Vegetarianism: Some numbers

“If God had not meant them to be eaten, he would not have made them out of meat.”
—Zorblax the Malevolent, Eater of Men, Women, and Small Furry Creatures from Alpha Centauri.

Last week I was thinking about the ethics of vampirism (as one does) and calculated how many cows you’d have to farm and drain in order to maintain your immortal superpowered life. (3.8) Then I realized it’s kind of stupid that I hadn’t done the same calculation for real life.

Before I go any further, stop and ask yourself how many animals you’re OK with having farmed and killed to support your ability to eat meat. Come up with an actual number, or at least a factor of ten. Is the number different for cows and pigs than it is for turkeys and chickens? Do you care more about them suffering, or dying? Those can change your results.

Oh, and “farmed” is kind of a euphemism. For the animals that end up being part of my diet at least, I think it’s fair to say the word “torture” applies. The question is how much of that you’re willing to tolerate. Since the animals wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for this purpose, the choice isn’t about giving up meat to save animals. It’s about giving up meat in order for there to be fewer animals in that kind of existence.

Try to come up with a number such that you’re probably OK with there being X animals tortured for their entire existence to enable your omnivorous lifestyle, but for 10X you’d give up meat if it would somehow let you put them out of their misery. (Assume no consequences like them being replaced; we can argue about that later.)

You might think the animals are better off being tortured than never existing. If so, the question does not apply and you ought to increase your meat consumption as much as you can. Instead, I’m going to assume X is some positive number.

Have you figured out values of X yet? If not, stop reading until you have some.

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OK, nobody stopped reading. Oh well. If you dislike any of my decisions, say it out loud or write it down so your mind doesn’t change it on you.
I arbitrarily decided the following:
—I care some about animal suffering but don’t really care about animal death.
—I am probably OK with an average of one cow or pig being tortured at a time if that’s what my meat-eating takes, but I’d rather be vegetarian than have it happen to ten.
—For chickens and turkeys it’s more like I don’t mind ten but do mind forty. (I don’t actually trust my mental image of forty as distinct from thirty or fifty. Seems like an important caveat.)

This is the weakest part of the exercise. It’s based on nothing more than me asking myself the bolded question and going “Hm, that seems acceptable.” I could be completely wrong about anything from how sentient cattle are to just how bad the conditions are. Feel free to correct whichever mistake is the most outrageous.
Then I looked up the numbers.

The average American (in 2009) ate 120.2 kg of meat. (The chart cites the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., but I linked to this instead because it’s much easier to read.)
Using the numbers from this awesome chart, that .72 pounds per day (pretending all of it’s beef), is 1.6 cows every thousand days. Beef cattle get harvested at 18-22 months, so say they live for 600 days. In that case, there’s an average of .96 cows being farmed at any given time to support the average American’s meat eating.

That number is uncomfortably close to my range that I’m questionably OK with. It’s technically on the right side of my arbitrary line, but keep in mind that the numbers are extremely approximate.

That was assuming the entire average meat intake was beef. If it’s pork, the number is instead
(.72 lbs/day)(1 pig/140 lbs)=5.14 pigs every thousand days. Wikipedia says 4-12 months for the age at slaughter, with animal rights sites rounding off to six. (5.14 pigs/1000 days)(180 days/lifespan)=.92 pigs at a time being farmed for the average American. Or .46 pigs and .48 cows, or whatever other distribution if you eat more than one type of meat.

It’s pretty much the same as the number for cows, but remember what it’s not saying. That number does not mention the fact that pigs are being farmed and killed off faster than cows. These numbers are about the number of animals suffering at a time, not the number of animal deaths. For the second thing, I’ll refer you back to the awesome chart.

If it’s chickens instead,
(.72 lbs/day)(1 chicken/5lbs)(42 days/chicken)=six chickens being farmed at any given time. Notably, this has more of a margin of error than the cows and pigs did, since I said I was fine with up to ten.

Numbers on turkeys were less Googleable for some reason, but it seems like they’re about five times the weight of a chicken while alive, and 2-2.5 times the age at slaughter. In which case, the average American’s meat intake could be satisfied with only about three turkeys being tortured at a time. If, like me, you care about poultry suffering somewhere on the order of a tenth as much as cattle suffering, this is where the best deal is.

