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The Vegan Extinction

by J.P. Prag 2 months ago in psychology / humanity / future
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Everything has unintended consequences

Photo by ANGELIQUE EMONET on UNSPLASH

» KEY POINTS

  • Today it is possible for the world to become completely plant-based; and it is already heading in that direction for reasons of economics.
  • Despite that, it does not mean all problems related to animal husbandry will be immediately resolved, nor that new issues will not be created.
  • To prepare for the future, we have to be honest about the real impact of our actions in order to plan and act accordingly.

[T]he greatest harm can result from the best intentions. It sounds [like] a paradox, but kindness and good intentions can be an insidious path to destruction... [it] can cause anything from discomfort, to disaster, to death.

Stone of Tears, Chapter 63, by Terry Goodkind

Imagine a world where we have been able to solve all food insecurity; cure a large amount of our environmental issues; free up ground, water, and other similar resources for either human use or returning to nature; and have ended pain and suffering for billions of creatures a year. This is a reality that is not only possible in our land of make-believe, but readily available with current technologies and techniques. We have all of the means necessary, just not the willpower to make it happen. Yet given time and incentives, even this lack in spirit may be overcome.

This is a utopia foreseen by communities like those committed to veganism—an overall pan-belief that covers various viewpoints that can be best summed up as the removal of animal products from human consumption. Now, there are plenty of arguments over what is an “animal product” and what is “consumption”. For instance, is keeping a dog as a pet an issue? We are not here to resolve these subtle nuances, though, so that debate can continue outside of these pages.

Instead, let us pretend that the world has for the most part converted to a plant-based lifestyle. This term is more encompassing as it describes what people are doing: using plants for sustenance and survival. The impacts would be immediately obvious as animal agriculture is the second largest contributor to global climate change just after burning fossil fuels. This comes from the greenhouse gasses chattel animals release; the land and water they use; and what is necessary to process, transport, and store animal products. Growing plants simply uses less of everything for a higher caloric, macrobiotic, and useful material result.

Photo by VIDAR SMITS on UNSPLASH

It all sounds wonderful, right? Maybe not for you personally as you may really love the flavor of raw beef, but as a general concept? Still, that does not mean it is not without unintended consequences. Like any utopia, it comes at a very personal cost, one that must be acknowledged. One cannot demand this future without accepting what else is going to happen because of it, especially those things that are not so directly connected.

To be clear, this is not an argument against a plant-based world because of what might happen to specific jobs or industries or any such thing; nor the way particular bodies may react to the diet. Further, this is also not an argument for a plant-based world for all the reasons listed above. This is just asking everyone—even those who believe they are fighting for a better future—to be honest about what the impact of their actions may actually be.

» WALKING INTO SPIDERWEBS

Around 9,000 to 10,000 years ago, humans began adding new animals into their stationary agrarian lifestyle. Where dogs have been with humans for perhaps 30,000 years and sheep and goats go back about 11,000 years, it was during this time that the wild auroch branched off to become the common domesticated cow. Today, there is not a wild auroch left anywhere in the world, with the last ones possibly seen in the early 17th century. Meanwhile, in the early 2020s, there are about 1 billion cattle in the world, or about 1 cow for every 8 people.

Cows have changed everything about humans, including for the majority’s ability to tolerate lactose into adulthood—most interestingly the lactose of other animals, something no other creature can do. But the act of raising cows to produce milk is not exactly profitable nowadays or good for the environment. That is part of the reason why companies like Perfect Day and Biomilk are developing processes to make “real” milk without daily cow involvement (although through wildly different methods). Meanwhile, companies like Impossible Foods have worked tirelessly to mimic meat in every way, including creating a plant-based heme to replicate the blood found in slaughtered flesh. Other companies are looking to grow meat directly from cultured cells; so in reality the protein is animal, just without the “breeding a live beast” part.

Photo by ROBERT BYE on UNSPLASH

Whatever technology or mix of technologies wins out in the end is irrelevant. What matters the most is that at economies of scale these products will be less expensive to produce than the animal-based commodities they are designed to supplant. This is the inflection point where corporations transition to sources not derived from live animals, but from any and all of these other methods. The process is already well underway with major investors like Tyson and Coca-Cola involved. Besides, for decades now soy and corn proteins have been mixed into all kinds of “100% pure meat” products. Companies are interested in keeping costs down so long as quality is at least the same or imperceptibly changed.

