The Economics of a Vegan Diet

I’ll be honest: I’ve always considered the vegan diet insane. It just seems like a recipe for starvation. If you want proof of just how extreme–and dangerous–the diet can be, read the article by Robert Christgau, “Beth Ann and Macrobioticism,” about a macrobiotic woman who died of malnutrition, with carrot juice dribbling from the corner of her mouth. I know I could never subsist solely on roots, nuts and berries. As I’ve said somewhat facetiously before, Give me Oreos or give me death.

That being said, I realize the vegan diet can be extremely salubrious, and I admire individuals like Dr. John Halamka who practice it sensibly. That’s why I try to reserve my judgmental comments for the diet itself and not the people who’ve made it their lifestyle. I’m sure many a vegan would criticize my diet of Pop Tarts, hamburgers, chicken fingers and donuts, and for good reason. What can I say? I love processed foods.

But I’m going to be thinking twice about consuming processed foods and meat, thanks to commentary I heard yesterday on on NPR’s Marketplace. Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, gave the best argument yet for the vegan diet. What made his argument so effective in my mind was that it was grounded in economics rather than emotion. Professor Singer linked the global food crisis and rising food costs to the increase in meat consumption around the world.

What’s wrong with eating more meat, and what affect does it have on food prices? According to Singer, more people eating meat means more of the corn that we grow for food ends up fattening livestock as opposed to to being produced for human consumption. He writes:

..most corn isn’t eaten by humans; it’s eaten by animals and that’s the biggest part of the problem. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 756 million tons of grain plus most of the world’s soybean crop are fed to animals…

When we use animals to convert grain and soy into food we can eat, they use most of the feed to keep warm and develop bones and other parts we can’t eat. So we’re wasting most of the food value of the crops we feed them. In the case of cattle, at least nine-tenths of the grain they eat is squandered.

The solution to the world food crisis, then, he says, is to “eat less meat, dairy and eggs.”

I recommend reading or listening to Professor Peter Singer’s commentary.  Let me know what you think.  I am prepared to be virtually tarred and feathered by the vegans and macrobiotic practitioners who read this post.

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8 thoughts on “The Economics of a Vegan Diet

  1. Actually, Oreo’s are technically vegan – albeit an unhealthy, yet vegan choice. And actually, vegans have been making the argument of food sources/supply for quite some time, it just hasn’t reached the populous until the rest of the world started taking an interest in global hunger and the environment – and that which could be causing these issues. Now, I’m not trying to dog on you or anybody who has finally heard the economic (rather than emotional, or even health) justifications for choosing a vegan diet. If it gets people to think about the food they are eating, and what impact it has on not only their health, but their world..that’s great. I think it’s good that it’s getting out there that we aren’t just a bunch of over-emotional, tree-huggin hippies (not to say that some of us aren’t). It’s just a shame that it took the price of meat to go up before people could realize the devastation on the world (economically, environmentally) their meat consumption was doing. People choose veganism for a multitude of reasons: ethical, environmental, health. So someone choosing it for environmental reasons isn’t shunned by the ethical vegans, and so on. And yes, you do have those unhealthy vegans/macrobiotics that still eat processed food (case in point, oreo’s plus all the vegan products like donuts and ice cream – i’m known to make my share of vegan cupcakes and vegan fudge), and so the rare case of someone dying who also happened to be vegan or macrobiotic makes the news. Any dietary lifestyle one chooses has the potential for being unhealthy. I choose one that is healthiest for me, my planet, and all my fellow animals who also reside on this planet.

  2. Not really, consuming grass-fed flesh still affects the environment by the methane put off by the cattle (regardless of what they are fed) – not to mention the damaging effects eating flesh does to your own body. Land still has to be cleared for these animals, they are still transported to slaughter, and from slaughter to various places around the world – contributing to pollution of the world from the transportation. The grass that the cattle are feeding on still has to be irrigated, utilizing water that could be used elsewhere (i.e. vegetable crops to feed the hungry PEOPLE of the world).

  3. Not sure how I came across your blog but I really like it!

    I read Singer’s transcript but I will listen to the whole thing.

    So far I can see that he makes a lot of assumptions which are incorrect. The main one obviously (as another commenter already pointed out) is that cows eat grains. For centuries, cows have eaten grass, not grain — and cows actually get sick from eating grain. So talking about how much grain it takes to feed a cow is not really relevant.

    I agree with you about processed foods. Not that I eat them — I don’t anymore — but that they are bad for the environment (and health). Processed foods use a ton of energy to produce. They also require more packaging.

    At the same time, many vegetables use a lot of energy to produce. In Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” he exposes companies like Cal Organic which waste a ton of fuel and other resources trucking their organic veggies around the country.

    However I disagree with the idea that going vegan is good for the environment. In fact, I am just working on a post about this on my blog. I read a very interesting article recently by Matthew Rales who was an apprentice at Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm (which was also profiled in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”). Rales makes some very excellent points about why going vegetarian and/or vegan is bad for the environment.

    One of the most salient points he makes is that if we stopped eating meat and dairy, there would be no manure from animals to cultivate the land. We would have to rely on chemical fertilizers.

    He writes: “Without ruminants to fertilize the soil and break down cellulose in dry climates, prairies quickly become deserts; and with managed grazing of ruminant animals, deserts can be restored to productive land.”

    He also writes about methane and deconstructs that whole argument.

    Actually, I’m going to have to do a series of posts on this article because I just can’t do it justice in one post.

