Vegans save the planet (possibly) - Healthy Eating

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Vegans save the planet (possibly)


Jerry raised an important point the other day concerning human health and the health of the planet. While it’s fashionable these days to tout meat-free diets as a cure for global warming (I think Angela Merkel was the latest to make a statement along those lines) it’s not really that simple. Some facts and figures might be of interest.

NB: I'm aware that there are lot of vegans and vegetarians here. I'd like to point out in advance that this is NOT a criticism of their choices - I'm not here to tell people what they should or shouldn't eat. However, I wanted to offer a counterpoint to the simplistic propaganda (which comes mostly from Big Ag to turn people away from naturally-raised produce) that eating less meat is good for the planet.

Vegan diets improve land-use efficiency.

This isn’t true: a vegan has the same footprint (plus or minus) as a carnivore, although this is only true for organic agriculture. Have a look at the numbers.

Here’s a representative vegan diet, offering 1800kCal/day with 67% carbs, 25% protein, and 3% fat (vegan diets are, of necessity, very high in carbs and very low in fat):

-850g greens

-250g fruit

-250g beans

-450g root vegetables

-200g grains [as bread etc]

That’s a lot of food: 2kg (2.4kg when cooked – nobody eats raw flour or dry beans). That’s about the average for a modern American, and in reality most vegans will eat a calorie-restricted diet because the human body wasn’t designed to cope with that volume of food. Still, let’s calculate the land area required for 2kg/day, assuming conventional agriculture (using machines, ploughs, and chemicals). It’s about 1000m2, of which 750m2 is for beans and grains. So, given enough synthetic inputs, 1 hectare of farmland supports 10 people. Here’s the equivalent for a carnivore eating a low-carb, high-fat maintenance diet:

-400g greens

-100g fruit

-100g beans

-50g root veg

-50g grains

-170g meat

-330ml milk

-100g butter and cheese

-100g (two) eggs

This is, again, 1800kCal; 23% carbs, 25% protein, 52% fat. Note that it’s a far more manageable amount, at 1.5kg (cooked). The required land area for the vegetables is only 350m2. The meat and milk requirement amounts to having one-sixth of a cow and ten chickens on pasture at any given time, implying an extra 650m2 for forage, per person.

Isn’t that interesting? Exactly the same land area. Here’s what’s even more interesting: chickens and cows can eat things that humans can’t. They can go where tractors can’t. They can roam about on land that’s useless for cropping. And just by doing what comes naturally, they improve the soil that they stand on, year after year. That generally means that tree crops can be planted on pasture, effectively reducing the carnivore’s overall footprint below that of the vegan.

Contrast this with the farmer growing nothing but wheat and soybeans. Every year, the soil is ploughed, sprayed, and fertilized. The soil structure is destroyed; water-holding capacity is compromised. Animals, bacteria and fungi are either killed or disrupted. Soil erodes: on the average, a ploughed field loses as much topsoil each year (10 tonnes) as it produces in crop output.

It’s perfectly true that feedlot-raised animals are linked into the industrial system, wasting valuable cropland that could be used for human food and perpetuating the misuse of resources. The solution for the planet is not to go vegan, but to restore some sanity to farming; to take away the reins from the economists who came up with this ridiculous scheme, and hand them back to the farmers.

Cows are responsible for global warming

This theory only makes sense if you assume that cropland should be devoid of all animal life: dead and sterile. In reality, natural farms are teeming with animal life that just arrives, all by itself. Those animals – mostly microbes – exhale carbon dioxide and methane just like cows. And that’s just fine; the inscrutable processes that they engage in are far more important to planetary health. Remember that one-sixth-of-a-cow per person? They’re doing what all the other animals are doing: recycling biomass and solar energy into things that keep the planet ticking along nicely.

Eating vegetables rather than meat reduces fossil-fuel use

Again, this is only true in the context of feedlot beef and battery chickens, which waste enormous amounts of fuel in many different ways. In an organic system, a cow or a chicken on pasture uses no fossil fuel at all, at least up to the point where it is slaughtered and leaves the farm. Because a carnivore eats 70% less than a vegan, and only one-third of the mass of vegetables, his diet involves a lot less transport overhead.

