By Jimmy Alfonso Licon


The Montréal Review, April 2024


Flock of Sheep and Goats by Predrag Ilievski

When viewed through economic lens, cows and sheep are the ultimate recyclers: they convert what would otherwise be waste – inedible plant material like leaves and husks – into resources such as meat and wool. Unfortunately, though, conflicting moral factors complicate matters.

The Economic Conception of Garbage

Many people think of garbage in descriptive terms: stuff that gets tossed and forgotten. But that prompts the question of what makes something garbage to begin with. What counts as garbage to thee, may not count as garbage to me. Perhaps, then, it would be better to construe the nature of garbage in economic terms. As the economist, Michael Munger, explains:

There is a simple test for determining whether something is a resource (something valuable) or just garbage […] If someone will pay you for the item, it’s a resource. Or, if you can use the item to make something else people want, and do it at lower price or higher quality than you could without that item, then the item is also a resource. But if you have to pay someone to take the item away, or if other things made with that item cost more or have lower quality, then the item is garbage. If yard waste were a resource, then trucks would drive up and down streets in your neighborhood, bidding up the price of your bagged grass clippings. That doesn’t happen. Ipso facto, yard waste is garbage.1

This suggests an element of individuality in the economic view of what counts as garbage: it is whatever no one wants enough to haul away for free. And part of the insight from economics is that something free is not really free. The ‘free’ couch on the side of the road might be garbage, even to someone who would otherwise value it, once the cost of time and gas is factored in. And the same logic holds in the reverse: we may think something is garbage, when if we knew more about it, we would realize it is a resource worth hauling away or perhaps even buying. It would be even better if a machine could convert garbage cheaply and easily turn it into a resource. As it happens, there are such biological machines: cows and sheep.

Grazing Land and Turning Garbage into Food

Imagine a machine that turned what would otherwise be garbage into food. What a spectacular thing that would be! As it turns out, there are such creatures: animals like cows and sheep do exactly that. They excel at digesting sources of calories inedible to humans—leaves, grass, corn husks, plant remains from harvested fields—transforming them into resources like meat, milk, and wool. These incredible animals transform what would otherwise be garbage into resources. We would have things like grass, leaves, and crop remnants regardless, so it would be better to use them to feed animals like cows and sheep.

The fact cattle thrive eating what would be garbage to humans is often obscured by the widely disseminated, and overly simplistic, claim that cows are inefficient at converting plant calories to meat calories, specifically that: it takes twenty pounds of feed to produce one pound of beef. And if we think about the time, energy, and resources it takes to produce beef, compared to how much more efficient it would be to grow food for people, beef looks like a bad deal—the opportunity costs are too high. Perhaps it would be better to grow food directly for human consumption, instead of feeding cows food humans can eat. On this approach, we would be better able to feed people using less land, water, and whatnot.

However, claims like this turn on an ambiguity in the word ‘feed’: if we mean things like grain that can be fed to cattle and humans, then the assessment is correct—it would be an inefficient use of grain to feed it directly to cows. However, if on the other hand, the word ‘feed’ refers to stuff inedible to humans—crop residues, grass, leaves—this statistic is false.2 And if we look at the composition of livestock feed, specifically for animals like cows, sheep, and goats, we find that almost ninety percent of livestock feed is inedible for human consumption. The beauty here is that cattle and sheep transform what would otherwise be garbage into a resource: protein-dense food fit for humans. This is an environmental bargain: cows and sheep eat things that we cannot and turn them into things that we can. But cattle do more than eat inedible stuff that we would otherwise have to toss: they can be used to clear a field after harvest, and fertilize the fields too, reducing the need for fertilizers made with fossil fuels.

Contrast this with how pigs and chickens are (typically) raised: these animals are largely raised on a diet of things like grain and soybean that often could just as easily be used to feed people, instead of wasting the calories raising pigs and chickens. This is not of course to say thinking solely in terms of calories is the right approach; but if we’re spending more calories and resources to produce fewer calories, that’s a less efficient use of calories and resources like energy in order to produce a less abundant supply of energy. In contrast, ruminants, like cattle and sheep, eat a diet comprised of nearly sixty percent leaves and grass—stuff that in economic terms would be waste without such animals. When was the last time someone knocked on the door and offered to buy your lawn clippings? It never happened. Lawn clippings are garbage to people, but to animals like cows and sheep, they are a delicious treat. 

Sheep eat a similar diet to cattle, comprise of stuff inedible to creatures with fewer stomachs like humans.3 Imagine if you will, fields of dead leaves, grass, and whatnot that pose a fire hazard to the area so extensive that it would be cost prohibitive to hire someone to haul it away—no one would pay for it, or even haul it away for free. However, once we add the sheep to the equation, things change: we can use sheep to clear away dead plant matter, prevent fires, and produce wool and meat with what would otherwise be garbage. It isn’t only that cattle enables ranchers to use as food for cattle what would otherwise be garbage, but that raising cattle by grazing and regenerative farming techniques allows farmers to reduce fossil fuel use that would otherwise be needed in greater amounts to grow food that is edible to humans, and to reduce labor costs. Cattle and their chewy friends like sheep and goats are excellent at recycling and environmental conservation, to such a degree one might suspect they work for Greenpeace.

