Can the world go Vegan?
Can we feasibly change our omnivorous farming practices?
Can the world go vegan? Short answer? Yes, with an if … No, with a but.
The issues involved are far more complex than one would initially believe and thus this is not meant to be a definitive document, nor take a stand on either side. It is an exploration of the issues and options. It attempts to look at the arguments and realities of what the numbers are in going towards the vegan ideal. The data is sourced from reputable organisations and cited. It does not consider morals nor makes any judgements on either side of the argument.
The answer is not black and white. This article attempts to explain why.
There is a common theme that comes up from the vegan community that goes along the the lines that it is far better for the environment (and by unstated extension, humanity) if the entire population of earth was to convert to a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Any simple scan of forums and news article commentary will highlight the same set of proponents who will emphatically and empathically state the virtues of the enlightened. Arguments range from ideological to pseudoscientific. A common cry, however, is the apparent need for utilising less overall farmland than we need now.
If we were to ignore the ideologies, the arguments of morality or the many forms of vegan philosophies, we need to ask a simple question: Can the world support a vegan farming reality? Will we indeed need less overall farmland?
Arguments presented in the past have included logic such as requiring “1/1000th of the land” or “we shall be able to feed the same number of people with fewer resources” and even “it takes eighty-times less water to produce vegetables than meat”. So, I wish to explore these topics.
Many pro-vegan and environmental impact organisations take into account that there are huge quantities of virtual water required for livestock growth. There are a great many forms of livestock that utilise differing degrees of water quantity, but as the kings share is beef, it seems that all comparisons are therefore built on beef production.
So, the most common number proffered is that which is provided by the Water Footprint Network, which claim that it takes approx 15,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of beef.
This number is simultaneously correct and misinforming.
Sure, the average steer consumes about 35 litres of water a day and a 400kg lactating cow will require 60 litres a day. Therefore, a 400Kg lactating cow (and via her, the calf) consume 21,900 litres of water in one full calendar year. So where is this other 5,978,000 litres that the network claims are required derived from?
The majority of all documentation on livestock water consumption are based on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) commonly referred to as intensive feed lots or factory-farms.
They add to the overall calculation the water used to grow grain, transport the grain, wash the grain, mix the feed, distribute the feed … then they add the water used to wash down the lots, wash the cows, transport the cows, to kill the cows, wash down the abattoirs … and perhaps it is just and reasonable that it should include all of that water usage.
However, if these quantities are taken into account, I do not understand why the numbers are further padded with the rain that falls on pastures, the surrounding forests and the run off.
This “double-dipping” form of water usage calculations would not bother my sensibilities if it was a consistent measure for all farmland. I agree, to some degree, that a pasture does not exist in isolation of the rest of the environment, but neither, it seems to me, does a field of wheat. Yet in looking at the calculations of vegetables, grains or other crops, these numbers are not padded with the same standards.
Every paper I have seen takes into account the “ industrial production” as the norm for beef production, and yet always choose the “favourable climatic conditions” numbers to calculate the vegetable or cereal calculations and fail to calculate the washing, shipping, and other aspects of the growth to consumption life-cycle.
Ignoring that disparity, let’s look at what is required to produce one kilogram of common grain (i.e. wheat, rice, soy) grown under rainfed and favourable climatic conditions. About one to two cubic metres (that is 1,000 to 2,000 litres) of water is required to meet that need. However, for the same amount of grain grown in an arid country where conditions include higher temperatures and thus higher evapotranspiration rates, we will need to increase those quantities by a conservative 3000 to 5000 litres.
That said, I do concede that vegetation is usually less water intensive on a kilogram by kilogram comparison. I would like to have offered an additional analysis of that comparison on a calorie, protein, mineral or other nutritional factor ratios … but alas, I have not found any research or paper that offers such data.
All farmland is equal
Let us talk about the need for “less farmland”.
There is remarkably very little arable farmland in the world, and the number of arable farms that would be required to feed the population of earth is significant.
This is where I often am confronted with the argument that it is “not true, because a Vegan diet is more efficient you would only need about 1/1000th of the land”.
