Animal Suffering and Agriculture

nature-field-agriculture-cerealsBy Mike Archer, Professor, Evolution of Earth & Life Systems Research Group at UNSW Australia. Originally published in full at The Conversation.

If you want to minimise 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).

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.

This article was originally published at The Conversation, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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5 Responses to Animal Suffering and Agriculture

  1. The article makes an interesting case, one that I have heard in person, that industrial agriculture causes harm to animals. When the proponents of the animal rights movement state that animals should not be consumed because the process harms them, some folks reply that industrial agriculture is more harmful due to the sheer number of animals harmed. However, the article does not mention non-industrial agriculture and I think the value of intentional communities based on community agriculture (monasteries) are good examples of how we might respond to this particular argument.

    • Yes, Gauravani I agree. There is also a difference between raising animals for slaughter and unintentionally killing reptiles and rodents in pursuit of one’s sustenance. In consideration of this one could make the case that industrial farming is still less harmful than industrial animal slaughter. But the real argument is non industrial farming vs industrial animal slaughter.

  2. This article is speaking from a perspective that looked at Australian agriculture, which for many reasons, is fairly unique and different from most other areas of the world. There are things that work there, that would never work elsewhere – or at least would work in very few other places. So if you’re getting a scolding from a study that was based in Australia, you’ll want to look carefully at how much can actually be transferred to your area. I find A LOT of the articles that are trying to defend meat-eating use studies based in Australia for this reason.

    That being said, it’s impossible to live without something dying. Even if you’re a fruititarian, still billions micro-organisms that you inhale each day will die as a result of it.

    I think reading the article that takes a statistical look of how many animals are saved as a result of adopting a vegetarian diet (which still takes into account small animals and such that die as a result of the farming of plants) is far more compelling:

  3. Yes, there are environments and soils which are not suitable for producing grains. Usually where there is not enough water, or where soil is too shallow or rocky. And there you still raise cows and drink milk, instead of raising cows to kill them for meat.

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