This transcript is brought to you thanks to the hard work of Trish Roberts.
Welcome Peter to the Keto Woman podcast. How are you doing today?
I’m doing well. Thank you very much for the invitation.
Enjoying the conference?
Oh, it’s brilliant. Huge success from what I can see. We just finished the morning session and learned so much…and I’m thinking about my presentation and how things fit in, so I’m really quite happy to be here.
First ever CarnivoryCon. I’m sure there are going to be plenty more, aren’t there by the popularity out there?
I hope so. I could understand why somebody wouldn’t want to do it again. It must be a lot of work, but I’m really encouraged by the response.
Absolutely. Tell me a bit about you.
I’m a forage agronomist. By training, ruminant nutritionist, so things to do with pasture, hay, silage crops, grazing management. Ruminants would be cows, sheep, goats, deer, lots of wild ruminants, but those would be the domesticated ones people would recognize. I’ve had my own personal experience where chronic conditions were reversed as a result of first low-carb and then increasing restriction through keto. And now I’m largely carnivorous, not exclusively, although I’ve given up plant matter for Lent.
Perfect. Why not? Good excuse.
Except for coffee.
Yeah. That’s most people’s exception, isn’t it? Got to just take coffee out of the picture altogether. So what kind of conditions?
In 2007 I was a 51 year old balding, obese, prediabetic. And today I’m just balding. In 2002 my wife Nancy had begun doing her own journey into low-carb. And if you’ve been around the community a while you can imagine, or remember what that was like in terms of resources. There was certainly nothing like what we have today. She was studying and finding out what to do for herself and then it took me five years to get serious myself. And then that was almost the time that Good Calories, Bad Calories came out. And I read that book and I started getting angry. I had been out of agriculture for a number of years working in high tech, and I just started looking at what had been done to demonize the product of ruminant animal agriculture. And then I started showing up at metabolism conferences and the beginning low-carb conferences. And I’ve been stalking some of these people ever since by showing up at these things.
A lot of people mention, and I ask, what got them into low-carb/keto/carnivore, whatever and Gary Taubes has got be…that book has got to be one of the top three cited reasons.
Any of his books – the three nutrition books – are books that I recommend, depending on how deep and geeky people want to get at it. I’ve gone through Good Calories, Bad Calories a number of times. I have a physical copy, I have a kindle copy, I have an audible copy. So yeah, I’m that guy. But certainly The Case Against Sugar is one to give people to just give them a sense of that nutrition story, as well as the politics and manipulation. Because frequently I’ll have people ask me, how could we have gotten to this point? Well, that would be a good place to start reading. Just like Nina Teicholz, whose book, The Big Fat Surprise, would be another one. And I don’t mean to slight others. Those are just ones that, for example, there were a string of Forage and Grassland Council meetings in one state and I was part of that program for meetings and they sold several cartons of that book – The Big Fat Surprise – once we got done, I think it was four cartons. So it’s good news for people in agriculture because they’ve lived under this cloud for so long and those books certainly are ones that I direct people to read.
And you’re right. You tend to get a bit angry reading them, don’t you? I certainly did.
Initially. And then hopefully that passes and we try to get to something more productive.
Do something about it.
Tell me, this is something I struggle with, and I would like to know the arguments and the comebacks for one of the biggest criticisms, and the questions that come my way, about eating a fair amount of meat on keto – although quite often you don’t eat any more protein than you would on a standard American diet, for example – but obviously if you’re moving towards carnivore, you’re going to be consuming a fair amount of meat daily. And we’re told that eating all this meat is destroying the planet. It’s destroying the land. All the methane produced is killing the environment. What’s my comeback on that? You know, I have some sort of vague senses and gut feelings for what it is, but I need that expert opinion to slam back at them.
Fair enough, and that’s the topic that in a couple hours I’ll be talking about. So first of all, I just want to put a marker on the table because the best evidence is that most Americans aren’t getting enough protein. Also, we really don’t understand protein nutrition in the human diet. People talk about it in incorrect ways, so we should put that off to the side, maybe come back to it, but at least acknowledge it as a reality. But certainly as we eat more animal products, we’re not only eating more protein, but we’re eating a higher quality protein. So we’re getting more of the indispensable amino acids that we need, their more digestible, so our plane of nutrition increases and improves. So there’s that. To the specific issue of the impacts on the environment…
My one point is that chronic disease epidemic has an environmental impact, and right now that’s unsustainable. The levels are shocking. 50+% of adult Americans have diabetes or prediabetes. 60% of adult Americans have one or more chronic conditions. 88% of adult Americans don’t enjoy optimal metabolic health, and less than a third of normal weight adult Americans enjoy optimal metabolic health. So all of that has a cost – it has a fiscal cost, it has a personal cost, and it’s important for people to recognize that that has not yet been factored into the conversations about societal cost and benefit, or sustainability. If health comes in, it’s wholly informed by the standard version of what’s a healthy diet, so that’s critical to know. The cost is unsustainable in the United States. The cost, the fiscal cost, is equivalent to 9.3% of GDP for obesity and related diseases. That may in fact be an underestimate, but it’s big enough. We need to make sure that we’re looking at those because generally we’re not good at weighing complex issues and costs and benefits. We tend to go to the simplistic.
