Do Vegans Really Kill More Animals?

sw-post-do-vegans

Warning: Long post ahead. Here, I am responding to a fairly detailed criticism from a blogger who suggests she has given proof that vegans cause more harm than non-vegans when considered on simple numerical terms. I believe there are flaws in her calculations. My post here is aimed at highlighting those arguments I feel could bear more scrutiny. In the end, I conclude that globally it probably has to be less harmful to eat plants rather than to eat animals (on a strict numbers basis, I am not going to tackle questions of environmental or other impacts). On an individual basis, it might not be so clear and there probably are sound grounds to claim that eating some meat might be better overall. In the end, it is your call. But choosing to adopt vegan ethics means that when you make that call, you really do care about the animals we hurt to live.

Skip to Conclusion for a summary of my argument.

Introduction

I recently watched a very good video from a Youtuber called Farming Truth. This person also has a website and FB page where she spends a great deal of time and effort examining vegan claims and defending modern day animal farming against those claims.

In this video, Farming Truth argues that it’s now proven – vegans do kill more animals. But is she right?

Video: https://youtu.be/Oq46v2zeEPE
Video resources:  https://farmingtruth.weebly.com/dc-video.html

I must say this is one of the most comprehensively researched and calculated estimates of the comparison between animal deaths in agriculture that I have yet found on the web. However, while there is a wealth of great information and detailed analyses in this video, I am less convinced of claim that it constitutes “proof” of anything at all.

First because I think the numbers aren’t as convincing as portrayed, but also – and perhaps more importantly – because I feel that something so complex cannot be reduced to a simplistic numbers game. I felt the same recently when Matthew Evans wrote his book extolling the virtues of a more natural farming system and I took up the challenge of thinking about the numbers side of his argument (see my thoughts here).

To be honest, I find myself disappointed by such arguments. Are writers who try so hard to criticise veganism missing the point? I think so. In the end, veganism is just the idea that whenever we can we should behave ethically and in accord with our broader moral beliefs in our relationship with other animals. That seems admirable, not something to be derided.

Nonetheless, this question seems to be a perennial favourite, wheeled out from both sides ever since Steven Davis made his argument about crop-related deaths versus grass-fed beef back in 2003. And it IS a good question. Let’s face it, if it really is the case that we do worse to grow crops, shouldn’t we at least be open to thinking about that?

In this blog post, I aim to tackle Farming Truth’s conclusion that vegans always cause more animal harms and deaths than non-vegans.

First, I will summarise Farming Truths argument. Then, I will note some possible errors on her part in terms of the numbers she introduces. Lastly, I will take a shot at recalculating the numbers as fairly as I can and see where that leaves us. At worst, I hope my analysis offers grounds for Farming Truth to re-examine her case.

Farming Truth’s conclusions

Growing crops causes a lot of harms, but in particular, ocean dead zones from fertiliser runoff and Australian mouse plagues cause truly staggering numbers of deaths. Nearly all crops are grown for people, so we can’t discount this harm by claiming that some significant proportion is grown just for animals.

Taking all of this into account we find that averaged globally, approximately 114 animals die per hectare growing crops while just 46 animals die per hectare under pasture.

Considered on several bases – per gram of protein, per calorie and per serve – it turns out that more animals are killed per unit for plant foods than for animal foods. Most notably, Farming Truth concludes that vegans cause – proportionally – 1.16 times more animals to be killed per day for their diet than do omnivores. This latter statistic is particularly telling.

Farming Truth criticises several vegan arguments about the morality of veganism, vegan responses to various claims about crop-related deaths, and holds Mike Archer up as a sort of exemplar of omnivorous reasoning.

Lastly, Farming Truth exposes the matter of wild animal suffering versus farmed animal suffering.

Possible errors

In this section, I want to raise some areas of concern for me in Farming Truth’s analysis. I won’t say my criticisms are right, rather I offer these in the spirit of encouraging further discussion.

Some important numbers are estimates/guesses

Now, it’s important to note before we start that many figures used by Farming Truth are guesses. We do not really know how many wild animals are found in typical areas of crops. The number may be quite high in some sorts of crops in some places (eg mice in wheat fields in Australia) but may be very low in others (eg tomatoes in the field or indoor systems – consider vegetable production in Holland, or fruit and vegetable production in Almeria, Spain). Farming Truth has made some broad assumptions and drawn averages. I suggest we take all these numbers as very uncertain and therefore useful for indicative purposes only.

Interestingly, even though we don’t really have very good empirical data, Farming Truth places a great deal of emphasis on mice killed in mouse plagues as well as sea animals killed from fertiliser runoff from crop farms.

Mouse plagues

Yes, a lot of mice are killed during mouse plagues. However, mouse plagues these days only seem to occur with any intensity in China and Australia and even then not in all grain growing regions simultaneously so it seems unreasonable to use these numbers in claiming some average across the globe. But I am no statistician, so who knows, perhaps it is fair enough. That said though, plagues in Australia at least are less frequent lately and so the numbers being killed seem to be rather less than is claimed here.

For example, the last really serious plague was in 2010/11. Since then, mouse numbers have been variable. Good growing conditions in 2017 led to an outbreak of high numbers in some regions, but so far in 2019 numbers have been very low due to very dry conditions.

You can see mouse conditions for any period since 2014 here:  https://www.feralscan.org.au/mousealert/map.aspx

Fish deaths from hypoxic events

In regard to fish deaths from hypoxic events, I don’t think Farming Truth’s strategy is right. Essentially, she determines the number of fish at risk from such events (using an estimate of global fish populations) and then divides this by the number of global hectares of crop lands to derive the number of fish at risk from crop related activities and then discounts this by 50% to finally arrive at a number of deaths per hectare. Again, this looks to me to be at best a slightly informed guess

There are, after all, a variety of sources responsible for harmful runoffs, including everyday urban and industrial activities, shipping, crops grown for purposes other than food (eg corn for biofuels), flood events and even the meat industry itself (for example, this article in The Guardian).

Here are two sources that offer a range of possible causes for hypoxic events:

Eutrophication in coastal environments

Fish indicators of environmental change

With this in mind, what is a reasonable conclusion? To be honest, anything I come up with would be just as much a guess as Farming Truth’s own guess. The numbers of sea animals dying from such events worldwide may be greater or smaller than Farming Truth claims, but it does seem that we cannot sheet these all home to crop farming for food. It’s a good point, really, but gee, these numbers appear to be little more than a stab in the dark.

Are crops really mostly grown for human consumption?

Farming Truth goes on to claim that nearly all crops grown are for human consumption. Now, this is a constant refrain – vegans say some large proportion of crops are grown to feed animals, farmers say the opposite. I have spent a lot of time researching this and it’s all a bit murky. Certainly crops like wheat and so on ARE grown with human consumption in mind but a considerable proportion never makes it to that purpose, perhaps due to not meeting the grade. A LOT of wheat and similar grains really service animal feed markets (currently in Australia, some 60% of domestic demand for wheat comes from the animal feed industry). As well, some industry sources suggest that there ARE grains and cereals grown purely for feed.

One crop that gets a lot of attention is soy. Vegans tend to claim that most soy is grown for animal feed, but this isn’t strictly true. While numbers vary, generally speaking direct human consumption accounts for around 10-15% of global soy yields. The rest – 85-90% of global yields – is used to produce oil and animal feed (meal).

You may have seen figures suggesting that 80% of soy grown is used to feed animals and the other 20% is used for oil but this shows a misunderstanding of the process. In fact, pretty much ALL of the soy NOT grown for direct human consumption is crushed for oil and the oil is almost all used in human applications such as cooking oil, margarine, food packing and biofuels. The residue from the crushing process is then used to produce meal for animal feed. It’s an attractive feed stock due to its high protein content.  In other words, 80-90% of all soy grown produces oil for human use and meal for animal feed. This is why farmers say that most soy is grown for human use.

However, the demand for animal feed substantially drives soy production with more farmers globally adopting the crop due to its high returns. Soy meal has a huge global market. Again, using Australia as an example, we see soy production falling off since about 1990 in tonnage terms, largely because the focus has moved to servicing human food markets. However, imports of soy meal as animal feed have surged since then and in 2018/2019 we imported around one million tonnes (by way of comparison, Australia grows just 20-40,000 tonnes of soybeans annually). By the way, I should point out that soybean meal production in China totals around 67 million tonnes annually while in the US it is around 45 million tonnes. In Brazil and Argentina it is around 33 million tonnes annually. That’s a lot. My guess is that this tracks livestock production figures, in particular pork and poultry.

Around the world there is active research on finding more uses for soybean oil in order to maximise the return for the increasingly large volumes of soy grown. In fact, soybean oil is one of the most common cooking oils and is increasingly used in the food industry for that purpose. Interestingly, it may be that the meat industry is driving both demand for soyben meal AND oil, given that a lot of the cooking/frying in the food industry is cooking meat!

I believe that it is therefore somewhat misleading to claim that crops used to provide animal feed are really grown just because people eat them. It is almost certainly the case that were there no animal farming, there would be far less grains and the like grown.

How much protein is there in plants?

In the accompanying spreadsheet, Farming Truth uses a protein value in grams per pound to make some important calculations. However, I think these numbers are incorrect. Here are the numbers used, followed by my updated numbers derived from the SELF Nutrition data website.

Food             grams of protein per pound yield

Corn             14.61
Potatoes       9.20
Lentils         40.60
Kale              9.60
Soybean     76.30
Wheat         57.12
Beans         98.30

Corn            40
Potatoes       9
Lentils       112
Kale             13
Soybean   160
Wheat        58
Beans         94
(Black)
Chickpeas 85

Number of wild animals killed growing crops

Farming Truth aims to determine how many animals are killed on average to raise a hectare of crops. The basis for the estimate is the fact that on average we should find 111 animals per hectare living on croplands. This is simply a guess on her part and has absolutely no empirical basis whatsoever. We should bear that in mind.

To ascertain the death toll on these croplands, Farming Truth then assumes on no obvious basis that all activities other than harvesting cause 30% of those animals to die (calling this a “lowball” estimate!!). Again, this is a guess. Add to this the 60% from harvesting as assumed by Davis and Farming Truth concludes that growing crops causes the deaths of as many as 90% of the local wild population, or 100 animals per hectare.

As supporting evidence she refers to an anecdote from an Oregon farmer who noted all the small animals were killed when he harvested his crops, even though we have no mention of the actual number this represents in this real world example.

Should we accept these numbers? I don’t think so. I draw attention to a blog started by a wheat and sheep farmer in the UK who maintains that many animals are killed in cropping, especially wheat. I have spoken to this fellow quite a bit and he remains adamant that he is correct. Yet, he aimed to collect evidence for the large number of wild animals killed and to document this on his blog over the course of a full season. The end result? Not one animal death of the kind we are talking about was recorded.

