A Strip of Bacon is Not a Cigarette and Other Disclaimers from a Plant-Strong Advocate

I know very few people who have not heard yet about the World Health Organization’s (WHO) new report that condemns processed meat (bacon, sausage, cold cuts, etc.) as a carcinogen and unprocessed red meat as a probable carcinogen. The media has been particularly hyping up the part about processed meat being assigned to the same “class” of carcinogens as cigarettes. Most of the public just reading the headlines has misinterpreted this to mean that processed meat consumption increases one’s risk of getting colon cancer as much as smoking cigarettes raises the risk of getting lung cancer. However, the WHO merely meant to convey that the strength of evidence supporting the association between processed meat and colon cancer is comparable to that supporting the association between cigarettes and cancer. The actual increase in cancer risk the WHO has determined is associated with consumption of processed meat is quite small, so small that you’d have to be consuming quite a bit and already have other risk factors for colon cancer for this to cause any meaningful clinical outcomes (unfortunately, though, this scenario is not so uncommon in this country). And even these mild estimates are questioned by health experts I respect.

Nonetheless, the WHO’s advice to the public to limit consumption of red and processed meat is no different than advice public health agencies have been offering for decades; red and processed meat have long been tied to all sorts of negative health outcomes. Personally I feel that for the narrow lens of human health, increasing consumption of whole plant foods should be prioritized over reducing consumption of animal products, because it is my understanding that the health benefits of eating more plants outweigh the harms of eating more meat. And I supposed encouraging people to eat more plants would probably incidentally encourage them to eat less meat, which is certainly a good thing — regular readers will know that I am convinced that there are many reasons beyond preventing chronic disease to reduce our collective consumption of animal products, the most pressing ones in my mind being environmental sustainability and antibiotic resistance.

Speaking of which, I want to express a disclaimer that although I am now a vegan and have been advocating a plant-strong diet for society, I have no desire to make the animal agriculture industry out to be an evil, disease-spreading, resource-sucking machine. I do not believe that animal agriculture is inherently unsustainable, but I do believe it is largely unsustainable at current levels of world animal product consumption, especially at projected levels of future consumption, and that certain common practices of the industry are unsustainable even at lower levels of consumption.

I do not believe that livestock sick with a bacterial infection should be deprived of therapeutic antibiotics, but according to my understanding, routinely feeding all livestock antibiotics to prevent disease or promote growth has resulted in incredibly dangerous and costly proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria that are causing more and more hard-to-treat infections in humans.

I believe that some amount of livestock can be incorporated into sustainable and healthy food systems, but a lot needs to change, and we need to stop expecting a diet as heavy in animal products as we have if we aren’t willing to pay the long term costs to society and to the planet.

I want to express my support for the farmers that are doing the best they can to adopt sustainable and humane practices. And I want to invite (respectful) dialogue. I admit that most of my reading material is probably contributing to confirmation bias, whether or not it is factually correct. My picture of our current food system is quite bleak, so frankly I would love to be proven wrong.

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