A book review: Ope’s vegan manifesto “Comfortably Unaware”

(Originally published February 7, 2015 on Examiner.com)

Considering how important healthy soil is to growing nutritious plants, water infiltration, carbon sequestration and methane oxidation, it’s somewhat peculiar that a book that is purportedly about sustainability only mentions the word soil four times in its one hundred and forty-five pages. When soil, or more specifically topsoil, is mentioned twice each on pages twenty-nine and thirty by Richard Oppenlander DDS in his book ‘Comfortably Unaware,” Oppenlander blames livestock for the loss of topsoil and making land un-arable that, in his mind, was all once vast forests.

Though then again, Oppenlander pretty much blames every ecological and nutritional problem on livestock especially cattle. So according to Oppenlander, desertification, deforestation, global warming, world hunger, ocean dead zones, drought, heart disease, and cancer can all be blamed on “cows.” Therefore, if everyone took Oppenlander’s arguments to heart and ate vegan B12 fortified “Ope” burgers (processed by Oppenlander’s vegan food company Ope’s) instead of hamburgers all land would be suitable for growing crops, global warming wouldn’t be a problem, no more trees would be cut down in the Amazon, no person would go hungry and ocean dead zones would disappear. Furthermore heart disease and cancer would no longer be health concerns and therefore, soaring medical costs would be curtailed. Unfortunately for Oppenlander’s vegan burger business, despite being a self-anointed proclaimer of truth, many of Ope’s basic underlying premises are either grossly oversimplified, exaggerated or fundamentally wrong. One could write a much longer book correcting all of Ope’s misinformation. Though for the sake of brevity, this summary will highlight just a few of Ope’s many misstatements and exaggerations. If Ope’s name seems familiar, it’s because he was the statistical advisor for and the main talking head in the film Cowspiracy. And since that film is basically a vehicle to present Ope’s arguments, it is no wonder that Cowspiracy also presents so much gross misinformation.

 Regardless, contrary to Ope’s assertions on page thirty of his book, not all land suitable for grazing is suitable for crops. Most of the earth’s land, including vast areas of grasslands, is not arable. Intensive plowing of land leads to loss of topsoil (and biodiversity), so intensive agricultural for plants leads to erosion as well as to the release of carbon into the atmosphere. Repeated tillage also kills soil microbes by exposing them to oxygen which, in turn, leads to compacted nutrient deficient soils that don’t retain water. This is true too with non-till systems that rely on herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. Yes mismanaged livestock, that isn’t frequently moved, may overgraze, but properly managed livestock, including cattle, are integral parts of biodiverse grassland ecosystems. Livestock have helped and continue to help build healthy soils with the greatest amounts of soil microbial activity. It’s no coincidence than that America’s most fertile lands are where seventy million bison once roamed. And no, again contrary to Ope’s assertions, not all grasslands were once forests. Much greater numbers of ruminants, including large megafauna, once occupied large areas of open space where bunched together these herds could easily see and defend themselves against predators. Well managed densely stocked pastured cattle and sheep today mimic these native herds. Counter-intuitively taking animals, including livestock, off of the land leads to desertification.

