field miceI respect people who for moral reasons decline to eat meat. But many vegetarians assume that eating vegetables produces no animal pain or death and that is clearly false. Farming of any sort disrupts ecosystems and destroys animal life. At best, the moral argument for vegetarianism is that eating only vegetables produces less pain or cruelty than the consumption of animals. But  there is evidence that  calls even that argument into question.

Published figures suggest that, in Australia, producing wheat and other grains results in:

  • at least 25 times more sentient animals being killed per kilogram of useable protein
  • more environmental damage, and
  • a great deal more animal cruelty than does farming red meat.

Those are rather stunning figures. The reasons may have to do with the peculiarities of Australia:

Agriculture to produce wheat, rice and pulses requires clear-felling native vegetation. That act alone results in the deaths of thousands of Australian animals and plants per hectare. Since Europeans arrived on this continent we have lost more than half of Australia’s unique native vegetation, mostly to increase production of monocultures of introduced species for human consumption.

Most of Australia’s rangeland cannot be used for crop production and thus arable land must come at the expense of forests. I have no idea if this applies to the U.S. Furthermore, the calculations are based on “usable protein” which is only one part of our nutritional needs.

But the general point is that there is no form of human consumption that does not harm animals, and which diet will minimize suffering is far from clear. Surely for most individuals it is impossible to know, in a particular case, if eating only vegetables and fruit would minimize pain.

There are many reasons to avoid meat in one’s diet but the facile suggestion that vegetarianism is inherently more virtuous than the consumption of meat looks rather shaky if this evidence is sound.