Meat Consumption and Unnecessary Suffering

Using cows and sheep to turn grazing land into edible human food runs into moral problems: many moral philosophers argue that it is immoral to buy meat products as doing so financially incentives unnecessary suffering. If it would be morally wrong to purchase meat because of the perverse financial incentives to cause unnecessary suffering, then provided one has the ability, they should switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Although there are many arguments for the switch to a greater plant-based diet, perhaps the simplest and most powerful moral argument for a more ethical diet is what moral philosophers call the unnecessary suffering argument. As the moral philosopher, James Rachels, explains:

[The argument] … begins with the principle that it is wrong to cause pain unless there is a good enough reason. The qualification is important, because causing pain is not always wrong […] However, as the principle says, causing pain is acceptable only when there is a good enough reason for it. Justification is required. The second step in the argument is to notice that in the modern meat production business, animals are made to suffer terribly. There is a reason for this suffering, too. We eat the meat, and it helps to nourish us. But there is a catch: we could just as easily nourish ourselves in other ways. Vegetarian meals are also good. Nonetheless, most people prefer a diet that includes meat because they like the way it tastes. The question, then, is whether our enjoyment of the way meat tastes is a good enough reason to justify the amount of suffering that the animals are made to endure. It seems obvious that it is not. Therefore, we should stop eating the products of this business.4

There are a couple of points needed to solidify the unnecessary suffering argument. In the face of the unnecessary suffering argument, some folks will appeal to the nutritional value of meat as a moral excuse for inflicting suffering on farm animals. And then argue from there that the suffering inflicted on animals during the rearing and production of meat isn’t unnecessary—it is necessary for the good of humanity. Moral philosophers push back here by noting that we do not need to eat animal products for things like protein—we can derive the protein we need from plant products and nutritional supplements—beans and rice are a complete, often inexpensive, source of protein.5 So then, for many people, meat is unnecessary as a protein source.

However, the empirical nuance of the unnecessary suffering argument is more complex than some moral philosophers admit: the often repeated claim that we do not need meat to satisfy our nutritional requirements, due to the fact that plants have comparable amounts of protein to animal sources is "true", strictly speaking, but it is only part of the story. As it happens, though animal and plant sources often contain similar levels of protein, the levels of absorption between animal and plant sources vary widely. For many reasons, plant protein is often more difficult to absorb than animal protein, especially for children and older people. 6 Of course, this doesn’t show that we need to eat meat at current levels—we could substitute in some plant products—but it does weaken the unnecessary suffering argument at the margins: many among us must still eat meat for reasons of health and proper nutritional. Much the same holds of dietary supplements: even if they are similar to the nutrients we’re missing when we eat meat, we don’t necessarily absorb them at the rates necessary to offset the nutritional deficit.

The unnecessary suffering argument has another potential flaw. Often to bolster the argument, moral philosophers will argue that the life of a farm animal—on a factory farm with large-scale meat production—involves cramped conditions, painful procedures (e.g. like clipping the beaks of chickens to stop them from peaking each other to death), conditions that aren’t conducive to farm animals’ well-being. The only problem with this argument is that is largely applies to pigs and chickens, not to cattle and sheep. Compared to pigs and chickens, cattle and sheep spend much of their time freely roaming in the sunlight, grazing on a diet of ruffage and other plant matter, just like their wild counterparts.7 Though one may still opt to be vegetarian or vegan to minimize animal death, it's harder to argue that cattle and sheep, compared to how their life would be in the wild, suffer inordinately because they are raised for food.

There is something else puzzling about the unnecessary suffering argument, particularly when applied to cattle. But before we can appreciate what is about it, we should consider the main theory of harm among moral philosophers: the counterfactual theory of harm.8 According to that theory, we harm a person or an animal if we make them worse off than they would have been otherwise. Murder is wrong because killing without a good moral excuse makes someone worse off than they would have otherwise been. It is clear why the counterfactual theory of harm has intuitive appeal: it nicely explains why many actions are morally wrong due to the fact that they make individuals worse off than they would otherwise be (without good enough reason).

Applying the counterfactual theory of harm to cattle and sheep: such animals are no worse off, by and large, than they would have been in the wild. Here a critic might object that cattle that are raised for slaughter would be better off if they weren’t killed—perhaps being raised for slaughter makes cattle (and to a lesser extent sheep) worse off than they would be otherwise. Such a verdict is too quick though. To appreciate why, consider first that death in the wild is almost always awful: it mostly ends in violent and painful predation, a slow and painful death by parasites, starvation, and many other horrific causes. The end of life options for wild animals are terrible, and when we apply the counterfactual theory of harm, we must consider that the options available to animals like cattle and sheep would not be better in the wild and are often substantially worse.

