Saturday, November 12, 2011

I Could Never Go Vegan

“I think it's great what you're doing, but I don't think I could ever go vegan.” This phrase, “I don't think I could ever go vegan,” is one that I hear a lot in my activism, or even just day to day interactions with people. With that one statement people entirely shut themselves down to being influenced by any argument we might have to make. I could spend days presenting every case for why other animals deserve similar consideration for their interests and how they are being callously denied their most essential interests currently, but if the person I was presenting to opened with, “I don't think I could ever go vegan,” my money is on my arguments falling on deaf ears 99 times out of 100. Recently I've started using the following reply when people tell me that they could never go vegan:

I totally understand that not everyone I talk to is going to go vegan right away, but the things that are happening currently [on factory farms] are things that I think anyone would be troubled by. We each make decisions every day about what we consume, and even if someone isn't going to go fully vegan, every time they make a choice to avoid animal products is a major victory for the animals suffering on our factory farms.

There are a lot of things I've liked about this response. While a moment ago they were someone who could never go vegan, I've subtly recast their statement to emphasize that they merely were not taking the leap right away. Additionally, I've encouraged them to start looking at each individual decision they are making and emphasized the relative importance of the decision for the animals. Finally, I'm always very careful to use terms like “we” and “our” as often as possible when discussing making decisions and always use the more generic “someone” or “people” instead of the more accusatory “you” and “your” when the former terms are not possible.

In giving this response to someone last week I started wondering: “Just how much impact does each one of our decisions have for the animals suffering on factory farms?” Luckily, the question is a fairly simple one to answer. To determine the answer I put together the table below with rough approximations of how long the animals used for the products below live in a typical modern production system and roughly how much product is generally acquired by the time the animals are slaughtered. I divided the time by the amount of product to get the amount of time spent suffering per unit of product produced.

Product Animal Life Unit Production Unit Suffering
Beef 600 Days 750 lbs 1,152 min/lb
Chicken 45 Days 3 lbs 21,600 min/lb
Pork 250 Days 200 lbs 1,800 min/lb
Dairy 1,500 Days 1,000 gal 216 min/gal
Eggs 1,000 Days 800 eggs 1,800 min/egg

The values in the table are only rough approximations and could probably vary by as much as a factor of 1.5 in either direction from farm to farm. Nonetheless, the table still gives us very useful data for how important each of our decisions is. The amount of suffering that goes into producing chicken and eggs far away outpaces any of the other products. If someone wants to know what is most important for them to give up right away, our answer should always be chicken and eggs. On the other end of the spectrum, dairy involves far less time spent suffering than any of these other products; yet, I still can't imagine any plausible amount of pleasure we could get out of a gallon of dairy that could possibly justify the over three hours a dairy cow was subjected to in factory farm conditions to support our demand (not to mention the plethora of easy dairy substitutes).

We won't be able to get every person with whom we speak to go vegan right away, but plenty of people will be willing to start looking at their individual decisions in more detail. Hopefully with this data and knowledge of the unimaginable horrors our fellow animals endure on our factory farms, more people will be willing to make all of their decisions victories for the animals.


  1. Here's a more detailed "suffering per kg" table:

  2. I think most people don't care about animals. It's better to convince them of the health aspects.

  3. This is amazing. I have heard the "I could never go vegan" statement many times. It's usually accompanied by another statement: "Because I love cheese too much." If I ask if they'd be willing to be vegan otherwise, just continue to eat cheese, I get a blank look. To me this tells me they don't really have any desire to be vegan at all -- yet they feel the need to justify their choices. Still, when talking to these people I think it's important to frame this as individual decisions made on a meal-by-meal basis. When people taste for themselves how satisfying animal-free meals can be, they are less likely to think of animal suffering as a necessity to their survival (I hope).

    I disagree with the above commenter who says it's better to make arguments about the health aspects. While there are clear benefits to eating more plants, there is no proven benefit to adopting a 100 percent animal-free diet. There are many ways to arrange a healthful diet -- and while a vegan diet can be incredibly healthy, so can other types of diets.

