Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

No, Vegans Don’t Kill More Animals than Meat Eaters

A corn monoculture in Washington state. Only 3 percent of American corn is used for human consumption. The bulk, 37 percent, is used for feed. In the United States, 67 percent of all crops are used for feed production to grow beef, pork, chicken, and several other meat categories. Only 27 percent of all crops grown in the United States are consumed by humans. Photo by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Globally, the meat industry slaughters between 70 billion and 150 billion animals each year. But crop production also carries a heavy toll. The best estimate for how many wild animals die annually in crop monocultures is about 7.3 billion. Still, more than half of the global crop feeds livestock, so most of those secondary deaths can be laid at the feet of the meat industry, too.

Yet, a handful of commentators who’ve taken up a defensive battle flag against veganism say vegans kill more creatures than meat eaters.

Why?

Some people hate that other people don’t eat meat. The Guardian carries a thoughtful primer by the London food writer George Reynolds on this phenomenon. Reynolds prominently notes a 2015 study that finds vegans are hated most by (surprise!) people who occupy the right-wing political ideology. Vegans were hated more than any other group except drug addicts, Reynolds writes.

Conservative anxiety about veganism makes sense. The lifestyle’s increasing prevalence represents a shift in social mores that places more value on animal life, and conservatives, by definition, dislike change.

I don’t want to paint all conservatives this way. My current boss, a staunch conservative, frequently asks me friendly and genuinely curious questions about my diet. My big sister, also fairly conservative, enthusiastically cooks delicious plant-based meals for me when I visit.

So maybe the animus exists on a deeper level, as Reynolds notes: “One simple explanation for why people don’t like vegans is because they show how confused humankind is about food choices and how illogical its decision-making can be.”

Whatever the reason, I’ve experienced the ill will in my personal life. When I became vegan a few years ago —quite imperfectly — I was vaguely aware of the American cultural animus against the diet. I was in the Navy, and my division officer joked that I no longer had any credibility as a sailor in the unit because by not eating animals I had handed in my “man card,” sexist language that was at that time tangled up in the gun debate.

What is a vegan, you ask?

A vegan abstains from using animals. Vegans don’t eat meat or animal secretions, and many eschew leather, silk, and all other products derived from animals because they believe life is sacred. Jains, whose guiding light is the sanctity of all life, are perhaps the purest vegans. They decline fermented drinks so as not to kill the delicate bacterial communities that inhabit them. They don’t eat root vegetables to avoid killing life. But most vegans simply don’t eat meat or use animal biproducts.

‘Vegetable cultivation occupies much smaller areas, reducing the [environmental footprint], and has a much lower cumulative energy demand (CED) than with animal meat products. About a third of the world cereal production goes into animal feed, which puts pressure on the remaining arable land.’ — Dr. Liji Thomas, in AZO Clean Tech

Some people — not everyone — actively discouraged me from this lifestyle. They told me I would waste away. “Humans are carnivores,” someone said, like I was perverting the natural order. Acquaintances embarked on a comedy tour themed on the caricature of the overly-sensitive vegan who meat-shames people just trying to participate in the American dream by consuming burgers and steaks. I wasn’t only hurting myself and everyone around me; I was a terrorist dismantling a practice central to American identity.

This whole charade was performed in the guise of a running joke, but there was a palpable undertow: some people were genuinely upset that I wasn’t using animals.

I was complicit in the vitriol against my diet, self-effacingly participating in the levity. When discussing going out for food with friends and coworkers, I would nasally intone, in a sexist Valley Girl accent and with a hand flourish, “I’m vegan.” I joked that I went vegan to make everyone else’s lives more difficult. I wanted to show my awareness of the pasquinade and my mindfulness of those oppressed by the vegan sensibility.

If a meal came out topped with accidental cheese, I would eat it to assuage any concerns that I might discomfort the server with my alien lifestyle. I thought by showing people vegans are not the withering meme popularized on social media by Steven Crowder and JP Sears, I could still be in on all the jokes and be taken seriously, all while harboring convictions about environmental welfare. I even thought I could lead by stoic example.

That was a stupid, toxic way to think.

It manifested in detrimental ways. I stress ate and drank too much. Impaired on whiskey, I would even absurdly secret away and eat meat to comfort myself. I thought it would weigh me down and help me sleep. It left me emptier than even the booze. I only talked about my diet when I needed to and when it came up naturally in conversation. Talking to veganism skeptics, I excoriated nebulous vegans for being too uptight. If only all the other vegans, in America about 3 percent of the population, could be good, quiet vegans, like me!

