How brutal is vegetarianism to animals?

Here is one take on the matter, from Mike Archer, controversial to be sure, and in some ways under-argued, but offering some points to ponder:

… 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.

You will note that this comparison works for grass-fed beef only.

Hat tip goes to Dalibor Rohac.


Very, very interesting article for me (I'm a vegetarian that would like to see meat consumption go down). Something I ought to think about much more, I suppose.

However, my initial reaction is that I place the life of a cow (especially one that's gone through a lot to give us milk and run ancient machines in under-industrialized countries like India) well above that of a mouse. (Of course, as someone who consistently defends empirical science, I guess I have to be).

Nonetheless, this brings up a novel idea that I will be sure to mention to the next person that tells me meat ought to be taxed.

Species-ism noted: you value cow above mouse, perhaps for religious reasons, but it makes sense to me (and the ape, closest to the human, is king). Now I believe an animal that gives milk or eggs should not be killed for meat--and for that reason both cows and chickens are raised either to produce milk/eggs or meat (two different sub-species). Also some domesticated animals cannot survive without human help so they prefer (says I, and how can you disprove me?) a short happy(?) life before being slaughtered to being slaughtered by predators within a week in the wild.

Certainly not for religious reasons. However, I suppose my upbringing has given me a unique glimpse into the causes of those religious beliefs (i.e. the hard, hard work cows are put to, in India).

I'm with you on the second point. I've long, perhaps irrationally, argued that cows should either be used for beef or milk (preferably neither, but I'd like to think I'm practical too) but not both. Chickens, goats, lamb would fall into this category as well.

Edit: I just read the Conversation link and it discusses the sentient nature of mice, one which I had overlooked. In my opinion, many of the faults associated with consumption of meat are somewhat fixed with the guarantee of a quick and speedy death, which it seems vegetarians don't grand their mice.

Mice give milk! All female mammals do.

How well do people think domesticated cows, pigs, chickens, etc. would fare without human protection? How much do such species rely on the fact that humans raise them for food to continue surviving as a species? There's a big difference between a black angus and a auroch after all, and heck, even the latter didn't survive.

If the whole world went vegan and set all the cows free, would there still be cows 200 years from now?

Why should anyone care whether there are cows 200 years from now?

House them next to all the other animals that no longer survive outside of zoos, like rhinoceroses...


If there was a mass movement toward veganism how many cows would be alive 50 years from now. Not very many compared to the number alive today. But, that wouldn't be because they died horrible deaths of starvation because we refused to allocate resources to suport this "useless" animal population.

They would would have never been born.

How well do these animals survive without human protection? Some survive very well. Pigs are quite adaptable. Chickens will do pretty well in warm climates. I haven't heard many stories of feral cows, though.

The cow that ends up on the shelf as meat is often not the cow that produced the milk.

As a anthropological/scientific minded person, I argue in favor of meat, especially fish. Scientifically, our teeth and dietary requirements are those of omnivorous animals, not herbivores. Yes it is possible to mimic the meat intake with vegetation, but it isn't really how our bodies are designed. The specifically fish comes from anthropology, and watching where advances in intelligence occurred among our ancestors. As humans traveled, and came across areas where fish were abundant (like the edge of ocean/sea) height and sturdiness increased, and the intelligence behind their tools became more obvious.

I respect the decision of people who wish to be vegetarian and vegan. They often have great personal moral reasons for doing so. I hope for the same in return.

Thank you for showing that not all vegetarians are on the warpath.

Exactly, This argument doesn't make sense once you reach even an 18th century level of animal husbandry.

It is also important to realize that this sort of attitude, while laudable in the abstract never seems to work in practice. Indian cattle provide terrible milk, their only strength is disease resistance, but only because nobody takes care of them at all. Most Indian cattle are worse off than a pariah dog.

"Yes, it is possible to fly from New York to Los Angeles in 6 hours, but it isn't really how our bodies are designed."

What a stupid argument.

If you want efficient, "ethical" and healthy protein, you should eat insects.

