Researcher: Vegetarian Diet Kills Animals Too

Citing numerous studies by federal agencies, as well as news organizations, Norris says in most cases it's tough being a farm animal. That's especially true for pigs and chickens.

Female breeding pigs are restricted to pens so small they can't even turn around, he says. Five to 10 chickens often are housed in cages "about the size of your typical microwave oven," he says.

And federal government statistics reveal that cows have been fed so much growth hormone that they boosted their milk production from an average 2.3 tons of milk per year for each cow in 1940 to 8.4 tons by 1997.

Norris says that has led to all kinds of diseases and sicknesses among cows.

Lay Off Chickens and Pigs?

Davis and Norris agree on one point. No system is perfect, and what's needed here is far more dialogue among growers, consumers and vegetarians.

Davis believes the death toll among all animals could be reduced if ranchers concentrated on raising cattle instead of pigs and chickens and let those cattle revert to foraging in open fields that could be shared with other animals.

Citing U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, Davis says of the 8.4 billion animals killed each year for food in the United States, 8 billion are poultry and only 41 million are cows, calves, sheep and lambs. So he figures you could double the number of cattle killed each year, and lay off the chickens, and consequently save about 7.5 billion animals.

But just letting cattle roam freely doesn't solve the problem either, Norris says, because other animals like coyotes and wolves would still likely be killed (just as they are today) to protect the cattle. And he still can't stand the thought of all those hamburgers.

It's not a perfect world, Davis counters, but perhaps with a lot more thought and cooperation, a better alternative might be found. But unless someone comes up with a brilliant idea, whether you eat meat or just fruit and vegetables, you're going to have to share somewhat in the bloodletting.

It might do more good, of course, if all of us just ate a little less of everything.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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