A Brief Account of Consciousness

Summary: Consciousness (experience, awareness) has long been a mystery. It has been called the “hard problem” because it has successfully eluded explanation for centuries, however I believe that modern accounts have gone a long way to dispelling the mystery. It seems that the key to understanding consciousness may be to regard our experience not as that of a discrete observer but rather as a model of our relationship to the external world. The perceiver is inherent to this model.

By way of example, we tend to think that when we see an external object we are inside our heads looking at some kind of image. Instead, it seems more likely that the object we experience is simply a description, a logical carrier of information about our relationship to that external object. We have a constellation of such descriptions, tied together by meta-descriptions. One such meta-description might be the feeling we have that we are inside our heads. We can act upon these descriptions, including reporting upon them. When we say “that ball is red” we are reporting upon information contained within the descriptions our brains compute from sensory input and stored concepts.

The world as we experience it is a virtual world, a description that is only as complex as we need to act into the external world. It may not always represent the actual world but to us, it IS the world.

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An enduring mystery is that of consciousness or awareness. We believe that we are aware in a particular way, that “we” are in our heads. This is because we have experiences and can talk about them. We see colours (eg red), we feel pain and we can be happy or sad. Strangely however we cannot really say what red, pain or happiness actually are – the best we can do is agree that we each see a red ball when a red ball is present. That ball seems to us to be out there but obviously it isn’t. It must somehow be in our heads, like a photograph or movie being shown for us on the screen of our minds. Someone, it seems, is inside our heads, in some kind of inner space, watching the movie of experience.

This someone is what we might think of as the soul or at the very least as an observer – an actual thing that is separate from yet co-existing with our physical body. But the problem with thinking this is that it is a non-explanation. If an internal observer “sees” our experiences, then how does this observer do that? Could there be an observer inside the observer? Maybe, but then we seem to need a further observer and so on. We can never bottom out into a true physical explanation of what the observer is.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett is famous for his dismissal of this kind of idea. He tells us that there can be no Cartesian Theatre, no inner screen on which the movie of experience plays for our observer. He takes the view that we are misled somehow, that our experience is in some way an illusion. He doesn’t mean by this that we are not having experiences – after all, we describe our experiences by what they signify (the red of the ball, for example). Experiences exist.

However, while experiences exist, does it follow that we are indeed inside our heads, contrary to Dennett’s claim? Or is it the case that other than the brain doing stuff, there is nothing else happening? After all, as physical systems brains just do physical things, so unless something non-physical is happening we aren’t really in there. Perhaps we simply do not have a soul after all – maybe the truth is that no-one is home. I wrote about this in my short essay, “Do animals have souls?“, where I say that my answer to this is that no, we are not really home and we do not have souls. I should add the caveat though that in one very real way there IS something it is like to be us. How does this happen if we agree that there can’t be an observer inside our heads?

The most likely explanation is that experience – the “what it’s like” – just is how brains compute (manipulate) information in order to produce behaviours. The idea that brains compute information is known as computationalism. There has been plenty of criticism for the idea but it remains the dominant paradigm to explain cognition and by extension consciousness. I tend to think that a fundamental capability of material universes is computation – the right kinds of systems can gain information by manipulating other information according to some rule (ie logic). Brains do this.

Consider a sort of paradigm example. Light is not really illumination or colour – it is a narrow frequency range of electro-magnetic radiation reflected from or emitted by material objects. Sensory apparatus can detect light and use the resulting interaction between light and the detection of light to gain information about objects. In such a manner brains can use this information along with a range of stored sensory and affordance data to model the world and relations with the world. The things we “see” don’t really look like anything at all out in the world; what we see is entirely an abstract construction of our brains using the information rendered by the interaction between light and our eyes.

The usefulness of this kind of abstracted information is obvious – it facilitates  behaviours. More complex behavioural possibilities are uncovered both by environmental conditions and improved detection/processing/actioning capabilities. In the same way physical forms are optimised by evolution to better suit adaptation to changing environments so too is the computability of information derived from interactions between the organism and its external and internal environments. In a very real sense, the “instruction set” for programming brains/nervous systems is derived evolutionarily over long stretches of time.