    We buy all local meats and dairy. All grass-fed and pastured. I get almost everything at my local farmer’s market. And I very much believe that supporting local grass-based farmers is the best thing I can do for the environment. Anyway I will blog about this very soon!

    PS: I am really interested in reading this article you referenced, Robert Christgau, “Beth Ann and Macrobioticism.” Where do I find it?

  4. Thanks for your comment, Cheeseslave! Good luck with your blogging, which I look forward to reading. As for Beth Ann, I read Robert Christgau’s article in a book called The New Journalism, which I believe is out of print but you may be able to find it on Amazon.com or Alibris.com. Good luck!

  5. Hmmm, the old “vegetables are better for the environment and could feed the world” -argument.
    Just a couple of problems there:
    -Where you could produce vegetables is usually not where the hunger is. Feeding the hungry of the world is not about shipping a lot corn around.
    – Cattle raised on grass is environmentally friendly and they do not produce as much methane. Forest is NOT cleared for grass production – economy in it. Forest IS cleared for grain production though and grain fed cattle has a load of environmental impacts, especially in feed lots.
    – in many areas with hunger problems the only way to address them is with sustainable cattle production. there could simply be no other food production in the area.
    – Vegetable production, including organic production, have significant negative impacts on the environment, including nitrate leaching and loss of biodiversity.

    – Meat is not bad for you! Eating too much meat is though, as is thinking that you should pay next to nothing for it. The biggest problem is not meat consumtion, it is that the west eats way too much meat and that we are used to not paying the full price for it.

    Carl

  6. Sorry, but facts on environmental impact is simply wrong. I can’t think of any farmer/rancher that irrigates for grazing! THAT is a “grain and vegie” thing. Grazing animals utilize land that is often quite inappropriate for tillage, and convert cellulose (indigestible by humans) into a quality nutrient dense food. Singer may think he is bright, but he is not using real logic in coming to his conclusion. Ruminents (cattle, sheep,goats,etc) do not need grain, nor is it an appropriate food for them in general. Singer says “In the case of cattle, at least nine-tenths of the grain they eat is squandered.” True…Then how about the logical conclusion–DON’T FEED THEM GRAIN!! Stop mono-cropping the prairies, making highly processed non-nutritive, high-empty calorie mass produced health inhibiting foods, and let the ruminnats create nutrient dense foods and protect the top, and reduce the huge petrochemical use required for grains.

  7. Maybe somebody should tell Adam Smith that the “economic logic” of vegetarianism doesn’t make sense – he was a vegetarian purely for economic reasons. Or Darwin perhaps? The expert on evolution abstained from meat from coming to the view that we’re not actually supposed to. This was the biggest question in modern time, by the way – whether to eat meat or not, before the industrial revolution came along.

    But history shouldn’t matter. And nor should morals or environment. Health should be enough.

    Let’s look at some broad facts:
    – Doctors are hardly trained in nutrition
    – Our anatomy resembles that of a herbivore, not carnivore
    – Chimps, which have DNA > 96-99% identical to ours, are vegetarians
    – The most comprehensive study on nutrition ever conducted to date (~30 years), the China Study, has shown over 8,000 statistically significant links between diet and disease and has emphasized the correlation between animal protein and cancer
    – The countries with the highest amount of milk consumption also have the highest rate of breast cancer (animal protein in milk, casein, is not good for you)
    – Plant-based diet provides optimal athletic performance — read the thrive diet. It’s not just what’s in the food, it’s how you assimilate and absorb it.
    – Food allergies have only appeared in this century
    – Swine flu, BSE and avian flu all developed out of improper maintenance/keeping of animals
    – Livestock agriculture accounts for over half of arable land use in the US and ~1/4 fresh water use
    – Plants are far superior inputs for the environment directly (effect on soil quality, contributions to surrounding atmosphere)
    – Two of the most powerful lobbies in North America are beef and dairy (in terms of size and $ spent)

    How is it a surprise that animal protein is awful for you in every sense? Virtually all major chronic illnesses in N America are due to excess protein consumption, and yet everyone thinks animal protein is not just necessary in diet, but good.

    And it still shocks me how much the basic health information shocks others.

    Animal and refine food based-diets have only been around the past ~250 years. Let’s not get too attached and acknowledge at least begin agreeing on some of the basics.

    Giving up meat and dairy (slowly, for those of you who consume a lot of it) will radically transform your life for the good. Less (and better quality) sleep, leaner muscle tissue, less recovery required after exercise, lower cholesterol (only in animal products), lower rates of cancer, diabetes, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, no need for stimulants, high energy levels are all clear benefits of consuming a whole-food, plant-based diet for even a moderate amount of time.

    The key is to inform yourself about nutrition. No health care practitioner is truly trained in nutrition.

    There are some doctors who have a passion for preventative medicine and have done a lot. Dr. Dean Ornish, a cardiologist in California, proved (again, scientifically) that you can actually reverse heart disease through diet. The key is whole grains & plant-based.

    Generally, I highly recommend reading something like the Thrive Diet, by Brendan Brazier, or something written by someone without an ideological bias on diet. This guy approached diet literally as an optimization question – “Which diet would be the best possible as a high-endurance athlete? – and found that meat is nowhere on the radar. His quick discussion on the importance of “net gain” and optimal pH balance were eye-opening.

    I abstain from flesh for environmental and economic reasons as well, but let’s start with the most important: health. I’m getting a little fed up with all the misinformation out there.

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