Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, published in...

Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, published in 1975, became pivotal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the challenges presented by the ever-growing human population is producing enough food to feed everyone. There is also the distribution challenge: being able to get the food to the people and ensuring that they can afford a good diet.

The population growth is also accompanied by an increase in prosperity—at least in some parts of the world. As people gain income, they tend to change their diet. One change that people commonly undertake is consuming more status foods, such as beef. As such, it seems almost certain that there will be an ever-growing population that wants to consume more beef. This creates something of a problem.

Beef is, of course, delicious. While I am well aware of the moral issues surrounding the consumption of meat, at the end of each semester I reward myself with a Publix roast beef sub—with everything. Like most Americans, I am rather fond of beef and my absolute favorite meal is veal parmesan. However, I have not had veal since my freshman year of college: thanks to Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation I learned the horrific price of veal and could not, in good conscience, eat it anymore. The argument is the stock utilitarian one: the enjoyment I would get from veal is vastly exceeded by the suffering of the animal. This makes the consumption of veal wrong.  Naturally, I have given similar consideration to beef.

In the case of American cattle, the moral argument I accept in regards to veal fails: in general, American beef growers treat their cattle reasonably well right up until the moment of slaughter. Obviously, there are still cases of cattle being mistreated and that does provide some ammunition for the suffering argument. If I knew that my roast beef sandwich included the remains of a cow that suffered, then I would have to accept that I should give up roast beef as well. I am completely open to that sort of argument.

But, suppose that it is assumed that beef will be created humanely and that the cattle will have a life as good (or better) than they would have in the wild. At least up until the end. This still leaves open some moral concerns about beef.

Sticking with the utilitarian focus, there are two main concerns here. The first is the cost in resources of producing beef relative to other foods. The second is the environmental cost of beef.

Creating 1,000 calories of beef requires 1,557 square feet of land (this includes the pasture and cropland required). In contrast, the same number of calories in chicken requires 44 square feet. For pork it is 57 square feet. Interestingly, dairy production of that number of calories requires only 94 square feet. As such, even if it is assumed that eating meat is morally fine, there is the concern that the land requirements for beef make it an impractical food. There is also the moral concern that land should be used more effectively, at least as long as there is not enough food for everyone.

One counter is that the reason chicken and pork requires less land is that these animals are infamously confined to very small areas. As such, they gain their efficiency by paying a moral price: the animals are treated worse. Obviously those who do not weigh the moral concerns about animals heavily (or at all) will not find this matter to be a problem and they could argue that if cattle were “factory farmed” more efficiently, then beef would cost vastly less.

In addition to the cost in land usage, cattle also need food and water. It takes 36,200 calories of feed and 434 gallons of water to produce 1,000 calories of beef. Not surprisingly, other animals are more efficient. The same calories in chicken requires 8,800 calories of feed and 38 gallons on water. From an efficiency standpoint, it would make more sense for humans to consume the feed crops (typically corn) directly rather than use them to produce animals. Adding in concerns about water, decreasing meat production would seem to be a good idea—at least if the goal is to efficiently feed people.

It can be countered that we will find more efficient ways to feed people—another food revolution to prevent the dire predictions of folks like Malthus from coming to pass. This is, of course, a possibility. However, the earth obviously does have limits—the question is whether these limits will be enough for our population.

It can also be countered that the increasing prosperity will reduce populations. So, while there will be more people eating meat, there will be less people. This is certainly possible: if the usual pattern of increased prosperity leading to smaller families comes to pass, then there might be a reduction in the human population. Provided that the “slack” is taken up elsewhere.

A final point of concern is the environmental impact of beef. There are the usual environmental issues associated with such agriculture, such as contamination of water. There is also the concern about methane and carbon dioxide production. A thousand calories of beef generates 9.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide, while a comparable amount of chicken generates 1.9 kilograms. Since methane and carbon dioxide are greenhouse gases, those who believe that these gases can influence the climate will find this to be of concern. Those who believe that these gases do not influence the climate will not be concerned about this, in the same manner that people who believe that smoking does not increase their risk of cancer will not be worried about smoking. Speaking of health risks, it is also claimed that beef presents various dangers, such as an increased chance of getting certain cancers.

Overall, if we cannot produce enough food for everyone while producing beef, we should reduce our beef production. While I am reluctant to give up my roast beef, I would do so if it meant that others could eat. But, of course, if it can be shown that beef production and consumption is morally fine and that it has no meaningful impact on people not having enough quality food, then beef would be just fine. Deliciously fine.


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  1. Well Mike, consider this:

    1/. Is the inability to provide a product for everyone, a moral justification to denying it to anybody? For example, should we ban all (university) education, or clean water, or healthcare, on the basis that not everyone can have it?

    2/. Of course if we killed 90% of the world population, we could feed everyone on whatever they liked. Given technology to replace human labour…Is a better life for a few people more moral than a worse life for as many humans as can be crammed on the planet?

    How many people like me, approach the end of their lives wondering if they have, in fact, been of any benefit to anyone? With not even the satisfaction of knowing that someone will get a decent meal out of their buttocks post mortem??

    Maybe the Divine Purpose Of Cattle is to provide steaks?

    And they deserve an early death for basically being bovinely incompetent at anything beyond processing something inedible to humans into something edible.

    Vegan morality falls apart when you look at e.g. tundra based species, where there is in fact nothing that humans can eat, beyond meat.

    Ditto for island based maritime communities. Eat fish, or die, sucker.