Eating meat is cruel

I am dimly aware that, on any square meter of my farm, there is a whole lot of killing and eating going on. Under my feet. In the air. Hidden in the grass. This is right and proper; this is the way nature creates the maximum amount of life from a fixed amount of solar energy. Equally, there are wrong ways for animals to die. For example, a field mouse or a grasshopper should not die in a combine harvester, or from the ingestion of pesticides; a worm should not die in the blades of a plough or disc harrow. The industrial food machine deals mostly in wrongful death, and the vegan who buys their products has dipped his hands in the blood of animals that nobody really cares about and cry too quietly to be heard. He can rationalize this away for the same reason I can rationalize away the death of one-sixth of a cow: killing is part of who he is. It’s in the deepest core of our being, and there is no escape from it.

Here is the cruelty in meat-raising: the animal never lives before it dies. A pig is never allowed to be a pig, and a chicken is never allowed to be a chicken. Why? Because we’ve been convinced by flimflam artists that this is “efficient”. It is not. It’s the worst possible way of raising animals, on any metric you care to consider. Yet, for some reason, an entire planet has been duped into the mathematical world of the economist, where one plus one equals four and a half.

We need vegans

After all I’ve said about vegetarianism: this one is true, and I hope the reason is obvious. We need a certain number of people who like eating vegetables rather than meat, because the natural carrying capacity of the land – for cows, chickens and the like – is quite low. And they leave behind them a trail of fertility that’s best absorbed by vegetables.

In other words, we need vegans so that the rest of us can carry on eating meat.

43 Replies

I always enjoy reading your posts.

in reply to G1nny

Thanks :)


I've been thinking about this one quite a bit recently, and I think there is a compromise when it comes to the environment.

My friend's dad farms sheep on a mountainside. The mountainside would be no use for crops at all, but at least the sheep keep the land in check.

Some farmers around where I grew up will bring animals in after they've harvested their crops, to help clear the land and fertilise the soil naturally.

The distilleries sell grain by-products to meat farmers, that would otherwise go to waste.

There is a compelling argument to reduce global consumption of meat though. We need to get to the point where we no longer need to clear rainforest to create meat farms. But that's also probably an argument for reducing our global population.

in reply to Cooper27

We don't need to reduce global population, the world's population is just badly managed as if farming nowadays. There is plenty of grazing land for animals without having to cut down rain forest!

Dottie2011: exactly. There's loads and loads of land that's eminently suitable for grazing that would be improved by the presence of (edible!) herbivores.

People cut down rain forests not because they want the land: it's the trees they're after. Valuable hardwoods deliver a one-off bounty that far exceeds the profit they'll make from the soybeans, oilpalm or steers that they put in their place.

That's the right way to do it. It's the way it's been done for centuries ... because it works.

As for reducing meat - that's where vegans can help :). The "allowance" I offered for meat and eggs in my example food budget was quite modest (170g + 2 eggs). Adequate, but 50% smaller than I eat (about 250g/day). If I'm part of a community where a few people aren't eating meat, that's more for me!

Farmers are quite unimaginative about cropping though. I have land in England which has a 1:15 slope. I got it cheap because it's (supposedly) useless for anything but pasture. However, perennial shrubs and trees can grow anywhere, and there are flat areas I can use for intensive cropping of annuals. When farmers think "crops", they imagine tractors and wheat, which means flat ground. That sort of thinking is the reason most farmers aren't making much money.

This is a thought-provoking post, TheAwfulToad - I shall ponder on the things you've said, and consider them, as well as take an interest in the replies too.

Zest :-)

Interesting. I wish there was something very simple we could do to stop global warming. Our poor beautiful planet. I try my hardest to buy locally sourced food.