That isn’t to say there were none, but here is someone highly motivated to find considerable harms caused to wild animals from his activities and yet he was unable to do so. Yes, he did show that insects, worms and snails died, but generally speaking these animals aren’t accorded the same level of moral responsibility as animals like rabbits and birds. So right there is an anecdote that illustrates a quite different outcome from that of our Oregon farmer. http://theydiedforyourbread.blogspot.com/2018/

Can we offer any sound evidence for the numbers of animals that ARE killed in cropping activities? I don’t think so. Last year, Bob Fischer and Andy Lamey published a paper, “Field Deaths in Plant Agriculture“, in which they sought to scour the literature and determine whether it is possible to estimate the toll in cropping. I won’t spend much time on this research save to note that it tends to confirm what I am saying – we just do not know. On the whole, it does seem numbers aren’t as high as many suspect.

Fischer and Lamey are unable to offer any clear estimate, noting the paucity of solid empirical data and the fact that estimates for one species in one context don’t necessarily extrapolate across all species and contexts.

Nonetheless, they do make one relevant point about mouse plagues in Australia. Mice are present during plagues across different agricultural contexts and damage agricultural equipment and installations in both plant and animal agriculture. Farmers of all persuasions kill mice during plagues, so it seems a little unreasonable to place the toll of mice killed squarely on crop farming activities (mind you mouse numbers in plagues seem not really relevant given that Farming Truth guessed how many animals are killed on croplands using as a basis a proportion of estimated global populations of all animals generally).

On the whole, I come back to this central point. In the absence of good empirical data, any estimates amount to guesses. We just don’t know how many animals really are killed to grow crops, at least not with sufficient detail to make any compelling global estimates.

I do have one caveat however: vegans tend to regard insects as sentient beings and hence deserving of similar prohibitions against harm as other animals such as mammals. If we really are to worry about insect deaths in cropping, then there is no contest – raising free range cattle is probably about the least harmful thing we can do for food.

Comparing like for like: numbers of animals killed for food

In Part 4, Farming Truth takes the number she has derived for crop deaths (114/hectare annually) and compares it to the number of farmed animals killed per hectare of land grazed (46/hectare annually) to conclude that crop farming causes something like 2.5 times as many animals to die as does animal farming. I don’t know about this. To me, it seems that in working out animals killed per hectare in cropping, we are really seeking some metric for calculating the total number of animals killed to grow crops. Obviously, when it comes to the numbers of farmed animals killed, we can know this directly without resorting to some calculation. This number just is what it is and hectares don’t come into it. In other words, in both cases the aim is the same – what is the number of animals killed? For farmed animals, we can count them directly. For crop related deaths, we have to infer the number from some rate (which, incidentally, remains a guess).

Consider too that Farming Truth estimates a global value for animals killed in cropping but then uses a US number for animals directly killed for food. Curiously, she also ignores sea animals. So, shouldn’t we simply compare apples with apples and estimate the global totals? By Farming Truth’s estimate, some 1.5 trillion animals are killed for crops globally. On the other hand, what estimates I can find suggest that each year we kill as many 70-80 billion land animals and a further 1-3 trillion fish. This latter number doesn’t include other sea animals such as squid, octopus, lobsters and crabs and bycatch. I shouldn’t be surprised if the total number is not more than 3 trillion each year. It seems quite possible that twice as many animals are killed for food as are killed in growing crops, at least on Farming Truth’s estimates for crop related deaths.

This same concern arises in Part 5 where Farming Truth calculates the numbers of animals dying for each kind of agriculture on several bases – per 100,000 calories, per 10,000 grams of protein, and per 1,000 serves. I am no mathematician, but I’m not sure this is a valid way to approach this problem. Again, this seems only to be striking a rate. Rates are important, sure, but if the aim is least harm, we really should be more interested in total numbers. Rates seem to tell us how quickly we reach a total, while the total is what counts when taken overall. Nonetheless, I’d like to see the calculation corrected by adding in sea animals. This helps us to determine where the worst harms occur.

In similar fashion, is assessing deaths as some average per serving the right way to consider this? As I note above, when we eat animals for food there is no average needed – we just eat some number of animals. Consider that the typical omnivore must eat a particular number of animals each year. The typical Westerner eats beef, chicken, pork, eggs and fish and most estimates I have seen suggest that this results in as many as 80 to 100 animals per year (I estimate I caused as many as 150 animals to die each year for my diet when I ate meat and one website I visited claimed we kill as many as 300 sea animals per person each year for food). Yet, on the numbers Farming Truth is using it seems that the number is around 15.  Something is wrong here.

Crop Yields

Something that stands out for me, having been digging into this stuff for a little while, is that the yields used in calculating plant related deaths seem off. In the related spreadsheet, Farming Truth has used these yield values:

Commodity          Pounds/HA
Corn                       2,247.50
Potatoes                5,588.00
Lentils                   1,500.00
Kale                       2,280.00
Soybean               1,490.00
Wheat                   2,700.00
Beans                    1,500.00

These seem very low to me. I found this site, Factfish, that gives details of global values for a range of indicators. Using the averaged global crop yield values from Factfish gives me these numbers:

Commodity          Pounds/HA
Corn                       12,500
Potatoes               44,000
Lentils                    2,540
Kale                      62,530
Soybean                6,280
Wheat                    7,780
Beans                     1,900
(Chickpeas           2,235)

I’d like to see justification for the lower values used by Farming Truth. If the higher values are correct, what effect does that have on calculations?

A different way to think about this

In the end, exercising vegan ethics is an individual choice. While the broad concept of veganism goes beyond food, it is in our everyday diets that most people might intersect with the philosophy. In terms of evaluating the impact of our food choices, I think the calculation is ours alone. In the following, I want to suggest a way for an individual to consider whether the animals killed raising crops might be an influencer on their decision. I am not going to try to extend that to some generalised global case.

Globally there are way too many local matters to be considered – I can’t hope to make any meaningful generalisations. Beyond of course that I believe we want to do best. Whatever that is.

So, here I try to strike a solution to the problem of animals killed in raising crops versus animals killed for food such that someone in Australia, for example, could respond ethically.

In her calculations about proportional impacts, Farming Truth has used an idealised number of servings per day to establish a kind of common basis for making the least harm calculation. I think this is a sound strategy. Of course, people eat a remarkably diverse range of foods and there are all sorts of diets, so to an extent this is just a sort of abstraction but the idea seems sound.

So, let’s follow Farming Truth’s concept of setting a generalised standard. Farming Truth has used as a guide 15 serves of plant foods and 5 serves of meat and dairy per day (drawn from the ‘Food Pyramid’ dietary guidelines).

Now, this leads us to an important point. That is, all of us, vegans and non-vegans would, on this idealised model, eat plants. Non-vegans eat 15 serves of plants each day. So do vegans. This means that all of the crop related deaths to grow THAT food falls on everyone’s shoulders, not just vegans. To an extent, we can disregard those deaths, though in a vegan model we’d seek to reduce those as well. To be fair, Farming Truth has taken this into account in one of her calculations where she finds that proportionally, the vegan diet causes 1.16 times as many animals to die for a vegan’s daily food.

With this in mind, I want to propose that in fact, the number we want to quantify is the number of animals killed to grow those crops needed to replace all of the animals in our idealised diet (ie the five serves of meat and dairy per day that non-vegans should eat). That is, if in the idealised model we are all eating 15 serves of plants then the deaths from that production is a shared cost and irrelevant in deducing whether vegans or omnis cause more harm. What matters when evaluating the harm from a specifically vegan diet is whether killing animals for those five serves of meat and dairy leads to a greater or lesser death toll than replacing them with plants.

According to Farming Truth’s calculations, on average five serves of meat/dairy delivers about 90 grams of protein daily. Annually, that is about 33 kilograms of protein. In Australia, I believe the average daily protein intake is about 110g. Presumably some of that comes from non-animal sources, so I think 90g is a reasonable benchmark.

Replacing that protein with plants would mean eating high protein crops (though perhaps not so much wheat – I think we already may be eating about as much wheat as we need). Let’s assume as representative the following: chickpeas, black beans, lentils and soybeans (eg tofu). While vegans might drink various plant milks rather than dairy milk, the protein content varies from negligible to some, so I think we’d have to discount plant milks as serious protein replacements. While various foods can be fortified with protein (and B12, calcium, iodine etc), I think we should leave that out for now as an uncontrolled variable.

According to SELF Nutrition Data, these foods offer the following protein per kilogram:

Chickpeas      193
Black Beans  216
Lentils            250
Soy (as tofu)  160

Let’s average that out to 205 grams/kg. This means protein content is around 20% of source product. That suggests we’d need around 160 kg of those crops annually to deliver the equivalent amount of protein as five serves of meat and dairy (ie the 33 kg annually). At an average yield of 2100 kg hectare, that translates into about .08 of a hectare. At 114 wild animals killed per hectare, the vegan diet causes an extra nine animals per year to die over and above the shared baseline for someone eschewing meat and dairy.

Referring back to my earlier estimate of the number of animals killed per year for food for non-vegans , about 80-100, it seems the vegan diet causes fewer animals to die.

Yes, it is quite possible, IF those numbers are at all right, for the average non-vegan to do better by choosing to eat fewer animals, for example by not eating any sea food and perhaps limiting chicken meat. In this kind of scenario, our ethical omnivore might eat only range grazed beef and lamb.

However, that choice being less harmful turns on the number of wild animal deaths from growing crops being 114 per hectare which, as we have seen, is something of a guess. It might be more or less, though the evidence suggests it may be considerably less. If it turns out that fewer animals are killed to grow these kinds of crops, it might be quite different. Consider if the number is perhaps 40/hectare/year. Then, the vegan’s toll might be as few as three. I think it would take a fair effort from the average non-vegan to keep their animal toll down to that few. Not impossible, though.

The bottom line seems to be that most of us probably will do least harm by eating a plant-based (ie vegan) diet. Still, someone who takes all of this into account but still wishes to eat meat could choose to eat carefully so that they minimise the number of animals killed for their food. Eating just a few range grazed animals probably is ethically defensible, at least on a numbers basis.

On a purely numbers basis then, this suggests that the best things we can do to reduce the harm from our eating choices are to increase the quantity of plants in our diet (preferably eat a plants-only diet), substantially reduce or eliminate our consumption of fish and chicken and eat mainly or only range grazed beef and lamb.

Conclusion

I’m not convinced of the value – in the absence of genuine empirical data – of lengthy calculations and anecdotal claims in an effort to discredit veganism. It might be true that more small animals die to grow crops than to raise range grazed beef. But it remains a fact that we don’t just eat beef – we farm, commodify, harm and kill very many animals for food, fun and profit.

Veganism, at least as far as I am concerned, is the idea that we actually give a damn about this. We don’t just ignore any moral duty to the animals we choose to treat that way. Similarly and perhaps just as importantly, we DO owe a duty to the millions of animals we kill incidentally – the sea food by-catch, the pest animals, the vast numbers of insects and the innocent bystanders.  That duty demands that we care.

Insofar as Farming Truth’s calculations go, I think her case is flawed. The issue is important; we should care that a great many animals might be killed or suffer terribly for us to grow crops to eat. But the evidence is sketchy.

I’d like to see Farming Truth’s analysis revisited and my several concerns above addressed – the lack of empirical evidence for the 114 deaths per hectare per year in protein crops, the fact that sea animals have not been included, the discrepancy in crop yield values and whether relative protein content is as claimed.

What outcome might be reached? On the evidence I think it’s very hard to dispute the fact that globally it probably is the case that IF we could do so, it’d be very much better not to kill animls for food. Taken individually in countries like Australia, it probably is the case too that for the average person, it is likely to be better to eat plants rather than animals. But it does seem that there is the strong possibility that one could choose to include some animals in one’s diet and be confident of doing less harm than otherwise.

In the end, knowing more about how our food is produced and caring about the systems used and their impact on farmed and wild animals as well as local ecologies is important. These facts should count for a lot more when making our food choices.

Finally, I want to ask that we don’t just dismiss veganism as a fad diet or a straight-jacketing binary choice. I think the issue is at once more complex and yet demanding of genuine consideration by all of us. Because in the end, it just asks us that we care.

Shouldn’t we all want that?

On Eating Meat and the Numbers Game

Here in Australia, “Gourmet Farmer” Matt Evans recently introduced his latest book, “On Eating Meat”, with considerable fanfare. The book has been discussed in the media while Evans himself was featured on various prime time television talk shows and his speaking tour seems to be going well. It’s a good book and tackles an important subject. The remarkable thing however is that coverage of the book too often seems to focus on his criticism of veganism, in particular his suggestion that vegans too are responsible for a lot of animal harms. By way of example, The Weekly Times opined that the book “…should wipe the smug smile off the face of vegans.” In fact, the writer tells us – perhaps a little too smugly herself – Evans explains that we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking being vegan hurts no animal.

While I shall say more about Evans’ claims in a moment, I think it’s unfortunate that at times the book has been promoted as little more than an attack on veganism. In truth his argument is rather more nuanced than that. As the presenter of several SBS documentaries investigating the modern food industry, Evans has confronted a plethora of worrying concerns from the ethics of intensive farming to the environmental impacts of the modern agricultural landscape. A farmer himself, Evans promotes the idea that we need a return to a more natural relationship with our food and by extension the land itself.

In fact, Evans’ book treads a rational and thoughtful path. In documenting the many failures of the existing system to provide good welfare to farmed animals and to minimise environmental impacts, Evans himself appears to endorse many largely vegan attitudes and beliefs. At his talk in Canberra, he observed that his own beliefs fall more towards vegan philosophy than not. I think this is worth noting.

Nonetheless, I am a little surprised that despite having such in-depth experience of the modern food system and professing sympathy for vegan ethics, Evans still comes down on the side of continuing to eat meat. To defend this choice, he advances a number of arguments against a vegan food system, most of which are well-known by now. It isn’t hard to do your own research to find well reasoned counter-arguments. Nonetheless, broadly speaking Evans is asking us – quite sensibly it seems – to consider what we eat and from where we source that food. On the whole, my take from the book is that he is hoping that people will turn away from the products of industrialised intensive farming and seek to embrace a more ethical way of eating. And on the flip side of that coin is his desire to see farmers adopt practices that are more humane, ethically defensible and open to consumer scrutiny.

In the end, it seems that Evans’ view is not as inconsistent with vegan ethics as you might think, especially given the bleating of those media sources so keen to score points against preachy vegans than to expend any genuine effort to either grasp the intentions of veganism or understand Evans’ wish for a more robust, open and genuine conversation about how we eat in Australia. If you didn’t read the book and focused just on what the media had to say, you could be excused for thinking that the book is little more than a thinly disguised promotion for continuing with the status quo and damn the vegans. Nonetheless, I recommend ignoring the media waffle and go read the book yourself. Evans is raising pressing and especially pertinent concerns as we head towards an uncertain future; a future facing the problems of population growth, the power of big players in manipulating public opinion, climate change and an increasingly fragile Australian landscape.

The fundamental message in this book is that we need to re-evaluate how we think about food going forward. Evans isn’t saying that someone should or should not be vegan, rather he is pointing out that it is a complex system with many inter-connected features. In his view, it isn’t as easy as simply saying we should eliminate animals from the food system, because there are a whole bunch of consequence that might arise from that.

When thought of as a complete system that should meet human needs as well as animal needs while actively and responsibly managing the environment, Evans concludes that we should continue to eat meat. And he does make a good case, so long as you aren’t of the opinion that other animals have rights that prevent us ever using or harming them. Given that I suspect the majority of the population isn’t convinced about the extension of animal rights to that degree, I think the argument that we can and should continue to eat meat has merit, but it is open to criticism and analysis. I’d like to open that conversation by presenting two considerations that I believe were inadequately addressed in Evans’ book.

First up is Evans suggestion that vegans cause plenty of harm and suffering to animals and by implication that a vegan food system would be more harmful than some mixed model. It is true that some vegans make unreasonable claims about the value of veganism in eliminating death and suffering of animals for our food. It isn’t uncommon to hear that veganism means no animal is harmed for our food, and yet that is clearly not true. But is it as untrue as Evans wants us to believe? To be honest, I don’t think so. On the whole, it seems to me that if you want to cause fewer animals to suffer and die for your food, removing animals from your diet might very well be the best way to do that. But it might not be the only way. The question is, how could we know?

The answer, I suggest, is that we can’t know. Not yet, anyway. I think someone could argue that some form of ethical omnivorism is the best approach and it might be difficult to say they are wrong. Still, all we can do is look at the facts as we know them and make the decision we feel is best for us and the animals we worry about. And when we do that, I believe there is a very good case for veganism.

When we think about this question of crop-related deaths, we run into one big problem. No-one really knows how many animals typically die to grow crops. The issue is clouded by the fact that we clear land for crops and grazing, we grow crops for food and feed, we export a lot of food overseas for purposes we cannot always know and lastly some crops are more costly in this sense than others.

I am not going to try to do any more than make an educated guess. Several pieces of research have taken a shot at this calculation, and they vary from Fischer and Lamey’s estimate of an average of one animal per hectare per year in the US context to Steven Davis’s famous estimate of 15 back in 2003. Evans himself describes a farm that kills around 1500 animals per year to raise crops on just 75 hectares, which interestingly enough works out to 20 wild animals killed per hectare per year.

Australian biologist Mike Archer factored mice killed during plagues in Australia into his calculations and suggested the number of animal deaths in cropping could be 100 per hectare per year, but there has been much criticism of that estimate. Given that mouse plagues do not typically affect all of the grain belt at any one time and these days tend to be more localised and smaller in area than in the past, I am inclined to doubt Archer’s numbers. I also flat out reject Evans’ claim of a billion mice per year in WA – if he can show evidence to support that claim it would be good, but from my own research it seems unlikely. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Australia is the only Western nation to experience genuine mouse plagues in its agricultural regions.

Anyways, I am going to use 20 wild animals killed per hectare per year in my estimates in what follows.

Evans claims that eating plants causes a lot of animals to be killed and he is right. If we kill 20 animals per hectare per year and we have around 25 million hectares under crops, then we must be causing the deaths of as many as 500 million animals every year. That’s a big number. But something that is often overlooked is that the crops are being grown for all of us, vegan and non-vegan alike. We all eat fruit and veggies. If vegans are just 2%, 3%, maybe 5% of the population, then it really is pretty much everyone else causing most of that harm to wild animals. In other words, the wild animals killed to grow crops just is the cost of growing food for all of us.

In a vegan world, we would of course seek to reduce that toll, but as it is we must accept it as one part of how farming is done. It is a baseline if you will. To eat a healthy, balanced and nutritious diet, we have to grow crops. And that causes some half a billion animals or so to be killed every year.

So, if we are all indirectly responsible for these millions of animals to be killed, vegans and non-vegans alike, then what on earth are vegans actually wanting? Well, veganism never says we can’t ever harm or kill other animals, instead it asks us to do as little of it as we can. And where we *can* make a difference is in regard to the animals directly and indirectly killed for our meat. In Australia, that amounts to somewhere above one billion animals each year. It could be more, my best guess from researching this is around 1.5 billion animals including sea animals (but excluding scallops and oysters). This toll is over and above the shared toll for which we all bear responsibility.

The question then is, what would happen if we eliminated meat and dairy from our diet? Would more or fewer animals suffer and die for our food than happens now? The answer requires that we work out the cost in animal lives  of eating meat, and the cost in animal lives of eating plants instead. I won’t labour the point by making tedious calculations, suffice to say here are my numbers.

Australia produces a lot of food, both for domestic consumption as well as for export. If we are agreed that plant food produced (fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts etc) is consumed by all of us to ensure a healthy and balanced diet, then meat and dairy is something over and above this. That food may represent as much as 30% of an average diet, perhaps more. What we want to know is what happens when we eliminate that food from our system – how much additional plant food is needed and how many wild animals die for its production.

As a rough basis for a calculation, I propose to work with protein. It is, after all, the nutrient most favoured by the animal agriculture industry when referring to their product. The ag industry typically refers to the value in meat and dairy from the point of view of the need for protein.

To replace the protein derived from all the meat we produce, we would need to grow some extra quantity of crops. And that would require some amount of land over and above that already used to produce food for people. I estimate we would need about another 5 million hectares under crops (Vegan Australia made a lower estimate of just 2.9 million hectares and this may be more accurate). At 20 wild animal deaths per hectare per year, that would mean some 100 million animals being killed for our (vegan) food, over and above our shared baseline.

So, to eat meat and dairy causes us to kill around 1.5 billion animals each year. To replace those animals with plants would mean we might kill 100 million animals each year – just 1/15th of the number killed for meat and dairy. Clearly, the vegan approach is less harmful overall.

Another way to think about this and how much harm vegans really cause is to think about an individual’s impact. If we all eat fruit and veg, then it follows we all cause animals to die for our crops, as I describe above.

However, only people who eat meat contribute to the deaths of farmed animals for food.  This means that if Bob, an everyday Aussie who eats meat, wants to eliminate that food from his diet and pursue a vegan approach to eating, he is going to have to forego all the chicken, pork, lamb, beef, fish, crabs and prawns on his plate. In fact, he will have to leave around 50-100 animals a year off his plate. Estimates suggest that the average Aussie probably causes around 50-100 animals a year to be killed directly for his food. And that is not factoring in collateral deaths such as macerated chicks, bobby calves, lambing losses, poultry losses, fishing by-catch and so on. It may well be many more than 100 animals per yer in total.

Now, as we know Aussies eat on average 110 kg meat each year and meat has on average about 25% protein by weight, then we need to find a replacement source for around 30 kg protein each year, and that source is going to have to be plants. This is what Bob will need to eat to replace the meat and dairy now missing from his diet.

