Animal Rights

The Convergent Case for Veganism

Advocates of a plant-based diet tout a wide variety of benefits: they say it’s more nutritious; that it reduces the chances of food-borne illnesses like E. coli; that it is better across all sorts of environmental metrics like land use, energy use, water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and local pollution; that it is better for animal welfare; that it is better for agricultural workers; and that it  is more economically efficient, which means it need fewer government subsidies and fewer natural resources spent on the same amount of nutrients and calories.

The latest example is Matthew Prescott’s Food Is the Solution: What to Eat to Save the World. Prescott works at The Humane Society of the United States, America’s largest animal charity. Within the first few pages, a brief foreword by Hollywood director James Cameron argues for the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet, then Prescott’s introduction claims that plant-based food can “prevent and reverse” heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, obesity, and autoimmune disorders.

But given the many possible human diets from paleo to DASH, isn’t it highly unlikely that one ends up with the very best of all of the above? It’s like rolling a six ten times in succession. Since life usually provides us with a choice of imperfect options and trade-offs rather than perfect solutions, isn’t it more likely situation that veganism is best in one respect — say, animal welfare — but that a Mediterranean diet is best for health, and a pescetarian diet is best for the environment?

Diet advocates have a strong incentive to believe in — and extol — benefits beyond those that initially inspired them. For example, while many young people go vegan for ethical reasons, it’s often much easier to persuade an older person like a grandparent to go vegan if it prevents heart disease, diabetes, or helps them lose weight. So the one-solution-fits-all advocacy of veganism offers quite a suspicious convergence of goods.

Nevertheless, the vegan diet — or something close to it — really is best on most of these metrics, and we have strong reason to favor it overall. The main reason this convergence isn’t very suspicious is that these metrics are not independent in the same way that a dice roll is unaffected by previous dice rolls. Several of these metrics are driven by a common factor: the sheer inefficiency of using complex, sentient beings to produce simple products like meat, dairy, eggs, and leather.

Animals do a lot of things that are unnecessary for food production. They grow teeth, beaks, and bones. They generate body heat, use complex immune systems, and maintain homeostasis. They have brains and peripheral nervous systems, which allow them to make decisions and feel a spectrum of emotions in much the same way humans do. These factors lead to us getting only around one calorie of animal-based food for every ten calories of plant-based food we feed a farmed animal.

We can appreciate this inefficiency by comparing it to the technology of ‘clean meat,’ real animal meat made without the ethical and food safety costs of animal slaughter. To make clean meat, agricultural workers take a small sample of cells from a living animal and mix those cells with nutrients, energy, and growth factors. The cells grow using the same process that occurs inside an animal’s body, but without the extraneous materials (e.g. hair, bones) and processes (e.g. immune system, nervous system). Meat made this way is expected to launch at select restaurants over the next couple of years.

This inefficiency leads to unsustainability, animal cruelty, economic costs, food-borne illness, and antibiotic resistance. This common causal factor makes convergence less suspicious, just as a loaded die will reliably roll a six. The convergence is strengthened if we compare a plant-centric diet with an animal-centric diet, or a plant-centric whole-foods diet and an animal-centric Standard American Diet (SAD) which is rich in processed foods. Now the comparison is more like a coin toss than a dice roll that compares the vegan diet with every alternative, so it’s less surprising for one option out of two to be better across-the-board than one option out of many.

The final reason not to be too worried about suspicious convergence is that, in any comparison between diets, some diet has to be the best overall. That diet will probably get a lot of advocates, and it will probably offer a variety of benefits. It’s like being amazed that someone got lucky enough to win the lottery, but then realizing that, well, it had to happen to someone.

But suspicious convergence also raises an important question. If we favor a plant-centric diet, how plant-centric should we be? Fully vegan? Vegetarian? For the sake of simplicity, I’ll focus on the animal welfare angle, though similar arguments apply to the other diet metrics.

One of the unfortunate facts here is that even plant-based foods — whether grown for animal feed or human consumption — can cause animal suffering. Growing row crops like corn and soybeans involves large machinery rolling through a field. Small animals like rodents live in crop fields, so some of them could suffer and die under the wheels if they don’t run away fast enough. Crop farming can also require pesticides and cause pollution that harms wild animals.

Some animal products, on the other hand, might actually cause little to no animal suffering. Oysters and mussels show essentially no more evidence of sentience than plants, though they are technically animals. They are simple filter feeders which do little more than open and close their shells, just as a Venus flytrap plant closes onto an unsuspecting insect. Additionally, eating these animals can provide useful nutrients (for vegans and non-vegans alike) such as B12 and zinc. In fact, some effective altruists have decided that the most ethical diet for them is bivalveganism, a vegan diet with the exception of oysters and mussels. (Other bivalves like clams show more evidence of sentience.)

There’s also a vast difference between the animal cruelty costs of different animal products. Eating 500 calories of farmed fish meat causes approximately 28 to 159 days of factory farm fish suffering; eggs cause 6 days of factory farm chicken suffering; chicken meat 3 days; pork 7 hours; beef 4 hours; and milk 18 minutes. This means that eating fish could cause 13,000 times more suffering than drinking milk! These huge differences are due to the lifespans and number of calories produced by each animal, so large animals like cows and pigs produce much more per day of life than do small animals like chickens and fish. We should also consider the conditions in which each animal is kept, which makes the case against eating chickens and fish even stronger as their conditions seem to be the worst.

So, with this in mind, the most important food choice for animal welfare might not be animals versus plants, but chicken and fish products versus everything else. If a conflicted omnivore decides to cut out red meat, but ends up eating slightly more chicken meat, this could cause far more animal suffering despite being a shift in the plant-based direction. Perhaps vegetarian advocates should focus their advocacy on reducing chicken consumption.

