Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A utilitarian argument for retaining meat sources of protein

Collectively, these articles pose a very interesting argument concerning the ethics of raising animals for food, and present a good example of utilitarian reasoning.

A Sanka Freeze Dried (and bovine) version of the argument:

1. Assume four 200 acre farms, run by Joe, one in W1 and its doppelgangers in W2-4. In W1 he grows soy beans for human consumption on the 200 acres.  In W2 he only raises cattle, raising crops for feed. In W3 he grows soy on half and raises cattle using the other half of land to grow corn as feed crop. In W4 he raises free-range cattle on half his land and grows soy on the remainder. In W5 he raises only cattle, free range.

2. Assume a typical year growing corn for W2, and W3. On the low end, that amounts about 100 bushels of corn per acre, or 10,000 bushels. A bushel of corn fed to livestock produces 6 pounds of beef, 13 pounds of pork, 20 pounds of chicken, or 28 pounds of catfish. So, to make the math simple, I’ll go with 5 pounds of beef. So, Joe ends up with 100,000 pounds of beef in W2, 50,000 pounds of beef in W3. Divided by 500 (meat yield per animal) that’s roughly 200 and 100 head of cattle respectively.

3. Given that W2 Joe farms 200 acres to provide feed, he will kill some number of animals in the process of working his fields (rodents and birds for example). To give it a figure, say 15 per acre are killed. This is an unavoidable side effect of planting and harvesting. That amounts to 3000 animals lost in W1 and W2.  In W3, Joe works 100 acres to provide feed. That will cause 1500 animal lives lost.

4. In a typical year, Joe2 kills 3100 animals to produce 100,000 pounds of animal protein. Joe3 has killed 1600 animals to produce 50,000 pounds of animal protein.

5. W1 Joe grows soy beans (the best source of vegetable protein).  One bushel yields 22 pounds of protein.  At an average of 40 bushels an acre, that’s 4000 bushels. 4000 x 22 = 88,000 pounds of protein, for 100 acres. 176,000 for 200 acres. Let’s assume that is all protein that humans can consume.  

6. In W1 Joe will not kill the 100 cattle annually.  He will however, kill 1500 x 2 = 3000 ‘collateral’ animals. 

7. The end result is that W1 Joe kills 3000 animals for 176,000 pounds. In W2 he kills 3100 for 100,000 pounds. In W3 Joe kills 3100 for 138,000 pounds.  On a strictly utilitarian reading that focuses on lives lost, Joe 2 is doing more harm than anyone, for less payoff.  Joe3 is second best, and  Joe1 is best. 

How about Joes 4 and 5?

8. Joe 4 uses 100 acres to raise 100 head of cattle free range, and 100 to raise soy. He kills 1600 animals for 138,000 pounds.

9. Joe 5 uses 200 acres to raise 200 head of cattle, free range. This generates 100,000 pounds with 200 lives lost.

10.Now, consider ratios of animals killed to protein produced. For lack of a better term, you can calculate a relative ‘efficiency’ rating using these numbers. The lower the number, the greater the efficiency of the farming method.  In plain English, this amounts to saying that the method with smaller numbers in the second column is less costly in lives per unit of protein:

Figures x 1000

W1: 3/176 = .017

W2: 3.1/100 = .031

W3: 3.1/138 = .0224

W4: 1.6/138 = .0116

W5: .2/100 = .002

11. Ranking the results according to efficiency of lives lost per unit we have:

1. W5

2. W4

3. W1

4. W3

5. W2

[The simplified scenarios I have described do not take into account the impact acreage has on local biodiversity, which would likely increase the fatality numbers.  It also only makes use of cattle, neglecting to explore the possibility, referenced earlier, that people could raise various other food animals that ‘convert’ more efficiently.  It also does not take into account any animal fatalities involved in ‘after farm’ processing of harvest. It also does not take into account that large scale raising of animals can convert materials humans cannot consume into proteins they can consume, thus ‘freeing up’ food potential in land.  A full utilitarian accounting would have to include all of these factors (and others no doubt).]

12. The key takeaway though, for the authors of these articles is that the all vegan system ends up causing more harm to animals per unit of protein than two of the animal inclusive alternatives. In so far as that is true, any person that relies on utilitarian considerations in making his/her food consumption decisions has to accept the results, and act accordingly, ceteris paribus.

End of Sanka Freeze Dried (and bovine) version. The text of the second of the linked article follows:

The ethics of eating red meat have been grilled recently by critics who question its consequences for environmental health and animal welfare. But if you want to minimize animal suffering and promote more sustainable agriculture, adopting a vegetarian diet might be the worst possible thing you could do.

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.

It takes somewhere between two to ten kilos of plants, depending on the type of plants involved, to produce one kilo of animal. Given the limited amount of productive land in the world, it would seem to some to make more sense to focus our culinary attentions on plants, because we would arguably get more energy per hectare for human consumption. Theoretically this should also mean fewer sentient animals would be killed to feed the ravenous appetites of ever more humans.