As for methane, from 1998 to 2007 methane leveled off, while herd sizes increased. Since 2007 herd sizes have decreased while methane has again started to rise. So there’s no correlation with cattle. The real culprit for the most recent rise, is fracking.  Prior to the nineteen sixties and seventies, when natural gas use increased tenfold, methane levels were also stable. Thus blaming enteric fermentation in ruminants’ rumen for global warming as Oppenlander and others do also isn’t consistent with the historical data. Though meat consumption is up (primarily chicken and farmed fish), beef and other ruminant consumption is down. Global inventories of cattle are the same as they were in the 1950’s. US inventories are the same as they were in the 1970’s. When one also realizes that healthy soils, as Dr. Christine Jones points out, have methanotrophic bacteria and the atmosphere has hydroxyl radicals  which inactivate (via oxidation) the emitted methane created by the methanogens in cattle’s rumens, one understands that nature in intact ecosystems has a way of balancing things out. Additionally healthy soils, and well managed grazing on perennial grasslands sequester carbon which further offset any greenhouse gases generated by livestock on the land. Healthy soils allow for greater water infiltration and retention, so there is less drought impact and run-off. The whole argument that grass-fed beef is worse for the environment is a ruse that emanates from the grain fed beef industry (as well as from those advocating for intensive factory systems like the authors of the 2006 Long Shadow Report). Abolitionist vegans, like Ope, latch onto these arguments, despite the origin of the source, because it furthers their particular food ideologies. But given the cattle inventory, methane level trends, and methane sinks as well as the soil biology just noted, it begs the question as to why now, all of sudden, pastured “cows” are a main cause for global warming.

Regardless Ope also seems to be under the false impression that all cattle globally is raised continuously on grains. On page 123 of his book, in his argument against grass fed “cows” purportedly after talking to thirty experts on stock densities, he states that there are currently (in 2012) one billion cattle raised in CAFO’s (confined animal operations). He then goes on to calculate all the land needed for all the 95 million “cows” needed in just the United States. Why Ope used the cattle inventory numbers from 2000 for a book published in 2012 is a bit puzzling. In 2014, there were approximately 88.5 million head total. Aside from not knowing that the word cow applies to only females that have already given birth, Ope seems oblivious to the fact that most of the United States cattle inventory is already on grass. Cows, calves, bulls and replacement heifers are continually on grass. That’s approximately 67 million animals. Yearlings being finished on grains in feedlots account for only approximately 14 mill head. Nine million dairy cows make up the balance. Globally most cattle is raised and finished on grass and never transferred to a feedlot (e.g. Brazil in 2013 only had capacity for 2.5 million head of cattle in feedlot operations), so needless to say all of Ope’s assertions and calculations are absurd. There is plenty of land to raise and finish all the cattle in the US on grasslands much of which is NOT suitable for growing crops. Though using grains like soy and corn to finish cattle and as feed for other livestock in intensive operations isn’t the best use of crops or intensively farmed crop lands. But neither is ethanol, high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin or vegetable oils or other products and by-products of intensive agricultural operations. Ope doesn’t really discuss the impact of this industrial system, since he’d rather lay the entire blame of its consequences entirely on the backs of “cows.” Regardless, livestock should eat specie specific diets. For ruminants like cattle, that food is grass. Pigs can eat pretty much everything including food waste. Legislation permitting, chickens and farmed fish can eat farmed insects. Ope isn’t a complete imbecile, he’s correct that depleting the oceans of fish for fish meal to feed chickens and farmed fish isn’t sustainable or a smart use of finite resources.

Though Ope’s logic goes astray again when he argues that much of the beef eaten here in the US was raised on deforested land in the Amazon. He repeatedly states that being aware of where your meat comes from involves acknowledging rain forest loss (e.g. page 108) in his vegan manifesto. Considering most of the beef consumed in the US is domestically produced or (the other 15%) imported from Canada, Mexico, Australia or New Zealand, (Only 4% of this other 15% or 0.6% or 6 lbs out of every 1000 lbs is imported from Brazil). Ope’s claims regarding being responsible for Amazon deforestation when eating burgers in the United States is simply false. Even in Brazil, most cattle isn’t raised in the deforested Amazon. Citing a 2004 source, and no other or more recent sources, Ope blames all deforestation on cattle. Again this is a gross oversimplification. Many more factors are involved in deforestation including land speculation, sugar cane production, political corruption, mining, logging and other forms of intensive farming for soy production. The soy produced doesn’t feed the cattle. It’s largely exported to feed pigs on factory farms in the EU and China. Obviously this land use for feed isn’t a smart one as noted just above. But again neither is sugar cane production, which in Brazil on a metric ton basis is ten times that of soy, especially when approximately fifty five percent of that sugar cane harvested goes to ethanol production. Ironically in the United States, the mono-cropped banana or pineapple that a vegan adds to his smoothie has had a more direct impact upon deforestation than any beef product consumed here in this country.Yet Ope doesn’t seem the slightest bit “aware” of these agricultural impacts.Ope also doesn’t seem to realize that the rate of rain forest destruction has dramatically been reduced over the past eight years.

