05/10/2017 03:58 SAST | Updated 05/10/2017 14:13 SAST

What Does Tim Noakes Think Cows Eat?

As a scientist, Tim Noakes would do well to be a little more circumspect with the advice he dishes out.

Rodger Bosch/ AFP/ Getty Images
Tim Noakes during an interview about the Noakes eating plan, or Banting diet, in 2015.

In a recent Huffington Post article, Professor Tim Noakes claims that eating meat is "the only way we will save the planet" because plant-based agriculture is destroying topsoil. But around 50 percent of grain grown worldwide is fed to livestock. So how exactly does eating meat help reduce plant-based agriculture?

Either he's forgotten that the animals we eat, eat plants, or he's been watching Allan Savory's long-debunked TED talk on how cattle grazing can save the planet. Whichever it is, the logical failing of his argument is a feature of an increasingly desperate attitude to defend his position.

The former king of carbo-loading, who has subsequently made a cottage industry out of pushing a meat diet, clearly has too much invested personally in his "Real Meal Revolution" (whether he donates the profits from his book or not) to be convinced with evidence that counters him.

Per-Anders Pettersson/ Getty Images
Tim Noakes, a South African scientist and an emeritus professor in the Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town, holds his book the real meal revolution in his home office on August 10, 2016, in Constantia, outside Cape Town, South Africa.

It's no wonder the diet he advocates is so popular –- tell a meat-loving population like ours they can have braaivleis every day and you're an instant hit. That kind of popularity must be rewarding in itself. But when it comes to environmental issues, the evidence just can't be ignored.

Animal agriculture accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport sector combined -– that's cars, ships, trucks and planes. It's also the leading cause of deforestation, responsible for destroying 91 percent of the Amazon, which is cleared for livestock farming. So Noakes can only resort to ludicrous assertions.

He blames everyone from the fossil fuel industry to Richard Branson and Bill Gates for "driving the myth" that animal agriculture is environmentally destructive. In fact, Bill Gates has embraced a plant-based diet because he's been convinced by the evidence.

The way animals live, more than the way they die, is convincing enough for many people to choose a vegan way of life.

He's investing millions of dollars in a company that makes vegan burgers that taste like meat because he thinks vegan diets are the future –- he certainly doesn't need the money. Tim Noakes, on the other hand, has a vested interest in livestock farming. It's the basis for his dietary approach and anything that challenges it surely challenges his reputation.

He even has a go at Panda bears for eating a plant-based diet, calling them obese and claiming they have bowel issues. Is he suggesting they ditch evolution and buy a "Real Meal Revolution" cookbook?

"There's never been a society that can survive on a completely vegetarian or vegan diet," he says, conveniently ignoring considerable Hindu and Buddhist communities in Asia and around the world.

"You cannot survive on a 100 percent vegan diet," he claims. In fact, some of the world's most successful athletes follow a vegan diet, including nine-time Olympic gold winner Carl Lewis, UFC champion Mac Danzig, ultramarathon legend Scott Jurek and many, many others.* (They get all their protein from plant sources, if you're wondering).

For many people, veganism is a healthy choice, but ultimately it's an ethical choice. The way animals live, more than the way they die, is convincing enough for many people to choose a vegan way of life. Whatever the reason, though, it's easy to live a healthy vegan lifestyle by following simple advice from reliable sources like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Tim Noakes is a hugely influential figure in South Africa. His "Real Meal Revolution" book has been on the South African bestseller list for three years. Sports-mad South Africans respect him for the work he's done with athletes. But as a scientist, he would do well to be a little more circumspect with the advice he dishes out.

He's used his considerable reputation to promote a radical, dangerous diet based on questionable –- and now downright desperate –- claims. From "The Lore of Running" to "The Real Meal Revolution", he's changed his mind once. I wonder if he might do so again in the light of overwhelming evidence of the environmental and ethical harm his diet causes.

* The original article stated Lewis Hamilton is vegan. In fact, he only recently started the diet. Venus and Serena Williams follow a mostly vegan diet with some 'cheating', although Serena credits a raw, vegan diet for helping her overcome an auto-immune disease and winning Wimbledon at age 37.