Archive for the ‘Life Musings’ Category

On Food Choices, part 7: asymptotic vegan

January 30, 2019

Peter Singer and Jim Mason, in The Ethics of What We Eat (pages 255, 256), say that objecting to the idea of killing young healthy farm animals for food:

…leads many people to become vegetarian, while continuing to eat eggs and dairy products. But it is not possible to produce laying hens without also producing male chickens, and since these male chicks have no commercial value, they are invariably killed as soon as they have been sexed. The laying hens themselves will be killed once their rate of laying declines. In the dairy industry much of the same thing happens—the male calves are killed immediately or raised for veal, and the cows are turned into hamburger long before normal old age. So rejecting the killing of animals points to a vegan, rather than a vegetarian diet.

I’m not fond of labels but I would say now that I’m asymptotically approaching veganism, that I am moving towards a plant-based diet. I’m largely there but 100%, all the time?

There’s the “low-hanging fruit” like meat. Then dairy and eggs.

Yet there are shades of grey.

I have shoes with leather uppers that I purchased before my thinking changed. Should I discard them? Will that help the animal now? No. Will I buy shoes with leather uppers in future. No.

Do you care about herd immunity? You should. Will you get the yearly flu vaccine to protect the vulnerable in our society as well as yourself? Eggs are used in the process of making the flu vaccine. Having the flu vaccine involves a compromise. In part 5, I referred to Australian research that aims to reduce the ethical dilemma by determining sex before hatching.

On the subject of vaccines, fetal bovine serum may be used instead of non-animal derived alternatives in vaccine production. The RSPCA says that where a synthetic serum or a non-animal derived alternative exists, they must be used instead of the animal-derived product.

The extent to which alternatives are used is something I want to discover more about, but: vaccination matters people! Imagine smallpox making a comeback.

Of course, as the recent outbreak of African Swine Fever in Chinese factory farmed pig populations shows, when a large outbreak of disease in animals occurs, they are “destroyed”. I don’t think that would fly with human disease outbreaks.

Do you use a sweetener in your coffee? Does it contain lactose? Some do and some don’t.

Do you drink almond milk or otherwise consume almonds? How are the flowers of almond (and other) trees pollinated? By bees. Is this a natural process? Do the bees just fly in and out of the orchard, or are they brought there, in man-made hives? If the latter, although less harmful than taking their honey, it’s arguably still a form of exploitation. Is that enough to make you stop drinking almond milk? If not, you made a compromise.

We recently had a turkey in the freezer with a long expiry date that had not yet been eaten. Would the “right action” have been to not consume it? If so, wouldn’t that have been a waste and wouldn’t that mean the turkey’s demise was pointless? I think so, therefore we had it last Christmas and were grateful.

Do you drink wine? The fining process often uses animal products (such as milk or eggs), but there are alternatives. Sites like Barnivore will help and obviously you can Google. Wine labels may sometimes say whether they are vegan friendly. More reds than whites seem to be vegan friendly from what I’ve seen so far, but by no means all. Beer is often okay. The main thing is: check if you don’t know.

Jelly contains, well, gelatine which is created from animal skin, bones and connective tissue. There are alternatives.

There are even lighter shades of grey.

If food has been cooked and will be discarded if I don’t eat it, should I eat it?


More subtle, if food is cooked and leftovers would be kept refrigerated, should I eat it since it will be eaten later by someone else anyway. That’s less compelling since any animal based food I choose not to eat will reduce the need/demand for that food.

There are bacteria everywhere, including in what we eat. Fragments of insects may inadvertently end up in our food. I may step on a bunch of ants…

But we have to make a distinction between the foregoing and deliberately enslaving and killing animals, treating them as means to our ends, instead of sentient creatures who, as Moby said in a TED talk, just want to be free of pain and suffering, essentially just want to be happy.

The point is to think. To ask questions. To intend change, to do better. To find alternatives, to say no more often.

It should never be about dogma. That way lies religion and unjustified ideology.

On Food Choices, part 6: surplus to requirements #2

January 30, 2019


This RSPCA KnowledgeBase page answers the question: what happens to bobby calves?

For cows to produce milk, they have to give birth to a calf. Most calves are separated from their mother within 24 hours of birth to reduce the risk of disease transmission to the calf, and most do not stay on the farm for long.

The term ‘bobby calves’ refers to newborn calves that are less than 30 days old and not with their mothers. Essentially, they are surplus to dairy industry requirements as they are not required for the milking herd. This applies to all bull calves (males) and about one quarter of heifer calves (females) born each year. And, each year, around 450,000 of these bobby calves are destined for slaughter.

It continues:

Some calves will be reared for veal and about three quarters of the heifers will become replacements for adult milk-producing cows. Heifer calves may also be reared and then exported to dairy farms overseas. Bobby calves may also be killed on farm.

Bobby calves destined for slaughter are housed together on farm and fed colostrum, milk or milk replacer, usually only once a day. Bobby calves, because of their low value, often do not get the same standard of housing, cleanliness, care or attention as the valuable replacement heifers or the calves being reared for veal.

Products from processed bobby calves include young veal for human consumption, valuable hides for leather, calf rennet for cheese making, and byproducts for the pharmaceutical industry.