Other environmental areas regarding water use, dead zones, drought and hunger Ope either oversimplifies or exaggerates or blatantly misrepresents. Again though, correcting all of Ope’s misinformation presented in his book, and in the movie Cowspiracy based on his book, requires even more space than this already long review allows.

So these length restrictions allow for just a quick overview of Ope’s many assertions regarding nutrition that are also equally misleading or plain wrong. One quick example notes that all Omega 3 fatty acids are equivalent. Nope Ope that’s not true. Omega 3’s from plants [ALA] are not the same as Omega 3’s from animal sources [EPA and DHA]. DHA is needed by the body for brain and neurological function. Lack of DHA has been linked to other ailments. Humans inefficiently convert ALA to DHA. Ope also cites a study from Yale to prove that meat causes cancer. His end note refers to an article about this study rather than the study itself. A look at the actual research conducted indicates that this study consisted of a questionnaire and statistical analysis of the responses given. No actual clinical research was done. Aside from questioning the accuracy of recall by patients remembering what they ate six months prior, the results from any epidemiology study are just a hypothetical basis for further future research. Based on the responses from Yale’s 2001 study, sugar from starches may be as much or more of a culprit than meat as to the cause of the cancer for the patients interviewed. Sugar as a culprit for cancer is more consistent with more recent clinical research conducted at a number of prestigious cancer research institutions including Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in NYC and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts.

Additionally regarding nutrition, Ope- like numerous vegan websites- proclaims that the position paper presented by the Seventh – day Adventist and vegan Winston J. Craig to the American Dietic Association represents that association’s view. Aside from this association having a number of Seventh Day Adventists among its members, the very last words of the position paper presented noted that the ADA review panel “…were not asked to endorse this position or the supporting paper.” Therefore the paper is the position of the author whose religious beliefs based on one of that groups founders and prophets Ellen White’s teaching that meat was unclean as proscribed in Leviticus and shouldn’t be eaten. So needless to say, Ope again overstated his own arguments.

Whether all of Ope’s hyperbola, oversimplifications and misinformation scares more people into eating his B12 fortified vegan meat substitutes remains to be seen. But what is painfully obvious is that Oppenlander’s training as a dentist has provided him with no real expertise on the topics he discusses in his book “Comfortably Unaware” or in the movie based on the arguments in his book- “Cowspiracy.” Ope is NOT an agronomist, a nutritionist, an ecologist, a rancher, or any other sort of sustainability expert. Nope Ope is an abolitionist vegan trained as a dentist, who founded a vegan fortified fake burger company. He also sources a lot of the information provided in his book from other fanatical vegan’s sources like PETA and PCRM (as listed in his book’s end notes). He has no firsthand knowledge of any of his topics, and hasn’t done much, if any, direct research for this book. Rather the book reads likely a poorly researched college term paper. So it’s really no wonder why the word soil is so infrequently mentioned for Ope’s manifesto appears to be more about furthering Ope’s food ideology along with boosting Ope’s business sales rather than any real, informed or objective analysis of sustainable or regenerative food systems.



One thought on “A book review: Ope’s vegan manifesto “Comfortably Unaware”

  1. A wonderful article about a topic I find very interesting. I have long been a meat eater and since getting more involved in the meat vs vegan debate I can see nothing that makes me want to give up meat. This article helps to clarify how many of the claims made about cows are wrong and in my opinion assuming they are raised correctly (On grass) they should be a big part of the human diet especially as important sources of vitamins D & K2. Thank you for a most interesting read.


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