Have you ever wondered what would actually happen if everyone became vegan and stopped farming animals? On the surface it may be appealing as a simple solution to reduce greenhouse emissions by eliminating animal products from the human diet and sourcing all our dietary needs from plant foods. But how much difference would it really make? How many problems would it solve? How many new problems would it create?
… And what would happen to all the animals?
When I read a statements like this one: “if all animals were removed from the planet, the amount of food available to humans to eat would increase by 23 per cent. This is because the grains that are currently used to feed animals could be consumed by humans.” (here) I find this quite disturbing and incredibly, selfishly, anthropocentric. But what about the animals? How would they just so simply and easily be “removed”?
Extermination or Liberation?
Are they suggesting mass extermination of all livestock? This would be cruel, senseless, wasteful, impractical and just downright wrong from both a moral and ecological perspective.
Some proponents of a vegan or vegetarian diet are driven by the emotional perspective of saving billions of animal lives from slaughter, from being killed for human consumption. More extreme views propose the abolition of all animals from ‘exploitation’ in farming systems including for wool, dairy and egg production or as a form of transport.
Which animals would be “removed” and which ones would continue to exist? What about horses, donkeys and llama, or the oxen used for ploughing and transportation in poor rural regions of the world? Would only certain animals in select countries be “removed”? Which ones? Who decides?
Saving animals from slaughter, a central ideal of veganism, would obviously preclude the mass extermination of livestock. So what would happen to them?
Would all the farm animals on planet earth be simply liberated, open the gates and set them free to roam the world as they please? If so, where would they go? How would they survive? How would population levels be managed?
How many animals?
There are at present 996 million cows, 1.9 billion sheep and goats, 980 million pigs, 19 billion chickens, (here) plus all the ducks, turkeys, rabbits, alpacas, water buffaloes and other livestock. Would we have all 23,000,000,000 of them roaming freely through our towns, cities, parks, roads, farms, forests and wilderness areas? Is this really an option?
How would we prevent a population explosion of billions of newly liberated farm animals breeding unhindered by managed farm breeding programs? Someone suggested all male animals be neutered or de-sexed so they just eventually die out? How would that be undertaken, be controlled, let alone the trauma to the animals of castration or the cost?
What about all the cattle in India? Cows aren’t eaten there and are considered sacred. In some states it is illegal to kill or eat them. Without killing or eating any cows, India now has the largest bovine population on the planet, 303 million head (which includes 80 million buffalo). Should they also be “removed”?
What about the ethics of diversity and extinction?
There are thousands of unique livestock breeds that have evolved over the past 10,000 years of pastoralism and farming around the world. Would all these heritage and rare breeds be mindlessly written off the face of the earth, deliberately driven to extinction?
Or, if all the animals aren’t to be exterminated, or released, or sterilised, some might suggest they could be sent to special livestock sanctuaries like the ones already existing for rescued farm animals. Can you imagine how much land this would require, let alone the cost of caring for and managing these populations? And towards what end? It’s too absurd to contemplate.
If all animals were to be ‘removed’ from farming, how would farmers be compensated for their loss of livestock and livelihood? Not all farmland is suitable to simply convert to plant food production.
Before we go any further regarding what do about “removing” all these animals, there’s a few other questions we need to find answers to.
What about all the other products provided by animals?
Animals do so much more than just provide the human population with meat, milk, eggs, wool and leather. Animal products are used in manufacturing plastics, cosmetics, condoms, wood glues, the stearic acid in fireworks and car tyres, toothpaste, paint, crayons, the Keratin in shampoo and conditioner, fabric softener, rubber, antifreeze, cellophane, cement, waterproofing agents, vinyl records, matches, putty, glass, medicines, hormones, enzymes and vitamins, insulin, surgical sutures, plywood adhesives, textiles, fabric printing and dyeing, emery boards, wallpaper, plywood, candles, confectionary, chewing gum, refined sugar, glass, ceramics, instrument strings, flavourings, gelatin, and of course there’s also their manure to make natural fertilizers for growing plants.
