Vegan life is not bloodless – Steven Davis

Finished a deeply flawed and though-provoking paper while procrastinating about finishing my own on academic boycotts.

Davis SL (2003). The concept of least harm may require that humans consume a diet containing large herbivores, not a vegan diet. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 16: 387ā€“394.

It presented data about the number of arable field-dwelling animals (actually, just the vertebrates) which are killed, injured and displaced during human field operations such as harvesting. He calculates that at 15 animals per hectare, 1.8 billion animals would be killed annually in producing a vegan diet for the US. He proposes that if half of the land currently used for arable were used for what he calls pasture-forage-ruminant production – whereby large ruminant animals ‘harvest’ what is grown there and are then themselves killed and eaten – 0.3 billion lives would be saved. By eating the largest-possible – which he then amends to the largest acceptable – animal, the maximum number of lives would be saved.

In the US the annual figure is thought by the USDA to be more than the 8.4 billion animals intentionally killed for human consumption (incidentally chickens really are the proletariat of the farming world – 8 billion of those killed are chickens and only 37 million are cows and calves).

A depressing read in which the unit of analysis was death alone, ignoring issues about animal sentience and consequently quite grotesque in its discrimination between large and small animals, and unquestioningly accepting of the inevitability of the field animals’ deaths. Neither does he offer calculations about whether the ruminant animals on half of the arable land would feed an equivalent number of people to the other half. Feeling that this is a starkly utilitarian approach to the problem, and that the other alternatives to do with small-scale, demechanised, no-till systems of production have worrying implications for female emancipation and material security among other things, I wonder about saving the lives of the animals currently crushed by the machinery and poisoned by the pesticides. In the UK we are already paying farmers to leave the borders of their fields alone, or to create islands within them – might there be case for extending these, and explore methods of driving the animals into these – allbeit inhospitable – sanctuaries? On the pesticide front, I’m not sure about the state of symbiotic measures such as companion planting. It’s working for my dad on the small scale, for example.


7 thoughts on “Vegan life is not bloodless – Steven Davis

  1. Some comments on “Vegan life is not bloodless”:

    Does the author take into account that a significant part of a vegan’s diet (varies from vegan to vegan) can be hand-harvested, not mechanically harvested? Hand-harvesting naturally results in a lot less collateral field kill.

    Also, vegans are certainly not solely responsible for the killing of field animals and insects. Even the most carnivorous of us wants tomato, pickle, onion, mustard, relish, bun and fries (all plant foods) with our burgers. Even if you eat meat, modern dieticians stress the health benefits of a large intake of plant-based foods.

  2. Hello Michael,

    The author didn’t really take into account the diversity of vegans – he was more concerned statistics.

    It’s true that vegans aren’t solely responsible for the deaths of field animals – practically all of us eat plants, and the animals many of us eat often eat harvested plants.

    I’m still stroking my chin and wondering what the value is of pointing out the inconsistency in vegan/vegetarian attitudes to animal deaths (ignoring the incidental deaths while scrupulously avoiding the deliberate ones).

  3. I don’t think there is an inconsistency in vegan/vegetarian attitudes to animal deaths. All living creatures (whether spiders, lions, vegans or omnivores) have to eat something that’s alive, or was alive, to survive. Being a vegan is about causing the least harm possible, not about starving yourself to death. Anyway, a lot of the grain grown in the States is specifically earmarked for cattle feed. Responsibility for collateral field kill in harvesting these particular grains rests solely on meat-eaters’ shoulders. All of us, by the mere fact of our existence, are responsible for killing other organisms. A vegan tries to minimize the extent of these killings.

  4. I hear you and it goes without saying that we either kill or die. I think the oblique point this particular paper makes is about the turning of blind eyes. Minimising the deaths of some types of animals at the expense of other types is ethically spurious and/or illogical. In order for a vegan to make good decisions about minimising suffering and killings, we have to be fully aware of the entire array of agricultural processes involved in bringing food to our tables, including techniques for cultivation, harvest, transport, who knows what else. The reason this paper got to me is that, to a certain extent, my veganism is an ignorant gesture, even if it has honourable reasons. What I can do to keep it as a live issue for myself is limited, in the face of time shortages, by my dedication to veganism. The paper needled me into an honest consideration of my priorities which led me to conclude that in many ways I was happy to stop thinking about the suffering and killing of animals once I became a vegan, as if I’d “done my bit” and could now relax into the habit. It’s a subject that’s almost too painful for me to think about much, and that’s not so good. You sound somewhat more reflective Michael, and that’s good.

