Non-vegans often ask, "What would happen to the animals if we all went vegan?" It's a valid question. If we stop eating cows, pigs, and chickens, what would happen to the 10 billion land animals we now eat every year? And what would happen to wildlife if we stop hunting? Or the animals used for experiments or entertainment?
The World Will Not Go Vegan Overnight
As with any product, as the demand for meat changes, production will change to meet market demands. As more people go vegan, there will be more vegan products available in both mainstream stores and health food stores. Farmers will adjust by breeding, raising, and slaughtering fewer animals.
Similarly, more vegan products will show up in stores and more farmers will switch to growing things like quinoa, spelt, or kale.
If the World Goes Vegan
It is conceivable that the world, or part of the world, could suddenly go vegan. There have been several instances where demand for a particular animal product suddenly plummeted.
After a report on pink slime (a.k.a. "lean finely textured beef") aired on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer in 2012, most of the pink slime plants in the US shut down within weeks and one company, AFA Foods, declared bankruptcy.
In an example from the mid-1990s, speculation in the emu meat market caused emu farms to spring up around the United States and Canada. As an increasing number of farmers bought emu eggs and breeding pairs, the prices of the eggs and birds rose, creating a false impression that there was great consumer demand for emu products (meat, oil, and leather), which caused even more farmers to go into emu farming. A six-foot-tall, flightless Australian bird who is related to the ostrich, emus were touted as having lean, nutritious meat, fashionable leather, and healthy oil. But the price of emu meat was high, supply was unreliable, and consumers didn't like the taste as much as that of cheap, familiar beef. While it's unclear what's happening to all the pink slime that used to go to McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell, emus are harder to hide, and many were abandoned in the wild, include the forests of southern Illinois, as reported by the Chicago Tribune News.
If a large number of people were to suddenly go vegan and there were too many cows, pigs, and chickens, farmers would cut back abruptly on breeding, but the animals who are already here may be abandoned, slaughtered, or sent to sanctuaries. None of these fates are worse than what would have happened if people continued eating meat, so the concern for what would happen to the animals is not an argument against veganism.
Hunting and Wildlife
Hunters sometimes argue that if they were to stop hunting, the deer population would explode. This is a false argument because if hunting were to stop, we would also stop the practices that increase the deer population. State wildlife management agencies artificially boost the deer population in order to increase recreational hunting opportunities for hunters. By clearcutting forests, planting deer-preferred plants and requiring tenant farmers to leave a certain amount of their crops unharvested in order to feed the deer, the agencies are creating the edge habitat that is preferred by deer and also feeding the deer. If we stop hunting, we would also stop these tactics that increase the deer population.
If we stopped hunting, we would also stop breeding animals in captivity for hunters. Many nonhunters are unaware of state and private programs that breed quail, partridges, and pheasants in captivity, for the purpose of releasing them in the wild, to be hunted.
All wildlife populations fluctuate according to the number of predators and available resources. If human hunters are removed from the picture and we stop breeding game birds and manipulating deer habitat, the wildlife will adapt and fluctuate and reach a balance with the ecosystem. If the deer population were to explode, it would then collapse from lack of resources and continue to fluctuate, naturally.
Animals Used for Clothing, Entertainment, Experiments
Like the animals used for food, other animals used by humans would also have their numbers in captivity reduced as demand for animal products declines. As the number of chimpanzees in research in the US declines - the National Institute of Health has stopped funding for experiments using chimpanzees - fewer chimps will be bred. As the demand for wool or silk fall, we will see fewer sheep and silkworms being bred. Some animals are captured from the wild, including orcas and dolphins for aquarium shows. It is conceivable that existing zoos and aquariums could become sanctuaries and stop buying, selling, or breeding animals. Sanctuaries like New Jersey's Popcorn Park Zoo take in abandoned exotic pets, injured wildlife, and illegal pets. In all cases, if the world were to go vegan overnight or very quickly, the animals who cannot be returned to the wild will be slaughtered, abandoned, or taken care of in sanctuaries. Most likely, the world will go vegan gradually, and the animals in captivity will be gradually phased out.
The World Going Vegan
Veganism is definitely spreading in the U.S. and, it would seem, in other parts of the world, as well. Even among non-vegans, demand for animal foods is shrinking. In the U.S., we are eating less meat even though our population is growing. This is because of a drop in per capita meat consumption. Whether we will ever have a vegan world is debatable, but it is clear that a combination of factors - animal rights, animal welfare, environment, and health - is causing people to eat less meat.