I’ve recently been taken with many arguments of Effective Altruism (EA) and longtermism.

An early observation: the majority of (incredibly smart) people in this movement are vegetarian or vegan.

Throughout my late teens, I too was vegetarian and vegan (about 18 months each), until I came across the work of Robb Wolf, whose arguments persuaded me that abstaining from meat-eating is not the best approach for one’s health, the environment, or even ethics.

Newly encountering EA, I decided to read Robb’s latest book, co-authored with Diana Rodgers, Sacred Cow, to revisit these arguments and check my assumptions.

How robustly has the effective altruism community’s seeming near-uniformity in opposing animal husbandry been challenged?

At the end of the recent (extremely good) New Yorker profile on Will MacAskill, Will noted: ‘It’s very, very easy to be totally mistaken.’ Echoed here by Will discussing the new FTX Fund.

Sacred Cow is not anti-vegetarian or anti-vegan, but asks for a more nuanced debate around environmental and ethical effects from pasture-raised meat versus vegetarianism: impacts on soil fertility, biodiversity, and energy concerns with ‘cultured’ or ‘clean’ (lab-grown) meat. All things that ought to concern an EA/longtermist.

Here are some of the book’s standout passages:

Many people will readily agree that the goal for all of us should be to cause the least harm to the natural world through our lifestyle practices. Human activity can be incredibly destructive, and those who attempt to reduce their impact through their food choices should be applauded. However, regardless of one’s good intentions, avoiding meat is not ultimately consistent with a food system generating the “least harm.”

…when we make room for a field of crops, we destroy habitat (killing things in the process), and indirectly, when we annihilate an animal’s food source to make way for more soy fields, we kill the native animals. If we eliminate animals from pastureland, we’ll destroy that land, too.

Let’s look at the actual process of farming vegetables and grains. First, the farmer tills the soil, killing worms, mice, and any other animals that have made a home there over the winter months. During the growing of the crops, pesticides kill insects and poison the animals that eat them. Then there’s the exposed soil and runoff of these chemicals that lands in local rivers and streams, killing fish and other aquatic life. When it comes time to harvest, the tractors kill any small mammals like rabbits that are in the way. Even organic farmers kill pests on their farms; they just do it differently than conventional farmers—namely, through beneficial insects, organic pesticides, and with guns or traps.

Animal death is a by-product of plant production. It’s inescapable. There have been several attempts to calculate how many critters die in field harvest.[1] How many deaths are you causing per calorie you eat? At forty rodent deaths per acre, and six million calories per acre of wheat, that’s 150,000 calories per rodent life. Let’s be generous and assume only one head of cattle per acre yields approximately five hundred pounds of beef. At approximately 1,100 calories per pound, that’s 550,000 calories per cow life! So perhaps, if you want to save more animal lives, eat beef, not wheat. Not to mention, beef is far more nutritious than wheat. The difference would be even more astounding if we looked at deaths per nutrient.

Meat alternatives are ways of further processing raw ingredients and making larger profits from highly destructive agricultural practices… a system that requires so many chemical inputs, ruins soil health… more energy is needed to turn soy and corn into meat than what can be done in nature with an animal.

I supplement this with 2 minutes of audio from Robb’s most recent podcast; link here for 2 minutes.

Then back to book highlights... 

…well-managed cattle increase wildlife populations, improve ecosystem health, increase the water-holding capacity of the soil (making rainfall less likely to run off), and sequester carbon. There are no monocrop fields of irrigated and chemically sprayed soy in nature. We have done this to the native grasslands and forests that once were there, and in the process we have eliminated the natural habitat for all the living creatures that once lived there.

When considering the mortality rate of every opossum, sparrow, starling, rat, mouse, partridge, turkey, rabbit, vole, and the many species of amphibians that die through plowing, disking, harrowing, cultivating, and through the chemicals used to kill insects and weeds, one can clearly see that one large ruminant (like a cow) on a diet of grass is causing much less harm than a diet rich in field crops.

‘But, being vegan, my intention is not to kill anything…’ If you’re aware that your actions cause a known effect, then intent is present. If you value the lives of rabbits or chipmunks as much as that of a cow, and are truly looking to kill the least amount of lives to feed your own, then we propose that killing one well-raised cow that lived on pasture is actually causing less death than the number of animal lives that are lost by modern row-cropping techniques. In the last analysis, the principle of least harm may actually require the consumption of large herbivores (red meat).


Anyone with a modicum of awareness recognizes the horrors of factory farming. Better meat should be the goal for all of us, especially given the ecological and health arguments for well-managed animals. And because a truly sustainable food system requires animal inputs, it’s not helpful to attack those of us who are fighting for better meat. The enemy is industrial agriculture and hyperpalatable infinite-shelf-life junk food, not the family of farmers down the street who wants to raise their animals on grass. Let’s unify the real food community.

Luckily, we know of self-replicating natural bioreactors that upcycle food we can’t eat on land we can’t crop into nutrient-dense protein while increasing biodiversity, improving the water-holding capacity of the soil, and sequestering carbon…

[In the entirety of the book] We believe we have made a sound case that it is difficult to produce optimum human health with a plant-only diet, particularly in the very young, very old, and at-risk populations such as the poor and marginalized minorities. For well-to-do twenty- to thirty-somethings, who have the privilege of pushing away a nutrient-dense food like red meat, a plant-only diet may work during the prime of life. It may offer health benefits relative to hyperpalatable, industrial foods, but it is not the only option and is unlikely to be the best option. We have also made the case that a food system absent animal inputs is unsustainable because it relies upon synthetic fertilizers (and a host of related agrichemicals) that are collectively destroying our topsoil. On the ethics front we have explored the principle of least harm and the fact that all life feeds on life. A vegan diet is not a bloodless diet, and may even destroy more life than a regenerative, pasture-centric model.

The first major shift needs to be from reductionism to a more holistic approach. Even looking at “reduction in emissions” as a goal is… missing the nutritional and overall ecosystem benefits we see from well-managed ruminant animals grazing on uncroppable land. Keep in mind this overemphasis on “reducing emissions” (absent context) leads to goofy ideas like we should have fewer shellfish in the oceans. On the policy level, how about we incentivize farmers who increase ecosystem health? One of the challenges of narrowly focusing on emissions is that we’re losing sight of the larger goals: more biodiversity, healthier environments, better soil that can hold water, and agriculture that is appropriate to the landscape (no flood-irrigated almonds in areas that have water shortages). Governments [and the likes of the Gates Foundation] need to stop incentivizing overproduction of nutrient-poor foods that destroy the environment.


Both parties agree that factory farming is abhorrent (and effective altruists should of course be lauded for the progress they’ve made in reducing it, and encouraged in further efforts).

But I have yet to see a compelling counterargument to the above claims in Sacred Cow from the many vegetarians/vegans in the EA community. (The book has a closing chapter on ‘feeding the world’ which argues that the authors’ suggested approach of regenerative agriculture could manage it. [Update: more on this in the comments below.])

Are Diana and Robb wrong? Or are there compelling arguments for the environmental imperative of better meat that effective altruists ought to be aware of?

I am non-expert, but would love to see a dialectic between the two camps.

  1. ^

    Bob Fischer and Andy Lamey, “Field Deaths in Plant Agriculture,” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 31, no. 4 (August 2018): 409–28, link.springer. com/article/10.1007/s10806-018-9733-8; Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton, “Calories Per Acre for Various Foods,” The Walden Effect (blog), June 2010, www.waldeneffect.org/blog/Calories_per_acre_for_various_foods/.
    Sacred Cow (p. 289)





More posts like this

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Isn't the issue just that approximately all the meat you can actually buy at the store today comes from factory farms (which also wastes more crops) rather than regenerative farms?

Basically, if the only permissible meat is from regenerative farms, that still yields the result that one should be (almost entirely) veg*n in practice.

But sure, I'd also support policies that shift farmers away from factory farming to better ways of farming meat.  And if those policies succeeded, it's possible to imagine a future in which the moral case for veg*nism would be much weaker than it is today.

