Saturday, October 17, 2009

Go Figure! The Mathematics of Dietary Death

Computing the cost of plant vs. flesh food production in animals’ lives

Anyone who’s been vegan for any length of time has heard the dizzying array of specious arguments for why people are supposedly meant to eat meat, dairy and eggs. These reasons range from the nutritional (“we need animal protein to live”) to the Biblical (“God gave humanity dominion over all the Earth’s creatures”) to the ethical. Yep, that’s right: some omnivores have the cajones to claim that vegans are responsible for killing more animals than flesh eaters!

Oregon State University professor of animal science Steven Davis, for one, contends that people who eat beef from cattle fed on grazing pasture spare more animals’ lives than vegans because of all the death supposedly caused by harvesting crops. While Davis’ research has appeared in such prestigious periodicals as TIME magazine and the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, apparently no one bothered to peer-review or fact-check his methodology before publication. That is, a new analysis of the professor’s claim reveals that (surprise, surprise!) his numbers don’t quite add up.

Artist and graphic designer Mark Middleton recently calculated the true impact of food production on two categories of animals: domestic species specifically slaughtered for human consumption, and wild species killed as a consequence of agricultural harvesting. What’s more, he translated his findings into an easy-to-read graph* that enables comparison of how different diets (i.e., plant vs. flesh foods) impact animals’ lives — both by the numbers and as an interactive (filterable) visual representation of these otherwise abstract values:

Extrapolating from this diagram, we find that:

• Eating chicken flesh takes about 100 times the number of animals’ lives as eating the equivalent caloric content of vegetables.

• Subsisting on only grains for an entire year would likely cost fewer than two animals (e.g., field mice) their lives.

• Contrary to Davis’ central assertion, the number of wild animals who die as a result of beef production is much greater than occurs in the harvesting of all plant food varieties combined.

Middleton arrived at his revised conclusion by incorporating into his formula some criticisms of Davis’ work by researchers Gaverick Matheny and Andy Larney which, upon even cursory consideration, seem so basic that it’s amazing they even had to bring them up. I mean, it doesn’t take a mathematician to know that we can feed more people per acre by using land to raise crops rather than cattle, as Matheny opined, or to understand Larner’s contention that counting animals killed by predators (in addition to, say, chemical pesticides and mechanical threshers) skews the end results. So Middleton’s new presentation begs an obvious question: why did Davis’ claims go so completely unchallenged by the mainstream media and the scientific establishment when he made them?

Opinion makers’ unquestioning acceptance and promotion of Professor Davis’ flawed theory says more about meat eaters’ desperate psychological need to justify their violent destructiveness than anything else: apparently, people want to continue eating animal flesh so badly that they will even unconsciously create and cite conspicuously inaccurate data to make the case that omnivores are ethically superior to vegans. Once again, we vegans have the truth on our side, but there remain some lingering doubts about its persuasive value, because people basically believe what they want to believe. If history is any guide, many omnivores will continue to invent and propagate ways of salving their guilt by convincing themselves that meat is not murder but mercy — no matter how much incontrovertible evidence we vegans present to the contrary.

Related AnimalRightings:

- My 8-page VegNews magazine feature article “The Road to Vegetopia: (Re)Imagining the Future of Food” (illustrated by Mark Middleton)

- My blog post about Middleton’s “Virtual Battery Cage”

* For interested techies, Middleton built this interactive graphic in Adobe Flash using a data visualization library called Flare. Click here for a full explanation of the analysis and mathematical proofs.