It's easy not to think about logistics when you're sinking your teeth into a particularly juicy, well-cooked steak. Or when you're plowing through a mega-sized basket of Buffalo chicken at Wing Night, or chewing your way through a bacon flight. These foods come from restaurants. Before that, they came from suppliers. And before that, they came from butchers. And who's really thinking back further than that?
The meat has two faces. One is the gorgeous, bloody creation stuffed in a bun and placed in front of you on a plate, and the other is a 1,500-pound mammal with hooves, hair, and—sorry to remind you—a face. Ditto the salmon in your sashimi (albeit with scales and fins) or the chicken in your pot pie (feathers, talons, beak). Even keeping that in mind, it's hard to place a number on how many of these animals are really dying for your sinful love of bacon cheeseburgers.
The Vegetarian Calculator is a new online tool that claims to tally up all of the living beings that are slaughtered to supply your diet as an omnivore over any given period of time. Being a vegetarian for two years, for example, is said to save 404 animals (and cut back your personal meat-eaten tally by 390 pounds).
The implications over a lifetime are a little more staggering: if you eat meat regularly from childhood through old age, you'll chow down on some 7,000 animals. If you were to dig in further, your personal graveyard would include—in their entirety, mass-wise—11 cows, 27 pigs, 2,400 chickens, 80 turkeys, 30 sheep, and 4,500 fish.
Eleven cows may not sound like a lot, but that's because calculating beef consumption by individual cow is complicated business. An individual cow can be made into up to 1,200 pounds of meat, but a single burger can contain meat from hundreds of different cows. The calculator bases its data on the amount of meat consumed by the average American (using USDA data from 2008), and the average American eats three burgers per week, according to PBS.
In addition to shedding light on the number of animals affected by individual diets, the calculator also dips into the environmental impact factor. Forgoing meat for five years, for example, theoretically saves 8,044 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere.
Though it's easy to feel defensive with these accusations of mass murder and careless pollution flying around, it shouldn't be surprising news to most people that meat comes from animals. (It could be worth mentioning here that a pretty alarming study in 2012 found that more than a third of young adults in the UK didn't know that bacon came from pigs, and only 41 percent knew that butter was sourced from dairy cows.)
The sticker shock of seven G's might add some context to a meat-heavy diet, however. In 2010, a United Nations report urged a global shift towards a plant-based diet due to environmental dangers on the horizon. "Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products," the report says. "A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products."
The report also notes that animal agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global usage of freshwater, as well as significant land use and emission of greenhouse gases.
Is anyone going to rip that French dip sandwich right out of your hand? Of course not. But before dismissing the calculator as propagandistic hogwash, it might be to our collective advantage—and to that of animals—to face the face that made your meal.