Monday, November 15, 2010

Being Vegan is worse for the environment?

This past Thursday I leafleted a couple college campuses with Vegan Outreach materials to ensure that I didn't lose my place on the all time leafleting totals (nothing wrong with some healthy competition to help the animals). The first school I stopped at that day, West Valley College, was one of the most receptive schools I've ever been to. At West Valley College, however, I also talked to a young gentleman who tried to tell me that vegetarianism was actually worse for the environment and that the world couldn't sustain an all vegetarian human population. I wasn't out there trying to promote vegetarianism for environmental reasons, but I definitely didn't want environmental concerns to keep someone from giving fair consideration to non-human interests, so I mentioned that the error bars on any such study would have to be very large considering the difficulty of predicting what technologies might become practical under different economic circumstances, and that many estimates predict the earth can't sustain its current human population at all in the long run. I was being very modest since I certainly still believed there are environmental benefits to reducing our consumption of meat (in most cases), but this gentleman had not given me many details to work with. He dismissed my skeptical remarks adding that he had really looked into this in the past and was quite knowledgeable on the subject. He left me with the statement, “You should really look into it, man.” Needless to say I was still quite doubtful of his conclusion, but I am not one to pass up the chance to research a sketchy claim.

I began by doing a few Google searches to get an idea of where the claim may have originally come from: “Vegetarianism is worse for environment”, “Vegetarian bad for evironment”. All the top hits I got for these searches seemed to trace back to a single source. If I dug down a few pages into the results I found a couple older results, which generally traced back to the Weston A. Price foundation, but all the top results (that were relevant to my query) were published on or after Feb. 12, 2010. The earliest of these was an article published in The Telegraph titled, Becoming vegetarian 'can harm the environment'. Like all the other top results I was getting, this article in The Telegraph mentioned a Cranfield University study commissioned by the WWF. My task became clear. I had to track down this vaguely referenced study.

Luckily, the Telegraph article included a single quote from the study. “A switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK.” This was the key I needed, and I was able to track this quote down to a pdf available on the WWF website. This study was affiliated with Cranfield University and was published a little less than a month prior to the Telegraph article. This was clearly the study being referenced. How Low Can We Go?: An assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system and the scope for reduction by 2050.

My first thought was to check the methodology of this study, to make sure everything seemed appropriate and that it hadn't left out anything like forgetting to count feed crops toward livestock's impact, instead of putting it down as vegetarian food (I can hardly believe the things some people think we eat). The methodology was not just sound, but incredibly thorough, not just counting the feed toward livestock, but refrigeration, transportation, packaging, cooking, every single detail and bit of greenhouse gas seemed to be getting counted. I was beginning to think I may need to reconsider my views on the environmental consequences of vegetarianism, but first I needed to see the results to understand this conclusion for myself.

Very little of the study actually had to do with vegetarianism. The study was about the environmental (specifically in terms of greenhouse gasses) impact of our food choices, and vegetarianism only came up because one out of dozens of scenarios they looked into to mitigate future impact was adopting a no-meat diet. It seemed strange that all of the articles I had read had focused so much on this small aspect of the study, but it was what had attracted me to the articles in the first place, so I wasn't going to blame them for reporting on the bit that seemed interesting.

I still had not seen the original quote from The Telegraph that led me to this study in the first place, and as I read through the results they seemed to be in line what I would have expected. Beef seemed to be worst for the environment in nearly every area studied. Poultry was a far better (environmentally speaking) alternative to beef, and performed at roughly the same level most plant foods did. I was just waiting to come across some bombshell that would be an unexpected hit against vegetarianism. Production? No. Transportation? No. Packaging? No. Refrigeration? No. Disposal? No. Then I came to Table 24, which had results from their various scenarios for reducing future emissions (Click to enlarge).