  4. If I can give up cheese, anyone can. There are so many delicious vegan alternatives - Chreese and daiya and I own The Uncheese Cookbook by Joanne Stepaniak, a whole cookbook on how to make cheese substitutes. I no longer have any desire to buy dairy cheese at the grocery store, though it was my favorite food as a (vegetarian!) child.

  5. I just found your blog. I plan on reading it regularly; your analysis is really excellent. I am not myself a vegan (yet?) but when I pulled out "I would be a vegetarian if not for X" years ago, I found it very convincing when someone replied, "so be a vegetarian except for X." From there it was just one step to give up X, and likewise for the animal products I still occasionally consume, I suppose.

    Being more picky, I'm not sure I can buy the underlying assumptions of your suffering/kg table. You seem to treat one day of being in production as being of equal moral weight across all species and modes of production. Surely different modes of production are more or less cruel, and it is not inherently irrational to think that we have different moral duties to different species of animals. Most people would agree, for example, that confining a fly is not as unethical as confining a chimpanzee. That's an exaggeration to prove a point, but if it's sound in principle, it may also be rational to assign the suffering of chickens slightly different moral weight from the suffering of pigs.

    I think if I were to advise someone on what to give up first, it would probably be veal and foie gras (due to the cruelty of the production methods) followed by pork and beef (due to the higher moral duty I believe is owed to fellow mammals as compared to birds, fish, etc).

    1. "and it is not inherently irrational to think that we have different moral duties to different species of animals."

      I agree with you!

      Some other people say that treating different species differently is as bad as treating different races of people differently, and some of *them* use it as an argument for veganism (meanwhile, some others use it as an argument for letting people get away with being as violent to people as animals get away with being to other animals...).

  6. Great post, Infinity. Where did you get the Production and Animal Life numbers?

    banyan, it's true that we should consider the cruelty of each mode of production, not just the duration spent. However, I think after foie gras and veal, eggs involve the most suffering per animal. Next is perhaps chickens because they're painfully slaughtered so soon after birth, which increases the amortized suffering per day.

    I don't think cows deserve (much) more moral weight than chickens, because both species are pretty smart and presumably conscious. However, I can see the intuition on the other side. Do you think the ratio of cows to chickens is 20 times, though? Enough to offset the suffering-per-pound values?

  7. If someone cares, there is no convincing necessary. Meat eating just ends. I have no desire to bring people to my point of view on the matter. I simply point out that they don't care. They talk about love, and I tell them that love doesn't mean a thing to them as they brutalize a small group of animals each day just so they can have a pleasurable taste on their tongue. They talk about compassion, I point out they are not compassionate. They say the world needs peace, I point out to them that peace doesn't mean a thing to them. If anyone does care, then maybe they see their ignorance for what it is and change accordingly. But most people only like to talk about caring, nothing more.

    1. So someone can't care for anyone at all unless they also care about chickens?

  8. If you want to you will, If you don't want to, you won't. No convincing necessary.

  9. Hello,

    I just did a quick Google for "veganism and skepticism" and found your blog, but it wasn't quite what I was looking for.

    I read this most recent article anyhow, and what stands out most is the chart of animal-suffering-per-pound.

    As you also describe yourself as a skeptic I'm sure you won't be surprised that this raised both an eyebrow and also some questions that immediately came to mind... and here they are:

    - Are we to assume that every waking moment of an animal's life pre-death is considered suffering, no matter the conditions or the method of death? Do you think body mass to time is the best scale of determining something arbitrary like suffering? Do you look at human life the same way?

    - Additionally would you adjust these values dependent for free-range livestock farming instead of factory farming, and if so how would you calculate the new value?

    - Contrary to the above chart, would a dairy cow not be said to suffer more over its extended lifetime of constant pregnancy than the much shorter one of a beef cow?

    - How do you justify removing eggs from ones diet ahead of beef and pork where the latter two are slaughtered but a chicken continues to live, and potentially in a free-range and natural environment?

    Thank you for your time.

