Debunking myths that made me go vegan

You’ve probably heard plenty in the last two years, particularly, about veganism and its benefits for health, animals, and the environment. A significant portion of the U.S. population – over 7 million people according to recent estimates – identifies as vegetarian or vegan. The arguments are damning, I know. I started learning about vegetarianism in summer of 2016 and quickly switched over to ~99% plant-based for about 9 months. I first made the change for my health and the environment after being swayed by Netflix documentaries like Cowspiracy and Forks Over Knives. They were certainly eye-opening, but since then, I’ve found more research and theories about why veganism isn’t the best choice for protesting animal cruelty and global warming. The opposite of factory farming isn’t opting out completely, but supporting its counterpart. I preface this article by making it clear I respect all choices, and understand that veganism is tied into some religions, even. I’m setting out to debunk the myths that influenced my decision to eat plant-based in case anyone else out there is conflicted for the same reasons I was.

MYTH 1: Leaving animals off of our plates is the most environmentally sustainable option.

I think this is one of the biggest reasons people choose to go plant-based. If vegan propaganda doesn’t convince you that meat is horrible for health, it can probably convince you that it is at least horrible for our planet. Environmental arguments for veganism are based on carbon emissions and the fact that methane from cows in the air is the driving force for global warming. Let me just be blunt and say methane = cow farts. While I was still calling my diet “plant-based” I started to wonder how a beautiful, natural animal could really be to blame for global-warming, and even touted as worse than the effect of our burning fossil fuels and producing mass amounts of landfill waste. It wasn’t making sense to me.

When I looked outside of the Netflix documentaries I found information I didn’t know existed about cows and other ruminant animals, and how they actual have a net negative effect on carbon emissions. We were all taught in grade school that green plants photosynthesize by turning water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into sugar that feeds the plants at the roots. These sugar molecules travel into the soil and nourish fungi and bacteria that make up a healthy, rich soil. When the fungi and bacteria digest this material, they return organic carbon which enriches topsoil and makes it viable to continue nourishing plants. Grasses are very efficient in this process, and cows are part of the solution in this cycle, not the problem.

Properly raising cows to imitate Nature involves pasturing them on grass and rotating them with electric fences, similar to how they would move and migrate due to predator pressure on plains. When cattle are raised responsibly in this way, they chomp down on grass until moved by fencing or predators and repeat the cycle on another patch of grass. When grass is eaten, it stimulates the root for regrowth and moving the cattle onto another patch gives the grass time for restoration so it can further sequester carbon from the air. Cows then return carbon-rich manure into the soil and stomp it into the ground with their hooves, contributing to the nutrient richness of the soil that grows their own food. You can picture visually how this cycle looks: carbon comes from the atmosphere, into the plant, into the soil, nourishing the grass, eaten by ruminant animals, excreted in gas and waste, and repeated over again. Nature designed this to work very well, but we’re messing up the process by feeding grain to cattle and not allowing them to pasture.

Another contributor to this myth is water usage. Data about how much water it takes to raise a pound of beef include rainfall (free! And not the cow’s fault…*cue eyeroll*) and doesn’t account for the fact that the water also nourishes the cow’s natural food. Cows are not sitting at a hose sucking up hundreds of gallons of water. Another aspect of this false picture is that grain could save the earth by farming it instead of animals. Unfortunately, we can’t grow grain on the same kind of land that pastures ruminant animals. It’s not the same kind of soil and they don’t happen on the same land. Tilling of the land that is part of monocrop productions like wheat, soy, and corn farming actually disrupt the topsoil and release its precious carbon stores, and also ruin the natural biodiversity of that soil. Life in a wheat field that is not wheat is competition, and big-Ag doesn’t like that. A patch of soil can consistently produce a crop for about 40-60 seasons depending on the conditions and crop species. After that many cycles, the topsoil is essentially dead – void of its essential nutrients. The land needs diversity including plants and animals to nourish it. In the same way that humans wouldn’t expect to be fully nourished by eating only corn, the soil can’t get everything it needs from one measly mono-crop.

MYTH 2: Keeping animals off of our plates is the best way to avoid harming other creatures.

Before going into this, I’ll say that factory farming is something I in no way support. Animals confined in small spaces, so crowded it makes them sick, and not allowed to live the way Nature intended is the horrible reality a lot of creatures in the food industry face and I agree with the vegan community that it’s awful. Let’s zoom out and recognize there is another way to raise and farm animals. Animal activists argue that there is no way to humanely slaughter an animal, but the way I see it is this: humans are the only creature on earth capable of taking a life in a way that minimizes suffering. No other animal can do this. A properly raised and slaughtered animal has one bad day in its life, just like we will. I can personally come to terms with that.