‘[L]ivestock production is the single largest anthropogenic use of land.’ — Emily S Cassidy, Paul C West, James S Gerber and Jonathan A Foley, of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment

But my own perception of vegans as overbearing Karens was uninformed. I didn’t know any vegans, so the entire vegan presence in my life — me — was the diametrical opposite.

Vegans are not some socialist force bent on ruining everyone’s life. No individual vegan is trying, by the act of abstaining from meat, to take anyone’s hamburger away. It’s just a personal choice not to participate in something we see as detrimental to the world. And we’re aware veganism is not a panacea for the world’s many problems. We know there are relatively sustainable ways to eat meat. We understand that meat eaters are not evil by dint of their diet.

Forgive us for being optimists. Like radical anarchism or democratic socialism, veganism envisions a better world in which our clearly detrimental lifestyle can impact the world less.

Yes, many of us would love to see a post-meat world or at least one with no factory farms. We know it’s possible; humans are blessed with the money and wherewithal to get rid of the meat industry. It would have unparalleled benefits for the environment, animal welfare, human health.

Some vegans armed with cameras try to infiltrate abattoirs to expose the horrors that occur in them. But they are met with ag-gag laws, criminalizing their activism. This is how the world feels about vegans.

Until very recently, I was unaware that some anti-vegan commentators argue that vegans kill more animals than meat eaters. A coworker brought this up to me, and I didn’t know how to respond. So I started researching the topic and found the lie that vegans kill more animals than meat eaters has a stubborn and robust foothold in certain influential corners of popular discourse.

Matthew Evans, an Australian pig farmer, writes in a recent book that 40,000 ducks are killed annually in Australian rice farms and a billion mice poisoned in Australian wheat fields. He tells the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: “I think a lot of vegans probably understand some animals die, but they may not understand the scale.”

There are one or two marginal studies that support contentions that are similar to Evans’s, but they have been widely debunked. Still, the notion of maximal vegan complicity in animal death finds its way into the zeitgeist.

Joe Rogan is probably the most mainstream figure who advances this view. A wildly popular YouTuber and vegan skeptic, he sometimes invites people on his show, the Joe Rogan Experience (JRE), to criticize meat abstinence. In 2018, 80s rocker, NRA board member, and staunch Trump advocate Ted Nugent says on the show: “If you want to kill the most things, be a vegan” and calls vegans “stupid.”

Nugent, his dander fully aroused, goes on:

The farmers who protect your beans kill everything. In order to grow tofu, you have to kill every ground squirrel, every vole, every shrew, every snake, every turtle, every frog, every bird, every rabbit, anything that gets in that bean field they’re gonna plow and dismember, which is why (scavengers frequent crop fields). And if anything does survive my first slaughter, I’m gonna come in with Monsanto and poison the shit out of everything so you have a tofu salad and not be responsible for any death. Fuck you.

(Tofu is not grown but rendered through processing from soy beans.)

“That’s a really good point,” Rogan replies, “and it’s a point that a lot of people ignore.”

Nugent: “I genuflect at the altar of people who kill animals to sustain my fellow man.”

It’s a bizarre performance. Nugent’s eyes squint and expand, undulate, roll in their sockets, as if to revel in the gruesome decadence of his rhetoric like a lover in the throes of physical passion.

He describes killing game on his properties in Texas and Michigan to feed the homeless. (“I’m a sweetheart, but I’m not an idiot — I keep the backstraps.”) The animals he kills, you see, “have to die” to make room for next year’s litter. (Anyone who’s taken an ecology course knows nature manages itself without human intervention.)

“What I do,” Nugent intones, “is literally perfect.”

‘Rising worldwide demands for meat, feedcrops, and biofuel are driving rapid agro-industrial expansion into Amazon forest regions.’ — Brian Machovina, Kenneth J. Feeleyab William J. Ripple in Science of the Total Environment

The men briefly litigate the “disgusting” factory farming industry but write it off as a toss-away concession — the free market will work out the nasty quirks associated with rendering flesh on a mass scale. (In fact, factory farming is not aberrant but essential to the meat industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports nearly 10 billion land animals are slaughtered in American factory farms annually. This number is on the upswing.)

If it’s unfair to criticize the contention that vegans kill more animals than meat eaters through the wackadoo lens of Ted Nugent, let’s look at a Rogan guest who says the same thing in a more rigorous way.