Sooo… how much would he need? Well, if we agree that he isn’t going to eat less, then we need to find about 30 kg of protein per year for him. It turns out that protein crops have, on average, about 20% protein. If so, then he will need to eat about 150 kg of lentils, chickpeas, navy beans or whatever. Let’s call it 200 kg to allow for losses in food prep etc.

First up, to calculate how much land we need to grow that much food we’ll use Evans’ own estimate. In the book, he notes the case of Collydean, a mixed farm running livestock and growing peas. On Evans’ description, the farm produces about 400 tonnes of peas from just 75 hectares. This translates into about 5,000 kg per hectare. To provide for our newly minted vegan, we will need to use just 1/25th of one of those hectares. If wild animal deaths are on average 20 per hectare, then we can see that less than one animal will die for our former meat-eater to replace all of that meat with plants. A more realistic yield, I understand, is about 1.4 tonnes (1,400 kg)  per hectare. This gives a slightly different result, about 1/7th of a hectare or about 2.8 animals being killed.

This suggests that adopting a vegan lifestyle and hence diet will mean not causing the deaths of as many as 50-100 animals each year. If true, this means that the vegan diet is less harmful by quite a margin and any one of us can do a lot to reduce our personal contribution to the suffering and deaths of other animals.

Of course, this is all highly speculative, yet not really any more so than Evans’ own unverified and unverifiable estimates. But what it does show is that when we really think about it, what stands out is the truly enormous number of animals killed for us to enjoy our food. An enjoyment, incidentally, that features heavily in Evans’ argument for why we should continue to eat meat. And yet, it seems most likely that we could still eat a healthy and enjoyable diet and cause vastly less harm to other animals if we completely replaced meat and dairy in our diet. Or at least, as Evans suggests, do a helluva lot less of it.

My second criticism tackles the fact that neither Evans nor the media seem to have considered veganism in anything more than the most narrow of terms. To some extent, I expect that this is because it isn’t always apparent what people mean when they refer to veganism. While there are any number of interpretations (and of course the actual Vegan Society definition), I am going to suggest a simpler way to think about it that most of us can take on board. My flavour of vegan ethics is at once simple and easily applied. It might not make you a card carrying vegan, if there even is such a thing, but it offers a way to think about this that I suspect Evans has not considered.

Simply put, for me vegan ethics is about kindness. When we make it our duty to treat other sentient beings as ethically as we can, the best way we can do that is with the same sense of fairness and kindness we hope we apply in our dealings with other people. In practical, possible, everyday decision making, it just means asking ourselves, what is the kindest choice I can make. For me, knowing what I do about sheep and pig farming for example, I think it is kinder if I eat peas and lentils rather than pork, bacon and lamb chops. Evans himself makes a similar choice – he prefers to eat animals he knows have been bred and raised in conditions that let them live natural lives and hopefully suffer the least stressful deaths. He honestly believes that this is the best, indeed the kindest choice. At its core, that is what vegan ethics is.

In other words, vegan ethics emphasises our duty to treat other animals as sentient, valuable beings in their own right and to seek to do best by them when we make our choices about the things we do. It’s making the best choice you can with what you know and what you can practically do to be the kindest you can be. In the case of our food, it means weighing up the variables and making the choice that focuses on that ethical duty – on kindness – not what tastes best. Tastes are, after all, fleeting and subjective. Enjoying our food, breaking bread together and maximising our cultural traditions seem to need little more than us and our attitudes. The food part is less critical, as long as it’s sufficient and enjoyable. If you truly think that eating animals is perfectly fine, then Evans has a lot to say to you in his book. But if you are open to being persuaded that we can do more to be kind to other animals, then I think there really is something more you can do.

The choice is yours.

Do they suffer?

Discussion about the ethics of eating animals in modern Australia, if such a discussion even gets off the ground, often gets sidetracked by personal axe grinding. That is, rarely do the facts get discussed as people bring their emotions to the table. Yet even when we do tackle the conversation seriously, many seem determined to obscure the issue with deep philosophical analysis of such matters as utility, cognition, personhood and so on.

I believe that the whole question is nothing like as complicated as people make it out to be.

It seems simple enough. On the evidence to hand, it is more likely than not that other animals (at least those we eat the most) experience life in a meaningful way. As well, they ARE lives of a complex sort in much the same way we are, and as such surely have some inherent value on that basis alone, as do we. Thus, in the absence of any kind of necessity, we should strive to do less harm to them, rather than more. This accords with every ethical principle we seem to hold dear.

So, the clear conclusion seems straightforward. Stated as a general principle, we could just say “do as little harm to other beings as possible, on the grounds that they have an interest in living as free of harm and suffering as possible”. How can this principle be countered? Well, I think it boils down to trying to successfully defend a view in which animal lives don’t matter. More particularly, a view in which animals are not as smart, feeling or conscious as we are and hence undeserving of our consideration. To an extent, there is some truth to those claims, but the deeper question is, how much truth?

The claims that animals don’t experience, or as some would have it, aren’t sufficiently cognitive to have any worthwhile inner experience, seem to be increasingly invalidated by research. Self-awareness by passing the mirror test? Some ants can do that. No emotions? Physiologically cows can experience emotions and indeed they do, as a considerable body of research shows. No “consciousness”? We don’t even know what that means in humans so why should we discount it in pigs? Certainly most of the physiological structures required for consciousness exist in pigs, even if in some cases less developed. But does that prohibit the pig from cognition or consciousness or simply place her on a spectrum of awareness?

When it comes to the animal experience, I believe Bentham’s argument for suffering entails the most persuasive force. As he said in Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation:

The French have already discovered that the blackness of skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognised, that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps, the faculty for discourse?…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

Can these animals suffer? Both experience and science point in the same direction – they do. They must suffer in the factory farms, which is increasingly the method of choice for farming. But there is an added dimension, which I tend to see in the context of an interest in life. We afford other humans the right to that interest and on that basis seek not to exploit them, harm them, or otherwise oppress them unnecessarily. That’s what human rights are all about. It’s what our laws seek to embody in principle.

Thus we ought not farm other animals when the necessity for doing so does not exist. Could free range farming be an ethical option? Perhaps, but again, on what grounds? Taste? Human preference? These are poor grounds and wouldn’t fly in almost any other ethical context, I’ll wager.

Consider the intelligence/cognition of an animal and its contribution to that animal’s experience. Many might argue such animals as cows and pigs and chickens cannot entertain deeper feelings and emotions, yet how confident can we be of this? For example, while poultry farmers seem persuaded that chickens are dim indeed, current research tells us that they are far more cognitive and emotional than we had thought.

“Chickens are just as cognitively, emotionally and socially complex as most other birds and mammals in many areas, and that there is a need for further noninvasive comparative behavioral research with chickens as well as a re-framing of current views about their intelligence.”
Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken, Animal Cognition March 2017.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.10 … 016-1064-4

And that’s exactly what research finds, time after time. Our farmed animals share deep emotional and meaningful lives, not so dissimilar from our own. What difference there is may be more of degree, rather than in kind. We have much under-estimated the experience and capacities of others, it seems.

It surprises me that people are so easily able to dismiss this inner experience of other animals. The fact that our farmed animals are capable of so much, and have an interest in living, escapes most of us, though the tide is turning. This article makes the point well, in regard to the experience of one of the most maligned and poorly treated of all our farmed animals:

https://aeon.co/essays/what-more-evidence-do-we-need-to-stop-killing-pigs-for-food

Why DO we ignore the obvious plight of others in favour of such little real value? A paper only just published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences talks about Theory of Animal Minds. The claim is that the human capacity for inferring minds in others, called Theory of Mind, applies equally to the minds of other animals. The authors dub this Theory of Animal Mind (TAM).

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/ar … 1317300220

In a nutshell, they argue that it is highly likely that we simulate how other animals must think and feel using this TAM mechanism. But this is not an objective measure and hence can be influenced by beliefs or practice – do we diminish animal sentience because we want something from them or because we wish to retain an objective distance, or do we over-endow them with minds because we have beliefs that they are more than they are?

In the former case, ethical issues ensue because notions of sentience in other animals are often correlated with peoples’ attitudes towards animal use and treatment by humans.

Some research has found that this is indeed the case, in fact here’s a case where people endowed dolphins with greater intelligence and consciousness than human beings (although note what the paper says about the consideration of those same qualities for food animals):

http://www.animalsandsociety.org/wp-con … iscoll.pdf

When it comes to consciousness and hence the capacity to suffer, the general thrust of research seems to hold that it is likely a facet of the experience of most complex beings. Do bees experience any kind of conscious awareness of the world? Well, it depends a little on the mechanism for “consciousness”, and indeed what consciousness even is.

While it’s currently uncertain, increasingly research points towards a physicalist view of the world. That is, consciousness arises in the physical operations of a brain. Indeed, consciousness may simply be an everyday artefact of sufficiently complex systems. Giulio Tononi for example argues that consciousness arises in any network with sufficient complexity to facilitate some level of integrated information and suggests that on that view, it is likely that most animals also possess consciousness.

http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/ … 8/20140167

Thus, while TAM as suggested above might lead to people over-valuing, or more likely under-valuing the inner experience of other animals, scientific consensus points us towards the inevitable conclusion that their inner experience is sufficient to affirm Bentham’s proposition.

My point in this isn’t to argue philosophical fine points. It is just to say that when we consider the question of “do they suffer”, the weight of evidence demands that we agree that they do. And when we consider their right to an interest in a life, on what possible grounds can we deny that? If we must weigh those facts against our interests in a taste, on what possible grounds can we successfully dismiss their claims in favour of our preferences?

And so I am led to conclude that when we deny our farmed animals a right to not only an interest in a life but also a right to experience that life free of suffering and harm at our hands in virtue of their capacity to feel, we are choosing to act in a manner contrary to all that we have come to believe in.

Why eating animals today is neither kind nor natural

The idea of not eating meat or dairy seems to do the average person’s head in. The reason is that most people believe that we absolutely HAVE to eat animals. Usually, their reasoning falls back onto the 3Ns – that is, eating meat is natural, necessary and normal.

Natural: “Humans are natural carnivores”
Necessary: “Meat provides essential nutrients”
Normal: “I was raised eating meat”

I suspect that many people put a lot of store by the “natural” argument. Humans are carnivores/omnivores, they say, and carnivores/omnivores have to eat meat. Never mind that human beings are natural omnivores, not carnivores, and that in our case, omnivory really just means that we can get nutrients from both plant and animal sources. Given we evolved from frugivorous ancestors, we don’t even need the animal sources as we can survive quite happily on plants alone. People just don’t explore the matter that deeply.

Farmers especially seem to favour the natural argument. This seems to stem from a belief that what they are doing is somehow akin to the behaviours of our hunter/gatherer forebears. They are out there on the land, fighting with nature and providing the food that we all need to live.

