The Kritic

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I wish to preface this post by stating that the references made to the Australian Bush Meat trade in this post are only included as a condition of republishing this material as I feel the rest of the article has merit. I do not condone or support the commercial Bush Meat trade in any way and I encourage all readers to do the same.

Being vegetarian saves cows' lives, but threatens the future of other sentient creatures.

Being vegetarian saves cows' lives, but threatens the future of other sentient creatures.nunro

The ethics of eating red meat have been grilled recently by critics who question its consequences for environmental health and animal welfare. But if you want to minimise animal suffering and promote more sustainable agriculture, adopting a vegetarian diet might be the worst possible thing you could do.

Renowned ethicist Peter Singer says if there is a range of ways of feeding ourselves, we should choose the way that causes the least unnecessary harm to animals. Most animal rights advocates say this means we should eat plants rather than animals.

It takes somewhere between two to ten kilos of plants, depending on the type of plants involved, to produce one kilo of animal. Given the limited amount of productive land in the world, it would seem to some to make more sense to focus our culinary attentions on plants, because we would arguably get more energy per hectare for human consumption. Theoretically this should also mean fewer sentient animals would be killed to feed the ravenous appetites of ever more humans.

But before scratching rangelands-produced red meat off the “good to eat” list for ethical or environmental reasons, let’s test these presumptions.

Published figures suggest that, in Australia, producing wheat and other grains results in:

  • at least 25 times more sentient animals being killed per kilogram of useable protein
  • more environmental damage, and
  • a great deal more animal cruelty than does farming red meat.

How is this possible?

Agriculture to produce wheat, rice and pulses requires clear-felling native vegetation. That act alone results in the deaths of thousands of Australian animals and plants per hectare. Since Europeans arrived on this continent we have lost more than half of Australia’s unique native vegetation, mostly to increase production of monocultures of introduced species for human consumption.

Most of Australia’s arable land is already in use. If more Australians want their nutritional needs to be met by plants, our arable land will need to be even more intensely farmed. This will require a net increase in the use of fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and other threats to biodiversity and environmental health. Or, if existing laws are changed, more native vegetation could be cleared for agriculture (an area the size of Victoria plus Tasmania would be needed to produce the additional amount of plant-based food required).

Australian cattle eat mostly pasture, reducing their environmental impact.

Australian cattle eat mostly pasture, reducing their environmental impact.chris runoff

Most cattle slaughtered in Australia feed solely on pasture. This is usually rangelands, which constitute about 70% of the continent.

Grazing occurs on primarily native ecosystems. These have and maintain far higher levels of native biodiversity than croplands. The rangelands can’t be used to produce crops, so production of meat here doesn’t limit production of plant foods. Grazing is the only way humans can get substantial nutrients from 70% of the continent.

In some cases rangelands have been substantially altered to increase the percentage of stock-friendly plants. Grazing can also cause significant damage such as soil loss and erosion. But it doesn’t result in the native ecosystem “blitzkrieg” required to grow crops.

This environmental damage is causing some well-known environmentalists to question their own preconceptions. British environmental advocate George Monbiot, for example, publicly converted from vegan to omnivore after reading Simon Fairlie’s expose about meat’s sustainability. And environmental activist Lierre Keith documented the awesome damage to global environments involved in producing plant foods for human consumption.

In Australia we can also meet part of our protein needs using sustainably wild-harvested kangaroo meat. Unlike introduced meat animals, they don’t damage native biodiversity. They are soft-footed, low methane-producing and have relatively low water requirements. They also produce an exceptionally healthy low-fat meat.

In Australia 70% of the beef produced for human consumption comes from animals raised on grazing lands with very little or no grain supplements. At any time, only 2% of Australia’s national herd of cattle are eating grains in feed lots; the other 98% are raised on and feeding on grass. Two-thirds of cattle slaughtered in Australia feed solely on pasture.

To produce protein from grazing beef, cattle are killed. One death delivers (on average, across Australia’s grazing lands) a carcass of about 288 kilograms. This is approximately 68% boneless meat which, at 23% protein equals 45kg of protein per animal killed. This means 2.2 animals killed for each 100kg of useable animal protein produced.

Producing protein from wheat means ploughing pasture land and planting it with seed. Anyone who has sat on a ploughing tractor knows the predatory birds that follow you all day are not there because they have nothing better to do. Ploughing and harvesting kill small mammals, snakes, lizards and other animals in vast numbers. In addition, millions of mice are poisoned in grain storage facilities every year.

