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 is your motivation for conservation?

Although potentially controversial, I am a strong advocate for conservation based mainly on intrinsic value.

We also know of the financial value of wild areas or animals (safari brings many tourist dollars for example) and the environmental goods and services argument (e.g., we need rivers as a source of fresh water).

I am planning a research paper investigating these motivations and would love to hear from you (regardless of your background/occupation or education). Are you motivated to conserve or preserve? Why? Does it make you happy just to know that you walk the same planet as koalas, or when you get in the ocean you know there’s a blue whale out there somewhere in the same water? Do you enjoy garden visitors such as butterflies or birds? Are you worried that the cure for cancer may be found in the rainforests that we are logging? And/or do you appreciate that we need trees to breathe and a sustainable source of food to eat?

Please let me know in the comments below. Thanks!

The problem of plastic bags

Plastic bags are an environmental menace from their very origins (as the finite resource of oil, the extraction and processing of which has its own problems) to the difficulties in recycling the product, “responsible” disposal in landfill and the irresponsible littering of our terrestrial environments, freshwater bodies and oceans with these eyesores. Clean Up Australia reports that “Plastic has remained the most common category of rubbish picked up on Clean Up Australia day over the last 20 years. In 2009, it made up 29% of all rubbish found. Of the plastic rubbish found, 17.6% were plastic bags with an average of 40 plastic bags being found at each Clean Up site.”

Modern life presents us with many opportunities to increase convenience, but at cost to the planet. Richer countries of the world are mostly responsible for the largest impacts, with Brits using about 300 bags a year each , Australians use 200 a year and the NRDC reports that Americans take home 1500 a year, which works out to be four a day, each. This represents a ludicrous waste of precious resources in the name of convenience or laziness by people who will probably never see the problems these unnecessary pollutants cause firsthand.

The third of July was International Bag Free Day. This initiative is something the Europeans do exceptionally well. Awareness of waste and pollution is high in Europe. The giving of free plastic bags at point of sale in supermarkets was not as culturally ingrained in some areas of the continent as it is in other parts of the world and has been banned in some countries. The environment is afforded higher status in Europe than it is elsewhere and surplus and refuse are not far from the minds of those that grew up with wartime rationing and a culture of repairing and reusing. That’s not to say that Europe doesn’t produce plastic waste – it does; and lots of it. But we still have a lot to learn from initiatives such as the Spanish creation of “International Bag Free Day” which was largely overlooked by Oceania and the Americas (although it should be noted that some areas are improving the situation, such as the City of Fremantle).

The consumers of Northern Europe have been subjected to measures to reduce plastic bag waste and programmes of plastic waste reduction have been successful. Since 2002, a plastic bag from a supermarket in Ireland has incurred a levy (originally 15 Euro cents, the tax has since increased, and will likely continue to increase, but is currently capped at 70 c). The result is a 90% decrease in the use of those bags. Perhaps more exciting is that reports of stakeholder feedback have been very positive. The reasons for this include education of the public into the problems that plastic bags cause. The Irish example shows the importance of a cultural shift as well as the introduction of legislation.

In lieu of government action to this very serious problem, we can all take immediate action to reduce the production, consumption and disposal of the unsustainable plastic carrier bag. Regular use of reusable bags (particularly ones made of natural fabrics, not plastic) is an easy and immediate mitigation measure. Avoid excessive plastic packaging on foodstuffs and keep an eye open for biodegradable alternatives. Also, when given the opportunity, do as the Irish do and spread the word about reducing plastic bag waste.



From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Asministration, USA

Photograph from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USA. Plastic bags imitate food items to marine creatures, leading to massive problems associated with the ingestion of innappropriate material. For shocking examples of the consequences, see: http://www.oceanhealthindex.org/News/Death_By_Plastic


Bahri, G. (2005). Sustainable Management of Plastic Bag Waste. The Case of Nairobi, Kenya.

Convery, F., McDonnell, S., & Ferreira, S. (2007). The most popular tax in Europe? Lessons from the Irish plastic bags levy. Environmental and Resource Economics, 38(1), 1-11.

