Even though this article is now almost 5 years old, it’s still flying around on social media as some sort of defence to meat eating. That alone shows the weakness of the argument; if it was stronger, why hasn’t more material of this nature been written? In any case, since people still want to cling to it, I’ve gone through and looked a little further into each claim the author has made. They were all very easy to pull apart with just a couple of google searches. Some of them I didn’t even need to do that – in many cases, the author’s own source contradicst his argument. I’m not claiming that my response is an academically sound analysis. Good god, if it were, this whole article would be torn to absolute shreds. As it is, the shallow depth of “research” it took for me to dismiss all the claims shows its weakness. Any person with grey matter between their ears won’t need much more than this. And unlike the author, I haven’t just provided obscure URLs which prove nothing and ultimately expire, I have actually named articles, books and sources so that they may be referred back to at any time.
The author, Mike Archer’s text is in italics, my own response in regular text.
Ordering the vegetarian meal? There’s more animal blood on your hands
The ethics of eating red meat have been grilled recently by critics who question its consequences for environmental health and animal welfare. But if you want to minimise animal suffering and promote more sustainable agriculture, adopting a vegetarian diet might be the worst possible thing you could do.
Renowned ethicist Peter Singer says if there is a range of ways of feeding ourselves, we should choose the way that causes the least unnecessary harm to animals. Most animal rights advocates say this means we should eat plants rather than animals.
Peter Singer is vegetarian.
It takes somewhere between two to ten kilos of plants, depending on the type of plants involved, to produce one kilo of animal. Given the limited amount of productive land in the world, it would seem to some to make more sense to focus our culinary attentions on plants, because we would arguably get more energy per hectare for human consumption. Theoretically this should also mean fewer sentient animals would be killed to feed the ravenous appetites of ever more humans.
But before scratching rangelands-produced red meat off the “good to eat” list for ethical or environmental reasons, let’s test these presumptions.
Published figures suggest that, in Australia, producing wheat and other grains results in:
- at least 25 times more sentient animals being killed per kilogram of useable protein
- more environmental damage, and
- a great deal more animal cruelty than does farming red meat.
The “25 times more sentient animals” referred to are mice. This is addressed below, but in short, this is due to mouse plagues in crops. The industry is actually working towards wiping out this practice and is funded and supported by the Australian Government in doing so.
“More environmental damage” seems to be a sweeping assumption that more land must be cleared to grow plant food. This is not correct, but he tries to push the point by saying that rice, wheat and pulses are not native in Australia. Well, a healthy plant based diet needs to include much more than those three things alone. There are many fruits and vegetables that thrive in Queensland, for example, which are the kind we tend to want fresh. Rice, wheat and pulses can be dried and exported as non-perishables. If it’s not appropriate to grow them here, we can easily get them from elsewhere (which in many cases, we already do.) Beyond that Mr Archer cites the work of some other activists later in his article, which will be dealt with below, but in short, actually contradict his argument.
“A great deal more animal cruelty than does farming red meat.” Again, Mr Archer seems to refer to mice, as there is no other example to back up this comment, apart from wild birds which may get in the way of ploughing machines. Again, mouse plagues are being addressed, and if animals get stuck in the way of a ploughing machine, that is an unfortunate accident. It is not comparable to inhumane commercial farming practices such as tiny stalls which animals are trapped inside for their entire lives, nor animals being dropped into boiling water whilst still conscious and bleeding from the neck (pigs), as just two examples.
How is this possible? 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.
It seems strange to criticise the loss of native vegetation, when what it has been replaced with are non native animals – cows and pigs. (Also, the “more than half” link is broken.)
As for land use, Mr Archer assumes we would move animals to make way exclusively for plants. This is not necessary. There is a revolutionary practice gaining popularity known as crop rotation or mixed farming. This involves rearing animals and plants on the same land, but sectioning them off and rotating them over several years of a cycle, so that manure continuously replenishes the soil and the animals always have food in the form of crop residue. It reduces the need for chemical pesticides and reduces the need to have food or other resources trucked in – and transport is also a huge drain on oil resources. There is plenty of academic literature on the subject. Please refer to JM Powell and TO Williams’ in depth work “An overview of mixed farming systems in sub-Saharan Africa: Livestock and Sustainable Nutrient Cycling in Mixed Farming Systems of Sub-Saharan Africa: Proceedings of an International Conference, International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA) (1993).” where they explain:
- “…mixed farming, or the practice of crop cultivation with the incorporation of raising cattle, sheep and/or goats by the same economic entity, is increasingly common. This interaction between the animal, the land and the crops are being done on a small scale…Crop residues provide animal feed, while the animals provide manure for replenishing crop nutrients and draft power. Both processes are extremely important …as it is expensive and logistically unfeasible to transport in synthetic fertilizers and large-scale machinery. As an additional benefit, the cattle, sheep and/or goat provide milk and can act as a cash crop in the times of economic hardship.”
