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Want to Kill Fewer Animals? Give Up Eggs

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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If you’re bothered by the idea of killing animals for food, then going vegetarian might seem like an obvious response. But if you want your diet to kill as few animals as possible, then eschewing meat is actually quite an indirect, and sometimes even counterproductive, strategy. The question you should be asking yourself about any given food is not, “Is this food animal flesh?” The question you should be asking yourself is, “How many animal lives did this food cost?”

That might seem like an odd question for a vegetarian to have to concern himself with, but producing foods like eggs, milk and cheese – all of which are permitted on a typical vegetarian diet – does kill animals. Harvesting eggs and dairy doesn’t, in theory, require us to kill the laying hens or dairy cows, but in practice, modern factory farms do kill their hens and cows, at whatever point in the animals’ life cycles the farm considers to be the most profit-maximizing. For dairy cows, that’s usually at age 3-5, out of a natural 20-25 year lifespan. For egg-laying hens, it’s usually after one or two laying cycles. And since the male chicks of the laying species are useless to the egg farmer, they’re killed right after they hatch.

In order to estimate roughly how many animals die to produce each kind of food, I scrounged up some data on the typical amount of meat, eggs, and dairy that we get out of a modern farm animal, and combined it with data on the calorie counts of those foods. That allowed me to calculate the number of calories of food that we get out of each type of animal, or more to the point, the “lives-per-calorie” statistic for each food. The results are below, with the foods ordered from “kills the fewest animals per calorie” to “kills the most animals per calorie.” (All numbers are approximate, of course, but they’re from as recent and reliable sources as I could find. Detailed citations are at the end of this post.)

*The yield for a laying hen over its lifetime is actually about 550 eggs, but I’ve divided it by two to account for the fact that approximately one male chick is killed for every laying hen.

The most striking result that falls out of this calculation is that eating eggs, as many vegetarians do, kills more animals than eating red meat. That’s primarily due to the vast size difference between chickens and cows or pigs. While you only need to kill one single steer to get about 450 pounds (405,000 calories) worth of meat, you’d need to kill about 20 chickens to get enough eggs to match that number of calories.

In fact, the lives-per-calories cost of eggs is so many times higher than that of beef that even a small amount of eggs outweighs the life cost of a larger amount of beef. So, for example, let’s say you’re a vegetarian and you go out to lunch with your omnivorous friend, where he orders a burger and you order an egg-salad sandwich. The two eggs in your sandwich are only 150 calories, compared to the 300 calories in his beef patty, but the eggs cost almost 9 times as much life as the beef.

This isn’t to say that vegetarianism is pointless. The typical vegetarian almost certainly causes fewer animal deaths than the typical omnivore. And unless you’re replacing all of your meat calories with egg-calories, going vegetarian will significantly reduce the number of deaths your diet is causing. The important takeaway from these calculations, rather, is that evaluating food in terms of “flesh” versus “not-flesh” doesn’t tell you that much about how many animals died to produce it.

Of course, the number of animal deaths isn’t the only thing you might care about if you’re concerned about animal welfare – there’s also the very important question of how much suffering the animals experience. Looking at suffering instead of number of deaths would change the calculations somewhat, but I suspect the overall verdict would remain similar if you were looking at suffering-per-calorie – or, if anything, things would look even grimmer for egg-lovers. Laying hens arguably lead some of the most miserable lives out of all livestock, spending all their time crammed into cages with less space than half a piece of paper, having their beaks cut off, and being starved to induce molting. (The male chicks would count less if you’re looking at suffering-per-calorie, however, since their lives are so short.)

It’s also worth noting that lives-per-calorie calculations also don’t take into account impact on the environment. Raising beef is arguably the worst industry in terms of things like producing greenhouse gases, breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and requiring huge amounts of farmland just to feed the cattle. So there’s still a good case for choosing eggs over beef in the sense of minimizing your environmental impact, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’d be making a tradeoff: killing more animals to hurt the environment less.


According to the USDA, the average dairy cow produced 21,000 lbs of milk last year, and according to several sources, the average dairy cow is culled from the herd after about 3 years, so I multiplied 21,000*3 to get the average amount of milk produced over the lifetime of a dairy cow. It takes about 1 gallon of milk to produce 1 lb of cheese, and there are about 8.5 lbs of milk per gallon, so I divided 63,000 lbs by 8.5 to get the 7,400 lbs of cheese figure.

The figures on beef and pork come from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture.

The average number of eggs per laying hen per year comes from the USDA, and I multiplied by two because that’s the most common figure I found for the number of laying cycles. The average weight of a broiler chicken I got from the USDA’s annual Poultry Slaughter publication.

Photo of eggs: enggul on Flickr

Related at Scientific American: Every diet has a body-count: in the garden with the vegetarian killing snails.

