Vegetarianism: less grain for cattle, fewer animals killed in grain fields

Download audio   | This interview was first broadcasted/published on 11 May 2013 


Mike Archer claimed on The Science Show27th April 2013 that during harvest, enormous harm is brought to sentient beings such as mice in fields of grains, meaning there is no moral basis for consuming a vegetarian diet. His view has drawn widespread comment including this response from Gary Francione at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Professor Francione points out that in the US, 80% of grains under cultivation are fed to animals. It is an inefficient process. This would be replaced by a far smaller planting if the grains were for human consumption. He suggests animal agriculture is an ecological disaster and is only carried out for human pleasure and convenience.


Robyn Williams: It's time to meet those mice again. Could they be dying so that we can eat veg?

That was The Science Show a couple of weeks ago, Professor Mike Archer stirred things up, both in his article in The Conversation and right here.


Mike Archer: All I really wanted to make the point of was there isn't a free meal. No matter what you eat, animals die to enable that to happen. If you're going to eat a primarily vegetarian diet, if it's going to include grains, for example, we have monocultures that have been established at the expense of our naturally bio-diverse environments. Land has been swept clean. 10,000 years ago in the Near East when agriculture started, that was the beginning of disasters for global biodiversity. We swept all this natural diversity aside on all continents to plant just a few species that we valued or to run just cattle instead of all complex ecosystems.

So in the mere act of producing lots of vegetarian food you are killing so many animals. But the key bit here was what happens when you are growing grains or pulses. What we know is, for example, in all the towns around Australia that are wheat producing towns or centres, on average about every five years they have a mouse plague. And you think, mice…but mice, you know…hey, let's talk about mice…but they get killed in the millions and millions, mass slaughtered in horrible ways that cause their deaths to be really unpleasant, and that is going into producing grains. Yes, some of those grains are fed to some cattle, but they are also the core of the diets for a lot of people who don't want to eat any meat.

But when you think about mice, and we are talking now here about sentient lives, is the vegetarian or vegan's claim that their diets involve less death of sentient beings correct or not? When you actually do the sums you find, oh no, it's not clear at all that they are correct because all these mice, among other things, are being killed to make sure that we get those grains.

Robyn Williams: That was Professor Mike Archer talking a couple of weeks ago on The Science Show, stirring it up, suggesting that we cause more harm to animals by going for a vegetarian style agriculture because of the collateral damage, and we've had innumerable comments on that, not least surprisingly from America as well. And on the line is Gary Francione who is the Professor of Law at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Professor Francione, how come you're listening to The Science Show in Jersey?

Gary Francione: Well, the show has been circulating around and people are very interested in this issue. And Professor Archer presents the issue in a provocative way and I think that it has gotten a pretty wide circulation, and I got probably 20 emails from people telling me about this and expressing concern, outrage, amusement, whatever, about it, and so I thought, well, I've got to see what's going on here.

Robyn Williams: Indeed, thank you for that. And what were your three objections?

Gary Francione: Look, I think that Professor Archer is wrong when he says that we're killing more animals with grain production than we would if we were eating animals. If we were all eating grains, if we all had a plant-based diet, if we were all vegans, we'd actually have many, many fewer acres under cultivation. 

So the problem is it takes between six to twelve pounds of plant protein to produce one pound of flesh. So we're growing all of these grains. For example, in the United States 80% of the grains that we grow are fed to animals that we're going to slaughter and eat. If people were consuming those grains directly they'd have to consume many fewer pounds of those grains and we would not have them going through the inefficient conversion process that animals represent. So I think that's the first problem, is that Professor Archer has got it wrong when he says we are killing more animals with grain production—that's simply wrong. If we were all vegans we'd have a fraction of the acres presently under cultivation and we'd be consuming much less grain than we are growing right now to feed the animals in this inefficient conversion process.

Robyn Williams: That's the first argument. What is the second argument?

Gary Francione: The second argument is Professor Archer talks about how apparently in Australia you have rodent infestations or these rodent plagues every few years, and again, the rodents are being killed as a result of these plagues. Now, going back to my first point, if we were all consuming grains we would have many fewer grains in storage facilities, so the problem would not be on the same scale.

But also think about it this way. We live in a world in which we kill 56 billion land animals—and that's not counting the aquatic animals—56 billion land animals every year. We would agree and I'm sure that you would…let me ask you, would you agree with the proposition that it's wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals? Would you agree with that?

Robyn Williams: I think most people would, yes.

Gary Francione: Yes, I think they would too. We could have an interesting philosophical discussion about what 'necessity' means but the reality is if it means anything, if it means anything at all, it means we can't justify suffering or death for reasons of pleasure, amusement or convenience. I think we can see that, that if we have a rule that says 'it's wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on children, but it's okay to beat them if you enjoy watching them suffer', that would create an exception that would not only be perverse but it would create an exception that would make the rule silly. 

Similarly we say it's wrong to inflict suffering and death on animals. Well, what's our justification? We don't need to eat animals to be optimally healthy. I have been a vegan for going on now 31 years and I would daresay that I have more energy and suffer from fewer colds and viruses and things like that than most of the people I teach who are young enough to be my grandchildren. So the idea that you need animal products to be optimally healthy is simply false.

Animal agriculture is an ecological disaster. The best justification that we have for inflicting suffering and death on 56 billion animals a year is that they taste good. So in one sense we are saying it's wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals, but on the other hand we participate in this all the time. 

