Is ethical veganism at odds with the environmental argument?

One of the most common reasons people become vegetarian or vegan is the environmental effects of farming. One of the other most common reasons is if a person does not agree with the unnecessary and often cruel slaughter of animals for food, especially as it is perfectly possible to live a long and healthy life on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Both of these are valid reasons, and as I have been a lacto-vegetarian myself for eighteen years the purpose of this article isn’t to question or challenge vegetarianism or veganism itself and is certainly not intended to convince people not to choose a meat free lifestyle. As you can see quite clearly from my blog, and especially my food  blog, I am committed to a vegetarian lifestyle and am fully supportive of the vegetarian and vegan community.

What does strike me is that people who use the environmental and the ethical arguments for mass and/or worldwide veganism often don’t seem to see the implications that one (environmental) will have on the other (ethical) and I’m interested to see how ethical vegans and those who do not eat meat for purely moral reasons would respond to this. From what I have read and understood the end result of the spread of veganism i.e the aim of making the whole of the UK vegan and, eventually, the whole world, does not bode well for the animals in question. To effectively lessen our carbon footprint where livestock and farming is concerned, the only result I can see is the eventual genocide of most, if not all, farm animals. I am sure other people have considered this and I am interested in how other people would approach this point and if there is anything I have overlooked.

Some of the environmental consequences of farming animals are outlined on the PETA website and are as follows:

  • 51 percent or more of global greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture, according to a report published by the Worldwatch Institute. According to the United Nations, a global shift toward a vegan diet is necessary to combat the worst effects of climate change.
  • It takes an enormous amount of water to grow crops for animals to eat… and give animals water to drink.
  • Animals raised for food in the U.S. produce many times more excrement than does the entire human population of the country. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), animals on U.S. factory farms produce about 500 million tons of manure each year.
  • Using land to grow crops for animals is vastly inefficient. It takes almost 20 times less land to feed someone on a plant-based (vegan) diet than it does to feed a meat-eater since the crops are consumed directly instead of being used to feed animals. According to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, it takes up to 10 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of meat, and in the United States alone, 56 million acres of land are used to grow feed for animals, while only 4 million acres are producing plants for humans to eat.

Some other facts

There were 270,848,210 cows in the world in 2013, and the total number of animals killed in British slaughterhouses in 2013 was over a billion. This included 9.8 million pigs, nearly 15 million sheep, 18 million turkeys, 14 million ducks, over 945 million chickens and 2.6 million cattle. Add to that 4.5 billion fish and 2.6 billion shellfish you have a total of over 8 billion animals killed in the UK each year.
Farmed ruminant animals, including cattle and sheep, are thought to be responsible for up to a quarter of “man-made” methane emissions worldwide.
Agriculture, particularly meat and dairy products, accounts for 70% of global freshwater consumption, 38% of the total land use and 19% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, says the report.
According to Cowspiracy, 70 billion farmed animals are reared annually worldwide and more than 6million are killed every hour, and methane has a global warming potential 86 times that of CO2 on a 20 year time frame.

So what does this mean?

All of the above suggests that if the world were to adopt a vegan plant based diet it would have a positive effect on the environment. Combined with other measures such as better and more effective waste disposal, less use of fossil fuel and less destruction of our natural environment we could, in theory,  save ourselves from the inevitable destruction of our planet.
There are arguments against this which suggest that it is actually wheat farming that is destructive to our environment, and as I am in no way shape or form a scientist I can’t really give an informed opinion here, but let’s just say for arguments sake that the vegans are right and cutting out animal farming would help the environment. I can get behind that, and I can see the sense in it.

But what happens to the animals?

This is what confuses me. Ethical vegetarians who abhor the murder of innocent animals, who also tend to be against zoo’s and anything that stops an animal having a natural life, people who use cruelty free hash tags and spend a lot of time talking about all the very horrible things that farming, particularly factory farming, does to animals, when these people say that a vegan diet is good for the environment I have to wonder if they realize the implication of what they are saying. Yes, it does look like a vegan diet would be good for the environment. But that is because the animals many of us eat now wouldn’t be there anymore, not just because we stopped eating them. Note; this is all under the assumption that the ultimate goal is to get the majority of the population in this country and in the world at large to eat a vegan diet, and also that this is a matter of urgency as our environmental situation is getting steadily bleaker. This is not realistically going to happen, but I think it’s an interesting starting point.