Both farmers and average Joes imagine that in animal farming, by the slaughter of farmed animals and the eating of them, humans are simply engaging in an entirely natural behaviour, a natural system that we have bent to our own advantage. And I think it’s probable that in thinking so, people believe that this system is inherently kinder than what happens typically in the unfolding circle of life everywhere around us.

On this view, what I think people have in mind is that in everyday nature, life is survival of the fittest. It’s kill or be killed out there and that’s exactly what we are doing, but with the added benefit that we do it “humanely”. As Temple Grandin, an American professor of animal science at Colorado State University, has said, people often forget that nature can be harsh. Predators kill other animals, and they may die a painful, lingering death. Storms and droughts can cause many wild animals to die. Much suffering occurs in the natural world.

Temple observes, “…nature can be very harsh, and death in the wild is often more painful and stressful than death in a modern plant. Out on a western ranch, I saw a calf that had its hide ripped completely off on one side by coyotes. It was still alive and the rancher had to shoot it to put it out of its misery. If I had a choice, going to a well-run modern slaughter plant would be preferable to being ripped apart alive”.

What this leads people to think, especially farmers, is that we are actually doing animals a favour by farming them. Were they to live in the wild, they should run the risk of a terrible death. Whereas, by farming them, we ensure that they are well looked after, and when death comes, it is quick and minimally harmful.

In other words, people cannot understand what vegans and animal rights activists are saying. Eating animals is necessary, people think, and we do it by treating animals more kindly than we might have done in the past, or how they might be treated in nature.

The truth of course is quite simply the polar opposite. Eating animals in modern Australia is not at all necessary. We do NOT have to eat animals to obtain satisfactory nutrition in our diet. As well, there really is no comparison with either how animals might once have been hunted and killed nor with everyday nature. We create the animals for our table, and we treat them as we treat them.

None of those animals will, or ever would, be hunted by our ancestors, nor will they, or ever would they, live in a natural setting. Note too that in a natural setting, most free-living animals do not die before child-bearing age. If 100% of them did, as is the case for many of our farmed animals such as pigs and chickens, there should be very few herbivores indeed. In fact it is highly likely that a very significant proportion of most free-living herbivores live quite long and relatively satisfying lives. Few farmed animals do.

And so, we can only judge the kindness or otherwise of our animal farming system on its own merits, because there is no other system in play for those animals. Worse, because our food is now part of an entertainment industry, the farming system is increasingly industrialised. Intensive farming, or factory farming, turns animal lives into mere commodities, units in a mass production line. Quality of life and capacity to suffer are entirely disregarded in these systems.

Modern animal farming is not natural, nor is it necessary. Human beings are not carnivores, nor even obligate omnivores. We can live on a plant-based diet. The animals who suffer in modern animal farming will never live in any other kind of system and the kindness of the farming system must be judged on its own merits, not by comparison to some other system.

When farmers imagine that their treatment of farmed animals is a kinder option than what might happen otherwise to their animals, they are quite simply wrong. All there is, is what they do to their animals in the absence of any necessity for doing so.

Why DO human beings drink milk?

We’ve all seen the sensationalist posts on social media claiming that dairy products are simply not good for human beings – it’s unhealthy and causes more harm than good. But how true is this? If human beings have been consuming dairy for thousands of years you’d kind of assume that it must have some benefits. Surely it can’t really be the poison many claim it to be.

Of course if the dairy industry is to be believed, milk and other dairy products are absolutely critical to human health. Many health experts and even the medical profession seem to be of the same view; heck, we even had the CSIRO telling us recently that some Australians are – gasp! – moving away from dairy WITHOUT proper medical advice.

https://www.csiro.au/en/News/News-releases/2016/Dairy-avoidance-reaches-dangerous-levels

Hmmm…  That does seem a bit unlikely to me. A food that has been in the human diet for less than 10,000 years and to which nearly 2/3 of the global population is intolerant is THAT critical? I don’t know about you but I regard that suggestion with some suspicion.

Of course, dairy farmers are adamant this is the gospel truth. In fact, in conversation recently a dairy farmer made the claim that “several leading nutritionists attribute the fact that developed countries’ average age is around 80 is due to the fact modern homo sapiens drink cow’s milk”.

Now, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an ambitious claim before, nor have I ever seen any peer reviewed research that says that. But then again, I am hardly an authority of the subject. I did a quick Google and did indeed uncover an article that referred to a 2009 study that argued that drinking milk can lessen the chances of dying from illnesses such as coronary heart disease (CHD) and stroke by up to 15-20%. It seems this study was some kind of meta-analysis rather than novel research, as the article refers to the “review (bringing) together published evidence from 324 studies of milk consumption as predictors of coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke and, diabetes”.

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090722083720.htm

This seems to be rather similar to a recent study along the same lines which uncovered the same general result from a meta-analysis of current research.

http://www.foodandnutritionresearch.net/index.php/fnr/article/view/32527.

I was not able to locate the original 2009 paper, but my guess is that these are largely the same papers given the involvement of the UK’s University of Reading in both. I don’t know how this conclusion bears up to critical scrutiny, but I do note substantial funding from the dairy industry in the more recent study.

By contrast, I found two recent papers that suggest that consumption of dairy products may contribute to increased mortality in some cases.

“High milk intake was associated with higher mortality in one cohort of women and in another cohort of men, and with higher fracture incidence in women. Given the observational study designs with the inherent possibility of residual confounding and reverse causation phenomena, a cautious interpretation of the results is recommended”.

http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g6015.long

“The role of dairy product consumption in mortality generally appeared to be neutral in men. In women, dairy fat intake was associated with slightly increased all-cause and IHD mortality. More research is warranted on a possible protective effect of fermented milk on stroke mortality”.

http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/93/3/615.abstract

I won’t pretend this is any kind of exhaustive analysis of the research on my part, I merely use these examples to illustrate the confusion of evidence around just what benefit dairy might offer. Generally speaking it seems there are arguments for both benefits and risks, although I do note that many studies are, in my opinion, confounded by the fact that dairy industry funding is involved.

To be honest, I can’t reach any sound conclusion from the various articles and papers I’ve read. On the whole, dairy consumption in Australia might offer some benefits, particularly around protection from cardiovascular disease, yet it is definitely implicated in increased risks of some cancers. It just isn’t clear to me whether dairy is worthwhile purely in health terms and I am not at all convinced it confers any sort of benefits in terms of longevity.

So, what about all those memes on social media about the awful risks of dairy consumption – how it’s responsible for cancer and bone fractures and all sorts of ailments, or even that it’s full of blood and pus? Well, there’s clearly a grain of truth in most of these but I suggest there is rather a lot of exaggeration going on. Still, dairy consumption does seem to be not without risks.

What all of this does lead me to wonder about though, is exactly why it is that humans consume milk and other dairy products at all. After all, we are the only mammal that has adapted to drinking mother’s milk after weaning. How did this happen and what are the evolutionary drivers for this behaviour and what benefits can we expect from dairy consumption in a modern setting as a result. What I uncovered is quite remarkable, at least to me.

Here, in a relatively quick overview, is an explanation for human consumption of dairy products in a purely evolutionary context. Of course, my usual caveat – this is what I’ve found from my own research, interpreted in my own fashion. I may be quite wrong. But I also think I am not overtly misrepresenting the science. I welcome any comments, clarifications or rebuttals. Please note too that I am addressing the health benefits of dairy consumption in an evolutionary context – I am not addressing the ethical question of dairying in modern Australia.

Mammals express a gene that causes production of an enzyme called lactase that allows them to digest the lactose in mother’s milk until they are weaned. Once they are weaned, the gene “switches off”. After that, drinking milk leads to a variety of stomach/digestive issues. This has evolved because while milk is a great food for a baby, it is obviously too costly for adults to suckle from mothers. So adult mammals get their nutrition from environmental foods.

In human beings, we have evolved a genetic adaptation such that the gene doesn’t switch off. This means we can continue to digest lactose throughout life, and that is called lactase persistence (because the gene allows us to continue producing lactase into adulthood).

The really interesting thing is that this genetic change is quite recent and only arose between 5000 and 10000 years ago. It seems to have arisen several times in slightly different ways. The most common version appeared in Europe maybe 8000 years ago and is closely associated with the spread of farming and domestication of cattle.

Before this, people had been using milk from animals like goats and camels in Africa and the Middle East – in these conditions milk quickly soured so the typical foods eaten were yoghurt and cheese. In both cases, the fermentation process breaks down the lactose which makes it possible for people to eat such foods even with lactose intolerance.

The spread of farming into Europe meant that milk was able to keep for longer, but it was also unlikely to be consumed given the lactose intolerance thing. Eventually, somewhere or other (maybe near Turkey) someone had a gene mutation that turned on the lactase persistence gene. This probably happened more than once, but it needed some kind of opportune event for that mutation to spread.

Once it began to spread, selective pressures were of such high order that it spread quite quickly. Today we can see how that worked by looking at the frequency of this genetic change in populations. In some parts of Europe, up to 100% of the population have lactase persistence, while in others very few do. And of course there hasn’t been either enough time nor cultural changes for it to spread very far. As a result, most of the global population remained lactose intolerant until quite recently – eg native Americans, many Asian populations, a majority of Australian Aborigines etc.

The big question is why did humans develop this adaptation? The answer appears to be that no-one really knows. There are a few theories but further research is needed.

To understand this, we need to know a little about evolution. Evolution isn’t a directed process as such, nor does it have our best interests at heart. All it “cares” about is whether we produce more children. In other words, whatever happens, it is having more surviving offspring that makes the difference and fixes genetic change in populations. Regardless of how the change arose.

In the case of milk, it seems there is something about it that gave peoples in Europe an adaptive advantage. Some of the ideas relate to presence of calcium and Vitamin D but this is not highly regarded nowadays. It might be that it provides some kind of insurance against drought or famine, though quite why or how people would keep their cows alive in times of drought is a little hard to guess.

One very good possible explanation is that we ourselves created the selective pressures by our lifestyles. Nomadic hunter/gatherers tended to eat natural diets that were largely healthy, or they adapted to whatever foods were available (they had to, if they didn’t they would simply die off).

Once we began farming and settling down into large communities, neolithic farmers tended to develop poor health. In fact, agriculture has been described as one of the biggest mistakes in human history! I don’t know about that, but I get the point. It’s certainly one of the worst things that has ever happened as far as all the other animals and the environment are concerned…

Anyways, as settled farmers, neolithic peoples ate less diverse ranges of foods, increased the amount of animal flesh in their diet, and by being in large stable communities it was easier for disease to spread. In such a situation, it is possible that the higher nutritional value of cow’s milk made for a more constant nutritious food supply (for example, crops might fail, or there might be long periods between harvesting and so on).

So communities who dairy farmed had a sort of insurance policy against the very health risks they themselves had created.

What is very clear is that the lactase persistence gene follows the spread of dairy farming – where people farmed dairy cows, the people were (or became?) lactose tolerant…

Of course, this kind of adaptation to digesting lactose occurred elsewhere, for example in Africa, but there it was due to a slightly different mechanism and probably for different reasons. As all mammals produce milk for offspring, humans can probably get the benefit of milk from many different animal sources. The lactose tolerance thing applies to whatever source one makes use of. In other words, the adaptation isn’t about consuming dairy per se, it’s about being able to digest lactose.

So where does that leave us? Well, here is my summarised take on the whole picture.

Human beings can, and did, get all the nutrition they needed from natural sources without dairy, and indeed most of the world’s population still does. Until quite recently we had not evolved to consume dairy products at all. Like all other mammals, we evolved to wean off mother’s milk as we matured and thereafter eat from the natural environment. This appears to have been quite satisfactory in terms of survival, but again I will point out that survival doesn’t necessarily translate into a long, healthy life…

Lactase persistence is a genetic adaptation that must have offered some survival benefit such is the speed with which it spread throughout the population. A likely explanation for its strong selective pressure might be that it is an example of niche construction in evolution – that is, we probably created the conditions to encourage the spread of the genetic adaptation.

It is very likely therefore that the consumption of dairy is not specifically a dietary advantage at all times, rather it is more of a hedge against other environmental factors. Nonetheless, mother’s milk is a nutritionally sound food. This must be balanced against the clear point that evolutionarily speaking, no other animals consume milk past weaning, so nature has never had to ensure that milk confers health benefits over the long term for individuals. I suspect we have no idea how long term over-consumption of milk affects populations.

And that is one of the big risks in dairy. As a short term hedge strategy, it only has to provide sufficient nutrition for people and their offspring to survive and produce more offspring in difficult times. It doesn’t need to ensure a long life, and nor does it need to be consumed all the time. It might be that long term over-consumption of dairy brings with it health risks that are only seen at the far reaches of longevity, or in modern settings. As indeed current research seems to show.

Consider our neolithic farming communities. They would have eaten as they needed of things like animals, fruits, vegetables, perhaps fish, and dairy. Dairy may not have been a big part of their diet, certainly not to the extent we see in modern Australia, and in any case they didn’t have the kind of insights possible in modern health care and research. As they tended to have shorter lifespans, they would hardly have noticed whether dairy had any adverse long-term effects, though they would have noticed if dairy helped in tough times.

What has made the bigger difference in modern times as far as longevity goes is a range of factors such as better health care, less rigorous lifestyles, antibiotics and more generally available foods without the feast or famine kind of cycles. Dairy more than likely fitted in with that quite happily, and any possible risks would be masked by the generally improved health status of Western populations.

And really, it seems highly likely that moderate intakes of such forms of dairy as cheese and yoghurt are probably net beneficial. Milk itself is also likely to have some beneficial effect though here we are probably talking more about convenience – that is, it is easier to get certain nutrients (eg calcium) from dairy than to have to worry about maintaining a balanced diet complete with the right nutrition. In other words, milk consumption probably makes up for the typically poor Western diet.

If that were all there is to the story we might consider that dairy consumption in modern Australia is a health benefit. However the dairy industry encourages over-consumption of dairy products and so it seems likely to me that we are conducting a big experiment on our health by doing so. The results of that experiment might be the kinds of risks now being uncovered, such as increased risks of various cancers. As I noted above, perhaps over-consumption of dairy has health risks when viewed over the longer term.

The bottom line though seems to me to be that there is nothing in the story of dairy that would actually point to dairy being an essential element in the natural diet of a human being. I doubt very much that we have some improved longevity due to dairy – the best that could be said is that the inclusion of dairy in neolithic diets provided a protection against other environmental risk factors.

One curious possibility that occurs to me is that perhaps the same niche construction drivers exist today. Consider that as I observed above, the modern Western diet is generally acknowledged as rather poor. People eat the wrong foods, in particular processed foods, they eat far too much, and we have very sedentary lifestyles. Perhaps whatever benefits are claimed for dairy really only arise in the modern setting because its consumption helps to redress the balance against the same compromised health due to diet and density of stable populations that bedevilled neolithic farming communities.

And consider too the significant role that the livestock industry plays in encouraging people to partake of such poor diets. Could it be that the livestock industry is engaged in a circular feedback loop – compromise human health by encouraging an unhealthy diet/lifestyle and mask that through the consumption of dairy products?

Australia Day 2017

Soon here in Australia – on Thursday January 26 2017 – we will be celebrating Australia Day. This is a national public holiday, a day of family, friends and reflection. As the website “Australia Day” says:

“On Australia Day we come together as a nation to celebrate what’s great about Australia and being Australian. It’s the day to reflect on what we have achieved and what we can be proud of in our great nation. It’s the day for us to re-commit to making Australia an even better place for the future… On Australia Day, half of the nation’s population of 24 million attend either an organised community event, or get together with family and friends with the intention of celebrating our national day. Many more spend the public holiday relaxing with family and friends”.

Australians everywhere will mark this day by embracing those Aussie traditions of family, togetherness, mateship, of giving everyone a fair go.

And so it is especially sad that the Meat & Livestock Association has appropriated this day as the centrepiece for a campaign to encourage us to eat more meat. In particular, to eat more lambs. Somehow the idea has been born that it is the Australian way to sit down to a feast of young sheep.

As Sam Kekovich, the buffoonish Lambassador said this time last year:

“At the end of the day, Australia Day is about a bunch of people coming together around a barbecue, over some lamb, taking a deep breath, and treating people the way you’d like to be treated. Lamb just brings people together. All your family, all your mates. That’s really what Australia Day is about.”

Really? To enjoy what Australia day is all about we choose to ignore all of that stuff about a fair go, about treating others as we’d like to be treated, about making Australia a better place, and instead indulge in the not inconsiderable exercise of killing as many young animals as we possibly can, just for the pleasure of it.

Well, I dunno, I just can’t go along with that. Every year, we steal over 20 million young sheep from their mums and slaughter them for absolutely nothing more than a moment of gustatory pleasure. And the M&LA wants us to ignore what that really means just so we can line their pockets with more profits.

Surely it can’t be that this is all we care about, the sole measure for human behaviours – that it feels good or that it makes money? Why not extend our circle of compassion and say no to profits at the expense of lives, say no to pleasure when the price is pain and suffering. This year for Aussie Day, how good would it be if more of us chose to leave animals off the plate entirely?

It’s a nicer thing to do, and more in keeping with the Australia that we should want to be proud of. One where maybe it’s OK to care for others.

Now THAT would be a fair go.

PostScript:  How cool is this??? Dave Hughes tells us how it is

A thought about what ‘better’ means

I wrote about the matter of welfare policies for farmed animals being something of a red herring. In outlining my position on this matter, I responded to arguments put forward by Temple Grandin. I pointed out that Temple’s claims rest on the proposition that we MUST eat animals, a proposition I regard as flawed. It seems to me that while better welfare policies and practices do confer some improvements for the experiences of farmed animals, this is something of a salve to conscience that legitimises the very fact that we farm them with all the harm this entails.

The following post reblogged here from There’s An Elephant In The Room succinctly captures a similar view…

There's an Elephant in the Room blog

animal-1845413_960_720All of us are sentient individuals, the majority of whom have never been confined, never been tortured, never been mutilated deliberately and without anaesthesia, never been forcibly impregnated, never had our babies taken from us, never been hooked up to milk pumping machines or egg conveyors, never been starved and loaded onto trucks that take us to a place that smells of blood and fear, where we will hear the screams of our friends alongside the sounds of saws and machinery and know that our own death is coming.

With absolutely no personal experience of the horrors that we inflict on our sentient and desperate victims, who are we to decide how our ‘treatment’ of them while all this is happening, can be improved and better regulated? Yet this is exactly what we are presuming to do when we petition and protest for what we think are ‘better’ conditions in which…

View original post 250 more words

Pragmatic welfare policies for farmed animals – important, but is the very idea a red herring?

farm-welfare-bannerRecently I was sent a link to an article written by Temple Grandin in which she discusses the need for practical approaches to developing policies for animal welfare in livestock farming. Temple is an American professor of animal science at Colorado State University, world-renowned autism spokesperson and consultant to the livestock industry on animal behaviour.

Click to access avoid.abstract.making.policy.animal.welfare.pdf

I found this article quite interesting and agree with much that she says. However, I can’t help feeling that Temple has fallen into a trap that the vast majority of people fall into. That trap is quite simply the belief that human beings in modern societies such as the US, Europe and Australia MUST eat animals for health and nutrition. As a result, Temple’s ideas and philosophy are heavily influenced by that particular point of view. The question I would ask of her is whether she would reconsider her views were she to adopt the notion that we do NOT have to eat animals for health and nutrition. After all, it is a pretty well established fact now that humans can indeed live on a plant based diet AND that heavily meat leaning diets can pose risks to health.

Temple states early in this article that it is highly likely that farmed animals are conscious experiencing beings. If as Temple notes animals can suffer, and animals such as pigs and cows and sheep etc are intelligent, it seems to me to be very difficult to argue that we should kill them in large numbers without good reason. And the science is pretty clear on this – animals experience sensations such as pain, they have emotions, they can experience physical responses to stresses and negative as well as positive experiences and so on. In short, they are just like us in terms of the lived experience.

My proposition then is that when we know that humans don’t need to eat animals for sustenance and we also know that farmed animals are intelligent, experiencing beings that can suffer, surely it is the moral issue that becomes the deciding factor in whether or not we choose to eat them?

We believe ourselves to stand apart from other animals by virtue of our capacity to make reasoned choices and to practice moral behaviours. As far as I can see from both common sense grounds as well as observing the development of moral ideas over thousands of years, we should believe that our first duty is to do more good than harm. It’s why Jesus is claimed to have said “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

Thus as moral agents we should have a charge of responsibility when it comes to dealing with intelligent, sentient and experiencing beings such as farmed animals. I suggest that when it comes to using animals for food and other products, we should do so as little as possible, only for the right reasons, and with the least suffering. In the modern livestock industry, we do the exact opposite. We do it as much as possible and seek to do more of it, we do it for all the wrong reasons, and we often cause far more suffering than need be.

Temple believes that we can ethically farm animals for food and that is probably true within the context I’ve outlined above, but I think a moral distinction also needs to be made when it comes to what we mean by “food”. As I’ve argued before, in Australia at least we have transformed eating into an entertainment. Much of our food consumption is for fun – Australians consume a lot of food simply for the pleasure it brings. Taste trumps everything.

There appear to be two opposing tensions here – on the one hand, as moral agents we should seek to limit harm to others as much as possible. If we must eat animals, then do so only as needed. Yet on the other hand, we have made eating a pleasure and a source of profit. The industry seeks to encourage people to eat as much as possible with no discrimination about what, how and when, or in what quantity.

Temple seems not to grasp this simple fact. When we turn the breeding and killing of other sentient beings into a mass production system to service the greed and gluttony of self-indulgence, I suggest we have well and truly crossed the moral divide. Temple isn’t participating in a thoughtful, welfare conscious process for feeding humans whilst limiting harm. She is in fact helping an industry that causes massive harm for little more than profits.