OK, I know substitutes already exist for some, like fake leather and synthetic fabrics made largely from petrochemicals – great for the fossil fuel industry. Unfortunately most of the substitutes would likewise involve manufacturing energy-intensive, polluting petrochemical products. Some can’t readily be substituted from processing petrochemicals or from plant-derived components extracted from soy, corn, palm oil, hemp or other crops.
Then there’s all the other environmental services provided by farm animals, controlling biomass, fertilising, dispersing seed, land management, the symbiotic relations between plants and animals and between different animals, plus the numerous utiliarian uses and services including transport, labour, energy and not to forget companionship.
Would it reduce the amount of soy bean production and save forests?
Another key argument for veganism is centered around the deforestation to grow soy and corn for feeding animals. If we stopped eating animals these crops would be liberated to feed people instead and the area under soybean production could be reduced and reforested – seems like a logical argument until one looks at the following fact.
Over 90% of the global soybean crop is grown for making soy oil to use in biofuels and for manufacturing industrial products, so not feeding soy to animals would actually have a minimal impact on the quantity of soy produced or the area of land required to grow soy for oil and industrial purposes– and it’s the waste pulp left over from extracting soy oil that constitutes most of the soy pulp processed into livestock food. What would be done with the mountains of waste pulp from soy oil production? Turn it into fake meat in factories? There’s already soy derivatives in nearly all processed foods, which presents a real challenge for all the people with anaphylactic allergic reaction to soy products – soy is now one of the world’s top 10 allergens.
Is it really about saving animal lives – ‘thou shalt not kill’?
If it’s saving animal lives that underpins your dietary choice, then please spare a thought for all the small animals killed during the process of farming the wheat, spelt, oats, quinoa, barley, maize, lentils, beans, pulses and oil seed crops that feed you, and the cotton, linen, hemp and fabric crops that clothe you.
A study in Australia by M. Archer, UNSW, revealed that billions of small wildlife (birds, lizards, frogs, snakes and small marsupials) are killed and mortally maimed in Australia alone, from the machinery used in ploughing and harvesting these crops, plus on non-organic farms there’s the additional impact of agricultural chemicals and pesticides reverberating up the food chain.
Is it really about the methane?
Much is said about the methane produced by ruminant livestock, especially cattle and sheep. It is considerable and concerning but why isn’t anyone talking about the methane produced by wetland rice paddies. Wetland rice farming emits nearly the same amount of methane as all the ruminant livestock of the world, and clearing land for more rice production is a major driver of deforestation in Asian countries. If methane from animals is a key reason for urging the world to go vegan, then why is rice exempt? Why don’t we see headlines and memes everywhere urging us to stop eating rice to save the planet?
What If all animals were removed from farmlands?
What would happen to all the grasslands and grazed farmland not suitable for plant food production? Two thirds of the world’s agricultural land is only suitable for grazing and not suitable for growing plant food crops like grains, vegetable or fruit and nut trees. Would these vast tracts of land be left untended, unmanaged, let go to weeds, or be denuded from being overrun by feral liberated livestock?
Would the farmers who depend on their animals for manure to fertilise their crops, forests and grasslands then be forced to buy in artificial fertilisers. Not all land is suitable for growing and ploughing-in leguminous green manure crops. Removing animals from integrated organic farms would increase dependency on more fossil fuels and machinery. Is that what we want to see?
Or is the real issue industrial farming and industrial food?
Factory farming needs to end. Industrial agriculture is a massive problem whether it’s animals or vegetables or fruit or nuts being grown. All factory farming systems are polluting, producing greenhouse gases, consuming vast quantities of water, using ever-increasing amounts of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilisers that not only poison our food but are also killing our rivers and oceans. Too many of these mega industrial food producing systems are exploiting vulnerable people as cheap labour in horrendous living and working conditions, from the illegal immigrants working in the thousands of kilometres of plastic greenhouses in Spain growing vegetables for Northern Europe to the virtual slave labour growing cheap fruit and vegetables imported from Africa, Asia, Central and South America to fill our supermarkets and health food stores so we can eat fresh bananas and avocados all year round.
Is there a different dietary revolution we need to have?