Pretty interesting indeed. I'll bite. Shouldn't the aforementioned calculation also include the following: the number of mice that are killed or displaced because human introduced grass fed cattle ate all of their grassland habitat?

Turtles all the way down.

So hard to make ethical decisions...

Not exactly, ruminants and grasslands have a symbiotic relationship. Without the ruminants the grass will be taken over by brush and without grass the ruminants don't survive. When grass is properly managed the pastures are rotated leaving sufficient residual for rapid re-growth "take half leave half," animals should only have access for 1-3 days before moving on to another paddock.

My general point was an opportunity cost/unintended consequence angle but even if overgrazing is kept in check my initial guess is that those fields could sustain less mice than they otherwise would if there weren't human introduced ruminates since the ecosystems natural balance would be altered. But hey I'm no ecologist/biologist.

Isn't this specific to Australia? I am guessing for most animals consumed for meat, the input food itself is produced by agriculture. In fact as there is inefficiency, more agricultural output would be consumed than direct vegetarian consumption.

+1 and it really doesn't relate to American agri-business at all which does not rely on free range animal production (except for the relatively small organic foods market). Very misleading article.

What was misleading in the article? Did you read over the part where this point was addressed explicitly and at length?

I know that in Brazil, not only mouses are killed in large numbers in crop field, but rabbits as well, but by machinery in the second case, thousands of them every cicle.

I saw Dan D'Amico post this the other day.. very interesting.. But the study is limited only to Australian plagues.

HAHA. grassfed beef indeed.

I was under the impression that all cows were grass fed for most of their lives, and then most get fattened up on grain the last few weeks of their lives.

This seems factual enough to check - 'Traditionally, all beef was grassfed beef, but in the United States today what is commercially available is almost all feedlot beef. The reason? It’s faster, and so more profitable. Seventy-five years ago, steers were 4 or 5 years old at slaughter. Today, they are 14 or 16 months. You can’t take a beef calf from a birth weight of 80 pounds to 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year on grass. It takes enormous quantities of corn, protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones.'

As does this excerpt - 'Even with U.S. beef cattle today spending the last half of their lives in feedlots, seventy percent of the land area of the American West is currently used for grazing livestock. More than two-thirds of the entire land area of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho is used for rangeland.'

Not to mention this fascinating tidbit concerning American practices -

'The USDA’s Animal Damage Control (ADC) program was established in 1931 for a single purpose—to eradicate, suppress, and control wildlife considered to be detrimental to the western livestock industry. The program has not been popular with its opponents. They have called the ADC by a variety of names, including, “All the Dead Critters” and “Aid to Dependent Cowboys.”

In 1997, following the advice of public relations and image consultants, the federal government gave a new name to the ADC—“Wildlife Services.” And they came up with a new motto—“Living with Wildlife.”

This is an interesting choice of words. What “Wildlife Services” actually does is kill any creature that might compete with or threaten livestock. Its methods include poisoning, trapping, snaring, denning, shooting, and aerial gunning. In “denning” wildlife, government agents pour kerosene into the den and then set it on fire, burning the young alive in their nests.

Among the animals Wildlife Services agents intentionally kill are badgers, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, gray fox, red fox, mountain lions, opossum, raccoons, striped skunks, beavers, nutrias, porcupines, prairie dogs, black birds, cattle egrets, and starlings. Animals unintentionally killed by Wildlife Services agents include domestic dogs and cats, and several threatened and endangered species.

All told, Wildlife Services, the federal agency whose motto is “Living with Wildlife,” intentionally kills more than 1.5 million wild animals annually. This is done, of course, at public expense, to protect the private financial interests of ranchers who wish to use public lands to graze their livestock.'

Meaning, as so often the case here, the caveat here - 'You will note that this comparison works for grass-fed beef only.' doesn't actually apply without further qualification - 'in Australia.'

In the U.S., it isn't turtles all the way down - we are much too advanced for that. Instead, we kill anything which might threaten what we kill for ourselves.