There is no global warming, it's a hoax! Don't expect you to believe me though, but it's true and there's plenty of information and research on the internet to support the science that the planet is not warming, but actually cooling due to a Solar Minimum (As sun governs climate, not CO2 levels). Then there's the weather manipulation aspect of it, but again, that's for you to research! :)

Anyway, here's an excellent article I found the other day as an argument against veganism, both for saving the planet and for health!

'A world without livestock farming makes no sense from a humanitarian, economic, ecological and agronomic point of view'

Interesting. I will have a read :-)

I tend not to get involved in the global-warming debate because it's irrelevant. My view is that, whether or not anthropogenic CO2 is causing the climate change, we're wasting a lot of resources doing a lot of stupid things.

It's often claimed, for example, that deforestation causes the release of CO2 from the soil (which it does) and is therefore a bad thing. But that's not even the half of it; it's a bad thing for a dozen more important reasons. Deforestation is just one type of land-clearing; far more common is the clearing of less densely-forested areas, and land-clearing in general has a huge and immediate impact on the hydrological cycle. That is, replacing standing vegetation of any sort with annual crops causes disruption in the local weather - typically long dry periods followed by floods. The soil is less able to hold water, so it cannot withstand these extreme events. It erodes and eventually becomes useless desert.

I agree with the arguments in that article. The arguments in favour of a "plant-based diet" come mostly from the agri-tech companies - it's the ideal platform from which to sell (for example) "Golden rice", GMO corn, pesticides, herbicides, machinery, and similar solutions-in-search-of-a-problem. A well-managed farm simply doesn't need their products, so they have to denigrate good land stewardship as backward and dangerous.

Buying local is helpful, if only because it takes $$ away from Big Ag, but unfortunately there's no simple solution. The bottom line is that it's all driven by people who look at nothing but the bottom line, and they succeed partly by getting laws written to favour their business model. A mixed farmer in Europe or the US today has a good chance of being harassed or shut down by the authorities for "mismanagement" of animals.

I do this in the most direct way possible: I farm, in a country where the authorities are less likely to bother me. Even so, it's discouraging to see people around me mistreating their animals, mistreating their land, and spraying everything to kingdom come. They walk past my island of green in their moonscape and laugh at the silly foreigner who's doing it all wrong. Honestly, I'm glad I'm old and won't see Armageddon.


This is very interesting, so thanks for going to the trouble of writing it, I wanted to read it and digest it before commenting.

What I think is great is that there’s a new generation who instead of blaming everyone else want to do something. And something that is cohesive and is beneficial to the rest of society and they’re making sustainable ethical decisions and I applaud that.

Jerry 🙂

HiddenThis reply has been deleted
in reply to Hidden

My original point was that vegans as a proportion of the population can absorb excess fruit and vegetables which will naturally follow grazing animals, and also "free up" meat for the meat-eaters without stressing the land with too many animals.

There's no basis for conflict between meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters, but that doesn't mean we should all be vegans. That's a different proposition entirely.

Jerry : correct me if I'm wrong here, but I assumed the phrase "making sustainable ethical decisions" referred to farmers who are trying to improve the efficiency of the food supply and the welfare of animals?

HiddenThis reply has been deleted
in reply to Hidden

LOL. Somehow, I just can't imagine you as a vegan :)

Interesting point about you adopting the eating habits of your peers. If it wasn't "ethics", what was the reason for your decision? Was it simply to make mealtimes easier?

Just reading this before having my mouth tended by my hygienist. Many thanks for raising the subject. I shall have a good time replying, hopefully later, and dispell the myths as presented.

For now as an opening shot, my opinion is that the global animal and plant diversity is destroyed by animal farming. If that is at all true then people should stop eating meat today.

it depends an awful lot on what you mean by "farming", however I shall be interested to see your rebuttal :)

Look on the bright side - when the sun burns out we're all doomed anyway! 😊

Let me tackle these subjects one at a time and start with a point on Vegan diets improve land-use efficiency. If one considers commercially farmed animals, which is by far the largest number of farmed animals, they are increasingly fed on corn and soya crops. Take a statistic from the USA website 95% of corn is used for animal feed. So next time you see a beautiful picture of combined harvesters harvesting crops think about where all that crop is going. The majority is to feed animals.

