“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.
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.