Mitigation Techniques for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Not only did no-meat reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it performed better than any other single measure looked at in the study even beating out such far-fetched alternatives as “zero fossil fuels”. I finished reading through the conclusion of the study and still did not find the quote from The Telegraph that had led me to this study in the first place. The conclusion did feel the need to mention the no-meat scenario however:

Diet provides single measures with big effects. In addition, these measures are technically feasible now. The most effective single measure (meat-free diet) gives a 20% reduction. The benefit of a vegetarian diet increases to about 38% when our estimates of LUC [Land Use Change] emissions are included, but this excludes the loss of soil carbon if UK grassland was converted to arable cropping. Our analysis of the effects of the production of substitutes leads to the conclusion that a broad reduction in livestock product consumption balanced by broad-based increases in crop product intake is a more feasible measure which avoids the land use burden associated with soy based livestock product analogues. A 66% reduction in livestock products delivers a 15% reduction in supply chain emissions. Moreover, reduction in ruminant production in particular will reduce methane emissions.

The main dietary changes examined would involve substantial social change. This is quite likely to be the largest barrier. Meat, milk and eggs have been part of our diet for centuries. While a substantial minority actively embrace a meat free or vegan diet, most consumers will continue to consume livestock products. The better nutritional properties of the animal products compared with the non-animal alternatives mean that vitamin supplementation is required. However manufacturing vitamin supplementation appears to be trivial in energy and GHG terms owing to the very small quantities needed.
(p.73 of pdf)

The conclusions were clearly quite in favor of adopting a vegetarian diet for environmental reasons, if anything slightly more favorable than I would have anticipated coming into this paper. The question remained, where had that quote from The Telegraph come from? I did a search of the pdf and found it, not in the conclusion, but rather in the introduction.

A switch from red to white meat will reduce supply chain emissions by 9% but this would increase our reliance on imported soy meal substantially. Our analysis indicates that the effect of a reduction in livestock product consumption on arable land use (which is a critical component of the link with deforestation) will depend on how consumers compensate for lower intakes of meat, eggs and dairy products. A switch from beef and milk to highly refined livestock product analogues such as tofu and Quorn could actually increase the quantity of arable land needed to supply the UK. In contrast, a broad-based switch to plant based products through simply increasing the intake of cereals and vegetables is more sustainable. We estimate that a 50% reduction in livestock production consumption would release about 1.6 Mha of arable land (based on the yield of crops supplying the UK) used for livestock feed production. This would be off-set by an increase of about 1.0 M ha in arable land needed for direct crop consumption (based on UK yields). In addition to the release of arable land, between 5 and 10 Mha of permanent grassland would be available for extensification, other uses, or re-wilding. Such changes would open up ‘game-changing’ opportunities but there needs to be careful assessment made in the development policy if unintended consequences are to be avoided.
(p.8-9 of pdf)

It appears that in the middle of a paragraph describing how a reduction in livestock consumption and a switch to plant based products would be beneficial, a quote on how not all processed foods obey this trend has been quote mined. The mass release of the idea that vegetarianism is worse for the environment did not trace back to a study but rather to media reporting, and now I wanted to track down where the reporting originally went wrong.

I tracked down every English news article that I could find via Google in which this study was being referenced. The list is relatively short, but these sources were then picked up by blogs and echoed all over the internet. I took down several relevant bits of information about how each source reported on the study. Here are my results:

Date Source Title Vegetarian “How Low Can We Go” Cranfield Donal Murphy-Bokern
01/15/10

Farmers Guardian

Major report focuses on food chain emissions No Yes No No
01/18/10 WWF Emissions from UK food industry far higher than believed No Yes No No
01/18/10 Farmers Weekly Interactive Farm emissions 'far higher than thought' Yes (in quote by dairy farmer) Yes No No
01/22/10 Taylor Vinters UK food system ''must reduce carbon emissions'' No Yes No No
01/27/10 The Land UK food system emissions higher than thought No Yes No No
02/18/10 Green Fudge WWF study shows environmental impact of food No Yes No No
02/12/10 The Telegraph Becoming vegetarian 'can harm the environment' Yes No Yes Yes
02/12/10 The Times Online Tofu can harm environment more than meat, finds WWF study Yes No Yes Yes
02/13/10 The Med Guru Tofu hurts environment more than meat—study Yes No Yes Yes
02/13/10 The Australian Tuck in and save the planet: Eating red meat is the new way to be green Yes No Yes No
02/13/10 Daily Mail How being vegetarian does more harm to the environment than eating meat Yes No Yes Yes
02/28/10 Meat Trade News Daily Ireland - Vegetarians damaging the planet Yes No Yes Yes