Ultimately, with the sizeable evidence we have for the costs of animal cruelty and the unsustainability of animal-based foods, the case for the plant-based option is clear and convincing. The inefficiency of animal farming is a sound reason to believe that it will eventually be replaced by animal-free solutions, just as horses have been displaced by automobiles and whale oil has been displaced by kerosene and now the electric lightbulb. A plant-based diet doesn’t need to be hugely better across every metric for us to agree that its benefits are important enough to warrant the shift to an animal-free food system.

 

Jacy Reese is the Research Director of Sentience Institute, a nonprofit think tank researching how social movements succeed in expanding humanity’s moral circle. He is currently writing a book, The End of Animal Farming (November 2018), that illuminates humanity’s transition to an animal-free food system. You can follow him on Twitter @jacyreese

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Filed under: Animal Rights

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Jacy Reese is the Research Director of Sentience Institute, a nonprofit think tank researching how social movements succeed in expanding humanity's moral circle. He is currently writing a book, The End of Animal Farming (November 2018), that illuminates humanity's transition to an animal-free food system.

95 Comments

    • Kiel Basford says

      This article mentions the potential for animals to be killed in harvesting crops. The (old and specious) article you’re citing in reply pertains to specialized cases in Australia without mentioning that the majority of industrialized monocrops are used to feed livestock; part of the inefficiency that veganism addresses.

      • Len says

        Not all plant foods are destined for feeding animals. Wine grapes, as an example, involve the killing of millions of birds that compete for the grape berries and countless reptiles that get caught up in the automatic harvesters. Rice and nuts are other crops that involve the killing of birds in great numbers. Buying a plant food is no way at all of ensuring the minimisation of animal suffering

      • “without mentioning that the majority of industrialized monocrops are used to feed livestock; part of the inefficiency that veganism addresses.”

        Irrelevant, meat eaters, unlike vegans/vegetarians they dont pretend that their consuming food causes less harm.

        Also, meat animals properly rotated can eat native vegetation inedible to humas

        • Yosi says

          Is it a coincidence that certain religions from arid parts of the Med, prohibit pork but not the meat of grass eating ruminants?

  1. LifeIsSuffering says

    Leaving aside the major lies perpetuated here such as vegan diets are healthy despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, the issues of how depleted our soil has become due to intensive crop farming there is simply a desire to have a variety of life on this planet the vegan can never seem to understand.

    Heritage breeds of animal are always at risk, it is only through cultivating a taste for them that farmers manage to keep them alive. To increase the diversity of life. To provide them with a chance to live, that in fact their life has worth not just human.

    When you look between the lines at vegan arguments like this all you find is a pathological attempt to avoid any kind of suffering.

    Life IS suffering. Pain is love. There is a fire that rages in all of life.

    The desire to eliminate suffering the way vegans talk about it is nothing less than the pacification of all life. It is the ultimate ‘means to an end’ philosophy of the modernist age.

    • Leodavinci says

      One must define suffering and pain and love and life to be able to come to a conclusion of x is y. Scientifically speaking, there is nothing what one can call “suffering” etc. Nature is indifferent to that, i.e., we humans can say a hurt deer in the forest is suffering until it dies, though we must understand it’s natural suffering (analogous to the suffering you’re referring to). However, there is a difference between that which nature lets it be and us humans specifically creating life to endure the suffering we impose on it which is inefficient and in many parts of the world (given current technological conditions) unnecessary and currently avoidable by choice. We might see a deer suffering and say life is suffering, but to nature what has taken place is natural. On the other hand, we can also say we induce suffering which isn’t natural as it was millenia ago. Therefore we cannot conclude from any premise that life is suffering as defense to that which we induce.

      The point is not to eliminate any suffering altogether, but rather to employ and change to that which is better as practicable as possible. Global animal husbandry isn’t practicable or sustainable.

      • Sarka says

        There are so many studies saying slightly different things, but for what it is worth here is a recent large study suggesting veganism has no general health or longevity benefits/ https://rosemarycottageclinic.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/uk-vegetarians-dont-live-longer-than-meat-eaters-study-finds/

        I am an omnivore but very much opposed to factory farming and any needless suffering inflicted on fauna by agricultural methods. So I go with regulation of farming methods and reduction of meat but not elimination. One reason is that I like having animals around, and I am pretty sure that if people stopped eating all animal products, the animals concerned will soon be entirely extinct, and not gambolling around having a lovely peaceful existence like in the Garden of Eden. Presumable dogs and cats would have to be banned, as it’s hard to see them being able to change over to a vegan diet!

        • dirk says

          In a Dutch periodical “Vegan”, I read about vegan cat and dog feed (taurine being one of the alternative additions), much more expensive than the ordinary stuff from slaughterhouse entrails and fish reject, and I wonder how much extra footprint this expensive feed means. Imagine, everybody buying vegan feed for their pets, only possible of course if we humans all become vegan. In some shops here at Eastern live chicks were shown, quite cute, but oh,oh, what to do with the poor fowl after Eastern? Though, it seems they make nice pets, only, they can’t be trained to defecate at one place. Also over quails and quail eggs an outcry erupted in our newspapers. Around Eastern, our beloved fowl mostly attracts a lot of interest.

  2. Softclocks says

    Livestock making up the MAJORITY of all animals in the world, eating up 80% of all antibiotics and chugging down most of the water is completely natural guys. Never mind that we eat meat a few hundred times more often than we used to.

    Animals hurt eachother you guys. Pain is nature right?

    • “Livestock making up the MAJORITY of all animals in the world”
      Really? That’s the stupidest claim I ever heard regarding veganism. So, basically you say that the animals that are on populate areas (populated by humans) are the majority of all animals of the world… you should study geography and zoology once again. Chugging down most of the water? Of the world you mean? Saying dumb things is not going to help to the debate.