Which, unfortunately, is not a true statement of fact, but a belief.
Christian Peters informs us that “a person following a low-fat vegetarian diet, for example, will need less than half (0.44) an acre per person per year to produce their food”
“Surprisingly, however, a vegetarian diet is not necessarily the most efficient in terms of land use” he continues
The reason is simple - fruits, vegetables and grains must be grown on high-quality arable cropland. Livestock based foods (such as meat and dairy products from ruminant animals) are supported by lower quality, and far more widely available, lands that are only capable of supporting pastures.
So, based on the last set of global census data (2008) we would require 3,068,444,911 acres of arable land. At that time, the global population was 6 billion and if a global one-child programme had been enacted, the ~3,212,369,959 of arable land that was globally available may very well have sufficed.
Not including the figures for degraded land, earth is currently losing, due to a range of factors, arable land at the conservative rate of 1% a year. Thus, a more accurate current figure is far closer to that of 3,024,382,549 acres.
However … we now have a global population that has already crossed the 7,000,000,000 mark, thus the number of arable acres required is far closer to 3,080,000,000 - or put another way, earth now has a shortfall of ~55,617,451 acres … and rising. In short, we have passed “peak land” and our growing population requires far more arable land than we currently have available to provide the nutrition required for all of those people in a vegan form.
As iterated, livestock are supported by lower quality (but far more widely available) land that can support pasture and hay. Thus, any claim that presumes we could simply remove the livestock and start growing vegetable or crop based foods on the existing farm land is flawed.
Current land use is an issue. Arable land must be saved - and not from livestock producers. A balance must be struck with conservation requirements as well. Further, mining and industrial expansion needs to be re-valued in light of the land availability.
Then there is urban expansion as well. Just as not all farmland is identical, urban developers prefer the arable lands that are easier to carve up and offer greener lawns than the arid, hilly or clay based lands that pastoralists utilise. But that is the topic of another debate.
Animal deaths still occur
It is important to understand that simply because one chooses to eat a vegetation based diet, it is not true that nothing died.
Ignoring the increasing evidence of plant sentience that is becoming available in scientific literature, the reality is that in the current scope of farming practices across the globe, not a single bite of food reaches our mouths that has not involved the killing of animals.
Aside from the plethora of insects, worms, nematodes and microfauna and ignoring the numbers of animals displaced by farm fields, it is estimated that three hundred mammals - mice, rats, moles, groundhogs - and birds are killed for the production of one acre of vegetable and grain foods.
By means of comparison, it is far more common to have only one (in the case of beef) to 200 animals (in the case of free range fowl) per acre of grass-fed livestock production … and they are all eaten. In fact, if one was to not eat the animals, and simply the byproduct of free ranging grass fed livestock such as milk from ruminants or unfertilised eggs from fowl, then no further animals are killed.
It is only the farming practice that alters these numbers. CAFOs bring the same number of “pest animal” problems and thus are just as likely to have the same control measures … and thus additional animal deaths.
The death of animals may be hidden from the list of ingredients of the organic soy burger patty, but that does not mean animal controls were not used, does not mean animal manure, or indeed, blood and bone fertiliser, was not utilised in its production. Do not, for a moment, believe that a pretty logo and an ISO certification an ethical behaviour makes.
Animal use is still required
Abolitionist vegans claim that animals are non-human sentient beings and thus should not be considered available for the benefit of man. In short, that any utilisation of animals is thus akin to slavery and should be considered as unsavoury as we would consider re-chaining any ethnic minority.
However, setting aside any arguments of speciesism, or the ideologies thereof, the argument is flawed under one very basic premise.
Agriculture is a co-developed system.
Domesticated plants and animals have altered in their evolution to support and be supported by humans and each other. It’s a partnership, and one that worked out well for all parties, at least until the dawn of factory-farming. Ironically, humans have also been affected by this symbiotic co-development and our own evolution has been determined by the amalgamation of domesticated foods at our disposal.
