Does vegetarianism kill more animals than meat-eating?

Contrary to what you may have heard, I don’t intend this to be an all-vegetarianism, all-the-time blog, but this objection came up in comments to the previous post, and it seemed like it was worth addressing separately. The objection here is that a vegetarian diet also results in animal deaths, since animals such as voles, field mice, and certain birds will be killed in the process of clearing land to grow crops and during harvesting.

I’ve seen this argument canvassed more widely in recent years, and its popularity seems to stem in part from a 2003 paper by Steven Davis in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. Davis argued that, because of the animals killed unintentionally in raising crops, a diet consisting of plants and pasture-raised beef actually would actually result in fewer total animal deaths than a strictly vegetarian diet. Note that Davis is not defending the status quo–his “least harm” diet would actually require a radically different food system (chicken, pork, eggs, and dairy are out, as is conventionally raised beef).

Moreover, Davis’s article was criticzed by, among others, Gaverick Matheny, who pointed out some critical flaws in Davis’s calculations, including that he assumed that the same amount of land would be required to support a plant-based diet as one that included beef. Since less land is required to produce the same number of calories from plants than meat, the relevant comparison should be animals killed per capita. Matheny also pointed out that Davis only considered animal deaths and ignored the question of animals’ suffering during their lives, which is surely a relevant part of the moral calculus.

While this is an interesting debate, I’m not sure it’s a terribly relevant one. As I’ve pointed out before, the debate between proponents of all-vegetarian (or vegan) diets and proponents of free-range, “humane” meat-eating is a rarefied one. The overwhelmning majority of meat produced and consumed in the U.S. results in far more death and suffering for animals than either. That’s why I think “progressive disengagement” from the factory farming system is a worthy goal, but am not particularly interested in picking fights with people who choose to eat meat raised in more humane or sustainable fashions.

4 thoughts on “Does vegetarianism kill more animals than meat-eating?

  1. Marvin

    It’s your blog; if you want it to be wall-to-wall vegetarianism, go for it! No one’s making Mary Sue read it. Hher comment says more about herself than it says about this blog, namely, that she doesn’t do well with good arguments that hit close to home.

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