Full Data Set

I have grouped the news stories into two separate categories and then sorted them by date. The first group seems to have done a good job of reporting on the story. They all mention the title of the study they are discussing, none of the mention Cranfield University, which is hardly mentioned in the study, and the only time vegetarianism is mentioned by any of them is in a quote given by a dairy farmer to one of the articles. The second group on the other hand did not report on the study appropriately. All of them mention the word vegetarian multiple times, they all mention Cranfield University, most of them include the name of a single author, Donal Murphy-Bokern, and not a single one remembers to include the title of the study they are discussing. It is clear that several of the later ones let their imaginations loose with even the quote mined version of the quote turning a study which has condemned beef and red meat along every step of the way into, “eating red meat is the new way to be green.”

Both The Daily Telegraph and The Times Online include the clearly quote mined quote in their articles. One hint that The Times may be the guilty party is that the Daily Telegraph references a quote from Liz O'Neil, the spokesperson for the Vegetarian Society, as being given to The Times, and the article in The Times also includes the same quote. In any case, these early stories were picked up and clearly manipulated by other news outlets who appear to not even have been aware of the name of the study they were addressing. If you can't be buggered to read a study that you are writing an article about, then perhaps it is time for you to get out of journalism. Everyone who reported on this as being a mark against vegetarianism clearly did not do their due diligence at best. There is no reason why any journalist should not have been able to track down and read the original study just as I did.

Now if only I had some way of tracking down that young man I talked to at West Valley College.

48 comments:

  1. Oh. My. Gosh. You are amazing for doing this. Thank you so much! Some of those articles you linked to were painful to read. How they are twisting this study is disgusting!

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  3. Thorough on the research. On a related note and I dunno if a study, let alone a good one :P, has been done on it, nor what the results would be, but I have been introduced to the idea that not all land on which livestock/poultry is grown is suitable for growing crops on (think particularly hilly land). It seems to be an idea that is rare to encounter on either side of the debate. Maybe something for your next google metastudy if you are so inclined. :)

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  4. There's a book called "The Vegetarian Myth" by L. Keith that could be the source.

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  5. Just wanna say, thanks for doing all this work. Good job.

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  6. Excellent work!

    I'm more concerned about Simon Fairlie's book (which, admittedly, I haven't yet read) than about these news articles, though. When it emerges States-side, it'g gonna be thrown in every vegan face for months on end, the way Lierre Keith's was.

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  7. Thank you for writing this!

    Didn't know poultry was environmentally way better than beef.

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  8. Thanks for this thorough analysis and write up.

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  9. Pubmed--you would like it, if you've not been there already. Google scholarly search is also nice, but with pubmed you can filter out for articles that are reviews, and are available for free.

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  10. Thanks for this. You've done an excellent job getting the facts and doing the research necessary to help your readers understand important information. Now, if you could only convince every journalist to do the same thing!! Kudos :)

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  11. Thanks for all your work. I despise the anti-vegan bias prevalent in journalistic circles, including among those who report on the environment.

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  12. I have heard a legitimate argument for cutting emissions via an omnivorous diet. The argument is that animals are excellent at turning what would otherwise be waste (e.g. straw) and turning it in to food, rather than let it biodegrade (and turn back in to CO2). Thus meat in small quantities can actually be a useful part of the food supply. You can see the main article here :

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/06/meat-production-veganism-deforestation

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    1. Straw is not waste. It serves as raw material for soil organisms and breaks down into nutrients for the subsequent crop.

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  13. Thanks for doing all this work! Happy to see a smart vegan blog to add to my feed reader.

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  14. Hey, post it to MediaBugs.org--a site dedicated to citizen journalists spotting errors in reporting. Hopefully it'll help you catch someone's eye!

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  15. Very detailed investigation, thanks! :)

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  16. There is something to be said about efficiency vs better for the environment. It can be argued that a more efficient solution will not always be the best solution (King Solomon anyone?).

