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Read in an Italian magazine:

The University professor who conducted the study, such Mike Archer, showed instead that the production of plants consumed by humans can kill a number of animals 25 times higher per kilogram of usable protein produced, compared to what happens for the meat production.

original, translation

Is this a sensationalist title or does it have some substance?

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    Does the article count the animals killed to produce the food for the livestock? – SIMEL Nov 18 '13 at 11:20
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    @ChrisW, I think then that this comparison is false, because a lot of the livestock is fed by either the remainings of food grown for human consumption, such is the parts of the wheat we don't eat, or food grown specifically for the consumption of livestock. – SIMEL Nov 18 '13 at 11:33
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    The study was made by Mike Archer in Australia. A similar article is here which says, "Most cattle slaughtered in Australia feed solely on pasture. This is usually rangelands, which constitute about 70% of the continent. Grazing occurs on primarily native ecosystems. These have and maintain far higher levels of native biodiversity than croplands. [etc]" – ChrisW Nov 18 '13 at 11:35
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    Another example of the claim, from The Correx Archive: Vegetarian Massacre - Is a vegetarian diet better for the environment? – Andrew Grimm Nov 18 '13 at 12:21
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    @ChrisW: Oh boy. Now it's not just "animals", but "sentient animals". This sounds even more suspect. – Mike Dunlavey Nov 19 '13 at 1:00
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There's a more detailed article on the subject here, written by the author cited in the OP, which may be the origin of the claim made in the Italian magazine:

The vegetarian dilemma

The elements of the argument, which justify the claim, are:

  • Most cattle slaughtered in Australia feed solely on pasture. This is usually rangelands, which constitute about 70% of the continent.

  • Each area of grain production in Australia has a mouse plague on average every four years, with 500-1000 mice per hectare. Poisoning kills at least 80% of the mice.

  • 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.

I've no reason to believe that these allegations are false: so I hesitate to call the claim "false" or "sensationalist".

However I have various reasons to believe that the claim is not widely/generally applicable as may be implied by the Italian magazine:

This FAO document says,

  • Grazing systems. These are systems based almost exclusively on livestock production, with little or no integration with crops. They are mainly based on native grassland. In terms of total production, grazing systems are of lesser importance because they supply only 9 percent of global meat production. Of this, three-quarters comes from Central and South America and of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Livestock interact in these systems with land, water and plant and animal biodiversity, especially wildlife.
  • Mixed farming systems In mixed farming systems, crops and livestock production are integrated on the same farm. Globally, mixed farming systems produce the largest share of total meat (54 percent), and milk (90 percent).
  • Industrial systems. These systems cover industrial types of production and small-scale urban or pert-urban production in developing countries. Both monogastric (pig and poultry) and ruminant production systems exist. They provide 37 percent of the total global meat production.

Therefore the argument is applicable only for 10% of meat (i.e. range-fed cattle and sheep).

Furthermore, almost all the relevent hits from the first three pages of the https://www.google.com/search?q=mouse+plague Google search are from Australia: so "mouse plagues affecting wheat" seems to be, more or less, a specially-Australian problem.

Thirdly, the author is IMO cherry-picking his foodstuffs:

  • Not all meat is cattle (pigs, chickens, etc. are monogastric) and don't eat grass.

  • Wheat isn't the only food for human vegetarians (but I suspect that wheat is especially susceptible to mouse plagues), so by picking "wheat" he is picking a 'worst case' crop for mouse-killing.

Nevertheless, articles such as Criticisms of Environmental vegetarianism may be right in saying than being vegetarian is insufficient:

According to Cornell scientists, "the heavy dependence on fossil energy suggests that the US food system, whether meat-based or plant-based, is not sustainable." but they also mention that: "lactoovovegetarian diet is more sustainable than the average American meat-based diet. " [23]

Some environmental activists claim that adopting a vegetarian diet may be a way of focusing on personal actions and righteous gestures rather than systemic change. Dave Riley, an Australian environmentalist, states that "being meatless and guiltless seems seductively simple while environmental destruction rages around us," noting that animals can contribute to the food chain.[24]

Bill Mollison has inconsistently argued in his Permaculture Design Course that vegetarianism exacerbates soil erosion. This is because removing a plant from a field removes all the nutrients it obtained from the soil, while removing an animal leaves the field intact. On US farmland, much less soil erosion is associated with pastureland used for livestock grazing than with land used for production of crops.[25] Robert Hart has also developed forest gardening, which has since been adopted as a common permaculture design element, as a sustainable plant-based food production system.[26]

Eating range-fed Australian cattle is not feasible for the majority of the people (vegetarians or otherwise) in the world, and for that reason the article isn't wholly or generally true (because it's impossible).

If you are interested in this subject (i.e. if you want to do something about it) there may be other options which you can explore locally (in whichever country you are living in): for example, "organic" farming might be less deleterious to wild-life ... but deciding that would be a topic for a different question.

I am inclined to praise the author for at least making me think more about the subject.

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If you take the headline to mean "there exists a vegetarian A, and a meat eater B, such that more animals are killed during the production of A's food than the production of B's food", it is true. For example, consider a vegetarian that consumes commercially produced milk and cheese, from livestock that are fed barley and soy versus a non-vegetarian that grows their own organic vegetables and only eats moose, deer, or grouse that they've hunted themselves.

But, taking the more reasonable interpretation: "the average number of animals killed to produce the diet of an average vegetarian is more than the average number of animals killed to produce the diet of an average non-vegetarian", it is false.

The total area occupied by grazing is equivalent to 26 percent of the ice-free terrestrial surface of the planet. In addition, the total area dedicated to feedcrop production amounts to 33 percent of total arable land. From Livestock's Long Shadow

Also,

In the United States, with the world's fourth largest land area, livestock are responsible for an estimated ... 37 percent of pesticide use ...

...

In 2002, a total of 670 million tonnes of cereals were fed to livestock, representing roughly one-third of the global cereal harvest.

...

Pesticides impact the health of wild animals (including fishes, shellfishes, birds, and mammalians)

...

In 2001, 70 percent of the volume of herbicides used in agriculture can be attributed to animal feed production in the form of soybean and corn.

Thus, if a vegetarian's diet is causing animal deaths due to standard agricultural practices, an omnivore's diet is causing them just the same.

The article writer can claim I'm attacking a strawman, because the article says "the production of plants consumed by humans can kill a number of animals 25 times higher per kilogram of usable protein produced, compared to what happens for the meat production". Certainly, it's possible to kill a lot of animals while farming plants, and it's possible to simply use grazing or wild animals for your meat production. However, that's not the norm, and it doesn't make the headline true.

The central argument of this answer is theoretical in nature. We do not allow answers based uniquely on common sense or pure logic. Answers which are wholly based on a theoretical model are generally downvoted and may be deleted. See FAQ: What are theoretical answers?

  • Are you arguing that if people ate less meat and ate more crops, that could reduce reduce the total amount of crop-land? If so, can you cite evidence/statistics to show it? Or if not, what is your argument apart from picking on the word "can"? – ChrisW Nov 19 '13 at 8:51
  • IMO the claim appears to be correct, in Australia where most cows are pasture-fed. But, world-wide, only 10% of animals are entirely pasture-fed. It's that which makes the generalization (to e.g. Europe and America) misleading; but the references in your answer don't really touch on that. For example you haven't shown that reducing carnivorism would result in less pesticide use. – ChrisW Nov 19 '13 at 11:51
  • @ChrisW I'm not arguing what might be the case if people acted differently. I'm just stating what the case is. I don't claim that reducing carnivorism would result in less pesticide use. My picking on the the word "can" is only to anticipate a possible claim that my answer is attacking a strawman. I can remove that paragraph if you think it is not necessary. – user5582 Nov 19 '13 at 19:11
  • I don't see how the numbers you cite (e.g. 33% of arable land is for feedstock) justify your conclusion (that the claim about relative numbers of animals killed) is "false". The OP's premise (cows are 100% pasture-fed) and detailed calculations (100 mice per hectare) may be wrong, yet you haven't shown that the "substance" of the conclusion (about whether more animals are killed) is wrong. – ChrisW Nov 19 '13 at 19:22
  • "70 percent of the volume of herbicides used in agriculture can be attributed to animal feed production". It's the herbicide killing the little mice and 70% of that is due to animal feed production. – user5582 Nov 19 '13 at 19:49
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It's not just pesticides. and mice are only part of the issue. Rabbits for eg are killed in the hundreds of thousands in the UK as an eg as a legal obligation for landowners to stop them damaging crops. It beggars belief actually educated people don't realise this.

Furthermore many crops erode soil ...an eg is the soya in Argentina. So new land is constantly exploited for the crops. This could be averted by sharing land with free range cattle....Argentina's traditional produce.
And at that point a further comparison can be made. While the research compares plant protein with meat protein, those that appreciate the quality of Argentine leather will know that it's not only just beef we get from cattle. And there's dairy produce too.

True that crops are often fed to cattle at a poor FCR , but the point is they don't HAVE to be. The article points this out and is not a defence of grain fed cattle but of pasture reared cattle. It is therefore reasonable to suggest criticism of the usual vegan argument while at the same time not defending grain fed cattle. Furthermore pigs are often fed waste vegetable matter with a good FCR (1-3)and chickens have an excellent FCR (1.6). Sheep kangaroo reindeer etc etc of course all exist mainly on natural vegetation so again the grain fed argument is simply not applicable.

A further point against cattle is the methane they produce. Well there's a very strong counter to that... crops and ploughing do not act as efficiently in dealing with as carbon as pastureland. So raising of pasture fed animals is going to be far better for the greenhouse effect than crops. http://www.wsj.com/articles/actually-raising-beef-is-good-for-the-planet-1419030738

So those claiming the science behind the Archer article has been debunked haven't actually a leg to stand on. Maybe we shouldn't eat so much meat, maybe we should use pasture not grain fed animals, maybe you don't like the thought of animal flesh. But as far as sustainability is concerned the vegan solution may not be as clear cut as you'd like to think. And certainly it's disingenuous to pretend it doesn't kill animals or destroy habitat. Pastureland often supports biodiversity that much cropland simply does not.

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