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.