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.

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6 thoughts on “On Eating Meat and the Numbers Game

  1. Thank you for your observations. I have read some of the media regarding Evan’s books then chose to stop. I want to read the book with out the frenzy. I do like your summary of vegan ethics – be kind.
    I walked away (more accurately got culled) from intensive ag because of my stance on welfare and demanding better from owners and staff with regards to the animals.

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  2. Thoughtful work. I might have missed it, but do your calculations include the crop-related deaths incurred in grain harvests for animal feed? A steer, for example, eaten by an omnivore may have been fed grain for part of the year for several years prior to slaughter. The omnivore’s victim count therefore includes not just the steer but also the steer’s cumulative lifetime by-kill.

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    1. Thanks Rowan.

      I agree that I haven’t added in all the collateral deaths such as fishery by-catch, poultry and lambing losses, animals killed to grow feed etc, so in truth the numbers are probably even more biased in favour of the vegan model (what if total animal deaths in animal farming in Australia is more like 2 to 2.5 billion animals each year?). But that is just too hard to estimate and perhaps muddies the water too much.

      The thing with the calculations is that they aren’t meant to be the answer, because as far as we know there just isn’t enough data to make any halfway accurate estimate. However, using what empirical estimates we do have illustrates that the numbers of animals killed for food is astronomical while we just may not harm that many animals in cropping. The main thing I wanted to highlight is that we are really only looking at extra harms in crops grown to replace the animals killed for food, and that is likely to come out favourably for vegan systems.

      That said, it is also true that we might do even better raising grass fed beef and lamb for some proportion of the extra crops (eg only replacing half the protein needed with plants and the other half with grazed ruminants), because then we might find that significantly fewer animals are killed overall. A quick and dirty calculation suggests that whereas replacing all animals with crops might cause 100 million extra deaths annually, replacing all that protein with only range-grazed beef might bring the number of extra deaths down to just 30-50 million.

      But I feel that is a very unlikely situation. People would be almost as unwilling to restrict their meat to beef as they might be to a fully vegan diet. So it’s a bit of an unlikely scenario, and in any case many other factors then come into play.

      All I am doing is showing that everyday business as usual is much more harmful than a totally vegan system, which is perhaps different from what Evans was implying. Like many, Evans assumes that all the deaths from cropping that happen now are somehow to be implicated in a vegan system, whereas I am suggesting that is the cost for all of us and isn’t anything at all to do with veganism.

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  3. Thanks for writing this. I’ve been working on the topic off & on for several months now. It might be better to move directly to methods of minimizing harm to field animals than to attempt an accurate assessment of numbers harmed. An accurate estimate would involve an extraordinary amount of effort & resources that could be better spent moving directly to solutions we have now.

    The issue of poison is an important one so working to minimize it’s use or find alternatives could lower the death toll of growing crops dramatically. Then there is the issue of poison transferring up the food chain to the raptors & other carnivores that eat the rodents.

    As far as farm machinery, plowing has been shown to reduce rodent numbers which indicates they are killed this way. Low/no till results in very little rodent harm but then adds the problem that they might start eating the seeds or crops.

    With harvesting there has been an impressive effort by grass-fed beef farmers to reduce field animal deaths in their mowing of grass pastures. For example they go through the field and mark bird nests with a thin pole and either relocate the nest or mow around it. Also, by starting the mowing in the middle of the field and going outward it gives animals the chance to flee the field.

    So with grain harvesting, assuming that sample plot surveys indicate presence of rodents, just slowing down the combine would reduce deaths. Using a smaller lighter combine with a smaller cutting apparatus and tires that don’t compress the ground as much,… start in the middle of the field and harvest from there like the grass mowers.

    One final thought: It is useful to consider how field animal deaths would be minimized in ones own garden. Doing a survey of the land area before tilling, using lower impact tillers (to illustrate this, note how when digging into the earth using a pitch-fork it doesn’t kill as many worms), use well built rodent-proof fencing, harvest by hand or with a slower moving machine.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this. Interesting to hear about efforts by some farmers to reduce crop related deaths – which part of the world is this referring to? I agree more generally with your suggestion that it is possible to do more to reduce crop related harms to wild animals. This is at the core of my own criticism of those who keep bringing up the shortcomings of plant-based eating – the point is that if we made a genuine effort to reduce animal harms for food, we might not only reduce reliance on meat and dairy but also look to do better while growing and harvesting crops. It’s not an either-or equation.

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