Personally, I don’t average anything like .72 pounds of meat a day. I don’t keep track (probably should), but I’d be shocked if it’s above .5. With the numbers multiplied accordingly, I conclude I don’t need to become vegetarian until someone corrects my assumptions.

I am going to eat more turkey, though, as compared to the other meats. I wasn’t expecting one to be significantly more acceptable than the others, but may as well take advantage of it.

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8 thoughts on “Vegetarianism: Some numbers

  1. Brin

    Interesting that your Xs were pretty much the same as mine. (And yes, I did come up with them before reading on.)

    Personally, I don’t average anything like .72 pounds of meat a day. I don’t keep track (probably should), but I’d be shocked if it’s above .5.

    Running a rough estimate on the first week of September as an example, I’m getting about .25 – .30 lbs/day for me. About one-quarter of the meat was beef (the rest was chicken and salmon), and I suspect that happened to be an unusually high beef-intake week. Mind you, I do consume a lot of cow-based dairy.

    (I highly recommend keeping a food diary, by the way. I highly recommend against calorie-counting–it leads only to sorrow and possible psychological damage, and also it encourages you to eat processed foods so that you don’t have to struggle to figure out how many calories were in that scoop of homemade chicken florentine–but I find a vaguer log (“today I had a single-serving yogurt cup, two scoops of peanut-butter-on-a-spoon, a large cup of milk, a baked chicken breast, and a smallish bowl of popcorn”) to be helpful in a variety of ways. It’s especially useful if, each time you try a new food, you make a note next to its log entry about what you thought of it.)

    Reply
  2. geeky

    Well, as a vegetarian, my number was 0, and I think it might be a mistake to assume a positive number…

    “Since the animals wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for this purpose…”

    I’d think farm (or since farming is a euphemism could I call them ‘torture animals’?) animals would sooner exist in the many petting zoos of the world than cease to exist, if people stopped eating them.

    Reply
    1. Nate Gabriel Post author

      That’s true, they would prefer that. But them being transferred to petting zoos is not a result of giving up meat. The currently farmed animals will continue being tortured regardless of our diets, but becoming vegetarian can mean that a few less of them get replaced (maybe, on average, eventually).
      I admit that I’m treating the animals as fungible and some people might disagree with that, but that’s a separate concern.

      I assume a positive number because if it’s literally zero then the utilitarianism gods descend from the heavens and drastically smite all meat-eaters while only slightly increasing the welfare of a fraction of the tortured animals.

      Basically, utilitarianism and zero don’t mix well. You might, for instance, accept the torture of a single animal if it meant everyone on Earth could eat like a king.
      http://lesswrong.com/lw/kn/torture_vs_dust_specks/

      X could be a positive number so small that it forbids meat in all plausible real-world situations, and of course to be a vegetarian it just has to forbid meat in our particular real-world situation.

      Reply
  3. HT

    When you talk about X animals being tortured at a time, you don’t just count the actual torture, but all of their existence?

    Because a lot of the farming may consist of ennui and perhaps some social stressors, but that’s still not the same as the acute agony of literal torture. (which also happens, but probably much less often per time unit, and which probably is orders of magnitude more intense)

    Reply
    1. Nate Gabriel Post author

      Both should count. The relevant number is “X animals under current conditions;” I called it torture to err on the side of veganism by using the strongest word I could apply.
      And even when they aren’t being actively injured, I think it’s fair to use the word torture to refer to years in a cage large enough to contain the subject but small enough that they can’t stretch their limbs.

      Reply
  4. Rory

    “OK, nobody stopped reading.”

    I stopped reading. In fact, I stopped two paragraphs before the break, right after the bolded question.

    I can’t bring myself to give an answer, though. When I feel myself trying to turn on my empathy for hypothetical chickens, in order to measure the answer, I automatically stop myself, out of fear that I will discover that I should give up meat. For now, I will just slink to the next post in vague guilt and try not to think about this.

    Reply
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