      • dirk says

        In Homo Deus of Yuval Harari, on a pictogram on page 84,- Pie chart of global biomass of large animals-, it is shown that of that total only 100 million tons are wild animals, against 700 million tons domesticated. In this chart, fish,rats and mice, ants and other small stuff are left out. Anyhow, a surprising fact of life, and all this domesticated mass, of course, came at the expense of wild animals (buffaloes gone, cows and steers took their place).

  3. Nick Ferrante says

    One can admit that factory farming is out of control and at the same time admit that a desire to eliminate animal suffering at the cost of a diminished human experience is ill-placed. The only way to eliminate animal suffering, in the end, is to eliminate the animals.

    • Softclocks says

      Find me a vegan that believes he can eliminate all suffering. What a laughable strawman.

      These extreme vegans are a completely natural counterpoint to a meat industry that has been running rampant and remained unchecked for far too long.

      I’m no vegan but I’ll be damned if I let massive meat corps eat up the planet.

      Animal suffering? What about human suffering? 40% + obesity rate in states and counties across the US and the rest of the world.

      It’s entirely possible to go fat on a vegan diet but at the very least veganism promotes some degree of dietary responsibility! So many people assume that ethical and dietary concerns have been made for them by the corporations that offer them food.

      Animal husbandry has been a part of the human experience for a long time. Factories the size of cities? Not so much.

      • Frank Ch. Eigler says

        > It’s entirely possible to go fat on a vegan diet but at the very least veganism promotes some degree of dietary responsibility

        So does any diet. It’s easiest to get fat on starchy materials that come from … plants.

      • Nick Ferrante says

        @Softclocks

        If you want a vegan who thinks he can eliminate all suffering just look down the comment section for Greg’s comment. I suppose he may be made of straw.

        Sugar is the main cause of obesity in America, not animal products.

        Finally, the first thing i said was that factory farming was out of control. I don’t know what else you want from me.

  4. Nathan Cofnas says

    If you want to avoid meat for ethical reasons that’s one thing, but don’t be taken in by false claims about health benefits. Unfortunately the majority of nutrition researchers studying vegetarianism are activists and cannot be trusted to represent the scientific evidence accurately. The truth is that the safety of vegetarianism/veganism is far from established: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10408398.2018.1437024

  5. Relations of Ideas says

    The strongest argument for veganism, in my view, is that it is not ethical to pay someone to do something you wouldn’t do. Not something you don’t want to do, but something you could not bring yourself to do for ethical reasons. For instance, I would not exploit my body for money for ethical reasons (among others), and so it would be an ethical transgression to exploit someone else in that way. Paying someone to wash my dishes or clean my house, on the other hand, is ethically acceptable because I have worked in positions where I have been required to perform those duties before.

    When it comes to killing an animal, is it right to pay someone to kill the animal for you so you can consume it? Or is that cowardice? Or is it just simply morally wrong?

    Going back to prostitution, and given my current libertarian bent, I would vote for laws that make prostitution legal. I don’t think anyone should be restricted from exchanging goods or services where both seller and purchaser are voluntarily involved in the exchange. Similarly, I would not want to restrict people from eating meat and paying others to kill animals for them.

    Nevertheless, I believe that to pay someone to do something that one would not do for ethical reasons is unethical. So, if you couldn’t go up to a cow and kill it with a knife or needle or gun or electric shock or, perhaps, just gas it, then perhaps, you should reconsider the ethical implications of what you are actually paying for when you purchase meat.

    The clear objection, of course, is that because one does not believe it is unethical to kill animals, it follows one would have no problem killing the animals one consumes. That’s true. But consider two things: (1) how many ‘different’ animals do you eat per week (it’s not like you’re killing a moose every year for the annual supply), and (2) look into whether slaughterhouse workers develop signs of PTSD and other forms of mental illness. It’s one thing to pay for foreign items knowing that children produced them in factories, but it’s quite another to pay for items where you know that your purchase may be giving someone (likely someone with not a lot of options) a mental illness.

    • THE-ONE-CROBC-METAL says

      Relations, “I would vote for laws that make prostitution legal.”
      I know it’s not your main point but, I see this form of confusion frequently. Things are not made legal by passing more laws. They are made legal by *abolishing* the laws that make them illegal.
      This should make you happy, since if you’re libertarian, you would want less laws, not more laws.
      (Granted, in an absurdly convoluted system such as that in the USA, it would probably require passing a law to abolish another law. This would of course probably also result in not full abolishment of the original law, but rather the creation of even more state involvement.
      E.g., efforts to legalize marijuana predictably will result in the creation of a new corporate controlled regulatory regime. Vastly complex new rules will be created to regulate licenses, sales to minors, etc. With the end result being that there will be not less but possibly even more excuses for police to arrest people.)

    • Quant says

      I would never pump the sewage out of my septic tank but that does not make sewage pumping immoral.

    • Kurt says

      Re:The strongest argument for veganism, in my view, is that it is not ethical to pay someone to do something you wouldn’t do”

      Yes. It’s a shame more kids aren’t taught at a young age how to efficiently dispatch an animal and field dress their kill. It should be taught in elementary school. Something tells me you wouldn’t be in favor of that.

      Squimishness and ethics are not the same thing. Is it unethical to leave needle poking to nurses and the ugly carpentry of orthopedic surgery to surgeons?

      Do you realise there would be no cow without the farmer, the slaughter house worker and the hamburger eater? They aren’t like swine. They need us and our desire for their wonderfully useful bodies to exist at all.

      What is on your feet when you leave the house in the morning? Rubber boots? If not, are you contributing to mental illness? If so, what about global warming from all those nasty petro chemicals? Life on planet Earth is not a Disney movie.

      • Relations of Ideas says

        Argument #1: “It’s a shame more kids aren’t taught at a young age how to efficiently dispatch an animal and field dress their kill.”

        Argument #2: “Do you realise there would be no cow without the farmer, the slaughter house worker and the hamburger eater?”

        Argument #3: “What is on your feet when you leave the house in the morning? Rubber boots? If not, are you contributing to mental illness?”