As Michael Pollan states in The Botany of Desire:
We automatically think of domestication as something we do to other species, but it makes just as much sense to think of it as something that certain plants and animals have done to us, a clever evolutionary strategy for advancing their own interests. The species that have spent the last ten thousand or so years figuring out how best to feed, heal, clothe, intoxicate, and otherwise delight us have made themselves some of nature’s greatest success stories
Evidence of this phenomena is everywhere in our lives, if we but stop and look. Wild canines discovered life with humans offered benefits. Humans were also able to work in packs, but unlike their canine brethren, could utilise tools to help bring down larger prey. So, the canines helped humans. The more they tracked and chased, the more prey was taken down and the more food there was for all to share.
Today, there are approximately ten-thousand wolves in the North Americas … and over fifty million domesticated dogs.
This has been the same for the few species whose futures are linked to that of the human race. Of the two million known and named species of animals on the planet,there are only forty that are categorically linked to us.
Oh. no doubt, we changed them. We needed them to be gentler, smaller, and wider, or bigger, perhaps slower or even faster … and they changed for us.
However, as iterated earlier, they changed us too.
Half of all humans now possess the gene required for lactose tolerance. Those whose ancestry did not include the biological result of being exposed to the lactations of the bovine will know the effect that drinking milk can otherwise have.
Our entire existence as human beings changed. No longer hunter gatherers, but sedentary agriculturalists and keepers of the those certain animals and plants that offered us something.
The symbiosis is a combination of soil, grasses, and animal rotation. Healthy topsoil provides for healthy plants whom feed healthy animals which in turn supply nutrients to the soil to remain in a healthy cycle. This cycle offers a natural and sustainable continuation.
Topsoil is, to me, a misnomer. It is a living biomass. Decomposing biomaterial, microfauna, fungi bacteria all exist in a microclimate that work together to produce a layer of material in which plants thrive. Soil is a magical wonderland - but that is a topic for another time.
Grasses have been the most succesful plants to domesticate humans. Wheat, Rice, Rye, Oats, Maize (corn), Buckwheat, Millet … all of these grasses have evolved and spread across the globe because of the symbiotic evolution with humans and their domesticated animals.
Many grasses (e.g. oats) have evolved to survive having their leaves eaten by livestock before sprouting a second spurt of life and shooting out the seed heads required for cropping. The animals are provided with controlled access to the oats, where they eat the fodder and deposit their nutrients onto the soil in the form of nitrogen rich urine and mineral rich fecal matter.
After cropping, the livestock are returned to the fields to once more feed on the remainder of the plants, recycling the chlorophyll rich cellulose matter into protein rich muscle.
Pre-industrial farmers would then slaughter the livestock required for meat. Everything was utilised, with the remainder of the hide, blood and bones all kept and ground to form “blood and bone” which was composted along with other carbon and nitrogen rich material and spread back out amongst the fields.
This rich mix of materials returned the trace elements into the soil, that along with rotated crops helped enrich the soil.
There are a plethora of other areas in this category as well, such as the truckloads of bees transported to pollinate orchards or the herds of goats used for weed management. Our dependence on animals for agriculture is so intertwined that the use of industrial machinery and chemicals are the only way we have removed their interaction.
In an age where we have reached a range of “peaks” - fossil fuels, land, water, phosphate - and the impacts of industrial, chemical and rock based fertilisers have brought us environmental concerns and damage beyond the desires of the farmers who first used them during the green revolution, it is perhaps best to consider that a return to the symbiotic relationship is the means forward.
Another argument I often hear is that “self sustaining agriculture based mostly on cereal has been around for 6000 years”, implying that somehow, a return to a paleo-centric diet is not only possible but better for the environment.
Whilst those cultures did certainly exist, it is also true that they existed in small, controlled locations with smaller populations. The reality is that meat eating was still part of their diets. Perhaps when looking at the lifestyles of many such cultures, where crops, fruits and vegetables were the mainstay and meat “happened” - not in large quantities, but not absent either - it is the better way to be.
All populations have traditionally eaten meat – only the form (herd animals, fowl or fish) may have changed. Even in countries where mammalian sources of protein were scarce or did not exist, then birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects have been consumed to make up the shortfalls in diets.
