Vegetarianism Kills Planet! (…but not really…)

The Times Online has an article that leads with this eye-grabbing line:

Becoming a vegetarian can do more harm to the environment than continuing to eat red meat, according to a study of the impacts of meat substitutes such as tofu.

The whole article reads like a demonstration of fallacious argumentation (though, of course, being an article, it is not an argument at all), so I’m going to take it apart piece by piece.

Becoming a vegetarian can do more harm to the environment than continuing to eat red meat, according to a study of the impacts of meat substitutes such as tofu.

Technically correct. It is possible that becoming a vegetarian can do more harm to the environment than continuing to eat red meat. Similarly, it is possible that quitting cigarettes can be more harmful to your health than continuing to smoke them, if you replace smoking cigarettes with smoking crystal meth. But by placing this statement at the head of the article, the reader is given the impression that becoming a vegetarian is likely to do more harm to the environment than continuing to eat red meat. Which is, of course, a lie.

The findings undermine claims by vegetarians that giving up meat automatically results in lower emissions and that less land is needed to produce food.

This is pretty similar to the straw man fallacy, because it implies that “vegetarians”, or some significant portion of them, make the very strong claim that giving up meat automatically results in lower emissions and that less land is needed to produce food. We’re not told which vegetarians have made this claim, following the familiar pattern of “some people say” used by journalists to introduce a notion to the article that has no basis in reality.

The study by Cranfield University, commissioned by the environmental group WWF, found that many meat substitutes were produced from soy, chickpeas and lentils that were grown overseas and imported into Britain.

So, as mentioned earlier, it’s not a study of vegetarianism so much as a study of a particular kind of “meat substitute” product. The underlying assumption is that vegetarians eat a lot of “meat substitutes”, presumably quantities commensurate with how much meat is eaten by meat-eaters. Again, no support is offered for this assumption, despite how much turns on it.

It found that switching from beef and lamb reared in Britain to meat substitutes would result in more foreign land being cultivated and raise the risk of forests being destroyed to create farmland. Meat substitutes also tended to be highly processed and involved energy-intensive production methods.

Again, assuming that people becoming vegetarians are switching from meat to imported meat substitutes.

Lord Stern of Brentford, one of the world’s leading climate change economists, caused uproar among Britain’s livestock farmers last October when he claimed that a vegetarian diet was better for the planet. He told The Times: “Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better.â”

However, the Cranfield study found that the environmental benefits of vegetarianism depended heavily on the type of food consumed as an alternative to meat. It concluded: “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.”

The author uses the word “however” to imply that the Cranfield study’s findings are contrary to Lord Stern’s claims. HOWEVER, nothing about the Cranfield study disputes the greenhouse gases produced or water wasted in farming meat, nor the pressure put on the world’s resources. Nor does it contradict Lord Stern’s claim that a vegetarian diet is better, by any sane or fair representation of his meaning.

A significant increase in vegetarianism in Britain could cause the collapse of the country’s livestock industry and result in production of meat shifting overseas to countries with few regulations to protect forests and other uncultivated land, it added.

This is my very favourite part. Here we are told that if enough people in the UK switched to a vegetarian diet, the British livestock industry could collapse, resulting in British meat-eaters purchasing only meat imported from overseas, where it is farmed far less cleanly than in the UK. The environmental damage caused by UK meat-eaters would increase, and this would be the fault of the British vegetarians.

To really capture the sheer lunacy of this concern, it’s helpful to use the cigarette analogy again. If enough people in the US stopped smoking, it would cause the collapse of the American tobacco-farming industry. The remaining American smokers would then be forced to buy cigarettes from countries with far more relaxed regulation. The health risks caused by smoking and passive smoking in the US would increase, and this would be the fault of the American non-smoking movement.

Not to mention, apparently the market forces of the UK are quite fickle. If Brits stop eating meat, meat will stop being produced locally and will have to be imported. However, if Brits start eating imported “meat substitutes”, apparently no one in the UK will think to start producing them locally. If British vegetarians can be blamed for pushing the meat industry offshore, can’t British meat-eaters be blamed for keeping the meat-substitute industry foreign?