        All of your arguments, Kurt, could be adapted into pro-slavery arguments.

        Argument #1: “It’s a shame more kids aren’t taught at a young age how to efficiently dispatch a slave so that the cotton is picked quickly.” In other words, indoctrinate young people into your belief system instead of rationally justifying it.

        Argument #2: “Do you realise there would be no slave without the master, no cotton picker without cotton consumer?” Wait, wait, wait, did you say there would be no cow without the farmer? I hope that was a typo, and not just pure idiocy.

        Argument #3: “Life on planet Earth is not a Disney movie.” In other words, we have slaves, life sucks, so get over it.

        Debating veganism really exposes how otherwise smart people can turn just plain angry when a pleasure they enjoy is under scrutiny. Yeah, I remember being a smoker. I would make arguments like that without a second thought. It’s really difficult to question one’s most beloved habits. I know.

        And, finally, when you say “squimishness [sic] and ethics are not the same thing,” you really got to look into moral theory some more. In any case, it wouldn’t be squeamishness, it would be sympathy; sympathy being the grounding emotion of Hume’s more general theory of moral sentiments to which I subscribe.

        • Tony says

          You are entirely correct that it is cold considerations of what is moral that leads to veganism.

          I find it a bit strange that so many commenters here think that it’s about suffering.

          It is not. It is about killing.

          It’s purely about the question: Is it okay to kill an animal to eat it, when there is other food available?

          Those who say that it is okay must address the question of whether it is okay to kill a human to eat it when there is other food available.

          Those who say no to that must explain what the moral difference is between killing a human and killing an animal.

          From my contemplation of human behavior, I have concluded that close to 100% of people who currently eat meat would not do so if their community was vegetarian or vegan.

          Who would be the first person to eat meat and explain to their family and friends that they now kill animals and eat their flesh? Nobody would do it.

          And those people who eat meat today, why do moral arguments not deter them?

          The answer is that they do not know how to explain their decision to others without embarrassment.

          You cannot tell a meat eater that you are a vegetarian or a vegan for moral reasons without causing that person to feel accused and judged.

          It is that social difficulty that prevents most people, who would otherwise abstain from paying others to kill, from not eating meat.

          They say they like the taste and cannot do without it, but this is just a convenient excuse.

          It’s a white lie which lets them sidestep the moral question, and those who hear it eagerly agree because it solves a problem for them, too.

  6. Greg says

    The idea behind veganism is to reduce suffering. Elimination of all suffering is the dream. Sustaining life will always take great effort. What one should ask themselves is this: Is there a better way? What one should tell themselves is this: I will try.

  7. People didn’t build cars and invent clean burning oil because horses and whales were so cute, in fact the opposit. We didn’t start thinking about these animals as cuddly until we no longer relied on them. If you want people to stop eating meat quit moralizing at them and make a veggie burger that tastes better for half the price.

    • Juniper says

      Yeah, that’s the exact plan they used to stop slavery. Works perfectly.

  8. Chester Draws says

    I’m happy to slaughter any animals for meat I eat. It’s impractical to do the specific ones, but I’m happy to do my lifetime’s worth in one go.

    I suspect many vegans have never been near a sheep or cow farm based on their calculations of suffering. Free range cows and sheep have lovely disease free lives. We end their lives short and take their young, but no more than nature would.

    Dairy cows, in particular, are treated very well in developed countries. The ethical objection to milk and cheese is based on analogies to slavery, rather than any actual suffering.

    This is not to say that animals aren’t treated badly — I oppose battery chickens and try not to buy them. But it is wrong to suggest that because some farming is cruel that all farming is cruel.

  9. RBW says

    Yes that.s all very well but… meat tastes nice!

    Besides, we simply would not be here as a species if we had not eaten meat. Our brains would never have grown to the size they are unless we had access to the protein which meat provides. It’s not all about calorific value,

    And i have been to places in the world where the only choice is salted goat with a bit of rice. Then there’s the indigenous peoples from places above the arctic circle for example, who can only eat meat because there is nothing else.Being vegetarian is a lifestyle choice rich westerners can opt for if they wish – not because they have to.

    No, my relatives are pig farmers and their pigs live happy, healthy lives which they would not live in any case without humans.

    Then they are slaughtered humanely and we enjoy their flesh. Just as the pigs would enjoy ours if they ever got the chance!

    • Softclocks says

      How much meat do you believe your ancestors ate? How often do you think they had pork?

      • Frank Ch. Eigler says

        > How much meat do you believe your ancestors ate?

        Not nearly enough!

      • RBW says

        They were hunter gatherers. As in ‘hunter’ – of animals and ‘gatherer’ of anything else.

        Sure meat was a luxury are times but when they killed, say, a buffalo, they ate their fill. And they learned how to cook it, dry it or salt it to preserve it longer.

        But in answer to your question: ‘as much as they could get’.

        As I say, the proof is in the size of our brains.

  10. Len says

    As someone who grew up on farms producing plant foods for human consumption the idea that going vegan will reduce suffering of animals is false. Plenty of animals die getting those fruits and nuts to your plate or that makes your wine. Loads of them. Probably more than the animals that die for meat. Is the life of a starling, kangaroo or lizard less important than a calf?

    • Tony says

      You are correct.

      Animals will die either way. Suffering will occur either way.

      But buying meat is explicitly paying others to kill.

      The ethics of that are different to the ethics of buying nuts and wine, in which killing may occur, but as an unwanted side effect.

  11. Lions are predators, look at their fangs and claws. I am a predator, look at my rifles and shotguns. Ipso facto Technology is a natural aspect of how humans interact with the world.

  12. Josh SDP says

    Man is biologically omnivorous. We have been eating vegetables and animal food for hundreds of thousands of years. Hunting has also made us smarter by developing strategic thinking in homo and making us evolve. Denying it is pseudoscience.