The end result is that in our heads are no more than the models we use to direct behaviours and the objects in these models (for example, red balls and “me”) are more like organisational artefacts – they stand in for (represent) how we use information to direct internal activity to generate external behaviours. Our brains construct a virtual world using information sampled from the outside world.

Put another way, our experiences are not OF the world, they ARE the world. And in this world is a kind of control model – a sense of self that coordinates and modulates behaviour based on perceptual information prioritised according to behavioural goals. This self is in effect a control model that ties together the artefacts of these processes and enables us to observe, monitor and report upon progress. Michael Graziano has offered a compelling and cogent explanation for how attention mediates this control model when he describes his Attention Schema Theory.

You can see from this that when I agree that consciousness is an illusion, I don’t mean we are not having experiences. Rather I mean that our experiences are not really an inner being “seeing” and “hearing” things and having a genuine “self”. Sensory perceptions are abstracted informational objects – objects of organisation and process. The different sensory modalities simply wrap up the information in handy codes. A red ball (vision) contains information that is pared down for easier manipulation – it isn’t the state of all the bits of the brain but is rather an abstraction that contains shape, colour, location, distance and so on upon which we can undertake ongoing behavioural computations (eg how to catch the ball). The sound of a bell is the same thing but for sound waves (audition). The underlying brain cells are the same and they do the same things, but the information being manipulated is different as are the affordances offered. I think that J. Kevin O’Regan has explained this idea very well when he describes his sensori-motor theory in his excellent book “Why Red Doesn’t Sound Like A Bell“.

Now, can other computational systems have experiences? I am inclined to say yes. All computations that manipulate information may be accompanied by some kind of “what it’s like”. However, it seems likely that the computational devices we have built are limited by the narrowness of their functionality and a paucity of broadly integrated complexity (eg complex feed-back and feed-forward circuits). More than this, I tend to think that without a particular kind of memory system, it seems very unlikely that these computational activities have any kind of awareness, much less self-awareness.

That said, as complexity increases so too does the potential for experience and therefore computational devices that mirror the circuitry of brains and incorporate the right kinds of memory should have experience (recall that consciousness is a kind of logical information space in which relationships are modelled). In particular, as memory morphs into the kind of global workspace (for want of a better description) as outlined by people like Baars then the experiences become accessible to the system as a form of awareness. Very complex systems with the right system capabilities would be aware. Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory is probably very much on the right track in this regard.

While consciousness as experience might be explained as the product of brains computing information, it is unlikely that the unitary everyday experience we enjoy is directly affecting behaviour. The reason for this is that it seems to come too late. The consciousness we have seems fully formed and informative yet to process perceptual input, access stored content, create a virtual world of experience and then to decide responses takes time and time is of the essence for creatures in the world.

It is more likely that our brains are constantly predicting and revising those predictions as it shapes behaviour to external circumstances. This may be accompanied by some kind of what it’s like experience, but this is likely not to be what we call everyday awareness/consciousness. As the brain computes various scenarios and generates draft narratives of what’s happening to us, behavioural plans are created, discarded and executed. All in tiny fractions of time, such is the computing power of the brain. Only once behaviour is complete is it likely that a full and final draft (as it were) is produced for storage in memory systems. This final draft is a pared down, information rich abstraction of what just happened and is probably most useful for learning. My best guess is that it also informs ongoing processes and behaviour in a complex feedback/re-entrant looping mechanism.

While ongoing internal brain processes may be manipulating informational objects, true conscious experience – our unifed unfolding narrative – is more likely to be an after the fact construction. This is why I see memory as critical to enjoying a rich conscious experience. In memory, the abstracted information that describes external world, behavioural responses and functional outcomes is stored for learning and ongoing comparitive feedback. I suspect that our moment by moment awareness of the world is in fact a memory function.