But before scratching rangelands-produced red meat off the “good to eat” list for ethical or environmental reasons, let’s test these presumptions.

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.

How is this possible?

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 arable land is already in use. If more Australians want their nutritional needs to be met by plants, our arable land will need to be even more intensely farmed. This will require a net increase in the use of fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and other threats to biodiversity and environmental health. Or, if existing laws are changed, more native vegetation could be cleared for agriculture (an area the size of Victoria plus Tasmania would be needed to produce the additional amount of plant-based food required).

Australian cattle eat mostly pasture, reducing their environmental impact. chris runoff

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.

In some cases rangelands have been substantially altered to increase the percentage of stock-friendly plants. Grazing can also cause significant damage such as soil loss and erosion. But it doesn’t result in the native ecosystem “blitzkrieg” required to grow crops.

This environmental damage is causing some well-known environmentalists to question their own preconceptions. British environmental advocate George Monbiot, for example, publically converted from vegan to omnivore after reading Simon Fairlie’s expose about meat’s sustainability. And environmental activist Lierre Keith documented the awesome damage to global environments involved in producing plant foods for human consumption.

In Australia we can also meet part of our protein needs using sustainably wild-harvested kangaroo meat. Unlike introduced meat animals, they don’t damage native biodiversity. They are soft-footed, low methane-producing and have relatively low water requirements. They also produce an exceptionally healthy low-fat meat.

In Australia 70% of the beef produced for human consumption comes from animals raised on grazing lands with very little or no grain supplements. At any time, only 2% of Australia’s national herd of cattle are eating grains in feed lots; the other 98% are raised on and feeding on grass. Two-thirds of cattle slaughtered in Australia feed solely on pasture.

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.

However, the largest and best-researched loss of sentient life is the poisoning of mice during plagues.

With its soft feet and low water use, kangaroo is a source of less ecologically damaging meat. No Dust

Each area of grain production in Australia has a mouse plague on average every four years, with 500-1000 mice per hectare. Poisoning kills at least 80% of the mice.

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.

Some of this grain is used to “finish” beef cattle in feed lots (some is food for dairy cattle, pigs and poultry), but it is still the case that many more sentient lives are sacrificed to produce useable protein from grains than from rangelands cattle.

There is a further issue to consider here: the question of sentience – the capacity to feel, perceive or be conscious.

You might not think the billions of insects and spiders killed by grain production are sentient, though they perceive and respond to the world around them. You may dismiss snakes and lizards as cold-blooded creatures incapable of sentience, though they form pair bonds and care for their young. But what about mice?

Mice are far more sentient than we thought. They sing complex, personalised love songs to each other that get more complex over time. Singing of any kind is a rare behaviour among mammals, previously known only to occur in whales, bats and humans.

Girl mice, like swooning human teenagers, try to get close to a skilled crooner. Now researchers are trying to determine whether song innovations are genetically programmed or or whether mice learn to vary their songs as they mature.

“Hoping to prepare them for an ethical oversight” Nikkita Archer

Baby mice left in the nest sing to their mothers — a kind of crying song to call them back. For every female killed by the poisons we administer, on average five to six totally dependent baby mice will, despite singing their hearts out to call their mothers back home, inevitably die of starvation, dehydration or predation.

When cattle, kangaroos and other meat animals are harvested they are killed instantly. Mice die a slow and very painful death from poisons. From a welfare point of view, these methods are among the least acceptable modes of killing. Although joeys are sometimes killed or left to fend for themselves, only 30% of kangaroos shot are females, only some of which will have young (the industry’s code of practice says shooters should avoid shooting females with dependent young). However, many times this number of dependent baby mice are left to die when we deliberately poison their mothers by the millions.

Replacing red meat with grain products leads to many more sentient animal deaths, far greater animal suffering and significantly more environmental degradation. Protein obtained from grazing livestock costs far fewer lives per kilogram: it is a more humane, ethical and environmentally-friendly dietary option.

So, what does a hungry human do? Our teeth and digestive system are adapted for omnivory. But we are now challenged to think about philosophical issues. We worry about the ethics involved in killing grazing animals and wonder if there are other more humane ways of obtaining adequate nutrients.

Relying on grains and pulses brings destruction of native ecosystems, significant threats to native species and at least 25 times more deaths of sentient animals per kilogram of food. Most of these animals sing love songs to each other, until we inhumanely mass-slaughter them.

Former Justice of the High Court, the Hon. Michael Kirby, wrote that:

“In our shared sentience, human beings are intimately connected with other animals. Endowed with reason and speech, we are uniquely empowered to make ethical decisions and to unite for social change on behalf of others that have no voice. Exploited animals cannot protest about their treatment or demand a better life. They are entirely at our mercy. So every decision of animal welfare, whether in Parliament or the supermarket, presents us with a profound test of moral character”.

We now know the mice have a voice, but we haven’t been listening.

The challenge for the ethical eater is to choose the diet that causes the least deaths and environmental damage. There would appear to be far more ethical support for an omnivorous diet that includes rangeland-grown red meat and even more support for one that includes sustainably wild-harvested kangaroo.