New Internationalist

Is being vegan the only green option?

Issue 439

Is it a no-brainer that animal products create a larger environmental impact than plant foods? Or is it perfectly possible to be a green carnivore? Our experts debate which is the true diet for a small planet.

Every issue we invite two experts to debate a hot button issue in The Argument, and then invite you to join the conversation online - we’ll read all your comments and select the best to print next issue. (We’d prefer you to use your real name, but would love to hear what our readers have to say either way.) If you can’t comment, then you can simply vote in our poll, which you’ll find partway down the debate.

Looking for a debate from a previous issue?
Is it ever right to buy or sell human organs? - October 2010
Are public service cuts justified? - November 2010
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Bruce Friedrich

I adopted a vegan diet in 1987 for environmental reasons, so this issue is dear to my heart.

The environmental problems of meat, dairy and eggs fill books, but the intuitive argument can be put fairly succinctly into two points:

 1. A 135-pound (or 61 kilo) woman will burn off at least 1,200 calories a day even if she never gets out of bed. She uses most of what she consumes simply to power her body. Similarly, it requires exponentially more resources to eat animal products, because most of what we feed to farmed animals is required to keep them alive, and much of the rest is turned into bones and other bits we don’t eat; only a fraction of those crops is turned into meat, milk, or eggs. So you have to grow the crops required to raise the animals in order to eat the animals and their byproducts, which is vastly wasteful relative to eating the crops directly.

 2. It also requires many extra stages of polluting and energy-intensive production to get animal products to the table – including feed mills, animal farms and slaughterhouses, all of which are not used in the production of vegan foods. Then there are the additional stages of gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing transportation of moving crops, feed, animals and meat – relative to simply growing the crops and processing them into vegan foods.

United Nations environmental researchers released a 408-page report, ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’, which concludes that the farmed animal industry is ‘one of the… most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global’ and that eating meat contributes to ‘problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.’1

Wayne Roberts

We share commitment to the environment, and to food choices supporting nature. So our discussion will be fruitful – a lovely word, reminding us of rightful relations between nature and human diet.

Eating modest amounts of animal products from livestock raised in humane and non-industrial ways is essential to a low-energy and low-pollution strategy balancing needs of all species – from bugs to birds. Animals eat low on the food chain. Most fish and land animals thrive on grasses that humans can’t digest, and which grow in soils and climates that are not fertile for crops humans need – grains, legumes, vegetables and fruit. Their ‘waste’ products (ie manure and bones that are only considered waste because of human narcissism) enrich both soils and ecosystems. By contrast, agricultural crops require prime land, require that water be brought to the plants – usually in wasteful and damaging ways – and rely on significant energy expenditures to eliminate natural predators and competitors because plants can’t fend for themselves. Animals and plants meet each other’s needs in ‘raw nature’. That same mutual exchange is basic to harmony in agriculture.

Sound food policy requires that we get over the search for silver bullet cures. No pot can call any kettle black. All solutions are partial and none solve all problems. As much as bacon and eggs, corn and rice can be grown with dirty chemicals, heavy machinery, huge methane emissions, perverse adulterations and wasteful packaging. We need many-pronged strategies, including diets light on – but not necessarily eliminating – animal products. Fusion cooking, linking cultures of many peoples, together with fusion diets, connecting needs of diverse species, are our future.

Bruce Friedrich

Your argument assumes that if land is not productive for human needs, it’s wasted. But World Bank agricultural economists Jeffrey Anhang and Robert Goodland argue2 that a far better use for arid land is to allow it to revert to wilderness, or to use it to grow some of the plentiful vegetation that (although not consumable by humans) grows in ‘bad’ soil and allows it to regenerate. Such vegetation also acts as a carbon sink, slowing the process of global warming.

Further, while I agree that veganism is not the only component of a sustainable diet, it is an essential piece. The more people shift to a vegan diet, the less we will need the crops that you rightly note require prime land and extensive water – since the vast majority of these crops are fed to animals.