Prior Approval,

The federal (and to a lesser extent state) governments are the single biggest causes of environmental destruction in the US.

Starting with farm policy and moving on to the bureau of reclamation and their massive water projects in the west and continuing with the biofuels disaster the US government has consistently used its massive power and resources to cause vast amounts of habitat destruction and environmental degradation.

The simplest way to reduce the damage and save the environment is to limit the size and scope of government. Hopefully the environmental community will realize this and work towards reducing the governments ability to cause such terrible ecologic damage.

A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject

How many pigs, cattle, and chickens would there be if we didn't consume products made of them?

I don't understand this critique, which both Yancey and others have raised in the comments. There would certainly be fewer pigs, cattle, and chickens, but there would probably be more mice. So what? If you are a utilitarian, this species distinction doesn't matter much. A utilitarian considers the preferences of each sentient being equally, regardless of species.

If I am missing something, please correct me.

As I understand it, the crux of this argument isn't that there are more cattle, pigs etc. due to human intervention, it's that domestication has made these animals evolve to be dependent on humans for survival. This fact gives mankind a moral obligation towards domesticated animals we don't have towards wild animals. That's obviously a crude version of the argument, but there you go.

Thanks for the clarification, Andrew.

Interesting point. Ethical vegetarianism seems to suggest that, given the choice between living for a short time, then being slaughtered; or simply not being born at all, it would be preferable to not be born at all. Which is curious, if you think about it. It seems to suggest that the real ethical goal here is not "life" but "not-death." Put otherwise, the difference between "be fruitful and multiply" and "thou shalt not kill."

I think the ethical interest in vegetarianism has nothing, or almost nothing, to do with the animal, and everything to do with the eater himself. He did not choose whether or not that pig would be born. But if he eats it, he did choose (albeit indirectly) for it to die.

That's interesting. It really shows the robustness of man's antagonism toward other macro-fauna. Whatever our intentions, it is in our DNA to transform nature to suit our purposes. And that is why we are cosmic slaughter incarnate.

Can we adapt to tread just softly enough not to destroy even ourselves? It seems like a tall order.

Why is this "antagonism"?

I feel no antagonism for herbivores, though I certainly object when they trample crops or eat them, While many people object to large carnivores, this doesn't seem to prevent them from keeping dogs or setting up nature preserves. The vast majority of macrofauna, other than insects is more popular than almost any of the microfauna. I take it you don't use disinfectant or antibiotics.

As to humans being "cosmic slaughter incarnate", do you know anything about the state of nature? Have you ever studied anything, fom fungi to elephants none of us have chlorophyl, we all live on the death of primary producers.

Honestly I have no idea what you are talking about.

Given that a small minority of beef is grass-fed, this adds up to little more than a straw-man case study. The truth is that, at least under most modern production methods, meat eating is horribly inefficient, environmentally destructive, cruel, and, if not less healthy, than at least no more healthy than a vegetarian diet.

yes. i agree. just try finding grass fed beef in grocery stores and see how rare and expensive that product is. same thing for grass fed dairy products.

it would seem then, that, in order to produce grain to feed all of these feed-lot cows, we have to kill a large number of cows AND mice.

If you want it, it's easy to find.

0. Most vegetarians simply don't consume as much protein as most meat eaters. (And consume much more fiber.)
1. Most beef isn't grass-fed.
2. Not all meat consumed in the world is beef: much of it is pork and chicken. (And their feed is mostly agricultural produce.)
3. It is arguable who suffers more: a poisoned mouse or a slaughtered cow.
And finally:
4. Brutality to animals is not the only concern, there's also overall environmental impact. And I doubt anyone can seriously make the claim that in terms of their diet (and diet alone) the average vegetarian has a greater environmental impact than the average meat eater.

(I should note that (0) I am neither a vegetarian nor religious, and (1) I've greatly cut down on my meat consumption in the past few years -- principally for environmental reasons.)

according to FAO, only 9% of the world's beef is produced through grazing. So this article really has limited validity in most countries, including the US.