To those that wish to proffer the argument that grain is fed to animals instead of humans - I make two observations. The first is that most of the grain feed that does make its way to livestock feeds are classed as “unfit for human consumption”. The second is, that for the great majority of livestock, I agree - they should not be fed grains for it is not their natural (or even co-domesticated-evolutionary) diet.
I will for the sake of simplicity gloss over the arguments regarding affluence, localised land use, and profiteering. I shant expand upon the fact that there is far more arable land utilised for the growing of poppies, coffee, tea, chocolate and even marijuana than is used for animals or their feed. I’ll even ignore the issues of urban growth, industrialization, mining and the abuse of the use of clean fresh water supplies by industry to simply lower the cost of equipment replacement by ensure lowered part corrosion.
The reality is that all farming makes an impact. So, whilst a vegan diet may very well prove to be healthy, and indeed be more efficient than an omnivorous diet, it is a moot point.
Although, vegan diets can also cause far greater impacts than their proponents may realise. The aforementioned animal deaths required in the growing of food aside, the market forces that allow affluent consumers to take on the decision to choose the type of foods they will philosophically allow themselves to consume often affects the lifestyles and environments of less affluent regions of the world where that food is derived from.
It is a pattern repeated often with the constant renewing cycle of “miracle diets”, “ superfoods” or “green alternatives” that flood the shelves of the Organic and Vegan stalls or the so called ‘Health Food’ aisles of supermarkets.
As the hype increases, the demand for those products rise. In so doing, the impact of those crops alters. Palm oil, once espoused for being a ‘green’ product due to being re-utilised rather than being a waste product, has now become responsible for the mass clearing of jungle and rainforest to make way for the global demand. Soy consumption has increased tenfold over the last decade with usage in a range of products from cat food to chocolates. Corn has become so ubiquitous in the human food supply it is practically impossible to claim any food is now corn free. Quinoa has become so popular in the western world that the prices paid for the grain have now priced out the traditional local growers (whose staple it was) of being able to afford to consume it and thus western introduced foods (such as McDonalds) are now cheaper.
The impacts are far greater and further widespread than the survival of a few animals, the need of water or of land use. What is the true global impact of each decision? Is there no room to add the impact of these effects to the LCA of our dietary choices?
The eternal faith in the free market system often pokes its head up and espouses “if growing crops was the only way to make money, people would find a way”. Somehow presuming that a farmer, given the choice between low margin livestock and high margin crops would still choose the former.
I offer, by means of argument a very personal example.
I own the title to a piece of non-arable land. 132 acres of basaltic clay. It is riddled with bluestone. It is waterlogged in winter. It is a cracked parchment as hard as concrete in summer. The ability to grow grass is, in itself, often difficult enough. Growing crops is simply not an option.
There is however an experiment that I have performed on a small scale and do believe is possible on the larger scale. I believe I can alter the structure of the soil. I can make it arable.
The process would require I rock-rake the property to clear the loose stone litter. Following on the heels of the rake, importing and adding tonnage of organic matter will provide a basis for humous and topsoil to be built. Adding a mix of plant and animal based fertilisers, soil conditioners and some clever land forming methods, and it is quite feasible that the land could support some medium quality crops.
In fact, I seriously looked at the options to do this. I have calculation models across numerous spreadsheets. The price tag for this little agricultural miracle? A nice conservative round number of $15,000 per acre.
Assuming that I had such funds available to me, I would then need to find a range of locals who would then be willing to pay me three times more than market rates for my medium quality goods. If All goes well, I can hit a return on my investment in a mere decade.
Yet, herein lies the truth of the free market. While people will sign a petition, argue fervently on forums and may even protest … they vote with their wallet, and their wallets say “give me commodotised food”. Their wallets quite happily remain blind to the farming methods and the fossil fuels and the unrecorded deaths of small creatures.
The reality is that world population is growing. With that growth is an ever increasing commuting middle class. That brings with it the requirement for protein and energy that is far greater than traditional diets may have required. To provide for that requires specific types of food.
In greater quantities.
For cheaper amounts.
So, is it all for nothing?
