We might think, "50% conversion rate? That must be the way to go!"
This is how I used to think. But after years, I finally learned to ask: How does this argument actually affect animals?
Every year, the average American eats:
It currently takes about 193 birds (chickens + turkeys) to provide the same number of meals as one steer, and 56 to equal one pig.
So before our presentation, the 10 people consumed a combined 234 land animals every year. After our presentation, they eat 296 land animals per year. This is because, even though our argument has convinced fully half of them to stop eating animals entirely, the others replaced their red meat intake with birds in order to eat more healthfully. (And that is if the five replace the fractional cow and pig with birds; if they replace the red meat even partially with fishes, the numbers are much, much worse.)
Of course, we all know people who have gone veg for health reasons; as vegetarian advocates, we are obviously in a position to hear from and remember them. When we survey vegetarians (and/or meat-reducers), of course we sometimes hear “the health argument” as a motivation. But looking only at vegetarians can’t show the full impact of any argument. The error is thinking the “health” vegetarians we know / survey are a true sample of society. They aren’t – rather, they actually represent a highly a self-selected sub-sample.
History, however, shows that eating fewer large animals and more small animals for health reasons isn't a made-up, worst-case scenario – it has been the driving force for the suffering and slaughter of billions and billions of birds. Just look at the graph here – the slaughter of chickens has skyrocketed over the decades!
[Update, Jan. 2014: Moving from red meat to chicken is a well-documented fact. E.g. “’If you look at dietary recommendations put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture [and other health institutions; e.g. http://bit.ly/1cThqW8], they are to decrease red meat and substitute lean meat, poultry and fish,’ says Daniel [a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center]. ‘We've seen in other data that people are gravitating towards poultry.’” http://n.pr/1cThghl
Also, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3045642/ which notes “The growing preference in the U.S. for poultry, but not fish, as a replacement for red meat.”
Studies contradict each other in terms terms of how much chicken is eaten by people who totally give up red meat. But for people who reduce the amount of red meat they eat – the majority of people who change their diet for health reasons – all the data is absolutely clear: red-meat reducers eat much, much more chicken. For example, in the largest recent study, those who consumed the lowest amount of red meat ate ~50% more chicken than those who consumed the most red meat. http://bit.ly/1an4wPy]
This is one of the reasons why Vegan Outreach doesn't use any argument that could, in any way, support the general move toward giving up only red meat: every person who decides to "eat better" more than counters the good done by a new vegetarian.
In other words: Vegan Outreach doesn't repeat anti-meat arguments. We promote pro-animal arguments. Obviously, it feels good to say, "Vegans have lower rates of disease X," but the point isn't to feel good about ourselves. We're not out to justify or glorify our choices – our goal is to keep as many animals from suffering as possible.
Of course, advocates can claim eating birds is bad for everyone's health, the environment, etc. Putting aside the veracity of those health and environmental claims, this simply isn't the way the world works; people don't just accept what a vegan advocate says as gospel truth. Rather, they combine what they hear from all sources, paying more attention to what their doctor and friends say. On top of this, people generally give much more weight to advice that leads toward what they want to do – e.g., continuing to eat the familiar and convenient foods their friends and family eat.
More importantly, we simply don't make decisions based on what is "perfect" for our health, the environment, etc. We don't exercise the optimal amount, we don't sleep enough, we don't floss every day, we don't work standing up, we don't give up our car, etc.
With few exceptions, we follow our habits / peers. For most people (i.e., not a self-selected vegetarian sub-sample), if we change anything, we do something somewhat "better" – e.g., eating chickens instead of cows.
In other words, no matter what vegans claim is true or what we want, people will react from where they are, what they're used to, and what they want. So no matter how strong we think our arguments are, or how noble our intentions, or how passionate our desires, when we advocate without considering human nature, history, and the numbers, we cause more animals to suffer and die.
advocate for the animals.