It is in this sense that some researchers have proposed the hippocampal formation as critical to these activities and I think this makes sense. While I simply don’t know enough to say yay or nay, I think propositions such as those of Ralf-Peter Behrendt and Matt Faw may be on the right track. Faw’s suggestion that moment by moment experience is the first instantiation of a memory seems to fit the bill. Even if not exactly right, this proposition seems to give us grounds for viewing everyday consciousness as primarily a memory function.

Placing this into a simpler explanatory framework, brains have evolved to interpret and manipulate information about the body and the external world in order to manage behaviour. The world we experience is a kind of “logical space” in which information is abstracted into a model of how the brain processes and organises that information and the behaviours available to be enacted.

Essential to the complete experience that complex organisms like humans enjoy is a memory system that permits a recurrent, re-entrant process of remembering moment by moment, informed both by prior stored concepts/experiences and predictive refinements in order to model relations betwen the organism and the external world. Such models facilitate increasingly complex and dynamic behavioural responses.

In the end, we are simply very good natural simulations.

My vegan elevator pitch

“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”  UK Vegan Society

I wrote a longer piece about this recently, but this is meant to be my “elevator pitch” version. Cutting to the chase, rather than being only a diet or environmental fix or even a rigid ideology, I consider veganism to be a way of looking at the world which is essential to my personal moral outlook. This is because veganism is consistent with everyday ideas of right and wrong – we already believe all that it asks of us, we just need to extend those beliefs to include other animals.

It works like this.

I think of veganism as how my choices and actions affect others. I suppose we can boil it down to the Golden Rule – treat others as you’d like to be treated yourself. If we try to do that in our relations with other people and other animals as far as possible… well, isn’t that “veganism”? Veganism just is what it means to do your best to be good to others. We are already vegan as far as other people are concerned, so how hard can it be to extend this attitude to include other animals?

Mind you, we can’t always live our ideals; sometimes circumstances dictate otherwise. For example, normally one ought prefer not to kill another person but one must in wartime. We can only do our best. Our best, I suggest, is something of an ongoing project for most of us. For me, veganism is how I see that project.

All veganism asks of me is that I do the best I can being the person I am in my particular circumstances, as long as my aim genuinely is to do well by others as much as I can. In the case of other animals, I want to take into account how my choices and actions could affect them for the better. My situation may not mean I can be my best at all times, but I still hope to do the best I can when I can. All this requires is an open mind and the willingness to do things differently when I see a real benefit to others.

That right there is veganism as I see it.

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A Practical Guide

A couple of people have said to me, OK, that’s all well and good but what are you really saying? I see what they are getting at. My pitch above is meant to outline why I think veganism makes sense and can be taken on board by anyone at all. It’s meant to defuse the argument that veganism is a rigid diet that is too hard, perhaps even dangerous, to follow.

I am saying that what counts is your own personal commitment to treating others well and that I believe other animals should be included in that commitment. This is not strictly how veganism is defined, so I am only offering up my take on this. However, I think my take on the matter can be quickly and easily embraced by most people because it only demands that you do what you think best.

It should be clear that I don’t much endorse the idea of “going vegan” or being a vegan; what really counts is your own willingness to question the way we do things. I call this embracing vegan ethics. How far you go is up to you but the idea is that you be open to finding out more about how we treat other animals and thinking about how you could help to change the bad things we do. It doesn’t necessarily mean never using or harming or killing another animal unless that’s how far you want to go. Most purist vegans do go that far, but I suspect many people would not. That’s OK. You can still be “vegan” by my definition. Because in the end it’s your personal choice on how best to act.

I classify my interpretation as essentially vegan rather than say reducetarianism or ethical omnivorism because I am looking to the full range of our relationships with others and because I remain focused on how my choices affect others. Ethical Omnivorism for example seems mostly confined to our food choices and seems not to come with any built in constraints on how far we go.

Someone embracing vegan ethics in this way might take small practical changes to how they live that are consistent with the goal of doing good by others. Another might go much further and become a purist vegan and animal rights activist. It’s up to you. Your journey may never end because we can always learn more and do more.

So, here are some practical examples.