It goes on to talk about the transport and handling considerations for such young animals and concludes with:

The RSPCA believes that bobby calves should be at least 10 days old and be fed at least four hours before being transported. Transport to the abattoir should be no more than 10 hours and in trucks that have protection from the elements, bedding and enough room for all calves to lie down.

To avoid or reduce the welfare concerns relating to bobby calves, the RSPCA position is that if bobby calves cannot be euthanased on farm (to avoid the welfare issues associated with handling and transport), they should be at least 10 days old before being transported off farm and then slaughtered within 12 hours of last feed.

Another consideration is the stress caused to both cow and calf, described on this RSPCA page:

Separation within 24 hours of birth interferes with the development of the cow-calf bond and thus reduces separation distress. Cows will show a strong response (calling) if their calf is separated at an older age, e.g. 4 days after birth, compared to separation at 1 day or 6 hours after birth. A similarly strong response in cows was found when separating the calf at 2 weeks of age compared to 1 day.

To reduce separation distress, consideration could be given to a more gradual separation process whereby the calf is prevented from suckling but still has (some) physical contact.

There are also health concerns relating to the cow such as mastitis and lameness although less so than in the US and UK.

On a positive note, this RSPCA dairy standards page says that:

In contrast to the fairly intensive nature of dairy production overseas – where cows may be housed in sheds for their entire lives – most Australian dairy cows spend at least part of the day on green pasture.


Finally, Animals Australia comments that:

The natural lifespan of a cow is up to 20 years, yet few commercial dairy cows live beyond the age of seven years, and many younger animals go to slaughter.

Due to the concerns listed above, the environmental issues discussed in part 1, and the more general argument about animals-as-means-to-our-ends from part 3 I choose not to consume dairy products anymore, where possible.

Part 7: asymptotic vegan

On Food Choices, part 5: surplus to requirements #1

January 30, 2019


Caged hens as a source of eggs can’t be ethically justified unless you think that having an area no larger than an A4 sheet of paper to live in, standing on wire, beak cutting to stop pecking of other hens, not being able to engage in natural behaviours, physical pain, injury and death are all okay.

Read the RSPCA’s short article Why battery cages are cruel if you think otherwise:

If you already buy cage free eggs in the supermarket, either barn or free range, you will be surprised to know that more than 11 million hens, or 70% of Australia’s hens, are still confined to a battery cage.

Hens in battery cages are constantly frustrated that they can’t do the things that come naturally to hens – spread their wings, walk freely, dust bathe, forage, lay their egg in a nest.

Battery cages cause physical pain, injury and death.

Australia is falling behind. Battery cages were phased out in the EU by 2012, and will be phased out in New Zealand from 2012. Canadian egg farmers have committed to an industry-led phase-out, while in the US, several states have either ended battery cage farming, stopped construction of further cages, or begun a phase-out.

They conclude that:

Battery cages are indefensible from a welfare point of view. The science is in, consumers and many major businesses are making the switch. It’s time for the Australian egg industry to stop clinging to the past, and catch up.

As mentioned in part 1, Karen and I have been choosing free range eggs for quite awhile now with the help of apps like CluckAR. Determining what constitutes free range and what doesn’t can be tricky though. As we’ve discovered, the number of birds and the conditions under which they are kept vary wildly under the “free range” or “cage free” banners, e.g. in a barn, out in the open.

But whether caged, barn, free range, there are two remaining problems: male chicks and “spent” hens.

Male chicks

From this RSPCA KnowledgeBase page:

In the egg industry, the sex of day-old chicks is determined at the hatchery. Sexing chicks (determining whether they are a hen or a rooster) requires considerable skill and is done at this very early stage to determine their fate.

If strong and healthy, the female chicks remain in the hatchery, they are grown to a suitable size and then transferred to a laying facility — which could be a caged, free-range or barn set up. Male chicks are considered an unwanted byproduct of egg production and are killed and disposed of shortly after birth.

Male chicks are killed for two reasons: they cannot lay eggs and they are not suitable for chicken-meat production. This is because layer hens — and therefore their chicks — are a different breed of poultry to chickens that are bred and raised for meat production. Layer hens are bred to produce eggs whereas meat chickens are bred to grow large breast muscle and legs.

It concludes with this:

The RSPCA continues to urge the egg industry to invest in alternatives…For example, research into alternatives to allow chick sex to be determined in the early egg incubation phase should be urgently progressed.

New Australian gene technology aims to do exactly that:

Recent advances in gene technology mean that it is now possible to differentiate between male and female chicks pre-hatch. This discovery provides an opportunity to improve animal production, reduce costs and eliminate ethical dilemmas in the egg laying and related industries.

An additional benefit of this technology is the potential to use the male eggs to protect people from influenza viruses. For example, human influenza vaccines are generally grown by vaccine manufacturers in fertilised chicken eggs. The pre-hatched male eggs that are no longer required by the layer industry could then be used to help produce seasonal flu vaccines.

“Spent” hens 

From this RSPCA frequently asked questions page about layer hens:

A hen is declared ‘spent’ when her egg production drops at around 72 weeks of age. At this point she is considered less profitable and removed from the production system.

The process of removing ‘spent’ hens is known as ‘depopulation’ where hens are manually caught by human ‘catchers’ (up to 5 hens per hand) and placed into crates ready for transport.

There can be welfare issues during depopulation. For example, time pressures and rough handling often lead to injuries such as bone fractures.

