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.


Do your bit for your own good

Everyone (and I mean everyone) can make a difference to the world. Difference does have to be expensive (in temporal or financial terms) or showy. Improvements not have to be complicated. Just a shift in the attitude of good people to “I am going to help where I can” is all that is needed. Most of the time, environmentally sensitive decisions are good for our pockets, because frequently (although probably not sufficiently), the value of things is reflected in money.

There are some very easy ways to reduce your footprint, for the benefit of all:

  • Take a walk or cycle instead of driving – cost effective exercise
  • Turn things off at the wall when not in use – save on your electricity bill
  • Reuse “grey water” (e.g., water your plants with old bathwater) -save on water bills
  • Cut down on meat consumption – vegetarian is often healthier and cheaper
  • Reduce reuse recycle – no one likes having to clean out their house of all the acquired junk!

My view on the subjects described in the article below have often got me labelled eccentric. That I may be, but the combined importance of the issue, the ease with which every person on the planet can do their bit and the benefit to everyone and everything makes it significant and topic-worthy.


John Krebs on the UK Badger Cull

Lord John Krebs is a scientist for whom I have the utmost respect. This interview is definitely worth a listen. It starts by talking to Lord Krebs about his career and then asks his professional opinion of the badger culls. He raises some very interesting points about sample size and unreported data (namely the effect of the culls outside the study area).

All in all, this harks back to my original point that with or without badger culls, more has to change to help prevent diseases and improve conditions in farming methods everywhere.

Chinese carbon cuts

An argument I used to frequently hear was that there was no point in the arguer (usually a Brit, American or Aussie), doing anything about environmental issues, as long as China [and other developing countries] continued on their paths of environmental destruction.

Well, now there’s this:


A Chinese city has gone one better than the whole of Australia!

This is good news. Good news that even communities desperate for money are doing their bit and showing the rest of the world that environmental responsibility is everyone’s issue.

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: