Why Eat Less Meat?

Pre­vi­ously, I wrote on LessWrong about the pre­limi­nary ev­i­dence in fa­vor of us­ing leaflets to pro­mote ve­g­anism as a way of cost-effec­tively re­duc­ing suffer­ing. In re­sponse, there was a large dis­cus­sion with 530+ com­ments. In this dis­cus­sion, I found that a lot of peo­ple wanted me to write about why I think non­hu­man an­i­mals de­serve our con­cern any­way.

There­fore, I wrote this es­say with an at­tempt to defend the view that if one cares about suffer­ing, one should also care about non­hu­man an­i­mals, since (1) they are ca­pa­ble of suffer­ing, (2) they do suffer quite a lot, and (3) we can pre­vent their suffer­ing. I hope that we can have a sober, non mind-kil­ling dis­cus­sion about this topic, since it’s pos­si­bly quite im­por­tant.


For the past two years, the only place I ate meat was at home with my fam­ily. As of Oc­to­ber 2012, I’ve fi­nally stopped eat­ing meat al­to­gether and can’t see a rea­son why I would want to go back to eat­ing meat. This kind of at­ti­tude to­ward eat­ing is com­monly clas­sified as “veg­e­tar­i­anism” where one re­frains from eat­ing the flesh of all an­i­mals, in­clud­ing fish, but still will con­sume an­i­mal prod­ucts like eggs and milk (though I try to avoid egg as best I can).

Why might I want to do this? And why might I see it as a se­ri­ous is­sue? It’s be­cause I’m very con­cerned about the re­al­ity of suffer­ing done to our “food an­i­mals” in the pro­cess of mak­ing them into meat, be­cause I see veg­e­tar­i­anism as a way to re­duce this suffer­ing by stop­ping the harm­ful pro­cess, and be­cause veg­e­tar­i­anism has not been hard at all for me to ac­com­plish.

An­i­mals Can Suffer

Back in the 1600s, Réné Descartes thought non­hu­man an­i­mals were soul­less au­toma­tons that could re­spond to their en­vi­ron­ment and re­act to stim­uli, but could not feel any­thing — hu­mans were the only species that were truly con­scious. Descartes hit on an im­por­tant point — since feel­ings are com­pletely in­ter­nal to the an­i­mal do­ing the feel­ing, it is im­pos­si­ble to demon­strate that any­one is truly con­scious.

How­ever, when it comes to hu­mans, we don’t let that stop us from as­sum­ing other peo­ple feel pain. When we jab a per­son with a nee­dle, no mat­ter who they are, where they come from, or what they look like, they share a rather uni­ver­sal re­ac­tion of what we con­sider to be ev­i­dence of pain. We also ex­tend this to our pets — we make great strides to avoid harm­ing kit­tens, pup­pies, or other com­pan­ion an­i­mals, and no one would want to kick a puppy or light a kit­ten on fire just be­cause their con­scious­ness can­not be di­rectly ob­served. That’s why we even go as far as hav­ing laws against an­i­mal cru­elty.

The an­i­mals we eat are no differ­ent. Pigs, chick­ens, cows, and fish all have in­cred­ibly analo­gous re­sponses to stim­uli that we would nor­mally agree cause pain to hu­mans and pets. Jab a pig with a nee­dle, kick a chicken, or light a cow on fire, and they will re­act aver­sively like any cat, dog, horse, or hu­man.

The Science

But we don’t need to rely on just our in­tu­ition—in­stead, we can look at the sci­ence. An­i­mal sci­en­tists Tem­ple Grandin and Mark Deesing con­clude that “[o]ur re­view of the liter­a­ture on frontal cor­tex de­vel­op­ment en­ables us to con­clude that all mam­mals, in­clud­ing rats, have a suffi­ciently de­vel­oped pre­frontal cor­tex to suffer from pain”. An in­ter­view of seven differ­ent sci­en­tists con­cludes that an­i­mals can suffer.

Dr. Jane Goodall, fa­mous for hav­ing stud­ied an­i­mals, writes in her in­tro­duc­tion to The In­ner World of Farm An­i­mals that “farm an­i­mals feel plea­sure and sad­ness, ex­cite­ment and re­sent­ment, de­pres­sion, fear, and pain. They are far more aware and in­tel­li­gent than we ever imag­ined…they are in­di­vi­d­u­als in their own right.” Farm Sanc­tu­ary, an an­i­mal welfare or­ga­ni­za­tion, has a good overview doc­u­ment­ing this re­search on an­i­mal emo­tion.