Spent hens are either killed on farm and composted, or transported to an abattoir for slaughter. Some of the meat from spent hens may be exported, while other options may include pet food, and lower-quality processing meat for human consumption (for example in soups and stocks.)

For these reasons, and the more general argument about animals-as-means-to-our-ends from part 3 I choose not to consume eggs anymore, where possible.

There is always the option of keeping your own hens or sourcing them from a local community that raises them ethically. For poor communities there’s a lot of sense in this.

Part 6: surplus to requirements #2

On Food Choices, part 4: cultural relevance?

January 30, 2019

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. (Mahatma Ghandi)

Source: The Australian, April 7, 2018

Even though the Australian Government is currently reducing the number of months per year that sheep will be exported, it’s hard to see how the live export of cattle or sheep can be defended on cultural, religious or other grounds.

In this ABC News article, the RSPCA is quoted as saying:

The RSPCA has long maintained that livestock should be slaughtered as close as possible to the point of production to avoid or minimise the inherent risks associated with their transport.

The trade in live farm animals from Australia, which requires transporting millions of animals over thousands of kilometres on arduous journeys which can last several weeks, could not be further from this principle.

As that article also points out there are other reasons for live export such as refrigeration issues, affordability, a desire to build breeding stock in the destination country.

Of course, those reasons would be less compelling, even irrelevant, if a plant-based diet was predominant.

The ethical aspects from part 1 are:

  1. The desires and health of a human individual.
  2. The food producer’s livelihood.
  3. The impact upon the environment.
  4. The welfare of animals.

Obviously export is driven by demand and the supply relates to the second aspect, but I want to focus on the first and fourth which have particular relevance here.

Do the desires (culture, religion) of one or more humans outweigh the welfare of one non-human animal?

After writing that last sentence I recalled Spock’s words at the end of The Wrath of Khan:

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.

As an aside, in that context, he was taking a consequentialist ethical stance to sacrifice his own life to save the lives of his shipmates, while oddly, at the same time making it sound like a Kantian maxim that could be applied independent of context.

The sentence structures are similar:

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.

The desires of humans outweigh the welfare of an animal.

But that’s where mere syntax is insufficient and semantics matters.

In Spock’s utterance, the word needs is applied both to the many and to the few or the one, while in the second sentence desires is applied to humans but welfare is applied to an animal.

Welfare implies needs.

So, the second sentence becomes:

The desires of humans outweigh the needs of an animal.

Hmm. Desires vs needs…

The needs of an animal — human or non-human — include being able to:

  • eat and drink
  • sleep
  • avoid pain
  • live

The desires of humans in the context of live export are to:

  • do something because an ancient text says they should, e.g. eat one animal but not another or slaughter an animal in a particular way after transport (e.g. kosher, halal)

It seems reasonable to suggest that needs trump desires here.

In part 1 I said this:

But the thing is, I like the taste of beef, bacon, ham, fish, turkey, chicken, cheese, milk, and other foods I’ve spent half a century eating.

Beef was my favourite meat. Lamb chops were frequently seen on the dinner plate when we were growing up but less frequently in my adult life. I preferred beef but lamb was fine too.

I have liked these things, but I don’t need them. It seems I never really did.

Part 5: surplus to requirements #1

On Food Choices, part 3: the elephant in the room

January 26, 2019

I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. (Charles Darwin)

What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. (Morpheus, The Matrix)

The lesson of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot is that the Copernican Revolution is still underway.

It took a long time for me to accept the idea that we’re not at the centre of the universe, that there is no compelling evidence for gods of any sort, of a higher plan, of an afterlife.

Many believe that one or more gods have an unhealthy interest in what we do and with whom.

Some believe that we are special among all the species of the Earth, that we are inexorably destined for greatness, that we alone are worthy of salvation, that we have dominion over all creatures.

But as a species we exhibit both the heights of greatness and the depths of depravity.

The idea that we have a higher moral status, a greater right to be happy, to be free, than other animals is widespread, even though most of us would never articulate it in that way.

This belief is called speciesism.

We might be more intelligent than some of our mammalian cousins, but any claim to be emotionally “superior” to them is on very shaky ground, as is the notion that they have less capacity for pain.

Do we consider the life of an intellectually disabled human less important than a person of “normal” intelligence? If not, then why would it be reasonable for non-human animals?

Even on the most optimistic view of those animals not deliberately exploited (pets), a different standard is applied to them vs us when it comes to choice, e.g. euthanasia (“putting it to sleep”) or reproduction (“neutering”).

The Matrix quote is not accidental. We have constructed our human world. We didn’t discover it fully formed. Societies, industries, economies, religions, ideologies: they are all man-made.

A casual conversation with work colleagues in 2015 planted a seed. In the course of conversation, a documentary called Earthlings was mentioned.

I remembered this now and then but it wasn’t near the top of my priority list. Among other things, hearing about the Yulin meat festival in China raised its priority.

I thought I was aware of factory farming practices, but watching Earthlings suggested otherwise. Dominion, the “Australian Earthlings“, was released in 2018. That brought it even closer to home.

Other documentaries — of varying emphasis and quality — include Speciesism, Cowspiracy, The Ghosts in our Machine, Sustainability, Lucent, What the Health?, Live and Let LiveRotten, and Forks over Knives. Each add to the story in their own way, as do more matter-of-fact sources, such as RSPCA.

