Working on Creating a Vegan World: A Rebuttal of “Nutritional and Greenhouse Gas Impacts of Removing Animals from US Agriculture”

By James Videle

In the November 13, 2017 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Robin R. White and Mary Beth Hall attempt to establish why a hypothetical vegan world is not possible.  Their findings do show a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, but they argue that a diet without animals or any kind of supplementation would be nutritionally deficient.  Using a series of former studies and assumptions as well as computer simulated graphs and charts to prove their point, they reach the conclusion that, “Overall, the removal of animals resulted in diets that are nonviable in the long or short term to support the nutritional needs of the US population without nutrient supplementation.”  Our mission at the Humane Party and specifically in the Economic Transition Team is to create a United States agriculture and economy 100% free of animal exploitation, so before I dig into the authors’ findings, let’s have a look at where animal exploitation and human health is today.

Our March 2017 report, “Animal-Based Vs. Plant-Based Agriculture:  A Multi-Product Comparison,” reveals that over 9.6 billion land animals are exploited or killed every year in the US for their meat or products.  That is 30 animals per year per person (320,000,000 people), not including goats, sheep, rabbits, ducks, geese for food, or any animal exploited for their wool or fur.  Nor does this take into account all of the breeding animals, or any fish whether ocean-caught or farm-raised.  This figure represents a minimum exploitation ratio of 30:1 or, to put it simply, each one of us requires 30 animals to die or be exploited each year for one of us to live.  White and Hall’s study and all the other studies they cite fail to mention this fact.

Nutritionally, as a current omnivore population, with an emphasis on meat and dairy-heavy diets, we are a very sick world:

More than 1/3rd of the US population is currently obese

Another 1/3rd of the US population is considered overweight

A combined 2/3rds of the US population is either obese or overweight (Overweight & Obesity Statistics)

More than 100 million Americans have diabetes or pre-diabetes (New CDC Report)

28.4 million or 11.7% adults live with heart disease (Heart Disease)

There are about 14.5 million people living with cancer (Cancer Statistics)

Our current way of living is sickening us.  The way we are eating is sickening us.  So when a study comes out and states that, “It is entirely possible to meet the nutrient requirements of individual humans with carefully crafted, unsupplemented plant-based rations, but this can be a challenge to achieve for an entire population,” maybe it is a challenge that, for the health of our future generations, we need to carefully consider.  All predictions for the health of the US population in the next ten years is for every one of these troubling conditions to rise by large percentages.

The first and largest assumption in White and Hall’s study is that ruminants utilize lands that are “untillable” and “unsuitable” to produce crops for human consumption, as based on two 1996 studies in the Journal of Animal Science.  I have yet to see this be true in practice.  Most of the time ruminants are being grazed on lands that produce the best quality forage, brome and alfalfa, orchard grass and clover, and other combinations.  These lands are highly fertile and would support any vegetable crop that would regionally grow.  Personally, I have converted former overgrazed Arizona high desert scrublands (Concho, AZ) to highly productive mixed vegetable agriculture.  Now in Québec, Canada (Namur), I have taken an acre plot that had the top 12 inches of topsoil removed ten years ago and I have reconditioned it to a thriving eco-system supporting over 330 different species of vegetables, fruits, and flowers, using combinations of green manures and vegetable compost.  Both farms were an acre and my primary source of income.  In Arizona it was consistently over 95 degrees during the summer and we received about 4 inches of rainfall during the growing season.  In Québec this past year we had record rainfall (over 40 inches of rain) and have six months (Nov-Apr) where the average temperature is 20F.  I would say extreme on both ends.  Interestingly, I did not go to school for agriculture but had an undying commitment to making it work.  Imagine if we had some people with an educational background who focused on growing crops in the most marginal conditions.  WOW!

In their study, the authors claim that nutrients in animal systems are deficient in only vitamins D, E, K, and choline.  Yet, from their own charts, animal based diets are also deficient in fiber, copper, iron, magnesium, folate, thiamin, vitamin B6 and vitamin C (necessary to synthesize iron).  I have shown in the statistics above how the way we are eating is sickening us; it is also keeping us nutritionally unbalanced.

The authors claim, “Given the tremendous domestic demand for fruits and vegetables, if it was viable to produce more of these high-value crops in the current system, this would already be occurring.  Limitations on increased fruit and vegetable production may reflect suitability of land, climate, and infrastructure to grow these crops.”  Yet, it is probably more a problem with land cost availability, as livestock ranchers are allowed to lease pastureland at an average of $5-20/acre per year, while vegetable farmers have to buy the land outright or, if having to rent irrigated lands will pay 3-100x more than that of pastureland.  Further, they would require increased infrastructure, as the authors suggest.  This could be easily arranged with facility sharing and local and federal government support.