Julia Galef About the Author: Julia Galef is a New York-based writer and public speaker covering science, rationality, philosophy and design. She serves on the board of directors of the New York City Skeptics, a non-profit organization promoting science education and critical thinking, and co-hosts their official podcast, Rationally Speaking. She has moderated panel discussions at The Amazing Meeting and the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, and gives frequent public lectures to organizations including the Center for Inquiry and the Secular Student Alliance. Julia received her B.A. in statistics from Columbia in 2005. She blogs at Measure of Doubt. Follow on Twitter @juliagalef.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 123 Comments

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  1. 1. famous 11:58 am 08/11/2011

    Very interesting. If you consider cage-free/cruelty-free/free-range animals, do the calculations change much?

    One other factor to consider is that many people weigh chickens and cows differently; e.g., some people don’t eat red meat (at least partially for ethical reasons).

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  2. 2. famous 12:03 pm 08/11/2011

    One other factor: I think the calves of dairy cattle are usually killed to make veal, and the cow has to be re-impregnated to continue producing lots of milk. The killing of the calf is connected with the production of milk.

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  3. 3. 12:59 pm 08/11/2011

    Sigh! The fact is, there is no way to reduce your impact on the earth to zero. Thanks for this illuminating perspective. I guess one option is to buy eggs from a local farmer where you can visit the farm or at least know their practices. But at $5/dozen, that’s not an option for many people. Arg to factory farming.

    Any idea if the “retired” egg hens get sold for meat? They must end up in chicken nuggets or something.

    Also, wasn’t a law just proposed that would increase the amount of space for egg hens from 8 square inches to something that allows them to stretch their wings and turn around? Can’t remember if it actually passed or not…

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  4. 4. paulcorrado 1:53 pm 08/11/2011

    Why are “calories” per “animal life” the things we are measuring? Calories are something we may have categorized as important at one time in history (and maybe most of history) but are not what many of us are looking for in our food now. My guess is the average person that makes choices based on animal life is currently looking for many other things such as enjoyment, ease of access, and so on.

    my way of categorizing it would be desire (or value) fulfillment of the person eating it compared to desire (or value) fulfillment of the animal getting eaten to the degree that the desires can be quantified. human desires stronger (in at least some areas) as the animal. I know a much larger set of data and is needed and an article about this may be much to difficult but just thought i would bring up that point.

    P.S. Julia, your podcast rationally thinking is one of my favorites. You two have really done a great job on helping me understand the world a bit more clearly. thanks a million time over!

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  5. 5. guesty 2:32 pm 08/11/2011

    Meat chickens hold their fair share of environmental problems as well.

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  6. 6. kclancy 3:15 pm 08/11/2011

    Wow, what a great post. Paulcorrado, I think this is why blog posts are so great — they are the start of a conversation, not the end. So this author parsed out the data one way, and you can choose to parse it another way. It’s all interesting.

    I buy my eggs and dairy locally — the eggs are $4/dozen, and occasionally aren’t available in the wintertime. But I feel pretty darn lucky to be able to afford them, and to have such amazing access to local farmers here in central IL.

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  7. 7. ejwillingham 3:52 pm 08/11/2011

    “For egg-laying hens, it’s usually after one or two laying cycles. And since the male chicks of the laying species are useless to the egg farmer, they’re killed right after they hatch.”

    They can’t be completely useless if they’re killing the layers after one or two laying cycles and hatching new chickens. Roosters do die, and male chicks must occasionally be needed, or else they’re using artificial reproductive methods.

    I’m pretty sure carnivores and other omnivores don’t tally up how many animals die for them, and as an omnivore, I don’t spend much time on that calculation, either. I’m here, and I have to eat. Unlike other animals, I hope to try to do that mindfully while not being too rarefied about it. What’s of greater interest to me is energy transfer and use of the animal. As someone has already asked, are the chickens who are killed after one or two laying cycles simply discarded? Or are they used for food? If not the former, then one clear target for reform is the disposition of the animals after their deaths.

    Also of interest to me is the lives the animals have led, and that’s not purely from an animal welfare standpoint. Physiology would dictate differentials in biochemical outputs and ratios based on stress levels, etc., so it’s in the consumer’s interest to (sorry to put it this way) obtain their animal products from animals that were reasonably relaxed until death. What are the values for free-range, grain-fed chickens, etc.? How do these vary compared to values for standard commercially produced eggs? These are important questions for people who seek to diminish various negative aspects of eating animals and animal products but who see omnivory as a natural expression of being a member of their species.

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  8. 8. SkepticalVegan 3:58 pm 08/11/2011

    Good post its good for people to realize that some animal byproducts have a higher cost than meat itself. If one is “bothered by the idea of killing animals for food” and wants their “diet to kill as few animals as possible” then it seems they should avoid animal products in general as much as possible, ie go vegan.

