My job is to look at the world and wonder... "How can we make things better?"
This piece of vegan propaganda came up on my Facebook feed today, via Moby, the music producer and well-known advocate of veganism. It immediately looked suspicious, so I thought I’d fact-check it, or at least offer some alternative information to help people make up their own minds.
Let’s unpick the claims in turn, but first we get this…
Even before the claimed outcomes, let’s consider what would actually happen if the world went vegan, shall we? Massive depopulation would be the first problem that concerns me.
Let’s start with the numerous indigenous tribes all over the world who would be sentenced to starvation. Off the top of my head, I can think of… the Inuit people of North America, Sámi reindeer herders in Northern Europe, and the Masai and bushmen who live on the African savannah.
These are folk who have lived for millennia in areas where you simply cannot grow crops for the majority of the year, if at all. They can only survive in those environments by getting protein and energy from animals and animal products.
So what do you want to do? Move them all into the cities where they can munch on carrot cakes and sip soy lattes in vegan coffee shops?
Oh, and of course when the next ice age comes around, that’s goodbye homo sapiens!
This implies that there would be 250,000,000,000 more animals enjoying life every year, which is clearly untrue. The reality is that the animals would be allowed to die out. Breeds would diminish or disappear. These lives would not be “saved” – they would not be lived at all.
One vegetarian friend commented with a very typical response…
Better they are not born than suffer the torment and cruelty we inflict on them daily.
I’ve discussed this plenty elsewhere, so won’t labour the point, just to sum up that I personally would rather see animals enjoying a good outdoor, pasture-fed life and a quick, painless death.
The fact is, good farmers don’t inflict torment and cruelty on animals. Sure, there are plenty of bad ones who do, but it’s wrong to lump them all together.
We should all stand against factory farming and industrial slaughter. It really comes down to the question of whether you think that all animal husbandry equals torment and cruelty. That’s the hard line over which an ethical omnivore and a militant vegan differ.
This point also states that, if we were all to move to a plant-based diet, fewer animals would die, which is simply untrue, because of the way most farming is done today.
Industrial arable agriculture destroys many times more animal lives than pasture farming of food animals – fact! Ploughing, tilling, and applying pesticides leaves fields almost lifeless, destroying the habitats of small mammals and birds as well as countless insects, earthworms, and other invertebrates.
This is a wild claim. I don’t know where Mr. Moby got his numbers, but the Wikipedia page on the causes of deforestation paints a much more varied picture:
According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat, the overwhelming direct cause of deforestation is agriculture. Subsistence farming is responsible for 48% of deforestation; commercial agriculture is responsible for 32%; logging is responsible for 14%, and fuel wood removals make up 5%.
Of course, agriculture means fields for crops as well as pasture for animals, and some crops are grown to feed to animals, but there’s no way you can arrange these numbers to make 90%.
Nobody is saying that deforestation is a good thing. It’s not, it’s stupid. But it’s not all being done so people can herd cows.
The first part of this report from the United States National Center for Biotechnology Information starts by listing the five main causes of antibiotic resistance. They are…
First, there’s no mention that agricultural use of antibiotics is the major contributor. So I don’t see how stopping animal production would reduce it by 75%.
But – far more importantly – this is not an issue that applies to ALL meat production. Pumping food animals full of antibiotics is caused by two main factors:
That’s not how good farmers roll. In fact, I’ll go further and say, that’s not how farmers roll. The corporations who mass-produce animals for slaughter are not farmers in my thinking.
The burning of fossil fuels for energy and animal agriculture are two of the biggest contributors to global warming, along with deforestation. Globally, fossil fuel-based energy is responsible for about 60% of human greenhouse gas emissions, with deforestation at about 18%, and animal agriculture between 14% and 18% (estimates from the World Resources Institute, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and Pitesky et al. 2009).
And here’s a picture that illustrates it nicely (same source).
One key point to note is that, even within the 13.5% of GHG impact attributed to agriculture overall, “Agriculture Soils” is the single biggest factor at 6.0%, compared to “Livestock & Manure” at 5.1%. This is because mechanical soil disturbance (ploughing, tilling etc.) releases a whole heap of carbon dioxide as well as potent nitrous oxide, and compacted wet soils can also generate methane.
So tell me again how everyone shifting over to a plant-based diet will halt global warming? How would we feed everyone, or would it only be the privileged few who get to survive in this vegan utopia?
