This post is part of an ongoing series called Most Common Justifications for Eating Animals where we seek to provide answers and resources to better address these justifications.
In the last several years, a number of scholarly and non scholarly arguments have gained traction by claiming that if vegans factor in the amount of animal deaths resulting from the harvesting of plant crops, they would find that vegan and vegetarian diets result in a greater number of animal deaths than diets based on pasture-raised animals. And they conclude that if vegans seek to minimize harm, then a vegan diet is not the way to go. Many counter arguments have emerged to refute this claim. One of the most thorough among them is AnimalVisuals’ comprehensive and well-researched study, Number of Animals Killed to Produce One Million Calories in Eight Food Categories. See chart below for a snapshot of the results of this study.
Now let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that the claim were true, that indeed more animals deaths resulted in the production of plant foods over animal foods. Would this fact, in itself, make a sound argument in favor of eating pasture-raised animal flesh and secretions? Not in our view since intention is a key factor that we use to assess the moral weight of an action. The unintentional killing of field mice and other animals during the process of harvesting essential food crops is a vastly different scenario from that of deliberately and artificially breeding billions of sentient individuals into existence for the sole purpose of exploiting and killing them for flesh and secretions we have no need to consume.
One might argue that crop farmers intentionally kill what they consider “pest” animals that threaten their crops, but this claim raises a false dilemma, ignoring the fact that non lethal, humane solutions to crop protection exist and, with consumer awareness, demand for these alternative methods will drive their increased use. And If killing certain animals in the process of raising necessary food crops is morally objectionable, then our accountability for their deaths certainly cannot be rectified by breeding even more animals into existence for the sole purpose of exploiting and slaughtering them at a fraction of their natural lifespans!
Put another way, Professor Gary Francione points out that the common claim that eating pasture-raised animals results in fewer animal deaths than in the harvesting of crops is “a version of the argument that if we cannot avoid unintentional death, we might as well engage in intentional killing. Think about that. We cannot avoid accidental or unintended death in manufacturing anything, including the most innocuous and beneficial of products. So it’s okay to kill humans intentionally? Surely not.” And on the issue of farmers intentionally killing animals that threaten their crops, Francione argues that “If we all went vegan because we cared morally about nonhumans, that would necessarily translate into methods of crop production that would be more mindful of incidental and unintended deaths.”
After a thorough analysis, the AnimalVisuals report provides the numbers and methodology to demonstrate the conclusion that, overwhelmingly, “The most animal suffering and death can be prevented by following a vegan diet.”
See more common justifications for eating animals.