And before you ask me, well, would you eat an animal if you were stranded on a desert island and there were no vegetables, you know, if you and I were on the desert island and there were no vegetables…

Robyn Williams: You'd eat me.

Gary Francione: I'd kill and eat you if I could, but we're not on a desert island, you're in any situation of conflict with non-human animals. You simply choose to eat them because you like the taste or the convenience of going out to the fast food place next door to the studio or whatever. It's simply a matter of pleasure or convenience. That I think really can't morally justify what it is we're doing with animals.

So we live in a world in which we are killing 56 billion animals a year for no good reason whatsoever. And so when Archer talks about, 'Well, we have these plagues and we've got to kill all these rats,' well yes, that plague occurs in the context in which we engage in absolutely mind-numbing violence, completely unnecessary violence, against billions of animals. We don't take animals' suffering seriously. If we had those plagues that Archer talks about and we lived in a vegan world where we did respect animal life we'd come up with better solutions to deal with the less amount of grain that we would then have in those storage facilities because we'd all be consuming the grain directly.

The third point is it seems to me that what Archer is saying is he is making a version of the argument that we can't avoid killing animals in living our lives, so therefore eating them is okay. Let's look at that argument in a human context. You know, we build roads, and we know, you can get an actuarial to tell you that if you build this road and the speed limit is 60 mph you're going to have x number of deaths, 70 mphx + y number of deaths, that's still different, building the road is still different from intentionally killing those numbers of people. Whatever activity we engage in, the manufacture of the most innocuous, the most beneficial product is going to involve human beings who will become injured and may get killed in the making of those products. But that doesn't mean then that we should throw up our hands and say, 'Well, violence against humans is just fine because our daily activity (put aside the animal question) involves harming human beings.' So that means it's okay to intentionally harm them? No, of course not.

I think that these three points rebut Professor Archer, and I would one day really enjoy if you would set up a debate. I think the two of us would enjoy talking to each other.

Robyn Williams: Yes, we'll see if we can do that. What happens when you have a debate with your students who seem to be slightly oblivious of some of these points you make?

Gary Francione: You know, I teach a course and have been teaching a course with Anna Charlton called Jurisprudence: The Rights of Humans and Non-Humans. We talk about racism, sexism, heterosexism, speciesism and we talk about these issues and about how various forms of discrimination all share common attributes. And you're right, a lot of young people haven't really thought about these issues. But that's because we live in a world in which we're constantly bombarded with media who tell us that if we don't eat animal products we're not going to be manly or healthy or whatever. And what's really interesting is mainstream healthcare people…now, we're not talking about the alternative healthcare people, we're talking about mainstream healthcare people are every single day telling us that animal products are killing us. And, as I said before, I'm 31 years without eating meat, dairy, eggs or whatever, and I ain't dead yet, and I'm feeling great.

Robyn Williams: And what about clothing? What do you do about clothing?

Gary Francione: I don't wear wool or leather. Again, it's very easy now to get non-leather shoes, and I buy cotton clothing.

Robyn Williams: What's wrong with wool?

Gary Francione: Oh, from Australia I'm being asked that question! Mulesing! I think that the process of producing wool involves a lot of violence and eventually those animals are killed…

Robyn Williams: Yes, the mulesing debate is still going strong here in fact, cutting the tail off the lamb.

Gary Francione: Actually it's cutting the skin around the anus surrounds so that you don't have fly-strike, so it's a pretty gruesome situation. And, look, those animals are all killed. I think that shearing sheep, and I've seen it happen before and it scares the hell out of them, it's a violent process, they get cut, they are frightened, eventually they are killed, you have the mulesing, which is I think an absolutely brutal process. So the thing is, look, we don't need to wear animal clothing.

Robyn Williams: Professor, a final question, and this really comes across in a place where you teach law, it has crossed our minds, we've noticed in Australia that you tend to be quite fond of guns in the United States. What about hunting animals for fun?

Gary Francione: Well, you're absolutely right, this is a culture that is obsessed with guns and you don't really appreciate it until you live here and see how intense it is actually. Look, I don't understand the pleasure that someone gets…I just took a walk with our dogs and I saw some new deer, some new fawns with their parents out in the fields, and I can't really understand the impulse to pick up a gun or a bow and kill those animals. I don't understand that.

However, from a moral perspective I don't really see the difference between going to the store and buying a dead animal in a styrofoam package or going and killing one. So when animal rights people get upset about hunters I always ask them, well, are you vegan, and if they tell me no I say, well, then why are you criticising the person who goes and hunts? What's the difference? I can understand there is a psychological difference, that you think that there is something perverse about taking pleasure in killing, and I understand that, but from a moral perspective I do not think that there's any difference whatsoever whether you kill the animal yourself or whether you buy the animal in a plastic container, it's still wrong.

Robyn Williams: Professor Gary Francione, it's been a pleasure having you on The Science Show, and I'll try to set up that debate.

Gary Francione: I would enjoy it immensely, I really would, and I thank you very much for having me. It's a very intelligent show, I enjoy it, and I will be listening to it now. It's a provocative show and it's an intelligently designed show and I'm happy to be part of it.

Robyn Williams: Thank you so much.

Gary Francione: Thank you.

Robyn Williams: Gary Francione is a Distinguished Professor of Law and Philosophy at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and before him Professor Mike Archer from the University of New South Wales. And we may well have a friendly debate between them in a later Science Show. What you think?


No comments: