Not for all the rice in China

My friend sent me a link about how having a vegetarian diet is responsible for killing more animals as one of his regular attempts to convince me to stop being vegetarian.  I don’t know why he does this, but I figured at the very least I would debunk this article.

This article takes an Australian-centric point of view (presumably it was written by one of those… Australians).  My major objection with this article is from these two points:

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…

 

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.

Now on paper this sounds like a very reasonable argument.  However, humans can’t live off of grains.  The thought that all of the acreage of pastureland were replaced with wheat is a ludicrous notion.  Plenty of other vegetation could be grown and harvested that consumes less space than the amount required to raise cattle.

I do admit that many mice and other small animals would die in the mechanized harvesting of grain, and that loss of life is unavoidable, barring spending hundreds of dollars per cup of wheat flour to manually harvest wheat (or perhaps train mice to do so?).  So, I decided to figure out how much life would be lost for a balanced vegetarian diet.  According to the USDA MyPlate program, the average American (I consider children to be un-American) should consume 5-6.5 oz of protein equivalents every day.

Based upon an estimate I found from a Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture student factsheet – there are approximately 45 soybeans in one plant, which is about half an ounce of soybeans per plant (based upon 1500 soybeans being a pound).  Since a human is intended to consume 5-6.5 oz of protein daily, that is about 23 soy plants (1/4 cup of soybeans = 1 oz protein, 1 soybean plant = 0.06 cups of soybeans).  Since there are about 100,000 soybeans per acre, that means you get enough protein from 1 acre of soybeans to feed ~4000 people each day.  There are 2.47 acres in a hectare, so based upon the Australians calculation ~40 mice will be killed to grow these crops (assuming a 1:1 soy:wheat mouse killing ratio).  These mice would die slow painful deaths from the pesticides used in soy-cropping.

On the other hand, one needs to consume about 6.5 oz of beef for the same RDA of protein.  This link has sort of outlined how much beef is produced from a cow (~ 8000 oz.), and though it’s from Metafilter, that number is supported by the Oklahoma Dept. of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry (as well as the figure mentioned by the Aussie).  According to this very outdated paper from Kansas State University, the estimate is about 3.3 acres of pastureland per steer and 8 acres per cow/calf pair.  So, let’s just say that’s about 5 acres per unit cattlemeat (this is an arbitrary unit I just invented).  Therefore, one acre of cattlemeat will provide enough protein for 246 people (8000/ (5*6.5) ) each day.  However only 1 cattle unit is killed.

After all these bullshit calculations, I should also point out:

  1. Many cattle are not pasture-farmed, and are instead fed corn/soy diets. This convolutes ALL of my calculations.
  2. Also, I am completely ignoring intensive cattle farming which creates really inhumane conditions for the cattle.
  3. I am assuming that there is a straight swap for protein content.  There are many benefits to eating meat (such as having all essential amino acids and extra vitamins and minerals), that are not in soy (which is far less fatty, and contains many vitamins that meat do not).
  4. Also, consuming dairy is not taking into account, which would still require pastureland, but also reduce the demand for soy.
  5. I don’t really know if soybeans require as much pesticides as wheat, so that 1:1 ratio might be off.  Also, soybeans could be organically farmed, that would reduce the amount of mice that are killed from pesticides and harvesting.
  6. I don’t really like soy.

So, in the end, we will be killing more individual lives of smaller rodents and insects by growing more soybeans, but we can actually feed more people this way than growing cattle.  However, even as a vegetarian, the world is far more boring (and much more smug) without meat-eaters around.  Let’s just be friends.

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