Vegan diets and wild animal deaths

Michael Pollan follows his section on animal happiness with a section, disparagingly titled “The Vegan Utopia,” that aims to point out some of the practical problems of a vegan world.

Pollan calls the ideology of animal rights “parochial” and “urban,” chiding Peter Singer for his comment that “In our normal life, there is no serious clash of interests between human and nonhuman animals.”

Pollan is right to point out that harvesting plants kills animals, but he makes a conclusion that is not quite right. He writes, “If our goal is to kill as few animals as possible people should probably try to eat the largest possible animal that can live on the least cultivated land: grass-finished steaks for everyone.”

Though Pollan doesn’t cite a source for this claim, the argument likely traces back to Steven Davis, who put forward a similar claim in a 2002 paper. Davis argued, in particular, that a ruminant-based diet was most compatible with Tom Regan’s goal of minimizing harm to animals.

However, Gaverick Matheny has pointed out (in a paper that is also freely available) that Davis’s calculations include a serious error. What Davis actually shows is that if half of American agricultural land were converted to pasture and half to croplands, the number of animals killed would be less than if all of that land were used to grow crops. He ignores the fact that using all of the land for crops would feed many more people; only a fraction of our agricultural land would be needed to feed the country a vegan diet. Correcting for this error, Matheny finds that protein production for a vegan diet would result in the deaths of 0.3 wild animals annually, compared to 1.5 wild animals for ruminant-based protein.

Matheny also points out that the number of animals killed is an inadequate measure of harm in any ethical theory. Andy Lamey offers further objections, including the very limited amount of scientific evidence available, the inclusion of animals deaths due to predation, and human deaths in slaughterhouse accidents (which are more important than animal deaths in Regan’s ethical theory).



  1. Jim said

    There’s also an analysis on the number of animals killed to produce one million calories in eight food categories here:

    The methodology is given, and the numbers show that for the same number of calories, a plant based diet results in fewer deaths that one that includes animal products.

    • Adam Merberg said

      I couldn’t figure out how they were computing wild animal deaths for animal foods. I think they may be assuming that the animals are grain-fed, though, in which case the result would be irrelevant to the claim of Pollan and Davis (though it certainly has value for responding to people who misunderstand the study).

  2. Molly said

    Wow, this is a really excellent post. A great statistic to pull out of one’s hat the next time a carnist wants to argue some ridiculous point about “harvesting plants kills bugs,” or something similar.

  3. […] Michael Pollan, Peter Singer, The Omnivore's Dilemma After completing his factually dubious (see here and here) takedown of the “vegan Utopia” in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael […]

  4. […] by basing our diets on large ruminants. That claim is an apparent reference to a study that was quickly debunked. He then argues that a vegan world would force places like New England to import all of their food […]

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  6. Garret Merriam said

    “…was most compatible with Tom Regan’s goal of minimizing harm to animals.”

    “…and human deaths in slaughterhouse accidents (which are more important than animal deaths in Regan’s ethical theory).”

    I don’t suppose you can cite references for these, can you? I realize they’re not your claims, but the claims of your sources, but they seem odd to me. I know Regan’s theory fairly well, and neither claim seems accurate to me.

    • Adam Merberg said

      The first one is Davis’s paper, which is linked (and again in this sentence). For the second one, Lamey gives a quote (“Let the number of dogs be as large as one likes; suppose they number a million. The million dogs should [still] be thrown overboard and the four humans saved.”) and cites The Case for Animal Rights, 1983 edition, page 325.

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