Why not feed humans directly instead? Why not save all that water that goes to grow those crops and use it for human use? Why not grow a diverse group of plants rather than the pointless swathes of monocrop that are probably genetically modified and suppress diversity across large areas of the world.

A similar story can be stated for Soy crops.

And as I have said before irreplaceable rainforest is being destroyed daily to grow more of these crops. And all to satisfy the demand for animal feed.

>> If one considers commercially farmed animals, which is by far the largest number of farmed animals, they are increasingly fed on corn and soya crops.

Yes, I'm aware of that, and I completely agree with you about the illogical use of land that accompanies CAFOs. I made similar points myself. Nowhere did I suggest that meat-eating is always a good thing; merely that it should be a good thing, as long as the natural role of animals is not subverted.

Those corporations only exist because they are propped up with subsidy and legal favouritism. Most people do not want to be vegans, but an increasing number object to Big Ag. My intent was not to poke fun at vegans, but to reassure those who feel guilty about eating meat.

The way out of this mess is to support people who are doing it right - like Cooper27's friend back there. That guy certainly isn't taking away crop yield that could be used for human food, is he? If you can't afford to buy their products - and they're often not much more expensive than the supermarket versions - then write to your MP and ask that he raise some questions in Parliament about those laws which favour inefficient practices and punish people who want to do the right thing.

Most animal-confinement operations have razor-thin margins as it is. They're going to be further squeezed by Brexit. A critical mass of people refusing to buy from them will make them unprofitable. A cascade of failures will follow (farmers who are growing grains destined for animal feed). And what happens then? That land has to be bought and restored by proper farmers - not least because people will want their meat supply to continue. If (hypothetically) nobody were buying meat at all, those bankrupted farmers would end up selling their land at fire-sale prices to foreign speculators. We need the little guys coming back, with 20 pigs and six milk cows and 100 chickens. What we don't need is humans trying to fulfil the ecological role of cows and chickens by themselves.

>> Why not feed humans directly instead? Why not save all that water that goes to grow those crops and use it for human use? Why not grow a diverse group of plants rather than the pointless swathes of monocrop that are probably genetically modified and suppress diversity across large areas of the world.

What you're actually arguing for here is conversion of excess cropland to pasture :) How else do you imagine you're going to get a "diverse group of plants" without a lot of animals to manage fertility and succession?

I have no major objection to animals being raised to help fertility etc just provided they are allowed to live their lives to their natural end and are not killed to satisfy human tastes. Their is nothing nicer than seeing an animal grow old, well cared for throughout and being fully respected for their contribution and then die a natural death.

A "natural death" for a herbivore is to be killed and eaten by a predator. Those fast and clever enough to outrun predation die of disease and starvation. How do you propose we subvert these processes, and to what end?

How far down the food chain do your benevolent wishes extend? Do earthworms and beetles and mosquitoes also deserve human protection to ensure they die happily in their beds, having lived a full life without regrets? How about protozoa? Where do we find the manpower to fulfil this fantasy of yours? Do you not see a problem with aged animals taking food from human mouths - precisely the situation you object to in the context of conventional agriculture?

You, as a vegan, are responsible for roughly the same number of animal deaths as I am. If you buy "conventional" crops, then hundreds of birds, frogs, rodents and the like die each year so that you can eat; millions of invertebrates are also part of the collateral damage caused by your existence. A countless number never existed at all because of the constant onslaught of poisons used to grow crops. If you buy "organic", then you are party to the invisible cycles of predation and death that go on beneath our notice. I'm not saying this to make you feel guilty. It is what it is. But you clearly haven't come to terms with your place in the circle of life.

