What Does a Vegan World Actually Look Like?

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A man with tattoos shows a dog a box of fresh vegetables.

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Meat-eating versus veganism is always going to be a controversial topic—as witnessed by the row that erupted after my post on why vegans are welcome to call me a murderer. Yet it's an important subject. What we eat as individuals have a huge impact on the planet. So what happens when those individual choices are pushed on a larger scale?

We already know what an industrial meat-eating world looks like because we live in it, and it ain't pretty. But this got me to wondering—what does a vegan world actually look like? Would a Vegan World See Better Health?

With dietary guidelines increasingly warning against excessive consumption of red meat, mercury contamination in fish, and concerns over growth hormones and other contaminants in dairy, there are some good reasons to argue that widespread adoption of an animal-free diet would see dramatic improvements in public health.

Others, of course, suggest that plant-based diets have their own health deficiencies, but with a rather surprising amount of hardcore vegan athletes in the world, it's clear that it is at least perfectly plausible to lead a completely healthy, well-adjusted life following a strict vegan diet.

Would a vegan world be less cruel?

Cows grazing in a grassy field.

tomazl / Getty Images

Clearly eating meat, or supporting the death that is inherent in the dairy industry, is for many people an unpleasant and cruel business. And it is also hard to deny that a vegan world would result in a lot fewer animals being slaughtered or abused.

Yet working on the assumption that a vegan world would eventually result in a lot fewer farm animals altogether—with whatever farm animals remain (if any) being cared for in sanctuaries—it seems to logically follow that many of the animals that end up slaughtered now would never exist at all if vegan diets became the norm.

This doesn't necessarily invalidate the cruelty argument—after all creating life only to take it away a few short months later for our own pleasure is, from the vegan perspective, pretty barbaric. But it does mean that—in the long run—the true choice is not between killing an animal or not, but rather giving life to, nurturing, and feeding an animal ill-suited to life in the wild and then killing it, versus abstaining from that process in the first place.

Before we ask whether a vegan world can feed itself, we must first ask whether our current food system can feed the world (almost certainly not for much longer), and whether a more sustainable integrated agricultural model could do the same. (There is reason to believe that small-scale agroecology could double food production in many nations.)

Most likely any and every plausible scenario for feeding the world must include tackling both overpopulation and overconsumption, as well as boosting our ability to grow food.

Nevertheless, serious questions do remain about the viability of vegan agriculture—namely, how do animal-free farms manage their nutrient cycles without recourse to either artificial fertilizers or animal manures?

When I've talked before about vegan organic agriculture I was told I was "despicable" for questioning vegans' commitment, and when I asked how vegetarians can avoid blood and bone meal fertilizer most commenters, with the exception of Jason V, thought that I was taking things too far.

Can a vegan world feed itself?

A farmer uses a fork to clean up hay under cows.

Jevtic / Getty Images

Yet the fact is that if vegans advocate for farming free of animal exploitation, then at some point they are arguing for farms that are also free of animal by-products like manure. And it is these very byproducts that form the backbone of most organic soil management techniques at the present time. Yes, it is of course possible to compost biomass and return it to the soil, but this would most likely mean growing crops directly for the purpose of composting them—something that would take the land, resources, energy, and labor. By contrast, if used as animal fodder these crops provide input for meat and/or dairy products before they become compost for our veggies.

Would a vegan world be more sustainable?

A white woman eats a vegan lunch from a metal container.

Dougal Waters / Getty Images

One thing we do know is that modern meat and dairy industries are a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions. From Brazillian beef's wildly high carbon footprint to the methane emissions from dairy farming, large-scale animal agriculture has a massive impact on the planet.

On the other hand, however, some studies suggest that organic dairy produces radically lower emissions, and from aquaponics, to grass-fed bison there is an increasing number of alternatives for rearing meat and fish that could result in significantly smaller carbon footprints. In fact, some studies even argue that diets that include small amounts of sustainably raised meat may be greener than eating no animal products at all.

Best intentions of honest inquiry

A hand petting a piglet sitting on hay.

HQuality Video / Getty Images

As a non-vegan, I'm sure many who abstain from meat and diary will roll their eyes at my inquiries. Just as I, as a bilingual child, tired of explaining how I can have two words for the same thing in my head—I'm sure long-term vegans get pretty bored of having to respond to questions like: "What happens to all the farm animals then?"

This, I assume, is the reason that Eccentric Vegan's post on what a vegan utopia would look like begins by discounting most questioners as being insincere:

"Generally, people who ask the above question are looking for loopholes. They're looking for an excuse to remain omnivorous. If they can't imagine something, it must not exist. If it can't be done their way, it's not worth doing. But let's just pretend the questioner has good intentions and is honestly curious."

But as someone who believes it is important to question our beliefs, I would ask those reading—whatever their dietary habits—to accept that my question is a genuine attempt to explore the implications of what many people advocate as the most sustainable food choice available to us.

I want to find answers to what a vegan world looks like. I would like this discussion to help vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike envision the world they want to create. Vegans shouldn't be expected to have a complete future scenario planned out any more than advocates for sustainable meat should be—the future is just too uncertain. But we should still explore the possibilities. So please dive in with your comments, questions, suggestions, and resources.

I would ask that we keep the conversation as civil as possible—despite the high passions this topic inspires. Yes, you are welcome to call me a murderer if you like—but I'll be more likely to listen to your argument if you don't...

Veganism is green. But can we all be vegan?

A cow cuddling a baby calf in a field.

Paul Foster / EyeEm / Getty Images

Ultimately, following a low or no meat, no dairy diet is—within the context of our present food system—one of the most effective choices any of us can make for reducing our food-related carbon footprint. Whether or not, however, that individual choice can be extrapolated into a model for a shift in our entire cultural food system remains a little less clear.

I've argued before that leverage is as important as individual footprints. For some that will mean they can have more impact by abstaining from meat and dairy altogether, while others will argue that by carefully choosing options that move farming in the right direction they help encourage viable reform. This will, I'm sure, be debated until the cows come home. Or they retire to an animal sanctuary for the rest of their days...