Of course not. We need people to be passionate about animal welfare. We need people to keep corporations and the dubious honest.
We should all work for the elimination of confinement animal facilities and farming practices that cause desecration of the environment.
However, this is far more likely to be readily accomplished by millions of meat eaters opting for grass-fed animal products than by the smaller numbers of “vegos” boycotting meat.
We are far more likely to make a greater impact on the environemnt by returning to nose to tail utilisation of animals. Dropping the petro-chemical alternatives and returning to using the remains of the slaughtered animals to obtain those components used in soaps, shampoos, cosmetics, plastics, pharmaceuticals, waxes (as in candles and crayons), modern building materials and even hydraulic fluids.
Our ancestors would not have survived without using animal products like fur to keep warm, leather to make footwear, belts, straps and shelter, and bones for tools. In fact, the entire interactive network of life on earth, from the jellyfish to the judge, is based on the sacrifice of animals and the use of animal foods.
There’s no escape from dependence on slaughtered animals, not even for really good vegan folks
But maybe we can still try! What would be required?
The question itself is flawed as the greatest thing affecting the planet is of course the human population and will always be our limiting factor.
In todays world, veganism is a lofty goal and one reserved for the affluent. The reality is the additional cost of the logistics required to ship vegan only dietary stocks across the globe have and would continue to increase carbon equivalency, environmental impacts and if we were to become a vegan world - due to the tight requirement of population and arable land - any crop failures would cause mass outbreaks of famine.
So, ignoring population control and socialised food distribution controls, then to even think about getting close to achieving a greater market saturation of vegetarian based diets, new methods – like multi tiered hydroponic sheds and GMO based superfoods – will by necessity become a requirement.
The most nutritiously dense food (currently) known to man is Algea (i.e. spirulina and chlorella) is also quite likely the least appealing to most palates - even to hard core vegans, because, quite frankly, it has the least appealing texture, scent and flavour.
However, perhaps if humans could get over those things, then, yes, vertical farms can be built anywhere and nutrition can be grown for all.
However, that is a long call from an argument regarding food … or it’s enjoyment beyond nutrition.
Advancements in technology could address that though. 3D printing, and protein sequencing could become the future saviour of food, with spirulina and chlorella becoming the raw material required to ‘print’ food. However, until the age of the Star Trek inspired food replicator or a food printer, we are in fact limited to the reality of a decreasing land availability.
If natural farming methods are to be part of the solution, then it is neither a realistic nor achievable goal to consider a vegan world without being ready to undertake the social issues required.
All sources are cited in the margin notes on the right hand side. If any sources are unclear or further information on the citation is required, please feel free to ping me.
If you have any research that clarifies or alters anything I have written, please do point it out to me so I can add, modify or correct the article.
I chose Christian Peters (who is a Cornell University researcher who has completed a number of research papers on this very topic) because he is actually a pro-vegetarian researcher.
I think it’s great that people are vegetarians or vegans, I am a strong supporter of philosophical based consumerism. However, I also am a strong believer in understanding the full story.
Personally, I am an ex-vego and my journey to understanding has led me to become an agvocate. I am now an omnivorous consumer (and a part time farmer) I continue to seek to understand multiple arguments and explore other thoughts and perceptions.
When considering the overall moral imperatives, choices must be made. The choices are yours to make, after all morality is a mental illusion. What has a greater moral value? Human survival? Animal Sentience? Plant Sentience? Environmental impacts? Remember that your moral choices are not for everybody. If you do decide that Animal sentience is a greater moral imperative to the environment or human survival, forcing others to choose your point of view is akin to a christian enforcing their beliefs onto a muslim.
Recycled with edits from an earlier blog post on blog.goodrockpark.com.
A number of comments about this article have been made under the original wordpress blog entry and my many responses (yes, even the ones where I lost my patience and objectivity) are all there to be read — because it is, at the end of the day, a bunch of humans deliberating and - in the case of this particular one - trying to sort out a lot of information about a very complex topic with many factors into something that makes more sense.
I invite you to join me in a search for better understanding, if that is your desire, or to ignore me if I am just a long winded bagpipe of non-compliance with your world view.