Mr Archer does not give us enough credit. By completely ignoring this growing practice he seems to assume we will never think beyond the archaic commercial farming practices in use today. But as consumers grow in consciousness, businesses are forced to keep up purely to keep their bottom line intact, if nothing else. This fact alone will cause the inevitable change in how we use our land, our resources such as energy and water, let alone treat animals.
Most of Australia’s arable land is already in use. 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. Or, if existing laws are changed, more native vegetation could be cleared for agriculture (an area the size of Victoria plus Tasmania would be needed to produce the additional amount of plant-based food required).
This statement suggesting plants would do harm to environmental health is laughable. Many commercial piggeries keep animals in huge sheds with 24-hour-a-day lighting. Then there are cattle prods, machines used in slaughterhouses and so on – the industry uses enormous amounts of electricity, while plants need only sunlight. Methane gas from cattle is the leading cause of global warming, but re-vegetation is an important contribution to reducing gas emissions. Then there is the pollution caused, and the petrol used to truck in grain, transport animals to slaughterhouses, and transport meat products to cities.
I also reiterate that mixed farming eliminates the need for pesticides as animal manure is used in its place. Also, in relation to the use of land, Mr Archer assumes that we must grow all of our own food, when in reality we already import an enormous amount of non perishable food (rice comes from Asia, many lentils come from India) and in our globalised world, will continue to do.
The “would be needed” link redirects to a website called Target 100, rather than a direct source to explain or confirm this statistic. Target 100 is an initiative to help the Australian meat and dairy industry grow through sharing and supporting projects amongst farmers. Therefore it is not surprising that they may be favouring information that discourages eating more plants in place of animals.
Most cattle slaughtered in Australia feed solely on pasture. This is usually rangelands, which constitute about 70% of the continent.
The “cattle slaughtered in Australia” links to an article written in 2011. It was primarily a review of a book called “Meat:A Benign Extravagance” which among other things, concludes that “But we must eat less [meat], and drastically change the way we farm it. Factory farming is not only cruel to animals but also wasteful of resources.” So, the original source actually contradicts Mr Archer’s argument.
Also, the link to Meat & Livestock Australia he so helpfully guided me to in the “solely on pasture” link, clearly states that grain feeding of animals has been steadily increasing each year. I quote from the very page he linked to “Cattle on feed during the September quarter increased 15% year-on-year and 7% on the previous three months to 908,118 head – the highest number since 2006 and only the third time to exceed 900,000 head.” Well, this is crystal clear in black and white print : the amount of pasture grazing is going down, and the amount of grain feed is going up. It means that the claim that most Australian cattle are fed solely on pasture is a dwindling truth.
Also, the 70% claim is very misleading. It makes it sound like 70% of Australia is farmland, which is not true. Yes, most of our country is grassland, but much of it is constituted by central Australia where temperatures are tropical – that means there are only wet and dry seasons, making them uninhabitable for the introduced species we breed for meat.
Aboriginal Australians are the only people who have successfully lived in these regions, and before colonisation, they lived on a diet which included a large proportion of native plant food, and small insects thriving on the natural ecosystem – one example being the witchetty grub. I don’t have an academic source for this particular paragraph- rather my knowledge comes from a period of time when I myself lived and worked in an isolated Aboriginal community called Balgo, Western Australia. I was taken witchetty grub hunting and saw it myself.
Grazing occurs on primarily native ecosystems. These have and maintain far higher levels of native biodiversity than croplands. The rangelands can’t be used to produce crops, so production of meat here doesn’t limit production of plant foods. Grazing is the only way humans can get substantial nutrients from 70% of the continent. In some cases rangelands have been substantially altered to increase the percentage of stock-friendly plants. Grazing can also cause significant damage such as soil loss and erosion. But it doesn’t result in the native ecosystem “blitzkrieg” required to grow crops.
This environmental damage is causing some well-known environmentalists to question their own preconceptions. British environmental advocate George Monbiot, for example, publically converted from vegan to omnivore after reading Simon Fairlie’s expose about meat’s sustainability. And environmental activist Lierre Keith documented the awesome damage to global environments involved in producing plant foods for human consumption.
