The Economic Case for Animal Rights

Many vegans wonder if they will ever see a vegan world in their lifetimes. And some believe animal exploitation will always be part of human culture. But I’m actually extremely optimistic about the future of veganism. And not because I’m convinced vegans will persuade the world that animal use is morally wrong. Instead, I believe basic economics and environmental necessity will push us in that direction.

What role does economics play in animal liberation? In this week’s video, I argue that economics and technological innovation  play a pivotal role in creating a vegan world.

Capitalism has its cracks (which show more and more over time), but it is still the economic system that works better than anything else out there. But in a world with rising global temperatures and even faster growing populations, plant foods are the only profitable and practical solution for feeding the world.

Will Wishing Make the World Go Vegan?

“Abolitionist vegans”, such as Professor Gary Francione, believe that by living vegan we can slowly convert the entire planet to veganism is no more realistic than believing that by living Christian, Muslim, etc., we can convert the world to those religions. I believe that it is wrong to use and abuse animals for our own purposes without justification. But I cannot accept Francione’s logic that “the world is vegan if you want it.”

Unfortunately, most people will never abide by ethical principles purely for the sake of those principles. Hence, why there are very few vegans. But we shouldn’t feel too bad about that. In reality, there aren’t that many people who are willing to stand up to authorities and fight for what is right. This was demonstrated quite effectively decades ago by the Milgram Experiments, in which most participants were willing to risk killing a stranger if an authority figure told them to do so.

I have plenty of hope for humanity. But I have a harder time putting my faith in them. Fortunately, there’s some evidence to suggest that humanity is getting less violent over time. And at least when it comes to finding more efficient ways of doing things, physics is on hand to offer us a little help.

Profitability and The Second Law of Thermodynamics

In a closed system, when energy changes from one form to another form, entropy increases. Growing plants and feeding them to animals results in energy loss, because much of that energy is converted to (unwanted) waste product in the form of excess sewage, methane, etc.

We want to seek out the most efficient forms of food energy. And plants are very unique in this respect. Plants efficiently convert solar energy into food that we can eat directly. And the waste products from plants (the is particularly true of crops like legumes) can even be good for the soil.

Conversely, animal agriculture takes a tremendous toll on the environment. And regardless of how much factory farms attempt to improve efficiency, there is little they can do about animal waste.

In their 2004 Risk Assessment Evaluation for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, the EPA warned that an efficient factory dairy farm with 2500 cows produces as much waste as a city of 411,000 people. And interestingly, if we ignore the implications in terms of animal welfare, a less concentrated feeding operation – such as a small organic dairy farm – would produce even higher levels of waste products. This is the great irony of the “happy meat” movement – so-called “humane” animal products are worse for the environment.

Plant based foods produce less waste

Plant based foods (including the much-maligned almond milk) are generally far more profitable than their animal based counterparts. And while factory farms have sought to increase their efficiency through increasingly questionable practices, they still cannot compete with plant foods.

I’m vegan because I believe causing suffering is morally wrong. But money talks.

And in an era of exploding population growth and diminishing resources, plant-based companies are becoming a more and more attractive option, as evidenced by Danone’s recent acquisition of White Wave Foods. White Wave Foods is now one of the most profitable segments of Danone’s portfolio, which has likely prompted many investors to consider how shifting towards plant-based foods can enhance their profits.

Politics, Legislation and Economics

None of this is to say that politics doesn’t have a role to play in vegan activism. Politics and legislation are important tools for vegan influencers. This is particularly true with legislation that undermines the profitability of animal agriculture by forcing producers to pay the true costs of pollution.

But all too often, the only way to get people to do things on a mass scale in the modern world is to convince the powers that be that it is in their economic interest to do so. And animal welfare legislation that can work to undermine the economic value of animal exploiting niches in our system (agriculture, fashion) encourages businesses to explore more profitable niches, such as plant milks and vegan leather.

I think politics will play a critical role in helping the world to abandon the use of animal products. But I truly think politicians will experience success because technological innovation will make the best way forward obvious. In the end, economics – not morality – will make the world vegan.

What do you think? Join the conversation!

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