What’s a chicken worth?

Occasionally I see arguments to the effect that eating red meat is dangerously damaging to the environment — red meat specifically, as compared to poultry. For example, that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, but only 800 gallons to produce a pound of chicken. (“Only” is relative here.) Or that 27 pounds of carbon dioxide are produced for every pound of beef consumed, but only 7 pounds of CO2 per pound of chicken. The figures vary so wildly that I won’t bother citing sources: I assume these numbers are inaccurate; I offer them only as examples of the argument being made, which is that eating chicken is more “environmentally responsible” than eating beef.

I wrote recently about my objection to this sort of bean-counting, this reduction of lives and complex realities to mere data. Here’s another example of what I meant: linking pounds of meat with pounds of CO2 or gallons of water ignores the fact that those pounds of meat come from once-living creatures, which somebody has to kill.

What sort of numbers do you get if you think in terms of creature-lives? How about meals per life taken? A steer, dressed out, yields on the order of 500 pounds of meat. A chicken yields maybe two and a half. A steer, then, gives you about 200 times as much meat as a chicken. In order to replace some quantity of beef on the plate with an equal quantity of chicken, then, you have to kill two hundred times as many animals. Two hundred chickens for every steer. A steer’s life, by that calculus, is worth the lives of two hundred chickens.

Now I’ve killed chickens, and I will admit that while it is far from pleasant, it isn’t as difficult as I’d expect killing a cow to be. Chickens don’t look at you the way cows do, to be frank. They’re just not very bright, or very personable. Much as I like ducks, the domestic duck is also not the sharpest tack in the barnyard; two of the three ducks I’ve had for years still can’t seem to remember who I am half the time, and when I toss split cherry tomatoes into their pen — one of their favorite treats — they scatter as if the tomatoes were grenades and squawk in terror for a minute until they remember those little orange things are food. Not that cows are going to explain string theory while you milk them, either… but yes, I would place a higher value on the life of a cow than on the life of a chicken.

But two hundred times the value? Is a cow really worth two hundred chickens? I find that hard to swallow.

Traditionally, people ate chicken rarely. When laying hens got old they were made into soup, and young roosters (you only need the one) were fried or fricaseed. The rest were too valuable for the eggs they produced. A hog or two, though, would feed a large family all year. The real-world ratio on a working, integrated farm might be five or ten or twenty chickens eaten for every hog or steer — certainly not two hundred. It’s only when the animals raised in factories — treated as raw materials to be processed, as pounds of meat and grams of protein — that any of them can be so cheap.

I eat meat, but I don’t shy away from the fact that a creature has died to feed me. I note that many of the people pointing out how much worse red meat is than chicken, and basing that conclusion on the pounds-of-meat equivalence, are advocates for a vegetarian or vegan diet. These folks, for example, think you ought to be vegan, but they make their argument entirely by reducing creatures to data. Odd, isn’t it, that they seem to have so little respect for the lives of their fellow creatures?

So if you do eat meat, the next time somebody tries to make you feel guilty about eating a steak, just point out that eating chicken causes two hundred times as many deaths as eating beef. If nothing else, you’ll disgust them so much by talking about slaughter at the dinner table that they’ll leave you alone and let you eat in peace. Because if you can’t enjoy your meal, the poor thing really did die in vain.