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If You're a Cattle Scientist, Then Every Diet Will Look like a Feedlot Diet
In late 2017, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published an article by Robin White from Virginia Tech’s Department of Animal & Poultry Sciences and Mary Hall from the USDA’s Dairy Forage Research Center. White and Hall, who make their living from animal agriculture, claimed that if everyone in the United States stopped eating animal products, we would simply eat the animals’ feed instead. By eating feed corn instead of animal products, White and Hall claimed we would face deficits in six nutrients, rather than four nutrients currently deficient in standard diets. 

GFI’s Executive Director Bruce Friedrich said that having two animal scientists analyze a world without animal agriculture was like asking the NRA to analyze a world without gun manufacturers.

Earlier this year, PNAS published a short rebuttal from GFI’s Senior Environmental Scientist Dr. Isaac Emery. In his published piece, Dr. Emery points out White and Hall’s single most absurd assumption: “The authors unrealistically assume that without livestock, Americans would continue to grow animal feed and incorporate it into human diets.”

Yes, seriously. White and Hall assumed that if everyone stopped eating meat, eggs, and dairy, farmers would simply continue to grow exactly the same amount of feed crops – mostly inexpensive livestock-optimized #2 yellow dent feed corn – and just feed it all straight to people. The assumption is so absurd that PNAS published several other critiques alongside that of Dr. Emery’s. One, co-authored by famed Harvard nutritionist Dr. Walter Willett, referred to White and Hall’s fantasy as a “feedlot diet for Americans.”

White and Hall’s assumptions and calculation errors went beyond what could be addressed in Emery and Willett’s short articles. To do a thorough analysis, Dr. Emery joined forces with GFI Director of Policy Jessica Almy, J.D.  

In addition to noting that people following plant-based diets aren’t sidling up to a trough of feed corn, Emery and Almy note:
  • A food system without animals would improve total food production, diversity, and nutrition, including more fruits and vegetables. 
  • Without having to cycle feed crops through animals, farmers could grow enough food for Americans as well as food for export and biofuel crops, while still having extra land that can be returned to natural habitat for endangered species and other wildlife.
  • Replacing farming practices that maximize corn yields (e.g, monocropping and heavy fertilizer use) would improve biodiversity and the health of our waterways and the Gulf of Mexico.
  • An entirely plant-based food system would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon sequestration, and improve energy security.
  • Plant-based diets would also decrease the risk of ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity (as pointed out in a previous PNAS report).

You can read Emery and Almy’s full critique here

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