Why being vegetarian can kill more animals than eating meat
June 22, 2011 171 Comments
The most common justification I hear for vegetarianism is “It’s wrong to kill an animal for food.” Of course there are other motivations, such as health, religion, environmentalism, preventing suffering, and trying to score with liberal chicks — but the moral wrongness of killing an animal for food is the probably the most common, at least in my experience.
Consequently, I’ve found it surprising that people so rarely acknowledge that vegetarians do kill millions of animals for food. If you buy eggs or milk or cheese, it’s true in theory that the dairy cows and laying hens don’t have to be killed in order to supply you with those products, but in practice, they are. A modern factory farm isn’t just going to let their animals die of old age; they kill them at whatever point the farm considers to be the most profit-maximizing. For dairy cows, that’s usually at age 3-5, out of a natural 20-25 year lifespan. For egg-laying hens, it’s usually after one or two laying cycles. And since the males of the laying species are useless to the egg farmer, they’re killed right after they hatch.
But surely eating a vegetarian diet must kill far fewer animals than an omnivore diet, right? Well… sort of. I’m sure that a typical vegetarian kills fewer animals than a typical omnivore. But it’s certainly possible to be a vegetarian and kill more animals than an omnivore, and in fact, I’m confident that many vegetarians fall into that category.
The culprit is eggs. While you only need to kill one single steer to get about 450 pounds (405,000 calories) worth of meat, you’d need to kill about 20 chickens to get enough eggs to match that number of calories. So if you’re a vegetarian who eats a lot of omelets, you’re likely responsible for more animal deaths than someone who chows down on burgers and steaks but doesn’t like eggs.
I’ve scrounged up data on the typical amount of meat, eggs, and dairy that we get out of a modern farm animal, and combined it with data on the calorie counts of those foods. That allowed me to calculate the number of calories of food that we get out of each type of animal, or more to the point, the “lives-per-calorie” statistic for each food. The results are below, with the foods ordered from “kills the fewest animals per calorie” to “kills the most animals per calorie.” (All numbers are approximate, of course, but they’re from as recent and reliable sources as I could find. Detailed citations are at the end of this post.)
The lives-per-calories cost of eggs is so many times higher than that of beef that even a small amount of eggs outweighs the life cost of a larger amount of beef. So let’s say you’re a vegetarian and you go out to lunch with your omnivorous friend, where he orders a burger and you order an egg-salad sandwich. The two eggs in your sandwich are only 150 calories, compared to the 300 calories in his beef patty, but the eggs cost almost 9 times as much life as the beef.
Of course, as I said earlier, these calculations are only concerned with the question of taking animals’ lives. They don’t take into account the amount of suffering the animal experiences. That would change the calculations somewhat, but I suspect the overall verdict would remain similar if you were looking at suffering-per-calorie – or, if anything, things would look even grimmer for egg-lovers. Laying hens arguably lead some of the most miserable lives out of all livestock, spending all their time crammed into cages with less space than half a piece of paper, having their beaks cut off, and being starved to induce molting. (Although the male chicks would count less if you’re looking at suffering-per-calorie, since their lives are so short.)
These calculations also don’t take into account impact on the environment. Raising beef is pretty clearly the worst industry in terms of things like producing greenhouse gases, breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and requiring huge amounts of farmland just to feed the cattle. So there’s still a good case for choosing eggs over beef in the sense of minimizing your environmental impact, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’d be making a tradeoff: killing more animals to hurt the environment less.
According to the USDA, the average dairy cow produced 21,000 lbs of milk last year, and according to several sources, the average dairy cow is culled from the herd after about 3 years, so I multiplied 21,000*3 to get the average amount of milk produced over the lifetime of a dairy cow. It takes about 1 gallon of milk to produce 1 lb of cheese, and there are about 8.5 lbs of milk per gallon, so I divided 63,000 lbs by 8.5 to get the 7,400 lbs of cheese figure.
The average number of eggs per laying hen per year comes from the USDA, and I multiplied by two because that’s the most common figure I found for the number of laying cycles. The average weight of a broiler chicken I got from the USDA’s annual Poultry Slaughter publication.