Vegans (Don't) Kill More Animals
Something I've heard lately in conversation is that a vegan diet actually kills more animals than a meat-eating one.
Wait? What? I hadn't heard this claim before, though it turns out it's been around for some time.
At the pop culture level, celebrities like Piers Morgan have made the 'Vegans Kill More' argument for years. Below is a clip from Good Morning Britain where he does just that.
Another example comes from master hunter Ted Nugent on Joe Rogan's popular podcast. "If you really want to kill the most things, be a vegan because the farmer who protects your beans kills everything."
Joe Rogan then responds by noting, "that's a really good point that a lot of people ignore."
I found serious people making earnest arguments about this. That surprised me.
Yet, why not? Nugent and Morgan did not pull these ideas out of thin air. They heard them somewhere.
So I did some digging to explore this increasingly popular anti-vegan talking point.
Where did it originate?
What is the best case out there for the 'Vegans Kill More' argument?
And does it have a point?
Dubious Origins of the 'Vegans Kill More' Argument
As we saw above, proud meat-eaters like Piers Morgan and Ted Nugent will take these headlines and run with them, using them to confirm their own biases. They make these bold claims with the illusory authority that celebrity confers to those on television, podcasts, and social media. Those ideas then trickle down to the average person, who parrots them without putting a whole lot of thought into it.
That's the case here with the 'Vegans Kill More' talking point. When you dig into it, there's just not much evidence to support it.
First, Oregon State animal science professor Steven Davis argued in a 2003 paper that an omnivorous diet could be better than a vegan one under certain conditions if one approached the issue with the goal of doing the least harm. The idea of least harm here is defined by having the goal of killing the fewest animals, both wild and domestic.
Based on his own research, he estimated that 15 field animals die per hectare of plant production, while only 7.5 die in grazing. According to Davis, if we hypothetically converted all 120 million hectares of cropland (circa 1997) in the United States to produce grains for a vegan-only diet, 1.8 billion wild animals would die in the process (Davis 390).
On the other hand, he offered a second hypothetical scenario where half of the farmland in the U.S. is used for ruminant grazing (cattle, sheep, etc.) while the other half only produced plants for direct human consumption. This was his omnivore option. In this scenario, only 1.35 billion field animals would die. After all, by his reckoning, grazing land is only half as lethal as cropland. Davis concluded that a world of omnivores fed partly by grazing animals would kill fewer wild animals than a purely vegan one. Note, however, this conclusion is based on a situation that does not actually exist. It's all hypothetical (Davis 390).
Moreover, Davis's paper contained a fatal flaw that Gaverick Matheny pointed out in his own published study. First, Davis's calculation implies an incorrect assumption that grazing and cereal agriculture produce the same amount of protein per unit of land. In reality, a hectare used for growing grain produces far more protein than a cattle-grazed one.
When we factor that in, and while still using Davis's field animal death estimates of 15 and 7.5, respectively, we actually get an argument for veganism, not against it. One hectare can produce 1000 kg of soy or corn protein, while the same amount of protein from grass-fed beef requires ten hectares. Using these numbers, Matheny concludes that a vegan-vegetarian diet would kill 0.3 animals annually versus 1.5 for the Davis-style omnivore model (Metheny 507). If the goal is to minimize death, Davis's omnivore option fails.
Now flash forward to 2011, when another researcher tried to argue that growing grain kills more wild animals than red meat production. Mike Archer concluded that "Replacing red meat with grain products leads to many more sentient animal deaths, far greater animal suffering and significantly more environmental degradation." (Archer)
Yet, to reach this conclusion, he looked at the deaths of only one species, mice. He also included in his calculations the quadrennial mouse plagues that afflict eastern Australian grain crops. During these periodic outbreaks when rodent populations explode, about 80% of them are poisoned by farmers.
Do you see the problem with this? Archer cherry-picked the data from an extreme-mortality event to get an impressively high number of animal deaths. He calculated that 55 sentient creatures (mice) die per hectare to produce 100 kgs of useable plant protein compared to 2.3 sentient creatures to get 100 kgs of rangeland beef. Or "at least 25 times more sentient animals being killed per kilogram of useable protein." (Archer)
Even if Archer's calculation was technically correct, it applies in only one very limited context: eastern Australian farms impacted by quadrennial mouse plagues. Generalizing this conclusion to other agricultural systems - for example, those not affected by periodic mouse plagues - almost certainly lends itself to error.
