This is a point which is primarily raised by those who acknowledge the strength of the moral argument for vegansim, but want to insist that despite the cruelty inherent in animal agriculture industries, it would not be sustainable for the world to go vegan. This assertion is demonstrably false, and a little research into any of the positions of reputable environmental organisations and environmental reports is enough to discount it entirely.
The first issue with this argument is that it is critical of a change in our lifestyles on the basis that it would not be sustainable, but ignores the fact that what we are doing now is completely unsustainable. Animal agriculture is responsible for roughly 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions; cows alone produce 150 billion gallons of methane per day, with a global warming potential 86 times that of CO2 on a 20 year time frame. Livestock is also responsible for 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide, which stays in the atmosphere for approximately 150 years. All of this means that even if we cut all other CO2e emissions to zero immediately, we would still exceed our 565 gigatonnes limit by 2030, solely from raising animals for food. That isn’t even accounting for the vast swathes of rainforest cut down to make room for animal feed and grazing land for cattle. This, and the systematic destruction of wild species by farmers, ranchers and animal agriculture corporations contributes towards animal agriculture being one of the biggest contributors to global species extinction.
When people talk about sustainability, they don’t always mean global emissions, but our ability to feed our population with the land and resources that we have. In terms of land use, a full 1/3 of the planet’s land surface and 2/3 of available agricultural land is used for farming animals. If we look at cows, for example, it takes 12 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. Chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output; beef cattle 54:1, lamb 50:1, pork 17:1, turkey 13:1 and milk 17:1, according to the ecologist’s analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. This means that if we took a 2.5 acre piece of farmland the number of people whose food energy needs can be met by this land would be 23 people if producing cabbage, 22 for potatoes, 19 for rice, 17 for corn, 15 for wheat, 2 for chicken, and just 1 for eggs and beef. The USA is a stark example, though the population is approximately 321.1 million, the amount of grain fed to US livestock alone would be enough to feed 840 million people who follow a plant based diet.
As for the sustainability of water use, water consumption ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons annually. Approximately a fifth of that water consumption is from animal agriculture alone. It has been conclusively demonstrated that the water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of a wisely chosen crop product with equivalent nutritional value. To demonstrate this, 1L of soya milk has a water footprint of about 300 L, whereas the water footprint of 1L of cow’s milk from the same country is more than three times bigger. The water footprint of a 150g soya burger produced in the Netherlands appears to be about 160L, while the water footprint of an average 150-g beef burger is nearly fifteen times bigger. Almond milk is often criticised for how water intensive it is, but even in California, where 90% of the world’s almond’s come from, only 10% of the state’s water use goes to almonds, whereas meat dairy alone account for a massive 47%.
There are of course environmental issues with the growing of crops to feed humans, nevertheless, it is undeniable that the meat-based food system requires more energy, land, and water resources than a vegan diet does. Pointing towards unsustainable crop farming as a way of dissuading people from moving away from the current system and towards plant based diets makes very little sense, since our current system is far worse than the alternative being offered. It is for these reasons and many others that even the UN has urged a global shift towards a meat and dairy-free diet. Far from being unsustainable, it is thought that a global shift away from animal products is essential to curb the worst effects of climate change.
If the world moved away from animal agriculture, not only would we be able to feed more people with less energy, less crops, less water and less animal suffering; but we could also save approximately 8.1 million humans lives in the process. We could free up energy reserves, increase our food security, re-wild land deforested for animal grazing and create new national parks and protected land. With the money saved from treating the health issues associated with our excessive consumption of animals we could fund urban farming programs, eliminate food deserts and comfortably feed everyone in the process. Taking tax subsidies away from animal products and instead subsidising plant based foods would mean that everyone would have access to cheap, accessible and healthy food, and farmers would be able to make a living from growing crops alone while paying their employees a decent wage.
Those who claim that a vegan world is unsustainable resort to this argument simply because they can offer no defence of the status quo beyond trying to convince people that things cannot be any other way. But our dependence on animal products is not some law of nature, and our fast-food, factory farm driven food system hasn’t always existed, and doesn’t always have to. A well-fed world doesn’t have to come at the cost of our environment and the lives of trillions of animals, most of us have the option to choose a way of living which is healthier, more sustainable, less resource intensive and far kinder.