The moral matter doesn’t end there though. Here it is worth highlighting that many cows and sheep benefit in various ways from farm life which would be unavailable to them living in the wild. These benefits often include,

(1) Protection by ranchers and farmers from outside predation, e.g., sheep are protected from wolves by a shepherd, their wild counterparts aren’t. Plus, wild predators aren’t nearly as considerate as human ones.

(2) A reliable food source; their wild counterparts must live with whatever food they manage to find on their own.

(3) Vastly increased progeny; their wild counterparts have far fewer offspring.9

(4) Access to basic medical care, wild counterparts face disease and injury without such care.

(5) (Some) protection from extreme weather, wild counterparts must make do with whatever shelter they manage to find.

(6) More humane death: farmers and ranchers often take care to make slaughter as painless as possible for no other reason than it improves the quality of the meat, and empathy; predators in the wild often have no objection to eating prey while they’re still alive.

This deal may not look great from our perspective, but it is for cattle and sheep. When thinking about the moral interests of animals, there is a temptation to frame their well-being in similar terms to that of humans.10 This is odd as it looks like well-being isn’t objective across species—for example, pigs like to dine on excrement, humans do not. And considering that the living conditions for their wild counterparts are horrible, the fact that cattle are killed for their flesh is a modest price when compared to what they get in return. The idea here is not to claim that we dismiss moral concerns about how cattle and sheep are treated—the rearing and slaughter of these animals should be as humane as possible, since that is good for both animal and farmer.

Consider many vegetarians believe it morally permissible to rear chickens in their backyard for eggs. And by chicken standards, it is a beneficial arrangement. The point here is similar to the one made about cattle and sheep: they live well by farm animal standards, especially compared to wild cousins. When looking at quality of life and method of slaughter, cows and sheep enjoy many benefits that their wild cousins do not. An upside of life in the wild is a potentially longer life, though Mother Nature often brutally shortchanges her progeny.

When we consider life led by many, though hardly all, cows and sheep, they live a fairly good life by cow and sheep standards. The unnecessary suffering argument has a point, but has limits too,11 especially with respect to humanely raised cows and sheep: when allowed to freely roam and graze, they lessen the strain on food production by utilizing inedibles like leaves and corn husks, and other items that would otherwise be wasted.

 Jimmy Alfonso Licon teaches philosophy at Arizona State University. His blogcast, Uncommon Wisdom, is a source for philosophy and uncommon wisdom.

1 Michael Munger (2007). Think Globally, Act Irrationally: Recycling. The Library of Economics and Liberty; accessed here (my emphasis).

2 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Nutrient Requirements for Beef Cattle, 8th Revised Edition (Washington DC: National Academies Press, 2016).

3 K. Kandylis, I. Hadjigeorgiou and P. Harizanis (2009). The Nutritive Value of Mulberry Leaves (Morus alba) As a Feed Supplement for Sheep. Tropical Animal Health and Production (41):  17-24.

4 James Rachels (2016). The Basic Argument for Vegetarianism. In The Animal Ethics Reader, (eds.) Susan J. Armstrong and Richard G. Botzler. Routledge.

5 Mylan Engel Jr. (2016). The Commonsense Case for Ethical Vegetarianism. Between the Species: A Journal of Ethics 19 (1): 2-31.

6 Ghulam Sarwar (1997). The Protein Digestibility–Corrected Amino Acid Score Method Overestimates Quality of Proteins Containing Antinutritional Factors and of Poorly Digestible Proteins Supplemented with Limiting Amino Acids in Rats. The Journal of Nutrition 127 (5): 758–764
Martin Dangin et al., (2003). The Rate of Protein Digestion Affects Protein Gain Differently During Aging in Humans. Journal of Physiology. 549 (Part 2): 635-644.

7 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Nutrient Requirements for Beef Cattle, 8th Revised Edition (Washington DC: National Academies Press, 2016).

8 Craig Purshouse (2016). A Defence of the Counterfactual Account of Harm. Bioethics 30 (4): 251-259.

9 By some (reliable) estimates, domesticated animals and humans have gone from one percent of the Earth’s biomass to ninety-eight percent over the course of ten thousand years. See Paul MacCready (2004). The Case for Battery Electric Vehicles. In Daniel Sperling and Fames Cannon (eds.), The Hydrogen Energy Transition. Academic Press, pp. 227-33.

10 Klass Welke and Jutta Schneider (2012). Sexual Cannibalism Benefits Offspring Survival. Animal Behavior 83 (1): 201-207.

11 Bob Fischer (2020). The Ethics of Eating Animals: Usually Bad, Sometimes Wrong, Often Permissible. Routledge.



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