Veganomics Review: Takeaways for Farmed Animal Advocates

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In this blog, HRC offers a review of Veganomics, including a look at the book’s topics, its key facts and figures, its recommendations for improving vegetarian advocacy, and what makes it an especially novel offering for the animal protection movement.

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In late 2013, Lantern Books published Veganomics: The Surprising Science on What Motivates Vegetarians, from the Breakfast Table to the Bedroom by Nick Cooney, founder of The Humane League and the Director of Education for Mercy for Animals.

The book is segmented into 15 chapters, which cover a range of topics including: how vegetarians impact animals; demographics and other defining features of vegetarians; motivations and barriers; the dominance of meat; attitudes toward plant-based meats; beliefs about animals; the impact of pro-vegetarian messaging; semi-vegetarians; and vegetarian recidivists.

Cooney wrote the book to impart intriguing facts and figures about vegetarians, but also, as he stresses, “to share research that would enable vegetarian advocates to be more effective in their work.” HRC believes this resource is an important one for farmed animal advocates who are looking to improve the efficacy of their efforts. We do not purport to vouch for every statistic and recommendation, but rather are sharing the information in the hopes of informing advocates and encouraging them to use the literature with their own critical eye, both to shape their advocacy and to guide any future research.

While many interested in research are focused on developing new studies, an unfortunate side effect of this is that the usefulness of examining previous research findings is often overlooked. As William Solesbury explains, “[m]ost research effort is expended on new primary research and yet, on virtually any topic you can name, there is a vast body of past research that may have some continuing value but mostly remains ignored.”[1] Indeed, significant benefit can come from synthesizing existing research. Donald Swanson’s work serves as a prime example. Swanson, a library scientist at the University of Chicago, found a cure for a mysterious medical condition by synthesizing insights he had amassed by simply reading across several academic disciplines.[2]

This re-utilization of “undiscovered public knowledge,” as Swanson refers to it, is what makes Veganomics so novel. Cooney has explored the existing literature on vegetarianism coming out of several academic specialities including agriculture, business, medicine, nutritional sciences, philosophy, psychology, religion, sociology, and others, while—importantly—not overlooking non-academic sources including information produced within the animal protection movement itself. His is the first offering to bring the wealth of studies on vegetarianism and related issues together in one place and to develop conclusions based on these secondary findings. While Cooney is certainly not opposed to conducting primary research—he is involved with direct testing of vegan advocacy materials through his work with the Humane League Labs—he has wisely taken this opportunity to help our movement re-examine “what the thundering herd has left behind” (Ibid.). Among the 400-some works cited in Veganomics—coming from Australia, Canada, Europe, and the U.S.—there are a number of references to HRC’s contributions, including: Advocating Meat Reduction and Vegetarianism to US Adults, Focus Groups on Vegetarianism, Readability of Vegan Outreach Literature, Vegetarianism in the US, and our Video Comparison Study.

One of the important contributions the book makes is found in its first chapter. Here Cooney quantifies the impact the average U.S. citizen has on farmed animals. This is especially noteworthy because it can be used to guide approaches to advocacy as well as to measure the efficacy of such efforts. Some particularly important excerpts from this chapter include:

  • As of 2012, about 31 farm animals suffer and die for the average meat-eater [annually]. In rounded figures, the number of animals killed breaks down to: 28 chickens, 1 turkey, 1/2 pig, 1/8 beef cow, and 1 1/3 farm-raised fish. The consumption of dairy and eggs adds about two more animals into the mix: 2 chickens (one laying hen, one male chick that is killed shortly after birth) and 1/30 dairy cow. If we consider shellfish and wild fish, the numbers grow dramatically higher: Over 225 fish; Over 151 shellfish.
  • For every cow they eat, Americans eat 190 chickens and kill over 1,400 fish. For every pig they eat, Americans eat 60 chickens and kill over 450 fish.
  • In terms of days spent suffering per year, the average meat-eater generates about 1,100 days of misery for chickens, an entire year for egg-laying hens, 120 days for turkeys, 90 days for pigs, 23 days for beef cows, and 12 days for dairy cows. Depending on what species of fish they eat, the average American also causes between 355 and 2,470 days of farmed-fish suffering each year.
  • Vegetarians do almost as much good for farm animals as vegans. They reduce 88 percent as many days of suffering, and spare 94 percent as many lives.