According to the authors’ charts, if we were to eliminate animal foods, the biggest changes in our diets would be a 300% increase in grains and a 900% increase in beans.  The latter is definitely true, yet they also claim that we would eat the same amount of nuts (I eat more now for snacks and as nut cheeses, etc.) and less fruit and vegetables (I eat a lot more and more diverse!) than if we had meat in our diet.  I think their computer models got that one wrong.  Anecdotally, I don’t think that as a vegan I eat more grains than I used to.  It seems that I eat the same amount of bread, maybe a little more rice and  very little corn.  Beans, however, do make up the main component of my nutrition.

Let’s consider soybeans.  From our report mentioned above the United States produces 258.4 billion dry pounds of soybeans every year.  With 320 million people this would yield 807.5 lbs./per person or 2.21 lbs. per day.  If we were to feed these beans to us instead of to animals or export them, they would satisfy our calcium, protein, and fat requirements (actually way exceed, so I would not recommend eating this much).  But considering all the products that can be made with soy, including tofu, tempeh, soy milk, soy yoghurt, oil, soybean meal, etc., by itself soy could satisfy most of our nutritional requirements.

Additionally, the authors claim that a world without eating animals would be deficient in calcium, fatty acids (specifically arachidonic, eicosapentaenoic, and docosahexaenoic fatty acids).  The first can be found in peanut oil (maybe peanuts and peanut butter?), the two latter in seaweed and vitamins A and B12.  “For the deficient fatty acids and vitamin B12, animal products are the only nonsupplemental sources commonly found in human diets” (except if you eat seaweed, like vegan sushi, as is common in SE Asian type diets).

The highest calcium levels in foods per 100g are found in soybeans and almonds, at 277g and 269g respectively.  Milk is at 125g and beef is at 22g.

The highest vitamin A levels in foods per 100g are found in carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, and kale, each over 100% per cup.  In animal products, the highest vitamin A levels are in beef liver at 100% per ounce, and after that, in one cup of ice cream or one cup of ricotta cheese, at 20% and 19% respectively.  To meet the requirement of Vitamin A, therefore, animal eaters must eat liver from a cow, because a 1 lb. sirloin steak contains 0 mcg.  The authors fail to mention that.

Image created by Joshua Wold (


The authors then recycle myths that claim that certain nutrients are more bioavailable in animal foods than plant foods, that animal foods are more nutrient dense (you need to eat less of them to get more nutrients), and that soy could be damaging to health.  However, Doctors Neal Barnard, Michael Greger, Garth Davis, Colin T. Campbell, Caldwell Esselstyn, John McDougall, Michael Klaper, Milton Mills, or any other plant-based doctor or nutritionist say the exact opposite.

When the authors speak about CO2 emissions, they do state that plant-based agriculture would emit less, but interestingly they maintain that CO2 from grains would go up in a plant-based system as well as synthetic fertilizer production, whereas in an animal-based system there are no CO2 emissions from growing crops that animals eat.  But we use chemical fertilizer now to raise corn to feed animals…  I guess they forgot that part, as it seems they did quite often in their research.

If you notice that I did not once mention corn in my write-up, that is because as humans in the United States we eat very little corn as a grain.  It is either fed to animals, grown for ethanol, or converted into oils, syrups, or the myriad other products that the food industry uses to process our food (corn flakes, corn chips, etc.).  From our report “Animal-Based Vs. Plant-Based Agriculture,” corn growers in the United States produce 1.06 trillion pounds of corn every year.  That is 3,312 pounds of corn for every man, woman and child every year, or 9 lbs. a day!  To further mitigate the CO2 emissions from corn agriculture, I would suggest we do not even grow it (or very, very little) and grow more beans and nut trees instead.  The corn industry uses 94.004 million acres to grow corn every year.  I am sure smart people could come up with a more efficient food source for humans with this land, or even better, let some or most of it re-wild.

The authors’ conclusion again, “Overall, the removal of animals resulted in diets that are nonviable in the long or short term to support the nutritional needs of the US population without nutrient supplementation.”

My conclusion: eat your peanuts, peanut butter, seaweed (vegan sushi and miso soup) for fatty acids, kale, carrots, or sweet potatoes for vitamin A, and take a 2,500 mcg vitamin B12 supplement once a week or drink fortified soy, almond, hazelnut, rice, hemp, or oat milk.  You can shelve the fiber, iron, folate, vitamins C, B6, D, E, K, magnesium, choline, and thiamin pills.

For my part, I have been an organic grower for the last thirteen years in two countries and have consulted in organic agriculture in five others.  I do not have a degree in agricultural sciences, yet if I can poke this many holes in less than two hours’ worth of research, I would have to come to the conclusion that this study was a waste of time by the researchers and not worthy of publishing by a respected journal such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  It is my hope and wish that a concentrated effort can be applied to a paper on “How a Vegan World Would be Viable.”  Let’s begin the process of healing ourselves and the planet and stop the indiscriminate suffering and exploitation of all non-human animal beings.