    1. Barry, the author mentions that the table is composed of "rough approximations," so we know that that portion of the post is not intended to be definitive.

      The chart does raise some interesting questions. I'll try to answer yours.

      --We can assume with great confidence that the majority of life for an animal in a factory farm situation constitutes suffering. Life in a battery cage, farrowing crate, veal box, or broiler shed is going to induce constant pain and stress (not to mention the chronic pain of bodily deformities brought on by selective breeding or mutilations).

      --The author used per pound because pounds of product are the output of animal industries - the "gain" reaped by subjecting the animals to suffering. This is a cost/benefit analysis, so the "benefit" must be quantified somehow. Obviously this would not be relevant for human life, because humans aren't deliberately bred, chopped up, and sold by the pound.

      --Free-range is usually a labeling gimmick that bears little relation to the actual conditions. In the rare instance that the animals actually have more room, suffering numbers could be lowered slightly.

      --I would agree that dairy cows suffer more than beef cows, but we already know we are dealing with "rough approximations" here.

      --Egg chickens are killed while still quite young. Culling methods for layers (as opposed to cows) are typically far more violent (live-grinding in a macerator, for example). Each hen also has a male counterpart that was ground up at the hatchery. Aside from death, life -even in a "cageless" egg facility- is likely worse than the life of a cow on a feedlot (issues with crowding, air quality, sanitation, etc.). Layers are also much more prone to broken bones (thus chronic pain) than cows or pigs. Not to mention chronic pain from debeaking and toe-cutting (also performed at "free range" farms).

    2. "Each hen also has a male counterpart that was ground up at the hatchery. "

      Most, not all.

      Claiming that *all* male chicks get ground up can get the reaction "that's not true, because hatcheries do keep some roosters around to father the next generation of hens."

      Claiming that *most* male chicks in hatcheries doesn't have that problem of being an untrue claim, and pre-empts the what-about-the-roosters reaction.

  10. -If you are American are happy with the amount of time that you spend 'playing on the internet' vs. the time you spend trying to stop the suffering of millions of people caused by your government's wars of aggression

    -If you drive a car are you aware of peak oil and the fact that you are causing all the children of the planet to suffer (If you have an 'eco'-car look into the mining of rare earth metals)

    -Do you own anything produced in a 3rd world; obviously produced through suffering?

    1. Google "fallacy of perfection."

      In short, it's no criticism of veganism that it does not solve all the world's problems.

  11. So is this blog dead?

    You don't happen to be the same person as this guy, do you? --

  12. There are a number of good criticisms above as to the subjectiveness of this analysis, so I'll mostly comment on the math. I take it for granted that the lifespan and production values are correct. Label the columns A-F as you would see in popular spreadsheet programs. Column F should be computed as B/D. All rows are correct except for Dairy, which should be 2,160 min/gal. This would seem to put dairy more in line with beef, pork, and eggs, and an order of magnitude behind chicken. But, a gallon of milk is quite a bit of milk, not necessarily on par with a pound of meat. Let's say instead we use portion sizes of one quarter pound of meat, a glass of milk, or one egg. Let's also use hours instead of minutes. Then we have the following:

    Product: Suffering
    Beef: 4.8 hours per 1/4 lb.
    Chicken: 90 hours per 1/4 lb.
    Pork: 7.5 hours per 1/4 lb.
    Dairy: 2.25 hours per glass of milk*
    Eggs: 30 hours per egg

    *perhaps equivalent to 2 oz. of processed cheese

    Thus, chickens, be they broilers or layers, endure the longest length of time of suffering per serving--almost 4 days to produce a quarter pound of meat, and over a day to produce one egg. Milk causes the fewest hours of suffering, ironically in agreement with the original analysis.

    I have to say I'm skeptical of anyone who can't use a spreadsheet program! The link in the first comment points to a more thorough analysis, though I wish that author would have accounted for serving sizes in her table rather than just mentioning it. Note that the book Ham and Eggonomics mentioned there as containing an even more thorough analysis was subsequently published as Compassion by the Pound. I happen to own a copy but have yet to read it.

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