Finally, eating any meat supports factory farming, since most of the world sees just two categories – meat eater or not. Your decision to eat meat will influence others to eat meat – but they will often not make any distinction. Influencing people to stop eating animals is far simpler than influencing them to choose only the (extremely hard to find and expensive) meat that isn’t intensively produced.

Wayne Roberts

I hear you agreeing that green vegans should highlight whole, local and sustainable choices within a vegan framework. I hope you hear me, a green carnivore, agreeing that livestock feed should not come from edible plants grown on prime land. Small numbers of livestock belong on prime land as consumers of weeds, insects and foodscraps and producers of manure for compost, but in large numbers should mainly be raised on marginal lands suited as meadows of perennial grasses. I believe an ethical food strategy accepting the challenge of supporting seven billion humans while protecting biodiversity must find some foods that do not compete with other species as aggressively as annual plant staples inherently do. Animal-based polyculture featuring grass-raised livestock coexists with a huge variety of above-ground birds, insects and plants, and an even more productive network of bacteria, worms and insects underground. When we recognize that these wild species are all threatened by exclusively plant-based farms, we need to design-in a role for grass-fed livestock.

Bruce Friedrich

Nicky Loh / Reuters
Nicky Loh / Reuters

We’re both opposed to how meat in Western grocery stores and restaurants is made, since it comes from animals who are fed mono-cropped corn, soy, etc – it’s wasteful and creates massive amounts of greenhouse gases, desertification, water pollution, acid rain, and more.3 And we agree that for anyone who is going to eat meat, they should eat much less, and only grass-fed animals.

But for the environment, zero is better than less meat or even exclusively grass-fed meat. Grains and beans can be sustainably farmed, easily, once we’re not using most arable land to grow feed crops for farmed animals. Since moving away from growing feed crops will free up huge amounts of land, marginal and other excess lands can be allowed to regenerate without domesticated animals devouring whatever grows there, requiring massive water inputs, and causing the almost unbelievable amounts of global warming that is inherent in all farmed animals (from breathing and excretion).

Please read the work of agricultural economists Robert Goodland and Jeffrey Anhang (cited previously): grass-fed animals created nine times the greenhouse gases of intensively fed animals. The latter, of course, cause all the other problems we both agree on.

The best choice for the environment is a vegan diet.

Wayne Roberts

I’m going last, Bruce, but I’m not going to try to have the ‘last word’. The ‘last word’ and ‘best’ single solution is the syndrome that keeps getting us into problems.

We should custom-fit dietary recommendations to where people live. Some people live in the far north, where the growing season for plants is short, the soil is thin, and meat from wild land animals and fish provide most nutrients and calories, as well as clothing and tools (contrary to your assertions, the non-meat parts of animal bodies are not inevitably wasted). Since most of the people living in the far north are indigenous peoples responsible for very few environmental pollutants, and since traditional foods are essential to their cultural well-being and personal health, I could never agree that a vegan lifestyle is ‘best’ for them.

I’d make a similar case for any peoples – again, largely indigenous – in heavily forested or mountainous areas that are not hospitable to plants that provide all the nutrients humans need.

A plant-based diet can meet the dietary needs of most people in temperate climates, an area inhabited by most people in the privileged Global North, the area that most needs to curtail the harmful emissions of its people. But this diet should not set the ‘best practice’ standard for areas of the world that have historically been inhabited by the lowest polluters.

In most food matters, we need to go beyond silver bullet cures such as veganism. A powerful vegan case can be made on health grounds for many people, but the environmentally – and socially – ethical grounds for a purely vegan diet are not there.

BRUCE FRIEDRICH is Vice- President of Policy and Government for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). WAYNE ROBERTS recently retired as Manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council and is the author of The No- Nonsense Guide to World Food.

  1. Available at nin.tl/i71lX6
  2. ‘Livestock and Climate Change’, WorldWatch Magazine (Nov/Dec, 2009), nin.tl/fWM0A6
  3. ‘10 Ways Vegetarianism Can Help Save the Planet’, The Observer, 18 July 2010, nin.tl/ezCPro

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