Yeah, just much too of a narrow vision on things.
And oftentimes it’s in service of a pre-existing belief.
Now I could be guilty of that, so I try to cite sources and things. If we just look at methane for example, the complaint about ruminant animal agriculture is that they produce all this greater amount of greenhouse gases than other forms of agriculture. We need to remember or recognize that methane is very short-lived in the atmosphere – on the order of about 10 years before it’s oxidized back to CO2. With ruminant animal agriculture most of the carbon that they’re going to ingest in their feed is coming from CO2 in the atmosphere that was fixed in photosynthesis, and now is being recycled back to the atmosphere. So it’s a cycling of carbon – CO2 to CH4 back to CO2 ultimately – not an enrichment. The enrichment would come as we burn fossil fuels because that’s adding carbon that wasn’t previously cycled. So it’s a different thing.
Also, we need to recognize that the amounts that have been frequently stated are frequently inflated – I’m sorry I couldn’t help myself – so we have inaccurate numbers being used. We have a misunderstanding, or an oversimplification of that process.
We very much have these visions of these clouds of methane being produced above fields of cows, and I’ve probably even actually seen those images somewhere.
Exactly. Methane is produced from a number of sources, natural and anthropogenic. Then another argument is that well, look at all this agricultural land that’s used for livestock and – consciously or unconsciously – they are conflating agricultural land with arable or cropland, and treating them as if you could grow crops on all agricultural land. And you in fact cannot. So the vast majority of the Earth’s surface – in total, or if you were just looking at dry land – is not suitable for cultivation. If I look at the entire Earth’s surface, it’s about 4%. And that’s probably an overestimation, and we’re losing that. We’re losing that land through degradation for a number of reasons. Plus when cities expand, they convert crop land into suburbia. And so we’re losing that land, and virtually all of the world’s arable land is currently in production of some level. So, in fact, we have far more land available for ruminant animal agriculture than we have for crop agriculture.
Then we also need to recognize that it’s not either or. That livestock agriculture is integrated into all of agriculture. If I’m producing a grain crop, or a fruit crop, or some other commodity, there’s going to be a substantial amount that’s produced that’s not human edible. And so that waste or bi-product can be fed through livestock, and produce high quality animal protein and animal fat. And in fact, increase the value of the ingredients going in. The livestock agriculture, and specifically ruminant animal agriculture, is essential to food security globally. And in fact, if we’re going to meet the needs of mid-century, we have to improve the productivity and efficiency of agricultural systems worldwide.
I think that’s part of the problem when you said about it’s not an either or thing. I think especially the more moving towards extremes someone’s belief are, they make those arguments based on, it’s either your way or my way. And of course the majority of the world is going to be somewhere in between. It seems to me no-one at this conference – so at this end, towards that kind of extreme, the meat eating extreme – is saying that the whole of the world should eat that way. Whereas it seems when you go to the other end, that they say we could save the environment by just going plant-based. There seems to be that mismatch. I would assume that you would probably say, that it wouldn’t be sustainable to have the whole world on a carnivore diet. You couldn’t do it.
I’ve heard that argument and you can do some calculations and figure that you could get pretty close. Now part of this is a matter of improving animal husbandry, improving genetics, agronomy – 101 kind of stuff – but a lot of it’s got to do with political stability and social progress in many parts of the world where currently they’re beset with unrepresentative forms of government, frequent transitions that lead to major upheavals. They don’t have the infrastructure. They don’t have reliable main line power distribution systems, and so they can’t have the reliable food supply that we enjoy in other parts of the world. Those are things that people need to work for, just as much as we need to work for safe drinking water, for example, the impact of having illumination inside your home at night, and the difference that that makes.
There’re lots of things that we should be working on. Part of what I want people to do is stop worrying about the things that people so loudly talk about, and focus on those things that would make a real difference in people’s lives. But no, I don’t think one-size-fits-all doesn’t work very well, does it? Hasn’t so far. I would much rather have people understand what some meaningful metrics of health are. How to measure, monitor, follow. And what I might do to adjust those if I choose to. That would be much better than telling people you need to eat five servings a day of this, that, or the other thing. But if I look at North America…well actually, I think it may be the United States, I’m a little fuzzy, but I’ll say the United States…we have less than 10% of the world’s beef cattle, but we produce 20% of the world’s beef.