In any case, Archer's claim also has a significant calculation error. When corrected, we get a figure far below 55. In a follow-up study critiquing Archer's argument, Bob Fischer and Andy Lamey showed that Archer had calculated mouse mortality as if mouse plagues impacted the entire eastern Australian region. This enormously inflated the numbers, ignoring that only 2.4% of eastern Australia deals with mouse plagues yearly. Unaffected regions don't get high death counts from mass poisonings (Fisher/Lamey 417).
Once Archer's claim of 55 deaths per hectare is corrected to apply to only 2.4% of the impacted grain cropland, that number drops to just 1.27 animals per hectare (Fischer/Lamey 417).
That's a huge difference, and once again argues for a vegan diet, not the other way around.
Based on these two studies, can Piers Morgan really argue that making bread kills far more animals than making meat? No, he can't.
These studies also highlight that we don't have anywhere close to an accurate idea of how many wild animals die to grow our food. The data we do have is spotty at best, and misleading at worst, and can only give us very crude estimates.
But the 'Vegans Kill More' Argument Lives On!
"It’s quite possible that eating less meat might mean less suffering. But don’t be fooled into thinking being vegan hurts no animal." Matthew Evans in On Eating Meat
You would think that bad arguments get debunked by better ones and the public adjusts its views accordingly. Sometimes that happens, but so far, this is not one of those cases. Even fierce critics of modern factory farming still put forward the 'Vegans Kill More' argument.
Take Matthew Evans, who runs Fat Pig Farm in the Huon Valley of Tasmania and is a former chef and food critic. He is also a vocal critic of today's factory farming methods. Reading his book On Eating Meat reminded me a lot of Michael Pollan's classic 2003 Omnivore's Dilemma, which took a brutally honest look at the factory-farm system. But, even after seeing the horrors of factory farming, Pollan didn't become a vegan. Instead, he sought to reconcile his omnivore diet by eating more humanely raised animals.
Evans does the same, and he tries to practice what he preaches. His 70-acre Fat Pig Farm has dairy cows, pigs, a beef herd, an apple orchard, and a vegetable garden. He sees himself as occupying a philosophical middle ground between radical animal rights activists on one side, and money-hungry, efficiency-worshipping advocates on the other who perpetuate the nightmare of intensive (factory) farming.
Here is a good summary of Evans' position in his own words:
"I think meat-eaters need to confront the reality that something dies in their name, and that they should be comfortable with the way it’s done. But I also think non-meat-eaters need to reconcile the fact that more suffering happens outside the farm gate than inside. As we’ll see later, more death can be wrought on animals by the growing of grains and vegetables than the production of livestock for meat. [emphasis mine]" (Evans 13)
Is this true? What evidence is there?
Evans points out all the various ways that we kill animals to support our lifestyles. Pests like possums, mice, and rabbits are killed to protect crops. Vehicles kill around 32 animals a day on Tasmanian highways. Between 2009 and 2017, 70,000 wild birds were killed to protect approaches to New York's airports. Fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides damage wild animal ecosystems. In the Netherlands, 500,000 geese were killed to protect crops. Rice farmers in New South Wales killed 200,000 native ducks between 2008-2013 to protect their fields. Moreover, the fertilizers we use to grow crops come from livestock manure or fossil fuels. (Evans 116)
Evans is trying to show all the ways that human activity wreaks havoc on the natural world.
And no doubt it does.
But then he devolves into the kind of generic faux-philosophical abstractions that vegans have heard a thousand times.
"But a death is a death. Suffering is suffering, regardless of whether a human was involved, directly, or not. All impacts of our actions need to be considered. And this I think goes to the heart of the matter. What actions produce the least suffering? Some commentators believe that annual crops produce more suffering for more animals. The view is that life is life, that life begets life, and to live we must consume something that has lived, with impacts on other forms of life well beyond our circle of thinking. You eat a plant, and that affects an animal – one that was going to eat that plant (say a nut from a tree in the wild), one that dies because it was going to eat that plant (perhaps grasshoppers or caterpillars on farm crops), or one that might’ve lived in the wild if we didn’t farm that plant at all." (Evans 116)
The Case Against the 'Vegans Kill More' Argument
Yes, of course, life feeds on life, death is death, and suffering is suffering. This sounds more profound than it really is. Despite claiming he has vegan friends with whom he talks about food ethics, Evans still hits on a strawman version of veganism that most vegans don't follow.
This idea that vegans think their diet is perfectly harmless is a non-vegan one. Vegans don't think this way. They understand that avoiding all animal products does not mean no animals are hurt.
The Vegan Society defines veganism as such:
"Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals." - Vegan Society
That important caveat - as far as is possible and practicable - is baked into the definition. That means all the ducks and mice and rabbits and roadkills are irrelevant to any argument that vegans kill too if it does not prove that vegans kill more. A typical vegan would reply that any deaths to make our food are tragic, of course. However, they are still far less than those killed on factory farms annually by farms supporting animal agriculture.
Simply put, a vegan's goal is to reduce suffering and death, not the impossible dream of eliminating it. If I may borrow an old saying from Alcoholics Anonymous, veganism is about progress, not perfection.
If suffering is suffering, and death is death, then the quantity of that suffering and death should be our measuring stick.
On that note, the idea that more wild animals die to support a vegan diet ignores one of the most devastating counterarguments out there. It is that much of our grain is grown to feed livestock. Yes, that's right, we grow food to feed our food to then feed ourselves. A meat eater must confront two layers of death and suffering, that of wild animals and livestock. Vegans must only face the unintentional deaths of wild animals, and even then, on a far smaller scale.
Here, the 'Vegans Kill More' argument collapses in on itself.
Let me carpet-bomb you with some statistics.
Including pastures for grazing, and fields to grow crops for animal feed, livestock is responsible for 77% of our agricultural land use worldwide while producing only 18% of the world's calories and 37% of its protein. If this is true, then 77% of the wild animal deaths associated with modern agriculture cannot be blamed on vegans. No, it comes from meat production. The majority of the crops grown today end up feeding what becomes our steak and bacon and chicken wings.
In the U.S. alone, around 83.5 million acres of soybeans are planted each year. Of those, 70% are grown for the sole purpose of feeding livestock. Over 90 million acres of corn are grown in the U.S., and 36% of that goes to livestock. The wild critters killed in that agriculture died to feed cows, pigs, and chickens, not vegans.
In Brazil, 70-75% of the soy grown in the newly deforested regions of the Amazon rainforest is for feeding livestock. Cattle ranching is the primary driver of deforestation in the Amazon, representing 63% of it between 2001-2013. Clearing rainforest to plant more soy is another major driver of Amazon rainforest destruction. Illegal fires are started there to create new pasturage and soy fields. Not surprisingly, when that happens, slow-moving wildlife like tree sloths, lizards, frogs, and turtles, becomes collateral damage. They die for your meat.
In 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture killed 1.5 million wild animals, often because they got in the way of animal agriculture. Among those pests most hated by ranchers, 62,508 coyotes, 15,102 prairie dogs, and 14,315 black vultures were culled, just to name a few. When it comes to protecting wildlife or ranchers' livestock, the ranchers win every time. Those "pests" were killed to protect your meat.
And these are just the wild animals killed in agricultural systems that overwhelmingly exist to produce meat products.
How many farm animals are slaughtered every year?
Here are the staggering numbers, and these are just the top six for the U.S.:
Male Chicks: 300,000,000
In all, 9.59 billion animals were slaughtered in the U.S. in 2018.
266 animals slaughtered every second,
15,950 every minute,
956,700 every hour,
and 22,960,000 every day.
Worldwide, around 70 billion land animals are slaughtered for food every year, primarily chickens, and most of them lead lives of unending misery and suffering before they are killed.
So, okay, suffering is suffering, and death is death, and a vegan diet has some blood on its hands, true. However, a meat-eating diet is responsible for vastly more suffering and death than a vegan one. The comparison is not even close. And don't forget that around 99% of our animal products come from factory farms and not from ethical farmers like Matt Evans and Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. They may be trying to practice a better, more humane way of farming, and I applaud them for that, but it's not how most of us get our meat, dairy, eggs, and poultry. Far from it.
Remember that next time you hear someone make the dubious claim that a vegan diet kills more animals.
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