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  9. 9. ejwillingham 4:06 pm 08/11/2011

    I forgot to say, I enjoyed this piece because of all the questions it raised for me. Among them, why the “per animal” calculus? For example, how many animals die for the growth and processing of food crops? Many are invertebrates, so…do they count? Probably too hard to calculate using the calorie scale, but I’m curious how the per-animal value would come out. Many factors to consider, though, including initial loss of habitat, ongoing deaths from pesticides, etc., deaths from transport and processing, etc.

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  10. 10. Trulahn 8:21 pm 08/11/2011

    The real solution is less people, not less costly food. The human population has surpassed Earth’s carrying capacity. Unlike most other animals whose populations are often kept in check by seasonal food source cycles or natural predators, we had used our intelligence to overcome all forms of natural population control. Unless we drastically reduce population growth, there is no long lasting solution that will work. Tell the Vatican to stop forbidding contraceptives and abortion. They are killing the planet by encouraging their followers to have more children than they should.

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  11. 11. RayneJ 8:31 pm 08/11/2011

    Fascinating. It really makes me wonder, however, how many people are killed and maimed to bring us the food we eat. For example, the US department of labor reports that about 2000 people die every year and nearly 200,000 are severely injured on farms in the USA alone. It would be a great exercise to examine what kinds of foods are associated with the highest rates of human injury and mortality. After all, it would be a good idea to promote humane treatment of humans, not just animals.

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  12. 12. ts_meyer 9:56 pm 08/11/2011

    As far a I know, growing up in North-central Illinois and working on a few farms, calves are killed at 1 year because that is when their weight gain and tenderness/food used is maximized. It’s true of Angus as well as dairy cattle. As for chickens, I’m sure if the farmer can sell the older hen for food, he will. Farming is tough enough. Wasting something that can be sold is not in their equations. Which is why so many in this area were deeply annoyed by the closing of a local horse slaughter house. Someone needs to tell all the horse owners around here what they should now do with their old horses. Somehow putting them to sleep and having them cremated seems ridiculous when people were willing to pay for the meat!

    And for all the vegans, your food fields have to be fertilized. That “natural fertilizer” comes from cattle or hogs. Farmers don’t keep those animals just to make manure!

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  13. 13. Big John 10:43 pm 08/11/2011

    I’m more concerned about destruction of the environment than lives ended. All life lives off previous life. Huge farms destroy vast areas of natural habitat and kill the oceans and rivers with chemicals. Grass fed beef is raised
    much like grazing animals have lived for millions of years, with very little habitat destruction. Vegetables
    and grains destroy more than properly raised beef.

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  14. 14. chubbee 7:12 am 08/12/2011

    More research into lab grown meat. It’s the logical next step. For those who say “Eew”, take a trip to the slaughter house some day.
    Not only is it a better choice all around,if you want to eat meat sustainably while going easy on the environment.
    Perfection of the process will have obvious applications in the biomedical field as well.

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  15. 15. n37w4+1/3 9:17 am 08/12/2011

    I do not eat meat for ethical reasons: it is very expensive.

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  16. 16. n37w4+1/3 9:25 am 08/12/2011

    on 2nd thought: does setting a farm and facilities takes lives from the enviroment?

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  17. 17. 1oldsarg 4:01 pm 08/12/2011

    Why are we so concerned with killing just animals? Plants strive to live to and demonstrate distress when damaged. Just because they do it chemically instead of sonically doesn’t mean they don’t scream. The human inability to detect these chemical distress calls indicate nothing but our own obtuseness. So, the only way to avoid causing suffering is commit suicide . . . painlessly, of course.

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  18. 18. Fuzzyfella 4:47 pm 08/12/2011

    Since the number of deaths per calorie for chickens is almost 7 times that for eggs, this post in its title should have said “Give up chickens and eggs” instead of just saying “Give up eggs”.

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  19. 19. Carlyle 6:00 pm 08/12/2011

    So you give up eating animal products. How many animal lives are lost through having never been born or do you think the farmers would continue to raise them?
    When you go vegan, cry for the unborn.

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  20. 20. redlarch 7:16 pm 08/12/2011

    First, Chickens are bred for different purposes. The chickens that are bred for providing us with eggs are physically quite different from the chickens bred for their meat. Layer chickens are not “repurposed” into meat for humans once their egg production has slowed down. These chickens are scrawny and don’t have the quality of meat we are used to buying and eating.

    Second, as for plants feeling pain: plants lack spinal columns, brains, and central nervous systems. From an evolutionary standpoint, pain serves the purpose of warning an organism so it can move away from a dangerous situation. Plants cannot respond to pain signals in such a way, so it makes no sense for them to have evolved this kind of feedback system.

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  21. 21. Carlyle 5:23 am 08/13/2011

    Not true. I am not sympathetic to the battery hen industry but so called spent hens are processed for many products, including human & pet foods.
    Trying to sway a debate by using misinformation is counterproductive.

