Commentary: Pushing vegan fairy tales

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Abandoning humanity’s traditional dietary choices in favor of salads and soy protein is a construct lost of born-again veggie believers embrace. But a credentialed scientist? Please.

Yet another study has just been published linking the consumption of animal foods with the destruction of the planet through exacerbating climate change. While I understand the threat that continuing production of greenhouse gases (GHG) poses for the global (and local) ecosystems, I’m getting sick of reading studies that all conclude the same way (as this one does): “It is likely that reductions in meat consumption would lead to reductions in dietary GHG emissions.”

Titled, “Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK,” the study, published in the journal Climate Change (June 2014), purports to make the case that switching to a vegan diet would have a significant impact in reducing levels of GHG emissions.

As is always the case, it has serious flaws.

For starters, the lead investigator, Peter Scarborough, a researcher at the University of Oxford’s British Heart Foundation Centre, is a card-carrying member of the British Vegan Society. Might there be a wee bit of bias in his report? Just maybe?

Scarborough is also a specialist in two other areas that don’t support arguments about his objectivity: A scheme he’s developing to apply additional taxes on food products based on (his) calculations of their impact on public health and a related proposal to incorporate the cost of GHGs into the retail price of food.

Be glad this guy doesn’t hold an important public office.

Second, from reading through his methodology, it’s apparent that Scarborough recruited participants to the study through advertisements in vegan magazines and on vegetarian websites. Veggies who signed up were then asked to recruit their friends and relatives, a process he euphemistically called “snowballing.”

Most people call it “skewed sampling.”

Not surprisingly, based on the way the participants were chosen, he ended up with 42,838 women and only 12,666 men, and 25,915 non-meat eaters, compared with 29,589 meat-eaters. No way is that sample even remotely representative of the general population, which matters because the analysis of the GHG emissions was based on the differences between Scarborough’s arbitrary categories of vegan, vegetarian, fish-eater and meat-eater.

Are we really to believe that holier-than-thou vegans and veggies reported exactly what they ate? Including snacks and treats and less-than-healthy indulgences? Even if you pretend that the biases inherent in any food diary recall project were somehow minimized for this study, I doubt that avowed vegans and vegetarians would be scrupulous about identifying everything they ate.

Inside the numbers

But the ultimate problem with this study — and many others like it — is that the actual GHG values assigned to various food products make no sense. Supposedly, the relative value of the CO2 equivalents produced for various foods were based on a “life cycle analysis” of production, processing, packaging, distribution, retailing — the impact of food waste was also considered part of the calculations.

That should provide accurate estimates of the total emissions related to various food products, from planting the seed, whether for food or feed, to final disposition of any waste materials.

So what are we to make of the following data, which show an estimated GHG emissions comparison among various foods (in kilograms of CO2 equivalent per kilogram of product)?

  • Sugar                 0.1
  • Oranges              0.6
  • Corn                   0.7
  • Milk                    1.8
  • Soybeans           1.8
  • Beer                   3.8
  • Poultry                5.4
  • Pork                   7.9
  • Coffee              10.1
  • Mutton              64.2
  • Beef                 68.8

Seriously? Keeping in mind that this is a UK study — and they don’t grow oranges in Great Britain — Scarborough wants us to believe that beef is 100 times worse as a source of GHG emissions than tropical citrus fruit? Yes, Britain imports a lot of beef, especially since its domestic industry was devastated by BSE and hoof-and-mouth disease epidemics.

But the country imports all of its oranges, which have to be irrigated, fertilized, picked, packed and shipped across at least one ocean. And most conservative estimates of shrink and spoilage in the produce category start at about 30 percent. Yet we’re supposed to swallow the idea that meat from cows living on grass — neither Britain nor Ireland, its principal beef supplier, have extensive feedlots — is exponentially worse than citrus fruit in terms of GHG emissions?

And sugar? Grown in cane fields that are burned every season to produce a highly refined product that also must be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean? And its CO2 equivalent in only one-sixth that of citrus fruit?

Not likely, guv’nah.