Okay. How could we leverage that more appropriately? Brazil has, for example, enormous resources, but their level of husbandry – for a number of reasons – is not approaching that. The beef that they produce tends to be much leaner, tends to be of a lower grade than the beef that the United States produces. One of the ironies is, we have people in the United States saying not to eat beef to have some impact on the world, and yet the beef that they’re eating in the United States is not coming from those parts of the world where the impact environmentally is greater, far greater, than it is in the United States. You’re not going to move the needle by not eating American beef as part of the answer. But again, that’s a complicated conversation to have with people.
Is there a good and bad, or somewhere in between, method of producing that beef? When you’re talking about it being a better approach, a better thing for someone to include in their diet, is that a specific way that livestock is farmed? You know, the grass fed with the nice fields. Is the mass production element still a problem?
I don’t think so because I think that’s misperceived. So for the vast majority of a steer’s life in North America, it’s on grass. It will spend three or four months in a feed yard – most are going that way. Even there, they’re still eating forage, and they’re going to eat a variety of commodities to provide a higher level of energy so that they can finish their growth period and reach that desired carcass grade, or qualities. People assume that, for example, there’re lower methane emissions when animals are grazing, than when they’re in the feed lot, and in fact, it’s just the opposite. But, we should also say that when properly managed under appropriate environments – and that’s a thing too, North America’s a big place and tremendously varied environments – and beef is in every state. And so the system has to reflect the reality of where they are.
One-size-fits-all doesn’t work there either. Recently a paper showing that beef finishing systems in the upper Midwest, they looked at soil carbon sequestration under an appropriate grazing management regime, and they compared that to a feed yard in the same region. What they saw was greater emissions during the grazing than in the feed yard. But during that grazing period, the soil sequestration more than offset it. How do we balance that and talk about it? Then we have to talk about everything else that goes into it as well, so just to try to unravel the rope and consider each strand; because one of the benefits of the system that we have, is that high quality animal protein and animal fat with all the vitamins and minerals in their most bio-active form, is incredibly affordable in North America.
Part of the message is if you’re metabolically ill, one of the first things you ought to be introduced to is going to the supermarket and figuring out what you can buy – from the supermarket you can get to – and how you’re going to be able to prepare that, and eat that, and what’s appropriate to your economic condition and your cultural background, and all those sorts of things are important; but basically I want people to feel comfortable going to the supermarket and buying what’s available there, rather than feeling guilty because they’re not buying some special brand, special label claim – those sorts of things. I’m all for anyone who is trying to make a living in primary industry like agriculture. It’s hard. Margins are small. You ask what would be an inappropriate way? Well, if we see long-term degradation of the resource, that’s inappropriate.
Coincidentally that’s coming from commodity agriculture. It’s not coming from beef production. The vast majority of the grain that’s produced worldwide is already going to human consumption. It’s not going to livestock production. Even a grain fed steer in the United States, over 90% of its lifetime feed is human inedible, and a lot of that grain that gets fed, may be of an inferior grade for human use. So you have that kind of complexity that’s adding into this as well. The shorter version that I have is that the problem is not the grain fed cattle. The problem is the grain fed people.
Yeah. Cattle are much better at turning that into something way more nutritious, aren’t they? They’re designed for it.
Oh, there’re all kinds of ecological advantages to ruminant animals. They have this wondrous anaerobic pre-gastric digestive system where essentially they’ve got this large fermentation vat where this high fiber, low fat, poor protein quality diet – bulky, low quality – gets broken down mechanically through rechewing – that’s rumination, chewing a cud – but also this teaming multitude of microorganisms that degrade fiber. Cellulose is chemically the same thing, essentially as starch. The glucose units are just linked together differently. And because of that linkage, no vertebrate animal can directly utilize cellulose as an energy source, but it’s the most abundant carbohydrate in the biosphere. Ruminants, because of these rumen microorganisms can utilize that as a feed resource.
You can’t feed a ruminant animal much more than 5 or 6% crude fat in her diet without hurting rumen health. But through that fermentation of the fiber, they’re producing short chain volatile fatty acids, and so 5 or 6% crude fat goes in, the cow ends up absorbing 70 to 80% of her energy coming from fat. That’s remarkable. We just heard that fat is a scarce element in the environment. The other very important niche that they fill is, because of this system, the non-protein nitrogen that’s part of the feed that they eat, is converted into microbial protein and then the cow essentially harvests all those microbes. So there is no such thing as an essential amino acid in a cow’s diet. And so that’s a really important function in the whole ecosystem as well. There’s some others of course, but those are not well appreciated.