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  22. 22. markgil 7:37 am 08/13/2011

    it is one thing to talk about it and quite another to watch the reality of it:

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  23. 23. granfeld 7:45 am 08/13/2011

    ejwillingham : here is a comparison

    to all: Killing another human person is, justly, seen as a most abhorrent moral transgression. Anyone the least bit worried that it might not be obviously justified to kill billions of non-human animal individuals on an industrial scale out to, out of moral precaution, go vegan until you have read up on enough the arguments in the animal ethical literature to be absolutely certain that such killing is justified. Your reading might of course also, like mine did, uncover convincing arguments for the conclusion that there is no justification.

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  24. 24. Joseph Espinosa 11:35 am 08/13/2011

    When we eat meat, eggs and milk, we cause animals to suffer and die for our pleasure, as we do not need to eat animal products. That is a pretty selfish thing to do. Avoiding the animal products that cause the most suffering and death per pound/calorie (birds, eggs and fishes) is a very impactful step that current meat eaters can take to spare animals from suffering and death.

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  25. 25. ElaineV 5:48 pm 08/13/2011

    The author wrote: “So there’s still a good case for choosing eggs over beef in the sense of minimizing your environmental impact, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’d be making a tradeoff: killing more animals to hurt the environment less.”

    When it comes to eating animals there’s always some sort of tradeoff. A better choice is to stop making tradeoffs and start acknowledging other options. Instead of eating eggs or beef, how about choosing beans, nuts, or seeds?

    Instead of having to choose between animal welfare, the envrionment, or human health why not have it all by choosing vegan options?

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  26. 26. AnthonySD 7:17 pm 08/13/2011

    Great Article, thanks!

    A lot of commenters here seem to be under the impression that so-called humane eggs are a different case from what Julia describes here. They are not.

    You’re not doing some great service by buying eggs labeled “free-range”, “organic”, or whatever else they’re calling them. If you’ve never visited the farm, you have no idea how they are being treated. Odds are it’s extremely similar to the average operation, and not at all worth your extra money.

    Even on the better farms, male chicks are killed no matter what in this industry. The ones used for breeding are actually a slightly different type of chicken. The hens are always killed extremely young.

    If you really want to help, cut back on your egg consumption or give them up altogether.

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  27. 27. redlarch 4:01 am 08/14/2011

    Yes, “retired” layer hens can be used for low-quality meat and “byproducts,” but you won’t see that meat wrapped in plastic in the deli counter of the supermarket. Layers and broilers are not interchangeable.

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  28. 28. staudenmaier 3:21 pm 08/14/2011

    Does this article make sense? Does eating the chicken’s eggs kill the chicken? Wouldn’t the chicken lay eggs even if we DIDN’T eat them? (Referring to free range birds, of course.)

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  29. 29. GapsInTheMind 6:52 pm 08/14/2011

    Julia, in the podcast episode you and Massimo did on vegetarianism, I was most underwhelmed when you approached the question of whether or not animals should be exploited in the first place. It was brushed aside as if it were too baseless a question to hold any merit. From two thinker’s willing to entertain most any though experiment, I was disappointed.

    Rationally Speaking Podcast # 31

    Julia: “…I don’t have a problem with the actual killing of animal per se as long as it done as quickly and painlessly as possible, it’s just the extended suffering over the course of their lives in the factory farm system I have a problem with.”

    Massimo: “I would agree, I tend to think that, I’m much less moved by the idea that, ‘Well we’re using our animals for our own purposes.’ Yes we are. We’ve always done that and I don’t actually see anything particularly… If you have a pet in some sense you use an animal for your own purposes.”

    Julia: “Yeah, I’m not moved by that argument either in fact that’s one of the reasons why I hesitate to call myself a vegan because I think that’s an argument many vegan make and I don’t think it has much basis. I don’t think the animals mind, it seems to be a clear case of anthropomorphism to me.”

    Non-exploitation isn’t an merely an argument many vegans make. It is THE argument put forth by the Vegan Society UK, the creator of the term vegan in 1944.

    “Ways of living that seek to exclude, as far as is possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

    The utilitarian “reduce suffering” motif was popularized by Peter Singer in the 1970s, (and has a similarity with Buddhist principals as well) and while Singer advocates an animal-product free lifestyle, he does not advocate a vegan position in its stated sense. Reduced suffering is an easier sell by groups promoting animal welfare and vegetarian diets, everyone can “reduce suffering,” with a change or two here without it seeming so threatening, so it’s the more popular premise that is discussed. It’s an incremental strategy to get people to think of issues and there is much debate in the vegan community whether this approach is best or if saying what you mean upfront is the way to go (it parallels the New Atheists versus Accommodationists debate in the skeptic community). “Reduced suffering” is vegan strategy, and sure, it’s convinced quite a few people to adopt veganism, but “non-exploitation” is the core vegan argument. By the way, factory-farming as we conceive it was relatively new back then, so veganism can hardly be said to be a reaction to it, in Singer’s time sure, and that added backdrop an imperative to his work.

