There are lots of reasons that people become vegetarians or vegans – health, sustainability, up-bringing, but by far the most common explanation given is a moral one, that the unnecessary suffering and killing of billions of animals per year is unethical. It’s not a surprisingly conclusion, given the massive amount of animals slaughtered for food alone in the US. In 2013, 8.1 billion animals died to feed Americans, and meat eaters will consume an average of 2,088 animals in their life-time. Surely then, it stands to reason that abstaining from eating meat will save the lives and prevent the suffering of animals. Whether this is true or not, however, is under some debate – and if it is true, just how many animals does vegetarianism actually save?
Calculating Saved Lives
There have been numerous studies and calculations discussing just how many animals are saved each year by a vegetarian diet – and the numbers vary wildly, from as little as 50 to as large as hundreds. Noam Mohr, of the animal charity PETA, suggests that the average meat-eater in the US consumes 26.5 animals per year and that is made up of of a cow, of a pig, of a turkey, and 25 chickens (which includes 1 allowance for eggs). On the other end of the scale, some argue that the average meat-eater consumes 406 animals per year, made up of 30 land animals, 225 fish, and 151 shellfish. It is then assumed that a vegetarian, by abstaining from meat, saves the same amount of animals that a meat-eater kills.
Ignoring the wildly differing estimates of animals slaughtered for food, which could quite possibly be down to mathematical error or the fact that different statistics have been taken into consideration, the logic itself is somewhat flawed. All calculations thus provided are founded on one quite basic assumption – that if a meat-eater eats x, then a non-meat-eater saves x – but that in itself is a bit of a leap, the two are not necessarily correlated. If, for example, a vegetarian is served chicken but chooses not to eat it on moral grounds, the chicken is still dead – and most likely was killed after a short life fraught with pain and suffering. No amount of abstention in this instance is going to bring that chicken back to life.
Of course, it could be argued that if the majority of consumers were to stop eating meat, then the chicken would never have been served in the first place and thus, would never have been killed (perhaps even never would have been born into a miserable life in the first place) and to some extent this is true. It’s basic supply and demand – and PETA suggests that as there was a decrease of 600 million animals killed for food between 2006 and 2009, abstention works.
Death by Vegetarian
Animals are not merely slaughtered for the meat, however, and despite abstention, it could be argued that vegetarians who continue to consume animal products such as eggs and milk, contribute just as much to animal death as meat-eaters. In the egg industry, around 30 million male chickens are slaughtered at one day old, and hens are killed usually after one or two egg-laying cycles, after a life of being cramped and miserable in batteries. Likewise, dairy cows give birth to calves around once a year to encourage milk production and these calves are used for veal, whilst dairy cows live an average of four to five years, compared to their usual 25 year lifespan. This argument, of course, assumes that vegetarians do consume large amounts of animal products, which is not necessarily true, and can certainly be overcome.
Vegans, who abstain from all animal products as well as meat, could of course overcome the issues faced by vegetarians and the possible increased death count. Again, figures vary for the amount of animals saved each year by veganism, and again, the calculations are based on the same unreliable assumption. PETA suggests that a vegan saves 198 animals per year, whilst Barbara King argues for a more conservative estimate of 95. Again, however, in order to accept this statistics, we must ignore the differing conclusions and correlation leaps.
The Problem with Supply and Demand
It seems obvious that basic supply and demand suggests that vegetarianism and veganism work – that they do save the lives of animals. Should the demand for meat and animal products decrease, so, in basic terms, would the supply – the industry surely wouldn’t produce products that they couldn’t sell. However, therein lies a further problem. It’s not the supply that would drop, it would be the price, and with a lower price, meat-eaters would buy and consume more meat, meaning that the demand would remain the same. Thus the problem remains – animals are being reared into misery and slaughtered for food. In fact, around 25% of the world’s population eats wholly or mostly vegetarian diets and it has hardly made a dent in the rate at which animals are consumed. Abstaining from meat is not hitting the industry in the way that vegetarians hoped.
Back to Morality
Of course, it’s counter-intuitive to suggest that vegetarians don’t make a difference at all. Many would argue that if they only managed to save a handful of animals in their lifetime, it would be worth it, and many would argue that vegetarianism on a massive scale would make the difference that they are working towards, even if they aren’t quite there yet. But even without huge statistics about massive amounts of animals saved each year, vegetarianism is about choice and consciousness, about the decision not to be part of a system that is believed to be, at the heart of it, morally wrong. As Alka Chandra, of PETA, explains, “I don’t think so much about the numbers of animals who are spared as much as I think about the misery and suffering that I’m not contributing to as a result of my choices”. So whether you believe that vegetarianism is the way forward, or whether you believe that fighting the industry through better farming and well-treated animals will end the suffering, the choice is yours – it’s a moral choice whether it makes a difference or not, and what you choose to put on your plate is your only way to vote.
 Harish, 2012, How Many Animals Does a Vegetarian Save?, [online], available at: www.countinganimals.com/how-many-animals-does-a-vegetarian-save/, accessed 03/15/2015
 Animal Aid, 2015, From Shell to Hell: The Modern Egg Industry, available at: www.animalaid.org.uk/h/n/CAMPAIGNS/factory/ALL/578/, accessed 03/16/2015
 PETA, 2015, The Dairy Industry, available at: www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/factory-farming/cows/dairy-industry/, accessed 03/16/2015
 Barbara King, 2015, Does Being Vegan Really Help Animals?, available at: www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2015/03/12/does-being-vegan-really-help-animals?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20150312, accessed 03/15/2015
 Jenna Woginrich, 2011, My Beef Isn’t with Beef, available at: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cif-green/2011/jan/19/vegetarian-animal-cruelty-meat, accessed 03/15/2015
Does being vegetarian actually save any animals? by by UrbanSculpt staff writer Victoria Froud MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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