Will Going Vegan Save the World? Maybe not

A study done by Helmi Risku-Norja and Sirpa Kurppa of MTT Agrifood Research Finland found that if everyone switched to being vegan , only eating fruits and vegetables, then the reduction of greenhouse gases would only be 7%.   So assuming this is true, anyone who is purely vegan for environmental reasons may be making a mistake.  More so is that in a game of dominant strategy, if you wanted to maximize your benefit of saving the planet vs. eating meat, you would need everyone to switch to vegan in order to get the small benefit.   But you can’t rely on everyone to do that.  Since meat is so tasty, the benefit of eating meat certainly outweighs the decision to go vegan.  Unless of course you went vegan for other reasons, such as health (arguable) or ethics.

Of course this game assumes the conclusions are true.  I am of course skeptical of this study, and since I can’t read it, I really can’t say for sure.  But, the article helps illustrate their point: (emphasis mine)

The team explains that for current average food consumption, in Finland, emissions from soil represent 62% of the total emissions. Greenhouses gases released by cows and sheep account for 24%, and energy consumption and fertiliser manufacture about 8% each. The greenhouse emissions performance for extensive organic production is poor, they explain, despite this approach to farming being considered the “green” option, the lower efficiency requires the cultivation of greater areas of soil, which counteracts many of the benefits.

That’s an interesting argument. Non-organic farming does produce more yield per acre. However, here is my issue. 1. This is in Finland, drastically different than elsewhere, especially the United States. I can speculate on their food consumption habits being less turf and more surf. 2. What “greenhouse gases” were they measuring? What raised my eyebrow was that meat emissions were only 24% and the article only listed cows and sheep. Isn’t methane worse? Is methane generated from the extra amount of land needed for organic farming? Either the Finnish (is that right?) don’t eat enough cows and sheep compared to the United States, or I have underestimated the amount of greenhouse gases created from an acreage of farmland. Statistics are not easily available to compare, making these conclusions immediately suspect.

HT: Free Market Mojo

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4 responses to “Will Going Vegan Save the World? Maybe not

  1. Leaving aside the questions about the validity of the science, I’m not sure I follow your logic that since a vegan diet *only* reduces greenhouse gases by 7% (should be the same per person whether it’s everyone or just one person, right?), it’s a “mistake.” That would mean that the benefit of eating meat (“tastiness”) is worth increasing global greenhouse gases by 7.5%. This is a huge increase with an enormous global effect.

    Perhaps it would be necessary, if non-meat foods were taste-less, but that is not true; our choice is not between steak and dry grass. Most people find chocolate cake and strawberries, for instance, very tasty.

    There is an enormous variety of vegan foods (name all the animals you eat. now name all the plants) to suit different tastes and completely meet nutrition needs. Does personal preference and habit make a sound justification to increase our personal load on the atmosphere by 7.5%?

    A person does not need to be vegan to make a dent in this load – by this study’s measure, being vegan one day per week cuts 1%, the same as driving 15 fewer miles per week (source, The Low Carbon Diet, Gershon, 2007).

  2. Thinking that choosing to eat meat is an increase is incorrect. We already choose to eat meat therefore there is no change in the amount of greenhouse gases being emitted. The only change that would happen is if “everyone” decided to not eat meat. In that case, we would have the benefit of decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions by 7%. (Assuming the study is true for Finland, this may not be the case for other countries who have different eating habits, different agricultural production systems, etc…) The logic is this: to maximize the benefit of decreasing greenhouse gases by going vegan can only be yielded by “everyone” going vegan. Since you can’t assume that “everyone” will go vegan, you won’t maximize the benefit. Since not everyone will convert for the sake of the planet, (this is the only variable in the decision) people will not give up the pleasure of eating meat to do so. You need to assume that people are giving up meat in order to save the planet, which in this case, isn’t worth it. If you were to go vegan, (at least in Finland) your decision should be made given health or ethical circumstances, not for the sake of the planet.