Davidson, J. Explanatory Memorandum to the Single Use Carrier Bag Charge (Wales) Regulations 2010.

Hawkins, G. (2001). Plastic bags Living with rubbish. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 4(1), 5-23.

Khoo, H. H., & Tan, R. B. (2010). Environmental impacts of conventional plastic and bio-based carrier bags. The international journal of life cycle assessment, 15(4), 338-345.

Poortinga, W., Whitmarsh, L., & Suffolk, C. (2013). The introduction of a single-use carrier bag charge in Wales: Attitude change and behavioural spillover effects. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 240-247.

Verghese, K., Jollands, M., & Allan, M. (2006, November). The litterability of plastic bags: key design criteria. In Fifth Australian Conference on Life Cycle Assessment (pp. 22-24).






Fish need protection too

Recently, the news has been full of reports of Culum Brown‘s article published in Animal Cognition asserting fish as sentient (to all intents and purposes, feeling) and they should be afforded the same protections and respect of other vertebrates. It seems that we are less keen to include fish on our moral compass because they do not tick charismatic macrofauna boxes. Yet evidence is increasingly showing that there is more to fish cognition than we previously thought. It is now widely accepted that fish have effective memories and even count numbers. Fish are aware of pain, even if they don’t experience it as we do (the lack of a neocortex means that they experience a feeling probably closer to what we experience as stress or fear, not pain). Although largely subjective, all this information implies suffering. In other words, fish suffer when subjected to something that humans would experience as pain.

Brown’s review came hot on the heels of a report by the ABC that a Ph.D. thesis produced by Miriam Sullivan of The University of Western Australia that suggests that pet fish do not have the love and care they require or deserve. Because they live in water and are covered in scales, it appears that fish are generally considered less significant. Sullivan encourages people to be more aware of the welfare of their pet fish. Historically fish have been considered something of a disposable pet; a first lesson in animal care for young children and a matter of little concern if their wellbeing is compromised. None of this will be of any surprise to anyone that has ever won a goldfish at a fair, or flushed one down a toilet (not recommended).

With or without sentience, the ability to feel pain, emotion and stress levels, fish are vital components of our aquatic and marine ecosystems. Fish comprise large amounts of biomass in the oceans and throughout our freshwater systems. They partake in food webs that span terrestrial and aquatic environments, they store chemicals and alter the chemical composition of the waters in which they live and they alter the physical conditions of their habitats. Fish are hugely influential in their environments and therefore hugely influential in our environments. Fish influence our daily lives, whether we are aware or not. Our own sentience could be considered in question to fishes…

Fish are an important source of protein for hungry mouths around the world, yet they are also a delicacy for greedy gastronomes that bypass the sustainable fisheries advice produced by the likes of the Australian Marine Conservation Society. Our palates are considered more important than the ecosystem and struggling fishermen desperately collect the very last individuals from ever remote areas. Orange roughy is frequently found on the fish shelves of supermarkets, despite the evidence that shows the extreme threat to the species by fishing (briefly, they are long-lived, late maturing large fish, the populations of which have been known to crash dangerously in the past). Tuna is another popular food fish, eaten frequently, over-exploited constantly. Eaten by the rich and spoilt. Easy to overlook, given that fish live in water and are covered in scales.

I will close with a couple of images. This one produced by WWF:

And even more powerful, credited to Sea Shepherd*:

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-06-08/fish-care-tanks-goldfish-intelligence-puppies-kittens/5500544 Accessed 29/06/2014

Agrillo C, Dadda M, Bisazza A (2007) Quantity discrimination in female mosquito Fish. Animal Cognition 10:63–70

Brown, C. (2014). Fish intelligence, sentience and ethics. Animal Cognition: 1-17 (online early)

Rose, J. D. (2002). The neurobehavioral nature of fishes and the question of awareness and pain. Reviews in Fisheries Science 10(1), 1-38

Zion, B., Karplus, I., & Barki, A. (2012). Ranching acoustically conditioned fish using an automatic fishing machine. Aquaculture, 330, 136-141

*I could not find this on their website, but it is reproduced on many other websites, unanimously crediting Sea Shepherd.