Donnie Vincent, an earnest and charming celebrity hunter, talks in 2018 on JRE at length about introspection when faced with tough dilemmas about consuming animals, which is good head space. Vincent even says vegans are right to question the ethics of killing animals and wearing leather and that everyone should reflect deeply about what they eat. He offers a generous critique of how industrial agriculture has disrupted natural processes and depleted the earth. He explicitly notes he is not against vegetarianism or veganism.

But Vincent is fanatical about hunting. His website carries a lavishly produced introductory video featuring shots of an interview with him interspersed with lots of rugged hunting B-roll. Over a moving soundtrack, his voiceover says: “Hunting is something that lives in my soul.” A statement on the page reads:

Don’t confuse me with being anything else other than proud. Proud to be a hunter. It’s time we stop apologizing for how we get our protein. This is who we are. Unless you’re a small time rancher, small time farmer, a hunter or fishermen… you really have no idea where your food comes from. Most people don’t even think about it. Well, we think about it.

On JRE, he and Rogan ultimately hang some of the blame for humanity’s agricultural excesses on vegetarians and vegans. In this particular clip, neither man says vegans are responsible for more animal death than meat eaters, but the message you’re meant to take away is that vegans are hypocrites. Because cropland is so environmentally harmful — for the very reasons Nugent belligerently thumbed through — vegans are at least equally culpable as meat eaters in the sin of extinguishing life.

Rogan describes having eaten a plant-based diet for, he guesses, about six months. (“It didn’t agree with me.”) He paraphrases Nugent:

(Vegans) have to understand even that’s not clean, man. Large-scale agriculture in terms of farming, that shit kills a lot of animals. It displaces a lot of wildlife. You’re never suppose to have 1,000 acres of soy beans or 1,000 acres of corn or 1,000 acres of fucking wheat or anything. All that shit is fake. All that shit is something someone’s put there, and when they’re using pesticide they’re killing things, and when they’re using those combines, they grinding up bunnies and fucking rats and mice and killing countless bugs. So they idea that you’re getting away without killing any sentient life is bullshit.

Through this monologue, the viewer can hear vocal gestures of agreement from Vincent. “Yep, yep, yep.”

(In fairness to Rogan, he hosts a vast range of guests on JRE, including vegans. In a 2018 interview with filmmaker Kevin Smith, Rogan is sympathetic with Smith’s decision to go vegan for health reasons after he suffered a heart attack. And he has also hosted recent debates on the health effects of a vegan diet on JRE.)

‘Now we can say, only slightly fancifully: You eat a steak, you kill a lemur in Madagascar. You eat a chicken, you kill an Amazonian parrot.’ — Gideon Eshel, Bard College geophysicist, quoted in Science magazine.

Crowder performs the same act, just without guests. An anti-left comedian and right-wing culture warrior, he employs himself by dispatching “undercover” flying monkeys to infiltrate and troll gatherings of societal underdogs to make them feel bad about their alternative lifestyles. (He shooed one sentry into a private meeting for a transgender group dressed as a computer, and the interlocutor wouldn’t leave when he was asked to. Instead he filmed the horrified attendees so Crowder could cruelly lampoon their discomfort on his show.) He projects himself as fiercely independent and reflexively skeptical of any information that comes from places he associates with the left. He believes everything he thinks. On his YouTube show “Louder with Crowder,” he justifies Nugent’s talking points by cherry picking and mischaracterizing research and literature to fit the narrative.

In an LWC episode partially dedicated to vilifying vegans this past fall, Crowder spends almost a full minute litigating what he sees as a transgender takeover of sports before getting to the topic of the episode: the dangerous campaign by left-wing institutions to take everyone’s meat away. Crowder illustrates this with a montage of celebrities who are not Democratic officials urging people to eat less meat.

“They’re all hypocrites,” Crowder says. (He talks extremely quickly, as if to paper over material he knows is disingenuous before the listener notices. I have to backtrack several times to understand what he is saying.)

Almost three minutes into the episode, he gets to the big reveal: “Veganism — this is something you don’t hear a lot — is potentially much worse for the planet.”

He starts by accurately stating 25 million tons of topsoil are lost every year to erosion, largely due to agriculture. Citing a Guardian op-ed titled “If you want to save the world, veganism isn’t the answer,” he focuses on the erosion crisis in the United Kingdom, where one solution to the crisis is to rewild depleted areas by letting ruminants free on them to aerate the soil and fertilize it with their feces. Crowder says that we should then “eat those animals.”