And what’s with mutton’s calculation being almost as high as beef? Nobody bothers to fatten sheep for slaughter. They’re not eating grain; they live their entire lives on pasture. I’m guessing that since Britain imports a lot of mutton from Australia, that GHG calculation is skewed because the products has to be packaged, frozen and shipped some 12,000 miles to its destination.

But what both policymakers and the public is left with, however, is a takeaway that demonizes red meat as a climate scourge, while it lionizes tropical fruit and other imported foods are being healthier and climate-friendlier.

What happened to eating local? If Britain’s “ideal” diet, one that’s supposed to halt climate change, consists of fruit, vegetables and grains — most of which have to be imported — not only is such a theory unsupported by reality but the impact of a dietary switch on that scale would devastate local economies wherever animal agriculture is practiced.

But hey, Peter Scarborough’s expertise is in figuring out ways to add taxes to food products, not in making sure people have a job so they might be able to afford those taxes.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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July, 17, 2014 at 12:00 PM

I'll trust the scientists with PhD's, not a "journalist and commentator". This is just one study of many studies that have reached the same conclusion. You don't like this one study? Fine, but you should look at the weight of the evidence, and the weight of the evidence clearly demonstrates that there is one single industry that is the leading cause of climate change, deforestation, resource depletion, ocean dead zones, and environmental degradation, and that's animal agriculture.

NW Indiana  |  July, 18, 2014 at 07:53 AM

YogaChoke, -- is that you? Or are you just a witless shill for 'Agenda 21' Ditto for the Helen and Vanessa below. I recommend a short Google search; 'Agenda 21'

July, 17, 2014 at 03:25 PM

Ditto to yogachick's comments. I will trust the scientist over a web commentator - seems like everyone can be a web commentator including myself these days! Is there a study that concludes factory farms actually HELPS the planet? - reduces greenhouse gases, increases forest lands, and decreases pollution in water??! So, you can say that the lead scientist is biase or whatever. But do you really need some fancy-schmancy unbiased study to know that factory farms is a huge cause of environmental problems? Billions of cows and other farm animals pooping at the same time releases methane (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. More methane in atmosphere = bad for Earth. Poop leaks into underground waterways. Poop in underground waterways = bad for Earth. Billions of cows and other factory farm animals need to be somewhere even if they don't get to move, they take up space, so some forest are cleared up. Deforestation = bad for Earth. I think that is enough, do you really need a research study, why not just use your head?

Toronto  |  July, 17, 2014 at 03:29 PM

It is interesting that you accuse vegans of fairy tale like thinking. When an article opens up immediately relying upon the tired old stereotype of vegans only eating 'salads and soy', and then further resorts to another incorrect stereotype of vegans thinking they are 'holier than thou' - then it is your ability to write rationally, logically, and without biases that should be questioned. Can we have something a bit less emotionally driven and a bit more factual, please?

Craig A. Moore    
Billings, MT  |  July, 18, 2014 at 08:29 AM

The reason there is a large amount of various types of large agi-industry entities destroying the Earth is because there are so many people top feed. Time to attack the real problem, stop treating the symptom as the cause.

Australia  |  July, 21, 2014 at 07:21 PM

I was once a vegan now I eat chicken and fish but no dairy, red meat or red meat biproducts such as gelatine. People also do not realise the amount of bovine biproduct used in pharma products. The reason I revisited my decision to be vegan is I read a paper on the number of animals incl. insects killed and environments destroyed in fruit and veg agriculture. Soy bean 'plantations' are taking over rain forest and other agricultural land in South America. The result is local economies are starving as they no longer have access to an inexpensive food source. For sake of brevity, I will leave the reader to do their own research. I agree people consume too much animal product and do not agree that animals are mass produced to feed bad eating habits encourage by the advertising of dairy, meat and poultry producers.

Australia  |  July, 21, 2014 at 07:25 PM

oops ... my last paragraph is ambiguous and should read: I agree people consume too much animal product and animals should not be mass produced to feed bad eating habits encouraged by the advertising of dairy, meat and poultry producers.

Oxford  |  July, 30, 2014 at 02:29 AM

I happen to know that Dr Peter Scarborough is not a card-carrying member of the British Vegan Society. He is not a vegan. He is simply not. I am led to the conclusion that you made this up out of your head and presented it as fact. This does not help me to take you seriously.


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