My own personal situation came about when I found out how we treat pigs in the food system. You can read more about that here. These days, my wife and I eat a mostly plant-based diet. I don’t die in a ditch if my food is cooked in a pan along with meat, I do eat oysters and mussels, I have no problem with eating insects. I am not sure about wool and cotton, but we aim to minimise the number of clothes we buy. I am OK with eating meat if someone offers me some but I explain why I’d prefer not to.

Chickens and pigs are very badly treated in our food system. Choosing never to eat chicken or pork from commercial intensive systems is a great way to contribute to a better food system. You may even prefer to never eat chicken and pork at all. Here is an example of a farm where animals are raised with high welfare: http://jonaifarms.com.au/

Many animals can be harmed in the cosmetics industry, To help reduce this problem, choose cosmetics with the leaping bunny logo on them. The Leaping Bunny Logo is the only internationally recognized symbol guaranteeing consumers that no new animal tests were used in the development of any product displaying it. The Logo can be seen on packaging, advertising, and websites for cosmetics and household products around the world. There are other similar logos, to find out which ones you can trust, please visit this website: https://ethicalelephant.com/cruelty-free-logos/

If you support charities and worthy causes, consider supporting a charity that works to better the lives of other animals. You can choose one whose work or values agree with you. I volunteer to help Animal Aid Abroad, an Australian organisation whose goal is to help every working animal live a life free from suffering and to be treated with respect and compassion.  https://www.animalaidabroad.org/

Yolanda is a sheep and cattle farmer. She believes in ensuring the best possible welfare for her herd and she is committed to protecting them as much as possible from the harsh realities of nature and to give them a fulfilling life and a good death. Yolanda is dedicated to constantly observing and checking them, often dragging herself out at all hours and in all types of weather. She is well known for bringing in the sick or abandoned to protect them from predators, always choosing to ignore the little voice that often says “it will be right till tomorrow”, no matter how exhausted, cold or hungry she is. The thing is, people eat meat and we farm animals so there are people like Yolanda out there farming. None of them have to go the extra yard so it’s wonderful to see someone who does.

To join in a conversation between farmers and vegans, you could join the Farmers and Vegans Discussions Facebook group. This is a small but growing group where people can find out more about farming and talk to both farmers and vegans about how our food system works. https://www.facebook.com/groups/296536041626729

Why I think veganism makes sense

Veganism – once a fringe concept – has become increasingly mainstream in recent years. However, with this has come a change in the public perception of veganism. Originally an essentially moral philosophy, I think many people now see plant-based and vegan as meaning the same thing (a diet) and they see it in terms of personal benefit (health, environment, climate change). That’s fine, I guess, but I’d rather retain the idea that veganism denotes a moral attitude or stance. For me, veganism isn’t anything special – it’s just my everyday moral attitude extended to include other animals as much as I can. That’s about it.

In practice, just like all our other moral stances, how I behave depends a bit on circumstances, convention and evidence. I do my best to do what I think is right but what I do may not be the same as you. I may be more or less fastidious in my moral actions than you. I think that’s how the world works – we work out a general idea of right and wrong and then we each tackle that as we think best.

When it comes to veganism, I probably take what is broadly a welfarist position. I guess I boil it down to caring or being kind. If I can avoid it, why would I harm another creature? I am pretty sure that’s the essence of the Golden Rule. So, my moral stance in the world just is that. However, the world itself isn’t kind or just, that’s just a thing we do. The result is that we can’t be perfect and we can’t always be entirely true to our own moral convinctions. By and large, I think, we just do our best.

If it turns out that someone has to eat meat for good health or because they don’t have access to other decent food, I don’t think that is a bad thing. If someone must use another animal for their own ends, for example an assistance dog, that’s just the way of it. But within that there is no reason still not to do the best we can for the animals our presence effects. Hopefully, we can learn more and use that knowledge and our ideals to act well. That’s what I try to do and it influences the choices I make.

I eat mussels and oysters. I don’t mind eating a piece of meat or whatever if someone offers it to me. I don’t even have a problem with killing and eating animals when it is necessary. I am not that far from ethical omnivorism in dietary terms. Except that I think things like that – or reducetarianism, for example – are largely self focused and I’d rather be a bit more other focused. This might not be what a vegan purist would think is veganism, but it is my personal moral stance, deeply informed by vegan ethics.

