We might think, “Fifty percent conversion rate? That must be the way to go!” This is how I used to think. But after years, I finally learned to ask: How does this argument actually affect animals?
Every year, the average American eats twenty-three birds, a third of a pig, and a tenth of a cow [2019 update -- it is closer to 28 birds a year now]. It currently takes about 193 birds (chickens + turkeys) to provide the same number of meals as one steer. It takes fifty-six birds to equal one pig.
So, before our presentation, the ten people consumed a combined 234 land animals every year. After our presentation, the same ten—including the five who joined our vegetarian club—eat 296 land animals per year. This is because, even though our argument convinced fully half of them to stop eating animals entirely, the others replaced their red meat intake with birds in order to eat more healthfully.
Moving from red meat to chicken is a well-documented fact. For example: “‘If you look at dietary recommendations put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture [and other health institutions], they are to decrease red meat and substitute lean meat, poultry and fish,’ says Daniel [a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center]. ‘We’ve seen in other data that people are gravitating toward poultry.’”
Finally, the National Institutes of Health notes “[t]he growing preference in the US for poultry, but not fish, as a replacement for red meat.”
There are contradictory studies on how much chicken is eaten by people who give up red meat entirely. But for people who reduce the amount of red meat they eat—the majority of people who change their diet for health reasons—all the data are absolutely clear: red-meat reducers eat much, much more chicken. For example, in the largest recent study, those who consumed the lowest amount of red meat ate fifty percent more chicken than those who consumed the most red meat. [Aston, L. M., et al. Meat Intake in Britain in Relation to Other Dietary Components and to Demographic and Risk Factor Variables: Analyses Based on the National Diet and Nutrition Survey of 2000/2001. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics 26(1), October 18, 2012.]
Fifty percent more! The facts are clear: anything at all that might possibly lead anyone to cut back on red meat actively harms animals.
Of course, we all know people who have gone veg for health reasons. As vegetarian advocates, we are obviously in a position to hear from and remember them. When we survey vegetarians (and/or meat reducers), of course we sometimes hear the “health argument” as a motivation. But looking only at vegetarians doesn’t begin to show the full impact of any argument. The error is thinking the “health” vegetarians we know or survey are a true sample of society. They aren’t. Rather, they represent a highly self-selected sub-sample.
History shows that eating fewer large animals and more small animals for health reasons isn’t a made-up, worst-case scenario. It has been the driving force for the suffering and slaughter of billions and billions of birds. Just look at any graph of animals killed in the U.S.: as the consumption of mammals generally declined, the slaughter of chickens skyrocketed over the decades!
|Per-capita meat consumption in the U.S.; click for larger
In other words: I won’t repeat anti-meat arguments. We promote pro-animal arguments. Obviously, it feels good to say: “Vegans have lower rates of disease X.” But the point isn’t to feel good about ourselves or our diet. We’re not out to justify or glorify our choices. Our goal is to keep as many animals from suffering as possible.
Of course, advocates can claim eating birds is bad for everyone’s health and the environment. Putting aside the veracity of those health and environmental claims, this simply isn’t the way the world works. People don’t simply accept what a vegan advocate says as gospel truth. Rather, they combine what they hear from all sources, paying more attention to what their doctor and friends say. On top of this, people generally give much more weight to advice that leads toward what they want to do—i.e., continuing to eat the familiar and convenient foods their friends and family eat.
More importantly, we simply don’t make decisions based on what is “perfect” for our health or the environment. None of us, vegans included, exercise the optimal amount, sleep the optimal amount, floss every day, work on a desk treadmill, give up our car, etc. With few exceptions, we all follow our habits/peers. For most people (not a self-selected vegetarian sub-sample), if we change anything, we do something somewhat “better”—eating many chickens instead of a fraction of a cow.
In other words, no matter what vegans claim is true or what we want, people will react from where they are, based on what they’re used to and with an eye for what they want. No matter how strong we think our arguments are, no matter how noble our intentions or passionate our desires, when we advocate without considering human nature, history, and the numbers, we cause more animals to suffer and die.
If we want to help animals, we need to advocate for animals.
Post script, Sept. 3: I have been asked what advocacy like this would look like. It would look like this: