I Lost an Argument with a Vegan. Here’s what I Learned.

Image from The New Yorker


As happens from time to time, I was presented with the accusation from a vegetarian about meat = murder and the ethics of the vegetarian diet. This accusation was made, as it usually is, in the form of a ghoulishly graphic shock video of industrial livestock slaughter. This happens so often that I’ve more or less developed a form letter as a response (a version of which you can see here), based on my own experience of the similarly graphic — but far less publicized — animal brutality that results from the vegan/vegetarian diet.

This particular response made its way to my farm’s Facebook page (the dialog is still there, you can scroll down to read it), where it was shared and eventually got into the hands of a vegan, who responded with three points.

  1. My response to PETA gore videos is full of nirvana fallacies.
  2. The vegan diet uses the least amount of land to feed everyone.
  3. Mimicking ecological patterns — including the use of animals to replicate their ecological function — is an unscientific appeal to nature.

We argued at length about each of these points. Here’s what I learned from each.

My response to PETA gore videos is full of nirvana fallacies

This one got resolved (relatively) quickly. The responder seemed to think I was bringing up animal deaths in vegan agriculture in order to convince people not to be vegan; in reality I was simply disabusing vegans of the oft-held belief that their diets don’t harm animals.

That led to a debate on whether or not these accidental deaths are more ethical than the deliberate deaths of the omnivore’s diet.

  • He argued it was the difference between deliberately shooting someone and killing them in a traffic accident.
  • I argued it was the difference between deliberately shooting someone and putting on a blindfold and shooting in the general direction of a crowd.

We agreed, in the end, that there’s still an ethical difference as concerns the living. We disagreed, however, as to whether or not that difference would matter to the dead animal. I’m unconvinced that a fawn caught in the blades of a combine would be any less angry because its death was inevitable but unintentional… especially if the responsible parties are running around telling everyone how they don’t kill animals.

Lesson Learned:

  • When confronted with the animal deaths caused by their diets, some vegans will argue the morality and ethics of the death from their own perspective rather than the animal’s.

The vegan diet uses the least amount of land to feed everyone.

I don’t disagree with this. However, this is an incomplete argument about sustainability because arable land is actually the least problematic issue with agriculture — with 7.6 billion acres of arable land in the world, it’s more than enough to feed everyone, especially if the global diet becomes plant based, but possibly even if it doesn’t.

The far more pressing issues involve water, ecological disturbance, and global food insecurity. This is where we came to an interesting impasse about the vegan diet as sourced by conventional/organic agriculture:

  1. I couldn’t prove it is NOT sustainable. I was unable to find any scientific studies that even took up the subject; the lack of inquiry into this topic is a big part of the reason I focus so heavily on the vegetarian diet instead of omnivorous diet — there are plenty of people justifiably beating the Hell out of the latter.
  2. He couldn’t prove that it IS sustainable. The scientific literature he produced only proved the vegan diet is less environmentally harmful than diets that rely on CAFO agriculture, which is not a point I dispute.

Time and again, my correspondent argued that I shouldn’t be critical of veganism because “perfect is not the enemy of good,” which is of course true, unless of course it isn’t: An A- isn’t the enemy of a B+ until you need an A- to graduate.

Part of this misunderstanding was rooted in my own mistake. I kept getting accused of fluffing intensive global animal agriculture because I failed to describe the food system I was actually advocating. I tend to incorrectly assume that anyone arguing about sustainability in food— and especially anyone willing to adopt alternative lifestyles like veganism — would be familiar with permaculture: the idea of making minimal alterations to native ecosystems to produce food with minimal environmental disturbance. This, however, led to an interesting revelation in the third point.

Lessons Learned:

  • Vegans are well-versed in the scientific literature confirming the ecological soundness of vegan agriculture as compared to intensive animal agriculture, but for many, this is where their intellectual inquiry ends.
  • I cannot prove vegan agriculture is not sustainable. Vegans cannot prove vegan agriculture is sustainable. It is a mistake to argue the former, and instead much more sensible to argue for improving the prospects of the latter via permaculture farming and emphasize that, in most temperate and especially tropical regions, the ecological need to include livestock will be minimal*, and vegan diets will be more than possible.

*This last clause will be a non-starter for many vegans, which brings us to the part where I really, really learned something new about vegans.

Mimicking ecological patterns — including the use of animals to replicate their ecological function — is an unscientific appeal to nature.

via William Dudley Bass

This is where it got real.

My correspondent’s contempt for both farmers and nature shone brilliantly here, as he repeatedly characterized the permacultural imperative to mimic nature as a form of nature worship and a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution — arguing against all manner of things I wasn’t saying, such as “people should eat meat because that’s what we evolved to do” and “evolution is a sentient thing that’s deliberately working for our benefit.”