Donal Murphy-Bokern, one of the study authors and the former farming and food science co-ordinator at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “For some people, tofu and other meat substitutes symbolise environmental friendliness but they are not necessarily the badge of merit people claim. Simply eating more bread, pasta and potatoes instead of meat is more environmentally friendly.”

Sounds like a vegetarian diet to me, especially if one were to add, say, fruit and vegetables to the list.

Liz O’Neill, spokeswoman for the Vegetarian Society, said: “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 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, but that doesn’t undermine the fact that the livestock industry causes enormous damage and that moving towards a plant-based diet is good for animals, human health and the environment.”

A very sensible response to the entire premise for the article, sadly framed within said article as a response to the study instead. One is left with the impression that this is the other side of the story, rather than it being clear that there was no story to begin with.

The National Farmers’ Union said the study showed that general statements about the environmental benefits of vegetarianism were too simplistic. Jonathan Scurlock, the NFU’s chief adviser for climate change, said: “The message is that no single option offers a panacea. The report rightly demonstrates the many environment benefits to be had from grazing pasture land with little or no other productive use.”

Similarly, if one produced a study demonstrating that those who quit smoking cigarettes by switching to crystal meth are less healthy than those who continue to smoke cigarettes, that study would technically show that general statements about the health benefits of quitting tobacco were too simplistic.

The study also found that previous estimates of the total emissions of Britain’s food consumption had been flawed because they failed to take account of the impact of changes to the use of land overseas.

Well, good. Frankly, I would have liked to have seen an entire article about this little epilogue than the sensationalised artificially created story we got.

In defence of the author, the title of the article is quite specific: “Tofu can harm the environment more than meat.”

Why is this of any interest? Only a few days after the article was published, here are just a few of the people linking to it or reproducing it with the explicit or implicit assumption that the article actually says that vegetarianism is worse for the environment than eating red meat. (In order of me finding the on Google.)

Secondhand Smoke – in his defence, he qualifies his statement with “at least in the UK”.
The Telegraph – reproduces the original article, with a new title: Becoming vegetarian “can harm the environment”
Fiona Macrae takes it a step further: How being vegetarian does more harm to the environment than eating meat. And it seems that Fiona may have toned down her original wording, as Google caching shows she’s changed from “It is a claim guaranteed to wipe the smug smile off vegetarians’ faces” to “It is a claim that could put a dent in the green credentials of vegetarians”.
Above Top Secret has a thread entitled “Vegitarians are destroying the environment” [sic]
Caroline Stocks of Farmers Weekly Interactive helpfully includes an apparently invented quote in her title: Meat eating ‘greener than veggie diet’
Karl’s Weird News just comes out and says it in his title: Vegetarians are bad for the environment
Don Surber from the Daily Mail is perhaps taking the piss with “Eating meat kills the Earth; going vegan kills the Earth”, but perhaps not.
The Blog Prof
Jason Ramsey of Top News generously includes “might” in: Meat eating might help environment
The Australian doesn’t just reproduce the article, but puts a bit of thought into perpetuating the fallacious reasoning

It’s like a case study in the spread of fallacy.

2 Comments Vegetarianism Kills Planet! (…but not really…)

  1. Sam

    Nicely done. Case study: I know several vegetarians, who will occasionally buy "fake meat" soy products; they almost always eat far less of said products than the average carnivore would of actual meat, and usually only to add variety to otherwise complete vegetarian meals.

    It's a very attractive assumption for some to pass on, that the vegetarians are wrong and you the meat-eater have got it right. Goes to show also that some people literally cannot conceive of a vegetarian diet that doesn't include exactly identical non-meat substitutes for every meat product that is forgone.

    1. Ryan Sproull

      It's interesting to consider exactly why it's such an attractive assumption to pass on – why the meme is so successful. I think it comes back to what Fiona Macrae wrote before changing (or being told to change) her wording:

      Vegetarians are often vegetarian for ethical reasons, so some people who eat meat feel judged by vegetarians and assume that vegetarians think they're better than meat-eaters. You can see a common representation of vegetarianism on Shortland Street at the moment, with the annoying, whiny, manipulative moral-outrage junkie dating Sarah's son, whatshisname.


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