  13. idiosyncrasy says

    This article looks like the usual piece of anarcho-vegan-environmental propaganda, full of ethical rhetoric and exaggerated or debunked pseudo-medical facts.

    • Tony says

      Yes.

      Vegetarianism or veganism, justified ethically, must acknowledge the harm done to the self through inadequate nutrition (e.g. B12).

      It’s a sacrifice.

      Trying to present it as advantageous is a moral error.

      There is no virtue in good deeds done for mercenary motives.

      The priests and clerics commit the same sin when they try to make people good by promising rewards in an afterlife. Athiests, forsaking such rewards, must contend with true ethics, not incentives.

  14. Ronald says

    All beautiful ethical discourses, but completely overwhelmed by the pure and tasty hedonistic desire to eat meat. Unfortunately for Anglo-Saxons like you, many do not know the goodness of certain Mediterranean dishes based on meat, such as the Florentine steak or the so-called “arrosticini”. Impossible to resist temptation.

    It must be said however that veganism is often pure ideology, biased activism, and almost always not supported by medical facts. In this site of skeptical and scientific inquiry, you should not convey ideological messages, considering that you admit that your self-called primary purpose is to debunk them.

  15. Hillarump says

    Veganism is nutrition postmodernism. “Weaponize compassion” towards animals. Gotcha, Quillete. You failed. And it’s a supporter like me who says it.

    • idiosyncrasy says

      In fact, anti-speciesist veganism strongly echoes a certain postmodern tendency of the extreme left. The White privilege or the Male privilege transform into Human privilege. Black liberation or Woman liberation become the Animal liberation. And the analogies do not end here… if it continues like this, the future will be the building of a sort of idiot “animal culture”, like women culture or black culture. 🙂

      You won’t longer say things like “run like a horse”, “jump as a kangaroo”, or “be blind like a mole”, because it is an “animal cultural appropriation”.

      In any case, we already have a lot of pig in parliament, there will be no need for “pink (pig) quotas”.

    • Kiel Basford says

      “Nutrition postmodernism”? You must be thinking of the intersectionally minded activists that try to include animals under the umbrella of patriarchal oppression. That ideology isn’t implicit in veganism. You should be happy that a reasonable outlet is giving veganism its due without resorting to ideological positions. That you aren’t recognizing that points either to your preconceived bias against veganism or your misunderstanding of ideological belief.

      • Hillarump says

        In the vegan-environmental narrative, man is the oppressor and the animal is the victim. I would say that it’s clear enough. Moreover, there is often the denial or deconstruction of ascertained scientific-historical facts (let’s say, for example, that for many of them, man is “culturally” and not biologically omnivorous), and they do everything to convey their (post)ideological message. Paraphrasing Peterson, in fact, they also “weaponize compassion” towards animals. There is a pure postmodern essence in all this.

        I have nothing against vegans. They can eat whatever they want. As long as they do not force me to consume what they want. You are free but I want to be free too. The fact is that an authoritarian tendency with emotional-moral setting (typical of modern activist deconstructionism) also exists in veganism.

        • What an absurd position. Environmentalism is the product of a very uncomplicated and scientific position that many of mankind’s activities are ecologically and environmentally unsustainable. This is a purely humanist position, as environmental degradation ultimately punishes humans. The fact that you need to frame any position that differs from your own libertarian stance as “postmodern” is an unsubtle method of shutting down debate on any topic that challenges your own ideology. It’s laughable that you desire Quillette to become an echo chamber. ,

          • Hillarump says

            You don’t catch the point. Man and his activities obviously have a strong weight, a not negligible environmental impact, as evidenced by the ongoing climate change, with all its consequences.

            It’s the animalist-environmental narrative, that turns man into the sole “oppressor” and the rest of the world (especially the animals, in the vegan case) into “oppressed”, that I do not like. It is a moral interpretation of the world, not scientific. If we want to say it all, the human impact has consequences also on the men themselves, so if we want we can say that man, causing damage to the world, causes damage to himself as well as to the other elements of his species. In this sense there is no difference between oppressed and oppressors. We all belong to both categories. Suffering belongs to everyone. In fact it is a fact that animals, besides being human victims, can be victims of other living beings. It is the law of nature, it is evolution, it is the neo-Darwinian struggle for survival.

            Can man do something to change? Of course, we can obviously reduce our environmental impact. But we can not deny our nature of being omnivorous basing all on a totally psudoscientific approach, nor we can deny the fact that it is in the nature of things that each form of life, in order to live, can cause a darwinian “sufference” on the other forms of lives. If someone wants to go that far, it is in his freedom of choice to do it, as long as he does not impose it on me.

  16. stephen harrod buhner says

    There is so much wrong with the reasoning in this article that it is difficult to know where to begin. Since many of its problems have already been addressed i will limit myself to one: the author’s deficiency of knowledge about the life organisms of this planet, specifically as it pertains to plants, i.e. the writer’s comment “no more evidence of sentience than plants.”

    The author is guilty of two interrelated, unexamined, and inaccurate assumptions. The first is the acceptance of the unfortunately still prevalant concept of the evolutionary escalator, the second is the prejudice that that concept was created support, specifically that their is a hierarchy of sentience the at top of which you will find human beings. A number of more educated researchers refer to this as brain chauvinism.

    The evolutionary escalator simplistically means that all life rose from the primordial slime and slowly step by step struggled upward to create the most intelligent species on this planet: human beings, the pinnacle of Darwinian evolution (something that Darwin himself did not believe). This is proved by the largeness of our brains (or our brain to body ratio, since blue whales dwarf human brain size) which is itself proved by our capacity for sophisticated language, tool making and so on ad nauseum.

    These assumptions have always been intended to support a belief in human superiority and at root are extremely racist and classicist. Social Darwinism is inherent in those belief structures and it is not hard to find them continually applied ever since their creation. They are also species-centric – humans are made to rule over the less sentient. Descartes inaccurate statement: I think therefore I am also affirms its opposite: If you do not think, you are not. The more you do not think, the more you are not, hence the increasing value the writer here gives to a cow over a mussel over a plant.