And here’s the thing. I don’t see why that means that everyone else cannot do the same. Why, on this flavour of veganism, can’t everyone be “vegan”? In the end, it’s no more than following your existing moral instincts and doing your best for other animals – people included. If veganism is a moral stance, essentially everyday morality, then it follows anyone can be vegan. Farmers included. It’s not clear to me why everyone isn’t!

My point here is that if veganism really is just everyday ethics then it can be integrated into everyday behaviours and choices. Seen as a sort of continuum of moral attitudes that may extend to more purist ideals but which nonetheless remains accessible to common ideas of right and wrong it is possible veganism could be taken as a default stance, rather than an object of opposition and derision. In such a light, veganism is understood and practised just as we tackle all other ethical issues – as best we can with the people we are in our particular circumstances. One might take a strong position on this and become an animal rights activist, another might simply make what they think are the best choices in the things they do.

Such a view of the world can then be informed by actual empirical matters as well as personal circumstances. So long as my interest is to do my best for other animals, the stance I settle on is mine alone and can be refined as better information becomes available to me.

Put another way, for me the goal of veganism as a moral stance is that our ethical attitude to other animals mirrors our ethical attitude to other people. We aim to do our best. Circumstances might mean we can’t apply our ethics equally as well for other animals as for other humans, but so long as we take the same strategy of regarding others’ interests and well-being as important, then I think that’s all we can ask of veganism.

Would a global plant-based diet really cover the world in crops?

It’s not uncommon to hear people pointedly suggest that a vegan diet (that is, entirely plant-based) would be bad for the world because it would mean more crops over more land area. These people, often farmers, say that plant-based diets require vast areas of land covered in monoculture crops, the argument being that this is bad for the environment, limits biodiversity and encourages the use of artificial fertilisers and various pesticides etc. They point to vegans needing soy for tofu and milk, almonds for almond milk, avocadoes and quinoa and so on.

The trouble with this argument is, I think, that it is rather misinformed. Right now, there are very few vegans in the world, perhaps no more than 2% of the global population or less. Of course, many people are turning to plant-based diets for a variety of reasons and  even omnivores are buying plant milks and increasing their vegie intake in an effort to be healthy. Nonetheless, given the vast amount of meat eaten in the world and the extensive nature of animal farming, the real world effects of these trends are vanishingly small when compared to the impacts of everyday agriculture at the global scale.

On the other hand, vegans like to point to animal farming as having major negative impacts on the world. They note that about 70% of all the soy grown is for animal feed and that overall, perhaps as much as 50% or more of all cereal grains are grown to feed animals. On top of this, nearly 85% of all farmland is used to raise animals. 

What is the truth? Well, it’s not that easy to tease out. But at a sort of generalised, indicative level, some things are clear. The first is that the vast areas of monocropping are not the fault of plant-based diets but rather are the result of what all of us are doing. Secondly, right now plant-based diets aren’t really making much difference to anything. Not at the global scale, anyway. And thirdly, the impact of animal farming is truly extensive.

All of that said, I wondered at one simple question. IF the world went plant-based tomorrow and animal farming (and seafood eating) stopped entirely, would the world have more land under crops? The answer, it seems, is no. In fact, it most probably would have less. Eliminating animal farming would probably mean two things – first, a LOT of land available for rewilding or other uses, including the growing of crops for food and secondly, there would be less land covered by monoculture cropping. Mind you, this latter claim is not as bold as it might first seem.

How do I come to this conclusion? Read on. 

The first thing we need is a baseline. According to the “Our World in Data” website, there are about 1.65 billion hectares of crops in the world. Of this, the main crop types are:

Cereals (eg wheat and rice): 700 million hectares.
Coarse grains (eg maize, barley, sorghum etc): 350 million hectares
Oil crops (eg palm, soy, canola etc): 300 million hectares
Pulses: 100 million hectares
Tubers, fruits, vegetables: about 80 million hectares each
Nuts: about 20 million hectares

Clearly, cereals such as wheat and rice dominate (wheat alone uses somewhere around 250 million hectares globally). The next largest crop type, coarse grains, are largely a food source although in the OECD they are used primarily for animal feed (perhaps as much as 60-70% of all such grains grown in the US are for animal feeds). Oil crops produce cooking oil as well as food ingredients, biofuels and some industrial applications.

