In this essay I attempt to calculate the amounts of animal suffering prevented by different diets that involve restrictions on some animal products (vegetarian, pescetarian, etc.) relative to a diet that restricts consumption of all animal products i.e. veganism. This is an important topic both for deciding what we personally should eat but also what areas should we focus activism in to most effectively reduce animal suffering. The results in terms of suffering averted, on a scale where vegans avert 100% of suffering and Meat Eaters 0%, are:
|“Ethical Meat Eater”||90.4%|
There are many limitations and possible inaccuracies in the numbers that make up this conclusion so we should include a lot of uncertainty when making decisions based on these numbers. However, if accurate, these results are surprising, and have important implications that I expand on in section 4
The categories of animal product restriction is use in this essay are:
- Meat Eater: Eats meat, fish, eggs and milk. Based on the average US consumption [Link]
- “Meatless Monday”: Same as Meat Eater but with a 1/7 (1 day of the week) reduction in meat and fish.
- Pescetarian: Does not eat meat. Eats fish, eggs, and milk.
- Vegetarian: Does not eat meat and fish. Eats eggs and dairy.
- Ovo-Vegetarian: Does not eat meat, fish and diary. Eats eggs.
- Lacto-Vegetarian: Eats dairy but does not eat meat, fish and eggs.
- Vegan: Does not eat meat, fish, dairy, or eggs
- Ethical Meat Eater: Eats beef, pork, and dairy. Does not eat chicken, fish and
The final category, “Ethical Meat Eater”, is based on a hypothetical person that wants to reduce animal suffering but still wants to consume animal products. They choose to only restrict the most harmful animal products, chicken, fish, and eggs, and to make up for this by increasing their consumption of beef pork and dairy.
|Suffering per kg||Avg consumption kg(rounded) per year||Suffering caused by consumption per year||Percent of total suffering caused by diet|
Column one shows different animal products. Column 2 shows the amount of suffering per kilogram of food produced. These numbers are from Brian Tomasik’s essay How Much Direct Suffering Is Caused by Various Animal Foods?,and is calculated by the following formula:
suffering / kg = [(days of life / animal) + (equivalent days of death pain / animal)] * (suffering / day) / (kg / animal).
Column 3 is the average yearly consumption of the average person from the US taken from chapter two of the Agricultural Fact Book by the US Department of Agriculture. Column 4 is column 2 multiplied by column 3 to arrive at the amount of suffering caused by the yearly consumption of the average US person for each food item. Finally column 5 shows column 4 expressed as a percentages of the total suffering caused by consumption to more clearly show the relative harm caused by consuming each category of animal products. Table 2
|Diets||Suffering caused||Percentage of suffering reduction relative to Meat Eater|
|“Ethical Meat Eater”||268||90.7%|
In table 2, column 1 shows various possible diets (see Section 2 for descriptions). Column 2 shows the total amount of suffering caused by 1 year of eating the diets, calculated from Table 1. Column 3 shows the percentage of suffering of reduced by someone following that diet, with Meat eating being set at 0% and vegan at 100%.
There are several implications that we can draw from these results, regarding both our personal ethical choices and how to improve the effectiveness of animal welfare advocacy.
- More than twice as much suffering is prevented by a meat eater becoming vegetarian than a vegetarian becoming vegan. Being vegetarian does about 70% as much good as being vegan. The relative difficulty of convincing someone be vegetarian or vegan is unknown but if it twice as hard or more to make someone be vegan than focusing on advocating vegetarianism may have higher expected utility.
- There is a very small difference between a Lacto-Vegetarian and a Vegan diet in terms of reduction in suffering. This suggests that for people who find dairy hard to give up relative to other animal products it might be best for them to be Lacto-Vegetarian and try to help animals in other ways, such as convince their friends to reduce their consumption of animal products. It also suggests animal advocates should not focus resources on convincing people to give up dairy relative to other animal products.
- Fish represent 28.3% of the harm of a meat eating diet, the third highest after chicken and eggs. This suggests that going from a Pescetarian to a Vegetarian diet is most likely worth it unless it would be very hard for them to give up fish. Animal advocacy focusing specifically on encouraging Pescetarians to become vegetarian or having a larger focus on the suffering of fish in aqua farms (which in general is given less attention than factory farming) may also be valuable. (Note: the suffering numbers for fish have the highest amount of uncertainty so we should be more hesitant to draw conclusions form this than the other results.)
- As we can see from the “Ethical Meat Eater” row, it is possible for someone to maintain roughly the same consumption levels of animal products but reduce the animal suffering they cause by 90% (more than a vegetarian!) simply by choosing which animal products that cause the least suffering, eating more beef, pork and milk, and no chicken, eggs, and fish. This is an outstanding opportunity for people who want to reduce the amount of animal suffering they cause but find it too difficult to be Vegetarian/Vegan. It is also means that focusing animal advocacy on getting people to reduce consumption of the most harmful animal products (chicken, fish, eggs) may have high expected value.
6. Limitations and Inaccuracies
There are many limitations and inaccuracies in these numbers that I will list here:
- I have not included veal, lamb, turkey or any other animal products not seen in Table 1. According to USDA these are small relative to the amount of other animals consumed (for example veal and lamb together are around one 50th of beef.) If it was included it would likely not have much of an impact but might make the harm of meat slight higher.
- Tomasik’s essay does not include the suffering of calves and male chicks killed during egg production. If these were included it would most likely slight increase the relative harm of dairy and eggs.
- These results do not consider other foods derived from animal bodies that vegans do not eat such as gelatine, rennet etc. and also does not include non-edible animal products such as leather and fur. I currently think that these are negligible compared to the animal products in the table so not including them does not substantially change the result.
- These results just consider the direct animal suffering caused by animal product consumption and not the environmental damage caused by animal farming. I estimate that animal suffering due to the environmental harm caused by animal farming is most likely very small relative to direct animal suffering (I plan to expand on this view in a future blog post) so do not expect this to change the relative values, although it might make beef slightly worse.
- Determining the suffering caused by eating fish is very challenging. The USDA source does not make distinctions between fish and other types of seafood, some of which, such as oysters and mussels may not experience pain. On the other hand, according to Tomasik’s essay consuming farmed fish, about half of all fish consumed by humans, causes the more suffering than any of the other animal foods. Another factor is that the fish that are not farmed are not caused to exist by humans (unlike cows, pigs, and chickens that would not exist if humans did not farm them) and it is not obvious that the death of a fish caught by humans is significantly worse than being eaten or slowly dying of hunger. Because of this it is possible that eating non-farmed fish is net neutral in terms of animal suffering. My solution to all these uncertain factors is to take the suffering per kg number for salmon (which I think is a more representative figure than catfish) and divide it in half. This is clearly a very rough approximation and I encourage readers to come up with a more precise number for fish suffering per kilogram (I may try to in a future blog post).
- Tomasik’s essay calculation for the amount of suffering caused by different animal products might be wrong. Currently he adds the pain of death to the amount of days of life and then multiplies the result by the level of suffering per day. But I do not see why the painfulness of death should be affected by the quality of life of days where the animal does not die. It seems to make more sense to multiply the length of life by suffering per day and the after add the additional suffering caused by death. I have decided not to change these numbers for this essay but may update the numbers with a different calculation.