  3. Hi, thanks for the response. Let’s take a look.

    In the first part of your response, we are just looking at the same view from different points. I know greenhouse gases will not go up from what it is now due to people’s continuing to eat meat, but I am pointing out that it is a choice people make (you may be thinking of it as the default, a given) that causes current greenhouse gases to be 7.5% worse than they would otherwise be (if we did not eat meat). I am putting a cost on what we are currently doing, as opposed to just looking at the benefit of what some do-gooders might do. It’s the same gases, just looked at from underneath (current 100 g – 7%=93 g, but optimal 93 g back up to 100 g is 7.5% increase).

    Starting with your “logic is this” section, I agree that the study says the maximum benefit can only be yielded by everyone going vegan and that not everybody will, so therefore the maximum will not be attained. Agreed. However, I make the assumption that the maximum benefit is attained roughly proportionally, so that each person who goes vegan can expect to reduce their personal contribution by 7%. Is there something going on that the study says the first few thousand people who go vegan do not attain 7% savings in their own output? If not, each person can make their own decision whether they would like to reduce their personal little greenhouse gas load, unilaterally, regardless of what every other human is doing. And in that case I return to my first point that 7.5% of the meat-eater’s gas load is due to discretionary diet choice.

    I could apply the same arguments towards using recycled paper, or not emptying bottles of motor oil into the canal. Sure, maximum benefit would be attained only if we all did the right thing, but that’s no excuse to do whatever I want myself – if there are two of us dumping motor oil, do I get to say, “Why should I stop? The canal won’t get maximum benefit unless he stops too!” Do the last two meat-eaters get to point the finger at each other? We all get proportional results when we act on our own.

    This is empowering, because it means we don’t have to wait for other people, to do what we think is best for the planet.

    • The article detailing the study does not include any helpful information other than the fact that if everyone in Finland ended their consumption of meat, then the reduction of greenhouse gases would be a total of 7%. Keep that in mind.

      I see where you are going with your comment: that you are trying to measure how much of an impact a vegan would make personally by deducing it from said statement above. However, you can’t assume it would scale like that, especially considering this is a percentage. The type of function/model/method they used to obtain that number may not be linear as you propose, so assuming otherwise would just be speculation. Of course, seeing the study would help, but I am sure it won’t be linear given complexity.

      The authors are not trying to make a point in evaluating one’s marginal impact. The point of the study is to evaluate the total impact of Finland’s complex agricultural and consumption system on greenhouse gases. They are trying to evaluate the total effect of everyone’s personal impact in a hypothetical situation derived from our current situation. Here is their conclusion, emphasis mine:

      “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions through food consumption would require large-scale changes among the entire population, the team points out. They suggest that rather than stressing the impact of an individual citizen’s dietary choices, we should be paying more attention to social learning and to the notion of working towards food sustainability and security. In general, sustainable consumption might be possible by introducing services to substitute for material consumption. Although food itself cannot be substituted, a lot can be done at the household level to improve sustainability of food provisioning and reduce food wastage.”

      What they note is that a change in personal impact is marginal (as I explained in my post, and could elaborate more mathematically with said fact at the beginning of my comment) and that a much more complex structural change in agriculture needs to occur if greenhouses gases are to be minimized effectively for agriculture.

      I agree with this conclusion and I believe that going Vegan only for reasons of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is ineffective.

      As for my gaming arguments being applied towards emptying bottles of motor oil into a canal. Yes, one can say “if you can dump your motor oil, then I can dump it too!” But we can’t because we have acknowledged its toxic effect and made it illegal to do so specifically because we know people will dump it if they can. (Some people still do regardless of the cost of jail and fines)

      The same would have to be done for meat. Why would one give up meat if someone else doesn’t give up meat? The sole fact that one DOES NOT want to give up meat is the trade off. Unless you make the sale and consumption of meat illegal, (which I am sure you would be happy to do) then you won’t be able to convince everyone to eat vegetables solely on the fact of saving the environment given they knew this information.

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