Just how much animal blood do vegetarians have on their hands?

An online article claiming vegetarians are causing more animal deaths than meat eaters continues to cause arguments between the two camps. I am amazed this story is still doing the rounds. My understanding is that the original article appeared in The Conversation in 2011, maybe (it’s not all that clear in the article – there’s a link, but no reference) inspired by a book by Peter Singer. This week, IFLS has discovered it and it has been copied and shared and passed on in social media and via e-mail. The Conversation article represents one of the few pieces of literature (to my knowledge it is not what the scientific community would consider a true piece of peer-reviewed published research) that suggests meat eating is “better” than a vegetable-based diet and consequently has received a lot of attention, particularly (in my experience) from meat-eaters. It has probably been quite the boost for the associated authors’ careers. I have seen similar responses to articles refuting climate change…

My biggest concern with the original article (and therefore any further articles which claim scientific substance) is that it is based on figures of the number of mice killed per hectare of arable land, compared with the number of pasture raised cattle killed for meat. Even assuming that the questionable figures are accurate in the first place, it makes no mention of mice deaths in cattle pasture. In my view, they should have analysed the number of ALL sentient beings killed in each farming practice, since they are concluding from the mouse/cattle data that there are more individual deaths in arable farming than meat.

Also of significance is the displacement of animals which is also ignored in the article. Pasture is a dramatically different ecosystem to a native, unimproved grassland. This article considers the killing of mice as the only significant problem, but there are many more that will die or not be born as a result of the decreased area of habitat, as native animals are pushed out by cattle and sheep.

The article also ignores import/export, which is a major factor in Australian agriculture and the food industry. I don’t know the current figures, but about 10 years ago, Australia was simultaneously the world’s second largest importer and exporter of beef. Aside from us destroying our native habitat to produce cattle for an overseas market, we also import and export huge amounts of vegetable matter for food. Australia is part of the global market and food trade routes pass in and out of our productive country.

There is also a suggestion by the author that the rangelands can only be used as cattle grazing or arable land. I would argue that although there may be no nutritional value in not farming land, by reducing the pressure caused by invasive species (such as cattle) and the direct manipulation of the habitat required to do as such in some areas, the increase of intensity in areas currently used as arable fields is at least in part mitigated.

The author states: ” if you want to minimise animal suffering and promote more sustainable agriculture, adopting a vegetarian diet might be the worst possible thing you could do” which, aside from the sensationalist, deliberately vague language, is not the same message of the next paragraph: “we should choose the way that causes the least unnecessary harm to animals.” which is also not the same as “sustainable agriculture”. The author does later touch on the surface of sustainability in agriculture, but the piece of research that this article is primarily based upon does not have any significant claims either way about sustainability. The message of this article is confused as well as erroneous.

Lastly, it is essential to remember that the book was published by an ethicist. Whilst I don’t think that alone is grounds to discredit it, it does explain why much of the bigger ecological picture has been ignored. The untangling of ethics and ecology is a long-standing problem, as can be attested to by anyone trying to perform research in the field. In this story though, the application of ecological principles to what started as a purely ethical discussion is abused and/or misguided.

So if you are going for steak, please make it kangaroo. I am still undecided entirely about the merits of it – there is no shortage of examples of species being eaten to extinction – but as long as we don’t all immediately do it, it’s probably the better choice at present. This is an important discussion to continue and we have a responsibility to research and question the impact of our diet, so please do not cherry pick the numbers to suit your lifestyle. Ethics, ecology and food security are real and important issues affecting us now and in the future.


What they said:

Cane toads were introduced to Australia against the advice of multiple scientists. Why do we struggle so hard to learn?!

From today’s Conversation:


Why is our wildlife in trouble? Because we’re ignoring science

By Emma Burns, Australian National University

From reef dredging, to shark culling, to opening old-growth forests to logging, environmental policies are leaving Australia’s wildlife exposed to threats. The reason, we propose, is that society and government are often ignoring science – particularly ecology.

In a recently published book, more than 80 Australian environment professionals looked at what we have learned from studying ecosystems.

This book is based on long-term field research in numerous ecosystems. From this research, there are examples of science both being used and ignored in management and policy.

There is some good news. Forest studies have led to more sustainable forestry in Tasmania, and potentially soon in Victoria. And new restoration techniques are being trialed to protect endangered woodlands in the Australian Capital Territory.

But there’s still a long way to go. Here are three examples where science is seemingly being ignored by current environmental policy.

Alpine grazing

Under a trial approved by the federal government, cattle are now once again grazing in the Alpine National Park.

There is no scientific case for the trial. Since the 1940s scientists have been monitoring the alpine ecosystems.

For instance we know that hard-hooved animals such as cattle, sheep, horses, deer and pigs have significant negative impacts. These include changes to species composition, ecosystem dynamics, and fewer herbs such as Billy Buttons and Snow-daisies.

These studies also clearly demonstrate that grazing by domestic livestock does not reduce the frequency or severity of fire in the Australian alps, and can actually increase the risk of fire, as grazing encourages growth of flammable shrubs.

As a consequence of these studies, grazing of sheep and cattle had been phased out of most alpine areas. It poses a clear threat to the alpine ecosystem and natural heritage values of Alpine National Park, and we know that when grazing stops, the alpine ecosystems recover — albeit slowly, and future recovery is unlikely to be as robust as past recovery because environmental conditions are changing.

