Do Vegetarians Kill More Animals Than Meat Eaters?
People become vegetarians for a wide range of reasons, not the least of which is in opposition to the idea that we have the right to kill and eat other sentient beings. A recent article published by an Australian scientist, however, contends that those who choose to eat all-plant diets are actually responsible for the death of more animals than those who eat them.
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Shocked? Indignant? I have to admit, I read the article's title, "Ordering the vegetarian meal? There's more animal blood on your hands," with some surprise as well. Still, the author makes some points that forced me to think about aspects of the vegetarian vs. meat-eater debate in a new light.
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Written by Mike Archer AM, Professor and member of the Evolution of Earth & Life Systems Research Group at University of New South Wales, the article starts off by acknowledging that our current agricultural system causes a lot of undue harm to animals. Those who feel this is unfair and inhumane find an obvious alternative in a plant-only diet. Certainly when compared to a factory farm or commercial slaughterhouse, a field full of tall corn seems positively benign.
According to Archer, this couldn't be further from the truth. He cites Australian statistics that suggest producing wheat and other grains kills at least 25 times more sentient animals per kilogram of useable protein. He goes on to say that a plant-based diet causes more environmental damage, and a great deal more animal cruelty than farming red meat.
Agriculture to produce wheat, rice and pulses requires clear-felling native vegetation. That act alone results in the deaths of thousands of Australian animals and plants per hectare. Since Europeans arrived on this continent we have lost more than half of Australia's unique native vegetation, mostly to increase production of monocultures of introduced species for human consumption. If more Australians want their nutritional needs to be met by plants, our arable land will need to be even more intensely farmed. This will require a net increase in the use of fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and other threats to biodiversity and environmental health.
Of course, Australia is slightly different than many other parts of the world. First, it's an island so space for agriculture is already limited. Second, almost 70 percent of the continent is covered in wild, and in many cases, protected rangelands. While these lands must be razed and highly processed in order to grow plant crops, they are perfectly suited for cattle grazing, which provides almost no disruption of animal inhabitants.
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Raising a cow on the rangeland instead of plowing it up for crops does eventually result in a death, Archer concedes, the death of the cow. Raising plants on that same acre of rangeland kills small mammals, snakes, lizards, mice and other animals. He describes a terrible scene in which predatory birds follow Australian farm plows in flocks, feeding on the carcasses of dead field animals left in its wake. And that doesn't even begin to account for the destruction caused by unnatural irrigation, fertilization and the heavy use of pesticides.
By Archer's reasoning, protein obtained from grazing livestock costs far fewer lives per kilogram: it is a more humane, ethical and environmentally-friendly dietary option. What do you think?