All Food is “Plant-Based” – Particularly Meat and Dairy

All Food is “Plant-Based” – Particularly Meat and Dairy

Steffen Hirth

Without a doubt, life forms on earth are in crisis. As revealed to the public by Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, our society exhibits a menacing lack of maturity in how ecological crises are practically addressed. In the context of food, avoiding climate breakdown and mitigating the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet (Ceballos et al. 2015) requires swift action upon Livestock’s Long Shadow (FAO 2006). Therefore, academics, policy makers and businesses increasingly consider a shift towards so-called “plant-based” diets which principally require less land, energy, and other resources.

Why exactly is that so? Whilst meat’s, less so dairy’s, high environmental impact has received some public attention, rarely the biophysical reasons for it are made explicit. Essentially, in the production of all animal-sourced foods that involve the metabolism of an animal, energy is lost and emitted to the environment. Rather than electricity or fuels, energy here means the nutritional energy within the plants eaten by animals that in turn produce or become food. The feed conversion ratio puts the feed input in relation to the food output. Raising and slaughtering cattle for beef, for example, requires about 18kg of feed for 1kg of yielded meat; 4kg/1kg for pork; 2kg/1kg for chicken (de Ruiter et al. 2017). Based in the laws of thermodynamics, this poor energetic efficiency is to an extent improvable but ultimately inevitable whenever animate beings, who by moving and maintaining body heat use energy, grow the tissue that becomes food for another animate being. Thus, via an additional body, animal-sourced foods are an energetic detour in comparison to the energetic shortcut of so-called “plant-based” diets in which humans eat plants directly.

The physical necessity of feed conversion losses not only means that meat and dairy too are based on plants (in form of feed crops), but that base of plants is also much greater than what is required for direct human consumption of plants. Thus, by focussing only on the consumption end, the conventional use of the term “plant-based” falls short of conveying the plant-intensive (and thus energy- and land-intensive) materiality of animal-sourced foods. That term we use to describe our food, as much in academia as in everyday life, only scratches the surface of the materiality of production, and I contend that so does our mindfulness of why meat and dairy play a major role in mass extinction and climate breakdown.

Vegan Identity and Stockfree Agriculture
Another question arising from the popularity of the term “plant-based” is when and why it replaces the term “vegan”. Are people avoiding to call a spade a spade? Admittedly, as a concept, “plant-based” is perhaps a bit broader. Next to veganism, “plant-based” often comprises vegetarianism, which includes dairy or eggs, and flexitarianism, i.e. people who deliberately consume meat only occasionally and thus in comparatively small amounts. However, the relatively low environmental footprint of all of these diets is rooted in giving vegan foods a priority over animal-sourced foods. By relying purely on plants, veganism is simply the most consistent one. So why say “plant-based”, rather than “vegan”, when depicting, for example, a bean patty without any animal ingredients?

Despite its boom in terms of media attention, veganism is surely not (yet) a lifestyle everybody wants to self-identify or be identified with. From analysing social media, print and online news, or movies, social scientific studies have shown that vegans still face stigmatisation (e.g. Cole & Morgan 2011). Stereotyped as following a mere fad, being sentimental and extreme, it is understandable that people might avoid to be put in that box. Well aware of that, businesses often choose the innocuous “plant-based” when they mean vegan food. On the one hand, this is wholly comprehensible and perhaps eases some meat lovers into something new. On the other, the avoidance of a clear identity highlights that, oddly enough, today’s food debates largely revolve around one thing (and little else): identity.

My concern here is that it may be precisely its confinement to an identity which limits veganism’s potential to help solving the climate breakdown and extinction crisis. Everything is centred on individuals’ dietary identities, ranging from “meat eaters” (carnists) to vegans. As a result, the transition towards a sustainable food system can only happen, or so it appears, with a focus on consumer identity and at the level of purchase. Turned into a question of consumer choice, the responsibility of businesses is merely to ease consumers into making environmentally sound decisions. What remains unaccounted for is the (ir)responsibility within producers offering both sustainable and unsustainable products in order to make that “choice” possible. Put differently, in confining heated public and political debates to consumer choice and identity, the material, spatial, and relational dimensions of food production are at risk of being neglected.

Veganism, as conventionally applied in food regulations and everyday life, is merely a label either for people or for vegetal products. Normally, we do not see production practices as part of veganism’s definition. For example, a vegan person is “vegan” because they abjure from consuming animal products; a carrot is “vegan” per se because it is (the root of) a plant. This identity-based understanding of foods and diets discourages any questions about the food supply chain beyond “the consumer” or the end products they buy.