Lastly, among much other ev­i­dence, in the “Cam­bridge Dec­la­ra­tion On Con­scious­ness”, promi­nent in­ter­na­tional group of cog­ni­tive neu­ro­scien­tists, neu­rophar­ma­col­o­gists, neu­ro­phys­iol­o­gists, neu­roanatomists and com­pu­ta­tional neu­ro­scien­tists states:

Con­ver­gent ev­i­dence in­di­cates that non-hu­man an­i­mals have the neu­roanatom­i­cal, neu­ro­chem­i­cal, and neu­ro­phys­iolog­i­cal sub­strates of con­scious states along with the ca­pac­ity to ex­hibit in­ten­tional be­hav­iors. Con­se­quently, the weight of ev­i­dence in­di­cates that hu­mans are not unique in pos­sess­ing the neu­rolog­i­cal sub­strates that gen­er­ate con­scious­ness. Non­hu­man an­i­mals, in­clud­ing all mam­mals and birds, and many other crea­tures, in­clud­ing oc­to­puses, also pos­sess these neu­rolog­i­cal sub­strates.

Fac­tory Farm­ing Causes Con­sid­er­able Suffering

How­ever, the fact that an­i­mals can suffer is just one piece of the pic­ture; we next have to es­tab­lish that an­i­mals do suffer as a re­sult of peo­ple eat­ing meat. Hon­estly, this is eas­ier shown than told—there’s an ex­tremely har­row­ing and shock­ing 11-minute video about the cru­elty available. Watch­ing that video is per­haps the eas­iest way to see the suffer­ing of non­hu­man an­i­mals first hand in these “fac­tory farms”.

In mak­ing the case clear, Ve­gan Outreach writes “Many peo­ple be­lieve that an­i­mals raised for food must be treated well be­cause sick or dead an­i­mals would be of no use to agribusi­ness. This is not true.”

They then go on to doc­u­ment, with sources, how vir­tu­ally all birds raised for food are from fac­tory farms where “re­sult­ing am­mo­nia lev­els [from densely pop­u­lated sheds and ac­cu­mu­lated waste] com­monly cause painful burns to the birds’ skin, eyes, and res­pi­ra­tory tracts” and how hens “be­come im­mo­bi­lized and die of as­phyx­i­a­tion or de­hy­dra­tion”, hav­ing been “[p]acked in cages (usu­ally less than half a square foot of floor space per bird)”. In fact, 137 mil­lion chick­ens suffer to death each year be­fore they can even make it to slaugh­ter—more than the num­ber of an­i­mals kil­led for fur, in shelters and in lab­o­ra­to­ries com­bined!

Farm Sanc­tu­ary also pro­vides an ex­cel­lent overview of the cru­elty of fac­tory farm­ing, writ­ing “An­i­mals on fac­tory farms are re­garded as com­modi­ties to be ex­ploited for profit. They un­dergo painful mu­tila­tions and are bred to grow un­nat­u­rally fast and large for the pur­pose of max­i­miz­ing meat, egg, and milk pro­duc­tion for the food in­dus­try.”

It seems clear that fac­tory farm­ing prac­tices are truly de­plorable, and cer­tainly are not worth the benefit of eat­ing a slightly tastier meal. In “An An­i­mal’s Place”, Michael Pol­lan writes:

To visit a mod­ern CAFO (Con­fined An­i­mal Feed­ing Oper­a­tion) is to en­ter a world that, for all its tech­nolog­i­cal so­phis­ti­ca­tion, is still de­signed ac­cord­ing to Carte­sian prin­ci­ples: an­i­mals are ma­chines in­ca­pable of feel­ing pain. Since no think­ing per­son can pos­si­bly be­lieve this any more, in­dus­trial an­i­mal agri­cul­ture de­pends on a sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief on the part of the peo­ple who op­er­ate it and a will­ing­ness to avert your eyes on the part of ev­ery­one else.

Vege­tar­i­anism Can Make a Difference

Many peo­ple see the stag­ger­ing amount of suffer­ing in fac­tory farms, and if they don’t aim to dis­miss it out­right will say that there’s no way they can make a differ­ence by chang­ing their eat­ing habits. How­ever, this is cer­tainly not the case!

How Many Would Be Saved?

Draw­ing from the 2010 Live­stock Slaugh­ter An­i­mal Sum­mary and the Poul­try Slaugh­ter An­i­mal Sum­mary, 9.1 billion land an­i­mals are ei­ther grown in the US or im­ported (94% of which are chick­ens!), 1.6 billion are ex­ported, and 631 mil­lion die be­fore any­one can eat them, leav­ing 8.1 billion land an­i­mals for US con­sump­tion each year.

