Please note that this article is now outdated. I have updated this article, added over 120 peer-reviewed references, expanded it, added several chapters, and answered many more questions in the soon-to-be-released book with the same title: “Letter To A Vegetarian Nation“. If you are interested in this topic I highly recommend you read the full book. As an apology for inconveniencing you, I am going to give you a 20% discount on the book, just follow these instructions:
- Follow this link to the sales page
- Scroll down to the heading “BUY IT HERE”
- Choose option #1 (click “add to cart”)
- Enter the discount code “newandimproved” during checkout for your 20% discount
You can also read a preview of the book below:
And now, without further ado, the article you were looking for….
Overview Of This Article:
- Basic values:
- Improving the environment is good.
- Reducing animal suffering as much as possible is good.
- Developing a sustainable civilization is good.
- Agriculture is quickly transitioning to sustainable models
- It is not possible to produce food sustainably without large numbers of livestock.
- It is not possible to produce any food in Brittle Environments without even more livestock
- Therefore a sustainable civilization must include large numbers of livestock on all agricultural land and all Brittle land.
- These livestock will die.
- We should probably kill most of them.
- We should probably eat their meat afterwords.
- The ethics of lost potential.
- Climate Change
I have put much of the supporting information for these statements in separate articles to keep this article at a manageable length. I encourage you to read those supporting articles as you come to them. Especially if you want an in-depth understanding of the reasoning behind each of these statements.
1. Basic Values
These are the values I hold, and the values that I believe most people (especially Vegans and Vegetarians) hold. I am not going to argue for or against these basic values in this article because they have all been discussed in great detail elsewhere.
The dietary choices we make have ethical consequences, they influence the environment, animal well-being, and the economic structure of our society. We should chose our food consciously.
The environment supports all life on Earth, including us, and so we should make sure that we are not damaging it. If we damage our life support system we are really damaging ourselves.
The suffering of animals should be reduced as much as possible. Factory farms probably represent the worst suffering large numbers of animals have ever had to endure. Factory farming should be stopped as soon as possible.
- Our civilization should transition away from reliance on non-renewable resources. We need to be sustainable, by definition, or our civilization will fail eventually. (I am making no statements about how quickly or slowly this must happen)
Hopefully you agree with most, or all of those statements. If not, you should probably read this book.
I have tremendous respect for Vegans and Vegetarians because you truly understand that what you eat has a huge impact on our world. Not only do you care, but you actually put your ideals into practice. It takes a rare kind of person to actually change how they live their daily lives solely for the benefit of the environment, and animals. Those admirable traits are the reason I have addressed this article to Vegans and Vegetarians. Everyone needs to hear this message, but Im starting with vegetarians because you are at the cutting edge of food activism. You are more likely to care about the facts I present, and act upon them.
I encourage you to read with an open mind. But I also hope that you will not accept my arguments unless they are logical, and ethically sound.
If you stick with me through this article I guarantee you will learn lots that you did not know before. If you read the supporting articles you will also leave with an excellent understanding of sustainable agriculture, proper livestock management, desert restoration, and more.
2. The Current Revolution In Agriculture
Full article: The Future Of Agriculture Is Regenerative
Over the past several decades new food production techniques have been developed which allow us to produce food while simultaneously regenerating the environment and local ecosystems.
Contrary to the mainstream narrative it is possible to “feed the world” sustainably, without destroying our soils, biodiversity, water quality, or health.
These techniques are spreading like wildfire. Sustainable agriculture requires livestock (which I will explain later) and so the fact that sustainable agriculture is quickly becoming dominant has major implications for the ethics of eating meat (also discussed later in this article).
Are you somewhere in North America, Europe, or Australia right now? If so, there is almost definitely a sustainable farmer within an hours drive of wherever you are.
There is no central database containing all the sustainable farmers in the world, unfortunately, so they can be hard to find. But I have created this list to help people find regenerative farmers nearby.
Why Is Sustainable Agriculture Taking Over?
The primary reason sustainable agriculture is gaining so much momentum is that sustainable farming is generally more profitable than conventional farming.
Why are sustainable techniques more profitable? (profit = revenue – expenses)
- Because they are just as productive, in terms of total calories, as conventional grain production. And because farmers can usually charge more for their products (equal or greater revenue).