  2. “Speaking of health risks, it is also claimed that beef presents various dangers, such as an increased chance of getting certain cancers.”

    Indeed; I’m reminded of a big expert consensus report on cancer in 2007 which found that for red meat, there was “convincing” evidence of increased risk of cancer of the colorectum, and “suggestive” evidence of increased risk of cancer at several other sites.

    Speaking from a more cardiovascular perspective, William C. Roberts (a world-renowned figure in that field) has been known to say, “We kill the cows, and then the cows kill us — that’s actually how the system works.”

  3. For every study showing ‘meat is bad’ you can find one showing ‘cereal crops are bad’ too.

  4. It would be nice if scientists could quickly evolve a cow with no brain, just a hunk of beef, with no senses. It’s the killing that’s killing the beef industry. I often think about that when I bite into a juicy porterhouse or rump roast. I just can’t help myself.

  5. Don’t worry. One day we could possibly print out beef that taste nearly the same using recycled carbon based corpses.

  6. “Creating 1,000 calories of beef requires 1,557 square feet of land (this includes the pasture and cropland required).”

    I’m not sure where you got those numbers, they appear a little strange.

    1,000 calorie is roughly what’s in half a kilo of beef; 500g.

    Imagine a field of ripened corn, moving gently in the breeze. Imagine a section of that field, fifteen and a half foot wide, by one hundred feet long. Gaze if you will, at its’ majesty. That’s 1,557 square feet of corn. Now, I want you to harvest that section of corn. Convert it into corn syrup and corn chips. And drink and eat the whole 1,557 square feet while playing World of Warcraft. If you survive, will you have gained more than half a kilo or less than half a kilo.

    There have been prophets of Malthusian doom since the days of Malthus. Why aren’t we all dead already?

    I’m not sure of the source of much of the information that makes incredible claims, like a head of lettuce requires 6 gallons of water. But many incredible facts are incredible simply because they are not true.

    It’s never really that straight forward. Scottish highland cattle graze in the highlands, they drink rain water. Could you put chickens and pigs in the highlands, or even grow corn there. Their environmental impact on the highlands is far more positive than sheep; who, if a farmer is given perverse incentives, will often graze the landscape to the point there isn’t any landscape left.

    There is a lot of craziness in agriculture. And for that you have to blame the cowboys and corn farmers of the western world. There is so much agriculture that is just plain madness. Where sometimes and places, it would be cheaper for the cowboy to mosy into town and buy beef at the supermarket to feed to his cattle, than buy corn feed from the corn farmer. And though I believe the practice has been outlawed everywhere, there was a point where chicken farmers were buying chicken to feed to their chickens. In western agriculture it’s easy to find all kinds of perversions in production, and from there you can extrapolate all kinds of apocalyptic scenarios. A lot of hunger, deprivation and war in the developing world has been a result of western shenanigans. The corn ethanol mandates led to the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war.

    There’s another interesting factor in countries consumption of meat as they become wealthier. What’s been hurting the American cowboys for years is the fact American beef consumption peaked in the early 70s, and has steadily fell since then. This may be the pattern in other countries; where at first they will gorge themselves on meat, then get sick of it, and then switch to foods that have a lower environmental cost.

  7. Hottest thing round here is growing canola (oil seed rape) for (German) biodiesel. Takes nearly as much diesel to till the land as you get out of it at the far end.

    half the cereal grown goes into cattle food anyway, especially if its substandard quality.

    Of course ‘St Anthony’s fire’ was a disease entirely caused by ergot fungus associated with mouldy rye. Its still around today, but tightly controlled by farmers. The price you pay for NOT having abortions and hallucinations is spraying with fungicides. Which probably are carcinogenic.

    God made a crap job of designing the world really.

  8. Cattle need the food grown on the land, but also pasture space (at least how they are raised in the US). Cattle could be grown without using as much pasture space, factory farming them like pigs and chickens are often farmed in the US.

    Here is a Nat Geo article on beef:

    Right-Malthus predicted our doom and was wrong. But, we know that the earth has finite capacity so the fact that we have not run out of food yet does not mean that we cannot. And, of course, we solved the problems because we were worried we would not have enough food. So, worry now to avoid starving later.

    I do worry about what could be dubbed the Reverse Malthus Effect: that rather than believing we are doomed, people believe that we will always solve the problems because Malthus got it wrong (and so all such predictions will always turn out wrong).

  9. Daylen,

    Yup-printed beef from 100% post-living consumers.

  10. When I was in grad school, my ethics professor had a great story about how a German philosopher said that they would do just that: cows without brains.

  11. Leo Smith,

    No matter what you eat, you still die. Coincidence? Surely not. 🙂

  12. Leo Smith,

    1. No, not in general. But, if some people having X meant that people would starve/die, then that could certainly be used to make a case. To use an obvious analogy, if someone on a lifeboat wanted to use the food rations as bait to catch a single fish that he really liked, thus dooming everyone else, it would seem morally right to keep him from doing that.

    2. In general, I prefer the options that do not kill people. I do think we should limit our population, but this should be done without coercion or killing. Fortunately, prosperity tends to have that effect. But, the problem of overcrowding is certainly a morally interesting one. Since I like sci-fi, I always go with a sci-fi solution: expanding to new worlds, etc.

    Aquinas and Augustine do argue just that: cows are made to eat plants and be eaten by us. As God wills it.

  13. If the amount of land required to produce 1,000 calories of beef is roughly 30x the amount required to produce 1,000 calories of chicken, wouldn’t we expect the price of beef to be far greater than the price of chicken?

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