Sometimes, you need to see something in a new or different way to discover what you already knew or glimpsed for a moment before forgetting, reminiscent of The Silence of Doctor Who.

The real adventure lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. (Proust)

We have convinced ourselves that it’s okay to call some animals friends and others food or fur.

Once I began to accept that our relationship with animals was broken, it took only a short time to take seriously the idea that this needed to change, that they are not a means to our ends.

In contrast to my transition to atheism, this shift has happened over months instead of years.

That has the tendency to be disruptive to those around you.

In retrospect, I should have been openly talking with people close to me about this sooner, but there was a lot to process and I needed to sort things out first.

That’s largely what these posts are about.

In the end I’ve just been confusing and annoying to be around lately.

More than usual anyway.

I remember thinking that I didn’t know whether I would be able to adapt to life without animal products. I had already switched to soy milk. One day I decided to try a few weeks of lunches at work with no meat. I didn’t miss it. Eventually I started omitting other animal products and replacing them with plant-based ingredients (see part 2).

It’s still a work in progress.

My basic position now is simple:

Perpetuating a demand for food from large scale animal farming is ethically questionable.

This is for two main reasons, one of which was considered in part 1.

First, large scale animal farming is environmentally unsustainable in terms of land and water use and the resulting waste and emissions (carbon dioxide and methane). This will only get worse as the human population continues its exponential growth.

Second, raising livestock for food involves billions of sentient animals worldwide per year being born into servitude and living lives that are nasty, brutish, and short, to borrow from Leviathan (Hobbes).

Part 2 pointed to a third reason: it may actually be healthier for us (so, more ethical) not to depend so much on animal-based food.

I was on a school camp on a farm in the mid-1970s and a sheep was slaughtered in front of us. Imagine that happening now! There was a request for a volunteer to help pull out the small intestine to show the class how long it was, presumably because “kids like gross stuff” I guess and it was educational in some sense. Naturally, I put up my hand for this and was the “lucky winner”. I don’t remember whether anyone fainted.

As a 15 year old (my daughter’s age) I was a volunteer St John Ambulance cadet and had the opportunity to train for and become a so-called “third man” on ambulances in the late 1970s. I saw my share of motor vehicle accidents and death then and that continued into young adulthood when I trained as a nurse.

So I have a fairly strong stomach.

Yet, as an adult, I couldn’t watch Earthlings or Dominion without a break.

One reasonable objection to all of this is that in nature, animals kill other animals, so why shouldn’t we? Just think of a David Attenborough documentary. In nature lions kill antelope, buffaloes, zebras, young elephants, rhinos, hippos, wild pigs, giraffes, even sometimes apparently mice, birds, hares, lizards, crocodiles and tortoises.

The argument from nature is understandable, but it ignores the fact that as a species, homo sapiens is defined by how it defies nature.

Very little that we do is natural, except for the mandate of bodily functions.

As noted earlier, we have constructed our world. We are tool builders, we wear clothes, live in houses, build machines that “defy” gravity, farm crops and animals on a large scale, pollute the environment, fight wars etc.

Do lions factory farm animals by the thousands at a time?

Do they, or the scavengers that come after, waste much of their prey?

It’s less about the killing of animals per se than the treatment and killing of animals en masse and at a distance.

There is a difference between hunting when trying to survive and purchasing animal products from a supermarket. In the latter case, the unpleasant part is someone else’s job, and the scale is massive.

In The Ethics of What we Eat, Peter Singer and Jim Mason quote Andrew Tyler of Animal Aid:

Ultimately, my objection is to the commercial forces that are seeking to persuade people of the poor world that their best nutritional interests are served by buying into modern, high-throughput farmed animal production processes. With that comes an addiction to high capital input systems, loss of control over the means of production, bad health, and a nightmare animal welfare scenario.

We may not be poor, but this is exactly the situation we find ourselves in.

This was a hard post to write — with a lot of revisions — and probably a bit ponderous to read. It could also be considered overly philosophical and abstract in parts, but it seemed to me to be necessary before returning to more specific topics in future.

Part 4: cultural relevance?

On Food Choices, part 2: but is it healthy?

January 20, 2019
Once you are open to questioning rituals and time-honoured practices, you find that one question leads to another. (Carl Sagan)
Let food be thy medicine. (Hippocrates)

The central concern about a plant-based diet is this: is it healthy?

It’s a very reasonable question. Committing to any kind of dietary strategy without some understanding of it is to run a potentially dangerous experiment.

We all need to make decisions based upon evidence not dogma or wishful thinking, sometimes easier said than done since we’re creatures of emotion not pure reason.

I’ve been learning a lot lately. What I found is mostly good news but there are things to be aware of and I don’t want to sweep anything under the carpet.

I’m not a climate scientist, but I understand the fundamental science and accept the idea of evidence-based consensus.

I’m not a nutrition scientist or dietician either, but I can inform myself by reading, critical thinking and conversation.

When I refer to publications, I am reporting what I have found. Everything else is my opinion, hopefully well-informed opinion based upon evidence and reason.

I read fairly widely for what follows but the main references are:

  • the 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines of the National Health & Medical Research Council (NH&MRC)
  • a supplement to Issue 1999 volume 4 of the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), and
  • a book by Peter Singer and Jim Mason titled “The Ethics of What we Eat”. Singer is a well known Australian philosopher.