Simply put, our modern food industry isn’t a machine for good. It is a machine for bad. And that is the very basis for moral evaluation – morals are simply the distinction of good from bad. Which means that the modern food industry is immoral.

Temple goes on to attempt to establish some kind of gradient for moral value based on intelligence. Yet this seems to me to be rather arbitrary if not entirely self-indulgent – after all, the very yardstick for measurement is a human derived idea of “intelligence”. We establish the moral worth of animals according to an entirely human value system.

Why use intelligence? Intelligence really is neither here nor there. We have great intelligence and yet when we consider how we’ve applied it, we have done almost nothing of true worth. We have simply proven to be more fit in selective terms. No better than dinosaurs, and arguably far worse because in little more than one quarter of a million years we’ve brought the planet to brink of extinction. Dinosaurs ruled for several hundred million years without ruining the planet.

Given science tells us – as even Temple admits – that such creatures as cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens and perhaps fish appear to have the capacity to suffer, might this not be a more suitable measure of moral worth? After all, if a pig and a chicken can suffer equally, why discriminate because one performs better at human designed cognitive tests? I think this stance of Temple’s rests on solid ground pragmatically, but her choice of moral measurement seems weak and more designed to meet her own desire/need to eat animals while maintaining moral redemption. Simply put, she’s wrong and she knows it, but like most of us she will rationalise that away.

Finally, I’d like to highlight another weakness in Temple’s argument that I’ve previously touched upon. The old “nature versus farm” chestnut. This one suffers from a logical inequivalence.

Temple says “When animal issues are being discussed, people often forget that nature can be harsh. Predators kill other animals, and they may die a painful, lingering death. Storms and droughts can cause many wild animals to die. Much suffering occurs in the natural world”.

This is a misdirection. It matters not how animals might live in the wild because, as I’ve observed before, not one of these animals ever will, nor ever would have, existed in the wild. It’s like suggesting that harming a human being is fine, because worse harms have happened in some other time or place. One bears no relationship to, nor excusing role upon, the other. All that we can reasonably consider is the life and treatment of the farmed animal because that lies within our own scope of concern and effect. Not some unrelated circumstance.

Temple confirms she’s totally missed the point when she notes that “a flash of insight came into my mind. None of the cattle that were at this slaughter plant would have been born if people had not bred and raised them. They would never have lived at all. People forget that nature can be very harsh, and death in the wild is often more painful and stressful than death in a modern plant. Out on a western ranch, I saw a calf that had its hide ripped completely off on one side by coyotes. It was still alive and the rancher had to shoot it to put it out of its misery. If I had a choice, going to a well-run modern slaughter plant would be preferable to being ripped apart alive”.

This is a nonsense. A farmed animal’s entire life is at the whim of the farmer who caused it to be born. Whether it dies terribly through the predation of coyotes or “humanely” at the slaughterhouse after a short life, this lies squarely at the feet of the farmer. The choice isn’t between some awful natural death and some sweet benign “humane” death because there is no choice and no comparison.

Temple’s comment would be more correct had she said that her flash of insight showed her that all of the cattle being killed had no choice at all because the farmer gave them none. Whatever harm or death these animals suffered were directly caused by the farmer.

Temple seems to be arguing that the farmer has done a good by giving life to an animal that goes on to suffer. This is an empty argument. All we can ever do, in making moral assessments about lives lived, is examine the life that IS lived. And if the animal is a pig or a chicken in an intensive farm, or a lamb snatched from its mother to be killed for a taste, or a male calf killed because his cost outweighs his return, then it would have been better had that animal never lived in order to suffer. The farmer’s choice to give this animal life is not a good. Temple is wrong.

And that’s my feeling about this whole article. While I can see where Temple is coming from, and while I agree with many of her suggestions for how better to formulate pragmatic and more effective real world welfare policies, I think the basis for her argument is fatally flawed.

It is easy enough to see that the modern livestock farming industry does not have at heart the goal of feeding people for sustenance in the most responsible manner possible. In fact, it’s goal is to encourage more and more consumption for pleasure because that’s the only way to grow the industry and retain profitability. Like so much of modern consumerism, it’s a failed ideology.

Really, it’s a simple enough proposition. When we harm sentient beings, we as moral agents should have a charge of responsibility to ensure we do it as little as possible, for the right reasons, and with the least suffering. In the modern livestock industry, we do the exact opposite. We do it as much as possible and seek to do more of it, we do it for all the wrong reasons, and we often cause far more suffering than need be.

Plant-based alternatives are the better course for delivering as much of human sustenance, nutrition and pleasure as possible. We need to find ways to make that happen. If we must eat animals because there is some natural necessity in nutritional terms, then it should be as little as possible and only as needed. That would be the ethical approach.

As Temple herself says in closing, “People have the intellect to become good stewards of both the land and the animals, because they are aware that their actions can cause either suffering or destroy the environment”.

Perhaps we’d do well to take that advice far more seriously.

The conundrum of the caring dairy farmer

Recently I posted my thoughts about the dairy industry in “OK, so I’m off dairy too“. This exposed what I’d learned as part of my recent journey of discovery about what our modern food choices mean. In the case of dairy I really was surprised as I’d always thought of it as a rather benign industry – after all, what could be wrong with raising cows on nice farms where they are milked with care and consideration? Well, it seems I was mistaken – it isn’t all sweetness and light.

Since I wrote that blog post, I’ve engaged in online debate/discussion with several dairy farmers and in all cases I’ve encountered a strong sense of pride in the compassion, care and love with which dairy farmers approach their role. Like any industry there are the “bad eggs”, but on the whole, I am assured, most dairy farmers are good people.

And you know what? I think they are. All of those I have spoken with are thoughtful, decent, genuine and hard-working people who it seems truly believe that what they do is an essential and deeply beneficial element in the fabric of our society. And in a real sense, of course, that’s true.

So how do I square what I wrote in that earlier post with what I have found about the farmers themselves? How is it that people can engage in a business whose very nature requires the exploitation, harm and ultimately death of those upon whom it depends, and yet argue that they are providing an essential service whose hallmarks are care, compassion, love and a deep integrity in ensuring healthy and honourable outcomes?

I think the answer is simple. Dairy farmers, just like pretty much everyone else, are convinced that we HAVE to eat animals to survive. Our erstwhile dairy farmers – decent, hard-working and caring people – operate under what I believe is a complete misapprehension about modern life and natural needs. If a dairy farmer truly believes that milk is an essential and critical part of our diet, he (or she) he can more easily accept the cost of dairying as an unfortunate but necessary cost. Indeed, as a compassionate person, he will ensure that he gives his animals the best care possible, and he will convince himself that what suffering happens is transient, is in some way not especially meaningful. And he will similarly look on his charges rather like missionaries once looked upon native peoples – as simple folk who cannot understand the deeper importance of his own purpose and behaviour.

So I think there’s a certain commonly held Weltanschauung at play. As a society, we simply have held in mind the notion that we are caught up in a natural system beyond our control, a system we simply must participate in. Perhaps it is rooted in some masculine attitude to the world – after all, carnivores appear more alpha than herbivores, and it seems somehow less powerful to identify with peaceful beings than the dominant beings. All other animals fear the carnivore…

As I’ve said elsewhere, once you actually get past that perspective, once you think about things with a different set of parameters, it completely transforms what you believe. Am I right to suggest that this new outlook is more true to our shared ideals of moral or noble behaviour developed through the process of civilisation? Yes, I think so, and so too it seems do more and more people all over the world.

Perhaps if a dairy farmer were seriously open to giving this question honest consideration, he may change his mind. Here is someone who did indeed do just that:
https://youtu.be/SYyjel5VuHg

M Edward King who you see in this video, says this about his choice to live a more compassionate lifestyle:

“These songs and poems began around forty years ago when I was a child growing up on a small beef and dairy farm in the north of England. I had such close contact with the cows and calves that I knew them better than I knew the children at school. Every time those trusting animals had their calves taken from them (so that we could sell their milk), and every time they were sent to the slaughter house (so that people could eat their flesh), my whole spirit cried out: “why did God make a world where this has to happen?”

…The best news of all was that I had the choice of stepping clean out of it, so in the twenty third year of my life I became a vegetarian – for life.

…no person with any sense of ethics or conscience can continue to eat their fellow beings, nor fail to cry out on behalf of those billions of innocent creatures who cannot defend themselves, and whose death cries are so carefully hidden away from all human hearing.”

And here are some more people who’ve turned their back on farming in exchange for a more inclusive and compassionate approach to living:
http://freefromharm.org/animal-products-and-ethics/former-meat-dairy-farmers-became-vegan-activists/

Of course, we need to be careful here not to overly romanticise our place in nature. Nature IS cruel, and life consumes life. Those people who find themselves in harsh or testing environments, for whom eating an animal is necessary to meet their nutritional and sustenance needs, really do need to do so. We should shed no tears for those animals thus eaten. This is life. I talk here rather about our choice to eat animals in any modern industrialised nation. Because in such places we have the luxury to choose, exactly as all those who argue against veganism defend their decision to eat animals. It is my choice, they chorus in thoughtless union. But such choices have consequences, and our responsibility as the moral beings we claim to be should surely be to consider those consequences according to our moral conscience. If we can survive and prosper on a plant-based diet, then why would we not? And make no mistake, we CAN.

Returning to our dairy farmers then. I have previously written of the harm that dairy visits upon the gentle animals it so exploits. This much I think is true and incontestable:

  • Dairy cows exist for our benefit only – we take from them any intrinsic right to a natural life. They exist only because we create them.
  • Dairy cows must give birth every 12-18 months to ensure adequate supply of high quality milk. They get no choice in this. Mother and calf are usually separated very quickly. This is for perfectly sound reasons, however these are artificial reasons generated by the actual situation. It should be clear to all that no dairy cow evolved to be separated from her calf a few hours after birth and this does cause stress to both cow and calf.
  • Frequent calving is of course a significant strain on the animal, but worse, not all of the calves will live for any length of time. I haven’t been able to uncover the correct figures, but at a guess perhaps as many as one half of all calves born will be killed within six months. Industry figures put total calf slaughter numbers at around 4-500,000 per year and the majority die within their first few weeks of life.
  • The veal industry exists because of the dairy industry. Many thousands of calves are slaughtered by 6 months of age to supply veal.
  • Some calves are simply slaughtered immediately as waste. This can be done on farm, perhaps as many as 50,000 calves per year. The balance are transported to slaughter at around 1 week of age. Their body parts are used in low value products and hence they aren’t worth a lot.
  • Cows themselves do not often live long lives despite the protestations of dairy farmers. On average, a dairy cow will live to around 5-8 years of age in Australia.
  • Many cows are “culled” from herds as part of herd management strategies. Around 60-70,000 cows are culled each year.
  • Dairy cows can be subject to a range of negative health outcomes such as lameness, Johne’s disease and mastitis. In some cases this can lead to a cow being culled from the herd. Most farmers will of course provide what treatment they can to ill cows and so they are not simply left to suffer. However, we should note that despite the claims that this is kinder than how they might fare in nature, not one of these cows would suffer anything at all if it weren’t for dairy, for the simple reason that they would not exist. This is not a situation where if not for farmers, the national dairy herd would always have existed, wandering the Aussie bush.

