Counterarguments: Do Vegetarians Kill More Animals Than Meat-Eaters?

“Hey, all you vegetarians! What about me?”

Yes, argues an Australian professor Mike Archer:

To produce protein from grazing beef, cattle are killed. One death delivers (on average, across Australia’s grazing lands) a carcass of about 288 kilograms. This is approximately 68% boneless meat which, at 23% protein equals 45kg of protein per animal killed. This means 2.2 animals killed for each 100kg of useable animal protein produced.

Producing protein from wheat means ploughing pasture land and planting it with seed. Anyone who has sat on a ploughing tractor knows the predatory birds that follow you all day are not there because they have nothing better to do. Ploughing and harvesting kill small mammals, snakes, lizards and other animals in vast numbers. In addition, millions of mice are poisoned in grain storage facilities every year.

However, the largest and best-researched loss of sentient life is the poisoning of mice during plagues.

Each area of grain production in Australia has a mouse plague on average every four years, with 500-1000 mice per hectare. Poisoning kills at least 80% of the mice.

At least 100 mice are killed per hectare per year (500/4 × 0.8) to grow grain. Average yields are about 1.4 tonnes of wheat/hectare; 13% of the wheat is useable protein. Therefore, at least 55 sentient animals die to produce 100kg of useable plant protein: 25 times more than for the same amount of rangelands beef.

Well, it’s definitely an interesting argument. But it relies on a number of factors, which don’t always apply. For example, the numbers would be much different for grain-fed beef (i.e. the majority of beef), because the grain being produced for cattle feed will also kill lots of mice and other field species.

Also, while Australia may be rich in natural grasslands, there has been enormous clear-cutting and habitat-destruction involved in creating landscapes around the globe that are suitable for livestock production.

This argument also assumes widespread use of poisons and pesticides in the plant farming. Organic farming almost certainly kills many fewer animals.

It focuses on wheat, and wheat protein. More protein dense crops, such as soy or quinoa, would alter the balance.

In short, this article compares the least-cruel, least-destructive form of cattle farming against the most-cruel, most-destructive form of plant farming.

Still, the central point–that even a vegetarian or vegan diet is not cruelty or blood-free–is correct. I have never assumed my vegan diet somehow means my eating habits are free from murder. But I have little doubt that being vegan is much less cruel than eating the factory-farmed meat that gets slapped down on the vast majority of plates around the globe.

And while I have always understood that there are forms of livestock farming that are much less cruel than factory farming, the proportion of meat produced globally with these methods is vanishingly small. More important, while some forms of livestock farming are much less cruel than factory-farming, there is another perhaps even more compelling reason to favor plants over meat (which is not addressed by the argument Archer is making): the disproportionate impact on the climate of meat-eating.

Climate change is arguably the greatest killer of all. And that is a very powerful argument against meat-eating even if the immediate cruelty trade-off is not quite as obvious as most vegetarians and vegans might assume.

2 thoughts on “Counterarguments: Do Vegetarians Kill More Animals Than Meat-Eaters?”

  1. Thanks for this post, Tim. This is a complex issue and it goes further than simply looking at what animals are directly killed in farming. When existing ecosystems are turned into farmlands, native animals are not only killed, but permanently extirpated. Forests felled, marshes drained and water sources syphoned off in order to grow soy beans – or anything else – means permanent habitat loss. The animals that used these habitats as feeding, breeding and nesting areas don’t magically move to other areas. They die out. People are free to choose a vegetarian diet for any number of reasons: they don’t like meat; they perceive a health benefit in a vegetarian diet; etc. But to elevate a vegan or vegetarian diet to the status of religion under the belief that it doesn’t impact (kill) animals is not rational.

  2. Good article.

    This has been my thoughts for some time also.

    That there is no diet possible, that is completely void of killing some animal in the process.

    Which is another reason why the whole vegan diet arguement doesn’t tend to stand up to rational critique.

    A meat eater could choose to eat a small amount of grass-fed animal foods and base their diet mostly around local grown foods that are in season. Whilst having their diet branded as bad for the planet by vegan proponents.

    And those very same vegans could be following a diet, which is based alot around importing lots of exotic fruits and other plant foods. These vegan diets often aren’t as “green” and good for the planet as there often promoted to be, when you consider all the air miles involved. Vegan diets are often based largely around grains, soy and other foods that are a product of agricultural farming.

    Animal foods are a vital important of the human diet i believe, providing many nutrients such as vitamin b12, pre-formed omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA, taurine, carnitine, co-enzyme q10 and many other nutrients which are often difficult or even possible to obtain from strict plant based vegan diets.

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