What happened when science tried to take on veganism? A lot of missing of the point and somewhat dubious claims.
I f*****g love science and I f*****g love the IFLS Blog – a go to place for science news and a fresh perspective on a wide range of issues. Last night they published a piece by Mike Archer with the Buzzfeed friendly title “Ordering the vegetarian Meal? There is More Animal Blood on your Hands” which is an interesting attempt to justify eating animal products on ethical grounds. Within hours this had stirred up something of a hornets nest in the vegan community. Ethical arguments are supposed to be our field!
As someone who studied Environmental Science at university and now often teaches the Geography of Food I was very interested in what he had to say and at first glance he does make some compelling arguments. His key point is that animal grazing causes increases biodiversity when compared to arable farming and that to harvest and store crops a large number of animals are killed. However… look at little closer.
Location and disclaimers
Please note: the author of this article is Australian, and much of the information in the following article applies specifically to that area of the world. Farming practises differ around the globe.
This disclaimer appears just underneath the huge banner headline and picture of a cute little mouse and whilst I appreciate there being a disclaimer at all it doesn’t go far enough. The study not only refers to only Australia but only to beef cattle and wild kangaroo in Australia. His arguments don’t apply to the majority of animal products consumed or to other parts of the world. Let us consider beef production in most of the world;
Many rainforests in Central and South America have been burnt down to make way for cattle farming, which supplies cheap beef to North America, China and Russia. It is estimated that for each pound of beef produced, 200 square feet of rainforest is destroyed. In the past 20 years Costa Rica has lost the majority of its forests to beef cattle ranching. This is known as slash and burn farming and is believed to account for 50% of rainforest destruction.
Suddenly beef farming doesn’t seem so benign.
The next point worth considering is his claim that Australian cattle feed on open pasture and not in feedlots but by his own admission this is only true of 66% of these cattle and of course he makes no claims for other animals. Worldwide what is the picture? Soy is often seen as a vegan staple responsible for mass deforestation but lets look closer.
“About 85 percent of the world’s soybean crop is processed into meal and vegetable oil, and virtually all of that meal is used in animal feed. Some two percent of the soybean meal is further processed into soy flours and proteins for food use… Approximately six percent of soybeans are used directly as human food, mostly in Asia.”
This is a hugely inefficient way of producing food. Better to eat the plants ourselves.
Set up a straw man or two
My next issue with this piece are the two straw man that are set up. The first is this;
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.
An odd comparison to make. Why are we getting our “useable protein” from wheat? An odd comparison to choose. Why not higher protein pulses or legumes? Why not the usable protein in green vegetables? For a detailed look at a land stresses caused by the meat industry and a comparison to plant based diets check out “Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment” from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
A second straw man that misses the point
Finally we need to consider the starting point for this piece because it manages to miss the point of veganism entirely whilst still sounding plausible.
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.
Sounds good right? Well not quite. Veganism is actually a philosophical belief that exploiting animals for our use is wrong. When animals get killed in a field during harvesting it is very sad but it is not exploitation. Justifying the exploitation of animals because it means some other animals get spared is dubious logic. If we tried to justify slavery because other humans would benefit we would be given short shrift. It would be unfortunate if ending slavery led to a lowering of quality of life elsewhere but we wouldn’t accept it as a reason to continue to the practice.
It is always annoying to read articles like this as it provides an easy excuse for those who might have just started thinking about making more ethical decisions to continue with their easy current lifestyle. On the positive side it shows that people are taking veganism seriously if they are having to mount a defense.