Here’s this particular thread of the conversation in its entirety:

Him: “ You last sentence that mentions evolution is just an appeal to nature. Google logical fallacies.”
Me: “This is an appeal to the minimized risk inherent in following time-tested natural patterns via ecological agriculture vs. newly-engineered solutions. Google systems engineering.”
Him: “There are no time tested methods for feeding 7+ billion people. And even if our population were smaller that would not be a reason to just to do what we evolved to do.”
Me: “Agree with the first sentence, hence the term “risk.” Second sentence is a straw man; I never claimed people should eat meat because that’s what they evolved to do. I claimed animals should be integrated into ecological food production systems because that’s how most ecological systems evolved.”
Him: “Again there is that “should” in that last sentence of that paragraph. Why should animals be used in food production systems just because of evolution?”
Me: “Let me answer that question by posing another: how does an all-vegan food production system handle the following needs of fertile soil: nutrient and mineral cycling; nitrogenous fertility; non-nitrogenous fertility; bite effect; periodic disturbance; delayed succession; conversion of inedible perennials to fertility; IPM?”
Him: “ By using Veganic farming and technology. eg green manure/mulches, supporting phosphate recycling of human waste. I don’t see how animals would help the problems. Indeed animal agriculture often make that worse. If you look at nitrogen cycles for example, it makes little sense to think of manure as adding to nitrogen sustainability. They just move the nitrogen fixed either by bacteria in the roots of some plants, or fixed by humans in the syntheitic production of fertiliser from one area to another. The same thing could be done just by rotational cropping and green manures. It seems to me that it is often animal agriculture that worsens issues, and even when the animal agriculture is done in a way that is not intensive, the evidence that it is beneficial is still very scant, and indeed there is evidence it is just as bad as any other animal farming if not worse in terms of GHG production”
Me: “I figured as much. Here you’ve a.) listed solutions only to the nitrogen/phosphorous problem (two of the eight mentioned) and in so doing b.) replicated the same erroneously reductive view of soil that led to the NPK disaster in the green revolution, c.) proposed land-extensive solutions in green manure fertility that leaves vast expanses of productive land fallow while subjecting them to either tillage (which destroys soil structure and releases carbon) or chemical herbicides (which, in no-till systems, poisons groundwater and everything else it touches) to bring back into production, which is d.) a problem also attendant to annual or biennial rotation among yielding crops, all while e.) still advocating against the negative effects of large global livestock herds — also argued by the journal you cited — which, for at least the third time, I am not advocating. I’ve even cited this exact IJB study to argue against go-meat apologists who use Allan Savory as both cudgel and shield.”
Him: “ I think its good you don’t go along with the savory approach, however I think from the pieces you have written I have read and your responses here they contain many claims lacking scientific citations which makes me quite sceptical of those claims. Anyone who uses terms like holistic I think in general is talking BS. Nor do I think you really understand evolution. As for you point 2 about not providing solutions for other problems you highlight, I have not seen any evidence that animals are solutions.”

I ended the conversation here, as diving into technicals was taking more and more time refute (e.g. his solutions for the nitrogen cycle and phosphorous cycles were both flat wrong and dangerous. He argues for a nitrogen cul de sac rather than a cycle, and for both N and P makes the mathematically dubious assertion that green manures and biosolids could cover the global fertility gap if animal/synthetic fertilizers were removed).

To be sure, the desire of permaculturalists to mimic nature isn’t rooted in nature worship or tree hugging*. It’s rooted in reducing systemic risk by tapping into the relative stability and resilience of natural systems. Evolution is merely the feedback mechanism that’s produced that stability and resilience through untold eons of killing off things and processes that don’t work. This solution seems much less risky than “green manures and biosolids” which, as stated earlier, will not cover the fertility gap and, having never been applied at global scale, are not proven to produce sustainable yields at scale.

And that’s JUST the fertility problem.

Now maybe everyone else is already enlightened about this, but here’s what I got from this exchange: vegans are not necessarily environmentalists, and will a.) gladly introduce new or prolong existing systemic risks in agricultural systems, and b.) even exhibit contempt for the natural world — in the interest of avoiding eating animals**.

That was a shock to me. And it’s what I get for stereotyping.

I couldn’t help but be alarmed as I watched a vegan make the same scientifically reductive assumptions about soil that led to the horrifying consequences of the Green Revolution, all while dismissing whole-systems agriculture as bullshit because he needed a trigger warning on the word “holistic.” Again:

Him: “Anyone who uses terms like holistic I think in general is talking BS.”

Lesson Learned:

  • A vegan is not necessarily an environmentalist; in fact they can be quite the opposite. Do not presume that arguing ecological sustainability through permaculture will be enough to override their fundamental interest in making sure animals are never eaten, even if they’re killed.

*The frequent association of permaculture with Hippie culture is why I found myself surprised by multiple accusations of hippie punching in my last article. I was basically making fun of myself. Again, bad idea to assume that people would derive from my arguments that I’m a permaculturalist. Oops.

**Important distinction: eating, not killing.

I have to wonder: by adopting permaculture, ending the obliteration of native ecosystems for farmland and using a small number of animals to serve a specific ecological function, how many animals might we save compared to the hordes of animals that die when a forest is cleared for a grain field, or when that field is harvested? How many human lives might we save by localizing the globe’s foodsheds, giving power to ancestral knowledge of local food ecologies and taking it away from globe-spanning proprietary biotech and vertical integrators that leave 1 in 9 people chronically hungry?

Hopefully we’ll find out sooner than later. Omnivores are being forced by events to examine their overall long-term impact on our ability to feed ourselves. Vegetarians and vegans would do well to assess their own long-term impacts on the planet, not just relative to the impact of omnivores, but in absolute terms. And they’d do well to do it now: while we’re comfortable, before there’s a crisis, and with enough time to develop thoughtful solutions and make a real difference.

Chris Newman is a farmer in central Virginia. He once ran eight miles in cowboy boots through the streets of Washington, D.C., and gets angry when people try to apply Blockchain to local agriculture. You can find him on Instagram and Twitter @sylvanaquafarms

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