By any measure, this is a great harm. This industry harms, causes to suffer, and kills, well over one million animals every year. Dairy farmers appear unwilling to properly confront this, at least not in my experience. They prefer instead to dissemble, to deflect and to quite simply ignore such facts. I have for example asked a dairy farmer to estimate the average age at death of her herd, yet she could not answer this.

Another farmer attempts to deflect us from this question by highlighting the experience of a cow in her herd. Here we learn that Cheeky Girl might live to be 14 years of age.
The Life of the Dairy Cow

Again on another blog, a dairy farmer encourages more of this kind of comfortable thinking:
https://chdairiesdiary.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/wow-what-a-cow/

I have sought to nail down this question of age at death, but so far unsuccessfully. I do know that cows are culled from herds (the current Year to Date number of cows culled in Australia is some 79,000), and I do know that farmers sell off their cattle as cash flow issues arise. I also learned from research that the average age at death for Australian dairy cows is around 8 years. So, do dairy cows live long and happy lives, on average? I suspect not.

Farmers also appear unwilling to address either the bobby calf issue, or the vealer calf issue. Of the several I have asked about this, all deny being part of the veal industry. One even went so far as to claim his male calves live out their lives in a paddock. That might be possible if his herd is just 10 cows, but I smell a rat on this claim more generally when we consider the numbers I quoted above. perhaps 500,000 calves killed annually, a proportion of which go to veal. Here is some insight into veal:
http://www.abc.net.au/landline/content/2012/s3590827.htm

Note especially these words:
“In the dairy industry, basically you’re milking Friesian cows and Friesian cows, when they have a calf, it’s got a 50 per cent chance of being a Friesian bull. And they haven’t had a lot of value to the dairy or beef industry in the past, so we’re kind of value adding something which had very little value. ”

“Dairies usually send the calves to slaughter when they’re only days or weeks old. Because there is so little meat on them, they’re not worth much. ”

“So, what was happening to these calves before we started the veal was that within a week or two they were discarded or (puts finger to his temple in shape of a gun and clicks tongue to indicate the calves being slaughtered) whatever and suddenly we were grabbing these rejects in those days, worth a lot of money these days, and turning them into animals that led a very, very full and longer life than normally was noticed. ”

How much genuine care, love and compassion can we read into these words? For me, there is precious little indeed. I’m hearing resource, object, product, not a living being. No babies here, ma’am. Just these worthless rejects that I can make money out of now.

So my question then is simple. When dairy farmers tell us of their love for their animals, when they tell us what a noble industry they partake of, when they suggest that there may just be a few bad eggs but really the majority are all compassionate people, what am I to make of the reality I soon find?

What do I do with the fact that dairy is unnecessary to us but is rather more of a pleasure?

What do I think when I hear of the huge numbers of animals killed, those babies discarded as waste? And remember the greyhound industry in NSW is in danger of being closed down for its poor treatment of a tiny fraction as many animals.

How do I reconcile what I have seen first hand – the everyday hardworking decent Australians who farm dairy cattle – with the kinds of attitudes displayed in that Landline article?

Well, I think for me it shows that when it comes to our food choices, we have simply lost sight of a simple fact. We don’t need to eat animals. They are conscious, sentient beings who feel their world in ways not that dissimilar from us. When we farm them, we are not naturally taking from our world as we need. Rather, we have created an artificial, mass production process of harm. We create our farmed animals to harm them, and we have no need to do so.

For me, this is a question worthy of deep moral consideration. As long as we bury our heads in the sand on this matter, I believe we are contributing to a very real decay in our ability as a society to move forward, to forge a moral landscape in which we, and our fellow animals, achieve some kind of identity that reflects our intrinsic worth as beings in this world. We cannot change how other animals see themselves and behave to each other, but we can change ourselves. We CAN be the change we want to see in the world.

Sam Harris, a well known neuroscientist, suggests that the domain of scientific fact, of rational inquiry, should no longer stand apart from our moral considerations. In his view, we should rather let facts as we have uncovered them guide us in our quest to be more moral beings. And he believes that we are in danger of losing our way morally.
http://thebigsmoke.com.au/2016/08/08/morality-now-debate/

I think when it comes to the issue of farming animals, he is right. How can we stand by and create over 600 million animals a year in Australia alone, the vast majority of which will suffer and die after short lives, for little more than the tickle of our palate? What kind of beings are we, when we reduce other beings to the torn flesh on our plates? How deeply ethical can we consider ourselves when other lives are lauded not for their own value, but for the value they bring to the producers who pride themselves on their ability to take those lives from paddock to plate by increasingly harmful and compassionless ways?

Sam suggests that we might better find our way were we to observe a simple axiom: if it hurts, don’t do it. Over 2000 years ago, someone else coined a similar phrase, one which holds the same power today as it did then. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

In my world, this simple moral principle should be extended beyond our human companions to those other beings who share our world. We are the first beings to stand on this planet with the capacity to change all that we see. Is there no imperative upon us to think about how we do that?

Dairy farmers are good people, I believe, but like most of us I think they are hopelessly tied to an outdated notion, mired in an evolutionary past we have left behind. I only wish that more of them could take the step to reconsidering just what they are part of, to think more about what they do and how they do it. But perhaps it’s a step too far.

What they may not do, I can and will. I no longer eat or drink dairy products. I ask you all who read this to think about it and choose the same. And just maybe, one day a calf will not be taken from his mother to die for his pale flesh, a cow will not die young because she has given her all to flavour our coffee, and the blood of almost a million living beings will not be washed into the sluices of our abattoirs every year just because we wanted their milk…

Postscript: Something I should add here is that in Australia we are lucky that our dairy industry is still largely the province of family operators. Overseas, massively industrialised operations have reduced dairying to another production line process in which the animals suffer greatly. On farms with thousands of animals, the kinds of personal care we see here in Australia is simply not possible. Veal calves are treated abominably in some countries, and while their lot in Australia is not exactly wonderful, it is at least a magnitude of degree better. Aussie dairy farmers on the whole do care for their animals as best they can within the context of their industry and they do mostly make life tolerable for the cows in their herds. For that I am, as I said above, thankful.

The public debate about animal welfare in farming

What really surprises me is the inadequate public debate about animal welfare in farming. In Australia today we really can live happy healthy lives without harming any animals yet we choose not to do that. In fact, harms are increasing as demand grows, exports are actively sought, and industry practices increasingly favour intensive operations.

The public prefers to keep its head firmly in the sand, but this is slowly changing. However, even though many many people are speaking out, our media channels prefer to stick to the status quo.

For example, whenever this question comes up it is often mocked on mainstream television programs. Rarely is there a feature that addresses the very real ethical and moral questions, and when there is such it is taken as being slightly out there or screwy.

Why? Why should wanting to be more compassionate be seen as nutty? It seems to me that the food industry has done a huge snowjob on the public mind and conscience. People are convinced that we simply HAVE to eat animal products and that we do it really nicely.  And yet that is just not the case.

It’s all very well for people to say that eating animals is their choice and they should be free to make that choice, but when that choice causes suffering and misery for other lives, it’s a choice that really should be better understood before it’s made.

While of course there is debate in various media and fora, it’s the mainstream media that I’d like to see take this subject seriously. And to that end, I’m thinking that the ABC panel discussion, Q & A, would be an ideal platform to launch a renewed legitimacy of discussion around the ethics and morality of animal farming in a modern Australia.

I plan to launch a petition on change.org, a petition to the ABC asking them to do this. Below is the first draft of my petition, I welcome any comment for improvement. I hope this petition gets widespread support – there does seem to be a real groundswell of interest in this matter right now and it’s very opportune to ask Q&A to tackle it.

Petition to ABC

So, tell me again why we eat all those animals?

Globally, livestock farming may prove unsustainable on current trajectories. Studies have suggested that environmental impacts are significant with evidence that this industry is a major contributor to climate change by way of greenhouse gas emissions and land clearing.

In Australia, land clearing for agriculture (as well as for human habitation, industry and transport etc) has significantly altered Australia’s natural landscape, and with it, Australia’s biodiversity. About 90% of native vegetation in the eastern temperate zone has been cleared including something like 50% of Australia’s rainforests (Source: Creating Markets for Biodiversity, Productivity Commission). The resulting loss has seen Australia become one of the most affected countries in the world in terms of species extinctions.

We should also be considering the ethical question of treating animals in this way. Science has shown us unequivocally that creatures such as sheep, cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys have the capacity for inner subjective experience that includes the capacity to feel pain and to suffer. Not one of these animals evolved to be bred in their millions in captivity, constrained against their will, treated poorly and killed young.

Increasingly, to ensure profitability and to meet the growing demand for food, animals are raised in what are known as intensive operations. In Australia, the vast majority of pigs are raised in entirely artificial conditions and subject to a range of cruel and damaging practices. Of the something like 5 million pigs slaughtered annually, around 90-95% are raised in this way. Even dairy, traditionally farmed by small family run operations, is experiencing a trend to larger, more intensive operations.

Something that many people also don’t realise is that while animal products provide sustenance for many, it is increasingly supplying an entertainment industry. People like to eat and food is a major social activity. We see the rise of fast food outlets, restaurants, television cooking shows and so on, all dedicated to making food less a sustaining necessity and more of a casual pleasure. The terrible harms of intensive farming become less convincing when we consider the largely unnecessary nature of this consumption. Simply put, we are killing many many animals for fun.

These issues are significant and demand consideration even if we couldn’t avoid the need to farm animals. However in Australia, there really is little such need. It is entirely possible for people to get the sustenance they need from non-animal based products. A plant-based diet can be as healthy, sustaining, enjoyable and rewarding as a mixed diet. Health authorities agree that limiting meat and dairy intake is important to good health and increasingly we see studies confirming the benefits of a largely or completely plant based diet.

The public debate is dominated by the self interest of the meat and livestock industry, yet should this be so? Considering the impacts in environmental and animal welfare terms, as well as in terms of health outcomes for people, shouldn’t we see more discussion of the negatives of this industry and ways to alleviate these? And shouldn’t the public be told more about the ethical shortcomings of an industry that at every turn seeks to harm millions of animals every year to make a profit?

There is no shortage of thoughtful, knowledgeable people that could contribute to such a debate. And what a refreshing change for the public to hear the views of such people rather than the one-sided conversation that currently persists.

Isn’t it time that the public debate became serious about why we farm animals in modern Australia and what that means for their well-being and ours? We the undersigned believe that Q&A would be a well regarded platform to begin this public discussion and we ask you to devote a panel to this increasingly serious and complex issue.

 

[Post image sourced from reuters.com]