However, this is now challenged by a marginal but emerging agricultural and culinary paradigm: vegan organic production. While totally normal in both conventional and “conventional organic” agriculture, the use of manure, bone meal, or other animal derivatives for the replenishment of soil fertility is not allowed in this stockfree organic mode of production. Instead, soil fertility is supposed to be restored through composting and building humus soil, nutrient-fixing plants and mulching.

Looking at it from a sociological angle, this food practice challenges and redefines the very foundation of veganism – away from an exclusively identity- and consumer-based phenomenon towards a processual and also production-based one. Our carrot, for instance, is no longer “vegan” per se; it acquires this status by not being nourished by animal derivatives. What matters is the process of how that carrot came into being. What matters is whether or not a farmer performs vegan organic food practices.

Similarly, that focus on the wider process brings into mind that not only self-identified vegans are able to eat or produce “vegan” food. Rather, what I call vegan food practices is a performance that any of us can do, regardless of both our personal identities as vegans, vegetarians, or “meat eaters” (carnists) and our economic positions as consumers or producers. And it is precisely this undogmatic focus on performance where the political potential for a sustainable food transition lies.

The Absolute Ethical Minimum: A Safe Operating Space
No longer producing beef and dairy, Bradley Nook Farm is being reconfigured towards vegan organic crop cultivation. My own interview with the farmers revealed that, next to compassion with the farm animals, they based their decision on concerns about the human right to food, global biodiversity, water use, pollution through animal manure, and climate change. Despite of these very much collectively oriented concerns, a report by BBC Countryfile claimed that ‘the reasons for the change on this farm in Derbyshire are strictly personal’. Personalising the decision by tying it to the farmers’ dietary identity as vegetarians, the programme refrains from addressing social-ecological incentives for a degrowth of animal agriculture. Thereby, it failed to convey the ways in which the farmers’ decision is an issue of public, rather than just personal, concern.

Linguistic representations can reveal a lot about our understanding of material processes, the underlying social and ecological problems, and power relations. In this article, I try to convey the importance of extending the scope of “plant-based” and “vegan”. Conventionally, these terms are largely confined to identities seen from the consumer side. By contrast, exploring materiality with a processual outlook provides new insights that prevent us from premature assumptions, for example, that vegetables have a fixed identity and are essentially “vegan”. A compelling definition of “vegan” should take into account whether animal manure or bone meal are used to nourish food crops. Likewise, having a chunk of meat or cheese should not be mistaken as a plantless meal. In fact, animal products are more ‘plant-based’ due to feed conversion losses intrinsic to animal husbandry. The case of Bradley Nook Farm illustrates the necessity of acknowledging the food conversion gains from converting stockbased to stockfree agri- and culinary culture (e.g. gains of nutritional energy, land, biodiversity, safer climate, moral integrity).

Creating a safe operating space for all life on earth is the absolute minimum of food ethics. This requires putting aside dogmatic identity debates until the lurking existential threats of mass extinction and climate breakdown are dealt with. Not everybody currently wants to become a vegan, fair enough. Rather than striving for the individual purity that a vegan identity promises, the crises of our food system might better be overcome by commencing on material grounds rather than ideational heights. Yielding the conversion gain of enjoying relatively safe living conditions requires that vegan food practices will be performed predominantly, and not exclusively by self-identified “vegans”, but by all producers and consumers. Precisely because feed crops for meat and dairy are still produced in excess, current agri- and culinary culture is too plant-based and not vegan enough to be sustainable.

Ceballos G, Ehrlich PR, Barnosky AD, et al. (2015) Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction. Science Advances 1(5): e1400253.
Cole M and Morgan K (2011) Vegaphobia: derogatory discourses of veganism and the reproduction of speciesism in UK national newspapers. The British Journal of Sociology 62(1): 134–153.
de Ruiter H, Macdiarmid JI, Matthews RB, et al. (2017) Total global agricultural land footprint associated with UK food supply 1986–2011. Global Environmental Change 43: 72–81.
FAO (2006) Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Available at: (accessed 05 June 2019).


Steffen Hirth obtained his PhD in sociology at the University of Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute in 2019. He holds a postgraduate degree in human geography, social anthropology and media sciences from the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany. Drawing upon posthumanist and relational theory approaches, he examines transitions towards sustainable food practices.