Cooney also devotes a chapter to lapsed vegetarians. He explains that the few studies on the topic are not particularly reliable because they allow respondents to self-identify as vegetarian, rather than inquiring about the foods they consume—an approach that leads to over-reporting. Later this year, HRC will release the findings of our large-scale study of former vegetarians and vegans and in so doing, we will provide the first reliable incidence rate of vegetarian and vegan recidivists in the U.S. We’ll do this by using a representative sample and identifying these individuals based on questions about diet that have been designed to limit social desirability bias. Cooney also outlines the four main reasons vegetarian recidivists give for backsliding: health, taste, inconvenience, and social concerns. Our study will explore these motivations in greater detail using a scale developed specifically to unpack the various facets of each theme and their level of influence.

Veganomics illuminates how complex it is to determine the most effective path for animal advocacy. Take for example the fact that while females are more likely to be vegetarian, they also eat less meat than their male counterparts, and so while they may be more receptive to the message, the per person impact on animals is not as significant. In the face of this complexity, Cooney attempts something very worthwhile—turning a vast swath of research findings into recommendations for advocates. These guidelines are neatly packaged at the end of the book in a checklist. This checklist covers a variety of important topics including which animal foods to focus on, the most receptive audiences for vegetarian advocacy, how to tackle the main barriers to vegetarianism, and which messages to prioritize. However, as Cooney himself acknowledges, it is not to be treated as a list of incontestable truths. Indeed Cooney is a vocal supporter of the need for more direct research to answer concretely some of the questions raised in his book. Regardless of what questions remain unanswered, having an abundance of research on vegetarianism in one place along with interpretation and directives from one of the top strategists in our movement is an exciting development. Cooney is to be applauded for tackling such a momentous project, sourcing and reading a mountain of research studies and related material, and synthesizing it all in a user-friendly and action-oriented package.

HRC encourages anyone interested in the topic to pick up a copy of Veganomics (whether in paperback or as an eBook) to explore the various facets of Cooney’s arguments, but in the interim we have shortlisted some key numbers and conclusions taken directly from the book.

  • …in general about 3 percent of American [adults] say they never eat red meat, poultry, or fish. A third of those vegetarians—or 1 percent of American [adults] overall—say they also never eat eggs or dairy. If these numbers are accurate, that would mean there are about nine million [adult] vegans and vegetarians in the U.S.
  • The number of people who say they are cutting back on meat is about four times larger than the number of people who say they have become vegetarians.
  • As of 2007, only tiny Luxembourg out-chomped the U.S. in per capita meat consumption.
  • Average meat consumption in the U.S. dropped nearly 10 percent between 2006 and 2012.
  • While individual Americans are eating only slightly more red meat and fish today than they were in the early 1900s, they’re eating seven times as much chicken.
  • Chicken is expected to pass pork in the next few years to become the world’s most popular meat.
  • People in their twenties and thirties eat far more meat than any other age group.
  • …men are responsible for the death of 37 farm animals each year. Women kill only 29 farm animals.
  • There are two to three times as many female vegetarians as there are male vegetarians.
  • …a large percentage of [vegetarian] conversions seem to happen between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five.
  • Americans in the Northeast and on the west coast are more likely to be vegetarian than those in the Midwest or South.
  • In both the U.S. and other countries, those living in urban areas seem more likely to be vegetarian.
  • Single people are much more likely to be vegetarian than married people.
  • Compared to meat-eaters, vegetarians are much less likely to follow traditional Western religions like Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism.
  • Women are also twice as likely as men to be semi-vegetarians.
  • Even after they’ve decided to go vegetarian, most people make the transition gradually.
  • …most people go vegetarian to improve their health or to protect animals from cruelty. No other motivations come close.
  • Health concerns are far and away the main reason that semi-vegetarians are cutting back on meat. Nothing else comes close in importance.
  • One study discovered that fewer than half of all meat-eaters think going vegetarian prevents cruelty to farm animals.
  • Of all the protein-rich plant products out there, vegetarian meats seem to be the most popular among those who are starting to cut out meat.


1. Solesbury, W. (2002). The ascendancy of evidence. Planning Theory & Practice, 3(1), 90–96.

2. Fuller, S. (2005, February 18). You call yourself an intellectual? Times Higher Education. Retrieved from

Helpful, no question

Just reading the bullet points shows me how helpful this book will be in helping vegan and vegetarian advocates to use their precious time and resources to the maximum effect. I had requested my library purchase this book in December, and I see that it is on order. I'd encourage others to ask their libraries to purchase this book. One concern I have is around the emphasis that a woman going Veg doesn't save as many animal's lives as a man would. I'm not convinced of this, given that women tend to cook for others more often than men do (on average). Perhaps also that women are more able to convince other people (men and women) to take steps towards veganism or vegetarianism (but I don't have the data to support this case or refute it).

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