We would see huge changes if everyone would eat more local food, eat what’s in season and support small-scale local farmers instead of supporting agribiz corporations and the industrial food system. To simply become a vegan and eat bananas and avocados all year round, imported factory-farmed fruit and vegetables and highly processed meat substitutes, is not a sustainable solution.
How about we simply encourage people to eat a more balanced diet?
Most people could, and should, be eating a lot more fresh vegetables and less processed foods and grains. My mother was embarrassed if she didn’t have at least 5 or 6 different vegetables served on our plates every evening along side a small serve of meat.
Those who eat meat also need to diversify what meats they eat from a few select prime cuts to all the other ‘nose-to-tail’ bits that are edible – like more slow-cooked ‘cheap’ cuts and bone broths (with more vegies in the pot than meat) and nutrient dense liver and other organs. It’s only over the past half century, with the emergence of factory farming, that these foods are no longer commonly eaten.
When we do buy meat to eat, ask where it’s coming from. Is it from animal concentration camps or free-range, is it grain or grass-fed? Is it local? Buy less meat and ensure it’s from an ethical source, value and use it wisely and don’t waste it.
What if we just end the factory farming of animals?
The abhorrent practices of intensive animal factory farming needs to be banned and phased out. You don’t have to be a vegan or vegetarian to find these systems cruel, inhumane, disgusting, completely unethical and want to see them abolished. Bring the animals back into nature to support and sustain integrated regenerative farming and do what nature intended – animals are the mobile element of an ecosystem and provide valuable ecosystem services. Properly managed, they can help regenerate degraded land, support tree-based food cropping systems, and increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil. On a natural diet of mixed pasture and browsing on shrub and tree fodder, ruminants produce less methane and consume less water. Animals like chickens and pigs could once again be locally raised on small farms using local food waste, that’s what they were traditionally fed on to supplement what they foraged as they free ranged on farms – until factory farming was introduced in the mid-1900s.
What if we addressed the issues of food waste?
Coming back to the statement at the beginning, that “if all animals were removed from the planet, the amount of food available to humans to eat would increase by 23 per cent.” So we eliminate all animals to make an extra 23% food available for us to eat, while we waste 40% of the good food we currently produce? That just doesn’t make sense.
Yes, we are wasting, trashing and dumping perfectly good food, almost half of what we grow, and much of this is fresh fruit and vegetables plus a lot of processed food…
- the millions of tons of perfectly good fruit and vegetables that don’t comply with supermarket aesthetic standards that are dumped before they leave the farm (too big, too small, wrong colour, wrong shape)
- the millions of tons of unsold fruit and vegetables dumped by supermarkets and grocery stores – like perfectly good bananas that have one black spot on the skin
- the millions of tons of processed food just reaching it’s best-before or use-by dates that’s still perfectly edible
- the millions of tons of unused and spoiled food in peoples homes that is thrown into trash bins for landfill.
If we address our wastefulness with food, if we would become more selective about what we eat, source our food as locally as possible from sustainable regenerative farming, we could actually solve a lot of problems – and we wouldn’t need to agonise about what to do about getting rid of 25 billion livestock ‘cos we wouldn’t all actually need to go vegan to save the planet.
Please note and understand:
This is not written as anti vegan, I completely respect people’s decisions to restrict their personal diet if they so desire and they live in sufficient affluence to have the choice. However I am concerned that much of the debate around diet has become ideologically polarised, over-simplistic and many opinions tend to arise from a position of ‘first-world’ privilege. There are many well-intentioned but unfortunately ill-considered beliefs, relying on cherry-picked data and mis-information, This piece has been written to hopefully stimulate a little more critical thinking around some the important issues that receive too little attention in the diet and farming debate. There are so many more questions and important facts to consider about food, diet and farming, but I’ll leave them for another day.
Robyn Francis is a permaculture designer, educator and practitioner passionate about creating a more sustainable world, reconnecting people with nature, rebuilding community and reducing our ecological footprint. Based in Northern NSW, Australia she operates ‘Djanbung Gardens’ a permaculture farm and education centre and teaches internationally.