Sure, they could all be left to fend for themselves in the ‘wild’. If that was the case, and the animals were simply left to their own devices, I doubt it would change their environmental footprint that much. The weaker ones may die and over time they may evolve, perhaps beyond recognition (as it is pretty obvious years of selective breeding and humans interfering has drastically warped what these animals used to be) , but how long would that take? They can’t just be  left to graze the fields all day like they are already doing if the reason we should become vegan is because these animals, and the land they take up, is harmful to the environment. There are far too many of them as they are mass bred to create meat, but if you are an ethical vegan who is against the killing of animals would you justify culling them to help the environment? And how many would you need to cull if that was the case? You can have wild cows, and wild goats and sheep. But you can’t allow the whole farm yard population to be wild, and you probably can’t count on a whole bunch of them naturally dying straight away. So if you are an ethical vegan, would you support the culling of the majority if a few could then be wild and live a natural life?

The transportation and systematic killing of these animals would cease if the population became vegan, so that would slash the carbon footprint somewhat, but I’m not sure how much that on it’s own would contribute whilst the animals were still out and about creating methane and eating crops. According to Cowspiracy, Livestock is responsible for 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide.  Cows also apparently produce 150 billion gallons of methane a day. So, clearly, if you want to stop the environmental impact these animals have you would have to do something about the animals themselves, not simply the way they are treated and where and how they are killed.

It is also  very unrealistic to think that if we stopped eating these animals they would be allowed to take up all that land, land that could be used to build houses and probably significantly reduce the housing crisis. Cowspiracy says that livestock or livestock feed occupies 1/3 of the earth’s ice-free land, so if the animals were not providing benefits for us anymore how could their continuing to take up that much space be justified? Whilst I am sure some would protest, once the majority of people stopped having a use for these animals it isn’t exactly a leap to suggest the majority wouldn’t want to allow these animals to keep occupying the land.
So if a country like the UK, or indeed the whole world did become vegan, the farm animal population would inevitably be culled, probably in a very large amount, and it seems fairly likely they would eventually be wiped out altogether as with no further use for them and with evidence that they have a negative impact on the environment I can’t really imagine an alternative solution. This would be a mass animal genocide on a very, very big scale.
I’ve read articles which say that dying would be better for farm animals than living the life they currently have, and that it is better for them all to die and stop existing than for them to live and be killed for food, but I’m not so sure. If your whole ethical basis is that animals should not be killed or mistreated, supporting something that seems to inevitably result in the genocide of a large number of that species doesn’t really make sense to me. It would be fine if you were vegan for environmental reasons, but I just can’t see how ethical veganism and environmental veganism could work together.

I agree that a lot of farming at the moment is incredibly cruel, the treatment of veal and milking cows in particular, but the alternative isn’t necessarily to get rid of it altogether. Is genocide really kinder? We can all agree that factory farming, battery chickens, cramped environments and the many many ways animals are mistreated whilst they are alive are very bad and unnecessary things. But the alternative may not be to just do away with farming and meat altogether.
Free range farming and/or rewilding is a far better alternative to factory farming and may solve the problem of what to do with the animals whilst also helping the environment. Projects like the Knepp Wildlife project give the animals considerably more freedom and allow the different species to intermingle and behave as naturally as possible, whilst allowing natural processes to take place and therefore improving the biodiversity of the land in question. This approach does not use traditional fertilizers or chemicals which, they claim,  has allowed many species of grass and wildflower to be revived.


Rewilding could, in theory, be used more frequently for the good of our environment and would also allow the animals far more freedom than they currently have. The animals would still be killed for food, but the process would be changed as humans would take the role of the ‘natural predator’, I.e they would kill to control the population when necessary, but rather than the systematic breeding and killing of these animals as the only reason for their existence, these animals would have natural and free lives until their death in the same way they may have had before humans took over the death.

Perhaps farm animals probably do need to be culled if we want to significantly reduce our carbon footprint, although this would just be one step in a long list of changes. Perhaps people should stop using animal products and we also killed off more farm animals to make room for all the new vegan crops. We as humans created the farming conditions that exist today, so perhaps we now need to change them in the form of rewilding or perhaps doing away with farming altogether. Perhaps it would be better to kill of three quarters of the current livestock if it means the remaining few could live in the wild and have a natural life and death.
My basic question for you is; if you are against the killing of animals in principle, what would you suggest as an alternative? Do you think it is better to kill all the farm animals off at once so they no longer exist than to kill them for food? Do you think rewilding is a better approach, or do you still oppose the killing of the animals even if they are living a natural life until their death? I’m interested to hear your opinions on the subject and especially any research or articles that may be of interest.

12 thoughts on “Is ethical veganism at odds with the environmental argument?

  1. I’ve never really heard this point of view before. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the whole world to become vegan, but I guess that is the goal. That goal would be reached very gradually so the supply and demand would gradually decrease. That would leave the amount of farm animals being bred to a more minimal number. Therefore a mass killing of animals wouldn’t be necessary because the numbers would just dwindle. I would assume they would be allowed to survive in the wild just as other animals we don’t eat are allowed to.