I wonder how this exposes veganism as worse for the environment than eating meat or why we have to eat the animals after having released them, Crowder does not explain.

His second point is that vegans want a “varied” diet, requiring food from all over the world whose transport carries a heavy environmental toll. Crowder cites a two-decade-old Associated Press article carried on the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy website titled “Deforestation, Overfarming Threaten Land in Mexico.” The report paints a bleak picture for the future of Mexican agriculture.

Though the AP piece doesn’t mention American diets, Crowder pins this tragedy on stateside vegan demand for water-intensive Mexican avocados. In fact, the journal Agriculture reports last year that the largest agricultural strain on land in Mexico is increasing domestic meat demand as the country continues to develop, not vegan demand for Mexican avocados in the United States. (Vegans aren’t the only people who eat Mexican avocados.)

Crowder then embarks on a long, inchoate diatribe about environmentalist opposition to domestic fracking and oil drilling, but that’s incidental to his topic.

He eventually gets back on track by setting up a false dichotomy:

What do you think is better for the environment? Eating venison from a deer you bagged yourself or eating meat from your local yak farm, for all I know, or fixing yourself $20 avocados that were grown in Mexican tap water and tossed into truck to travel 2,500 miles?

Most meat eaters do not bag their own meat; most American meat comes from heavily subsidized factory farms, not idyllic and self-sufficient crofts; and not all crops come from Mexico. (Crowder could defend himself by noting he’s a comedian who job it is to traffic in hyperbole; that would be very convenient.)

‘[T]he 11 million square kilometers used for crops supply more calories and protein for the global population than the almost four-times larger area used for livestock.’ — Our World in Data

Crowder moves on to the final reason, which is our infamous vegans-are-killers argument. Citing an essay in the Australian journal The Conversation, Crowder advances the claim that 25 times more individual animals are killed in wheat and other grain monocultures than individual cattle are slaughtered, per unit of usable protein for human consumption. (Crowder includes corn in his description, though that crop is not mentioned in the essay.)

He does not mention that the essay is limited to Australian agriculture or that it does not clarify whether those protein units are destined for human or livestock nourishment. Perhaps factoring in that dynamic would have only a negligible effect on the claim, but it might also delegitimize it. Still, the vegan advocacy group Vegan Australia offers some clarity, though not enough to determine whether more individual animals are killed in the Australian beef industry or in producing crops for direct human consumption. Since 98 percent of Australian beef is range-fed, 54 percent of the country’s land area, or about 770 million hectares, is dedicated to grazing cattle. Only four million hectares are used for grain for “finishing” these cattle before they go to slaughter. Vegan Australia says 29 million hectares grow plants for human consumption, but it does not say what kind of plants those are — fruits, vegetables, grains? So the data is ultimately out on Crowder’s point.

In any case, Crowder is specifically critiquing American veganism, not Australian diets.

The idea that vegans are responsible for more animal death than meat eaters is meant to scare people about the diet on environmental grounds. It hopes to get environmentalists onboard with the fear that, in the absence of meat, the world would see a dramatic increase in environmentally degraded cropland to backfill the resulting dietary deficit. Consequently, billions more wild animals would die in threshers and choking on pesticide.

The opposite is true. If the meat industry — which is the actual culprit in the expanding cropland footprint — no longer existed, the world would need far less cropland than it currently does, not more. The bulk of academic and scientific investigations into agricultural land use say meat production kills at least 10 times as many animals than crops produced for human consumption.

Globally, the meat industry slaughters between 70 billion and 150 billion animals each year. All crop production also carries a heavy toll. The best estimate for how many wild animals die annually in crop monocultures is about 7.3 billion. This figure is uncertain because animal deaths in monocultures are notoriously difficult to quantify, as a good 2018 analysis in Anthropocene magazine notes. Still, well more than half of all cropland feeds livestock, so most of those secondary deaths can also be laid squarely at the feet of the meat industry.

The first figure — 70 billion slaughtered animals — is based on data provided to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations by member countries. The Effective Altruism Forum, an animal advocacy organization, notes in 2019 that 70 billion is most likely an undercount since some nations don’t have the resources to capture every animal slaughtered in their meat sectors. The figure also leaves out a vast category of animals that die for the meat industry: fish and other aquatic animals. The 150 billion death figure is based on an animal kill counter run on the website thevegancalculator.com, which includes animals that become seafood.