Thanks for commenting, Richard. Yep, I think we're in agreement.

Many people involved in EA care about harm to sentient individuals specifically and are only concerned with matters like environmental degradation in so far as they have an effect on sentient individuals. There is significant discussion in EA about wild animal welfare generally, and how the welfare of wild animals is impacted by various human activities, including various types of farming; you can find some of that discussion in other posts and comment sections here on the Forum. But these questions are complex and our understanding of ecosystem-level effects of various changes is still negligible. I think there is a natural tendency to say something like, "X is the norm. Y is not the norm and requires work. Y is imperfect, so I should revert to X." This is a failure of creativity. If there is a problem with Y, X is far from our only alternative. And in the particular example of food, continuing to kill trillions of animals because of the harms of conventional plant farming seems like a silly solution and alternatives like vertical farming and other novel systems seem much more promising.

Thanks Rockwell.

- The book makes the counterintuitive argument more sentiment animals are dying from second-order effects of present-day plant cropping than pasture-raised meat (per calorie).

'A vegan diet is not a bloodless diet, and may even destroy more life than a regenerative, pasture-centric model.'

- I would consider there is a longtermist perspective on soil health, and that if we deplete soil with monocropping, that’s not going to be good for future generations (of all forms of sentient life) – and thus is a big ethical consideration.

- I agree with your logic statement.

The book's authors are, I consider, arguing "Y" could or should be regenerative agriculture/pasture-raised meat, rather than meat alternatives or lab-grown/clean meat.

- I agree with you, yes, smarter methods of plant farming should absolutely be explored.

But (as a newcomer to EA), it seems to me some of the knock-on effects of meat alternatives (destructive agricultural practices; lots of animals still dying)/clean meat (immense energy considerations) are not being fully discussed or challenged – and that some 'red teaming' (e.g. from the above co-authors) could be helpful.

To start, I should specify that I haven't read this book, so my comment is based on the passages you've included. 

First of all, this passage discusses the fact that many animals are killed in crop production. While there are some issues in the studies that claim that, I'll set those aside. My issue is that the passage fails to mention that the majority of plants grown on this planet are fed to livestock, and this is an inefficient use of energy, since you lose many calories in the process. For example, 77% of soy grown in the world is used as feed for livestock. Thus, eating factor farmed cow leads to more crop deaths than eating plants. The author does mention grass-fed cows, which make up a tiny proportion of livestock in the developed world. The problem with this is that it isn't scalable. We probably can't feed a country the size of the U.S. on grass-fed cows, hence the existence of factory farms in the first place. It will also be more expensive (more so than plant forms of protein).

Regarding Wolff's health claims, it's harder for me to comment on that since I'm not a registered dietitian. That being said, neither is he. If we ask the largest group of registered dietitians, however, they say that a plant based diet can be acceptable for people at any stage in life. 

Thanks Yair.

Firstly just to say: the book isn't advocating factory farming at all.

- On the point of efficiency (p. 227):

‘The antimeat camps raise concern about how much food is diverted away from people toward the “inefficient” process of feeding animals… this is largely a false pretense’ – and has a chapter (chapter 10) dedicated to explaining that there are vast swaths of land that can't be used for crops, but which animals can be rearer on. So the opportunity cost from the initial inputs (for pasture-raised meat) is not as straightforward as inefficiency calculations suggests.

- The book argues regenerative agriculture could feed the U.S. – while being better for the long-term environment (p. 232):

'Do we have the land for it? Diana consulted with a few experts to run the numbers, including Dr. Allen Williams, an ecosystem and soil health consultant, farmer, and former agriculture professor ... [List of many other people consulted]... One critical piece of information to keep in mind is to remember that we’re comparing industrial monocropping to regenerative agriculture, which have drastically different impacts on the land. Even though it takes more land to produce well-managed grass-finished beef, it could be argued that the regenerative solution is a smarter one for our future than the chemical one. At a recent conference about grass-fed beef, Rowntree said in his presentation, “I’d rather have 2.5 acres of regenerative agriculture than 1 acre of extractive agriculture.” [And that regenerative agriculture leads to more utilisable land]

‘let’s dive into what sort of acres we’d need in the US to finish all our beef herd on grass… the numbers are rough and could certainly be challenged, but… If we look at the current amount of idle grassland, underutilized pasture, and cropland that would be freed up from grain production in an all-grass-finished scenario, the short answer to our question is yes. We do have the land to finish all our current beef cattle on pasture in the US.

