Widely held unsupported assumption, reinforced by oversimplified media coverage of an already biased 2017 research study with false and inflammatory headlines like “If Entire US Went Vegan it Would Be a Public Health Disaster" and "If America Went Vegan, We’d Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions—But We’d Also Probably Starve."
Lies of omission
Biased researchers with conflicts of interests
Farmed animals are currently consuming five times more food than people. A 2015 Chemical & Engineering News cover story reported, “A switch to plant proteins by those who can afford meat would go a long way to feeding the growing global population while using fewer of the planet's resources.”
However, a 2017 study trumpeted by the media claimed that removing animal products from US agriculture would result in nutritional deficiencies and wouldn’t really help the climate all that much.
After their limiting assumptions and faulty conclusions were challenged by three letters published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in the words of The Food Climate Research Network, the researchers argued that “it was never their goal to assess realistic, intermediate or desirable diets” anyway – yet the journalists so eager to write inflammatory anti-vegan headlines based on the study didn't bother to clarify or do any follow-up.
Head over to our Food Waste & Hunger page, where we thoroughly cover why/how it is that plant-based diets can actually feed the most people, by far.
Now let’s get into the many problems with the research study mentioned above and its widespread media coverage.
THE STUDY: "Nutritional and greenhouse gas impacts of removing animals from US agriculture"
It was authored by two people with vested interests in animal ag (Department of "Animal and Poultry Science" at Virginia Tech and the USDA Dairy Forage Research Center), yet they claimed no conflicts of interest.
The study found we'd have 26% more food BUT nutritional deficiencies, and fewer emissions BUT not by as much as is often claimed.
The researchers used an implausible hypothetical overnight premise, which they admitted to journalists was "an extreme scenario." Obviously, any widespread shift to vegan agriculture would be gradual and would not happen overnight.
Their model didn't account for the fact that a mass vegan shift requires a mass agricultural shift, along with various changes other researchers have called essential to recognize (such as land use, agronomic and horticultural research, farm operator knowledge, infrastructure, farm and food policy, international trade, and more.)
Their model didn't acknowledge that agriculture is now heavily weighted towards animal production in terms of land use, resources, and subsidies.
In their model, "livestock" would be removed but we'd apparently keep growing their feed crops just as we do now (loads of corn/soy/wheat), which is nonsensical. Sarah DeWeerdt of Anthropocene Magazine notes that the researchers’ conclusion that vegan diet don’t scale is “likely shaped by the study’s algorithms and assumptions.” She adds, "For example, the researchers assumed that in the absence of farmed animals, crops currently fed to livestock would be rerouted to humans. And tillable land now occupied by animals or used for hay production would be planted with crops in the same proportion as in the current agricultural system."
The researchers made biased assumptions throughout the study favoring animal agriculture while unfairly limiting plant-based agriculture – which isn’t surprising, given their vested interests in animal agriculture.
The researchers assumed that animal agriculture is only responsible for 4.5% of total GHG emissions, which is laughably low (see the spectrum of figures on our Climate Change page) and omits most of its actual omissions and completely ignores foregone sequestration – yet in their vision of a sudden vegan shift they accounted for impacts of things like burning plant waste and increased artificial fertilizer, while ignoring solutions like composting and veganic farming.
They ignored the highly negative impacts of manure, including the fact we now have 130 times more “livestock” waste than human waste per US GAO, which is far more than can be absorbed by soils. It’s temporarily kept in massive “manure lagoons” that offset potent GHG emissions and are prone to leaks and spills, causing disease-causing runoff, algal blooms, and ocean dead zones. They are also a source of environmental racism.
The researchers ignored other horrific impacts of animal-based diets like antibiotic and water overuse, communicable and lifestyle diseases, fishing and ocean depletion, species extinction, and more – not the mention the gross injustice of animal exploitation and slaughter – while ignoring the many benefits of a plant-based shift like a drastic decrease or elimination of everything just mentioned along with an increase in trees and resulting carbon sinks, etc.
In their very limiting scenario, they found a vegan diet would fall nutritionally short without some supplementation, omitting the fact that "livestock" feed is supplemented with the same exact nutrients they say we’d be lacking. For example, they say we would fall short of vitamin B12, but 90% of all B12 produced is currently put in animal feed per the Baltimore Post Examiner. Plus many animal foods like dairy are fortified now with other vitamins anyway, so why couldn't we fortify vegan foods like plant-based milk with B12? (Wait, we already do).
They likely didn’t even considering highly nutritious and innovative vegan foods already on the market like pea milk, made from yellow peas (which can be grown on perennial land), containing nearly half the daily value of calcium in one serving and plenty of protein.
Finally, they actually admitted the current food supply with animals comes up nutritionally short of several vitamins now anyway! So why would it suddenly be a "public health crisis" if we were short on others instead? And seeing as two-thirds of Americans take supplements already (clearly mostly non-vegans given that high percentage), it seems the worst case scenario is that an additional third would need to join them in some capacity. Again, that's the worst-case scenario and only under their limited and biased study, which is certainly not what was depicted in the media coverage.
Speaking of the media coverage...
THE MEDIA COVERAGE: Plenty, worst include Quartz, Men's Health, Daily Mail, IFLScience
The media coverage distorted all this into shameless inflammatory vegan-bashing far beyond what study found, claiming "we would all starve" "public health disaster" "catastrophic" "nutritional nightmare" and "could ruin America."
They made wildly false implications vegan diets are inherently deficient and inadequate, which the largest organization of food and nutrition professionals and their international counterparts have made clear for years is not the case.
The journalists ignored the current food supply with animals is already nutrient deficient, according to the researchers themselves, and that Americans currently get two times the protein and half the fiber they need due to their animal-based diets.
The articles were missing lots of context, with many of them omitting extreme the extreme overnight shift premise altogether.
These very same biased writers fail to cover much larger and more credible studies that show the overwhelmingly positive benefits of plant-based diets, let alone write headlines that vilify meat-eaters. Yet they're all to happy to cover small studies from biased researchers whose results simply minimize the positive impacts of plant-based diets, and then spin their coverage into full-on vegan bashing.
These writers also didn't bother to clarify or do any follow-up after the researchers of the 2017 study responded to three intelligent rebuttals (as noted above) making it painfully clear how unrealistic and downright silly their assumptions and limitations were by admitting “it was never their goal to assess realistic, intermediate or desirable diets” anyway.