The “blitzkrieg” (rather a radical term for an academic argument, I might add) is again assuming that we plan only to replace cattle with plants, full stop. It fails to consider mixed farming or native bush regeneration. Also, Mr Archer repeatedly assumes that grain would be our choice of crop. Again I point out the misconception that grain protein is the only resource needed for plant based nutrients. Leafy plants for one are much more protein dense per calorie than processed grains, or meat.
George Monbiot is still a staunch advocate for what he has called “the world’s most urgent social justice issue” – animal cruelty. But what he says, to be exact, and I quote from his column which is what Mr Archer has linked to in his “publicly converted” link : “I no longer believe that the only ethical response is to stop eating meat…There’s no doubt that the livestock system has gone horribly wrong.” It’s a two fold statement: he acknowledges the same fact as animal rights activists – that at present, our meat industry is cruel. The other half of it states that there is more than one path to righting this, and true enough; some of us choose to use our buying dollar to make our voice heard. A well known writer such as Monbiot has the luxury of adding to the argument with words because others will listen to him. Most of us will not be able to make any dent in the issue unless we exercise our consumerist muscle.
The “expose” link redirects to google e-books where one can purchase the book “Meat:A Benign Extravagance” which I have already pointed out was written in 2011, and also says that we must decrease our meat consumption to assist the environment.
As for Lierre Keith, Mr Archer’s link again leads to a missing page from Ms Keith’s own blog. Not to worry, I googled her. As it turns out, she authored a book called “The Vegetarian Myth” which is along roughly the same lines as “Meat:A Benign Extravagance” ; that is, she confirms that commercial farming is cruel, but claims cessation of meat consumption is not the answer. However, of her 207 references, only 32 are journals; and of the 32 journals, less than half are credible, peer-reviewed sources. Any academic knows that a peer reviewed source is necessary for credibility; anything else is just someone saying whatever they like. By the way, the 32 journals constitute about 15% of her sources. The remaining 85% comprised other books, newspapers, magazines, and websites…including Wikipedia. WIKIPEDIA! Nuff said. If you’d like to read a much more in depth review of Ms Kieth’s book, check out the article written by A.Perri PHD, which can be found as a customer review on Amazon where the book was purchased originally.
In Australia we can also meet part of our protein needs using sustainably wild-harvested kangaroo meat. Unlike introduced meat animals, they don’t damage native biodiversity. They are soft-footed, low methane-producing and have relatively low water requirements. They also produce an exceptionally healthy low-fat meat.
Yes, but Mr Archer, is stunning and bleeding out kangaroos any kinder than doing it to cows and pigs? Being vegan or vegetarian isn’t only about sustainability or methane gas. It’s about letting animals live a happy and free life, rather than deciding that they should die a premature and painful death so that we can have a full belly. Also, I’ve already pointed out that we can also “meet part of our protein needs” with leafy plants, which are capable of living alongside animals if we so desire.
In Australia 70% of the beef produced for human consumption comes from animals raised on grazing lands with very little or no grain supplements. At any time, only 2% of Australia’s national herd of cattle are eating grains in feed lots; the other 98% are raised on and feeding on grass. Two-thirds of cattle slaughtered in Australia feed solely on pasture.
The “2% of Australia’s national herd” link is broken, so I don’t know where Mr Archer was directing us for that statistic. However even if it is true, it is still represented in a very misleading way. It makes it sound like 100% of the cattle grazing on our land is for meat consumption, but in fact more than half of them are dairy cows. That means that the land those cows are taking up provide hardly any protein at all, as dairy is touted as primarily a calcium source. Calcium is found in much higher volumes in many plant and pulse foods.
On top of this Mr Archer overlooks a very important point for Australia – that we export over half of our beef. That means that since cattle are essentially an economic resource, if we found other industries to fill these gaps we wouldn’t need to graze so many animals. However, it has obviously been more favourable to the argument to leave this fact in the dark and make it sound like everything we breed, we eat, so therefore we must need it to survive.
The next link “feed solely on pasture” leads again to the Meat & Livestock Australia website, the same page where I previously quoted “Cattle on feed during the September quarter increased 15% year-on-year and 7% on the previous three months to 908,118 head – the highest number since 2006 and only the third time to exceed 900,000 head”… a statement in direct contradiction to Mr Archer’s claim since it clearly states the grain feed is on the increase. Not to mention that one of the reasons for this is because human-produced grains contain additives to fatten up cows, and breed them in unnatural ways for our food purposes. So the continuous argument about pesticides on plants holds little water.
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.
All three of the above links were broken. However, the statistics provided are again skewed. It does not take into consideration how much plant food the animals consume, which a person could instead consume, and per calorie, would provide much more plant protein. The maths contradicts Mr Archer’s argument.
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.
Yes, but none of these animals are trapped and tortured. They live natural lives which then also end naturally, rather than them being raised through artificial insemination, being separated from their mothers, entrapped for the duration of their lives without sunlight or fresh air, then put through a terrifying and unnatural slaughter ordeal. If Mr Archer is touting this as animal cruelty, it begs the question, “which option is worse?” If it’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, at least consider that what happens in nature is far less cruel than what humans subject animals to.
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.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.
The “plagues” link led to a CSIRO PDF article which had been “moved or deleted.” The “every four years” and also the “mice per hectare” links both took me to an online article about mouse plagues which was written in 2005. Upon doing my own search on the CSIRO website however, I found that there is significant ongoing research into how to handle mouse plagues in an ethical manner. The organisation states that “About 90% of rodent species play an important role in ecosystems: as prey for native species, limiting growth in invertebrate populations,as ecological engineers through influencing water infiltration (eg. burrows, dams) and flow of nutrients,as seed dispersers.” They recognise that poisoning mice is not an ethical, healthy or sustainable method of stopping mouse plagues, and even detail why they are sentient creatures who deserve respect and the right to live. Basically, poisoning mice during plagues, like everything else humans do, is a method that has been used historically, before we knew or cared about animal sentience. Since poisoning mice is Mr Archer’s major argument against plant crops, it doesn’t hold up well since the industry itself is already working to phase this method out.
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.
Firstly, the “1.4 tonnes” link directs to a graphic which appears only to show that Australian grain production is on the decrease. It is provided by a company called John Deree which is a manufacturer of ploughing machines, so I’m not sure why Mr Archer thinks this is a credible source for the issue he’s writing about. A profit-turning business has no obligation to provide neutral, unbiased data.
The “useable protein” link directs to the AWB Limited website which gives information about grains exported from Australia. They provide graphics which clearly show that a tiny proportion of our country’s land is devoted to the production of these grains. Moreover, the 13% claim is not clearly explained. Mr Archer makes it sound like only 13% of the total grain is usable, the rest waste. This is not correct. The AWB website is clarifying that wheat has about 13% protein volume. So 100% of the crop is useable, but if you consume wheat products, you are not eating a huge amount of protein. Well, Mr Archer, thanks for the tip, but healthy vegans and vegetarians know that plants foods such as leafy greens and whole grains in their unprocessed form contain much more protein (among other nutrients) than are available in processed wheat. He is also drawing on a common misconception that most meat eaters cling to, and that is that “you can’t get enough protein from plants” as though it is the only nutrient the human body needs. The claim is both untrue and misleading, but I won’t say more than that as this is simply not the place for it. Any intelligent person can research that issue further themselves.
Some of this grain is used to “finish” beef cattle in feed lots (some is food for dairy cattle, pigs and poultry), but it is still the case that many more sentient lives are sacrificed to produce useable protein from grains than from rangelands cattle.
There is a further issue to consider here: the question of sentience – the capacity to feel, perceive or be conscious.
You might not think the billions of insects and spiders killed by grain production are sentient, though they perceive and respond to the world around them. You may dismiss snakes and lizards as cold-blooded creatures incapable of sentience, though they form pair bonds and care for their young. But what about mice?
Mice are far more sentient than we thought. They sing complex, personalised love songs to each other that get more complex over time. Singing of any kind is a rare behaviour among mammals, previously known only to occur in whales, bats and humans.
Girl mice, like swooning human teenagers, try to get close to a skilled crooner. Now researchers are trying to determine whether song innovations are genetically programmed or or whether mice learn to vary their songs as they mature.
Baby mice left in the nest sing to their mothers — a kind of crying song to call them back. For every female killed by the poisons we administer, on average five to six totally dependent baby mice will, despite singing their hearts out to call their mothers back home, inevitably die of starvation, dehydration or predation.
Well, I can’t disagree with any of this. It’s my favourite part of the article. Let’s see what Mr Archer says next about mice.
When cattle, kangaroos and other meat animals are harvested they are killed instantly. Mice die a slow and very painful death from poisons. From a welfare point of view, these methods are among the least acceptable modes of killing.
