When Should Vegetarians Eat Meat?

I think that eating meat is subject to moral and ethical considerations. My grandma thinks I’m crazy for believing that. As far as she’s concerned, animals are food; it is therefore sufficient reason to kill and eat an animal that you’re hungry. Now, she doesn’t believe it’s acceptable to eat cats or dogs. And she believes - well, I bloody-well hope so, anyway - that it’s not acceptable to torture an animal, such as a cow, before eating it. But the fact that moral questions do not generally arise for her when it comes to eating meat suggests a few things.

Firstly, there is a social-cultural component: she, like most people are raised on diets containing meat. Exactly what is eaten, how much is eaten, and when it is eaten vary, but she, like her parents, their parents, their parents, and her children and grandchildren eat meat, so the moral question hasn’t arisen for them. We're enculturated to consume animals. Secondly, there is a practical concern: meat is a fairly cheap and easy way of getting certain calories, proteins, and vitamins. My family is Welsh, and for those who don’t know, although the countryside is beautiful, it’s good for growing just about bugger all. Consequently, farmers frequently put sheep out to graze on the hills and valleys, thereby making use of land that would otherwise go fallow. So, in this case, the practicality of where my family lives disposes them to eating more meat - especially lamb - as a source of nutrition. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, is the issue of self-interest: meat is absolutely delicious and to forgo eating meat would be a hardship (albeit a rather trivial one in the scheme of things), and, because of this, many people choose not to think hard about whether it’s acceptable to eat meat.

Because meat is just so delicious, I want to eat a lot of it. A steak… a burger… a lamb chop… my mouth waters just to think about it. But, because I’m concerned about animal welfare and the broader (especially environmental) effects of eating meat, I choose not to eat (a lot) of it. After spending time reading through some of the animal rights and new vegetarianism literature I made the commitment to cut out meat. On my thinking, if, say, a buffet is about to throw meat that has already been paid for and would otherwise go to waste, that’s fine. I wouldn’t order meat in a restaurant, though, and would therefore limit my contributions to the damaging effects of meat-consumption. Wild fish is (broadly speaking) acceptable, but farmed fish raised some concerns.

As with so many moral commitments my fotitude has wained over time, such that, although I ate meat maybe 2/3 times a year at the beginning… in the last 6 months, I’ve probably eaten meat once a month. I’d love to eat meat without any moral considerations, and it is because of this that I read this 2011 article by Prof. Mike Archer with great interest.

As he makes the case, using land for agriculture kills large numbers of animals that would otherwise not be killed were that land used for grazing and raising, say, cows for slaughter:

“Most cattle slaughtered in Australia feed solely on pasture. This is usually rangelands, which constitute about 70% of the continent. Grazing occurs on primarily native ecosystems. These have and maintain far higher levels of native biodiversity than croplands. The rangelands can’t be used to produce crops, so production of meat here doesn’t limit production of plant foods. Grazing is the only way humans can get substantial nutrients from 70% of the continent.”

He is talking here of Australia, but these remarks also seem - on the face of it - to apply to other places, like Wales with sheep as discussed above. In comparing this to using land for agriculture, Archer notes,

“To produce protein from grazing beef, cattle are killed. One death delivers (on average, across Australia’s grazing lands) a carcass of about 288 kilograms. This is approximately 68% boneless meat which, at 23% protein equals 45kg of protein per animal killed. This means 2.2 animals killed for each 100kg of useable animal protein produced. Producing protein from wheat means ploughing pasture land and planting it with seed. Anyone who has sat on a ploughing tractor knows the predatory birds that follow you all day are not there because they have nothing better to do. Ploughing and harvesting kill small mammals, snakes, lizards and other animals in vast numbers. In addition, millions of mice are poisoned in grain storage facilities every year.”

The outcome of this, he says is that, “at least 55 sentient animals die to produce 100kg of useable plant protein: 25 times more than for the same amount of rangelands beef.”

I’m not 100% sure what to make of this research. In the first place, it’s necessary to tread extremely carefully when someone is telling you what you want to hear. As I love eating meat, I’m probably primed to give greater consideration to arguments that bolster my pre-existing desires and intentions. 

With that in mind: I take the point that plowing the fields and placing down poison will kill thousands of mice. Moreover, I accept that mice have complex lives and interactions with their offspring, and might be capable of somewhat complex emotions. But, it’s not at all clear to me that there is a really significant badness in their death. Working from the utilitarian premise that what matters is moral calculations is whether the thing suffers (although this isn’t all that counts) all things being equal, I suppose I’d rather that the mice not be killed in painful or brutal ways (which poisoning might be). But, things aren’t equal. The death of a cow, even if far less brutal than that of a mouse, could still be worse. Their relations of family are complex, and their capacity for complex emotions (such as foreboding and anxiety in the slaughterhouse), might make it such that one cow death might outweigh the death of 55 mice.

A further consideration is that cows require a huge amount of protein in order to make protein in their meat. It might be desirable that they get this from grazing, and in Australia, the rangelands might indeed be abundant. What about in the US, though? Is there similar rangeland? Furthermore, how has industrial farming (and political incentives) changed the economics of raising (especially) beef? The USDA states that feedlots often fatten grazing cattle by feeding them 6 lbs of corn and other proteins per day for about 140 days (sometimes up to 300 days). That’s an average of 840lbs of corn and other feed for each cow. That's about as much as about 5 fully grown people! If, as Prof. Archer says, we get 100lb of protein per cow (45kg) that’s a corn-to-cow protein ratio of about 8:1. So, we’re still pumping a huge amount of corn into each cow to get protein from it, which, I imagine, requires extensive agriculture, even if they graze first. The more efficient and less environmentally destructive approach might just be for humans to consume that corn directly.

In addition to the above, it’s important to consider other costs that come with raising beef. So, a prominent reason put forward to eat less meat is the effect on climate change. Raising meat is particularly energy intensive, which has the effects of releasing large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. And, in addition to this, cows are very efficient at turning what they eat into the heat-trapping gas methane, which also comes from their manure. The EPA calculates that about a third of the US’s released methane comes from this process of 'enteric fermentation' and 'manure management'. Now, agriculture without raising meat is also energy intensive, but, it doesn’t have the side effect of creating a product in turn creates methane. So, even if we save the lives of hundreds of mice, raising cows might nonetheless be a morally losing proposition for other over-riding reasons like climate change. To be sure, we get mouse blood on our hands, but we don't get cow blood, nor the blood of countless generations of future humans, cows, and other species that would otherwise be ravaged by climate change.

Over all, the piece doesn’t lead me to give in to my antecedent desire for hamburgers. The morally safer bet seems to remain on eating less meat, even if I end up consigning more mice to die in the fields. That being said, I’m definitely going to eat a juicy lamb cut from the local farmer when I visit next my parents in Wales, and when I do, I’ll think of this article.