    That said, I did find an article on Slate from earlier that 2010, dating from 2007 in the Cornell Chronicle about the overall efficiency of land usage. While it may be true that Veganism/Vegetarianism may use less resources overall in an ideal environment, arable land is not ideal, and as was mentioned before, some land would be better used as animal-grazing land. We don't have the stomach for wild grasses.

    I wish my google-fu could dig up the actual study results, but they appear to have been lost in the ether. It should be available offline though.

    http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Oct07/diets.ag.footprint.sl.html

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    1. One of the studies that suggests organic farms require the traditional blend of animals for a reason. Even if we don't eat them, I suppose... http://dp.biology.dal.ca/sask99/paper.html

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  17. looks like you got trolled into a TL;DR

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  18. Great job! It's very good to see someone research their stuff so thoroughly.

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  19. I am wondering why the World Wrestling Federation (WWF)is involved in such matters? Clearly they do not know much about science. Seriously though, hilly land has been and can be well used to grow plant materials for human consumption. Lets not justify harming and killing other animals for our pleasure with the shadow of land that is not perfectly flat.

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  20. I knew it! I absolutely KNEW it! When I read that quote the other day my first thought was 'yeah, but that's just talking about tofu. It doesn't say anything about vegan diets in general.'I could tell intuitively that something important wasn't being said. Thank you for doing all that work, and proving to my intellect what my instinct already suspected!!!

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  21. Doesnt matter either way. Best thing we can do is stop breeding so much.

    the thule and descendants were most environmentally friendly culture known despite many tribes being completely carnivorous. the important difference was population density.

    that said, ive seen things like this,

    http://grassbasedhealth.blogspot.com/2010/05/converting-grass-into-meat.html

    but that is from an obviously biased source. ive yet to see the whole math on either end done with reputable sources cited. instead ive only seen quick sketches like the above always from biased sources, and thus, i dont believe any of them yet.

    btw, im glad this blog exists. ive already debunked so much BS from peta, pcrm etc. i almost cringe when a vegan advocate blabs about "some study" thats almost always cited out of context, has been refuted years ago, or mysteriously cant be found.

    its nice to see better sources and its very refreshing that you actually cite sources.

    --anonymous skeptic

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  22. What's more rare than a vegan? A vegan with healthy skepticism, who is proficient in critical thinking, reduction in fallacy logic and wise reasoning!
    So glad I found you and your posts!
    Compos Mentis!

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  23. Agreed! Thank you for the research ..
    There is also the fact that killing animals is just wrong, without even discussing the process they use to do it.. horrible
    Skip meat anytime you

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  24. This piece is laughable. Despite all your research you failed to address what this article was really talking about. It may seem like bad reporting to you, but your attack was on the headline rather than the content of the article. Yes the headline claimed that vegetarianism is bad for the environment but the focus of this article was how tofu is bad for the environment. At one point in the article it quoted Donal Murphy-Bokern who expressly said: "Simply eating more bread, pasta and potatoes instead of meat is more environmentally friendly." This is not an attack on vegetarian lifestyle, rather it points out the environmental harm of tofu. Of course a no meat lifestyle is going to reduce greenhouse gasses, but it is the reliance on tofu over naturally grown food that could have the same or a greater environmental impact. You ignored the articles explanation: "The figures used in the report are based on a number of questionable assumptions about how vegetarians balance their diet and how the food industry might respond to increased demand." If more people become vegetarian and eat an equal amount of tofu to the amount of meat eaten, then of course it becomes genuinely harmful. Your clear bias comes from the fact that you immediately looked at this article as bashing vegetarianism instead of a critique of processed meat substitute. The final statement and conclusion of Collins' article says:" The National Farmers' Union said the study showed that general arguments about vegetarianism being beneficial to the environment were too simplistic." this statement does not damn the diet of a vegetarian but acknowledges an idea shown throughout the article - that it is not cut and dry. Your response also clearly disregarded the points relating to deforestation. Parts of this article (although admittedly not very detailed) discussed the collapse of the british farming and the loss of legal protection over forests and uncultivated land. Clearly consuming massive amounts of meat do the environment no good, but consuming an equal amount of tofu isn't much better. I will agree with you on one thing - the article titled 'eating red meat is the new green is a complete manipulation of what is stated in the article and the evidence provided in the study. However, you seem to think that the article does not reflect the facts provided in the study. On this point I disagree. The article and this study line up on several points, all of which you refuse to acknowledge. Nevertheless one idea is painfully clear. As stated by Collins article: "If you're aiming to reduce your environmental impact by going vegetarian then it's obviously not a good idea to rely on highly processed products" (O'neil) and the Study: "In contrast, a broad-based switch to plant based products through simply increasing the intake of cereals and vegetables is more sustainable." Bad reporting, eh? Doesn't seem so far off to me.