  5. “And please don’t be depressed. Don’t dwell on the big picture. Because that’s more than any sensitive person can ever endure.” —Ingrid Newkirk

    I understand what you’re saying. I found the above words helpful. All anyone can really do is to try and cause less harm. I would still say a vegan certainly causes far fewer deaths, incidental or otherwise, to other living organisms than a meat-eater. In a time-constrained society, even if you’re “only” a vegan, you’re doing a lot. I found myself, that a commitment to veganism made me more active to the cause. The trick is to just do your small bit and hope everyone else does theirs. Then progress will be made, and no single person will get “down” from taking on too heavy a load.

  6. Certainly Davis’ paper is not free of flaws, but he is to be commended for delving into the realms that many people, especially vegans, would prefer to ignore – namely, that there is no way to purposefully raise food for humans, whether that food is fruit, vegetable, or animal – without the deaths of other animals and without some degree of negative environmental impact. A previous poster spoke of deep pain at realising that veganism had become his shield – and indeed a source of cognitive dissonance that creates a sense of complacency, perhaps even superiority over unenlightened meat-eaters.

    It’s very true – another thing that I see ignored by many people, perhaps especially vegans – is that there is no one optimal way to raise food. To say blithely “Any land put under crops for humans produces more food than to feed the crops to animals that are then eaten by people” begs the question of “What about land that is not fit for cropping, but which does support livestock which can then produce eggs, milk, and meat for humans?”

    Here’s a link to Tom van Sant’s map of Earth from space:

    All the white areas are unsuitable for crops. The brown areas will support plant crops only with varying amounts of irrigation. The green areas are mostly under forest, much of this on very steep land with very little actual soil – again, not suited to crop production. This doesn’t leave much arable land, does it? Some of the green areas, as long as we understand the harm done to Earth’s lungs and kidneys by felling forestland, and some of the brown, as long as we understand the harm we’re doing through irrigation – salting, and physical soil destruction. The tropical and subtropical regions can produce fruit and vegetables all year round, as well as some grain (rice) and other starches like taro, as long as we understand the harm done to the environment by, e.g. generating huge amounts of methane in rice paddies. These regions are not big enough to feed everyone on Earth, and it is unfortunately true that people do need a good mix of amino acids with which to build up their own body proteins. Animal source foods contain all the essential amino acids, while plant foods tend to be lacking at least one and often several. This doesn’t matter if one has the nutritional knowledge and the resources (especially money) to get and eat a wide range of foods – at high environmental cost because it’s most unlikely that all these foods will be available in the same region at the same time and all year round so many will be shipped in from distant parts.

    Even assuming that all the necessary plant foods are available at the same time and all year round so that most humans (there are outliers who simply don’t produce the enzymes required to digest certain plant proteins, or who are allergic to them) did not need animal source foods (I’m assuming everybody would be taking B12 supplements of high biological value and exposing enough skin to keep their vitamin D levels high), there would still be virtual dead animals on everybody’s plates. These virtual dead animals would include beetles, mice, birds, snakes, voles, moths, butterflies, ants, and many more species; these animals would be just as dead as if they were being shovelled into human stomachs as with their carcasses left to rot outdoors.

    Another previous poster remarked that the collateral deaths of animals killed in the production of grain for livestock feeding rests solely on the shoulders of meat eaters. This is as true as to say that the collateral deaths of animals killed in the production of soy and corn for the artificial meats/milk/cheeses/icecream industries rest solely on the shoulders of vegans. There’s no cheap out here for any person on the planet who eats farmed food, whether that’s pork or potatoes.

