Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Where are the Grainitarians?

It is the primary unanswered question of meat-free diets. We've all heard the arguments, about how we are soooo like the herbivores, and soooo not like the carnivores, therefore we should eat plant based foods.

The problem is, most of these herbivores eat grass. Not grain. These herbivores we are supposed to be so similar to, get into lots of trouble when their diet becomes heavy with corn, wheat, oats etc.

PBS Frontline hosted an interview with Michael Pollan that revealed what happens to our cousins the herbivores when they eat grain.

Cows are not evolved to digest corn. It creates all sorts of problems for them. The rumen is designed for grass. And corn is just too rich, too starchy. So as soon as you introduce corn, the animal is liable to get sick.

It creates a whole [host] of changes to the animal.

You start giving them antibiotics, because as soon as you give them corn, you've disturbed their digestion, and they're apt to get sick, so you then have to give them drugs. That's how you get in this whole cycle of drugs and meat. By feeding them what they're not equipped to eat well, we then go down this path of technological fixes, and the first is the antibiotics. Once they start eating the [corn], they're more vulnerable. They're stressed, so they're more vulnerable to all the different diseases cows get. But specifically they get bloat, which is just a horrible thing to happen. They stop ruminating.

So you put in the corn, and this layer of slime forms over the rumen. You've got to picture the rumen. It's a 45-gallon fermentation tank. It's essentially fermenting the grass. Suddenly your slime forms and the gas can't escape, and the rumen just expands like a balloon. It's pressing against the lungs and the heart, and if nothing is done, the animal suffocates.

So what is done is, if you catch it in time, you stick a hose down the esophagus and you release the gas and maybe give the animal some hay or grass, and it's a lot healthier. But it's one of the things that happens to cows on corn. ...

Slime. Eeewww. I've seen hams with horror movie quality slime on them (ok that's another story but still gross.) Poor cows. How cruel is it to force the poor herbivores we are sooo much like to be grainitarians. Is it more cruel than eating them?

But we don't eat grass or hay. So maybe the ruminent herbivores are not the ones we are so like after all.

I know! It's apes. They are vegetarian (or are they) and genetically very like us. They must be the herbivores we are so very like.

Well, here is dedicated carniphobe McDougall on our ape cousins.

The diets of great apes, like those of chimpanzees, our closest relative, are nearly pure vegetarian in composition; consisting largely of fruits, and in the dry seasons when fruit is scarce, they eat tree seeds, flowers, soft pith, and bark; with termites and small mammals making a very small contribution all year long. Chimpanzees eat very little starch.

Dr. McDougall, you see, thinks everything can be cured by a vegetarian diet. However, he will only hold this claim if it is a starch-based vegetarian diet. So if even says we are not like the chimpanzee, then they must not be the herbivore our vegetarian pre-disposed systems are modeled after.

Additionally, chimps have been observed eating meat in the wild. Real meat, like bush pigs, not just the better known termite fetishes.

What does that leave?

Vermin. Mice, rats, gerbils etc. Rodents.

Are we like rodents? (I don't think that is quite what the 'we're all vegetarians by design' crowd has in mind, but for the sake of full disclosure, we'll investigate.)

Small mammal nutrition tells us that rabbits eat green leafy things, they are strict herbivores and grains can lead to gastrointestinal disease (ok, sounds like cows). Yes, I know rabbits aren't rodents, to most people anyway. My dog I'm not so sure about.

Guinea pigs and chinchillas are like rabbits.

The real rodents, the climb on the chair screaming 'There's a Rodent' rodents, are a little different. They eat everything. Plants and meat and of course they are notorious for eating grain. But what happens to the mouse and rat when it eats only vegetarian foods? Well, how does cannibalism sound? Okay, what about mouse-ablism? Better? Ratablism?

The Ratablism link is a FAQ from a rat breeder. Not hard science, but breeders can make some very valid observations.

Belief: Feeding meat will make rat vicious.

Basis/Reality: WRONG. Meat products are a necessary part of a rats diet. Rats are omnivores. That doesn't mean they CAN eat both meat and vegetable products, it means they MUST eat a varied diet that contains both in order to be healthy. There is absolutely no evidence that a diet rich with meat makes rats or any other animal vicious. There is evidence to the contrary! If rats are denied meat products such as a kibble, rodent block, or a little egg or chicken in their diet, they will and have had to turn elsewhere for the nutrients they need. This may involve preying on mice (or trying their best to!) nearby or catching bugs--whatever it takes. The rare instances where rats have eaten the flesh of other rats or killed other animals often take place when the rats have an incomplete diet. (Especially in pet stores where they are fed only grains and kept in close proximity to other rodents they can hunt.) BTW, I have among the most gentle rats I've ever known, and they regularly get leftovers including bones and meat--in addition to their dry diet which includes kibble. Only a despirate or starving animal is a "vicious" animal...

So where does that leave us?

One idea is that we are just unique. We are, 'Cookitarians'. Meaning it doesn't matter what our food of choice, as long as we cook it.

Dr. Richard Wrangham, a Harvard professor of anthropology, attempts to explain why we are alive today and have not become extinct because we are so poorly designed. He thinks that humans survived because they learned to cook.

Okay. Maybe. I think the evidence comes down most strongly on the side of the carnivore. The Eskimos (Inuit) pretty much disproved the cooking philosophy. Archeologists are routing any concept of agricultural societies being healthier than hunter-gatherers.

And then there are the socialogical implications, that would be really fun to post about. For example, what happens when a agricultural based society begins to enjoy a higher fertility rate than the hunter gatherers? Oh yeah, mortality is higher, so no prob. BUT. What if we fix the mortality problems caused by the agriculture with our superior technology developed by our cooked food enhanced brains? Mortality Redux.

Hmmm. 6 Billion strong. Someday we'll figure it out.

In the meantime, I still want to know. Which obligate vegetarian mammals are we designed like again?

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