    The question of animal exploitation (including the human-animal) is the question veganism is largely asking. Even for a “non-killing” animal sourced food such as dairy or eggs, it immediately leads to many compromises and trade-offs, both for the well-being of the animals and of the ethics of the practitioners. Empathy is of course a part of it, but one doesn’t need to be “moved” to weigh the negative outcomes of probabilities and statistics as you have done in this article. We can suggest that in theory, there is some animal husbandry ideal that we can achieve, but as is demonstrated in 99.9% in actual practice, exploiting animals “nicely” falls far short of ideals that most people hold in their minds. The normative animal exploitation ethic fails horribly at meeting its own expectation, it’s propped up largely on romanticism.

    One idea that you and Massimo rejected that I was very glad about was the notion that keeping animals on farms was a good onto itself by providing good, although short, lives for animals. We can’t ignore the intention that a farmer is not raising animals out of charity for living things, but because he has intentions that serve his desires. In the case of subsistence survival it’s understandable, for palette preference when alternatives exist in a world of plenty; it’s not such a strong position. Vegans are often accused of wanting to segregate wild prey from predators in nature, but many don’t hold such a view at all, it doesn’t have much to do with humans not exploiting animals. It’s the animal farmer who boosts, “Look at what better lives I give animals, they are safe from predation, given food and shelter and protected from the cruelties of nature!” Nature is what it is, but our human intentions and the stories we spin to rationalize actions can be scrutinized. Most importantly, our behaviors can be altered.

    This isn’t to say, “Since animal husbandry can’t ever be perfect, it’s wrong,” it’s more of recognizing that far more often than not it requires ethical trade-offs that depending on how one weighs things, can fall far short. If one feels entitled to exploiting animals by decree of God or Nature/Evolution (both fallacious arguments) then people find the compromises acceptable (or try not to think about it really). Perhaps they will say a prayer, or offer respect to the animals used, a nice thought, but fairly meaningless as far as actions are concerned. However, if one takes into consideration not just the lives of animals, but also how our exploitative behavior reflects on human character, then taking a non-exploitative attitude toward sentient life doesn’t seem all that irrational. The details can get tricky, but that doesn’t rule out the premise. It’s possible to live as a vegan, this still isn’t perfection, and most sensible vegans won’t argue that it is — not by a long shot — but it makes a pretty good dent in a whole host of issues and it alleviates a lot of hand wringing.

    Even something as seemingly innocuous seeming as keeping pets (Massimo’s above example) leads to a multitude of operational issues. The intent is to have a happy family member, but the breeding of cats and dogs results in an overstock that needs to be liquidated to the tune of millions of animals every year. Then food is an issue, with finite resources, we are keeping an unnaturally large population of carnivorous animals and feeding them meat, an intensive nourishment to produce not to mention the trading of animals lives in order to pamper one in our home. I’m not advocating the (even more) contentious issues of ceasing pet ownership; I’m just pointing out the largely ignored issues inherent in the system. There are many other problem too, incidents of dog attacks toward humans, social friction when people keep unruly animals, owner neglect of pets, whole industries catering to needs of dogs and cats: toys, clothing, furniture, health care. We generate these dilemmas and for what? I grew up with pets, they are wonderful companions, but it certainly is possible to be content with the company of our own species. There are plenty of people who don’t keep pets who lead fulfilling lives.

    As for animals killed in the inevitable collateral damage caused by us in plant agriculture of just daily living, well, there’s not much than can really be done about that other than attempt to minimize impact. It’s not like the goal of plant agriculture is to destroy sentient life, it is to grow something to eat because we still have to eat, and not just survive; we should eat well and thrive. The pest control and inadvertent animal killing is an unfortunate but an unavoidable by product. Not that you made the claim (they reliably have been posted in the comments), but often “We can’t avoid some killing of animals in one instance so this justifies killing animals in every instance,” just doesn’t fly as a rational position. “Where do we draw the line?” is a continuum fallacy. Drawing “the line” won’t be perfect since there is no line as far as species and other concerns go, but we can we can reasonably expand our circle of moral empathy stating with complex vertebrates and working “down.” Anyway, “the line,” as draw now, is completely haphazard and is based more on (bad) assumptions than thoughtfulness. And of course, relying on livestock for food requires more plant agriculture to feed them, so the damage is compounded. As to the “free lunch” claims to grass fed animals, there is still plenty of collateral damage, land clearing, predator control, and hay production (it’s a massive crop).

    Julia, you have been eating like a vegan more or less for a while now, so I would think that you probably don’t find it all that difficult, sure it can require some social negotiation at times, but the daily dietary practice isn’t a big deal, certainly not in New York City, a place we both call home. I’m not the type to insist that people “go vegan,” maybe it’s because like my atheism, it’s not so much that I have positive belief that it’s “the truth,” it’s that I find the arguments used against both concepts either wanting because I value things a bit differently, or just plain awful. I really do appreciate when non-vegans can better understand a vegan perspective and not wave it away as unimportant or irrational even if they themselves aren’t ready to follow through. While it would be wonderful if Richard Dawkins was vegan, it doesn’t bother me that much. It’s still meaningful to me that he is quite sympathetic and publically supportive of some of the ideas and motivations. What breaks my vegan heart is when otherwise rationally people that I respect, rely on a list of fallacies as evidence that veganism is bunk when they wouldn’t dare use such poor argumentation for other topics. You and Massimo aren’t in that category, but you didn’t even give the question of exploitation much though and the implications are worth investigating.

    Apologies for the length of this comment, it’s been eating at me since I listened to podcast #31 months ago. I’m throwing some “hardcore” ideas at you, but you are more than capable of setting aside bias and approaching with honest inquiry. Thanks for you work and writings, and all the best on wherever your thinking may take you.

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  30. 30. J4zonian 10:21 pm 08/16/2011

    There is a long list of paradoxes and unconsidered complications and possibilities here. The lives per calorie idea equates a cow life with a quail life (by extrapolation). Is that reasonable? We’d have to talk about what life is to even begin to discuss that. How far does it go? If body mass is immaterial, then what quality determines lives worth saving vs. … not? What about those invertebrates? Bacteria? Do we only owe allegiance to animals in the classes Mammalia and Aves? Then why are we more likely to eat them than those in other classes whose deaths we care less about? (Reptilia, Amphibia, Insecta, Platyhelminthes (4 classes)…) The fact that we’re likely to feel the most affection for animals in the same class as those we’re most likely to kill and eat is strange, doncha think? And that we eat animals very closely related to those we’re disgusted by the thought of eating? Does cuteness convey worth? Does homeothermia? What exactly is it that determines the worth of a life? Softness to touch? (fur or feathers that approximate human surface?) Then perhaps we could use the absence of feathers on vulture heads, breeding them to spread that quality to the whole body and then kill more of them without added moral penalty…

    Backyard production can extend the life of a chicken, duck or other laying bird and produce far more eggs per bird lifetime. It can also use the inevitable male birds either as breeders or to replace some of the egg protein. Especially when used in a permaculture system where the birds forage a portion of (or after retirement, all) their food, homestead production can drastically reduce numbers of deaths of all species (except slugs and snails, maybe.) Geese are essentially vegans and can live and lay mostly on pasture, so in a forage system especially probably produce more death-efficient eggs than most domestic birds. While the most productive geese breed is exceptionally loud, quail could be kept even by most apartment-dwelling New Yorkers. But then you’re dealing with more, though smaller, deaths per egg (5 Coturnix quail eggs = 1 chicken egg) and have to get into that again.

    Alligator eggs produce only males when kept at over 89.6 degrees F, and only females at under 87.8, while some animals skew gender production under differently-colored lights. While I’m not suggesting backyard alligator egg farming, perhaps there are other animals… That would cut the deaths per kcal in half right off…

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  31. 31. Lilliegardens 4:11 pm 08/17/2011

    It’s very interesting to be able to quantify the cost in animal suffering of our “omnivory,” to quote another commentator.
    However what I noticed when reading the comments below, is that no one is concerned about a basic human quality, that which makes us special (but not unique) in the animal kingdom: compassion.
    How do we define ourselves? Top of the food chain? or following the Biblical direction to be stewards of the earth? or using everything around us for our own purposes? There are many ways to see and evaluate who we are.

    My self description includes “Compassionate” with a capital C. This quality is not consistent with shrugging my shoulders and saying, “I have to eat, therefore others – animals, the oceans, the planet itself- must provide at any cost.” We have no right to use our immense power to take what we want, at cost to others, human and non-human, even our own future generations. Other animals have an equal right to life. We have proven that our superiority as a species is not all we tell ourselves it is. Read the news any day of the week.

    I look forward to a time when humans embrace their place in the world as it really should be, not what we have claimed by force.

    We are more than knowledge and facts, discoveries and inventions. What sets us apart is our capacity to think and use reason, and be open to compassion, love and mercy. We must employ all these to act with righteousness in our lives.