The 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines from the NH&MRC says this:

Appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthy and nutritionally adequate. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the lifecycle.

Those following a strict vegetarian or vegan diet can meet nutrient requirements as long as energy needs are met and an appropriate variety of plant foods are eaten throughout the day.

It continues (my italics):

Those following a vegan diet should choose foods to ensure adequate intake of iron and zinc and to optimise the absorption and bioavailability of iron, zinc and calcium. Supplementation of vitamin B12 may be required for people with strict vegan dietary patterns.

Volume 199, Issue 4 supplement of the Medical Journal of Australia (October 9 2013) contains numerous articles about plant-based diets including this one: A plant-based diet — good for us and for the planet.

This issue of MJA also has articles dealing specifically with protein, vitamin B12, iron, zinc and omega-3 from plant-based sources including cereals, legumes, nuts, seeds, oils, and from foods fortified with some of these nutrients.

The MJA article Protein and vegetarian diets (my italics) has this to say:

If a vegetarian diet is planned to meet the requirements for essential micronutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin B12, it is likely that protein needs will be exceeded. Most plant foods contain some protein, with the best sources being legumes, soy foods (including soy milk, soy yoghurt, tofu and tempeh), Quorn (mycoprotein), nuts and seeds. Grains and vegetables also contain protein, but in smaller amounts.

In relation to protein, Singer & Mason, in their book The Ethics of What we Eat (p 205, 206) comment that:

The first question most people ask vegans and vegetarians is “Where do you get your protein?” The prevalence of that question is a hangover from an earlier period, starting in the 1930s, when nutritionists believed we needed a high level of protein in our diet, and that a protein-deficient diet was a major cause of malnutrition.

The idea that we need high levels of protein was disproven in the 1970s, and health authorities reduced recommended protein levels to about a third of what had been thought to be required.

I didn’t know about that history before reading this book. A comment that I found a bit surprising is that with the reduced recommended protein intake from the 1970s “…even a diet consisting exclusively of bread, pasta, rice or potatoes will provide adequate protein.” (Singer & Mason, p 206).

Then again, rice underpins the diet of many people around the world. And apparently, contrary to the old saying, man can live by bread (or potatoes) alone. Of course, this says nothing about the other essential nutrients which must be taken into account, only protein, and I think it’s fair to say that there are malnourished people around the world who live on a diet that lacks variety.

The MJA article also has this to say:

While the lower protein intake and quality of protein in a vegetarian diet is often believed to be a concern, there is increasing evidence that consuming protein from plant rather than animal sources may, in fact, be one of the reasons why vegetarians generally have a lower risk of…obesity and chronic disease. In comparison to protein foods of animal origin, most plant protein sources are lower in saturated fat, free of cholesterol and haem iron, higher in fibre, and are good sources of antioxidants and phytochemicals, all of which may contribute to a reduced disease risk.

The MJA article goes on to say that a number of studies show that higher protein intake — animal protein in particular — in childhood may increase the risk of obesity later. It also has a useful table (Box 2) of recommended daily protein intake for different ages and genders.

One morning while taking a break from writing a draft of this post, I ate a nut bar containing 8g of protein. Added to the 3 serves of soy milk I typically have per day, that gives half of the required dietary intake of protein without much effort. A mix of fruits, vegetables, lentils/beans/chickpeas, meat substitutes if desired such as veggie sausages or burgers — there’s around 19g in 2 veggie sausages vs around 25g in a 100g beef steak — will help with the rest.

The MJA article concludes (my italics) with:

Vegetarians who eat a range of plant foods can easily meet their protein requirements, even though the protein content of vegetarian diets is usually lower than that of omnivorous diets. Most Australians eat significantly more protein than is required. The consumption of plant protein rather than animal protein may play a role in weight management and reducing chronic disease risk.

Moving on, Singer & Mason continue with this:

After protein, the nutrient that concerns most people when going on a vegetarian or vegan diet is iron. Many plant foods are rich in iron, including soybeans, molasses, pumpkin seeds, dried apricots, pinto beans, spinach, and raisins. Iron from plant foods may not, however, be as easily absorbed as iron in meat.

Taking vitamin C with iron rich foods makes the iron more available.

Vitamin C is not hard to come by in various fruits (e.g. oranges, strawberries) and juices. Singer & Mason also point out that coffee, tea, and calcium supplements inhibit the absorption of iron. So drinking coffee or tea with a meal makes it harder to absorb iron.

Vitamin B12 requires serious consideration since it is not generally present in plant matter and is necessary for nerve myelin integrity and DNA synthesis. It is created by bacteria and present in animal products such as meat, eggs and dairy, foods fortified with B12 like soy milk, some cereal, and dietary yeast.

Alternatively, a B12 supplement can be taken. Some people, such as those with low intrinsic factor (e.g. in my age group of over 50) or those with pernicious anaemia may need a supplement anyway due to a reduced ability to absorb B12. Some even choose to have B12 injections where there is a known deficiency or a high risk of deficiency.

Indeed, if there is concern about a possible deficiency of any of the important nutrients, a supplement (e.g. multi-vitamin or specific) can be used. On one occasion several years ago when donating blood I was told to take iron supplements before I could donate again. At that time I ate plenty of animal products.

