Scientific American (SA) has a blog post up right now that compares various animal products by how many deaths they cause. The premise of the short article is that when we sit down to eat we ought to ask ourselves “How many animal lives did this food cost?”
Sounds like a good idea, right? In general, that’s one of the things vegans do. We choose to eat plants because eating plants instead of animals causes fewer animal deaths and less animal suffering. It’s just plain nicer to eat plants instead of animals. For example, check out this graph from the SA blog post:
Also, check out this graph from Animal Visuals:
But the SA blog post makes a huge mistake by claiming that “if you want your diet to kill as few animals as possible, then eschewing meat is actually quite an indirect, and sometimes even counterproductive, strategy.” My BS detector goes berserk whenever I see the word “counterproductive” in relation to the indirect consequences of human action (or inaction). That’s because when it comes to human behaviors, it’s very difficult to prove that taking an action or refraining from taking an action is counterproductive to a goal. It may or may not be counterproductive, but if it is it’s awfully hard to prove.
The author tries to back up her claim of counterproductivity by writing:
“let’s say you’re a vegetarian and you go out to lunch with your omnivorous friend, where he orders a burger and you order an egg-salad sandwich. The two eggs in your sandwich are only 150 calories, compared to the 300 calories in his beef patty, but the eggs cost almost 9 times as much life as the beef.”
That may be true. In that one instance. However, it’s not the whole story. For starters, when someone goes vegetarian they may not replace the meat in their former diet with eat eggs and dairy. They may replace the meat in their former diet with beans, nuts, seeds, and veggie meats. They may eat vegan when at home and only eat lacto-ovo vegetarian when out. Or they may order animal products during meals with omni friends yet eat vegan with veg friends. Vegetarians have a lot of options. They certainly have more choices than simply egg-salad sandwiches. It’s absurd to assume that vegetarians eat egg-salad sandwiches every time nonveg*ns eat burgers.
Second, there’s a very high probability that the “omnivorous friend” ordered cheese on his burger. Or maybe even some cheese and bacon and mayonnaise too. A cheese-burger is particularly likely because cheese consumption in the U.S. has nearly tripled since 1970. In fact, cheese is so popular that even an average lacto-ovo vegetarian would probably choose a grilled cheese sandwich rather than an egg-salad sandwich. At that point when we’re comparing a cheese-burger to a grilled cheese sandwich, it’s obvious which option causes less death: the vegetarian option.
And just for fun, let’s add another plate to the table. Make room for the quasi-vegetarian. She says, “I’m vegetarian” all the time but the reality is that most of the time she eats chicken. She’s not going to eat a burger or an egg-salad sandwich because those are too high in cholesterol. And she’s not going to eat grilled cheese either, again it’s too high in cholesterol. She eats a grilled chicken sandwich instead. According to the charts above she’s the biggest killer of all three diners. The person who eats chicken instead of a beef burger or a grilled cheese sandwich causes the most animal deaths.
Luckily the author, Julia Galef, acknowledges that her beef burger and egg-salad comparison isn’t the whole story. She writes:
“This isn’t to say that vegetarianism is pointless. The typical vegetarian almost certainly causes fewer animal deaths than the typical omnivore. And unless you’re replacing all of your meat calories with egg-calories, going vegetarian will significantly reduce the number of deaths your diet is causing. The important takeaway from these calculations, rather, is that evaluating food in terms of ‘flesh’ versus ‘not-flesh’ doesn’t tell you that much about how many animals died to produce it.” [emphasis added]
She’s right about that. And that’s why it’s important to add another diner to the table: the vegan. So now let’s compare. We have the average American omnivore who eats the cheese-burger, we have the average American vegetarian who eats the grilled cheese, we have the average American quasi-vegetarian (vegetarian in namesake only) who eats chicken, and we have the vegan who eats a bean and rice burrito.
Do the math. The clear winner in the ‘Olympics of Saving Lives’ is the vegan.