by Vesanto Melina
For many, doing what comes naturally is an appealing concept. (For a good laugh, look up “Doin’ what comes natur’lly” on Youtube, from Annie Get Your Gun.) Often, the appeal comes from a realistic concern regarding food mass produced in systems never envisioned a century ago, using toxic pesticides and genetically modified organisms.
The result can be a rather confused mix of practices. People will eat a cow that was permitted to live in a fenced field for much of its life, ate fodder trucked from thousands of miles away and was later sent down the same slaughterhouse line as factory-farmed animals. They will consume a chicken that was sufficiently free range to live in the equivalent of a giant indoor litter box, with a small door to the outdoors that it never reached while alive. Such birds can have increased risk of infection from E coli and other bacteria and of violent pecking and cannibalization from their caged neighbours, compared with chickens protected by confinement in tiny cages with wire walls and bottoms.
“There’s a downside to taking birds out of their cages in that they’re free, but they’re also free to get hurt and free to get in trouble,” says Tina Widowski, Egg Farmers of Canada research chair in poultry welfare at the University of Guelph.
Groups such as Mercy for Animals record undercover images depicting horrendous living conditions and abuse. For some, these stories and images stimulate a quest for natural fare that is also linked with compassion for animals. Yet someone might spend $1,000 at the vet for their pet and then eat part of an equally intelligent animal for dinner. So what can guide our evolving dietary practices?
“Natural,” when it comes to human practices, turns out not to be a helpful word. Our actions over many centuries include war, rape and cruel treatment of other humans and animals. Perhaps a more valuable word to guide our behaviour is compassion.
We now have options unavailable to us a century ago, even a generation ago. We can enjoy fresh produce year-round, including legumes, soy foods, grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruits that are organic and GMO free. Scientific evidence provides indisputable evidence that an optimal diet for humans need not include any animal products. Vitamin B-12 comes not from animals or plants, but from bacteria. In animal products, B-12’s origins are bacterial contamination. In a clean, plant-based diet, we can choose fortified foods or a supplement. As it turns out, our paleo ancestors consumed fibre, a valuable and protective dietary component found only in plant foods, at levels of about 100g a day. This is higher than most people on entirely plant-based diets today, apart from elite athletes who are sufficiently active to consume a lot of calories.