It occurs to me that first-world humans are no longer afraid of death. They're afraid of life. They pass their days quivering in their blue cubicles, scaring themselves silly with internet articles about terrorists or cancer-causing sausages or bird flu. They take comfort in mindless Health and Safety regulations, then shuffle back to their plastic-wrapped, sanitized-surface homes, where they dutifully swallow their cholesterol pills and their beta-blockers, which will (they think) prolong their empty half-lives.

We extend this fear of living to the animals in our charge. Factory-farmers genuinely think that a chicken in a box is happy because it is "safe", cocooned in steel and dosed up with antibiotics. The fact that life is finite and fraught with risk is what gives it meaning.

in reply to TheAwfulToad

I LOVE your posts. Wonderful! And as you suggest, most people have no clue what's involved in bringing food to a table. Being a grain farmer, I can add a little to what you've said. For decades we have soaked the land with Roundup so we can grow weed-free Roundup Ready beans. GMO. But after decades of this, we now have weeds that are resistant to Roundup, to say nothing of all the lawsuits filed by people who have developed cancer. Enter the next wonderful phase- Dicamba beans. So now Dicamba will be sprayed all over everything to control those resistant weeds that Roundup will no longer kill. When we first got married in the mid 70's, they'd spend hours in bean fields running cultivators to pull weeds out from between the rows. Those days are long past thanks to Monsanto, and things are not going back any time soon. Chemical farming just can't continue forever; it's just plain distressing to think about all that poison all over everything. I'd read somewhere that the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River is because of Atrazene used on corn crops for years and years. Repercussions. And yes, the vast majority of corn and soybeans goes into animal feed.

in reply to Hidden

Thanks :)

Can I ask what you're growing at the moment?

But yeah, for the most part, farmers have been duped. They've been sold a whole lot of stuff that they didn't really need, and the chemical companies are still spinning them a line. Oh, our product from last year has stopped working? Caused an inexplicable outbreak of pest X or disease Y, did it? Well, lucky for you we have a new product that will fix that!

Basically, they're stuck on a treadmill with someone pressing the "speed up" button.

in reply to andyswarbs

The one question I have about this though, is do you not still then have to grow the extra crops to feed the pet animals?

They did say last week that owning a pet dog is as bad for the environment as owning an SUV, so I just wonder if other pets are as resource heavy.

HiddenThis reply has been deleted
in reply to Hidden

>> corn and soy is the best source of animal why not use it...corn fed chickens sell for a higher price and are very tasty.

Complicated answer required. I'll try to keep it brief.

1) Chickens do benefit from a bit of corn in their diet. However they shouldn't eat nothing but corn. "Corn fed" chickens only seem to taste better because ordinary CAFO chickens taste of nothing at all. A pastured chicken is far superior to anything raised in a factory, although a chicken eating nothing but pasture will probably take too long to reach market weight.

2) Cows should not eat corn at all. The only reason CAFOs get away with it (it gives them terrible digestive problems and would eventually kill them) is that the animals reach slaughter weight very quickly.

>> If all the land that is used for corn and soy was to be grassed many animals would it support.

My calculation above suggests that the answer is "exactly the same number as it does now, except with much lower costs". Intuitively, it doesn't make any difference if you let the animal find its own food, or bring the food to the animal: the same amount of land is needed.

Two major differences:

1) A pastured animal is improving soil fertility and requires no infrastructure to harvest, process and transport its feed.

2) Almost any sort of land can be converted to pasture. You'd want to take the worst 60% of farmland - the burned-out, eroded, low-fertility bit - and use that for the animals. They would rapidly increase its food value (and monetary value) just by being there.

>> The price of meat and dairy would go up beyond what most people could afford.

