Chart of the Day: Killing for Calories

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader sends it:

This is my graphical response to your readers who worry about the mice killed when grains are harvested, and other such considerations.

In further response to those concerns, and in response to the reader who worried about hurting plants (although they have no brains), I must point out that eating animal products means we have to grow vastly more crops, and kill vastly more mice and plants in doing so.

Animal agriculture is a food factory in reverse. If we grew crops to feed to people directly instead of to animals, we would only have to grow one-tenth to one-half as many. Half to 90 percent of the calories, protein, and other food value in plants disappears in the process of feeding them to animals and then eating those animals or their bodily excretions. This, and human overpopulation, are why our food system is completely dependent upon fossil-fuel based fertilizer, which is destroying the environment.

In further response to the hurting plants non-issue, I must point out that many plants are annuals and die at the end of the season. Others drop fruits, nuts, and seeds, so animals can pick them up and spread the seeds around as they eat them. Sorry, but if someone cares about the suffering of other sentient beings or the environment, reducing the quantity of animal products in one’s diet, or eliminating them, is an enormous positive. We should all do our part, such as participating in Meat-Free Mondays or some other such beneficial program.

If you have anything to add, drop us an email. Update from a reader who usually comments under “Blue Fish”:

The graphic shown for this note seems to imply that—on the basis of animals killed per calorie, which seems to be conflated with the amount of animal suffering—chicken is the least ethical meat, followed by beef and then pork. This is flawed reasoning for anyone who does not conceive of animal suffering as tied to the numeric quantity of animals killed. Most people understand intuitively, if not in a formal sense, that the degree of concern we extend towards animals’ suffering is proportional to a quality that they have, which is more or less intelligence. Stepping on ants doesn’t bother (most of) us; clubbing baby seals does.

A lot of this is irrational bias due to some creatures bearing sufficient physiological similarity to humans to activate protective paternal and maternal instincts. The features of a kitten’s face are as recognizable to us as those of an infant and we are consequently disinclined to harm it. Regardless, if minimizing suffering is the goal, then it should be recognized that different creatures have different capacities for suffering, and that this capacity seems to be tied to the quality of intelligence.

I am a loosey-goosey “grey” vegetarian; I avoid beef most, then pork, permit fowl regularly and eat fish, shellfish and game with no compunctions. This is because I sloppily synthesize concern for animal suffering, which is tertiary to me, with environmental concerns, from which perspective beef is the worst meat. The status of workers in the American meat industry is also a big disincentive to consume factory-farmed meat and is similarly of greater importance to me than animal suffering.

Coming back around to the main point, this is why the notion that chicken is the least ethical meat is a difficult proposition. If your metric is suffering, you should put the most gregarious and intelligent factory-farmed animal, the pig, at the top. If the metric is environmental impact, then the enemy is beef. Only if you think one death creates one unit of animal suffering can you arrive at this conclusion, and that is an odd perspective.

Update: A reply from our first reader in this followup note.