However, the largest and best-researched loss of sentient life is the poisoning of mice during plagues.

Each area of grain production in Australia has a mouse plague on average every four years, with 500-1000 mice per hectare. Poisoning kills at least 80% of the mice.

At least 100 mice are killed per hectare per year (500/4 × 0.8) to grow grain. Average yields are about 1.4 tonnes of wheat/hectare; 13% of the wheat is usable protein. Therefore, at least 55 sentient animals die to produce 100kg of usable plant protein: 25 times more than for the same amount of rangelands beef.

Some of this grain is used to “finish” beef cattle in feed lots (some is food for dairy cattle, pigs and poultry), but it is still the case that many more sentient lives are sacrificed to produce usable protein from grains than from rangelands cattle.

There is a further issue to consider here: the question of sentience – the capacity to feel, perceive or be conscious.

You might not think the billions of insects and spiders killed by grain production are sentient, though they perceive and respond to the world around them. You may dismiss snakes and lizards as cold-blooded creatures incapable of sentience, though they form pair bonds and care for their young. But what about mice?

Mice are far more sentient than we thought. They sing complex, personalised love songs to each other that get more complex over time. Singing of any kind is a rare behaviour among mammals, previously known only to occur in whales, bats and humans.

Girl mice, like swooning human teenagers, try to get close to a skilled crooner. Now researchers are trying to determine whether song innovations are genetically programmed or or whether mice learn to vary their songs as they mature.

Hoping to prepare them for an ethical oversight

“Hoping to prepare them for an ethical oversight”Nikkita Archer

Baby mice left in the nest sing to their mothers — a kind of crying song to call them back. For every female killed by the poisons we administer, on average five to six totally dependent baby mice will, despite singing their hearts out to call their mothers back home, inevitably die of starvation, dehydration or predation.

When cattle, kangaroos and other meat animals are harvested they are killed instantly. Mice die a slow and very painful death from poisons. From a welfare point of view, these methods are among the least acceptable modes of killing. Although joeys are sometimes killed or left to fend for themselves, only 30% of kangaroos shot are females, only some of which will have young (the industry’s code of practice says shooters should avoid shooting females with dependent young). However, many times this number of dependent baby mice are left to die when we deliberately poison their mothers by the millions.

Replacing red meat with grain products leads to many more sentient animal deaths, far greater animal suffering and significantly more environmental degradation. Protein obtained from grazing livestock costs far fewer lives per kilogram: it is a more humane, ethical and environmentally-friendly dietary option.

So, what does a hungry human do? Our teeth and digestive system are adapted for omnivory. But we are now challenged to think about philosophical issues. We worry about the ethics involved in killing grazing animals and wonder if there are other more humane ways of obtaining adequate nutrients.

Relying on grains and pulses brings destruction of native ecosystems, significant threats to native species and at least 25 times more deaths of sentient animals per kilogram of food. Most of these animals sing love songs to each other, until we inhumanely mass-slaughter them.

Former Justice of the High Court, the Hon. Michael Kirby, wrote that:

“In our shared sentience, human beings are intimately connected with other animals. Endowed with reason and speech, we are uniquely empowered to make ethical decisions and to unite for social change on behalf of others that have no voice. Exploited animals cannot protest about their treatment or demand a better life. They are entirely at our mercy. So every decision of animal welfare, whether in Parliament or the supermarket, presents us with a profound test of moral character”.

We now know the mice have a voice, but we haven’t been listening.

The challenge for the ethical eater is to choose the diet that causes the least deaths and environmental damage. There would appear to be far more ethical support for an omnivorous diet that includes rangeland-grown red meat and even more support for one that includes sustainably wild-harvested kangaroo.

Thanks to many colleagues including Rosie Cooney, Peter Ampt, Grahame Webb, Bob Beale, Gordon Grigg, John Kelly, Suzanne Hand, Greg Miles, Alex Baumber, George Wilson, Peter Banks, Michael Cermak, Barry Cohen, Dan Lunney, Ernie Lundelius Jr and anonymous referees of the Australian Zoologist paper who provided helpful critiques.

The ConversationAt the time of original publication Mike Archer AM did not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and had no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
By Mike Archer AM, Professor, Evolution of Earth & Life Systems Research Group at UNSW Australia
Read the original article.