    Just my take on it 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Maybe it’ll decrease and the meat-eaters will start eating lab meat. If there’s also a bigger push for organic – grass-fed & free-range – meat (which I’m hearing more about these days) then maybe we’ll get to the situation where most of the farms are small ones catering to a certain group/area, backed up by the supply of lab meat….
    Idk. I still eat meat – I just try to get the free-range stuff. (Bit tricky when you’re not in control of the supermarket shop, but I try).


    • If meat eaters start eating lab meat, then surely that means the farm animals have already been killed off. Organic/grass fed/free range is definitely preferable over factory farming, and although it may not seem the individual has any control over what a supermarket stocks if a large enough amount of people do start buying a certain product they will start stocking more of that and less of the other less popular products.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. In an ideal scenario, all farmers would raise their crops and/or animals to best utilise what they have. For example, some scrubland is only suitable for grazing, as there is not enough water to support a full crop but ruminants can take advantage of the various grasses that still grow there. Grazing can also improve the habitats for other wildlife in a way that open cropland cannot. I think what is needed is a balanced and sensible approach to all foods and how they are grown/raised. Also, for meat-eaters, I think it’s time ofr a reduction in the quantity of meat, which actually could lead to an increase of quality. Good for us, good for the planet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ye that sounds like rewilding, which is a really good idea. I think that is a better way of farming as it gives the animals a lot more freedom and is better for the environment, but it is still a form of farming and animals would still be eaten. If that was to be the only way of farming in the future there would have to be less animals as the amount of animals that exist now couldn’t all reside on scrubland etc and it is due to the amount of farm animals that exist that is contributing to global warming, so I don’t think all the animals would have to die, but I do think they would have to be culled and the killing of animals would continue. I just don’t think that never killing animals and yet siting the benefits of not eating meat for the environment works together, because one does not exist without the other.


  4. This is a great piece, thought-provoking. As a new vegetarian working my way towards vegan I haven’t yet pondered all of the facets. This gives me much to consider. I appreciate the time and research you put into writing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am as concerned for the inhumane treatment of animals in cafos as I am for the poisoning of the air, water and soil for miles around them, but my earliest years were spent on a farm, and I know what the lives of truly pastured animals are like. I do feel there is a place for small-farm animal husbandry.

    I applaud your courage in bringing this up, as well as your quite interesting point about what would happen to the animals if suddenly the entire world went vegan. Bred as they are for penned, rather short lives, most farm animals likely have no defenses left for coping with the non-human predators they would encounter in the wild. I think you are correct that we might see the demise of such species rather quickly, unless we managed their return to the wild very carefully over generations.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for liking my latest blog post. To address your issues, the proportion of people becoming vegan is at best likely to rise very gradually, so the numbers of animals being bred for meat, dairy and other animal products should fall accordingly (if the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and similar subsidies elsewhere in the world were to be abolished). The farm animal population would not be ‘culled’, because fewer would be bred as more people become vegan. Again, on a slow evolutionary basis, animals whose genetics have been modified would evolve to being ‘re-wilded’ over a process of several generations. At the risk of hijacking your blog to promote mine, there are other ecological issues with veganism which I have covered here:

    Please feel free to comment on it and let me know your opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree with several of the commenters, the scenario you have written about is what would happen if SUDDENLY the whole world went vegan, tomorrow… But this is hardly likely. If a wave of people became vegan, then the price would drop out of the meat market, a number of farmers would stop breeding cattle/sheep/chickens and shift their production to vegetables, and so on. Even if this happened fairly rapidly it is more likely that production would dwindle at a moderate pace.
    This model does not save the current animals, but results in a gradual shift to a model where animals are not bred in cruelty for the purpose of being eaten, without regard for their sentience.
    It was interesting what Myzania said about eating lab-meat – although that still maintains the market for animal flesh and would no doubt result in a black market for ‘real’ animals…

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is true, but the fact remains that if the population was heading towards becoming vegan the amount of animals being bred would be reduced, meaning that less of those animals would co exist with us and, assuming the world did become vegan (Which is of course a very hypothetical scenario that no one is suggesting would happen in real life), I would also assume that less and less animals would be bred until the population of cows, pigs, sheep etc would become extinct, except perhaps for a few animals in various zoos.

      Therefore if humans stop eating meat, even if it is a slow process, the animals we commonly eat would stop being bred because they would no longer be of use to us and would eventually be severely lessened and possibly extinct. Therefore whether you believe this is a positive outcome or not, being an ethical vegan because you love the very animals that would eventually stop existing if the world became vegan doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

      So my question is; is it better to live for a shorter time period (in a free range ethical way of course) and then be killed for meat, or is it better not to exist at all?


  8. Pingback: Why being a vegetarian is easier than eating meat | lazyvegetarianmealideas

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