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    1. Years late on the reply, I realize, but seriously, I have never ever met a vegan or vegetarian who eats large amounts of tofu daily. My family of four eats maybe 16 oz tofu a week perhaps on rare occasion twice that. According to the USDA, the average individual omni person in the US eats 10 lbs of meat a week. So my family would need to eat 20- 40 times more tofu than we do now in order to eat an equivalent amount.

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    2. Soy is horrible for the body ,unless it is fermented. Soy suppresses the thyroid gland as an example.

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  25. Anonymous Jan 14: “Despite all your research you failed to address what this article was really talking about. It may seem like bad reporting to you, but your attack was on the headline rather than the content of the article.”


    What article are YOU talking about? Vegan Skeptic referenced numerous articles and clearly stated that some did a good job of reporting about this study; others not so good. He read and referred to the content of the articles – including instances of quote mining - not just the headlines. It would be helpful if you’d give us a hint which article you are working so hard to defend.

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  26. Seemed like an interesting subject matter. However I couldn't continue past the first paragraph due to this piece being so badly written.

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  27. I just read that article from February 2012, and I'm glad to see that you have done the due diligence on the sources! Thank you for the extraordinarily thorough and well-written analysis.

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  28. The health costs associated with meat eaters are greater than those associated with vegetarians due to the higher disease load. And health procedures too have a carbon footprint so if that was factored in I believe the GHG reduction from switch to plant-based diet would be even more significant.
    In any case tofu is something of a red herring. No vegan is under any dietary obligation to eat it and I know many in fact who don't like it or don't feel it is a necessary part of their nutritional intake.

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    1. I rarely eat tofu, I do like soy milk though. Meat substitutes are junk food, it's okay sometimes but not as a staple. Tofu is kind of a beginner vegan food. All the vegans I know who stick with the dietary change usually don't eat very much tofu at all.

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    2. Soy is horrible for the body unless it is fermented.98% of Soy is GMO in the U.S. Soy suppress thyroid function.

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  29. “The argument is that animals are excellent at turning what would otherwise be waste (e.g. straw) and turning it in to food, rather than let it biodegrade (and turn back in to CO2).”

    And

    “I have been introduced to the idea that not all land on which livestock/poultry is grown is suitable for growing crops”.

    These are false premises that are often used in defence of maintaining the status quo (eating animals).

    Re:The first quote. Would any waste straw be generated – or be generated in the quantities that it currently is if animal agricultural didn’t exist? Feeding plant matter to animals to make ‘food’ is highly inefficient. There are many useful ways to recycle the energy contained within ‘waste plant material’ for energy including biodynamic fertilisation.

    Re: Second quote. Given that up to 90% (depending on crop type) of all plant crops are grown to feed animals for human consumption (rather than to feed humans directly) – if we reduce the ‘middle man’ – the animal and fed the crops straight to people we’d easily reduce the amount of land needed for crops by 50% (that is being very conservative) – then there would be no need to ‘farm animals’ on ‘marginal land – it can be left to regenerate to its ‘natural’ state and likewise with the land that is no longer needed to grow crops to feed animals.

    So the ‘argument’ that you can grow animals on marginal land that you couldn’t grow crops on is specious and or wilfully ignorant.

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    1. "Re:The first quote. Would any waste straw be generated – or be generated in the quantities that it currently is if animal agricultural didn’t exist? Feeding plant matter to animals to make ‘food’ is highly inefficient" Really? Have you seen a ruminant animal recently? They are quite good in doing that, you need nothing: a field, grass and after a wile you have milk, meat and even wool!

