If everyone stopped eating meat, what would happen to all those animals?

It seems to be a common question. When there’s a big story in the media about a massive problem linked to animal agriculture and some commentator offers the solution of removing animals from our diets, people often ask – “But what would happen to all those animals; all those cows or pigs? Would they all have to become pets or moved to a reserve, and how impractical would that be?”

If you spend a few minutes thinking about this question, you soon find that it isn’t an issue at all.

Here’s why…

Transition

For a start, the whole human population isn’t going to go vegetarian or vegan overnight. It will be a slow transition. In fact it already is a slow transition.

Reproduction in most farm animals is forced. They are forced into reproduction. This allows control over the turnover of livestock. If demand for meat or milk starts to fall, fewer animals will be forced into reproduction and so the farm animal populations would gradually fall to match a falling demand. No reserves for refugee animals or having to keep them as pets required.

And let’s not forget that farm animals are raised to be slaughtered, so if some had to be slaughtered early due to a lack of demand, how much difference would that really make?

Remember too, that farm animals generally lead awful lives and are slaughtered at a fraction of the way through their natural lifespan. Male chicks in the egg industry and male cows in the dairy industry are killed soon after birth. Check this link out for details on farm animal lifespans.

Farms animals tend to be ‘breeds.’ They can be very different from their natural states; very different from the animals that they were originally bred from. These breeds can suffer from various unintended negative side effects.

Farm animal’s lives are nasty, brutish and short. As their numbers decline in line with a rise in plant-based diets, the suffering of future animals also declines.

Existential crisis

A follow-up comment to ‘what would happen to all the animals’ often concerns the sudden non-existence of farm animals. Something along the lines of – ‘wouldn’t it be better that they existed as farm animals rather than never have existed at all?’ This argument doesn’t make logical sense. I mean, what about the millions of farm animals that don’t currently exist. Are we worried about them? No, because they don’t exist. There are currently around 1.4 billion cattle on the planet. We could probably have half a billion more. Do we bemoan the non-existence of these missing half billion cattle? No, because they don’t exist. So when the numbers slide in the opposite direction (as they badly need to for the sake of the planet) and cattle are not forced into reproduction for the next generation, will the non-existence of these cows be a problem? No. And in terms of ‘quality of life’ I refer you to again this link. It means that billions of unnaturally short lives in poor conditions can be avoided. The non-existence of suffering. Sounds good to me.

In terms of the existence of numbers of animals, the growth of farm animal populations happens at the expense of thousands of other ‘non-food’ species. Huge areas of natural, complex ecosystems containing thousands of species are swept aside for maybe just one or two species of food animals. The most infamous current example of this is the decimation of the Amazon rainforest. This hugely complex and beautiful ecosystem is being replaced by cattle or soya crops that are made into animal feed.

The real problem of non-existence is with wildlife populations. Many of these populations are so small, that they are threatened with extinction. Extinction really will mean non-existence.  A non-existence from which there’s no coming back.

As farm animal numbers decline, wild animal numbers will increase. That’s my kind of existence.

Rewilding

There are currently 1.4 billion cattle on planet Earth. They cover an unimaginable area that could otherwise be occupied by highly diverse natural ecosystems AND plant-based agriculture. In fact, 26% of the Earth’s ice-free land surface is used for livestock grazing and 33% of crop lands are used to produce animal feed. A human population fed on a plant-based diet needs a fraction of the land area to grow food.

If we ever got to the stage of having an entirely vegan human population on planet earth, what would then happen, to what were our ‘food animals’ is, I think, a genuine concern. In my opinion, ‘food animals’ should be returned to their natural state and exist in the ranges of their natural ecosystems.

For pigs, this would be a simple process. Pigs already exist in their natural state as the wild boar all across Europe. While they exist in small numbers in the UK, there are moves to have further re-introductions as part of rewilding projects.

Things also look pretty good for chickens. Most chickens are descended from their naturally occurring ancestor, the Red Junglefowl. This bird exists in its natural state in its natural ranges and in healthy populations.

With cows, it’s a little more tricky. The ancestor of most domestic cattle in Europe is the Aurochs. This animal is considered extinct, however, most of its genetic makeup still exists in todays cattle breeds and there are moves to bring back the Aurochs via selective breeding of cattle.

One interesting project is the creation of Pleistocene Park. This would essentially be a rewilding effort to recreate an ecosystem that was wiped out by expanding human populations at the end of the ice age. The Aurochs would fit well in this ecosystem.

Taking animals out of the human food equation means the regrowth of ecosystems and rewilding of huge areas of the planet.

Warning shot

The Covid pandemic originated in livestock markets. The next pandemic will almost certainly come from some facet of animal agriculture. A huge human population with a huge food-animal population pushes the ecology of the Earth to its limits; pandemics are a result of this.

Ditch the meat to spare us from one pandemic after another.

Environment

Animal agriculture places a huge burden on the Earth in terms of climate change impact, resource use and pollution. Livestock farming contributes 18% of human produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This link covers these issues extensively.

Finally

When people ask that question – what will happen to all the animals? – the truth is that they don’t want an answer to the question. They are usually meat-eaters and so they are already choosing to ignore the problems and issues around eating animals. The purpose of the question is to deflect from reality, to allow them to create an imaginary problem that allows them to lie to themselves that they’ve considered the issue, found a problem that means life is just too complicated to actually do anything; life is too hard – you can’t win, so don’t try.

I say – DO TRY. Give up meat; for the animals, for the planet and for your own ethical connection to life itself.

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If you’re into issues like this and the expansion of human consciousness, you might want to check out my book on the home page of this website, or you can buy it on Amazon via this link.