Factory Farms, Pasture Raised, and Veganism: An Analysis of Three Imperfect Ideals
The pros and cons of three alimentary extremes.
I’ve been a vegan since October 4, 2015. My reasoning has been akin to that of most vegans: the animal abuse and environmental devastation of raising livestock worldwide are ethically indefensible.
Paul McCartney said it best:
“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.”
But the dichotomy between factory farms and veganism is further complicated when a third element is thrown into the mix: pasture raised meat. Certainly an ethical compromise, but a wildly more pragmatic solution (at least to the naked eye — more on that later).
For most of my time as a vegan, I’ve written off all skepticism of veganism as immoral or apathetic to the cause. But many criticisms of veganism are entirely legitimate, as we’ll soon discuss. And since the search for empirical truth, regardless of personal opinion, must always take priority over advancing a narrative, I’ve now decided, for the first time in my 17 months of veganism, to conduct an objective, unbiased analysis of this trichotomy of possibilities for the future of meat and dairy worldwide.
Here’s what I’ve found:
When it comes to our factory farming system, which produces 99% of the meat we eat in the United States, the two largest concerns fall along the lines of environmental damage and animal rights abuses. And these are both incredibly reasonable worries.
In terms of the former, animal agriculture accounts for a colossal bulk of environmental devastation worldwide, including:
a) One third of the world’s entire water consumption
b) Nearly one fourth of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions
c) 30% of Earth’s total surface area
Clearly, livestock farming is not a fringe contributor to the world’s environmental problems — it’s at the forefront. It’s the #1 cause of Amazon deforestation, a major contributor to global warming, and a leader in global desertification and drought. Take practically any environmental problem worldwide, and one of the leading culprits will be animal agriculture.
If we are to truly save the environment, our factory farming system must be changed.
Animal rights violations compound the problem. As most of us are indefinitely aware, the meat and dairy industry is riddled with morally unthinkable abuses against the rights of sentient animals, including debeaking and grinding chickens, placing pigs into dark, unthinkably-cramped cages, and isolating calves from their mothers.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a must-read by Michael Pollan, goes even deeper by revealing our livestock system’s unnatural and troublesome reliance on corn for feed, creating economical, environmental, and medical concerns. And we shouldn’t forget that 80% of American antibiotics aren’t consumed by humans, but rather are pumped into animals at an alarming rate, leading to a potential epidemic in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Factory farming is the epitome of unregulated capitalism —ethics and the environment are sacrificed to maximize profits at all costs.
Factory farming is clearly an outrage. But that’s not the question. The question is, what are the merits of the alternatives?
Pasture Raised Meat
What would happen if we consumed the same amount of meat, but instead produced it entirely on pastures as opposed to factory farms?
Clearly, this ideal would do wonders for animal rights. While pasture raised farming surely has its share of ethical concerns, it’s undeniable that the suffering is minimized in a substantial way. It is easily possible for a cow to have a great life on an open plain; the same cannot be said for a cow in a cage.
But when it comes to the environment — the second of the meat and dairy industry’s two aforementioned major concerns — the benefits are sparse, if existent at all.
In terms of water consumption, a pound of pasture raised meat requires 35% more water than a pound of factory farmed meat to produce. Since a third of our water is already used for livestock, a complete switch to pasture raised meat would increase global water demand overall by over 10%. This surely wouldn’t be a pretty picture to the millions of people suffering from severe dehydration in Yemen and the Horn of Africa at this moment.
As for greenhouse gases, the verdict on whether or not grass-fed meat contributes more to climate change than grain-fed meat is not yet out. On the one hand, grass-fed beef reduces the amount of petrochemicals dumped onto the soil and eliminates the gasoline consumption required to transport grains from the field to the feedlot. Grass-fed cattle also strengthen the richness and sustainability of the soil, sequestering carbon. These factors lend credence to the claim that grass-fed meat successfully diminishes livestock’s carbon footprint. On the other hand, grass-fed beef emit more greenhouse gases than grain-fed beef when it comes to enteric fermentation, a digestive process steeped in methane emissions. Grass is more difficult than grain to digest in the rumens of cattle, which leads to more enteric fermentation and a warmer planet.
When push comes to shove, there is no definitive victor of these competing theories. It’s unclear whether or not grass-fed meat is a better deterrent to emissions than grain-fed meat. What is clear, however, is that pastures are no sure-fire, be-all and end-all solution to livestock’s massive contribution to global warming.
But perhaps the most alarming environmental drawback of pasture raised meat is its wildly increased usage of land. According to an Irish study, grass-fed cattle use 30% more land than grain-fed cattle. If this study is accurate and applicable worldwide, a worldwide shift from factory farmed meat to pasture raised meat would require us to designate two or three million additional square miles of land worldwide to house livestock — requiring a land mass the size of the Amazon rainforest to be converted into farmland. This drastic level of deforestation, of course, is not an environmentally viable option.
My back-of-the-envelope calculations back this claim up. According to Hobby Farms, “a rule of thumb for productive pastures is 2 acres per animal unit.” An animal unit is equivalent to 1,000 pounds of animal mass, meaning that every 1,000 pounds of livestock requires two acres of pasture. This metric is relatively consistent with all species.
- Chickens: 21.41 billion / 4 pounds each / 72% factory farmed
- Cattle: 1.47 billion / 2,000 pounds each / 43% factory farmed
- Sheep: 1.2 billion / 250 pounds each / 1% factory farmed
- Goats: 1.01 billion / 160 pounds each / 1% factory farmed
- Pigs: 0.99 billion / 250 pounds each / 55% factory farmed
- Turkeys: 0.46 billion / 30 pounds each / 72% factory farmed
Multiplying these figures together, we find that 1.477 trillion pounds (or, 1.477 billion animal units) of livestock are raised on factory farms worldwide. Using the optimal two acres per animal unit rule, we find that 2.954 billion acres, or 4.62 million square miles, of additional land would be required to house these animals on pastures. And with global meat demand projected to double by 2050, this problem will only get radically worse.