What about the land itself? I couldn’t find the study that my mother was talking about, but she mentioned somewhere in Scotland I think, they were doing an experiment. She was talking about how…it must’ve been the wild animals grazing were somehow destroying the environment, and they were having areas where they were planting various different new trees or shrubs or things, just to see which was more beneficial for the environment. I mean that’s completely different when you’re raising cattle because it’s managed. But what are your feelings about the impact on the soil of raising one food stuff versus another?
Well, it’s an important point. We have to produce food to eat. We can’t photosynthesize. We can’t eat the soil, so we’ve got to have some form of agriculture. It’s very clear that cultivation degrades soil quality and soil health.
You had some great slides at your presentation at Ketofest showing the difference. Yeah, cows put stuff back in, don’t they?
And grassland, which is one of the largest biomes, doesn’t stay healthy and productive unless it’s grazed or burnt. Grass is essentially developed under that kind of an environmental pressure. If we exclude grazing for long periods of time, bad things happen. We build up fuel. We now have vicious wildfires. We have encroachment of woody species in what would maybe otherwise be a grassland and maybe be more productive long term. Those are issues, but the soil health I think is an enormous one. Then you have to look at the watershed health as well because if you have intact healthy sods in the watershed, you’re going to have less runoff. You’re going to have less erosion. More of that water is going to get a chance to infiltrate into the soil, so you’re going to have less sediment, less nutrient, and other potential contaminants ending up in surface waters.
So that’s all beneficial. There’s good evidence that this increase in the organic matter that happens under long-term, well-managed grassland relative to conventional tillage. So when I till a soil I’m introducing oxygen, I’m going to increase the oxidation of the organic matter in the soil. Organic matter is tremendously valuable for holding moisture as well as nutrients. And the more of the organic matter I can have, the more water I can hold in that soil and increase the drought resistance or tolerance of that soil. So I think the figure is like every 1% in organic matter, I can increase it. That’s an additional acre inch of water that can be held in the soil made available for plant growth. So we have those advantages. I think that there are advantages as well in terms of forage livestock systems, which is ruminant animal agriculture is actually less susceptible to some of the climate shifts.
If I get a drought during exactly the right time in a crop’s development cycle, I’ve just eliminated the grain, or severely restricted the grain yield from that crop – it’s a very specific time of development, and you can’t make that up – but we could still utilize that. Even that crop still has produced biomass that we could graze, or we could move the animal somewhere else, which you can’t do with the crop once it’s planted. Or even if it’s a hay crop and I’ve lost a cutting, if the crop hasn’t died, then maybe we get moisture later, we get more growth, we could come back and utilize that. So I see forage agriculture actually being more resilient than some of the alternatives people would like to rely on.
Another point just to make is that grasslands are based on perennial species and crops are annuals. It’s the nature of the beast that a perennial is going to put more organic matter into the soil – we call it roots, than the annual crop is because the perennial crop wants to survive for more than one year. So it will make seed, but it’s also going to try to live itself so it needs to have a good root system and all that. The annual crop, it’s just making seed so that at the end of the cycle it can then carry on through its progeny, not itself. That means we’re putting much more organic matter into the soil that could then increase soil health.
And there are plants often that are mixed into those pastures, things like clover and things that fix nitrogen into the soil as well, aren’t there?
Oh yeah. That’s critical. The whole use of biological nitrogen fixation is…I think it’s fair to say that the forage legumes would be a significant source of that, but we keep discovering more and more organisms that live in the soil that do that as well. So the whole area of soil health and soil biology is a fascinating one that we’re really having, I think, a bit of a renaissance in, in terms of new ways of looking at things that we hadn’t looked at before. Some people say actually that if you look at a well-managed high stocking rate, low duration grazing system where you could have tens of thousands of pounds of live weight per acre on for a short period of time – that kind of a system – you actually have more animal biology weight under the soil, than you have above the soil – the bacteria, the actinomycetes, the protozoa, the fungi, the earthworms, the insects – and then of course we’ve got some rodents of some kind that would live. So we’ve got this very complex system in a grassland community. And of course as soon as we till that, we’re going to significantly disrupt that. There are people who suggest that the principle of least harm, which is one that frequently gets used, might actually indicate that we should be eating large herbivores because we do less harm by doing that, than by eating the grain-based, or the grain and pulse-based diet that some would advocate as an alternative. Again, everything we do has an impact, and we’re not always good at seeing all those impacts.