A similar argument here:

Related (also illustrating that this line of thinking isn't exactly new):

Nature is pretty brutal, too.

This article assumes that most vegetarian protein comes from what which sounds extremely unlikely to me.

You know its a bad article when the author praises Lierre Keith and fails to cite any peer-reviewed articles. Tyler might want to check out Mike Matheny's 2003 article in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics.

Sorry, that's Gaverick Matheny.

The mouse plague just appeared on an Animal Planet episode about infestations.

The mice seem to have few natural predators and die off when their food supply, I.e. grain, is exhausted.

What people always seem to forget is that MAN is a natural predator on this planet, and what we do is a natural consequence.

No activists protest beavers cutting down trees to build a dam.

How about everybody who feels guilty about killing, just stop eating and die from starvation?

The rest of us will continue getting along in a world which requires death for the sustaining of life.

For crying out loud, the soil you walk upon--and grow your organic monocrops in--is rotted dead plants and animals.

It is nice to see a comment like this whenever I get to thinking that only vegans are pompous assholes.

It is not a matter of being a pompous asshole, as you stated. It is simply the truth. Life survives on life. That is the nature of biology.

The conclusion is, with respect to humans' impact on the planet, there is no free lunch. Every action we take has an impact, and it pays to consider as many levels of that impact as possible. For that, at least, this article does us a great service. regards, John

As with all economic "studies", we should ask who is paying for the research. In DC, I can find economists who will say anything, using studies that start with the conclusion first, for enough money.

Where to begin...

Grass-fed cows produce far more methane than cows fed with corn or similar. And methane is a far, far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. You're really not doing the planet a favor with the grass-fed fad.

There is simply not enough "rangeland" out there to fill all the demand for beef... unless eating beef is reserved for rich elitists, or you chop down the rest of the Amazon and kill far more sentient life (which is how some of that existing "rangeland" got created in the first place). So most beef that is consumed will still be the factory-farmed variety, fed on grain (or less palatable things like chicken manure, if you're cutting corners). All the more so if the growing middle class in China raises their meat consumption to even a fraction of Western levels.

It takes several times more grain to feed a cow which is then fed to humans, compared to just feeding that grain directly to humans (and let's not even mention the far higher water consumption, oops I did). Several times more dead mice in other words, if you're still pretending to care.

TL;DR: ideologically-motivated revisionism falls apart, as such things often do.


There have always been vast herds of methane emitting ruminants in the US, some of them were named buffalo.

Cattle are very good at producing protein off of marginal land that should not be farmed. Cattle ranching preserves grasslands and prairie habitat which supports a wide amount of wildlife species. All of this is good because grasslands are also very good carbon sinks.

Much of that "chop down the amazon" activity is a direct result of government policies. Sumatran rain forests destruction is driven by the planting of palm oil plantations used to produce feedstock for EU biofuels mandates.

Brazilian rainforest destruction is driven in part by production of soybeans. Soybeans that had been previously produced in the US but which were displaced from US farm ground because ethanol mandates and subsidies made corn production more profitable than raising soybeans.

You also either do not understand or ignore the fact that government subsidizes grain production and that has decoupled grain production from ecological and market constraints.

It is naivety of the most potent sort to believe the environment can be helped by focusing on beef production while ignoring the government policies that drive grain production and habitat destruction.

If you are really interested in helping the environment less epistemic closure and TL;DR: snark and more motivation to understand US government agricultural policy would give you some of the knowledge needed to help improve both the environment and animal welfare.

Wheat gives you a lot more than just bloody protein. What's the soybean comparison numbers?

The debate is old. Some good responses were:

Save the mice!

Maybe we should go for grass-fed rhinoceros or moronic whale to maximize meat per unit sentience.

"meat per unit sentience"

If that is what you want, research cultured meat based on nutrient substrates derived from farms without topsoil use (e.g. algae farms in buildings where no mice can enter)

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