By MIKE ARCHER
The ethics of eating red meat have been grilled recently by critics who question its consequences for environmental health and animal welfare. But 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).
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. The rangelands can’t be used to produce crops, so production of meat here doesn’t limit production of plant foods. Grazing is the only way humans can get substantial nutrients from 70% of the continent.
In some cases rangelands have been substantially altered to increase the percentage of stock-friendly plants. Grazing can also cause significant damage such as soil loss and erosion. But it doesn’t result in the native ecosystem “blitzkrieg” required to grow crops.
This environmental damage is causing some well-known environmentalists to question their own preconceptions. British environmental advocate George Monbiot, for example, publically converted from vegan to omnivore after reading Simon Fairlie’s expose about meat’s sustainability. And environmental activist Lierre Keith documented the awesome damage to global environments involved in producing plant foods for human consumption.