Sacred Cow: The Case for (Better) Meat: Why Well-Raised Meat Is Good for You and Good for the Planet
by Diana Rodgers & Rob Wolf
They say a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover. But in the case of Sacred Cow, the cover reflects quite well what the book is about and the importance of what’s on the pages inside. There’s an image of a cow with a bucolic scene appearing through its body. It shows lush grasses, blue-green mountains, clean streams and a bright blue sky. The implication? The cow is not a disaster for the environment; on the contrary, the cow is a means for cleaning it up. The subtitle of the book is: “The Case for (Better) Meat.” This makes clear the authors’ intentions and in case that isn’t enough it’s spelled out in the byline (also on the cover): “Why Well-raised Meat is Good for You and Good for the Planet.”
Based on the cover and the contents, authors Diana Rodgers and Robb Wolf have evidently joined the cause that the Weston A. Price Foundation has been advocating for decades—spreading the word that meat is beneficial to our health and that of the planet. Rodgers and Wolf push back against the demonization of red meat. Indeed, they had considered “Scapegoat” as an alternate title of the book. They use science to debunk the myths and to prove the point that red meat doesn’t deserve its bad rap.
The book is well laid out and exceptionally readable. At the outset, there’s a “Sacred Cow Quick Reference Guide” with page numbers for the answers to the readers’ most burning questions like 1) “Do vegetarians live longer than meat eaters?” and 2) “Don’t cattle emit too much methane?” and 3) “Don’t cattle take up ‘too much’ land?” (Answers, in case you’re curious: 1) “No significant difference in all-cause mortality.” 2) “The largest contributors to methane are fossil fuels, fires and wetlands or rice farming.” And 3) “Approximately one-third of the earth’s agricultural land is considered suitable for growing crops. And of this potentially arable land, currently one-third is in use.”)
The book is divided into four parts: the nutritional case, the environmental case and the ethical case for better meat and the What we can do section. Like lawyers in the courtroom, Rodgers and Wolf have clearly done their homework as they logically make their case, point by point. Highlights from each section of the book follow.
The Nutritional case for better meat
The authors explain how “hyperpalatable” processed foods became a bedrock of the Standard American Diet. During World War II, the U.S. government established farm subsidies to encourage U.S. farmers to produce as much food as possible. By the mid-70s, there was a huge surplus of corn. This corn became high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that was “pumped into every conceivable food: pizzas, coleslaw, meat. It provided that ‘just baked’ sheen on breads and cakes, made everything sweeter, and extended shelf life from days to years.”
This new food-like substance and other grain surpluses made it easy to move toward the low-fat diet that the government began advocating. Rodgers and Wolf make quick work of debunking Ancel Keys’ “Seven Country Study” and the World Health Organization’s recent statement that red meat is “probably carcinogenic.”
While they obviously disagree with the maligning of meat, it’s worth noting that the authors do not conclude that better meat (ethically raised, without hormones and antibiotics, grass-fed and grass-finished) has actually been proven to be “better” for us! They seemed surprised (and disappointed) that they could not state that unequivocally. The data does not support that conclusion, in their estimation.
However, they do continually emphasize the need for animal foods and animal products in the diet. Like Dr. Weston Price himself, the authors conclude “It’s very clear our ancestors ate animal products, including bone marrow, brains, muscle meat, eggs, dairy, and insects. There’s no traditional human culture that excluded animal products.”
In an examination of the impact of cattle on planetary health, Rodgers and Wolf point to the analysis in a 2006 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FA) of the United Nations that has been the source of “Meatless Mondays” and countless social media memes that propagate the exaggerated claims that methane from cows is doing more damage than all of the emissions of the entire transportation sector. The report concluded that livestock produce 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. This number was not based on the methane cattle emit. It was founded on everything surrounding the full life cycle of the cattle—the transportation of feed, of the cattle to processing facilities, of the beef to the stores, etc. The researchers later admitted that it was an unfair assessment of the effect of cattle on the environment but that number (and the negative connotation) became cemented in the public consciousness.
Some simply argue that cattle are eating food that would otherwise go to people. The authors reference a 2016 article from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that indicates that typical cattle over the course of their lives only get 10 percent of their diet from grain. In other words, about 90 percent of what cows eat is inedible by humans.
Cattle do not take up too much land or drink too much water either. As stated earlier, not all land is arable. In other words, cattle and other grazing animals make use of land that Is too rocky, steep or arid to support crops. And when it comes to water, the authors mention that the methodology used to blame cattle for using too much water is flawed because it includes rainwater. In fact, cattle serve to improve the water-holding capacity of the soil so that less water is wasted.
Rodgers shares a personal anecdote in this chapter—the moment her ten-year-old daughter, Phoebe, realized that it’s impossible to be vegan. Phoebe and her friend went down to the pond and came across a dead sheep. It was a horrific scene: intestines all over the grass, blood and wool scattered everywhere. She was grossed out and quite shaken. She discussed it with her parents. “Nature can be cruel sometimes,” Diana admitted, adding, “Coyotes need to eat too.”
Just before bed, Phoebe’s father explained how the soil would benefit from the nutrients in the sheep. “The bones in the sheep will turn into calcium to grow better kale. Everything dies and comes back again.” That’s when it struck Phoebe “Those bones turn into vegetables?” She paused. “So then it’s impossible to be a vegan! If the soil is living and everything dead comes back to life, then you can’t possibly eat without eating something that has died.” This story reminds us of the fact that we are all nourished by animal products, whether we recognize it or not.
Rodgers and Wolf remind us that human beings may be the most compassionate killers on the planet. As Sally Fallon Morell puts it, farm animals are protected and cared for and only have one bad day. Animals in the wild? Well, that’s another story. A “natural death” in the wild can be one that follows a surprise, stressful attack from a predator, leading to a drawn-out and painful death. Or, if the animal finds a way to survive on its own, in old age its organs may begin to fail or it may go blind or lame. Is this process more humane or ethical? It takes a lot of mental, emotional and psychological gymnastics to conclude that it is.
What we can do
Obviously, to improve our health and that of the planet, avoiding meat altogether is not the answer–not when we know how very nutrient-dense it is. As a matter of fact, Rodgers and Wolf point out that it is unethical to suggest that everyone eat less meat. They cite that 1.62 billion people worldwide suffer from anemia. Since red meat is our most bio-available source of iron, it seems almost immoral to try to persuade people to take it out of the diet. The authors also point out that for many living in poverty, livestock is an asset, lifting them out of hunger and toward independence.
In conclusion, the authors recommend that we “eat like a nutrivore.” In other words, they underscore the need for a nutrient-dense diet, especially one that includes animal products from regenerative farms. The diet they advocate sounds strangely familiar to those who espouse the Wise Traditions lifestyle. (I was pleased to see that they even mention the importance of the “proper preparation” of grains and legumes!)
Rodgers and Wolf make a convincing case for better meat in this informative tome. I give it a hearty thumbs up. It is a wonderful resource for WAPFers to enjoy and to share with those who will be happy to discover that eating meat can help both them and the planet thrive.