Any green rolling hills that we see wouldn’t be possible without ruminants grazing it and maintaining it for us. I’ve heard the argument that perhaps we should be doing without those grasslands and letting other kind of plant life come in. But the point you made earlier about there are potential issues…with potential for fire, and all sorts of other things that can happen.
There are consequences, but again, we need food so if it’s not going to come from those green rolling hills, where are we going to import it from? What’s that impact? Certainly we can’t till those hills or then they erode and they degrade. On the other hand, there’s a lot of people doing work looking at agroforestry systems. Takes a while to grow a tree, and if we can grow trees and grass at the same time in the same area…yeah, we’ve got to figure out how to do that where the trees aren’t impacting…but people are working on those systems – some parts of the world far more than in North America. But the idea that I could plant a couple rows of trees relatively closely spaced, and then have a relatively large open area before the next one, and that area could grow grass for a while, and then maybe I could come in and grow some other crop in that space.
If I’m growing the grass, I’m going to graze it. Meanwhile, the trees are growing. Those are compelling stories to me. And again, part of this…I think just like Amber talked about in her talk…so much of what our targets are are built on previous assumptions. And part of what I want people to understand is that if the species appropriate diet for humans is higher in animal products, how are we going to produce those? Because currently we’re having these conversations that are assuming somehow that it should be no more than four ounces a meal a couple times a week, or whatever that is. And for some people that might be okay – I would argue it isn’t, but we look around the world and humanities diet is already plant based, and frankly I think that’s a shame and a scandal. Now it’s better than starvation but once you get sufficient calories to avoid famine, now the quality of those calories matter, and the majority of protein in humanities diet is coming from plant sources, and it’s miserable quality protein. It’s not sufficient to support human flourishing.
One of the ironies that people need to understand is that if your primary motivation, or primary value, is to limit…you can have one of two. You can be most concerned with limiting human impact, or you can be most concerned with maximizing human flourishing. If you pursue maximizing human flourishing, you will get to minimizing human impact. But if you start with the minimizing human impact, you won’t get to maximizing human flourish. We’ve seen major improvements in the living conditions of humanity worldwide – not to minimize what still needs to be done – but if your interest is in bringing down birth rate, for example, the best way to do that is to increase human flourishing. It’s only prosperous societies that can afford to worry about conservation. If you’re starving you have one problem, just one. And it doesn’t matter…wildlife, you bet that’ll do…if I have to denude the hill lands to get something to cook with…so I’m going to strip off all the green bits. That’s going to have an impact. It’s also going to produce a lot of particulate pollution inside the home, so now we’ve got respiratory problems.
All of these things are interlinked and we should be working towards improving the conditions of our brothers and sisters worldwide. So part of my vision, that I hope I can get people to see, is the need to pursue what I call a ruminant revolution. Just as we needed the green revolution when that action averted famine and starvation for a billion people, when that was a quarter of the world’s humanity. Today we need a ruminant revolution to enable the prosperity and the flourishing for humanity. And I think we’re hearing all the news about ruminant animal products are fundamental to properly nourished brains.
And whatever problems we’re going to face have to be solved by well-nourished brains that are communicating with each other. And the more brains we have communicating, that’s a good thing. I want people to have a sense of hope. I want people to not listen to the voices that want to make them feel guilty; understand where those voices are coming from – that might help; understand some of the contradictory information or alternative information to what we frequently hear. But most of all, I want people to pursue improving their own health because I’m convinced that when we improve our own health, we are improving the world. And that, in the end, may be the thing that we can do. Certainly we have our own personal experience and we see what that does with our families, with our acquaintances, then we start thinking of how we can do this within our communities. We start thinking bigger. Then we start thinking how can this be applied to what I do, and those sorts of things. I see that as what’s going to produce the sorts of change that we need.
Yeah. Getting ourselves well so that we can give back, and make those changes that we really need. Yeah, I love that holistic approach that you take. Where can we read more? Find out more about you, your website, et cetera?
You can find me all over social media. Look for grassbased – one word on Twitter and Instagram. Grass Based Health is a Facebook page. You can find me on YouTube just by looking for Peter Ballerstedt. You can feel free to contact me through those or email me through firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well thank you very much for talking to me today. Perhaps you could leave us with a top tip.
Top tip? The secret to enlightenment is to lighten up. So a steak a day keeps the doctor away.
And that’s from the Sod Father himself. I see how you’ve earnt that monicker now.
Join the Ruminati. Join me in the Ruminati. Help forward the Ruminant Revolution!
Absolutely. Well, thank you so much. It’s been a great pleasure.