- Because sustainable production requires little, if any, external inputs. Inputs (along with machinery and land) are the major cost on most conventional farms. Fertilizers are replaced by the soil food web. Herbicides are replace by mulch, healthy soil, and intelligent crop planning. Insecticides are replaced by birds, biodiversity, healthy soil. Fungicides are replaced by healthy soil biology. Additionally the healthy soil on sustainable farms are able to hold more water and more effectively use the rain that does fall. This means the farmer doesn’t have to spend as much money on irrigation and doesn’t lose as much income during droughts (lower expenses).
Note: If you have any doubts about the claims I am making about sustainable agriculture please refer to my post “Evidence For Regenerative Agriculture”.
So, sustainable farming produces equal, or better, revenues while significantly reducing costs. This means more profit for the farmer.
So sustainable farming is the way of the future. It will take over because it is more profitable for the farmer. And it will take over because it has to (fossil fuels, the bedrock of conventional agriculture, will not last forever).
*Note: For ease of understanding I use the word “sustainable agriculture” throughout this article. But what I am specifically talking about can be better defined as “regenerative agriculture”. Some techniques often labelled as “sustainable” (like Organic farming) are not actually sustainable. Everything that falls under the label of “regenerative agriculture”, on the other hand, is sustainable, that is where the distinction lies.
So in this new world of sustainable agriculture, should we eat meat? Lets take a look at that issue…
3. It Is Not Possible To Produce Food Sustainably Without Large Numbers Of Livestock
A summary of the full article:
- A healthy soil food web is necessary for sustainable food production.
- Livestock are necessary to maintain the health of the soil food web.
1) A Healthy Soil Food Web Is Necessary For Sustainable Food Production
Supporting Article: The Foundation Of Everything: The Soil Food Web
In brief, the health of the soil food web determines:
- the total amount of land needed for food production
- the nutritional content of food
- the amount of water needed for irrigation and the effect of droughts
- the amount of pesticides needed for agriculture
- the price of food
If the soil food web falls below a certain threshold of health it is actually impossible to sustainably produce enough food for humans on the Earth. Livestock are necessary for keeping the soil food web above this minimum threshold over the long term.
2) Livestock Are Necessary To Maintain The Health Of The Soil Food Web
Livestock maintain the soil food web through trampling and through grazing.
- Trampling covers the surface of the soil, protecting soil microorganisms, preventing evaporation, moderating temperature, providing food for the soil food web, and preventing erosion.
- Grazing causes plants to send out a lot of energy into the soil food web while they are regrowing. Every time this happens the soil food web becomes stronger and more soil is created.
Wild animals, or technology, cannot replace the trampling and grazing action of livestock.
Livestock are also necessary for sustainable food production because plants require the increased nutrient availability provided by animal manure. Wild animals can no longer fill this role, and technology cannot replicate it on the scale required for global food production.
Livestock are also necessary for moving nutrients from lowlands to highlands. A cow eats a plant from a valley, walks up hill (or is moved uphill by a human), and then deposits those nutrients on the hill when it defecates. If this ecosystem function is not provided all nutrients eventually move to the ocean. Wild animals can no longer provide this technology, livestock provide this service reliably and controllably.
The more livestock present, the more we will receive the benefits mentioned above (lower food costs, less land, less water, better nutrition, etc). So there are good reasons to maximize the number of livestock on our landscapes.
But, as vegetarians, you are probably wondering “what is the bare minimum number of livestock needed for sustainable food production?” The truthful answer is we don’t know for sure because no one has done the required research. However, if we look at the evolutionary principles that influence our ecosystems we can infer that we will need quite a lot of livestock. I have estimated a minimum of around 22 million cattle are needed on a permanent basis to maintain the basic productivity of the current cropland in the US and Canada in the absence of fertilizers. This is excluding the millions of cattle needed to restore the brittle landscapes in North America and the millions which are currently on grasslands and need to stay there.
Properly Managed Livestock: Livestock must be managed properly or they will degrade ecosystems instead of being essential for their basic health. Read What Are Properly Managed Livestock to find out what this means.
Climate Change: Some of you may be concerned about livestock causing climate change. Please read this article entitled Properly Managed Livestock Are The Key To Stopping Climate Change.
4. It Is not possible to produce any food in Brittle Environments without predominantly livestock-based farms.
Brittle Environments are simply areas of the world where humidity is not distributed evenly throughout the year. Please refer to The Climate Brittleness Scale info-graphic for a better understanding of what exactly a Brittle Environment is and why it matters.
Have you watched Allan Savory’s TED talk yet? It is probably the best way to get a quick understanding of why livestock are necessary in Brittle Environments (for more in-depth information please read his book).
It is especially important for livestock to be properly managed in Brittle Environments. Read What Are Properly Managed Livestock to find out what this means.
Just in case you are concerned about Climate Change and missed the previous link to this article, here it is again: Properly Managed Livestock Are The Key To Stopping Climate Change.
5. Therefore Sustainability Requires Large Numbers Of Livestock On All Farmland And All Brittle Land
Food production in Brittle Environments requires large numbers of livestock to be sustainable. Plant food production must necessarily be a small proportion of food production in these areas compared to livestock production. On all other productive land we also need large numbers of livestock, but probably not as many as in Brittle Environments.
6. These Livestock Will Die
Large numbers of livestock all over the world will die no matter what, if we develop a sustainable civilization.
7. We Should Probably Kill These Livestock
What is the most ethical and logical way for these livestock to die?
I am going to try to give you all of the information that has ethical consequences, and I will propose what I think the logical choice is. But really, this is an open question, and I encourage you to think it through carefully. It will be a real issue in the near future.
There are a few different ways that the average animal could die in a world filled with sustainable agriculture.
Death without “intervention” (old age, disease, injury, poisoning, heart attack, etc.)
Death via “natural predators” (coyotes, wolves, lions, bears, snakes, domestic dogs, etc)
Death via “human intervention” (usually accomplished with an air-powered piston to the brain, or slitting the throat, or with a gun, etc.)
Let us examine all of these options to see what the most ethical choice might be:
|Type Of Death||
No Intervention (Cancer, Disease, Broken Limb, Starvation, Old Age, Poisoning)
Not as traumatic for the animal as being eaten by a predator. Allowed the longest possible lifespan. There is a possibility of the animal dying quickly and painlessly, but this is rare in nature.
Dying by disease, injury, or other internal physical ailment usually entails a great amount of suffering over a long period of time. Watch an animal die from an injury or disease without medical intervention, and you will have a vivid understanding of how horrible this type of death can be. (reference)
Natural Predation (Wolves, Lions, etc)
Suffering generally only lasts a few minutes to an hour. (Not as long duration as dying via disease, injury, etc.)
Being killed by wild predators is probably the most painful and terrifying death imaginable. (Reference)
Human Predation (air gun, rifle shot to the brain, slitting the throat, electricity, etc)
Suffering only lasts an instant or a few seconds at most.
Generally the animal does not know that it is about to die, it is usually not allowed to see other animals being killed.
Most abattoirs (slaughterhouses) in developed countries are capable of giving humane deaths to thousands of animals per day. (reference) But small scale abattoirs are probably a better option if you want to guarantee the most humane death possible.(link)
The humane-ness of the death depends on the decency and skill of the executioner. It could accidentally go badly on occasion. Animal may be afraid of the environment or the humans involved before death if it is not done carefully.
Clearly killing these livestock ourselves, with modern and humane methods, is by far the best way for them to die in terms of the amount of suffering involved.
8. We Should Probably Eat Meat From These Livestock
There are only a few things that can happen to the body of an animal after it dies:
- Passive decomposition. (Decomposed by insects, birds, soil organisms, etc)
- Eaten by scavengers or predators. (Coyotes, dogs, wolves, etc)
- Buried by humans.
- Cremated by humans.
- Eaten by humans.
Lets examine the benefits and drawbacks of each option:
Passive Decomposition (soil organisms, insects, birds, etc)
Eaten By Scavengers Or Predators (coyotes, dogs, wolves, ravens, etc)
Buried By Humans
Incinerated By Humans
Eaten By Humans *
*Note: If the dead livestock are going to be eaten by humans the animal would need to be butchered and processes quickly after death, in a hygienic way. This would be most easily accomplished by killing the animal at some time before it died naturally (that could mean years or hours, I don’t know), instead of trying to find it after it died. In the worst case scenario only the muscle meat will be eaten which will provide protein and calories for a single human for about 1 year (cow), about 6 months (pig, goat), about 1 month (deer, sheep), about 10 days (turkey), or 3 days (chicken) assuming they are only eating meat and are consuming 2000 calories per day. (reference)
Decide For Yourself
I have tried to provide a complete description of all the options available for the animals which we will need to raise for sustainable food production. I cannot tell you what the “correct” choice is because that will depend on your personal value system.
If we are trying to maximize animal welfare, our best choice is to:
- allow the animals to live long lives
- kill them humanely (before they die from disease, injury, etc)
- eat their meat and use the whole animal (leather, bones, fat, etc)
- allow wild animals to eat a certain percentage of the livestock, to maintain their populations and the ecosystems they support
My choice is only different from current sustainable agriculture practices in two ways:
- Currently, most livestock are killed at a young age, because they taste better than older animals. So in order to let them live longer lives we would need to learn to like the taste and texture of meat from older animals.
- Currently, most of the animal’s carcass is discarded (or not used to its full potential) during butchering. We should learn to eat, or use, the whole animal.
9. ETHICS OF LOST POTENTIAL
From a Utilitarian perspective:
It is better for a happy animal to exist, than for no animal to exist.
Do we have an ethical duty to allow an animal to exist on a given piece of land if it will be happy and if its existence will not harm the environment or other animals?
The ecosystems of the Earth can support staggering numbers of animals, both large and small. Most of the Earth’s ecosystems are currently underpopulated with animals compared with what they could sustain. (reference) We have advanced enough in our understanding of biology and ecology that if any ecosystem on Earth is not supporting its full potential population of animals it is because we have chosen (either through action or through inaction) this fate for the ecosystem.
The three landscapes on Earth in which this is an especially big issue are cropland, urban areas, and brittle landscapes. Because of our management, these landscapes currently support only a fraction of the biodiversity and animal life they could support.
Doesn’t this have any ethical implications?
Don’t forget that increasing the number of livestock on most of the Earth’s surface will have many benefits for the environment and for people. (see Section 3 and 4 above)
The best way to maximize the number of intelligent animals living happy lives is to support farms with properly managed livestock. The best way to support them is to buy, and eat, their meat. By eating only plants you are reducing the numbers of intelligent animals living happy lives.
I encourage you to examine this issue carefully and figure out what value you place on the potential lives of happy animals.
Note: We should definitely be more concerned about the real suffering of the animals which are really alive in factory farms and inhumane conditions right now. Lets stop that crap! But sometimes our choice will not be between supporting factory farms and not supporting factory farms. Sometimes we will have the choice to support, or not support, the existence of happy livestock. So we should spend at least a little time thinking about this issue.
10. Climate Change
Due to the number of people asking about livestock and their relationship to Climate Change I have added this section to address that issue specifically.
Please read the full article here: “Why Properly Managed Livestock Are The Key To Stopping Climate Change”
Yes… I have seen the movie “Cowspiracy”. It does a great job at highlighting the destructive power of conventionally raised livestock and the lack of awareness about that issue. However nothing in that movie counters any of the points I make in this article.
Most of the crazy statistics you see about livestock causing tremendous environmental destruction are true… but these statistics are not talking about properly managed livestock! There is a huge difference!
In brief, properly managed livestock are methane neutral (possibly they even sequester methane in soils, research in this area is still hard to find) and are the most powerful and practical method for carbon sequestration known as of the writing of this article. (full references provided in the article link above)
Sustainable farmers must raise livestock, or employ the services of someone else’s livestock, in order to maintain their basic productivity. There must be relatively large numbers of these animals, especially in Brittle Environments. These animals will die eventually. The most humane death for any animal is to be killed by modern human slaughter techniques near the end of their natural life. Most of these dead animals should be eaten by humans to reduce the total land base required for agriculture, to ensure the animals are given happy lives, to reduce the problems associated with not eating them, and because humans can probably use the calories to do more good in the world than a pack of scavengers or soil organisms can. In my opinion the most ethical diet possible includes meat from sustainable farms. What do you think, now that you have read this article? Has your opinion changed from what it was when you started? Please comment and let me know.
If you want to learn more about sustainable/regenerative agriculture (including the role of livestock, and the soil food web) please visit this resource page with the links I have personally found most useful.
These books are great places to start:
- Restoration Agriculture
- How To Not Go Broke Ranching
- Gardener’s Of Eden
- The Soil Will Save Us
- Holistic Management
I have written more posts which are relevant to the issues covered here, but which were not previously listed:
- The 9 Most Important Techniques In Regenerative Agriculture
- A Response To Chris Clarke’s Misinformed KCET Article
- Evidence Supporting Holistic Management
- Why The Slate Article About Allan Savory Is Dead Wrong