There’s a lot written on the topic of vitamin B12, but the important thing is to be aware of the potential for deficiency, to think about whether you are consuming enough, and to get levels tested if concerned. What every vegan should know about B12 is an honest appraisal and there is also a good MJA article about B12.

The MJA articles don’t have a separate article about calcium but the 2013 NH&MRC guidelines point to fortified foods as sources, again, such as soy milk.

The MJA article about zinc makes a number of points, including:

  • Vegetarians appear to adapt to lower zinc intakes by increased absorption and retention of zinc.
  • Good sources of zinc for vegetarians include whole grains, tofu, tempeh, legumes, nuts and seeds, fortified breakfast cereals and dairy products.

  • Studies show vegetarians have similar serum zinc concentrations to, and no greater risk of zinc deficiency than, non-vegetarians (despite differences in zinc intake).

Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. We are used to seeing a food pyramid. The 2013 NH&MRC guidelines present the same thing in a slightly different form:

The main message is:

  • mostly grains and vegetables
  • meat/poultry/fish/eggs or tofu/nuts/seeds/legumes
  • fruit
  • dairy or alternatives

The “in small amounts” parts of the figure are not very surprising either.

In 2006, The American Dietetic Association said that:

Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence. (Singer & Mason, The Ethics of What we Eat, p 202).

They add that vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and prostate and colon cancer.

Near the end of their chapter Is it unethical to raise children vegan?, Singer & Mason mention this:

Meanwhile, further evidence of the ability of a vegan diet to provide all the energy and stamina anyone needs was provided by Scott Jurek’s victory in the 2005 Badwater Ultramarathon, one of the toughest events in ultra-long-distance running, Jurek, a vegan, shattered by more than 30 minutes a course record that some thought unbreakable, finishing a full 2 hours ahead of his nearest rival… Along the way, he ate vegan energy bars, potatoes, rice balls and soy protein drinks. Jurek has plenty of predecessors, among them Carl Lewis, who won nine Olympic track and field gold medals between 1984 and 1996. Lewis became a vegan in 1990 and has written that ‘my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet.’

This post has only scratched the surface of the question in the title. I obviously don’t have all the answers, but hopefully, this is a start towards allaying some concerns and I’ve tried to be honest about potential problems.

A plant-based diet — good for us and for the planet ends with this (my italics):

Not everyone needs to or wants to become vegetarian, but reducing our dependence on meat is a good recipe for our own health and also that of our planet. Diets dominated by plant foods are almost certainly the way of the future.

So, the decisions we make about what to eat depend, in part, upon the needs of people (personal preference, health, a fair price) and sustainability, the topics parts 1 and 2 were most focussed on.

The next post picks up where the first left off by considering the elephant in the room, so to speak.

Part 3: the elephant in the room

On Food Choices, part 1: the right road lost

January 14, 2019

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost. (Dante)

Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way. (Christopher Hitchens)

I agree with Hitch’s sentiment but the happiness part doesn’t necessarily follow from thinking for yourself. It’s not guaranteed to make relationships with those around you any smoother either. My transition away from a religious worldview in the 90s didn’t lead to an increase in happiness, just to a more healthy relationship with reality.

It’s hard to change the habits of a lifetime and navigating the maze of food choices is not simple.

I’ve been trying to write about this for months, mostly unsuccessfully, because it’s so big and because what I’ve been working through is disruptive to those I care about.

I know I can be annoying once I start going down rabbit holes, worse when a topic is not free of controversy. Those close to me and in the workplace could vouch for that. Karen relates to commentary about the “species” that is the subject of this short amusing video:

Rather than trying to say everything all at once, I eventually realised that it made sense to write a sequence of more digestible (pun not intended) parts. This one will serve as an introduction.

As far as I can see, there are four main aspects to consider when it comes to food choices:

  1. The desires and health of a human individual.
  2. The food producer’s livelihood.
  3. The impact upon the environment.
  4. The welfare of animals.

The desires and health of a human individual

Without individual health nothing much else matters to us, so the first item on the list is clearly of crucial importance.

I’ll return to this in part 2.

I’ve generally been the kind of person who is happy to have a meal without, well, making a meal out of it. I try not to spend much time preparing or eating food.

But the thing is, I like the taste of beef, bacon, ham, fish, turkey, chicken, cheese, milk, and other foods I’ve spent half a century eating.

Of course, it’s important to distinguish between wants or likes, and needs.

Desires have a subjective importance that should be weighed against other factors rather than being accepted without question. They include purely personal preferences as well as cultural and religious traditions.

The food producer’s livelihood

Fair Trade coffee is an example of the second aspect, e.g. poor farmers receiving fair compensation for the coffee beans they’ve grown.

Karen and I used to buy instant coffee in large bags from Oxfam shops. We still try to buy Fair Trade instant coffee although it’s less common in supermarkets than would be hoped. But Fair Trade is about more than income, such as freeing people from slavery (unbelievably still a thing in the 21st century), allowing freedom of association to form unions, and providing income for education to improve the lot of future generations.

Two more examples are: dairy farmers getting a fair price for the milk their cows produce and fishermen getting enough of a share of fish stock quota to make a living.

It’s worth noting that securing a food producer’s livelihood is a different matter from the long-term sustainability of the produce.

The impact upon the environment

The third and fourth aspects go beyond the world of people though, of what we need, want or like.