‘If we are now grass-finishing all beef cattle produced annually in the US, we can reduce the ninety to ninety-four million acres of corn planted. Approximately 36–40 percent of today’s corn crop actually goes into livestock feed (cattle, pigs, and chickens)…

‘If we take just fifteen million acres of cornfields and consider these productive (after all, they once were thriving grasslands), each of them can finish 1.25 steers per acre. Altogether, these acres finish 18.75 million cattle. In addition to converting some of our corn acres back to grassland, there are over five hundred million acres of privately owned pastureland in the US, and many experts we’ve spoken to estimate it’s only being utilized at 30 percent capacity. This leaves enormous potential for better grazing management.

‘And again, these acres will be a net gain to our agricultural land because they would be beneficial to our ecosystems instead of destroying them… soil, water cycles, and mineral cycles, and more wildlife.’

- And they argue (p. 234):

‘Not only could it be possible to finish all US beef cattle on grass, but grass-finishing beef is more profitable as well.’

- On the health point, I am also not a registered dietician! Diana Rodgers (the lead author of the book) is. [Updated reply:] There are a few very good pages from p.103–108 in the book. I will refrain (for brevity) from citing volumes, and just share:

'While the American and British dietetic organizations maintain a vegan diet is safe for all life stages, both Germany and Switzerland specifically don’t recommend vegan diets for pregnant or lactating women, infants, children, or adolescents. And in May 2019 a group of doctors from the Belgian Royal Academy of Medicine put forward a proposal to make feeding babies a vegan diet illegal. The committee stated that a vegan diet is unsuitable for unborn children, children, and adolescents, as well as pregnant and lactating women.'

I won't push more as I feel the health argument is already run exhaustively in many places. But my main point in posting all this is that I think the environmental/ethical side of EA thinking here might not have been robustly challenged (and thus is much more interesting!).

My reaction here is complex, because there are levels on which I am in qualified agreement with this, and other levels on which I am in profound disagreement. A first point is that I am motivated to dislike animal agriculture on levels that go beyond my consequentialist principled leanings, into deontological intuitions that become very loud when I use similar reasoning outside of this specific context.

As an example, compare two scenarios. You are part of a city that pollutes a river as part of its industry. This causes grievous harm to a community downstream of you. In another possible scenario, your city instead enslaves this community for their industry, and causes an equal amount of harm in doing so. Both are clearly wrong, but the second feels to me much worse. I think something comparable can be said of many types of indirect harm to animals through plant agriculture versus those caused by animal agriculture.

Similar things can be said for arguments that breeding animals into happy lives and then killing them is mutually beneficial or at least ethically permissible even if factory farming isn't. Unlike most arguments about our treatment of animals this one doesn't appeal to anything that differs between humans and farm animals, so on its face it appears to imply that it is permissible to farm humans under similar conditions (indeed if I recall some slavery apologists used arguments like this).

A key difference is that arguments like this are applied to humans in one case and non-humans in the other, but then more specific arguments about what differs between the cases that justifies an argument in one case that we would reject in the other is needed, which pieces like this generally lack, and I think mostly can't help but lack.

On the more consequentialist end, I am in somewhat more agreement. I think some of these arguments might work for grazing cattle (I think very few of them apply to any other food animal as it is farmed at any kind of scale today). But this level is also complicated by even weirder considerations. As some of the other comments hint at, is it good or bad to reduce wildlife? The answer may depend on how good the lives of wild animals are, which is extremely uncertain, but I think most people working on this issue are either neutral or lean towards negative, in large part because of the prevalence of R-strategists. Another less weird consideration that seems left out is practices to reduce suffering rather than just deaths, as killing wildlife generally doesn't inflict the same suffering as raising animals in terrible conditions to begin with.