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    2. I wish you were right, but I reckon that if everyone became vegetarian the extra land wouldn't be left to go back to its original state but developed in other ways, eg turned into housing or used for other industries. This point feels pretty tangential to your overall argument, but you just got me thinking about the impacts of adding more concrete to the world - what does having cement over a field mean compared to stocking it with animals and at least some vegetation? Not being facetious, genuine question! What do you guys think?

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  30. Oh my god you are my favourite person ever. As a statistics student, I hate the way journalists misuse quotes and stats. Imagine the hard work these researchers did being completely wasted by shitty critics that are too lazy to read the article! My jimmies are rustled.

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  31. 1) I respect your choice to not eat meat, and while I sometimes eat a vegetarian meal, it's only occasional and for the taste of that particular dish.
    2) Your Research seems one sided, so to promote discussion I present to you a study that contradicts your arguement.

    http://theconversation.com/ordering-the-vegetarian-meal-theres-more-animal-blood-on-your-hands-4659

    Chris

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    1. http://www.theflamingvegan.com/view-post/A-Response-to-the-Article-Ordering-the-Vegetarian-Meal-There-s-More-Animal-Blood-on-Your-H

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  32. Fails to take into account arable land on geographical level, some countries have very limited arable land and a lot more land that is able to be used for livestock grazing. Also fails to take into account that important wildlife habitats are maintained through grazing and its importance in maintaining rare habitats for nationally rare species. There is an arrogance in telling countries they should be dependent on other countries for their source of food. This would leave them very vulnerable to famine in the event of an international crisis or they would have to submit their rights as a nation to the control of another country.

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  33. There is anothe point they always forget: Production, to make food on an agroecological way you need plants, trees and animals, if you remove animals from the equation it's a tragedy for the biodiversity (meadows and pastoral land been far more rich than big cultivated fields), chemical fertilizers would have to been use to compensate the animal drops. Another point, replacing leather, wool and feathers with plastic is completely idiotic, even vegan leather is full of plastic glue to bond together the vegetable fabrics, this means more plastic on a world full of plastic... Here is an interesting link to the use of animals in permaculture:
    http://treeyopermacultureedu.wordpress.com/animal-systems/

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  34. Thank you for this extensive bit of research. It's quite fascinating. I'm not at all surprised to find so many people referencing (and mis-referencing) their sources.
    For a more in-depth source, look for Dr. Frank Mitloehner.
    http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2010/march/eating-less-meat-and-dairy-products-wont-have-major-impact-on-global-warming.html

    He's the person who originally disputed the 2006 UN study. He corrected them on their omission of critical data. However an important thing to know about him is that he's an 'animal scientist' at UC Davis.

    Also *for the love of god (and my eyes)* could you change the background on this blog??

    thanks

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  35. I think it's a difficult question. Sometimes people don't seem to distinguish between veganism and vegetarianism, but the difference can be huge. In many vegetarian recipees, meat is replaced with cheese. However some meats (such as poultry) are actually less bad for the environment than cheese.
    Vegans and vegetarians do have to replace meat with other foods to consume enough fats, protein and other nutrients. They probably will consume more nuts (not environmentally friendly at all, lots of water needed for cultivation) and other products such as quinoa, avocados and other products which may or may not be so bad for the environment, I really don't know. I wonder if anyone can say anything useful about this unless they made a thorough study of the environmental impact of the diets of many different types of meat-eaters and vegetarians.

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  36. This is a great inspiring article.I am pretty much pleased with your good work.You put really very helpful information. Keep it up. Keep blogging. Looking to reading your next post.
    ADG Consulting

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  37. Thank you for your article and the research you put into it. I especially like the comments I've read and how they are providing a dialogue and not just attacking either side. I like to look into things myself. And I tend to think very critically so I like when both sides of any argument are presented to make an informed decision. I'm trying to write a blog "Carnivore's Guide to Veganism". I personally keep going back and forth on my feelings about this. There are practices on both sides that don't seem beneficial/health/etc.

    Again, I appreciate your level headed approach to a challenge.

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  38. Kudos for putting in the hard work required to get at the bottom of this misinformation. Too bad sloppy reporting made it necessary.

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