One of the interesting facts we learn is that while vegans often claim that 70-80% of all soy is grown for feed, this isn’t strictly true. In fact, almost all soy is grown for human uses. What is happening is that most soy is grown to service two markets and what a grower is interested in is the prices at market. At the end of the day, around 87% of all soy grown is crushed for oil for human use in cooking, biofuel and industrial applications. Of that 87%, about 20-30% by weight is recovered as oil and the residue, 70-80% by weight, is used as meal cake for animal feed (the latter is highly sought due to the optimal protein profile). Just 7% or so is grown directly for animal feeds and around 6% for human food. The remarkable growth in soy however is driven by the demand for animal feed (in other words, other oil crops are grown less and soy grown more, so it’s relative proportion of the total mix of oil crops has increased). Today, there is around 100 million hectares under soy globally, including quite a bit of South America.

The second thing is that of the coarse grains, some very large proportion is used or grown as feed. Corn, for example, is largely grown as feed or biofuel stock in the US. While grains such as maize and millet feature heavily in diets is poorer nations, at the global scale it seems that other uses are perhaps as important. Somewhere between 30% and 50% are used as animal feed (and perhaps another 10-15% for biofuel and other industrial applications). On this question of food, quite a bit of wheat also services the animal feed industry (for example, of domestic uses for wheat in Australia, about 60-70% is for animal feed). Globally, it is possible some 10-20% of wheat is grown for feed, however it isn’t clear just how much. Wheat IS primarily grown for food, but poor quality yields and residues are also sold to feed. I have estimated about 10% directly grown for feed.

Current vegan demand for various foods simply doesn’t register at this scale. The biggest demands are clearly human food first (ie everyone, not just vegans) and livestock feed. From this it is clear that almost all of the land under crops is due to general human demand, whether that be for food, animal feed, oils, biofuels and so on.

To ascertain the effect of removing animal feed from the equation, I followed this method. First, I calculated how much land is likely to be freed up once demand for feed is removed. I am not concerned with what happens to pasture or grazing land, just the question of land area under crops. Then, I calculated how much land would need to be devoted to crops to replace the lost food (in this, I am assuming seafood is included in the various numbers I uncovered – this may be an invalid assumption). The difference between these two results gives us the actual effect.

So, let’s look at cropland saved from the elimination of animal feed.

Some large proportion of all wheat grown is used for animal feed, however this isn’t all derived from wheat specifically grown for feed. So determining just how much might be saved by no longer needing wheat as feed is not easy. I will use 10% but could be persuaded it is more. 10%x250 million = 25 million hectares.

I have accepted that about 30% of all coarse grains grown globally are used for feed (this is somewhat debateable as I said, but most sources agree that it is somewhere around that value – those that suggest it is as high as 50% are including wheat in the calculation). If so, 30%x350 million Ha = 105 million hectares.

Oil crops are used for cooking, biofuel and industrial applications. I have estimated about 100 million hectares under soy, the balance (200 million Ha) is a mixture of other oil crops. If soy meal was no longer marketable, it is likely the market would swing in favour of other oil crops such as palm oil due to the greater yields per hectare. Is this really likely? I suspect so, but the extent to which this might happen isn’t clear. I am going to assume that about 50% of all soy crop would be replaced by palm crop.

87% of soy is used for oil and feed, assume 50% replaced by palm. This would save around 34.5 million hectares (ie about 34.5% of all soy grown). Saving = 34.5 million hectares.
7% of soy is used directly as feed, so that is an upfront saving. 7%x100 million = 7 million hectares.
6% of soy grown (about 6 million hectares) is directly for human food but this would remain so it won’t represent a saving..

Total reduction in area under soy comes to 41.5 million hectares.

