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.