Balloons Blow

Balloons BlowPhoto: Balloons Blow

In August 2012 I introduced readers of The Kritic to the problem with balloons and their affect on the environment. In today’s blog I have asked Danielle and Chelsea of to write about their specific fight against the insidious balloon.

Balloons Blow was created by two sisters who got sick of finding balloons everywhere while out in nature. We’ve been cleaning the beach with our parents all our lives & started to notice an increase in balloon pollution (along with plastic, of course). When we went online and realized the only information on the internet was balloon industry propaganda, we created so people would have a place to get accurate balloon information. It is the only site dedicated to educating people and compiling information about balloon pollution.

We both have full time jobs, but Balloons Blow keeps us busy every day. The Earth and its wildlife will continue to inspire us to stay strong and continue our work toward a sustainable society that is aware of the impacts daily actions have on the planet. We are constantly motivated by our animal friends who need our help & the people around the world who have been inspired to also clean up whenever, wherever.

Balloons Blow has grown more than we ever imagined & is now a non-profit organization. We are awaiting our 501c3 approval, but most everything has been funded out of our own pockets. We just want people to quit littering with balloons!

To combat the balloon industry’s false claims of latex balloons biodegrading ‘as fast as an oak leaf’ or ‘up to six months’, we started our own backyard biodegradability test using two latex balloons that washed in to us while we were at the beach on December 24, 2011. Those balloons are still in our backyard and haven’t changed much since we brought them home from the beach over 23 months ago. We take pictures of the balloons monthly & believe our test is much more accurate than the single study touted by the balloon industry, which was done by a man paid by the balloon industry who frequently manipulated the balloons including the use of drying ovens, etc.

Biodegradability Test

Backyard Biodegradability TestPhoto: Balloons Blow

23 months since floating onto the beach from the sea partially inflated. Tied to a fence post & left to endure the extreme weather conditions of south Florida, these latex balloons have changed little since deflation & are definitely NOT biodegrading. Although their color is fading & they have plant matter stuck to them, they are still here. Changing from dry & stiff in the heat, to pliable & supple in the humidity. The attached plastic ribbons are becoming brittle & breaking apart.

Balloons are being released everyday by people and organizations all around the world. It is up to each one of us to educate each other. Sometimes it only takes a single e-mail or call to stop a mass littering event.

There are often many challenges when attempting to change people’s minds and actions. People can be very passionate about balloons. Some people can be very defensive.

Balloon releases are becoming popular with awareness group events. This is perplexing to us because awareness groups usually deal with an issue that affects life, whether it is human or another species. Not only can balloons themselves directly destroy life, but the helium that the balloons are filled with is being depleted at an alarming rate. Helium is a finite resource and is used in the medical field for a variety of procedures. Our society needs Helium to save lives, but it costs about ten thousand times more to get helium from the air than it does from rocks and natural gas reserves, and our supplies of Helium are being used at a “unimaginable” rate and could be gone within a generation according to Robert Richardson (Nobel Prize winner in 1996 for his work on superfluidity of Helium). Balloon releases are bad for everyone.

Our favorite alternative is planting trees and flowers because both support existing life and help create new lives. Ribbon dancers & bubbles are also fun!

There are a handful of states and cities around the globe that have balloon release regulations. Unfortunately, many of these laws are often unenforced and unknown. They also frequently allow for a certain number of balloons to be released and only penalize a fine for releases that exceed the limit. The legality of balloon releases is a tremendous obstacle. This multi-billion dollar industry spends big bucks lobbying to keep this littering legal. Creating laws regulating balloon releases may be a difficult and lengthy process, but their enactment would be concurrent with litter laws.

Having respect for the Earth in the simple act of refraining from littering and releasing balloons can lead to more environmentally conscious and sustainable actions.

Many people ask us, why balloons? After explaining the complex web of this question as it is directly related to released balloons (industry propaganda, lack of public awareness, encouragement of wastefulness, effects of wildlife, etc.) it always comes around to the big picture; sustainability. Throwing something ‘away’ takes it out of your sight, but not off of the planet. Recycling is a great alternative to throwing something ‘away’, but is becoming a bandage over the deeper wound. We are all victims of our society and are often coerced into buying more oil based plastics; but by coming together & (making) more conscious choices we CAN make a difference! We all have the power to control our actions and in the end change the course of history.