The average consumer has no idea where their milk and meat are truly sourced from and what it is made out of, so swapping in an exact replica product will not make a difference, especially if it is not advertised as such. And when that happens, there will be less and less need for our domesticated cattle. Sure, there will always be connoisseurs who will pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for rare flanks, but the vast majority of consumers will move on to the affordable products that are no different than anything they have today. Unfortunately for cows, that means there will be less of a need for them to exist at all, especially at their relative expense.

As already noted, the wild auroch ancestor of today’s cows is completely extinct, as are all cousin species. While earlier breeds of escaped cows were able to become feral—such as the ones from the late 18th century in Hawai’i that have evolved to be a smaller size with long legs like sheep—most of today’s breeds cannot survive without human intervention. Humans have bread them to be so large that in many cases artificial insemination is the only way they can reproduce. Let loose into the wild, almost all the cows would be dead in just one generation (not to mention the havoc they would cause being an invasive species). In other words, veganism will yield a genocide for cowkind.

Cows are not alone in this, though. Most fowl—especially turkeys and chickens—have been bred to have breasts so big that they cannot mate. And since we are now countless generations in with artificial insemination, they may not even know how. Unlike cows, there are still wild versions of these animals, but the domesticated lines are mostly incapable of breeding with them and therefore their bloodlines would die out. Most of our domesticated food, labor, and companion animals stand no chance in the wild, whether they have brethren or not.

Photo by IVA RAJOVIĆ on UNSPLASH

Additionally, there are impacts up and down the food chain. Insects like mosquitos, fleas, ticks, and biting flies are often specialized to target specific animals. If those animals do not exist, then the insect population that depends upon them will also crash. Of course, then there are animals (and even some plants) that feed on those insects. Without their major food source, whole colonies of animals like bats may die out. Since bat guano is a potent resource for plants, that in turn may limit their growth which impacts animals that are dependent upon them. Thus the whole entangled food web must be completely realigned.

Again, this is not an argument against going down the road of retiring animals from human service. However, we have to be honest that it is not an ideal situation and it will not immediately solve all of our woes without causing new ones. Humans and our domesticated animals are not separate from the environment; we are just as much a part of all of these cycles as anything in the “natural world”. When we make major changes like this, the impacts are far and wide, and usually out of our control.

We must be honest about what is about to happen so that we can plan and mitigate. The (feral) horse is out of the stable* and this changeover is already underway. Yet animals are only part of the equation that must be considered.

[ * There is no such thing as a wild horse, that species is also extinct. ]

» AND ALL I WANTED WAS THE SIMPLE THINGS

When all greenhouse gas emissions from food are taken into account, rice emits more greenhouse gases per calorie than wheat or corn but less than fruits, vegetables, legumes, or any animal sources.

Should We Eat Less Rice?” by Evelyn Lamb for Scientific American on August 21, 2019

Animals may be one of the largest producers of greenhouse gases, but removing them from the equation does not make those gasses just disappear. The predominant method of growing rice (in open, wet paddies), in particular, is a potent producer of methane—which has far more short-term impact than carbon dioxide when it comes to global climate change. Whether we eat more whole plants or use plants as feeder stock for other downstream products, the result is the same: we must grow the calories.

Photo by NICK FEWINGS on UNSPLASH

Experiments in the 2020s are ongoing to grow rice with drip irrigation to limit this issue, but even in the best case it will not eliminate the emissions. Nor will the other considerations that must be made with all plants. Some—especially popular crops like almonds and avocados—take a disproportionate amount of fresh water. According to Eric Holthaus of the Slate, in 2014 and 2015 almond growing used up around 10% of California’s agricultural water supply. Even with higher water use, in the context of the output of calories and nutrients, these crops are still more efficient than animals. Even so, that does not mean they are 100% more efficient! Water use may be less with plants, but it is still a huge amount that must be removed from nature for human use (or withheld from direct human consumption to grow plants). We must not pretend that we are getting all of that water back.

This is true for all resources necessary for plants. Animals take up a lot of land, but so do plants. Less land, yes, but still significantly more than nothing. We might be creative with rooftops, vertical spaces, indoor hydroponics, and many other potentialities, but everything is still a limited supply. Honesty is required in order to tackle the issues with being completely plant-based, not just believing it is going to resolve all the problems we have right now.

