Some plant crops are particularly destructive to rainforests, indigenous communities and other native species as well as exploit slave and child labor. In discussions of veganism and animal rights, some people justifiably point to coffee, bananas, palm oil and chocolate as being among the most unethical crops. The problem with this critique is that it often singles out vegans as if only vegans — and all vegans — are responsible for their existence.
First, it’s important to point out that none of these are essential crops needed for human nutrition or for which there are no satisfying substitutes. Nonetheless it is fair to challenge vegans — and everyone else for that matter — to consider the harms caused to marginalized communities, workers and wildlife in crop farming. At the same time it is also important to point out the efforts of veganic agriculture to minimize all of these harms through greenhouse agriculture, no-till cultivation, green manure (in place of animal manure and other animal by-products), the replacement of harmful pesticides and other methods that reduce the impact on the land, animals and ecosystems. The bottom line is that a vegan ethic seeks to reduce harm wherever possible and practical, but never claims to rise to the impossible standard of perfection. Those who dismiss veganism in such a manner are invoking the perfection fallacy.
Second, it is a false equivalency to conclude that the impact of vegans — even vegans who occasionally consume cashews, bananas, coffee and chocolate — is the same as the impact of those who regularly consume a combination of animal products and these ethically problematic plant crops. Consider the following statistics to fully appreciate the impacts of eating animals:
- 70% of food-related GHGs come from animal products (PNAS)
- Animal agriculture produces more GHGs than all transportation combined (UN FAO)
- Swapping beef with beans could help the U.S. meet more than 50% of its emissions goals by the year 2020 (Springer, Climate Change)
- “Beef contributes 34 times more climate pollution than legumes like beans and lentils, pound for pound” (NRDC)
- We feed about half the world’s edible grain crop to farmed animals (Earthsave)
- It takes thirteen pounds of grain to yield just one pound of beef (Cornell)
- Soy and lentils produce, pound for pound, as much protein as beef, and sometimes more (Harvard)
- Raising animals is the #1 cause of global deforestation (UN FAO)
- Humans consume only about 6% of global soy, while farmed animals are fed 70% (Union of Concerned Scientists)
- “Livestock systems occup 45% of the global surface area,” according to International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)
- 1 acre of land yields 12 to 20 times more plant food than animal food (PNAS)
- If U.S. farmers took all the land currently devoted to raising animals and used it to grow plants instead, they could sustain more than twice as many people as they do now, (PNAS)
- Farm animals use about one third of the planet’s freshwater resources. (Science Advances)
- Animal agriculture is the greatest driver of habitat loss globally and the leading cause of species extinction and ocean dead zones (Science)
- Meat, dairy and egg producers overproduce and then dump millions of pounds of animal products every year as our government bails them out with 63% of all farm subsidies (WSJ).
We can have the greatest positive impact with perhaps the least effort by going vegan. And once vegan, there are a whole host of other issues to consider and confront, such as these problematic plant crops. The act of going vegan opens us up to unraveling the layers of deception and misinformation which blinded us to the harms we are causing this planet, and veganism often leads us on a journey that does not just end with replacing animal products. As vegan pioneer Donald Watson articulated many decades ago, the journey is about exploring what is “possible and the practical” in reducing harm in the world.