How much land would we save by decreasing the production of grain for livestock feed? Much less. As was previously cited, animal agriculture occupies 30% of the world’s land, but 26% of this 30% comes from pasture, while just 4% — or, 2.3 million square miles — is designated for growing cattle feed. Under a 100% pasture raised meat system, we would save approximately 2.3 million square miles of land by converting cropland into forest, but we’d simultaneously lose around 4.62 million square miles of nature in order to create new pastures. That’s a net loss of over two million square miles of flora and fauna.
Basically, however you slice it, if we wanted to grow all the world’s meat on pasture, we’d need to deforest a landmass the size of the Amazon to make it happen. And that’s a huge, unthinkable price to pay.
What would happen if the whole world went vegan?
For starters, a vegan world would solve practically all of our aforementioned environmental and ethical concerns. No animals would be killed or abused, of course, nor would animal agriculture pollute our air and waterways, hurt human health, emit greenhouse gases, and dominate land and water consumption to the extent that it does today.
The benefits of a 100% vegan society would be astounding. We could convert nearly 30% of earth’s land back to forests and prairies, doing wonders for wildlife and carbon sinks. We could reduce humanity’s impact on climate change by nearly a fifth, saving millions of lives and billions of dollars. We could cut our water consumption by a third, slowing the world’s impending epidemic of drought. We could reduce the food waste of animal feed by consuming produce directly, maximizing food efficiency in an era of growing food demand. And, at long last, we could finally end the mass suffering of billions of confined animals on CAFOs.
Two of the most widely-cited qualms with veganism are (a) fear of changing one’s diet and (b) the ceaseless question, “where will the animals go?” Both of these are only minor concerns. For the former, since a worldwide transition to veganism would likely take until, say, 2050 to complete, we would have decades to adjust our diets and simultaneously research and develop safe and affordable lab-grown meat, allowing our carnivorous tendencies to still be fulfilled without the adverse effects of mass-producing livestock. For the latter, as demand for livestock decreases, supply of livestock will naturally follow suit, a gradual shift over multiple decades. This shift would, of course, lead to a massive reduction in livestock populations, but in return it would save tens of thousands of endangered species from their impending extinction.
When it comes down to the meat of the issue (no pun intended), these two qualms shouldn’t generate much worry. But there is one major criticism of veganism that is entirely valid and unfathomably disastrous, summarized in this one United Nations statistic:
Animal agriculture provides livelihoods to 1.3 billion people worldwide.
Now, you may correctly point out that, as a general rule, saving the environment should take precedence over saving the economy. But this estimate of unemployment — 1.3 billion jobs lost if the whole world went vegan — is a whole different story. That’s a whopping 17% of all humans alive today that would find themselves unemployed.
Imagine telling a poor cattle farmer in Vietnam or Bangladesh that their entire livelihoods would slowly disappear, forcing them into unemployment with little to no safety net. What would that mean for the already-expanding slums of the world? Imagine telling a farmer in Niger that his job of raising cattle would soon have to be replaced with produce farming, a practice impossible in northern Africa’s rapidly-desertifying Sahel region. Where would this impoverished farmer go, and how would he find the money, the food, and the resources to keep himself alive?
How many people in developing countries would worldwide veganism push into extreme poverty?
It is noteworthy that there are four major forces that could potentially minimize the impact of this job loss epidemic:
- Developing countries across the globe are currently in the midst of modernizing, industrializing, and urbanizing their economies, meaning that we are already losing employment in the primary sector. However, as automation continues to replace jobs in the manufacturing and service sectors, there is no guarantee that former livestock farmers would be able to find an urban job, especially if raising cattle is their only trade.
- As a result of an increased demand for vegan food, there would be an increased demand for produce farmers (as well as forestry and lab-grown meat) in a livestock-free society, creating new jobs. Unfortunately, this influx would employ squat compared to a massive number like 1.3 billion.
- Climate change already costs the world $699 billion per year. By eliminating livestock emissions, we can reduce these economic costs. Unfortunately, this gain would be outweighed by the economic loss of decimating the livestock economy, which accounts for 40% of the developing world’s agricultural GDP.
- As the proposed transition would take until around 2050 to complete, we would have a lot of time to work these macroeconomic issues out. Although this eases much of our worry, it’s still not completely reassuring.
In the end, none of these four factors are comprehensive enough to subdue the projected job loss of a meat-free society. Worldwide veganism, despite its vital benefits, would be inevitably met with a huge economic trade-off of over a billion jobs.
In the end, all three ideals for our meat and dairy system come with a heap of undesirable outcomes. There is no perfect, all-encompassing solution.
This table is a general yet telling summary:
If you’re willing to sacrifice economic stability for animal welfare and environmental preservation, veganism is the way to go. If the economic risks are too high but animal rights are a priority, pasture raising is the choice for you. Those worried by veganism’s economic concerns and pasture raised meat’s increase in land and water usage would view factory farming as the “lesser-evil” option.
And here’s the thing: all three of these positions are perfectly reasonable. Your position simply depends on your values. Which factors — environmental, ethical, or economic — matter the most to you? Whatever you choose will be both defensible and valid.
Personally, after conducting this analysis, I still find the vegan path to be the least harmful to our world, so I plan to maintain my vegan diet for years to come. However, now wary of veganism’s economic drawbacks, this support will be more tepid than before.
Like so many dilemmas in our world, there is no perfect solution to our meat and dairy system’s fundamental flaws, and, as of now, it looks like there won’t be one for quite a long time.