A visiting United States dietician says the global anti-meat narrative being pushed in Western countries is elitist, unethical and can lead to poor nutritional outcomes for people.
This narrative, described by Diana Rodgers as a “big nasty snowball”, was a result of different forces coming together at once.
There were alternative meat companies making huge margins from promoting ultra-processed “garbage food”, while at the same time animal rights and environmental activists are wanting to end all animal agriculture.
The carbon argument was the only leg these companies could stand on, she told farmers and industry leaders at the Primary Industries of New Zealand Summit in Auckland.
Rodgers was in NZ to speak at the summit as well as to promote her documentary, Sacred Cow.
“They can’t win on biodiversity, they can’t win on ecosystem function, they can’t win on farmer livelihoods and they can’t win on nutrition. They can only win on carbon emissions,” Rogers said.
People should consider who benefits from the anti-meat narrative.
The United States’ largest landowner is billionaire Bill Gates, who is also heavily invested in meat alternative industries and was the least-qualified person to be giving dietary advice.
“Bill Gates is very dangerous because he has a lot of money and a lot of influence and he doesn’t get it,” she said.
Her journey to becoming an advocate for a meat-based diet came from being an undiagnosed celiac until she was 26.
She was also married to a farmer and had lived on a farm for 18 years.
She switched careers in her thirties to train as a dietician and noticed there was an emerging narrative around eating less meat and she saw an opportunity to use her voice.
“It made no sense to me from an ecological perspective, having raised sheep,” she said.
Rodgers also started the Global Food Justice Alliance to counter the narrative being pushed by many within the American media.
As a dietician and mother, she also dislikes the meatless Mondays campaign popular in some schools in the United States, including the New York public school system.
“There’s never been science to show that pulling meat away from growing children is a good idea, these kinds of messages are false,” she said.
Rodgers said about 70% of those school-aged children in New York are from low-income households and 10% are homeless.
The state government then took it one step further and started vegan Fridays.
The food those children were served for that day was garbage, she said.
“You take food-insecure kids on the weekends going home to not great environments for food –they’ve already taken meat away from Mondays and now they’ve taken it away on Friday,” she said.
The most common nutrient deficiencies seen among young people globally can be solved with animal-sourced foods.
“They are the most important foods for our food system, especially for growing children,” she said.
Ditching meat was also a very classist position to take.
It is easy to advocate for better diets when people are wealthy enough to afford different dietary options.
Lower income people do not have that luxury, she said.
It was also elitist that this debate was occurring at a time when food security and shortages were such big issues while politicians are trying to push through polices around re-wilding pastures and locking up land.
“We need to stop because we’re going to be having food riots very soon. The idea that we need to eat less meat is a privilege most do not have,” she said.
Some of the science being pushed to persuade people from eating meat was also questionable and biased, she claims.
Much of the nutrition research is based on diet recall, which relies on people being truthful when telling researchers what they eat.
“There’s been a lot of science to show that people lie,” she said.
Obesity rates were also climbing on the back of decreasing red meat consumption, largely because people were filling up on sugar and ultra-processed foods, resulting in people that are over-fed yet malnourished.
“The realities of a vegan diet is that 84% of them give it up after three months, so it’s completely unsustainable,” she said.
It could also lead to widespread nutrient deficiencies, particularly in vitamin B12.
From a climate perspective, she argued that grazing animals on pasture has other environmental benefits around soil health and biodiversity.
“Reducing livestock is going to be overly harmful in so many other ways and when we’re overly-focused on carbon emissions without really understanding the full impact that livestock has on livelihoods and ecosystems, we’re really losing out,” she said.
“Cattle on pasture have the unique ability to up-cycle food we can’t eat on land we can’t crop into the most nutrient dense food for humans.”
Laboratory-produced meat and fake meats will never be a regenerative food source.
“I think this is the main reason why everyone is focused on carbon emissions right now, because it’s the only thing it can win on and that’s what is driving its stock prices,” she said.
The best people to push the message of meat’s qualities are relatable female health influencers, because of the role they often play in households around meat consumption.
NZ already had a great global brand that had had a strong animal welfare reputation.
Parents want to know they are giving their children the best nutrition and if those attributes of meat can be highlighted, it could help swap people back.
“I really think that getting female health influencers to farms, showing them the process and showing everything to them about the ecosystem function and how the animals are treated – they’re going to be your best brand ambassadors,” she said.