Noakes: eat pandas, not plants

I haven’t been inclined to write anything about Professor Noakes for a good long while. In fact, even as he carried on encouraging vaccine scepticism on Twitter, or being dogmatic about sugar ‘addiction’, or citing the likes of Mercola and the Weston A. Price Foundation as if they were credible, I thought I’d said enough, and kept quiet.

Hell, I even ignored it when he told Daryl Ilbury some lies about me in a recent book, figuring I’d write about that once Noakes and his publicist Marika Sboros publish their book later this year, in which I fully expect the lies to reach legally-actionable levels (not that I’d pursue such a course).

Text from From Daryl Ilbury's "The Quiet Maverick" (2017)
From Daryl Ilbury’s “The Quiet Maverick” (2017). All but one claim is false.

But then he went after the pandas, and I could be silent no more.

In a recent piece in the Huffington Post, Prof. Noakes tells us that we must eat more meat to save the environment. In fact, he says that “going back to eating meat” is the “only way we will save the planet”.

Now, I think it’s true that activists for meat-free diets overstate the carbon footprint of the beef industry. And, I also think it’s true that livestock farming can be done in less or more environmentally-responsible ways – even though being more environmentally-friendly would not be possible for all farmers, as even a beef-industry mouthpiece observes.

Despite this, the only people you’ll see claiming that it can be a positive thing for the environment are people from the beef industry, and, apparently, Noakes. Because even if you can reduce the beef industry’s negative impact, it’s always going to be greater than that of crops, because

People who are advocates for veganism or vegetarianism could no doubt offer many more reasons than those. I eat meat, although I don’t believe I should. But even if you believe that it’s ethically permissible to do so, thinking that cattle farming can “save the environment” is – at the very least – a gross simplification, deployed in the service of a pre-established conclusion. That’s called motivated reasoning, and is something we strive to avoid when trying to discover the truth.

When asked on Twitter whether he’d read the literature on the environmental impact of meat, Noakes directed the questioner to a seminal academic paper on pop-science book by “writer, radical feminist, food activist, and environmentalist” Lierre Keith, who seems to lack any qualifications related to any of the issues in question.

The absence of qualifications obviously don’t mean that someone is necessarily wrong. But all the misrepresentations of the facts, and the clear errors in the book, do.

In further ‘support’ of his claim that we need to eat more meat, Noakes says that

There’s never been a society that can survive on a completely vegetarian or vegan diet. We have to have some animal products. Vegan people survive because you can get some of the nutrition you need from supplements, which means it’s not a complete diet.

But you are still not getting adequate protein. You can survive on a 100% animal diet, but you cannot survive on a 100% vegan diet.

Protein is not the problem. Wheat gluten has far more than meat. Lentils, hemp seed, black beans, peanut butter and almonds have protein levels that are similar or slightly lower, and various other foods such as spinach, kale, tofu and quinoa also have lower, but nevertheless decent amounts of the stuff.

Many vegans and vegetarians – including roughly 30% of the citizens of India, seem to be getting by just fine. And yes, many of them are lacto-vegetarians, but they still don’t need beef.

As far as supplements are concerned, vitamin B12 and Omega 3 fatty acid supplements are typically recommended, but everything else can be found in a well-designed diet. So yes, you might need supplements – but why can’t they be part of a “complete diet”?

Noakes seems to be defining a “complete diet” as something like “everything you eat needs to be ‘real food'” (and of course, preferably animals). But everything we eat is chemicals, whether made on a field by converting grains into beef, or made in a lab. So either he’s appealing to a naturalistic fallacy, or the argument is circular, and a “complete diet” is far more reasonably defined as “a bundle of all the things that you need to stay healthy”.

As for the sad pandas, who “suffer from bowel problems, obesity and lethargy, which [is] the same for vegans and vegetarians”? It’s true that they have a carnivorous microbiome, and struggle to flourish on their (mostly) bamboo diet.

However, pop-science books academic research on pandas tells us that they are adapting to cope with that. And while it seems true that eating meat is what allowed humans to evolve from apes, that’s no argument for the necessity of us eating meat now, and forever more.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.