Deaths Per Calorie & Effective Advocacy: A Case For Standardization
If you’ve spent any time engaging with Effective Animal Advocacy, you know that numbers, statistics, and accurate measures are a key aspect of the work being done. Having data that helps us to understand how many animals suffer as a result of human action — and how we can make the most impact on this suffering with our interventions — is crucial to the advancement of effective animal advocacy goals.
There are a variety of ways that animal advocates have tried to understand and quantify human impact on animals farmed for food. One of those ways is by measuring and comparing the amount of suffering or death that arises from different animal products. For instance, how many days of animal suffering go into producing a pound of beef, or how many deaths per calorie of chicken flesh? These estimates can be very useful when they are done well and transparently, allowing us to compare the impact of consuming different animals. At the same time, it requires some assumptions. It’s a measurement that, in some ways, aligns well with animal rights philosophy because it treats all species and their deaths equally. It doesn’t usually get into muddier waters of measuring differing levels of cognition, intelligence, or sentience, and instead holds to the concept that a death is a death is a death, whether you’re talking about pigs, fishes, or chickens.
It’s not hard to intuitively understand where this logic leads: you have to kill many more chickens, fishes, or other small species to arrive at the same number of calories you would get from killing one cow. For animal advocates, the conclusion of this logic is to do what we can to work towards as much of a reduction of small animal consumption as possible — it’s something we are doing in our program of research focused on small-bodied animals. In other words, eating fewer chicken products saves many more animals than reducing the consumption of the same amount of cow products.
There has been debate around this type of calculation for a long time, and it has interesting roots that might run counter to what most animal advocates would think. From what we can tell, the earliest calculation of this type related to veganism is from a controversial academic journal article from 2003, in which the author argued that consuming large herbivorous animals (i.e. cows) actually results in fewer deaths per calorie than a vegan diet, due in large part to the field deaths incurred through farming. This article was critiqued by animal advocates, with good reason, but the key ideas this article brought up is something we’ve been grappling with ever since. Other debates include whether and how determinations of sentience should be brought into the calculation, and similarly whether weights should be applied to the degree of suffering experienced by different animals in different circumstances. These factors bring additional levels of complexity to a calculation already rife with necessary simplifications and assumptions.
Given the many factors that go into calculating something like deaths per calorie, the biggest issues are the lack of transparency, oversight, and standardization in how these calculations are made. If different researchers bring different factors into their formulas, it is possible to arrive at a variety of different estimates for the same animal products.
At Faunalytics, we’re currently working on a comparison of the impact of different specific animal products: chicken nuggets, scrambled eggs, ham slices, etc. We are doing our best to ensure transparency and oversight, while taking steps in the direction of standardization, by publishing our full methodology, sources for every number we use, and the code we used to calculate the results. We have also consulted with researchers who have made similar calculations in the past, bringing us closer and closer to a “best practice” method all animal advocates can agree upon. It won’t be perfect, but it is as close as we can make it.
On the other hand, a journal article we recently reviewed for the library provides a stark example of how things can go wrong without transparency, oversight, and standardization. As the case study below reveals, incorrect assumptions made in the process of calculation can have a significant effect on the outcome.
Calculation Troubles: A Case Study With Dairy
Consuming dairy is regarded by many people as less harmful than consuming cow meat, in terms of personal health consequences, environmental impacts, or ethical concerns. In a recent paper from the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics the author made a claim that dairy results in more animal deaths per calorie produced than beef production. Therefore, the author argued that the substitution of dairy in place of beef in one’s diet was ethically worse.
The study’s author based their assertion on the contrast between death and suffering. The study assumed that beef cows experience happiness at some point in their lives, and have no concept of time, desires for the future, or knowledge of impending death, and therefore, that cow meat production only requires the death, but not necessarily the suffering, of animals. In addition, the study cited some philosophers that do not regard death in itself as a welfare problem. It’s worth noting that this assertion — that cows raised for meat do not necessarily suffer during their lives — is tenuous at best, given the rampant welfare problems commonly present at feedlots.
In contrast, the author notes, dairy production presents five ethically negative outcomes. Outcomes 1-4 feel intuitively correct, but could be hard to measure:
- Cows suffer from the loss of their offspring;
- Calves suffer from maternal deprivation;
- Male calves are sold to other farms with potentially worse welfare standards;
- Male calves are typically killed soon after birth and therefore are unlikely to have had the opportunity to experience happiness; and
- Dairy produces fewer calories per death compared to beef.
Setting the first four points aside, the study supported the fifth negative outcome through calorie and death accounting for beef and dairy production. The amount of calories produced per beef cow death depends on the breed and sex, ranging from 500,000 calories per Highland Cattle cow/heifer up to 1,750,000 calories per Charolais bull/steer. The majority of the beef breeds listed in this study produce at least 1,000,000 calories per death.
Calculations for only two countries were used to demonstrate that dairy production had a worse calorie to death ratio, when the life of both the cow and the male calf were considered. Digging deeper into the methodology, however, gives good reason to reject this conclusion:
- The study assumed that “One litre of milk with 3.8% fat contains around 68 calories.” They did not cite a source for that estimate, which is extremely low. Multiple sources indicate that it should have been an order of magnitude higher; for instance, the Dairy Council of Northern Ireland states that whole milk has 68 calories per 100mL, or 680 cal per liter, ten times the amount they assumed.
- We also found an error in the author’s calculation of calories per death. Rather than dividing the calories produced from milk per year by the number of deaths per year, they multiplied the two values. Because the number of prorated deaths per year is less than one (0.803 for U.K. dairy and 0.917 for Denmark dairy), the result of this calculation was therefore much too low.
Both of the above errors underestimated the calorie to death ratio for dairy. The study author estimated that for dairy production in the U.K., only 427,407 calories result per death, and 538,996 calories per death in Denmark. After correcting for the two errors above, we found instead that that U.K. and Denmark dairy cows would produce 6,627,845 and 6,414,502 calories per death, respectively — approximately 6 million calories more than the author’s estimates. We have double-checked these calculations several times and contacted the journal about the errors.
While the above can be chalked up to errors of calculation, there were also a couple of significant errors of omission.
Firstly, the study did not account for the calories from non-productive dairy cows (i.e. cull cows) and male calves that are slaughtered for meat. If the study’s focus were on consumption, it might make sense for these deaths to be counted as beef, but when the goal is to compare calories derived from the beef industry versus the dairy industry, this omission significantly skews the calorie and death accounting exercise. Cull cows tend to weigh in the 1,000 lb (or about 500 kg) range, while male calves raised for veal tend to weigh in the 500 lb (or about 250 kg) range. Following the study’s calculation procedures for beef calories, the meat from a cull cow and male calf could result in an additional 625,000 and 312,500 calories, respectively. Accounting for the meat byproducts of the dairy industry could thus boost the dairy-related calorie to death ratio by about another 500,000 calories per death, for a total of about 7,000,000 calories per death.
Secondly, the study in question only provided a broad range of beef calories per death (500,000 to 1,750,000), which makes it difficult to conclude whether the author’s original estimate of dairy calories per death was actually worse than that for beef production. With data from the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, we can derive a more precise estimate of beef calories per death; we use slaughter counts and estimated weights for cull cows and male calves to calculate that 25 billion pounds of meat were produced in the U.S. in 2019, from the slaughter of 29.2 million cows that were not associated with the dairy industry. This results in a calorie to death ratio of only 970,320 calories per death for U.S. non-dairy beef, which is within the study’s range of calories per death for the beef breeds. Our value for beef is approximately seven times lower than the calories per death that we calculated for dairy production.
And so, while there are merits to this study’s four ethical welfare arguments against dairy relative to meat production, a deeper analysis shows a greatly underestimated overall calories per death from dairy. Correct calorie and death accounting do not support the study’s ethical efficiency argument that dairy production results in fewer calories per death compared to beef. In fact, they strongly support the opposite conclusion: That dairy production is more ethical from an “efficiency” standpoint than beef production.
Towards Standardized Models
Do the above methodological concerns mean that we should ignore deaths per calorie or similar calculations as a general model for better understanding the most effective course of action when it comes to animal advocacy? Clearly not, as we are pursuing such an analysis ourselves. Yes, we need to get our numbers right, and always triple check our calculations. However, what the above shows us is not just about arithmetic. It shows us that these types of calculations might benefit greatly from transparency, oversight, and standardization.
Most estimates of suffering or death associated with different animal products start with average lifespans, average animal weights, and often supply and demand elasticity — our upcoming publication is one such analysis. It also includes adjustments for loss due to waste and shrinkage, as well as indirect impacts like bycatch and “feeder” fish.
Other estimates sometimes also include factors like brain weight or neuron count as a proxy for sentience, or attempt to estimate the “number of days of life equivalent to pain of death.” Still others don’t factor in sentience, but do factor the general farming conditions for different animals into their formula. All of these factors are important and may be worth estimating, but they introduce additional degrees of uncertainty and subjectivity into a model that already includes several simplifying assumptions.
How can we, as animal advocates interested in effectiveness and the ability to compare our data in a one-to-one way, address this? Measurements like deaths per calorie have proven very useful for animal advocacy strategy, but can we improve upon them?
One example to look to is the field of Life Cycle Assessment or LCA. In short, LCA is a method for measuring the environmental impacts of a given product “from cradle to grave.” It’s a complex method that is widely used in research circles concerned with sustainability. It has even been used regularly to look at the environmental impacts of animal products. In our Library, we have articles that look at LCAs for everything from leather to mink fur production, from vegan diets to the specific impact of Beyond Meat Burgers.
Where LCAs offer some possible direction for models like deaths per calorie is that they have undergone a process of standardization, and are now governed under one standard and one amendment by the International Organization for Standardization. It’s a standard that’s employed by scholars, companies, and governments, and ensures some level of uniformity in its application, and allows those employing it as a measurement to reasonably compare data when the need arises. However, nothing about LCAs measures animal suffering, or even prescribes a particular value to animal life and death, which are key aspects of what we’re concerned with as animal advocates.
Taking inspiration from LCAs, animal advocates should consider standardizing how they measure the basic elements of death per calorie and similar calculations — factors including lifespan, weight, and supply and demand elasticity — and updating those standards regularly based on new best-available data. For our part, the methodology document for our upcoming study mentioned above will provide a clear guide to others who want to perform a similar analysis.
Measurements such as deaths per calorie have already been immensely important in animal advocates’ strategizing about reducing the vast amounts of suffering and death experienced by chickens and fishes. As we prepare to release our own study that looks at animal products through this very lens, we believe that these measurements will continue to play an important role in how we approach our work effectively, and we are doing what we can to help push the needle towards a better overall model. Precisely because of their importance, we believe these measurements deserve to continue to be revised, refined, and standardized, so they may become even more useful for advocates as time goes on.
This blog would not have been possible without the calculations and analysis of Faunalytics Volunteer Wilton Mui. Wilton is an aerosol scientist by training and currently works on testing of low-cost air pollution monitors. He received his Bachelor’s in Environmental Engineering Sciences from the University of Florida and his Master’s and Doctorate in Environmental Science and Engineering from the California Institute of Technology.