Now, some might argue that by eliminating meat we would substantially reduce the demand for oil in cooking. I don’t think so. Oil is mostly used for frying, baking and as an ingredient. Baking and ingredient use should remain the same. As for frying, I see no reason to expect that the profile of food consumption would change substantially – that is, people would still eat fast foods, eat in at restaurants and enjoy home cooked meals and barbecues. The emerging market for “fake” meats suggest that to be the case (eg plant-based burger patties, pretend chicken, fish and the like). And of course, french fries would remain in huge demand. So I have allowed no offset for a reduction in oil demand.

The total reduction in land under crops comes to 171.5 million hectares. If however we use 50% as the extent of land under coarse grains used for feed, this increases to around 240 million hectares.

Total reduction = 170 million hectares (240 million hectares)

Now, we need to know how much extra plants we need to grow for human food. Here, I wasn’t certain how to proceed. However, the loss of meat primarily represents a loss of protein. This does have to be made up, so I have decided to use protein as the overwhelmingly principle replacement food source. That means we’d replace meat with high protein crops such as pulses and legumes. Now, we know that Westerners tend to vastly over-consume protein but in poorer countries the opposite is true. Taken as a global average, I think this comes out about even so the best statistic to use is the FAO’s estimation of average protein source by type. Those numbers are: 57% from plants and 43% from animals. Using this suggests we need to grow enough high protein crops to generate 43% more protein.

Also averaged globally we have:

Weight for one person: 62kg
Daily RDI for protein: .8g/kg
Global population: 7.8 billion.

An average person therefore needs 50g of protein daily, or 18.25kg per year.
Global protein demand = (43%x18.25kg) x 7.8 billion = 61 billion kg annually.
The best plant sources deliver about 20% protein by volume, so 5 x 61 billion = 305 billion kg
Crop yields average about 2500kg/Ha, so 305 billion/2500 = 122 million hectares.

Total needed = 122 million hectares.

Our final result then is:

Saved = 170 million hectares (or, possibly, 240 million hectares)
Needed = 122 million hectares

Overall reduction = 48 million hectares (or 118 million hectares if it really is the case that 50% of the area under coarse grains is used to grow feed). This represents a total reduction of all cropland area of some 3% (7%). Is this at all close? Well, a recent study concluded that if all the existing cropland area was turned over to human food, we could feed another 4 billion people. On the basis of my numbers above, 4 billion people need about 29 million hectares of foodcrops for protein plus perhaps about the same again for the balance of their calories. That comes to somewhere around 60 million hectares, so it looks like my numbers are in the ballpark.

All of this said, it’s worth noting I used a recommended daily intake value for protein requirements. Globally, people tend to over-consume protein when they can get it and as the world’s population gains better access to food, overall protein consumption is increasing. Would it be any better under a plant-based agricultural system? Sadly, I suspect not, so the figure for land needed above could undersell the true situation by as much as 50-100%. If it turned out I have under-estimated by say 50%, then land needed would be around 180 million hectares leaving us in balance – no area gained or lost.

What have we learned? That the vast areas under monoculture crops today aren’t the fault of plant-based diets but are rather due to the system we have and the human demand that we have. Replacing the global diet with plants alone could reduce that area by somewhere between 50 and 120 million hectares but that does seem to depend on people not over-consuming as they do right now. The take away from this might be that replacing all the animals we eat with plants may not make as much difference as people think, at least not insofar as the problem of large areas of monoculture cropping. Something else would be needed.

Do animals have souls?

Many people believe that they have a soul, an inner being which transcends the physical nature of our world. Perhaps it even transcends death. Some also believe that other animals have souls as well.

But what could a soul be? It seems strange in this very physical world to think of it as an ethereal, largely undetectable inner “self” yet we are aware of the world in much that way – as an ethereal yet undetectable “consciousness”. While we may be tempted to think of the soul as a kind of inner person or a spirit being or some kind of inter-dimensional shadow, it is the fact that we are conscious – aware – of the world and our lives that leads us to think we have a soul. Many think it is this conscious awareness that is the everyday manifestation of our soul. It is the sounds, colours, feelings and thoughts we experience that makes up our conscious awareness of the world and in the absence of a good explanation for how we can do this it seems reasonable to think that there IS no explanation – this is just what it is to have a soul.

