Among vegans, it’s common to hear the idea that eating vegan is better for everyone, including the planet itself. Discussions of greenhouse gas created by grazing animals are commonly a part of this. But according to a study published in Elementa, a purely vegan diet wouldn’t be the best way to make use of existing agricultural lands. Going vegan would feed fewer people and would result in having to convert more land over to agriculture.
The study is premised on the idea that there are three main kinds of agricultural land use. Grazing land is used to raise animals, perennial cropland for raising foods like grain and hay to feed animals and which are harvested multiple times per year, and cultivated cropland for raising foods such as vegetables and fruits. But vegan diets would eliminate the use of perennial cropland, which would waste a significant amount of land that could be used for growing food (directly or indirectly). It’s important to remember that these kinds of land are not all suited to one another. Grazing land tends to be bad for growing crops, for example.
This is also compared not to current land use based on diets, but on projections of land use, which included 10 different diets, including the “current diet” of Americans. Vegan diet-based land use would feed more people than the current model, but it wouldn’t feed as many people as either egg and dairy-friendly vegetarian (ovolacto vegetarian), dairy-friendly vegetarian (lacto vegetarian), or two different omnivorous models would. Less meat and more vegetables makes land use more efficient, but totally removing animals is not the most efficient.
While none of this means that vegan diets are meaningless, or that people who follow them are bad or a threat the world’s ecology, it does mean that veganism can’t save the world. But philosophical veganism isn’t usually about the environment anyway, it’s about animal rights, so whether this argument convinces any vegans remains to be seen.
Ultimately, though, the researchers write, “the findings of this study support the idea that dietary change towards plant-based diets has significant potential to reduce the agricultural land requirements of U.S. consumers and increase the carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural resources…Diet composition matters.”