    This world view is inaccurate and because it has no relation to the other life forms with which we inhabit this world every decision based upon it will lead to unintended and terrible outcomes, just as the assumption that whites are superior to blacks or men to women or aryans to jews or the civilized to the hunter/gatherer has done.

    The truth is that intelligence has nothing to do with brain size however it is measured. It has to do with the neural network an organism possesses. Our brain is simply an organ the function of which is to contain the neural network. The size of the human neural network is limited by the bone structure that contains the brain. We are limited in how intelligent we can become by physiological structure. Other organisms are not.

    Plant neurobiologists are quite clear that the root system of plants are in fact their neural network and because they are rooted in soil there is no upper limit on its size. Some aspen root systems cover hundreds of acres and are up to 100,000 years old. They far exceed any human neural network and always will. These in turn are exceeded by the interwoven neural network formed by the bacterial membrane of this planet.

    It has taken a very long time for the reductive and overly mechanical research of western science to understand this, especially since it has had to struggle against strongly anthropocentric belief systems to do so. However it is clear (and cleverly hidden in open access peer review journal articles widely accessible online) that plants (and bacteria) possess sophisticated language, tool making abilities, cultural constructs, and many other capacities that we have been taught solely belong to the human. Further, they far exceed our own.

    The human species has only been at this for a tiny amount of time, plants some 700 million years, bacteria around four billion. Plants and bacteria are highly sentient and many of the problems we now face come from a failure to recognize these truths.

    The greatest error of moral vegetarianism is its assumption that it is more moral to eat a plant than a cow. That assumption has no basis in ecological reality; it is based on flawed reasoning and is more a matter of empathic projection than anything else. Rationalism, which this article struggles to emulate, is often flawed and is commonly applied in exceptionally superficial ways, a case in point here. The only way it works well is if the underlying assumption “A” is accurate. The great limitation of rationalism is that “A” can never by universally accurate: it is always accurate in limited circumstances for our human understanding at any one time is always limited, the universe is much larger and far more complex than human understanding can grasp. That is why humility is a fundamental necessity for our species, something always in short supply. In the real world (not the one in our heads) A + B rarely leads to C, it leads to Q, a telephone pole, and purple tennis shoes disappearing around the bend in front of us. The inability of reductionists to understand that sentence is the reason why this article is so flawed and further why unintended outcomes are the norm, not the exception.

    • Comparison says

      The comparison isnt cow vs plant , but cow + 10 plants vs 1 plant.

    • augustine says

      Thanks for expanding the discussion. Just one quibble: the neural networks of plant roots you mention do not pertain to crop plants, particularly annuals that live less than a year. Trees are better candidates, but those we use for food are not cut down (unless senescent). It seems to me that chopping down a 200 year old dipterocarp in Borneo is at least equal to killing a cow in terms of moral transgression, regardless of sentience asymmetry.

    • Excellent. Uses postmodernist arguments to suggest that a plant is just as intelligent as a cow. I think I’ve heard it all now.

      • augustine says

        Who said anything about intelligence? It has to do with human regard for life, human and otherwise. Comparing bovines with trees is awkward I admit but I am saying some lives are valued more than others; it is still a moral dilemma and not postmodernism at all.

        Do all cows or all trees have equal value? Maybe cosmologically but not in practical terms. How would people react if someone torched the General Sherman sequoia, and how would those same people feel about slaughtering cows?

  17. ga gamba says

    Good luck to you making anything like this, these, and these with rubber, canvas, or vinyl.

    Not only does leather (calf, shell cordovan, and even kangaroo) have good tear
    and tensile strength, elasticity, breathability, air and vapour
    permeability, it also has an aesthetic and tactile quality that is far surpasses vegan footwear’s materials. With proper care (rotating, treeing, conditioning, resoling, etc.) these last decades.

    Enjoy your Toms.

  18. Marvin says

    Sigh. Even on Quillette’s website, a supposed haven of intellectual rigor, an article on veganism makes readers greatly lower their standards of evidence, become grossly overconfident, and just in general become the hard-headed internet trolls we came here to escape.

    • Chris says

      most articles I read on here resulted in at least some intellectual stimuli. responding adequately in a nuanced, tactful and contributing manner takes time and is often what prevents me from sharing my thoughts. but commenting on this “top story” is not even worth a spell check.
      the only interesting part is the quantity and unusual low quality of comments.
      I’d call it an early April fools day gift

  19. Caligula says

    “eating fish could cause 13,000 times more suffering than drinking milk!”

    Really? But, those farmed fish would not even exist if there were no market for farmed fish and, while a fish farm may not be an idyllic environment for a fish, living in the wild isn’t always all that pleasant either.

    This article would really do better to unpack its three arguments (eating meat is not good for you, raising animals for meat is inefficient and unsustainable, and in any case it’s unspeakably cruel) and consider each separately.

    At a minimum, if raising animals for food is unspeakably cruel then surely there is no need to make the other two arguments? At least, I doubt that anyone is goning to insist that meat is an essential part of the human diet in the sense that would not be possible to live a long and healthy life without it.

    As for the first argument, few will disagree that an unhealthy diet may contain a great deal of meat, but, to succeed the argument must be that it’s actually not possible to eat a healthy diet that contains a significant amount of meat (or fish, and perhaps other foods derived from animals).

    For the second, feeding a calorie of food to an animal you intend to eat will always be less efficient than feeding it to yourself. Unless the calorie is one you couldn’t or wouldn’t use anyway (such as cellulosic foods humans lack the enymes to digest, or foods deemed unfit for human consumption).