Of course, this is a bit of a non-explanation when considered from an empirical (scientific) point of view. Trying to ascertain what this inner being (consciousness) is has occupied enquiring minds for thousands of years. So difficult has the problem been that the term “the hard problem” was coined by philosopher Geoffrey Chalmers in 1995 when he wrote that “the hard problem of consciousness is the problem of explaining why and how sentient organisms have qualia or phenomenal experiences—how and why it is that some internal states are felt states, such as heat or pain, rather than unfelt states, as in a thermostat or a toaster. Explaining how the brain works in a mechanical sense might be difficult, but these are easy problems in contrast to explaining why it is that we seem to have experiences – why it is that there is something that it is like to be a mind.”

Today, we know that experiences are somehow a property of brains. There has been considerable research into what are called the easy problems – how the brain does what it does. It seems clear that the physical processes of brains are what accounts for that indefinable inner being. Souls, it seems, are really no more than brains doing stuff. When our brain processes information and directs our behaviours, we have experiences – conscious awareness of what we are doing. There seems to be a direct correlation between what brains do and the things we experience. This fits with our physical view of the world. There is a lot of evidence that only material physical things can influence the world but no evidence that immaterial things can do the same. An immaterial consciousness would not seem able to influence the physical world. Yet we are left with the nagging problem of explaining how the seemingly immaterial nature of consciousness is in fact part of our world and appears to drive how physical things happen (eg, we can decide to pick up the phone and order dinner).

Some argue that consciousness is a kind of universal property of the world which, perhaps, attends most of the physical objects in the world, but it isn’t clear what they mean by this. When we experience the world we depend on the way our brains function to have these experiences. What we are aware of changes in lockstep with changes in brain states; sometimes we experience things that are not genuine objective external events, for example when we dream or have hallucinations, so consciousness seems to be derived from within, not from without. Absent a brain and what could consciousness be? If a brain is needed to mediate consciousness into some experiential form, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that consciousness without a brain is not anything at all, which makes it somewhat empty as a natural property of physical things.

Others suggest that consciousness IS the world and that all there really can be is consciousness – perhaps pure thought – in which individual episodes of consciousness are somehow dissociated moments of a greater continuum. This cannot be disproved because we can always resort to explaining everything away in this manner and it seems somewhat arbitrary to claim that a pure consciousness would bother to instantiate multiple episodes of isolated consciousness.

Nonetheless, this point of view does have an essential factual basis. After all, if our experience stems from how our brains function, then the world we experience is one of our own making. The entire universe as it appears to us IS all there is and so in a very real way, all there really is for each of us is our consciousness. But that is a different proposition from the claim that the universe itself is consciousness. So far, there is little evidence to support such an idea.

In a nutshell then, it would seem to be the case that non-physical things such as a soul in the traditional sense cannot influence the physical world. Physical things (eg brains) affect other physical things (eg behaviours) so we are safe to conclude that when we experience the world, experience is what it is for our brain to interact with the world. This interaction can be described in physical terms and leaves little room for anything more.

The answer to our question, it seems, is no. Animals, including humans, do not really have souls. Worse, we don’t even exist in the way that we think we do – as actual selves with awareness of the world and free will to make choices about how we live in the world. Brains do stuff but free floating selves that have no physical presence cannot, indeed do not, do stuff. In the end, it seems, we really are just a pack of neurons, to quote Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick in his book, “The Astonishing Hypothesis”.

But I admit, this is not a satisfying conclusion. As human beings, we need meaning and purpose to live rewarding lives. For this reason, I think it is much nicer to live in the world believing that we all have souls and that just maybe, there is a greater goodness to it all. To me, it seems better to believe that I am more than just the operation of a kind of biological machine. I am sure you do too. If the world we experience is of our own making, there really is space in there for souls and better places. And in that world, all animals do have souls!

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?