    Speaking from my own experience with a smallholding in South Africa, there’s very little collateral killing when land is perennial pasture. My property was not suited to cropping; it had shallow soil with a lot of ironstone and hardpan resulting from a previous owner’s misguided attempt to grow maize; the rainfall was marginal; it had been overgrazed. I put my efforts into restoring the acacia savannah natural to this area, and year by year I saw the groundcover thicken and the biodiversity increase. This land, marginal for plant cropping, provided an amazing amount of food in the form of eggs, milk, and meat. My livestock (2 dairy cows, seven sheep, seven goats, three pigs, fluctuating numbers of chickens and meat rabbits) thrived on their roughage diet. Only the rabbits were permanently housed (under the colony system, not in individual cages), with all other species going out to graze each day. I didn’t make hay, having no equipment or money for the operation. Instead, I practiced rotational grazing, shutting off some paddocks in early summer to produce winter forage to be rotationally grazed in due time. The bulk carbohydrates provided by the dry grass was balanced by the abundant pods of the Acacia tortilis tree; these pods are rich in protein and oil, and have some sugary pulp – a very little to human tastebuds, but obviously delicious to my stock! I bought in a small amount of lucerne from a neighbour who grew it for his horses – I got the finer material that shook out of bales and would otherwise have been wasted. I also bought in a small amount of mill sweepings, this being husks and meal spilt during the production of maize meal and wheat flour for human use. Again, material that would have been wasted. I mixed the lucerne and sweepings with rock salt and dicalcium phosphate, as well as bagasse (the fibre left after sugar cane is pressed, another waste material from the human food stream), and fed this as treats morning and evening.

    My animals were penned at night to protect them from predators, especially bipedal predators, and this manure eventually gave me beds of deep rich loam for the growing of vegetables.

    Year by year I saw the wildlife on my property increase both in numbers and in variety. An enormous python took up residence beneath the pump house. A breeding pair of duiker took up residence. Tree mice suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and a flock of yellow-billed hornbills settled in to exploit the mice. Owls called at night, and jackrabbits exploded under my feet during the day. A redlipped herald snake, feeding on ground-living rodents, found my bed so appealing that after three mornings of waking up nose-to-nose with it, I relocated it on the other side of a stream. There were probably collateral deaths – a cow can’t rip off mouthfuls of grass without occasionally gathering a grasshopper with it, for example, but certainly there was no carnage. The real collateral deaths took place in my vegetable garden, where I ruthlessly killed slugs, caterpillars, and beetles (I threw them to the chickens, so the actual killing was done by beaks, but I was the one who caught and threw the critters) that would otherwise decimate my beans, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, sweetcorn, etc.

    Now I live in San Francisco and have to buy all my food. It takes considerable time, some inconvenience, and quite a lot of money to eat according to my ethics. I have found suppliers of humanely and sustainably produced eggs, butter, and cheese, who sell their wares at a farmers’ market. These animals have a grass-based diet and all the products travel less than 100 miles to reach me. I get my meat from a butchery that sells beef from a grass-fed-to-finish operation, again within 100 miles of my home. Milk is harder, but my local Trader Joe’s sells milk from a grass-based farm within my arbitrary limit of 100 miles, and occasionally has pastured chickens. Most of my vegetables come from the farmers’ market, and some fruit.

    Overall, I aim at reducing the collateral killing and environmental damage associated with production of the food I personally eat. I am comfortable with my choice to be an omnivore, partly for health reasons rising from my personal biochemistry and partly because of the conclusions drawn from my personal experience with the raising of meat animals. I do not suffer from cognitive dissonance; I have processed enough carcasses, with my own hands, to know beyond doubt that “dead” means “gone forever.” For me, there is a strong element of the sacred in eating animal source products; knowing that something has died for my food means that I treat it with respect, and eat sparingly (my husband and I jointly eat between 1/4 and 1/3 of the meat consumed by the average USA-er).

    I’m uneasily aware that there are still holes in this foodweb. I still buy bananas from Mexico, and rice from India – both countries where human animals engaged in food production for wealthy countries are badly treated, and where the land is mistreated and degraded, and water sources polluted. Pesticides banned in Western countries are deluged onto third-world soils, killing who knows how many non-human animals in the process of protecting the profitable crops. I still eat out sometimes, at places where the food is so cheap that it cannot possibly be ethically produced. Sometimes I buy commercially grown vegetables from Safeway. I still buy sugar, about 10lb a year – sugar, an incredibly hungry, thirsty crop with no food value in its refined form, the source of habitat loss for many species, and the parent of appalling human abuses. I buy only fair trade sugar, but that doesn’t really offset habitat loss, or wildlife kill when fields are burnt to reduce the amount of material that has to be taken to the refinery.

    Maya Angelou said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that you do the best you can with what you know, and when you know better, you do better. Every person who engages consciously with his/her foodweb, whether vegan, flexitarian, or omnivore, is doing his/her best and helping to reduce factory farming and its associated cruelties. It behoves all of us to continue digging and striving to do better.

  7. Pingback: The Ethical Arguments Against Ethical Veganism | Our Hen House

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