    Link to this
  32. 32. Vegan4Life 12:07 pm 08/18/2011

    Great points, Julia. I haven’t had eggs (or meat or dairy products) for two decades and I don’t miss them at all. It’s much kinder, healthier, and “greener” to use vegan options like Ener-G Egg Replacer or tofu or bananas when baking. Scrambled tofu is a good breakfast option, too. There are lots of cooking tips and vegan recipes and product suggestions on

    Link to this
  33. 33. ttongmd 4:29 pm 08/18/2011

    Anyone wanting to eat meat should kill the animal himself/herself. That way, the killing will be drastically reduced.

    Link to this
  34. 34. SDCripps 6:11 pm 08/18/2011

    I have to wonder if the Author took the death of calves into account, for the making of hard cheese…

    Link to this
  35. 35. SierraCelestial 6:15 pm 08/18/2011

    Thank you for this wonderful, thoughtful article! It’s Chicken Armageddon out there and few have any sensitivity for chickens’ precious lives. I eat eggs now because I have chickens (both hens and roosters). I bought from a no-kill, genetic preservationist. He doesn’t kill and I don’t kill. The chickens have the run of the property and are kept safe from predators and are fed well. When I didn’t have chickens, I didn’t eat commercial eggs. Not only are commercial chickens raised in horrendous conditions and killed early in their young lives, but the eggs themselves are questionable nutritionally. My chickens turned me into a vegetarian, but I’d be a vegan if I could not keep them happy, healthy, and safe from harm. This is a challenging way to live, but it is wonderfully fulfilling and very sustainable. Again, thank you for your insights. I also want to say that the commenters to this article really make me feel good. So glad that so many people are really thinking about the lives of animals. But we have a long way to go before we get there.

    Link to this
  36. 36. doneck 7:50 pm 08/18/2011

    My solution is to eat carnivores. My favorites are bluefish and lobsters. (Well lobsters do eat some veggies, not many, but they are also cannibals.) If you do not like seafood, try roadkill – like Chipmunk au Michelin. You try it; I won’t.

    Link to this
  37. 37. Episode 84: “Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals.”  | Our Hen House 7:05 am 08/20/2011

    [...] “Want to Kill Fewer Animals? Give Up Eggs” from Scientific American [...]

    Link to this
  38. 38. Montana ethics 11:42 am 08/23/2011

    I thank you for this brave article, given that even the most intelligent of readers, often is going to put forth his/her best argument against the truths you have put forward. As a former animal-based product consumer, I had my delusions/arguments too, so empathy for those who wallow in out-dated, outmoded 10,000 yr history of food choices, albeit limited is there. I far more care that animals suffer horribly, there is no humane ways as all the “production” animals are taken early from mother, such as one day old calves to divert milk to human greed, may I say and female/male chickens typically having no life or lousy lives, we must make a change for the better to save them and ourselves. We know too much nowadays and have too many positive options. With global warming (read Long Shadow, by UN), our degrading healh and you just damn know you’re harming/cruel to animals, time to go to plant-based products folks. Nowadays, with so much plant-based choices of food available, it is not a difficult thing and quite frankly your choices do impact me, the animals and future generations of humans, let alone Mother Earth.

    Link to this
  39. 39. Want to Kill Fewer Animals? « Michelvoss's Blog 6:07 am 08/28/2011

    [...]  Give Up Eggs | Guest Blog, Scientific American Blog Network. Bewerten: Teilen:Like this:LikeSei der Erste, dem dieser post gefällt. [...]

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  40. 40. Für Eier sterben mehr Tiere als für Fleisch | VeganBlog 11:35 am 09/5/2011

    [...] für sie sterben. Für diese Menschen wird dieser Artikel für ziemliche Ernüchterung sorgen: Das Magazin „Scientific American“ hat eine „Lives-per-Calories“-Statistik aufgestellt, die errechnet, wie viele getötete Lebewesen hinter gewissen Kalorie-Werten von verschiedenen [...]

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  41. 41. Für Eier sterben mehr Tiere als für Fleisch « 3:37 am 09/6/2011

    [...] für sie sterben. Für diese Menschen wird dieser Artikel für ziemliche Ernüchterung sorgen: Das Magazin „Scientific American“ hat eine „Lives-per-Calories“-Statistik aufgestellt, die errechnet, wie viele getötete Lebewesen hinter gewissen Kalorie-Werten von verschiedenen [...]

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  42. 42. jdireen 10:11 pm 11/11/2011

    found it a little alarming that this article does not explicitly advocate a vegan diet, but instead makes the point that one must choose some way of including animal products into their diet. the emotional and physical health experienced from a vegan diet far outweighs any argument for an omnivorous diet, to me. it is quite disgusting to me that the option is often not listed in articles and documentaries about our diets, our health, and the environment.

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  43. 43. low carb vegan 5:37 pm 12/26/2011

    A lot of people are conflicted about eating vegan since they have looked a good research suggesting the health benefits of a low carb diet. I researched for a year and developed a vegan diet where I could eat very low carb. I wrote an E-book and lost 60 pounds in the process. There is no need to forgo eating vegetarian or vegan while eating very low carb.

