Diana Rodgers is a dietitian, author, and sustainability advocate living on a working farm near Boston, Massachusetts. Through her Sustainable Dish website, blog, and podcasts, Rodgers aims to emphasize the importance of sustainable food systems and nutritional, healthy lifestyles. She presents recipes, nutrition and sustainable lifestyle tips, and interviews with various players throughout the food system. She also highlights the importance of understanding where food comes from when consumers make their food choices.
Rodgers believes in the nutritional and environmental benefits of well-managed, grass-fed cattle. In her new film Kale vs. Cow: The Case for Better Meat, she questions whether a healthy, sustainable, and conscientious food system can exist without animals.
Food Tank had the chance to talk to Diana Rodgers about her upcoming film, her efforts as a champion for better meat, and her thoughts on what consumers can do.
Food Tank (FT): How did you first become involved in the movement for better meat?
Diana Rodgers (DR): I live on a working organic farm outside of Boston with my husband and two kids, and I have a busy nutrition practice, blog, and podcast. I’ve always been interested in food and farming.
I worked on an organic farm during summers while I was an art student, and I’ve always spent a lot of time in the kitchen. In my mid-20s, I was diagnosed with Celiac disease. Going gluten-free solved many of the digestive problems I had been living with since a child, but it wasn’t until I reduced my dependence on processed foods that I really regained my health.
In my mid-30s, after a career in food marketing, I decided to become a dietitian. There was a strong vegetarian undercurrent among my professors, and I knew there was a need for an advocate for ‘better meat.’ Not all meat is factory-farmed, treated inhumanely, and cancerous, yet we never learned about sustainability issues during the coursework to become a Registered Dietitian. I’m passionate about humane handling and I’m on the board of Animal Welfare Approved. Red meat is quite a nutrient-dense food, and well-managed cattle are one of our best chances at reversing climate change.
FT: What inspired you to make your upcoming film Kale vs. Cow?
DR: There’s a big difference between factory-farmed meat and well-raised meat, yet you would never know this from some of the recent anti-meat documentaries out there. The media has really attacked cows as a major cause of climate change and human disease, and many people feel that it’s unethical to eat them. I’ve seen some pretty outrageous health claims in recent documentaries, such as that meat causes diabetes and that sugar is just fine. Anyone with some basic understanding of science and human metabolism can tell you this is just false information.
I think it’s time to defend meat and debunk these illogical arguments. I decided to move forward with my own film project to explain that meat is not necessarily as bad as many like to think. I understand sustainable food production and human nutrition, plus, I have a background in multimedia production; this project was a natural fit!
FT: What contribution do animals make to a sustainable, healthy, and conscientious food system? What would be the risks of large-scale opting out of the meat system?
DR: I understand how people who haven’t raised their own food can be confused and even repulsed at the idea of eating meat. In order to have a truly sustainable food system, though, we absolutely need to have well-managed animals in the mix. Their manure isn’t waste, it’s fertilizer. Their grazing stimulates grass growth, and they improve the water-holding capacity of the soil. Industrial farming of crops releases carbon, and chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are toxic to soil health and to the animals that depend on that ecosystem. I understand that some people don’t want to eat meat, but opting out of the meat system won’t change how meat is raised.
FT: How will your film be different from other food documentaries?
DR: Kale vs. Cow will focus on personal stories of people who are involved in better meat production and ask why humans like to divorce themselves from nature. Humans are nature. We’re part of the food web. The film will illustrate that everything eats and is eaten. All living things—plants and animals—are interdependent on each other. The farming of plants is not inherently better nor does it cause less harm than animal production, and, in fact, removing animals from our food system may cause more harm than good. I don’t advocate for factory farming; clearly this is wrong. But I also discourage industrial-scale monocropping and production of processed foods, which are incredibly destructive.
FT: What’s the audience for the film, and what main messages do you hope to convey?
