Alex Payne

Writer, backer, erstwhile technologist.

Check Your Sources, Animal Agriculture Edition

Only under extreme duress would I admit that I look at the “Health” section of the news, that cesspool of fad diet coverage, one-in-a-million medical horror stories, and copy-pasted articles about the goddamn flu. In my secret shame, I noticed a few of these headlines over the past couple days:

Now, I haven’t read every version of every story about this study, but I’ve read a few, and I noticed a strange omission in most of them: the backgrounds of the study’s authors are curiously absent. Since the study being reported on is a set of extrapolations from a model, and models are the product of the cognitive biases of their authors, that’s an omission worth filling in.

Both of the authors of this study have spent their academic careers on research intended to optimize the yields of the animal agriculture industry. One of them works at Virginia Tech’s Department of Animal and Poultry Science; some of VT’s programs are sponsored by agribusiness trade associations and their member companies. Both authors have presented their research at conferences for the meat and dairy industries. One of the study’s authors is currently employed by the USDA, an agency that could be used as a textbook example of regulatory capture, known for policies that seem tailor-made to accommodate the businesses it’s meant to oversee. That’s context an informed news consumer would benefit from.

Comments made to the press by the study’s authors are subtly misleading, and have been interpreted by news outlets with undue credulity. For example, from CBS Local’s coverage:

“With carefully balanced rations, you can meet all of your nutrient requirements with a vegetarian diet. But the types of foods that seem to do that, we don’t currently produce in sufficient quantities to make it a sustainable diet for the entire population,” lead author Robin White said, via Science Magazine.

Did you catch that? The key word is currently. In a country that spends billions annually subsidizing both plant and animal agriculture, it’s not inconcieveable that those resources could shift towards more diverse crop production, ensuring that a “sustainable” and primarily plant-based diet is accessible to everyone. While CBS Local links to Science Magazine in the quote above, they don’t include an important follow-up from Science’s more detailed and nuanced coverage of the study:

Some researchers take issue with the study’s assumptions — for example that fruit and vegetable production wouldn’t make up a bigger part of the pie in a plant-only agricultural system. “[We] could yield a better nutrient profile if we do restructure the land use,” noted Joan Sabate, a nutritionist at Loma Linda University in California.

Not only does CBS Local leave that countervailing perspective out, they draw a spurious conclusion that seems to be totally out of the context of the study:

the vegan diet would fail to meet the nutritional needs of Americans

Huh? It would take some pretty sloppy reading for CBS Local to arrive at that seemingly authoritative statement based on what the study’s authors actually said— and what they had to say was already questionable.

I’ll spare you a quote-by-quote dissection of Popular Science’s opinion piece on the matter, which takes what the study’s authors described as “the extreme scenario” and sets it up as a straw man to knock down with presumptions and hand-waving dismissals. Perhaps some members of the animal welfare and plant-based food communities entertain fantasies that America will go vegan overnight, but the people I talk to at investor gatherings and advocacy organizations aren’t delusional. We’re playing the long game – the one where we still have a playing field on a planet that isn’t a desolate husk.


Before signing off, I’ll do what the journalists covering this study should have done and disclose my conflicts of interest. I’m a donor to animal welfare organizations, particularly those working on behalf of farmed animals. That scope includes human laborers who are harmed both psychologically and physically, and the communities they live in— mostly impoverished, mostly inhabited by people of color — who suffer the most direct environmental impacts of animal agriculture. I’m also an investor in businesses that make alternatives to animal products and help people transition to a plant-based diet; I would benefit financially if more people used those products and services.

Animal agriculture is, literally and figuratively, a death machine; capital is one tool we can use to dismantle it, albeit an extremely problematic one. I’ve chosen high-risk investments in plant-based/vegan businesses over other high-risk investments because their payoff is more than monetary: the success of those ventures could mean a better chance of more humans living healthy lives on a healthy planet alongside other conscious beings who would not be experiencing unnecessary suffering and untimely death on a scale that, today, is incomprehensibly vast and horrific.

So, in those respects, I am enormously biased. I’m also not in the business of providing impartial coverage of important developments in society and science. Those who are would do well to take more care in their reporting, at a minimum providing context for where research is coming from when that research may be conflicted or captured by powerful interests.