Pastured meat appears to be expensive for complicated reasons (mostly to do with the law and marketing), but if everyone were doing it, the price would be roughly the same as it is now. Quality would be much higher and the animals would be happier.

in reply to TheAwfulToad

Grass-fed beef is of course by far superior to grain fed, but people are accustomed to the marbled cuts that are tenderer than grass-fed beef, full of the fat that comes with feeding grain. (Doesn't that tell you something about grains? They make you fat!) I remember when we tried to feed calves out to butcher weight years ago. What a nightmare! And the poop really stinks!!

in reply to TheAwfulToad

Oh, I'd forgotten. Talking about converting crop land to pasture- out here lots of people did the opposite when soybean prices went way up to $10 and $12/bushel several years ago. A lot of people took rather poor hill soil farms out of pasture for pricey beans, but now the price has plummeted. Wondering if they wish they hadn't done that now? It's not easy to get ground re-established in grass.

in reply to Hidden

Indeed. Fixing ploughed-up land costs 50x more than the profit made from a one-off harvest. Generally what you'll get, if you try to seed it to a pasture mix, is a lovely crop of weeds. You can mow or graze those off, but it takes time and money.

You're quite right about consumer expectations about beef, though. Pastured beef is a completely different product. It's usually sold aged, and is cooked differently. Chicken and pork ... not so much. I think consumers will accept those much more readily. Lamb, of course, is free-range anyway.

Oddly, in the UK at least, the preference is for ultra-low-fat meat, which has the taste and texture of shoe leather flavoured with raw liver. Marbled meat is exceedingly expensive and has a very small target market.

HiddenThis reply has been deleted
in reply to Hidden

You're quite right that farmers will have to take account of consumer preference. The sad part is that they've backed themselves into a corner: for decades, they've been producing cheap, low-quality, tasteless meat, and customers now prefer that.

When I first moved to Asia I reacted much like you. I didn't like the black chicken or the free-range meat that was darker and denser. However I made an effort to eat it, and now I prefer it.

Since you lived in the UK, you may remember that food in the 1970s was pretty bad. Consumer tastes changed (for the better, mostly) because of clever marketing campaigns during the 80s and 90s: people were convinced to try things like olive oil and good cheese, and found that they liked them. The same thing can be done with pastured meat, I believe.

However I agree with you that you that the product has to be visually appealing as well as tasty. Very few people will want to buy "native" chicken breeds, for example, that don't have much meat on them. I don't think that's a problem. There are plenty of "heritage" breeds that are as easy to raise as the low-yielding native animals. They give good meat, good carcass weight, and good economic performance on pasture.

HiddenThis reply has been deleted
in reply to Hidden

There are many reasons why farmers in the US and Europe use corn and soy. One big reason is that (depending on where you are and what you're doing) it's subsidized in various ways by government. The market price for corn and soy is often lower than the cost of production ... which is the sort of thing you only expect in Communist countries like China or (as was) the USSR.

In countries like Thailand (which can't afford that sort of thing), farmers are much more likely to feed their animals properly, because corn and soy is expensive.

Corn and soy is expensive when the price is set by the market because both crops have a very poor yield. Even with copious fertilizer application, you only get about 3 tonnes per hectare. Historically (no synthetic fertilizers) it was closer to 1 tonne per hectare. Compare that with properly-managed forage output in the subtropics, which is in the region of 20-40 tonnes/hectare. True, corn and soy is more nutrient-dense, but the economic balance is still in favour of pasture. For example, you can grow perennial legumes such as Leucaena Leucocephala or Pueraria spp. mixed into a pasture. These are basically weeds that need no management except occasional grazing and cutting. They yield as much crude protein as a soybean crop and assist the grass.

95% of corn and soy goes to animals (andyswarbs's quoted figure is correct) because pigs and cows eat a lot, and if you're not getting much yield in the first place, they're going to consume most of the food being grown.


There are some farmers who appear to be rediscovering traditional methods of managing animals and crops to cope with changing weather patterns and avoid agri-chemicals. It started in Australia, a system called “pasture cropping”. Don’t how how successful this may be in different climates, but it seems a possible step in the right direction.

in reply to Penel

The idea has been invented independently in various different places, with local adaptations. I sow annuals into a permanent groundcover of arachis pintoi.

Good article that, though :)

“You had to be drunk to think of something like pasture cropping,” Seis told me. “But once we sobered up the next day, we decided to give it a go.”

You just have to love the Aussie approach to life.

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