Can veganism save the world?

Global food supplies are under increasing pressure, but there is debate over what we should do about this. Two of our writers discuss their views on whether meat is a blessing or a curse

19th October 2015


Forget the abattoirs, the battery pens and the rainforests – there is a human cost to the meat and dairy industry that can no longer be ignored.

Forty per cent of the world’s land surface is used to feed its burgeoning population. Of this, three quarters (an area greater than Russia, Canada and the USA combined) is used to produce feed. Not feed for humans, but for animals.

In exchange for this, 285 million tonnes of animal meat is butchered, shipped and sold each year. Although this may seem like a fair return, it wilts next to the astronomical 1.3 billion tonnes of grain that is required to produce it. In a world where almost half of all infant deaths are caused by malnutrition and a quarter of children suffer from stunted growth, sacrificing over a billion tonnes of produce every single year is obscene.

Sacrificing over a billion tonnes of produce every single year is obscene

The deep-rooted problems within the meat industry do not end with wasteful production. In 2006 a UN report was released revealing cattle rearing to be the biggest contributor to climate change due to the sheer level of methane that cows emit (that’s right, cow farts are killing the planet). On top of this, our omnivorous diets not only mean that there is less to go around, but globally it is also more expensive to maintain since it costs much more per kilo to raise an animal than a plant.

Unless reared in the horrible conditions of a battery farm, natural livestock needs much more space than a plant, so the forty per cent of the world’s surface is producing far less than it is able to. The global price of food therefore rises. Whilst veganism is typecast as the preserve of rich, pretentious liberals, meat genuinely adds to the weight of poverty for those who rarely get the chance to eat it.

Would a vegan world be free from poverty? Of course not. It would still profit those who control the world’s food supply to flood developed markets and leave people in poorer regions starving. Superabundance side by side with famine is one of the underlying contradictions of capitalism, one that cannot be chewed away with a nice salad. Nonetheless, the worst famines could be prevented by the massively increased food supply, saving countless lives.

It is these same companies who have already priced out the last of the responsible small-time farmers

Poverty, of course, is not just a foreign problem. In some areas of Britain just under half of all children are having their formative years dragged over the broken glass of hunger, whilst even in the wealthiest areas one in ten experience the same suffering. As a developed country, Britain would be a major beneficiary of the huge increase and the resulting reduction in food prices. The market would have to adjust and some firms would almost certainly go bust, but bear in mind that it is these same companies who have already priced out the last of the responsible small-time farmers and still only offer as little as £7 per hour full time wages.

Should these huge corporations sink in the absence of slaughter, imagine the benefits of a democratically nationalised supermarket; stable prices, reliably high standards and a decent wage for shop floor assistants and executives alike. Change can happen so quickly, especially with the support of public opinion. This is not a vegan call to arms, or a vegetarian crusade, but a personal plea: eat meat because it tastes nice, or don’t because you’re stronger than that (and you most definitely are).

The meat industry, above all, is one of the least controlled, least responsible markets around. Billions are made and stored privately, whilst the population is told that it can’t go on without slaughter, that bacon is a national treasure, that Every Little Helps. It is false. The abattoir blood, the battery pen filth, the rainforest destruction, all pales next to human life. If we claim to put people first, we cannot justify using animal products.

By Frankie Toynton

Illustrated by Jasmine Newton

Illustrated by Jasmine Newton


Despite it being wholly unappealing to the majority of the human race, the spectre of veganism remains. The moral arguments for it are, admittedly, deeply personal and a fairly impressive motivator. The environmental arguments and proposed alternatives, however, are not.

Claiming that global veganism must be installed in order to forgo our encroaching apocalypse whilst failing to provide a reasonable, practical solution is symptomatic of everything wrong with the rich arrogant countries of the developed world, as well as the self-appointed moral superiority endemic within these societies.

What right do people with access to copious amounts of quinoa have to dictate the practices, both economic and dietary, of the billions of people not as well off around the world? In countries where we can afford to forgo any animal produce, the aim must instead be a rational approach to revolutionise the food industry so that it is both ethical and environmentally friendly. Both of which are possible.

What right do people with access to copious amounts of quinoa have to dictate the practices of the billions who do not?

Yes, undoubtedly animal farming does have some destructive environmental effects and the world might benefit (as might our personal diets) from a reduction in meat consumption. We, in the West, can afford to do this by supplementing our diet. Yet billions of people around the world simply do not have access to the sea vegetables lauded by vegans as essential.

When you consider the destructive environmental effects of increasing the amount of arable land used it is clearly as naive as it is dangerous. Production of vegan crops requires the enforcement of a monoculture upon expansive swathes of land - resulting in the destruction of vast amounts of biodiversity. A recent study in Australia claims that this process would result in the death of at least 25 times more sentient animals per kilogram of usable protein than cattle farming. All this just so that it is not you that directly consumes them and therefore cannot hold yourself responsible.

This is perhaps veganism’s greatest crux: it is a deeply personal choice made out of a very private belief about the role of humanity, whilst being entirely impractical on any scale above the personal.

This is perhaps veganism’s greatest crux... it is entirely impractical on any scale above the personal

Environmentalist Bill Mollison has even gone as far as to warn of the potential increase in soil erosion caused by large numbers shifting to a vegetarian diet. Coupled with the fact that grazing occurs primarily on native ecosystems that contain a far higher level of biodiversity than croplands. Indeed, the implementation of techniques necessary in growing vegan food to feed the human population are just as damaging to the environment as an efficient animal farming system. With environmental damage on both sides we are brought back to a moral choice between animals and fellow humans. The pure impracticality of veganism on any sort of scale leaves the world with a choice between backing an industry essential for the growth of countries that are yet to develop fully, and starvation. Call me a heartless, inhuman, murdering animal abuser if you must, but my choice will always be humanity.

People quite rightly point to the cruelty within the food industry. Such issues gave rise to organic animal farming, which are by all accounts more sustainable and humane. Veganism undermines such developments by insisting on bypassing the industry altogether and importing produce grown in other countries, thus destroying the organic farming industry within Britain.

For anyone in doubt it is worth reading George Monbiot’s (a British environmental activist) public denouncement of veganism. He is very critical of the current food system but proposes that if farming is done properly the case for veganism is not only worse for the environment but also merely stepping aside to let wasteful, cruel processes take control of an industry where they are at their most damaging.

By Robin Richards

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