic vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts and fully pastured or wild-caught animal foods, including organ meats, bone broths, eggs, fish and raw dairy products, all sourced from small farms or fisheries practicing effective care and management of the earth and its resources. Such a study would undermine industrial agriculture (of plants and animals), the fossil fuel industry, food packers and processors, and all the shipping, commerce and middlemen that keep these systems humming along.
Instead, I rely on what I know about how our species has survived for thousands of generations, as well as my own experiences with different diets and self-imposed restrictions during different phases of my life. I spent some of my most formative years as a vegetarian and a vegan, which in my case was a kind of “anorexia-of-the-affluent,” and I regret it. I deprived my body of important nutrients during a crucial time and stunted my development and growth. For the past 10 years, after other various experiments, I have chosen a traditional-foods and paleo-inspired, lower-carb, high-fat diet, and the results are amazing. My brain feels sharper, my moods are much more even and calm, my body functions smoothly, my energy is sustained and steady throughout the day, my tooth decay is almost zero, my skin, hair and nails are noticeably healthy and, as a nice side-effect, my curves finally filled out while my waist got smaller.
Now that I am seven months pregnant with my first child, I find it even more important to ensure that my future baby and I are well-nourished. I deeply respect each person’s freedom to make their own choices around what they eat and what kinds of endeavors they support. I merely wish to offer another perspective on what a healthy diet and our relationship to a beautiful, verdant landscape can look like.
Athena Osborn grew up in Point Reyes Station and is a ranch caretaker and homesteader. She is 36 years old.