Motivated by environmental concerns, as a family we have have reduced our consumption of meat over the last few years. On resource usage and emissions grounds, beef and lamb are less sustainable than pigs, chicken, or fish (see less meat less heat). Beef and lamb are obvious first targets, low hanging fruit, so to speak.

The Australian Climate Council had this to say in 2017 (my italics):

The livestock sector is responsible for a massive 15% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally. This makes global greenhouse gas emissions from livestock higher than all emissions from road, rail, air and marine transport combined.

Cattle, raised for beef, milk and other outputs such as manure, make up 65% of greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock sector. One of the primary reasons for this statistic is cow ‘burps’, which contain methane produced during digestion … These ‘burps’ are particularly problematic in the fight against climate change, as methane is about 28 times more powerful in terms of its potential to cause global warming than carbon dioxide.

The infographic in this Climate Council report shows that a whopping 51% of Australian land use is for livestock grazing:

Australian Livestock Infographic (source: Climate Council)

I came across this video of Bill Nye recently musing over a question from a young caller on the theme of climate change and emissions from cattle, in his usual straightforward way:

We tend to hear less about the impact of methane as a greenhouse gas and more about carbon dioxide. Is that perhaps because of the livestock link? Profit and tradition? As a comparable aside, I’ve often thought that fixing the hole in the ozone layer was less socially challenging because unlike minimising the effects of climate change, it didn’t require us to give up as much profit or tradition, just find a replacement for CFCs in a manageably small number of products.

Speaking of tradition (coffee in the morning!), several months ago I switched to soy cappuccinos, again for sustainability reasons, because dairy milk requires cattle, presenting similar resource usage (land, water, food) and emissions problems as for beef production.

Later, I started using soy milk in cereal and drinking soy on its own. At first I thought I would never like (that word again) the taste. I had spent decades drinking cow’s milk. It didn’t take long to adapt though and now I actually prefer it.


I didn’t like beer much to begin with either! Both violated the principle of least surprise: they didn’t taste like I expected them to.

As an aside, around the same time as switching to soy milk, I moved to a “keep cup” at work that Karen had bought for me, because disposable coffee cups are a huge landfill problem. Before that I was throwing away a disposable cup every day! Of course, as a society, we generate all manner of rubbish and support wasteful, inefficient packaging of the goods that we purchase, but coffee cups are very high on the list as it turns out.

In any case, if we just consider resource usage, sustainability and climate change alone, perpetuating a demand for livestock based food is arguably questionable, especially as the human population continues its exponential growth.

This short video from The Economist asks whether there is a case for the future of food to be plant-based on such grounds:

The welfare of animals

Motivated by the fourth aspect, Karen and I have been choosing free range eggs for quite awhile now with the help of apps like CluckAR. Determining what constitutes free range and what doesn’t can be tricky though. As we’ve discovered, the number of birds and the conditions under which they are kept vary wildly under the “free range” banner.

But why stop at the ethical treatment of egg laying hens?

It would also seem to be a reasonable thing to say, if understated and obvious, that in general, any reduction of the demand for meat is a good thing for those animals not consumed.

Further discussion of animal welfare is too much for the current post.

Before going down that particular rabbit hole in part 3, I want to return to the question of the health of a human individual.

Part 2: but is it healthy?

Old photos of the 2001 Leonids from Malalla

January 3, 2019

I was looking through a bunch of old photos and slides today and came across these star-trailed pictures (film-based) I took of the 2001 Leonid meteor shower from Malalla, South Australia:

Star trailed images taken with a tripod-mounted Pentax K100D

Meteors radiate outward from a point in the sky in the constellation Leo (called the radiant) since the Earth is ploughing into left over sublimated material from comet Temple-Tuttle in that direction.

My father and I stayed up until the wee hours watching the meteors come thick and fast. I have good memories of that evening spent with dad. After he’d had enough, I stayed up to watch them until the sun came up.

Two Archbishops and a Law

July 10, 2018


Source: ABC News

Soon after the inadequate sentencing of Archbishop Wilson to 12 months of home detention (and even this he will appeal!), his successor, the Acting Archbishop of Adelaide Greg O’Kelly says that the new laws coming into effect in October requiring priests to report admissions of child sexual abuse heard during confession won’t affect the church.

Politicians can change the law, but we can’t change the nature of the confessional, which is a sacred encounter between a penitent and someone seeking forgiveness and a priest representing Christ.

That does not change by the law of politicians.


The same old we’re in the world but not of the world mantra.

South Australian Catholics must be doing a collective facepalm at the moment. Or at least they should be.

As this ABC News article comments:

Under the Catholic Church, to gain absolution — and therefore to then be able to take holy communion again and avoid eternal damnation — a person needs to be contrite about their sins and do penance.

In the 21st century, that should give anyone pause and is a good example of why people need to be respected but beliefs don’t.

Strictly speaking, I think the foregoing only applies to so-called mortal sins. But then again, since homosexuality is counted as a mortal sin, there’s a whole segment of society that is apparently damned by nothing other than their natural state of being.

Then there’s abortion. Obviously women shouldn’t have control over their own bodies and severely deformed babies should always be brought into the world just because the Catholic church says so.