IMAGE CREDIT: Author’s own image

3 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    August 10, 2019

    The issues are more complex than the author makes out. To take just two points:

    Some people have dietary requirements which are not met by the common vegan substitutes for animal protein. Apart from my own personal experience, Gandhi had to abandon his “nutarian” diet to add a little goat milk.

    There are areas of marginal farmland, mostly uplands which will never be good for anything but feeding livestock.


    • Avatar
      August 30, 2019

      Dear Martin

      Thanks for your comment, and yes, it is probably fair to say that the issues are more complex than what I am able to convey in a piece as short as this one. Your two points are actually a good opportunity for clarification.

      Firstly, in my conclusion, I do not intend to convey that all vegetarians and carnist should become vegans. I’m not sure whether or not you understood in that way. The “undogmatic” or reconciliative approach that I suggest means that whoever wishes to continue eating animal-sourced foods in the future may in principle do so. What I am concerned with, rather than individual food choices, is the collective production and consumption, that is, the absolute dimensions of animal agriculture on a global scale. So, if some people cannot be healthy on a vegan diet, I don’t think it is a problem to provide them with the nutrients they need, even if that’s from meat, dairy, fish etc. This will surely affect only a minute percentage of the population. The vast majority of people will be fine, and even healthier than today (as nutritional scientists point out for consumers in the Global North), on either a near-vegan diet or on a vegan diet. If there is really somebody who is prescriped to eat predominantly meat – fine – but, really, how many people would that be? A near-vegan diet, say, with meat consumption once a month (or perhaps every two weeks), is anyway more or less what nutritional scientists want most people to consume in order to be more healthy. Let Gandhi add a little goats milk, no problem. The main point is just that the average consumption of humanity comes close to a near-vegan diet. Statistical divergences from that average do not matter in the big picture (which is defined by the “safe operating space”).

      Secondly, your point about pasture land that is not suitable for anything else than feeding livestock is an interesting one to discuss. Supporting that standpoint, and I am not totally against it, implicitly means to admit that the remaining types of agricultural land are arable, i.e. suitable to grow crops on. It may be up to debate where exactly we draw that line of natural (un)suitability but in principle it is a valid point. However, I think that making that point actually sort of makes a case for my policy of a collective near-vegan diet. If you say some land is unsuitable for crops that may be true, but in turn, all the feed crops currently grown on multi-suitable land (all sites of production of soya, corn, and other feed grains) are subject to a woefully inefficient process of feed conversion that, in principle, would be avoidable simply by producing food crops instead of feed crops on that land. The amount of land we are speaking about is significant, not to say massive, and if that land would no longer be used for feed crops, we would either be able to produce much more nutritional energy from food crops (and a bigger variety of foods) or we would need less land while still producing sufficient food (creating opportunities for reforestation). Only using the marginal farmland for animal agriculture would inevitably bring us close to that level of a near-vegan collective consumption.

      That said, other people simply do not buy into the argument that some land is really completely unsuitable for anything else than pasture. They call for reforesting large areas (particularly in the UK which forest-wise is pretty “naked”) which means that nut and fruit trees can be grown in a more “extensive” way of cultivation, one that would certainly not be economically viable within this economic system (but since the current system is clearly unsustainable I do not see why it would not be a fair argument to say that these marginal areas surely can produce some plant food). The people of the Andes are cultivating potatoes in 4000m altitude, why should it be a problem in the hillsides of the UK? There are also a lot of unrecognised food plants such as nettles which can be used in a similar way as spinach, but they are also suitable for extracting protein (they are very efficient for that, by the way). Within the permaculture debate forest gardens feature prominently as a solution for reforesting while being productive. This is just to say that there are multiple possibilities that are not prominently considered within the current debates and power relations.

      I’d like to finish with one last point about power relations. In my political scenario, with the global community deciding to determine a maximum amount of animal-sourced foods that can be produced, carnists and vegetarians, and particularly those who want to continue to eat as much meat or dairy as possible, have a strong interest in maximising the number of vegans on the planet. The more vegans on the planet, the more meat or dairy is available per carnist or vegetarian capita. So, this would be a little twist to the current situation where many carnists rather feel that, for reasons of food culture and ethics, they do not want so many vegans on the planet. With an absolut amount of meat and dairy, however, they profit from vegans if maximising their meat or dairy intake is their goal. An absolute limit of animal agriculture, however, is necessary because even those who want to eat as much animal foods as possible cannot survive easily when the social-ecological crises hit all of us (which is not to deny that there are difference as to when and how strongly different people will be affected by climate change and mass extinction and other crises).

      I hope that clarifies what I’m arguing for…

      Best wishes