THE BLOG
02/03/2018 06:13 SAST | Updated 02/03/2018 07:35 SAST

How Moral Is Tim Noakes' Diet?

Sure, we all want a diet that promotes health. But whose health?

Natalie Ng

A few months ago, I wrote to Tim Noakes, through his foundation, to try to push the professor to admit two things:

  1. The ecological devastation wrought by industrial animal agriculture is enormous and evident;
  2. It's quite possible to live a healthy, long, active life on a vegan diet

In case you're still reading this after seeing the word "vegan", the only reason I'm trying to get the professor to concede these two points is because he's made claims in the past that cattle farming can save the planet and that vegans are unhealthy wimps who need supplements just to find the strength to lift their lentils to their pale lips.

The evidence for the destruction of the planet is readily available from a wide number of sources including the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Bank's environmental specialist, National Geographic, and others attesting to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and wildlife habitat loss.

Arguments touting the environmental advantages of livestock farming, like Alan Savory's "Holistic Management Of Grazing", on the other hand, have been soundly debunked, and ideas about carbon sequestration have been shown in a review of more than 300 studies to be extremely limited.

That you can live a perfectly healthy, long, active life on a vegan diet is evidenced by vegan NFL players, Olympic sprinters, Olympic weightlifters, heavyweight boxing champions and ultramarathon runners

Many are featured in a new James Cameron-produced movie, "The Game Changers". Of course, vegans need dietary supplements, but so do people who follow a typical South African diet that includes meat. Info on supplements and the supplements themselves are both easily available.

What's damaging about Tim Noakes' pronouncements on health and the environment is that it gives people an excuse not to consider the wider impacts of dietary choices.

I'm not here to tell you that you shouldn't eat meat because of the suffering it inflicts on the animals we farm – there's plenty of info on the internet and in documentaries if you're interested. I won't even include links – Google it for yourself, if you've got the stomach for it. OK, one link, but with no shock videos; merely a sober, cogent The Guardian piece from Yuval Noah Harari, author of "Sapiens".

When Professor Noakes did reply to me, it was to trot out the same ill-informed junk about inadequate protein, vitamin B12 and the omega-3. Beyond weighing in on nutritional aspects, he blamed the petrochemical industry for spreading misinformation about the meat industry, without providing any evidence.

He didn't mention the well-documented influence the meat and dairy industry lobby groups have had in promoting animal-derived diets in the U.S. and around the world. He also offered a puzzling defence of his diet by stating that no human population, in modern or prehistoric times, has sustained itself on a vegan diet. But then, no prehistoric populations drove cars, used cellphones or wore underpants, and look at us now.

He did raise a valid point about monocultures and the use of petroleum-derived fertilisers. Biodiversity, food security and the health of our oceans all suffer from this practice, it's true. Still, raising crops to feed animals is a massively inefficient way for us to farm food, and there are surely other approaches to soil fertility that don't use animal waste or petrochemical fertilisers.

While my initial correspondence with Noakes didn't mention water consumption, it's a topic that's been front and centre of late. I wonder if the professor knows that it takes 19 litres of water to produce a gram of protein from pulses; 112 litres is needed for the same amount of protein from beef.

I object to Tim Noakes' wilful blindness to the fact that animal farming is growing, and destroying the planet as it grows. More objectionable is that, by spreading unscientific, alarming information about the so-called dangers of a vegan diet, Noakes should discourage people who want to reduce their meat consumption.

Any diet we promote should reflect a wider concern – not just for our own health, but for that of the planet we share, too.

With the overwhelming evidence of the harm animal farming causes, nobody should be discouraged from reducing meat consumption. And nobody has to give up meat overnight – you do what you can do. Call yourself a reducitarian or a flexitarian, like a growing number of people, if you like. Make up your own rules like meat-free Mondays, no meat before dinner, no meat at home, or meat on weekends only.

It's arguable whether the onus is on individuals to make changes in their lifestyles to cure environmental ills caused by powerful, large-scale industries (and present-day animal agriculture is an industry), but don't fool yourself that you can't do anything (and certainly not that you can't do anything unless you do it all).

It is possible to have an impact, and nowhere more so than with the food we eat. A recent study posed the hypothetical question: what would happen if Americans substituted the beef in their diet for beans? Turns out that with just that one change, the U.S. would be between 43 and 72 percent of the way to reaching their (now jettisoned) 2020 emissions goals.

What's damaging about Tim Noakes' pronouncements on health and the environment is that it gives people an excuse not to consider the wider impacts of dietary choices. I wanted Professor Noakes to concede those two points (leaving aside the 56-billion animals killed for food every year) because if a diet that includes animals is destroying the environment, and it's clearly possible to live a long, healthy, active life on a vegan diet, is it not ethically questionable to promote a diet that's heavily based on meat and animal produce?

Sure, we all want a diet that promotes health. But whose health? Any diet we promote should reflect a wider concern – not just for our own health, but for that of the planet we share, too.