Does a vegan diet really cause more suffering?

Won't someone think of the harvest mouse?

Won’t someone think of the harvest mouse?

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.

Cattle Feed

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.


13 thoughts on “Does a vegan diet really cause more suffering?

  1. Long ago I had a friend who was vegan to his very core. He taught me about wild flowers and we walked the hedge rows together. He would pick nothing for fear of interference with living things and he watched his feet to try not to kill anything.
    His wife a tall dark shy handsome woman was vegetarian.
    I was young and years later I realised he lived in a rigid straid- jacket. His life was a battle to protect life.
    Nature , the old fashioned Blind Watchmaker, does not operate that way.
    We are ethical beings in physical bodies and we object to the food chain in all sorts of ways but we must eat.
    If in the western rich countries we had to kill our own meat or keep our own chickens you would see drastric change.
    I see only one justification for eating animals and that is that they freely kill and eat each other.

  2. Interesting points Magnocrat. I am not sure your one justification quite works though. They may kill each other but they are not capable of making ethical decisons. We are.

  3. Huh? You must be kidding right? “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”… So killing 1000s of animals while harvesting soy somehow should not worry a vegan? They get killed as a direct result of your actions. Trying to weasel out of responsibility for that on semantic reasons is pathetic. Shame on you.

    • Not a semantic point at all – a factual one. As a vegan I believe that humans have no more right to exploit animals than we do people. We don’t need to exploit them to survive so why do it?
      It would be wonderful if we could save all the little mice and insects that get killed in farming but eating meat isn’t going to do it. Huge quantities of plant food is fed to live stock – even those in Australia.

  4. thanks for the useful counter argument, Herbifit. I’d like to share a few considerations. I totally know what magnocrat is saying about his old friend, I often feel a bit like that, and I really like it. I think it’s a shame to fall back on excuses for not being aware of other lives on the planet, why wouldn’t you want to support the diversity that exists? Yeah animals kill animals–and using that as a justification is revealing a few interesting contradictions: 1) the postulation that animals are lesser than us so it’s ok to eat them; and opposed to that is 2) since animals kill other animals, I don’t need to exercise my conscious mind which albeit superior to theirs, I will fall into a short-sighted generalization I seem to observe with my human mind and pretend to be on the same level as the other animals I simultaneously pretend to dominate, and go ahead and kill “like they do” (even though it’s a much different method anyways). Then, along with this logic comes the whole question of (or lack thereof) how would animals actually behave if they all didn’t feel threatened and starved and displaced from their homes by the bullying race on the planet (humans)? Do we know? If they had naturally abundant sources of diverse plants to freely graze on, free of the stranglehold of industrialized agriculture. Or how would they behave if they were influenced by compassionate and peacefully humans? and what does that say of humans now? Ah, yes, we are mindless freaks who despite our larger brain capacity we are incapable of thinking for ourselves with an ethical conscience and must resort to beating mammals similar to ourselves over the head with rocks, or the civilized version, deprive them of a meaningful life from the beginning, force feed them and subject them to a bloody execution just so someone eating a hamburger can feel a moment of exhilaration from the rush of feeding off the flesh and blood of another in our larger extended family like a zombie-vampire with an addiction for gore, before they suffer weight problems and a heart attack.
    So, here’s an alternative question: what would happen if humans started showing kindness and tolerance to animals all around the globe? Would it be some ridiculous hippie dippie submission to the violent chaotic bloodthirsty underpinnings of the rest of the animal world–or could it be a feasible hippie dippie relinquishment of the faults of humanity’s own invented violent chaotic bloodthirsty nature and opportunity to make a productive change towards real coexistence?
    Sustainable agriculture–I am not an expert in any of this but I am disappointed that the Australian article as well as Herbifit failed to mention this. All of these assumptions were based on the methods of industrialized agriculture that are accepted in the mainstream–pesticides, unhealthy mass agricultural plowing methods. Without being an expert again, I believe that we know enough in our age that if we really wanted, we could change the way we do agriculture to support the land better for all concerned and support our need for consumption, hopefully without interfering with the lives of insects, who I fully support and believe deserve food as much as I do.

    • Good point on the difference that might be created from a more sustainable form of agriculture. I wonder if that is possible with a growing population?
      I am less convinced that other animals would switch to a plant-based diet if people did… I am not sure where that idea comes from… It would be easy to test. Raise a carnivore in a loving peaceful environment and then offer it a choice of meat or plant for a meal. I suspect we know what it would chose.

  5. I think factory farming needs to end and we need to consume much less meat (once every week at most – ideally once every month) We also need to stop our obsession with dairy and quit drinking milk meant for calf’s – it’s just completely un-natural and unfortunately it seems to be added to every single food item these days. Most of the world is addicted to the drug that is dairy (especially cheese) – I’m addicted to pizza and only wish there wasn’t need for cheese on it and had other flavours instead!

    However, I fail to see how killing an animal for food can be considered wrong on any sort of ethical level. If we believe it’s wrong to kill animals then we are basically saying the entire eco-system is wrong. Because life, death and violence are an essential part of any eco-system.

    • Hi Wes
      I would say the difference is that we are capable of making that choice. Other animals can’t. I think we would all agree that rape is wrong and yet that is perfectly normal in nature.

      • Maybe I should have elaborated more. Let me start by saying I’m a vegetarian that’s been transitioning to veganism. Recently I was thinking about this – and then I came across a very convincing argument from an ex-vegan on this matter.

        Yes, we are capable of making that choice. And we can thrive off a plant based diet (although the okinawa diet where inhabitants live longer then anywhere else in the world still eat fish (and pork sparingly for celebrations)) – but just because we can make the choice to not kill animals doesn’t mean killing them is wrong. And as such, why choose to completely forego meat when it’s a completely natural way to obtain some nutrients that can’t be found (or is v difficult) on a solely plant based diet? By saying that veganism is better than non-veganism, we are saying that the eco-system is wrong.

        Rape isn’t normal in nature. It’s quite rare since in many species the female must co-operate for mating to take place. Ducks and orang-utans are two species where rape is prominent. (I saw a statistic that half of orang-utans births are as a result of rape!) – However, rape is not a necessary part of an eco-system (and more importantly is definitely not a necessary part of our eco-system) Humans are able to socially interact and create laws to benefit society as a whole – where rape is seen as wrong and punished. I don’t know if I’ve explained as well as I wanted too. I’m short of time now but may elaborate more if you’re still sceptical.

        I’m going to continue my transition to a plant based diet but I’m considering the okinawa diet – and consuming some fish and then meat (once per month at most for both) and it be as ethically sourced as possible – so no factory farming for either. I’m not trying to convince you to change from veganism – or that most omnivores are free of blame and shouldn’t change (As I said I deplore factory farming) but I just think the stance of vegans that all killing is wrong is incorrect.

      • Thanks for that Wes. It sounds as though you are approaching Veganism from a health plant-based diet perspective rather than an ethical one.
        Your point seems to be that because animals kill other animals it must be right for us to do the same. My point is that no ethics exist in nature. Animals steal from each other, they fight each other, and they do rape each other (I have spent a lot of time watching animals – they do not seek consent). They are not capable of making ethical decisions, we are.
        Why would it be ethical to cause needless suffering?

  6. “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.”

    You’re really, really downplaying the death of animals in this part. We’re talking about lots of animals being killed and your analogy for that is an unfortunate lowering of living standards? You make valid points in the rest of the article but the suggestion that exploitation of animals is horrible while slaughtering them without eating them is just “meh, shit happens” is pretty terrible.

Views, comments, ideas and feedback are always welcome. Be good to hear from you.

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