The truth is, we’re so disconnected from our food system because of our privilege to ignore it when we buy pre-cut, packaged meat from a grocery store. There is nothing to remind us that it came from an animal and that something gave its life to nourish us. We live in a modern society where I realize farming our own animals for food isn’t a reality for the whole population. But I think it’s important for people to connect with their food and better understand the circle of life. Everything lives and everything must die. In coming full circle from plant-based life, I’ve extensively pondered the reality of Nature and that it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. Nature is harsh and ugly at times, and death is equally a part of the cycle as birth and life.

That being said, plant-based foods are not harm free, anyway. Think about a vegan loaf of wheat bread. The wheat came from a large monocrop wheat field where the soil was tilled, torn through, and probably sprayed with pesticides. It’s ignorant to pretend there was not life harmed in that process. Rabbits, slugs, mice, and insects that called the land home were killed. And per vegan values, a pig’s life is as the same as a human’s, so a mouse’s life should be equal to the pig’s, right? If so, this isn’t justified, either. There is no way to maneuver around death completely, and it’s a privilege that we live in a way that allows us to pretend there is.

MYTH 3: We have teeth like primates so we are frugivores. We should be eating vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, not meat.

This point is one I really held onto for a long time because of my nerd-alert interest in evolutionary theory and biology. It’s true, our teeth look a lot like the teeth of primates. But if we’re using that as “proof” that we should eat like them, we need to look at the rest of the digestive system. And at that point, the argument falls apart. Primates, in general, have colons much longer than their small intestines. Humans have small intestines much longer than their colons. The small intestine is most efficient at digesting food that is simple, small-volume and dense, and pre-processed by blending, cooking, or fermenting. The large intestine (colon) in human bodies mostly serves the purpose of reabsorbing water from the digested matter and concentrating our waste. In primates the colon is large enough to house bacteria that ferment cellulose and fiber that passed through the small intestine untouched; that process is called “hindgut fermentation”. Humans don’t have enough space or bacteria to do that. Those who say that we should eat the same diet as primates because of our teeth don’t talk about the differences in the rest of the digestive tract. Additionally, evolutionary theory suggests that our differentiation from apes is a direct outcome of humans starting to eat meat and learning how to cook food. Because of meat’s caloric load and nutrient-density, humans were able to spend less time foraging, eating, and digesting, freeing up time and energy for brain and skill development. It does a disservice to the human race to pretend we are the same species as primate. I won’t go further into this since people have different beliefs about evolution, but our potential diversion from primates is an argument that should be considered.

MYTH 4: Meat is to blame for modern disease.

So much poor research circulates about this and it’s exhausting to talk about! I’ll do another post about the details of nutrition in omnivorous diets compared to plant-based, but for now I’ll talk just about the logical argument that allowed me to discount this theory. Our grandparents and great-grandparents ate plenty of meat, butter, and lard, especially those of us of northern European descent and other cold climates that didn’t allow for kale and coconuts and avocados to grow year-round. Heart disease was not a problem at this point up until the 1920’s and on with the industrial invention of refined sugar and vegetable oils, the same time during which our meat consumption has continued to decrease. I think that’s enough to chew on…for now!

If you have any thoughts or questions about this article, plant-based eating, or sustainable farming please drop them in the comments! It’s so timely to have conversations about this topic, and there are ample sources of further knowledge. My favorite resource is Diana Rogers, R.D. at and her amazing podcast, Sustainable Dish, which features lots of advocates for better meat and farming. You can find her podcast on her website and in iTunes.

P.S. Those cute babies in the header photo belong to Lone Oak Cattle and Colts, a family-run small farming practice that is properly raising, feeding, and pasture-rotating these Scottish Highland cattle. Check them out on Instagram at @loneoakcattleandcolts to stay up-to-date on those cute faces!

Be well!

9 thoughts on “Debunking myths that made me go vegan

  1. Great article Amber- I have been on the same food journey as you trying to figure out how to eat that is best for my health and the planet. Your article sums it all up in a way that makes sense.


  2. I don’t see how replacing factory farms with small farms is going to solve the problem. As you’ve indicated, it’s inconceivable that these so-called humane farms will be able to supply even close to the global demand for animal products. Seeing that you’re opposed to factory farms, it’s not clear to me what you’re proposing in its place.



  3. Can you be specific as to what you feel small farms are unable to supply?

    I used to be a huge proponent of factory farms, to the point that I even applied to go back to college to study agricultural science with the hope of one day working under Borlaug. But circumstances worked out so I never ended up following that path, and the more I learned about the full diversity of farming, the more I realized how misguided my assumptions were.

    Small farms that produce sustainably can use land more efficiently than factory farms.

    Small farms that produce sustainably use nonrenewable resources more efficiently than factory farms.

    Small farms use more labor than factory farms. But the truth is that labor is one thing this world has an overabundance of! It’s strange to me to hear constant complaints about unemployment and meaningless jobs, then hear people complain about a choice that would employ a lot more people.

