If you were to ask all of your friends what an ideal society looks like, I’m sure you’d receive vastly different answers. Maybe someone will suggest a society without war where everyone works together to solve problems. Your friend who just finished an Ayn Rand book will say something stupid. And maybe your vegan friend will pipe up and suggest a society without animal agriculture.
I, for one, think such an idea is impossible, but I’m also a morose pessimist who moved to Wisconsin by choice and whose favorite event was an annual pig roast on a dairy farm. But a pair of scientists, one from the University of Vermont and another from the USDA, have made some new calculations based on the wonder: what if the United States really did ditch animals for good? What would a society without animal agriculture look like? Their answer is complicated.
“This assessment suggests that removing animals from US agriculture would reduce agricultural [greenhouse gas] emissions,” write the authors in the study published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “but would also create a food supply incapable of supporting the US population’s nutritional requirements.”
Why write such a report? As of today, our society relies on both plants and animals. The Earth’s climate is changing, thanks in part to the gigatons of greenhouse gases we spew into the atmosphere annually. Around a quarter of the United States’ emissions come from agriculture, much of it from animal agriculture. Also, the human population is increasing, we’ll have to feed all of those new people, and agriculture in the US has lots of problems.
The researchers looked at hypothetical changes to the entire livestock process, including people and industry, fuel, and raising crops for animals, for example. They found a 23 percent increase in the amount of food available—mainly in grains—and a 28 percent decrease in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. However, they only found a 2.6 percent decrease in overall greenhouse gas emissions. They also found deficiencies in the American diet’s essential nutrients.
Many will probably remind me that it is possible to live healthily on a vegan diet, though doing so might require supplements and extra work, including producing more of certain calcium and Vitamin B12-containing foods. Others might remind me that meat replacements like plant-based burgers and lab grown meat should be taken seriously.
But this is just a model, of course, meaning it has limitations and shouldn’t be taken as truth. Some researchers took issue with its conclusions, and thought that restructuring land use could account for the lost nutrients, or that it underestimated the cuts in greenhouse gases that might come from importing meat, according to an article published in Science.
But the truth of the matter is, if this study is to be taken at its word, it still shows that it won’t be easy to just flip the switch and turn everyone vegan. Also, we live in the United States and you should probably call up your relatives, including the ~46 percent of them that voted for the current President, and ask them what they think about the country going vegan.