Then there’s apostasy. That’s right. We hear about apostates having their lives threatened in some Muslim majority rule countries. But in Catholicism, it’s apparently also a grave matter to give up one’s the Christian faith. I suppose that’s not surprising since not being a Catholic means, well, not being a Catholic. Which is apparently bad…

In any case, that many of us still give such ideas the time of day is a solid indication of our lack of maturity as a species.

Religious groups demand tolerance and freedom while at the same time themselves being forces for intolerance and placing restrictions on freedom.

And yet, as Paul Collins, a former Catholic priest said in a recent ABC interview:

What’s happened within Catholicism really over the last 40 years has been a complete collapse of people going anywhere near a confessional.

Most Catholics including myself haven’t been near a confessional for 30 years or even longer.

A casual conversation with a friend who has Catholic relatives of various ages suggests this may not be an unreasonable statement.

Apparently, modern Catholic Mass allows a person to admit their sinful nature and gain absolution by the priest, asking God to have mercy on them and to forgive their sins.

So, if this is the case, wouldn’t it be nice if O’Kelly just said, yes, we’ll go along with it, especially in light of dwindling confessor numbers, instead of insulting the rest of us by ignoring the law of the land, especially since as O’Kelly himself says, priests have mandatory reporting training and responsibilities anyway?

Here’s how silly it gets, in O’Kelly’s own words:

Anything said inside the confessional box is subject to the seal of confession, but if a child mentioned he or she had been abused while there “it’s the sort of the thing where you’d invite them to speak to you outside of confession”.

In other words, what is said inside the magic box, stays inside the magic box, but if a mortal sin is spoken about outside the magic box, then the priest can report it?

We’re meant to take this seriously?

Maybe it’s best to just allow senior Catholic clerics to continue to talk themselves into the total irrelevance to which they and their Church should be relegated.

On the incoherence of the Good and Bad Place

April 9, 2018

The Good Place uses comedy to explore the absurdities of the afterlife. More than that, the show does a great job of making moral philosophy accessible.

The show’s plot assumes salvation by works, i.e. that to get to Heaven, you have to be a good person. Christian denominations differ over whether salvation by works or salvation by faith (atonement through the sacrifice of Jesus) or some combination is required to get you to Heaven or, if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, resurrected at some future time.

An early church founder, Tertullian, looked forward to being in Heaven so he could witness the eternal torture of the wicked in Hell.

Takes all kinds I guess…

While listening to an episode of The Thinking Atheist podcast, I heard a short, simple argument, or perhaps a parable – to borrow a biblical word – that casts doubt upon the coherence of Heaven and Hell. I’ll paraphrase and extend it here.

Ruth’s daughter, Mary, believes in salvation by faith and the reality of Heaven and Hell. She’s not certain what Hell is, but she knows it means eternal separation from God.

Mary is sad that Ruth, who Mary believes isn’t saved, won’t be with her in Heaven, that she will be separated from her mother for all eternity.

And yet…

When Mary is in Heaven, blissfully worshipping God forever, won’t she feel sad about being eternally separated from Ruth?

If so, won’t that negatively affect the quality of Mary’s eternal stay in Heaven?

No problem, you say!

God can make Mary feel better. God can do anything! He is omnipotent after all. He can make her forget about how she feels. He can make her forget about Ruth, about what she meant to Mary.

Or perhaps that’s a step too far…

Maybe God won’t remove the memory, just change the way Mary thinks and feels about her history with Ruth.

But then…

Who will Mary become?

Like someone who takes a drug to forget…

Or like a person with memory loss or personality change…

Either way, surely, Ruth would become someone other than who she used to be in some important sense.

Is this a water-tight argument against the existence of the Good and Bad places? Of course not. The non-existence of a thing is generally difficult to demonstrate. But it does chip away at the coherence of such ideas and should serve to further diminish their insane hold over us.

Why do I care about this argument? Because I know people in a Mary-Ruth scenario, and because this is just another example of how religion poisons everything, as the sub-title of Christopher Hitchens’ book God is NOT Great, says.

Aren’t there enough interesting and complex phenomena to devote our attention to without inventing complexities? Without creating gods, principalities, eternal abodes or false dichotomies (heaven or hell, saved or damned, …)?

If the Universe itself was capable of having a perspective, our lives would resemble a one-shot pulse from a 555 timer, a non-repeating SETI Wow! signal, a single QRS complex on an ECG from a dying heart, each briefly punctuating a baseline of nothingness.


And yet…

Up close and personal, it’s different, because we are meaning creators.

It’s what you do within that brief pulse that matters, to you, your fellow meaning creators, and the other beings impacted by your actions.

The plain truth is that we have a good understanding of what happens to living things when they die, homo sapiens or any other species, admittedly less so about the subjective experience of the hypoxic sapiens mind near death.

Every organism that has ever lived, or ever will, was not alive for 13.8 billion years, after the beginning of the Universe.

When the life of an organism comes to an end, it will once again not be alive for an even unimaginably longer time into the future.

What makes these two not alive events asymmetric is that mammals like us have memories of individuals who once were and an anticipation of the end, the falling edge of the pulse, the precipice.

It’s in the nature of mammals like us to remember, to worry, to grieve, to fail spectacularly to live our lives primarily in the present.

It’s from this that our musings about possible afterlives derive, for any version of which, no compelling evidence exists.

All of which underscores the importance, even the urgency, of living as if today actually mattered, not for some imagined future, and of the need to be kinder to earthlings of all persuasions and species.