It’s interesting that the “least acceptable modes of killing ” link directs to the Australian Government Department of Agriculture website. The reason it’s there is to detail funding to an ongoing project which involves several distinguished Australian academics who are animal welfare and invasive animal management experts. The aim of the project is to look into more sustainable and humane methods of dealing with pests – and not just mice, all species of animals in Australia who are considered pests.
So yes, Mr Archer, it’s publicly accepted that poisoning is cruel. And Australia is getting on with phasing that out. Wait, didn’t I already cover this? Oh yes, I did. You have used the same point twice, in such a way as to make it sound like two things. A technique often employed by writers and students who need to pad out their essays to make them sound more convincing and reach word counts. By the way, both dogs and pigs are also subjected to the slow and painful death of poisoning, since gas chambers are cheaper and more convenient for mass slaughter than stunning animals one by one. So the claim that “meat animals …are killed instantly” is an untrue, incorrect sweeping statement.
Although joeys are sometimes killed or left to fend for themselves, only 30% of kangaroos shot are females, only some of which will have young (the industry’s code of practice says shooters should avoid shooting females with dependent young). However, many times this number of dependent baby mice are left to die when we deliberately poison their mothers by the millions.
The “industry’s code of practice” link was broken. But once again, do I really need to reiterate that we agree with you on poisoning mice being wrong? Oh wait, you don’t actually have any other argument against grain crops.
Replacing red meat with grain products leads to many more sentient animal deaths, far greater animal suffering and significantly more environmental degradation. Protein obtained from grazing livestock costs far fewer lives per kilogram: it is a more humane, ethical and environmentally-friendly dietary option.
So, what does a hungry human do? Our teeth and digestive system are adapted for omnivory. But we are now challenged to think about philosophical issues. We worry about the ethics involved in killing grazing animals and wonder if there are other more humane ways of obtaining adequate nutrients.
Relying on grains and pulses brings destruction of native ecosystems, significant threats to native species and at least 25 times more deaths of sentient animals per kilogram of food. Most of these animals sing love songs to each other, until we inhumanely mass-slaughter them.
Yes, we inhumanely mass slaughter mice. Just like we mass slaughter calves who have been taken from their mothers, pigs who have been taken from their mothers, and chickens and turkeys who have their beaks clipped without anaesthetic. All these animals are imprisoned for their whole lives prior to their slaughter, unlike mice.
Former Justice of the High Court, the Hon. Michael Kirby, wrote that: “In our shared sentience, human beings are intimately connected with other animals. Endowed with reason and speech, we are uniquely empowered to make ethical decisions and to unite for social change on behalf of others that have no voice. Exploited animals cannot protest about their treatment or demand a better life. They are entirely at our mercy. So every decision of animal welfare, whether in Parliament or the supermarket, presents us with a profound test of moral character”.
The “wrote that” link directs to Kirby’s article published in the Sydney Morning Herald, entitled “Stand up and speak up for animals that cannot”, which was primarily concerned with livestock – cows. Kirby instructs us to care about ALL animals, most importantly those that are at the hands of humans in commercial farming settings. So why has Mr Archer skewed its context towards mice? Oh wait…
We now know the mice have a voice, but we haven’t been listening.
Actually, we have been listening. In case you forgot, the Australian Government is currently funding a project to wipe out poisoning of not just mice, but all rodents.
The challenge for the ethical eater is to choose the diet that causes the least deaths and environmental damage. There would appear to be far more ethical support for an omnivorous diet that includes rangeland-grown red meat and even more support for one that includes sustainably wild-harvested kangaroo.
Well, Mr Archer, I choose an ethical diet that causes the least intentional deaths to sentient animals who have a right to be alive, and live happy, fulfilling lives – the same free, natural lives which mice enjoy. Not only do mice enjoy these freedoms, but as I have pointed out three times, we as humans are seeking to support mice and their freedoms by stamping out cruel rodent-control methods. As for environmental damage, most farmed animals are kept in concrete and metal pens. Free range animals can be part of vegetative crop rotation, which means animals and plants live in harmony on the same land. So even if you think it’s alright to eat meat, there are far more humane ways animals can be kept alive and well before being turned into meat – and currently, these are not the practices favoured in any western country. And finally, methane gas from animals is the leading contribution to global warming – that’s an environmental issue Mr Archer has entirely bypassed, despite claiming that the environment is a key concern of his. It’s a little early to call vegetarians and vegans on bluff as far as animal or environmental cruelty is concerned.