DR: I’m looking to reach people who are interested in nutrition and the environment, but who are also open-minded, without religious convictions to their dietary dogma. This includes everyone from athletes to concerned moms. The real villain to human health is sugar and hyper-palatable processed food, not grass-fed steak. And when managed well, cattle actually improve soil health. This is something industrial-scale monocropping cannot do. Giving up meat or growing it in labs is not a good answer. Naturally produced meat is part of a healthy, sustainable, and ethical diet.
FT: You have a blog and podcast called Sustainable Dish. What issues do you address in these outlets?
DR: On my podcast, I interview people in the fields of health and sustainable food production. The blog also looks at which foods are best for human health and sustainability and addresses ethical issues in food production. You’ll also find some great recipes (I have two cookbooks) and videos of my talks on social justice, nutrition, and health.
FT: What opposition do you face as a champion of the case for better meat? How do you respond to this opposition?
DR: As I’m sure you can imagine, many people don’t like to hear what I have to say. There are still a lot of mainstream dietitians who fear fat. Saying that people should eat real butter can be seen as blasphemy. At the same time, food choices have become religion-like to many, and people can become upset at suggestions that their views are misguided. Unfortunately, there are a lot of fanatics out there with black-and-white thinking, who have even threatened people’s lives for suggesting that eating meat is okay. I don’t engage with negative energy and am blessed to have strong support behind me in the real food community. Factory farming and processed foods are the enemies, not small-scale sustainable farmers or dietitians who suggest grass-fed beef is nutritious.
FT: You’ve mentioned wanting to bridge the gap between the vegan camp and the ethical omnivore camp. What’s the greatest challenge in achieving this goal?
DR: I respect people’s personal dietary choices, but it’s important to look at the food system as a whole. Given that it’s completely unrealistic to make everyone else give up meat, vegans could instead join the fight for better meat, even if they choose not to eat it themselves. I know several vegans who feel this way, and their voices will be featured in the film. When vegans and ethical omnivores fight, big food wins.
I believe that imposing moral choices on others is not effective, but let’s face it: there are tons of ethical dilemmas in the produce industry. If people understood the pesticide issues in the banana industry, the child slavery in the chocolate industry, or the populations living without drinking water so that almond farmers can irrigate their trees, I think they’d be less likely to think in black-and-white terms. Plants aren’t ‘good,’ and meat isn’t ‘evil.’
FT: What do you think is most important for consumers to know about the ethical meat movement?
DR: Many complain that better meat is expensive but forget that today we’re living like gods. We can transport ourselves across the globe in a day, order almost anything we want and expect it instantaneously. Most people have quite expensive technology at their fingertips. Meanwhile, our spending on food has decreased, and we don’t value good food production. Modern food is artificially cheap. As the demand for better meat increases, the price will come down. We just need more people to want it.
FT: What advice do you have to help consumers become more thoughtful when they choose what to eat?
DR: First, stop eating so much industrially produced chicken. Chicken is actually much worse, from a least-harm perspective, than a cow. One cow can provide about 215 kilograms (475 pounds) of meat. How many chickens would you have to kill to get that much food? In addition, beef is nutritionally much richer in iron and B12 than chicken.
Next, understand that you can’t grow crops everywhere due to poor soil, water access, topography, and other factors. Think about much of Africa, where grazing animals fare much better than kale or soy. Cattle are one of our best chances to reverse desertification.
Realize that when people report feeling better after giving up meat, it’s usually the other food they give up during this process as well, like processed foods and sugar, that contribute to feelings of better health. Humans have eaten meat for thousands of years. Sugar and processed foods are the villains, not beef.
Consumers should use the whole animal and, if possible, buy directly from a farmer. This will enable consumers to use more ground and organ meats. It will also help consumers honor the life that died for their nourishment.
I also recommend that consumers visit a well-managed cattle ranch or volunteer on a farm to better understand the role animals play in our food system.
Keep in mind that lab meat is not the answer to our health or sustainability issues. It’s incredibly resource-heavy. We need more natural systems, not more fake food products. Remember margarine?
To learn more about soil health, best practices for farm animal handling, and real food nutrition, Rodgers recommends readers review the work of The Savory Institute, Animal Welfare Approved, and Nutrition Coalition. Readers can learn more about Kale vs. Cow at the Sustainable Dish website.