Alpine Billy Button
Photo by Henrik Wahren

Culling fruit bats

Queensland and New South Wales are currently culling fruit bats, despite evidence that culls do not reduce health risks or work.

The threatened spectacled flying fox (Pteropus conspicillatus), targeted as part of the culls, also falls under conservation regulations and provides free services for human society, such as dispersal of pollen and seeds. But many humans fear them because of Hendra virus, and dislike them because urban camps are smelly and noisy, and because they damage commercial fruit crops.

Spectacled Flying-foxes
Photo by A. McKeown

Regular calls are made for their conservation status to be downgraded and for management interventions such as camp removal and culling to be adopted. But a ten-year study that we referred to of the habits of spectacled flying foxes demonstrates that apparently simple solutions like moving or destroying camps will ultimately fail because the species is nomadic — naive individuals are always arriving at camps meaning that camps easily re-establish at the site or nearby.

The often repeated claims that flying-fox populations are exploding are also not supported by the research.

Forest management

Recently Prime Minister Tony Abbott suggested that too much forest is locked away from logging and blames “green ideology” for this. We don’t need ideology driving decision making about forest management but more science would be good.

Research on the effects of the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria shows that a decline in hollow bearing trees, which is leading to declines in some fauna, has been linked to these high severity fires and a long history of timber harvesting. On the basis of this research, as well as economic factors, there is a public campaign to change this area’s land tenure from State Forest to National Park.

Professor David Lindenmayer proposes a Giant Forest National Park

However this research is specific to forests in Victoria, and the story may be different in other forest systems. Each system in question needs independent research.

How do we get more science in policy?

Environmental scientists, researchers and policy-makers have a “social imperative” to increase scientific knowledge in policy. Alongside our work on ecosystems, we developed a policy handbook to guide policy makers. And we encourage more ecologists, and their institutions, to distill and communicate their science in similar ways.

It’s not too late, but scientist and policy-makers need to work together and act with the urgency, scale and intelligence needed to meet our environmental challenges.

The book and policy handbook referred to in this article were supported by the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network. TERN has catalysed collaborations between researchers dedicated to ecological research but who would have been unlikely to work together without support from TERN.

The Conversation

Emma Burns’ position is funded through the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN). The Long Term Ecological Research Network (within TERN), of which she is the Executive Director, receives funding from the Australian Government.

Ary Hoffmann receives funding from Australian Research Council and the Australian Government through the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network

David Lindenmayer receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the Australian Government through the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network and the National Environmental Research Program

Dick Williams is associated with activities funded by the Australian Government through the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

More badger-centric news

From Nature News, the link below is for an interview with DEFRA official Ian Boyd. Since he is all about protecting the food production industry, he says that the problem lies with tuberculosis and the “badger-cattle interface”. He mentions the implementation of change in farming methods, such as cattle movement controls and does a good job of explaining that it’s not all about badger control. He also says that “…reducing wildlife populations and killing cattle is not going to actually produce the elimination that we’re really striving for.” when talking about the importance of vaccines.

For all the protesting and letter-writing and marching, the consumer perhaps has a greater power than they realise in this story. By consuming less animal products, we can lessen the need to cull badgers.

By voting with our dollar (or pound) we have a greater impact than any amount of blowing hot air. We live in a World where food is produced to make money, not to make food. Whilst we may have limited power to change things at the governmental level, we, as consumers, unbeknownst to a lot of us, actually control the market an in turn the production methods. Buy and eat responsibly!


British Badger Cull, the proponent

Kudos to the author of the linked article. Ms. Wollaston has presumably voiced the thoughts of her constituents clearly and unreservedly.

Of course, she spectacularly misses the point several times but provides an example of the anti-badger sentiment that led to the cull in the first place. British wildlife must bear nearly no resemblance to it’s “natural” state. I would suggest that the native animals need all the help they can get and that we take a long hard look at our methods of producing food.

Interesting that Ms. Wollaston should consider this article necessary given that the politicians of her kind have “won”. The cull has had the go ahead. At the end of the article she makes reference to the need for a fair price for milk. I find it hard to see how she makes the connection between the two subjects. My only suggestion is that Ms. Wollaston recognises that the dairy industry is in trouble for more reasons that bovine TB.


UK Badger Cull

As a child I remember my friend, a cattle farmer’s son, bemoaning the presence of badgers on their property. The discussion about the transmission of Bovine TB via badgers has continued for most of my life and has recently come to a head. Two areas have been given the go ahead to kill badgers. Will it make a difference? Time will tell.

Badgers are implemented in the transmission of Bovine TB. That’s not thought to be controversial. Also implemented are modern farming methods – intensive farming, excessive travelling distances etc.,  but no-one seems to be keen to address these issues. As usual, the native ecosystem suffers before the consumer or the producer’s pocket.

The BBC offers an easy to read Q & A article on the badger cull:


From The Guardian Higher Education


When I first set about on my career path, I didn’t want a job in academia. Now I just want to be lucky enough to get a job when I’m looking for one, in academia or not.

I can’t help thinking that Universities are governmental puppets, subjected to cuts and restrictions and are nearly helpless to change things like funding. Either way, whoever has control of the situation described herein should consider it a timely warning.