    But, the third argument, if true, is sufficient in itself and therefore the other two are largely superfluous. But, is it true? The authors quantification of animal suffering (“eating fish could cause 13,000 times more suffering than drinking milk!”) does not enhance the author’s credibility. Is animal suffering really such an exact science that it can be quantified?

    Finally, if you determine that using animals for food is, indeed, unspeakably cruel, what are you willing to do about it? That is, if this is unspeakably evil then how could you even tolerate others doing this- wouldn’t that be as morally inadequate as declaring that, although you’d never own or deal in slaves, you’ll respect the right of others to do so?

    Or does it not follow that if you do find the use of animals for food to be morally repugnant then you’d surely have an obligation to prevent others from doing so, pretty much by any means necessary?

    • AC Harper says

      If insensate ‘clean meat’ was readily available, with lower environmental impact than ‘real animals’, would vegans happily eat it? Or would there still be some ‘taint’ from the original DNA thousands of cell generations earlier?

      *If* vegans still felt squeamish I suggest that arguments about suffering and cost are merely secular arguments for a religious belief.

      The argument about the ‘best diet’ is rather more complicated. People can exist quite happily on a high meat/fat diet and also on a high plant diet… but people have different dietary needs at different times of their lives. What if some of them needed animal protein in their diet – would vegans acknowledge this requirement?

  20. Ou812 says

    There’s always a slew of pseudoscience surrounding veganism. Besides the fact humans are meat eaters, one example they love to tout is the myth humans are the only ones to drink milk as adults. Many animals, if given the opportunity will drink milk, including adult cows! I think if vegans actually cared about animals they would do more to make sure that there are laws and regulations promoting humane treatment, care, housing, transport and euthanization of animals intended for human consumption, plain and simple. A great example is when vegans actually thought it was a win when US horse slaughter plants closed. It absolutely was not! It did not stop horse slaughter. Do you know what happens now? Horses still go for slaughter but instead of going near by and being protected under US regulations, these slaughter bound horses are loaded up on trucks and hauled hundreds of miles to Canada or Mexico and slaughtered in countries with different regulations for slaughter. I just rescued a slaughter bound horse. I’m not far from Canada but you know where this poor horse was going? Hundreds of miles to Mexico! Animals are going to be used as food, let’s make sure they are treated right, please! Meat consumption isn’t going to stop but what can change is animal welfare. If you’re a vegan who’s only point of reference of animal care on farms is YouTube, then please sit down.

      • Ronald says

        I confirm. And I realize I’m not the only Italian here. It should be said that here in Italy the standard quality of meat (especially that of certain non-intensive natural farms) is extremely superior to the American standard.

  21. Pete says

    Leave it to an article about veganism to bring out all the meatards showcasing their Dunning Krueger syndrome. I think its clear meat clogs up arteries and blocks bloodflow to the brain, causing an increase in stupidity.

  22. Quant says

    I live in a urban farm area with acre plus lots and lot of Chickens around. Anyone that is gripped with life changing empathy for a chicken, especially in light of the other problems we humans have, is deeply morally and practically confused.

    • Pete says

      I will gladly save a life of a chicken instead of a douchebag asshat like you. Of that I surely have no confusion about

      • Quant says

        @Pete, So I guess a chicken’s innocence makes it more worth of life than someone you disagree with? At least you are morally consistent–I will concede that much to you.

        • Pete says

          Not quite. It’s just that anyone gripped with life changing empathy for a human especially in light of the other problems the environment and nonhuman animals have, is deeply morally and practically confused.

          • Quant says

            I see where you are coming from–Nihilism. You can’t argue with someone that just wants to see the world burn.

          • Pete says

            You need a pair of glasses to help you see better

  23. The level of sophistry in most of these responses is telling. What’s obvious is that the central tenents of this article hit an ideological brick wall. Most of the libertarians who read Quillette cannot countenance the idea that our collective lifestyles might be unsustainable. It’s fascinating that for a magazine which laments the absence of reason, so many readers cannot see their own dogmatic blind spots. Far too much of a challenge to their rigid world view. I suspect the tragedy of the commons would be considered heresy to many readers.

    • Quant says

      “Most of the libertarians who read Quillette cannot countenance the idea that our collective lifestyles might be unsustainable.”

      Some things are sustainable, others are not and the dividing line is not animal vs vegetable. No doubt things will evolve and humans will evolve both behavior and technology that is different over time and meat will probably get more expensive wither grown on the farm or in a bio-meat vat. I think we understand this just fine and do so without buying into every “peak” resource panic that comes along.

      The tragedy of the commons is a favorite Libertarian bedtime story so I don’t get where the locks into your critique.

  24. Steve Roedde says

    One question. Being sentient beings, would our 19 free-range chickens (and one rooster), be better to have never existed? We eat their eggs, they get to exist. The alternative for them would be better? Would non existence be an improvement?

    • Softclocks says

      I’ll use this argument in court after me and my wife murder our 19 kids.

      Thanks, Einstein!

  25. Caligula says

    The question is, can vegans remain comfortably within the space where efforts at persuasion are sufficient, or must it inevitably veer off into coercive extremism?

  26. dirk says

    -An animal free food system- that sounds to me (a biologist by education) something like -a gender free social life-.
    Theoretically and on paper not completely unpossible. A Canadian mother refused to provide the sex of her newborn for the birth certificate to the authorities. Is Trudeau here in the hinterland??

  27. Jennie says

    Plants do lots of things unrelated to food production too. We don’t eat most plants in their entirety either.

  28. Jimmy G says

    I will eat anything that has a spine and casts a shadow. Plants are what my food eats.

  29. Chris says

    The author uses an energy balance in an attempt to lend its article objectivity. Well, that’s admirable, but since most other arguments neglected the cruel world of objectivity and logic, it just enhanced my disappointment!
    In simple terms: Please ask why do we need so much food and why is there is a limitation and why now. Simple, very simple and the answers are even more predictable than the contemporaneous sociopolitical half-truths that the author does not shy away from.
    Unfortunately, a proper cause analysis is not a an exercise in feeling good and indirectly preaching one’s ethical superiority.
    And since we are on the topic, why does Quillette publish such blatantly inept attempt of an argument?