    The only gap I see is will. People have to want to do it. Right now, not enough people want to do it. But that’s not a reason to discourage those who do want it to push for it as strong as they can – in fact, quite the opposite.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sure. So currently, as I understand it, over 99 percent of animal products are sourced from intensive farming operations (factory farms). If we were to switch completely to small farms (and abandon factory farms entirely), I don’t see how we could supply anywhere near the current demand for other-animal products.

    I’m of course premising this on the view, expressed in the original post, that factory farms are morally indefensible.


  5. Thanks for the inquiry — sorry I was unable to reply any sooner! Let me preface my response by saying I am in no way an expert in farming practices, big or small. I’ll echo the other comment in response to yours in saying that based on the best knowledge I’ve found, small farms are more efficient and sustainable than factory farming practices. I’m not sure where I specifically said small farms could not keep up with demand if it were requested by consumers. I also would not suggest the U.S. is responsible for a solution for the global food industry. I’m certainly not politically or economically knowledgeable enough to propose a policy-based solution to a global-scale food problem.

    So I guess my answer to your question about what I am proposing is that we should take effect on the local scale and food supply: I’m proposing that more individuals get in touch with their food and learn about, visit, and support their local farmers to find properly-raised products. Despite my lack of expertise in agriculture economics, I imagine the transition would not go smoothly if everyone in the U.S. decided tomorrow to stop supporting anything but small local farms. The same argument is used against veganism (what would happen to all the animals if everyone went vegan? We couldn’t support that currently…etc., etc.) but the answer always is that a 100% switch won’t happen in a day as your question frames it. So I don’t think it’s of immediate concern.

    I’d predict that a decrease in demand for poorly raised animal products would navigate the problem. Or maybe it’s not possible because there are simply too many humans on the earth for us to feed them all perfectly. But I don’t think that’s a reason to dismiss the argument to try. In summary, I would never say that because (IF) small farms can’t supply the demand for properly raised animal products, we should not ask for them. I think that’s ridiculous. I hope that clears up my thoughts on this!


  6. Thanks; so I totally agree with you that no such change will occur overnight. In any case, I am not an expert on these matters either.

    There is, however, an ethical question I would like for you to consider: Picture a cow in the most humane farm in the world. Replace that cow with a human. Now, imagine everything we do to that cow done to that human being. Would this be morally acceptable? And if it wouldn’t, what makes it acceptable for a nonhuman being?


  7. Very interesting points and it goes to show how careful we must be before we swallow any persuasive medicine. The problem is a moral one ; firstly we get an idea about how we should live and then we look for evidence in the natural world to support our conclusions. If the evidence is a bit thin we fatten it up to suit our viewpoint. This system can more or less support most eating habits or even religious conclusions.
    Nature is red in tooth and claw say the steak eaters but if they had to kill they might just turn a bit yellow.
    It is only in the land plenty , the opulent western democracies , that this is even an option, one third of the world live on $2 per day or less , while we suffer from obesity due to over indulgence.


  8. I’m personally OK with the ethical aspect. I simply don’t believe animals have the same souls and value as humans which I realize differs with belief systems. Although I didn’t grow up a hunter, most people around me were hunters, so I’m quite familiar with the intimate killing of animals. I don’t think it’s fun and certainly not easy, but most people who hunt have an enormous amount of respect for the animals that feed their families. Humane killing is often pretty spiritual and emotional for those people. I plan on farming animals for my own family one day and will take part in that process and will be able to speak to it more. My thoughts around that argument come back to my points about the circle of life and how it always involves species killing other species — that’s just the way it is. Even if it’s not pretty. I do have total respect for ethical vegans, though. I can understand why someone would not be comfortable eating something that was a sentient animal. Ethics is a discussion that is really complex to bring into food/nutrition, so I am very sensitive and empathetic to differing beliefs and opinions about the morality of taking an animal’s life. I hope that answers your question!


  9. I won’t attempt to engage with your metaphysical views. However, I do think belief in the soul (for example) is itself a highly controversial claim; and I don’t think it’s a good idea to rest consequential moral questions on a foundation as shaky as belief in human souls. This would be, as Tom Regan put it, to attempt to solve one difficulty with an even greater difficulty.

    I don’t find the argument about the circle of life all that convincing. It seems to me that what we’re really saying is something like this: x is natural; therefore x is acceptable. But of course, there are many things which are natural but that we wouldn’t regard as acceptable. For example, many other animals in nature engage in cannibalism. It doesn’t follow that we should engage in cannibalism (excluding nonviolent practices of it). So I agree that violence is the way things are in nature; however, it doesn’t follow that it’s the way things ought to be. This sort of reasoning is sometimes called, broadly, the appeal to nature fallacy.

    Thanks again.


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