A naïve av­er­age would di­vide this to­tal among the pop­u­la­tion of the US, which is 311 mil­lion, as­sign­ing 26 land an­i­mals for each per­son’s an­nual con­sump­tion. Thus, by be­ing veg­e­tar­ian, you are sav­ing 26 land an­i­mals a year you would have oth­er­wise eaten. And this doesn’t even count fish, which could be quite high given how many fish need to be grown just to be fed to big­ger fish!

Yet, this is not quite true. It’s im­por­tant to note that sup­ply and de­mand aren’t perfectly lin­ear. If you re­duce your de­mand for meat, the sup­pli­ers will re­act by low­er­ing the price of meat a lit­tle bit, mak­ing it so more peo­ple can buy it. Since chick­ens dom­i­nate the meat mar­ket, we’ll ad­just by the sup­ply elas­tic­ity of chick­ens, which is 0.22 and the de­mand elas­tic­ity of chick­ens, which is −0.52, and calcu­late the change in sup­ply, which is 0.3. Tak­ing this mul­ti­plier, it’s more ac­cu­rate to say you’re sav­ing 7.8 land an­i­mals a year or more. Though, there are a lot of com­plex con­sid­er­a­tions in calcu­lat­ing elas­tic­ity, so we should take this figure to have some un­cer­tainty.

Col­lec­tive Action

One might cri­tique this re­sponse by re­spond­ing that since meat is of­ten bought in bulk, re­duc­ing meat con­sump­tion won’t af­fect the amount of meat bought, and thus the suffer­ing will still be the same, ex­cept with meat gone to waste. How­ever, this ig­nores the effect of many differ­ent veg­e­tar­i­ans act­ing to­gether.

Imag­ine that you’re su­per­mar­ket buys cases of 200 chicken wings. It would thus take 200 peo­ple to­gether to agree to buy 1 less wing in or­der for the su­per­mar­ket to buy less wings. How­ever, you have no idea if you’re veg­e­tar­ian #1 or veg­e­tar­ian #56 or veg­e­tar­ian #200, mak­ing the tip­ping point for 200 less wings to be bought. You thus can es­ti­mate that by buy­ing one less wing you have a 1 in 200 chance of re­duc­ing 200 wings, which is equiv­a­lent to re­duc­ing the sup­ply by one wing. So the effect ba­si­cally can­cels out. See here or here for more.

Every time you buy fac­tory farmed meat, you are cre­at­ing de­mand for that product, es­sen­tially say­ing “Thank you, I liked what you are do­ing and want to en­courage you to do it more”. By eat­ing less meat, we can stop our sup­port of this in­dus­try.

Vege­tar­i­anism Is Easier Than You Think

So non­hu­man an­i­mals can suffer and do suffer in fac­tory farms, and we can help stop this suffer­ing by eat­ing less meat. I know peo­ple who get this far, but then stop and say that, as much as they would like to, there’s no way they could be a veg­e­tar­ian be­cause they like meat too much! How­ever, such a joy for meat shouldn’t count much com­pared to the mas­sive suffer­ing each an­i­mal un­der­goes just to be farmed—imag­ine if some­one wouldn’t stop eat­ing your pet just be­cause they like eat­ing your pet so much!

This is less than a prob­lem than you might think, be­cause be­ing a veg­e­tar­ian is re­ally easy. Most peo­ple only think about what they would have to give up and how good it tastes, and don’t think about what tasty things they could eat in­stead that have no meat in them. When I first de­cided to be a veg­e­tar­ian, I sim­ply switched from tasty ham­burg­ers to tasty veg­gieburg­ers and there was no prob­lem at all.

A Challenge

To those who say that veg­e­tar­i­anism is too hard, I’d like to sim­ply challenge you to just try it for a few days. Feel free to give up af­ter­ward if you find it too hard. But I imag­ine that you should do just fine, find great re­place­ments, and be able to save an­i­mals from suffer­ing in the pro­cess.

If re­duc­ing suffer­ing is one of your goals, there’s no rea­son why you must ei­ther be a die-hard meat eater or a die-hard veg­e­tar­ian. In­stead, feel free to ex­plore some mid­dle ground. You could be a veg­e­tar­ian on week­days but eat meat on week­ends, or just try Meatless Mon­days, or sim­ply try to eat less meat. You could try to eat big­ger an­i­mals like cows in­stead of fish or chicken, thus get­ting the same amount of meat with sig­nifi­cantly less suffer­ing.


(This was also cross-posted on my blog.)