There are vast areas of the world that cannot be used to grow veggies to feed our 8-billion-plus hungry mouths, but many of those areas (including remote grasslands, tundra, and hillsides) can be used for grazing.
Currently, according to the World Bank, just under 11% of the world’s land area is arable, i.e. used for growing crops. If we replaced all the grazed meat with plant crops, where’s the extra land going to come from? We certainly don’t want to be cutting down more rainforest!
Here’s more recent evidence that the 45% reduction claim is bogus, from Sara Place, Ph.D. (March 2018):
Researchers at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and Virginia Tech just published a study in the Proceedings of National Academies of Sciences confirming this socially debated fact. The study examined what our world would look like without animal agriculture in the U.S.
The bottom line? We’d reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by 2.6 percent, and 0.36 percent globally — but we’d also upset our balanced food ecosystem and lack essential dietary nutrients to feed all Americans.
Considering meat production in the West is particularly intensive, it’s reasonable to assume that if we were to extrapolate the U.S. result to the whole world, you’d be looking at a 2.6% global eduction at most. A long way off Moby’s number.
For the past few decades, accepted orthodoxy has been that consuming saturated fats is a significant cause of heart disease, but the data are by no means clear-cut, and we have to be very careful to examine what we’re actually measuring.
A recent wide-scale study of mortality in a large group (covering over one million person-years) found no significant difference between overall vegetarian vs. various omnivore diets, but note that vegans seem to have a slightly higher mortality rate if anything.
Scanning over the “Summary table of data” on this Wikipedia page on the causes of heart disease will illustrate how little consensus there is across recent studies.
One study states:
Pooled data found that for every substitution of 5% of dietary energy from SFA with PUFAs reduced the risk of coronary events by 13%, and coronary deaths was by 26%, whereas replacing 5% of energy intake from SFAs with carbohydrates increased the risk of coronary events by 7%, with a non-significant trend of an increase in coronary deaths. Monounsaturated fatty acid intake was not associated with coronary outcomes.
So moving from the saturated fats most often found in animal products to polyunsaturated fats may have a negative impact on heart disease risk, but note that replacing the energy of saturated fats with additional carbohydrate increased the risks. (There is a large body of evidence that links refined carbohydrate intake to multiple health problems.)
It gets yet more complicated when (again) we distinguish between good and bad meat. Pasture-raised meat tends to contain a healthy proportion of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, whereas the more animals are fed on grains, the more Omega-6 their meat contains.
In a natural cycle, a grazing animal would be richer in O-3 during the summer months, when they can graze on grass and other vegetation, and perhaps a big higher in O-6 after consuming more grass seeds in autumn, which has the effect of storing fat and slowing the metabolism to save energy over the cold part of the year. As modern agriculture has replaced most of the fresh green grass in animals’ diets with grains – all year round – meat eaters are mainly consuming meat that’s rich in Omega-6 (which may encourage us to get fat and lazy).
Many scientists are now saying that it’s not fat itself, but the balance between these fatty acids, that has the biggest impact on health. One article sums it up neatly:
Chris Kesser’s article “How too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 is making us sick” includes the following chart detailing the relative Omega-3 / Omega-6 content of various foods. So you can see how getting your dietary fat from many plant sources (and also grain-fed meat) could introduce its own risks.
So I think it’s safe to say there are a lot more factors in play here than simply saturated vs. unsaturated fats. Some communities like the Inuit who survive almost entirely on animal fats and proteins with practically zero fruits and vegetables have lower rates of both heart disease and cancer (see article), so it’s likely to be more of a case of the kind of meat that’s being eaten than meat vs. no-meat.
The health impact of consuming refined carbohydrates is another fascinating area. Many people now link cancer to sugar intake, for example. Humans did not evolve eating much refined sugar; we would only get a little through honey or fruits. Today, far more of our energy comes from refined wheat, corn (including the horrible high-fructose corn syrup), and of course refined sugars.
The area of diet merits a lifetime’s exploration, but my instinct is always to trust the natural diet we evolved with, which means I try to eat fresh, natural, recognisable foods and tend to avoid anything processed or manufactured.
I think there is lots of area for consensus between folk who are looking for a healthy, ethical, and sustainable diet. We should avoid processed and factory-farmed food, particularly meat, and go back to the stuff we can recognise as real food.
If someone chooses to go all plant-based, great, if it works for you! But I don’t think that throwing out memes with no sources or evidence to reinforce a particular ethical stance really helps us tackle the very real problems we’re facing as a world today.