The final figure of 7.3 billion wild animals killed in crop production is derived from a 2018 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. According to Anthropocene, it is the most widely cited scholarship to estimate this figure. Seven billion is an order of magnitude less than 70 billion, but the authors, Bob Fisher and Andy Lamey, lament a dearth of available data and caution readers: “First, we can’t decide how many resources to devote to the problem without a better sense of its scope. Second, this information shortage throws a wrench in arguments for veganism, since it’s always possible that a diet that contains animal products is complicit in fewer deaths than a diet that avoids them.”

Fisher and Lamey criticize veganism, but they do not mention the fact that most plant agriculture is devoted to the meat production, not to feeding vegans. Of the world’s agricultural land, 77 percent of it is devoted to producing meat, according to research by Our World in Data.

One of the most important studies on the topic, published in 2015 in the journal Science and the Total Environment, is worth quoting at length:

Although some agricultural expansion is driven by farmers growing crops for direct human consumption, livestock production, including feed production, accounts for approximately three-quarters of all agricultural land and nearly one-third of the ice-free land surface of the planet, making it the single largest anthropogenic land use type. Livestock comprise one-fifth of the total terrestrial biomass, and consume over half of directly-used human-appropriated biomass and one-third of global cereal production. Though difficult to quantify, animal product consumption by humans (human carnivory) is likely the leading cause of modern species extinctions, since it is not only the major driver of deforestation but also a principle driver of land degradation, pollution, climate change, overfishing, sedimentation of coastal areas, facilitation of invasions by alien species, and loss of wild carnivores and wild herbivores.

That’s the broadest picture I could find to illustrate that the average plant eater kills fewer animals than the average meat eater. But increased granularity tends to support the same conclusion. Here are some insights from a handful of the dozens of studies I read for this essay:

Researchers with the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment write in a 2013 report: “According to a 2011 analysis, 75% of all agricultural land (including crop and pasture land) is dedicated to animal production.” The report predicts crop demand will spike between 60 percent and 120 percent by mid-century if global dietary trends persist. Central to those dietary trends is more meat consumption as developing nations modernize their food economies. The study also finds eating meat wastes 89 percent of crop calories fed to livestock because those calories are spent in converting plants to animal flesh. Only 4 percent of those calories are consumed by humans as meat.

The researchers write that eating grass-fed ruminants is more sustainable, but Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Public Policy Program writes in 2018 that current cropland in the United States can only support 27 percent of the current cattle herd, about 99 percent of which is kept in heinous conditions in industrial feedlots. Grazing cattle significantly degrades environmental health, especially in water-poor regions like the West.

Hunting wild ungulates for food is also more environmentally friendly than eating grain-fed meat, but there are only about 30,000 extant cervids in the United States — far short of the 165 million cattle, pigs, and sheep slaughtered annually for American tables. (Also, the average head of cattle is about 10 times larger than the average deer.)

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s foremost body that studies global warming, writes in a report called Climate Change and Land: “In addition to direct mitigation gains, decreasing meat consumption, primarily of ruminants, and reducing wastes further reduces water use, soil degradation, pressure on forests and land used for feed potentially freeing up land for mitigation.”

The British medical journal The Lancet writes in a 2018 study: “A major reduction in livestock production would release large areas of land for other uses, as production of animal-based protein requires more land than plant-based protein.”

The Journal of Cleaner Production writes in a 2017 study: “The [meat diet] regional biodiversity impact is around three times greater than the [plant diet]’s due to the high land use of livestock products, mainly because of the huge land required to grow the feed.”

The journal Sustainable Production and Consumption reports this spring:

Livestock, in particular, exhibits significant pressures on the environment including extensive land use and energy demand, biodiversity loss, N surplus and water use. … Land cropping, especially when intensively cultivated, contributes to greenhouse gases, deforestation, biodiversity loss, water use and pollution through fertilizers and synthetic pesticides as well as soil pollution and erosion.

None of this says that veganism is perfect. In fact, a good axiom to keep in your quiver when thinking about the physical world is that there is not one human activity that, scaled up, doesn’t alter the world in some significant way. Crops kill animals. Monocultures kill lots of animals. Vegans should be honest about this.

But if you believe that less animal death is better than more animal death, then consuming less meat and using less animal products will always be better for the environment.

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Aaron Hedge

Aaron Hedge

I like to write about human-wildlife relationships, mostly.