Given this I think arguments like these might work at a certain, middle level of bullet biting, at least to a certain extent in some cases, but winds up encountering serious problems at either the more commonsense morality end of the spectrum, or the more galaxy brained one.

Actually on my second point, about farming animals with worthwhile lives, I want to quickly flag that Abelard Podgorski has a really interesting argument in defense of eating but not farming in this context. I think it is too easy on itself in the examples it gives, but I feel like it is worth noting, both as an interesting attempt to answer these types of concerns specifically, and a proof of concept that not all arguments against farming in this context automatically translate into arguments in favor of veganism.

I agree with this, for the most part. It’s a conclusion that I also reached.

I think this is a reason why we should not try should to debate veganism itself, and instead should focus on factory farming. 

(Note: at least from what I've seen, people in EA tend to focus much less on veganism itself than in the rest of animal rights movements - but this is less true in the “clean meat” side of EA that you quote in the sources you searched for)

I've also seen some in EA arguing that we shouldn’t spend much time advocating people to go away from beef, for a variety of reasons:

For the reasons above, I would think that spending much time on replacing beef with something else wouldn't be that effective. This is why I'm not that convinced by attempts to do that by the “clean meat” side of things. 


However, there are also reasons that athough it's pretty clear that "conventional" farming is unsustainable, I'm not so convinced that "recommending a switch to regenerative agriculture" is very tractable, despite being in general important:

  • As the top comment said, almost all the meat you can buy today is from factory farms (in rich countries). So in practice, recommending a switch to only sustainable meat would be hard as well.
  • Plus, trying to push for a switch to regenerative agriculture, while very important, would be extremely hard as well, since many activists have already been pushing for a more sustainable agriculture with limited results. 
    • There are a lot of entrenched interests there, pushing for subsidies, influencing laws, and since they are more concentrated than small family farms they have more leverage. 
  • On the moral side, there’s little chance that people will care about rodents killed in crops if they don’t care about the animals killed to go into their plates
  • A message like “stop eating meat except if you can be very sure of where it comes from despite poor labelling and living far away from the farm” is harder to share and act on than “just stop eating meat”. 
    • I mean, how do you personally manage to act on that in restaurants or the like?
    • It also opens the door to rationalizations like "well, I'm sure the beef I'm eating has had a good life".

I’m sure the author of Sacred Cow is aware of these points (and probably points to this elsewhere). 


But even if I understand the message, I'm not sure this implies that many changes in the way EA do things now (except for the clean meat side of things, where I agree a focus on beef isn't the best).

I'm not sure how much I agree with this / its applicability, but one argument I've heard is that, for individual decision-making and social norm-setting,

total abstinence is easier than perfect moderation

(Kind of a stretch, but I enjoyed this speech on the cultural and coordinating power of simple norms, which can be seen as a case against nuanced norms. Maybe the simplicity of some standards as individuals' principles, advocacy goals, and social norms makes them more resilient to pressure, whereas more nuanced standards might more easily fall down slippery slopes, incrementally succumbing to pressure to expand the scope of their exceptions until they're far too broad.)

Thanks for replying, Mauricio.

Interesting idea to maximise persuasion/streamline argument.

But I'm not sure I buy this, personally, in this context.

I think something as complex as food systems requires a nuanced response. This actually brings up a further notable point around food resilience. From the book:

'it’s clear that the more diverse and complex an ecosystem is, the healthier and more resilient it is.

'When someone argues that all meat is “evil,” decentralized, regional, and regenerative food systems, which offer both better quality of life for animals and more sustainable food for humans, are excluded from the discussion. From a globalization perspective, this is also a challenging ethical position as the folks making the case to remove all animal inputs in the global food system are pushing for food policies that would destroy the food systems in developing countries.

'A truly resilient food system requires as much life as possible, and this means animals and plants... Encourage this system to be as diversified and resilient as possible.

'Different regions have area-specific ecosystems that can provide different foods. In some areas it may make more sense to raise camels or goats, depending on what the landscape can provide. When we see regions feeding themselves instead of relying on outside food, we generally see more resilience.'

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities