New Scientist Says Meh to a Vegan World

Last Updated: July 22, 2010

New Scientist’s food reporting is generally first rate, but not this time around. Here, we’ve got a rambling article advocating reduced meat consumption, but the inclusion of some meat in the diet. It’s as if the author is determined to push for meat eating regardless of what his evidence suggests would be the best path forward.

The first third of the article starts off strong. We learn that:

Altogether, switching to a vegan diet would reduce the amount of land used for crops by 21 per cent – about 3.4 million square kilometres, roughly the size of India.

Pretty impressive. And yet the article comes out against advocating for a worldwide shift to veganism by asserting that:

Even today, a flock of sheep or goats can be the most efficient way to get food from marginal land.

But if a worldwide vegan diet could reduce the land needed for crops by 21 percent, why not allow this marginal land to revert back to nature?

And it gets worse. The author asserts that factory farms should provide at least some of this meat. He uncritically quotes agricultural economist Walter Falcon:

If you’re going to keep some livestock systems, I think the ones you’ll want to keep are the intensive ones.

In short, we’ve got a frustrating article that calls for less meat production, but the continued existence of factory farms. The article doesn’t look into the animal cruelty that would arise from its proposals. Nor does it offer any substantive analysis supporting its main proposition: that a world with reduced yet still substantial meat production would be environmentally preferable to a world with none.

I think you can make a strong case that certain populations—herdsmen of Mongolia and indigenous Alaskans, for instance—must either include local meat and fish in their diets, or receive vegan food imports from elsewhere. But this article goes further and contends that populations in developed countries would be better off avoiding a vegan diet. We’re given no convincing evidence about why this should be the case.

This is a more fact-heavy piece than the Mother Jones article I blogged yesterday, but the thinking is comparably muddy. (Thanks, Matt.) Link.