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  44. 44. Hendell83 10:00 pm 12/29/2011

    Wait a second – so because of this article and because you shove some numbers at people, humans should give up eating eggs? The logic is missing in this article. If people would not waste or overeat we would probably consumer less overall. But no, instead people like this author must impress ideas on others so as to share their points of view instead of enlightening others with knowledge. Good job. I like how instead of allowing people to be able to protect and arm themselves with knowledge and self defense products and such (as we are legally allowed to do), rather you feed them horse manure and exploit ignorance. God bless America.

    Link to this
  45. 45. j.avignone 7:07 pm 01/3/2013

    Thank you for this intelligent article. I learned things from it, as a vegan, which is continued enlightenment in my book.

    Link to this
  46. 46. mik3cap 1:57 pm 02/10/2013

    This to me makes an excellent argument for the raising of ostriches over chickens. They’re larger animals that would produce many more flesh-based calories, and they can produce about 100 eggs a year, so their much larger eggs would increase overall egg production. The egg product would probably just need to be sold as “ostrich Egg Beaters” in a pre-scrambled mix so they could be used at chicken egg ratios for recipes.

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  47. 47. Vegetarians live longer, but it’s not because they don’t eat meat – Quartz 10:50 am 06/5/2013

    [...] meat: rich in saturated fat and carnatine. But, in terms of animal suffering per calorie, red meat pales in comparison with chicken, eggs, and fish (where the animals live in far worse conditions, and where [...]

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  48. 48. The strongest argument for veganism? | Vegan Politics 12:37 pm 09/9/2013

    [...] is obvious for meat, but it’s also true for milk and eggs. Animals often suffer terribly as a result of overbreeding, from dreadful conditions on farms, [...]

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  49. 49. Episode 84: “Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals.” | Our Hen House 12:21 pm 09/21/2013

    [...] “Want to Kill Fewer Animals? Give Up Eggs” from Scientific American [...]

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  50. 50. Grayson Bray Morris – On Becoming Cregan 3:58 am 10/25/2013

    [...] is no way to buy animal products and avoid torture and exploitation. (No, not even in the organic egg and dairy [...]

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  51. 51. Is Your Food killing You? | Journalism 1 2:37 pm 11/18/2013

    [...] meat: rich in saturated fat and carnatine. But, in terms of animal suffering per calorie, red meat pales in comparison with chicken, eggs, and fish (where the animals live in far worse conditions, and where [...]

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  52. 52. Was ist das Stärkste Argument für den Veganismus? | Vegan Politics 10:39 am 11/24/2013

    [...] ist offensichtlich für Fleisch, es gilt aber auch für Milch und Eier. Die Tiere leiden oft stark durch Überzüchtung, furchtbare Haltungsbedingungen während dem [...]

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  53. 53. Verursachen Vegetarier mehr Blutvergiessen? – Eine Replik von Adriano Mannino 11:03 am 02/14/2014

    [...] Tieren (Rindern). Die Erzeugnisse kleinerer Tiere verursachen pro Kalorie sehr viel mehr Opfer. Hühnerfleisch führt die Opferstatistik an, gefolgt von Eiern. Olschewskis Blog wirbt für [...]

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  54. 54. KatherinevanEkert 11:28 pm 04/5/2014

    The information about the dairy industry is a bit misleading, and a gross underestimate.

    Generally, in modern industry, a calf is killed every time a cow goes through a lactation cycle. In some cases female calves are retained and used for milk production, so at best every second calf would be killed (males) – although a rough estimate would place female retention at more like every ten or so.

    We tend to milk cows for 3-5 years. Cows lactate/give birth ~ every 13 months, and assuming a cow produces 12600 lb milk annually (=3,528,000 calories/life annually by these calculations), that’s one life per 3.5-7 mill calories milk (depending on cull rate for calves). And that’s based on a milking life of 5 yrs, although these days it’s often more like 3 yrs so the figure would be much less. Then you have to average the cow’s life in these figures, too, as the article did.

    So overall, the efficiency is still up to 7 x better than beef, but not as astounding as the article portrays.

    Link to this
  55. 55. Is Veganism Correct? | Compass Rose 6:05 pm 10/7/2014

    [...] Let’s say you think that a farm-raised pig’s life is worth 20% of a human’s, and eating 1,000 calories of pork destroys 1.2% of a pig’s life. Assuming every bit of pork eaten contributes proportionally to an extra pig death, you should be [...]

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  56. 56. Is Veganism Correct? | Effective Altruism Society of DC 6:27 pm 10/7/2014

    [...] Let’s say you think that a farm-raised pig’s life is worth 20% of a human’s, and eating 1,000 calories of pork destroys 1.2% of a pig’s life. Assuming every bit of pork eaten contributes proportionally to an extra pig death, you should be [...]

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