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).