Beyond all of that, we create a new danger in massive mono-culture. Frankly, we have very little diversity in our plant stocks already and there is no reason to believe this would not be the case if plants were a larger percentage of the human diet. If anything, the issue would be exacerbated to the point where a blight in a single crop could cause a worldwide starvation event. As stated early on, economics will be the largest driver of the changeover to a plant-based society. At the same time, economics will drive the creation of cheaper, faster, and bigger plants to continue to push down cost. Those developed seeds (most likely genetically modified, at that) will be sold around the globe and further push out native and diverse species.

Still, it does not even end there. While we may be able to mitigate a disaster related to growing, plants do not solve our other epidemics.

A tree pangolin on January 1, 2009. Photo by VALERIUS TYGART, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

» DON’T TELL ME ’CAUSE IT HURTS

Zoonotic diseases—those that originate in animals, especially intensely farmed animals—have always been a problem, but that issue has only grown with further expansion of global meat eating and the farming necessary to support it. Even COVID-19 most likely has a zoonotic source, whether that be bats or pangolins or some other intermediary. Seemingly, moving away from regular interaction with other animals and not having waste runoff should help limit and perhaps end viral and bacterial epidemics related to them.

Nevertheless, growing plants often uses pesticides and other chemicals, which may have adverse effects on the health of all living beings. Runoff from farms—including from simple things like nitrogen added to the soil to help feed plants and inspire growth—can cause downstream environmental impacts that hurt and kill not just humans, but wildlife at large. Beyond that, to protect plants from the aforementioned blights, it seems likely that farmers would implement similar techniques they use with animals, thus the equivalent of the overuse of antibiotics.

Yet all of these issues are still not the epidemic we must be most concerned with.

Even with COVID-19 contributing to over 520,000 excess deaths in the United States in 2020 and at least another 467,000 in 2021 according to preliminary statistics, heart disease remains the number one killer of Americans. What is the top contributor to heart disease? None other than the obesity epidemic that is sweeping America and many other nations. At no point in history have calories been so cheap and accessible, yet nutrition so lacking.

And frankly, a plant-based lifestyle does nothing to solve this. A person could eat nothing but french fries and frosted cake and still be a technical vegan. Food manufacturers are not going to stop adding excess sugar to their products. On the contrary, it is more likely to be used along with fats in order to make sure flavor profiles are closer to meat. Being made of plants does not make a food automatically healthier. There is no such thing as an organic cookie tree.

Photo by SIGMUND on UNSPLASH

Changing behavior to eating more whole, unprocessed foods would be a multi-generational affair and may be a complete failure anyway due to what people expect their food to taste like and be able to do. As discussed at the onset, in order to get people to switch away from meats, the replacement products must be a near one-for-one match. But in order to be that, they must be nearly as unhealthy—and in some cases even more so. Further, from a worldwide logistics perspective: processing, genetically modifying, and using chemicals is actually the better, safer, and more economical route to making sure all people have equal access to food. Mitigating blight conditions can be as simple as processing and storing excess product until it is needed. In other words, better for us is not necessarily the best solution to the other difficulties related to feeding nearly 8 billion people.

» TAKE THIS PINK RIBBON OFF MY EYES

Plants are not going to cure the world of all of the woes of animal husbandry. While there are many beneficial impacts to completely removing animal products from the world, it is not a panacea solution without its own drawbacks. Let us be clear: these deterrents should not be enough to dissuade humanity from ultimately pursuing this path, nor are the issues presented insurmountable themselves. But that is the overall point: we must acknowledge all of the real consequences of these actions. Ignoring them or pretending they do not exist does us no favors. If we can think through the real impacts and concede where these changes to society make no impact, then we can face those facets head-on and provide a more accurate and accountable solution. Otherwise, we are just lying to ourselves and setting ourselves up for the next failure in the attempt to mend everything with quick fixes.

The above piece is an excerpt from Always Divided, Never United: And Other Stories During a Time of Pandemics and Politics by J.P. Prag, available at booksellers worldwide.

Have the troubles of our age ripped us apart more than any point in history? Or has it forever been this way?

Learn more about author J.P. Prag at www.jpprag.com.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Medium.

psychologyhumanityfuture

About the author

J.P. Prag

J.P. Prag is the author of "Always Divided, Never United", "New & Improved: The United States of America", and "In Defense Of... Exonerating Professional Wrestling's Most Hated". Learn more at www.jpprag.com.

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