International Policy Digest

Scott Bauer
Health /23 Jul 2018

The Impact of a Vegan Economy

As an environmentalist, and someone who works in animal agriculture, the thing that irritates me most about vegans is their claim to being more environmentally conscious than omnivores like me. Their environmental argument centers on the notion that if the global system of agricultural were to convert to a solely plant-based system of production, it would lower CO2 and methane emissions from agriculture. In theory, this seems plausible, but in practice it would amount to a very costly (in terms of emissions) transition to an entirely new socio-economic paradigm of food production.

What vegan activists don’t seem to understand is that while crops-grown-for-livestock takes up a large portion of farmland in developed countries, this amounts to an essential part of the production cycle for plant-based products as well, and it always has. Consider what would happen, for example, if we were to convert the entirety of our western economies (or some large part of them) to a vegan paradigm in the next 30 years or so. Take the production of wheat for example; we harvest the wheat and consume the grains in the form of bread (for the most part), but then there are the waste products, or by-products to be more accurate. The grains are milled into flour for human consumption. There are also other products created in the milling process such as wheat-germ, wheat-bran and wheat-gluten that all too often are marketed and sold on as animal feed. Then there’s the abundance of wheat stems, which are not fit for human consumption, but can be fed to animals.

The by-products from the production of wheat can’t be sold to some other sector of the economy. Thus, there will be no way of supplementing the costs inherent in the production of wheat and the wheat industry will implode due to hyperinflation. Wheat stems can also be used in thatch, but this would require a mass conversion to thatched houses; and besides, there are far more cost-effective forms of thatch if you happen to want to live in a thatched house, like water reeds. The only solution to getting rid of the excess waste products in the absence of animal agriculture would be to burn the surplus as biomass, a practice which accounts for 11% of man-made methane emissions, not to mention a good portion of CO2 emissions.

Similar arguments can be made for the by-products of maize (used routinely as animal feed), barley (straw), alfalfa (silage), rye (silage) and so on. The vegan environmentalist dream of converting all the land we currently use for the production of goods used in animal agriculture for human consumption is counterproductive; because we could only convert a large part of the derivatives (by-products) of these crops for use within animal agriculture to begin with. If we were to attempt this, we would find ourselves in a position in which we have an abundance of waste products, of which some could be burned for energy (at a high carbon impact), and which would mostly have to be burned inefficiently with a high emissions impact in terms of methane. Or we could just let it decompose, which would produce still greater emissions of methane.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t other options for converting a nation’s (the UK, in this example) food intake to solely plant-based products other than through using conventional farming techniques. It may be possible, in urban areas (or even in the countryside to some extent) to convert to ‘vertical farming’ practices with UV lights and hydroponic systems. These would use a minimal amount of water if properly recycled, but would still be somewhat energy inefficient in comparison to the countries that we import the majority of our sources of plant-based products from.

Compared to our domestic meat and dairy industries, our capacity for the domestic production of fruit and vegetables is woefully unsustainable. This produce is either imported to the UK from elsewhere in the world, at a large cost in terms of infrastructural CO2 emissions and a high cost in terms of methane in non-domestic agriculture practices, such as the growing of rice (which we are unable to replicate in Europe).

In terms of sustainability, our agriculture industry isn’t actually that bad; as a rule it tends not to create unnecessary waste, making use of pretty much every by-product inherent in the production process. I fail to see how vegan economics would improve this system. As for the amount of hydrocarbon resources that go into agriculture in the first place, it’s fairly minimal; if you were to advocate the growth of oilseed rape as biodiesel for farm machinery, I think this may further bolster the sustainability of the industry. The point to all this is that, when it comes to managing the energy requirements of a population of over 70 million people, animal agriculture is essential; if for no other reason than because it supports, and is supported by, the plant-based sectors of the industry. To moralize against the system, especially if you don’t know much about the system, amounts to nothing more than the attempt to take the high-ground while contributing exactly nothing to providing effective solutions to the problems as they see them.