To B12 or to not to B12: Cobalt & cobalamin

goebbels 2 lies

Many (not all) vegans tend to repeatedly make two false claims:

  1. B12 is routinely given to cattle
  2. Soil is a primary source of B12.

Sadly, these false claims have become new “truths” in much of the vegansphere.

So it came as no surprise that these claims were again made in the film Game Changers as well as in a “debate” on Joe Rogan’s podcast by the film’s protagonist and co-producer, James Wilks.  As proof in this “debate”, Wilks showed pictures of B12 products for livestock  to prove the first claim, and selectively presented some language from two research papers to prove the second claim. In general, with many vegans, the first point is never substantiated except by other vegan website sources while the second point never seems to understand how any B12 in the soil got there through fecal contamination.

In regards to the first claim, it’s always somewhat puzzling that people who know absolutely nothing about beef cattle production are somehow now experts on all things pertaining to livestock husbandry. The reality is that B12 is rarely given to beef cattle. When B12 is given, it’s given as an acute treatment to a sick calf. B12 is not given as a supplement. As Dale Strickler explains,

“A functioning ruminant will have adequate B12 because B12 is produced by rumen microbes. Infrequently, an animal that receives massive oral antibiotics (like a calf with scours) may need B12 because the rumen has been depopulated. I work with hundreds of cattle producers. Giving B12 is not routine. It’s only used in rare cases. It’s also an unnecessary expense in a business with already razor thin margins.”

Strickler is a farmer, rancher and cover crop expert who works with all sorts of producers from small cow-calf producers to large feedlot operators. He’s also the author of the book, The Drought-Resilient Farm  

Note too if cattle are lacking in cobalt, they can simply be given a “blue block” to lick.  Why would a rancher or feedlot operator supplement cobalt? Cattle make cobalamin (B12) in their rumen via bacteria that’s part of their microflora that convert trace elements of cobalt from the grasses, legumes and forbs they eat. Since cattle are foregut fermentors, cobalamin is absorbed by the cattle’s small intestines and bioconcentrated in their livers. Here’s a good overview of how cattle digestion and B12 work:   Dr. Seale:  “Any B12 present in animal foods is only because of bacterial contamination.”  This article is essentially a critique of the headline’s assertion.  The article notes, “…B12 has to be produced and if so, then it’s available for absorption in the small intestine. ..”

Here’s a good explanation of how cobalamin synthesis works: Vitamin B12- Properties and Metabolism This article notes: “…Microbial synthesis of vitamin B12 in the alimentary tract is of considerable importance to ruminants and species that practice coprophagy….”

So humans also have similar bacteria in our gut microbiome, but humans are hindgut fermentors so the cobalamin we manufacture we defecate. Gorilla and chimps access their B12 because they’re coprophagic meaning they eat their own poo .  (Chimps also hunt and eat monkeys). Any B12 that’s in the soil is there from decomposition of manure. The studies Wilks cited in the Rogan “debate” that claimed  B12 were in water and soil got into that water and soil through fecal contamination. Pesticides haven’t killed off bacteria in the soil producing B12. Nope that bacteria  has been reduced and eliminated by better waste treatment facilities as well as farming rules restricting how and when manures can be applied.

In the video below, Dr. Shawn Baker does an excellent job of detailing how Wilks cherry picked language from one of the two studies he cited to completely misrepresent what the study actually noted. So the soil Wilks referenced was human manure (night soil) , thus any B12 on the produce came from basically the humans in the study eating their own excrement.

For emphasis, here again is Wilks’s quote put back into the context of where (Herbert, 1988)  that quote was cherry picked from:

“…Halsted went to Iran and found that they grew their vegetables in night soil (human manure). The vegetables were eaten without being carefully washed and the amount of retained vitamin B-l2 from the manure-rich soil was adequate to prevent vitamin B-12 deficiency. Thus, strict vegetarians who do not practice thorough hand washing or vegetable cleaning may be untroubled by vitamin B-l2 deficiency…”

The bottom line, contrary to Wilks’ assertion during Rogan’s “debate”, is that you can get B12 from eating beef and other ruminant meats (plus shellfish as well), but you need to supplement B12 if you’re only eating a plant based diet…that is unless you’re eating unwashed plants that still have fecal contaminated soils on those plants.

In general, in many arguments, videos and films made by the more zealot vegans, the modus operandi is to present a gish gallop of cherry picked comments from a myriad of studies that more often than not don’t actually represent what the studies actually demonstrated. Sadly, it seems when such a gish gallop modus operandi is used, the people to whom this misinformation is targeted never actually look at the studies cited. Why? Because apparently this audience lacks the critical analytical ability to do any analysis for themselves. Even more sadly, this lacking seems to be a sad reflection of our culture as a whole, since so many people are taught what to think rather than how to think.

With that noted, here’s  at least one honest vegan source with  B12 synthesis information: Vitamin B12 by Jack Norris RD.

Additional Referenced Research:

  1. Apparent ruminal synthesis and intestinal disappearance of vitamin B12 and its analogs in dairy cows.
  2. Effects of dietary nitrogen levels and carbohydrate sources on apparent ruminal synthesis of some B vitamins in dairy cows. 
  3. Effects of forage family on apparent ruminal synthesis of B vitamins in lactating dairy cows.
  4. Cobalt and Vitamin 12 in Ruminant Nutrition: A Review

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