  30. Michael says

    Vegetarians and vegans are convinced it is a moral choice that they are making. The moral reality is that for humans to live something must die. Vegs are not making a moral choice by choosing plant life over animal life, they are merely choosing the least anthropomorphic life available. There is no true moral imperative that values one kind of life over another. The choice is the least objectionable and that is an emotional motive and not a moral one. There is a clear demarcation between life and death for an animal but not so for a plant. How long after it is cut from the ground does a plant still respond to light and music? Without a central nervous system to shut down how can a Veg be sure a plant is dead and cannot feel the cooking process or the digestive process? What if the worst suffering is that of the still living plant and not the dead animal? How can one be sure?

    • Juniper says

      “…that is an emotional motive and not a moral one.”

      If you are going to talk about morality, please, at least, do your homework. There are substantive moral theories (that go back hundreds of years) that posit emotion as the motivating force behind morality.

  31. markbul says

    To suffer, livestock have to live first. A vegan diet does not eliminate animal suffering. It eliminates animal lives. No meat eating, no chickens, pigs, cows, etc.

    • Softclocks says

      Most livestock suffers.

      Few vegans have a carr about old mcdonald and his 5 free range chickens. Most care about the oceans of pigs and chickens that live and die in absolute filth without the room to even turn around.

      • Chris says

        I’m not convinced if the majority of vegans doesn’t mind old school family farms. I know some vegans and they know (first hand) they loose the argument when it comes to hunting and fishing, but I would not say they like it or wouldn’t take action against if they were presented with the opportunity.
        Most vegans employ black and white vision and not causal reasoning let alone establishing priorities of meaningful action.
        I like the notion that the author tried to quantify “the problem”, but did it help prioritize and discern proposals that would find followers outside the echo-chamber?
        I think the vegan movement is unpalatable to the general population, because it focuses on morality while neglecting so many rather obvious and tangible other aspects.
        How many vegans discuss better ways to slaughter animals? Not doing so is utopian and out of touch with reality.
        Obliviously, there is inherent and unnecessary cruelty involved in the killing of any living being, but the number of animals slaughtered is unaffected by their talk, so why don’t those who say they care not remediate; kind of an 80/20 approach? Why does nobody want to talk about the scale and nature of very cruel and unhygienic changes to slaughtering practices in the West in the last decade?
        Well, I guess reality is cruel – a different kind of cruel than slaughter, but certainly not less unpleasant to some. Thence those who like to paint with a broad brush, would agree that veganism is a concept to avoid necessary cruelty altogether.

  32. Eric Hrivnak says

    “There’s also a vast difference between the animal cruelty costs of different animal products. Eating 500 calories of farmed fish meat causes approximately 28 to 159 days of factory farm fish suffering; eggs cause 6 days of factory farm chicken suffering; chicken meat 3 days; pork 7 hours; beef 4 hours; and milk 18 minutes.”

    I don’t understand this statement.

    • dirk says

      Don’t try to understand this nonsense Eric, it is against all logic and systems thinking. The unit in which it is presented varies (cal.,produce unit, or even no specification at all, as in milk) but the farmdays seem to be the same for all, so the Dutch system of ” better life” (3 asterixes is best, more space, raised in the open or meadow etc). Obviousle, the research is done, or paid, by the dairy industry, because milk= much less suffering (per cal? per liter,? per 100 grs?). It would be nice to present human suffering of different types of produce. Coffee, tea, choclat, palmtree fat, and other produce= so and so much hours boring or (child)slave labour per cup, gram or cal., it doesn’t matter very much, because people like it be cheated, not only by advertisement, also by pseudoscientific graphs and tables.

  33. Kat says

    There is an economic solution to all this and it is to charge market rate for water, H2O. The price of water is currently very much subsidized and the true cost of water is not known. This is because we perceive water to be essential to all living things. The true cost of water usage is not built into the food prices.
    The real argument for veganism is access to water supply, that meat farming is very water intensive (so is plant farming but not as much as animal farms).
    Charging market rate for water is the economic solution to the environmental problem.

    • Chris says

      well, there are a few things problematic about pricing/restricting water.
      However, to your point regarding price of water currently, the answer -financially speaking- it’s way cheaper than dirt; i.e. being able to make a dime by selling any commercial/processed food or beverage you need to sell as much water as possible without the consumer noticing it. marketing is key; cannot believe how much better things WITHOUT proper ingredients sell for same or more. and to make sure the consumer gets enough “value”, elaborate packaging is employed, which drives the prices up, but that is also appreciated.
      in that respect the average consumer is no better than any vegan; belief in the message and harvest prestige

  34. Did you say bones are unnecessary? Mankind has eaten bone broth and actual bones for thousands of years. They are extremely healthy. Numerous animals work hard to get to the bone marrow because it’s so insanely nutritious.

    Plant food demonstrably contains smaller amounts of micronutrients than meat from grass fed ruminants.

    The soil is already reaching a breaking point. Grass fed ruminants are much more sustainable than monocultures of soy, corn and wheat.

    What a misinformed article.

  35. dirk says

    Yesterday, in the library, I went through a few VEGAN periodicals, to learn more about their motives and feelings. Especially interesting is why and when they became vegan. Whereas quite a lot of people LOOSE the religion of their parents at age 15/18, the age they TURN TO vegan is mostly about 10,11, in girls (because the journal was written mostly by middle aged women). The reason is quite often that they are confronted on TV, less so in real life, with the slaughtering of an animal or the scene of a mother cow being deprived of its newborn. I wonder whether psychologists (or theologists?)ever studied this phenomenon. Anybody here knows?I also came to learn in that journal about the concept -Scope insensivity bias-. Right now going to Google what that means.

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