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.
Picture this: You’re a harvest mouse who lives in a wheat field. Being a mouse, you have excellent hearing and can easily pick up sounds that a human cannot hear. Thanks to your sensitive whiskers and small size, you’re acutely attuned to vibrations caused by large machines. Although your eyesight isn’t the best in the world, your eyes are situated high on your head and offer an excellent all-round view. And to top that off, you have lightning reflexes and dash about at a top speed of 8 miles an hour.
Now imagine that you’re perched idly on a stalk of wheat, your tail curled around it like a fifth limb. You’re smelling the crisp morning air and feeling the sun shining on your face. But then, the ground starts to shudder as a 3 ton, 4-cylinder diesel-engined combine harvester ominously starts heading your way – which, by the way, you can see without even turning your head. What will you do?
- Run like hell
- Humbly await your fate on a Kentish plum
Mike Archer, a paleontologist, goes with Option 2, which makes me wonder if he should be spending more time with living animals instead of extinct ones.
But this article is not the rebuttal of any one person or article, but an exploration of a notion perpetuated repeatedly without a shred of scientific evidence: that more animals are killed cultivating food for vegans and vegetarians, and therefore eating meat is kinder because it kills fewer animals. I think that this is not a scientific debate, but a social power struggle, perhaps with the support of the meat industry. But before we debunk the “armchair experts”, let’s have a look at some actual studies conducted in the field.
The best laid plans o’ mice and machines
The English study on wood mice
Tew and MacDonald studied wood mice between 1987 and 1991 to understand how the harvesting of grain affects their numbers. In one study, they fitted radio collars to 33 wood mice on three different sites. They wanted to find out how many of them are killed when a combine harvester shreds a wheat field. With all the propaganda about mass extinctions caused by crop harvesting, you might think that they were bracing themselves for a mouse apocalypse. Turns out, of the 33 mice, 32 survived the combined harvester – that’s 97% of them! The act of harvesting posed virtually no threat to these mice.
Following the harvest, 17 of the remaining 32 mice were hunted by predators such as weasels and tawny owls. Clearly, the loss of cover made them more vulnerable to predators. But the mice knew that too. So they adapted. After the harvest, they became cautious in their forays, refusing to venture far unless it was safe. Many left the fields and migrated to nearby scrub. On the farms, the number of mice on the fields declined by 80%. But the point is, they had not been massacred by a combine harvester. The half who were killed made an important contribution to the ecosystem. Without wood mice, predators such as foxes, owls, stoats, martens, badgers and hawks would have a hard time surviving. Everything from a cat to a kestrel needs wood mice to thrive.
The Argentine study on Azara’s akodont
Don’t you love the word ‘Akodont’? It sounds like something straight out of a fantasy game! Actually, Azara’s akodont is a grass mouse native to the Pampas of Paraguay, Uruguay and eastern Argentina. In 2005, a team of Argentine researchers studied the populations of the akodont in wheat and corn fields to understand the effects of harvesting. They found that following harvest, the akodonts ditched the fields and moved to grassy borders between the fields. By being adaptable and moving to a different habitat, they were able to avoid the harvesting machines as well as predators. The study found no evidence to indicate that their numbers were affected in any significant manner by the harvesting process.
The German study on common voles
Jacob and Hempel studied common voles on wheat fields and pastures in central Germany in 2002 to understand how farming practices alter their behavior. In this extensive study, they fitted radio collars to 85 voles and studied them before and after mulching, mowing, harvesting and ploughing.
As expected, they found that any removal of cover, such as harvesting, mowing, or grazing cattle, decreased the spatial activity and home-range size of the voles, meaning that they didn’t travel far from their homes without the cover of vegetation. But they did not abandon the fields and did not shift their centers of activity. The voles rapidly adapted to the decrease in the height of vegetation and changed their habits, their travel routes and how far they traveled. Jacob and Hempel found that pretty much the only danger that agriculture presented to voles was an increased risk of predation. But they adapted by changing their behavior until the vegetation grew back. In this extensive, real-life field study, which used no controls, no manipulation and surveyed all relevant agricultural activities, data shows that actions like harvesting pose no threat to the voles. Quite the opposite of what armchair “experts” with an axe to grind claim about the impact of vegan food cultivation.
The Indonesian study on rice-field rats
In 2002, an international team of scientists studied the movement and populations of female rats before and after harvest in western Java. This species of rat, rattus argentiventer, is has been creatively named the rice-field rat, because it’s found in, you guessed it – rice fields! And this study again shows how intelligent and adaptable rodents are, no matter what species they are or what continent they live on. As we’ve seen, rodents in other places have been observed leaving the fields and moving to the borders of the fields or a nearby forested area. Like their cousins elsewhere, rice-field rats in Indonesia live in wild patches on the borders of farms and venture into cultivated areas for foraging. But when the rice is harvested, the rats actually shifted base into the fields. Why? Because post-harvest, there are large stacks of rice straw left in the fields to dry (they’re used as fodder for cattle). Although the home range of these rats temporarily decreased by 67% and the distance of their forays shrank by 35%, they actually relocated an average of 367 meters to exploit better opportunities available elsewhere!
To belabor the obvious yet again, it must be emphasized that harvesting did not kill these rats by the thousands, or hundreds, or even a handful. In fact, even though harvesting increases risk of predation (which is a natural part of the lives of rodents), none of those who were radio-collared for the study were hunted by predators. Unlike common voles, these rats actually remained in the fields for another 2 or 3 weeks – perhaps because it seemed like a better option than seeking shelter elsewhere.
And what about baby mice?
OK. But even if we concede that small wild animals remain largely unharmed by agricultural machinery and can adapt to risks created by loss of cover, what about baby mice? Oh, why don’t vegans care about baby mice? They are so tiny, and blind, and helpless! It’s ironic that the very people whose hearts bleed for infant mice do not feel the same compassion for newborn chicks who are thrown into grinders in the egg industry, or male calves who are killed for milk production. To a vegan, the death of a single baby mouse is a tragedy. What I have a problem with, however, is the meat industry and its advocates exploiting such losses to try and discredit the vegan way of life. So while acknowledging that the death of even a one baby mouse is a painful loss, let me put things into perspective.
The typical lifespan of a rodent is between 12 and 36 months, depending on the species (smaller species have shorter lifespans). Baby rodents are typically weaned by the time they are 3 weeks old, at which point they leave their nests and socialize with others of their age before dispersing. Assuming a lifespan of 15 months (60 weeks), a baby rodent is dependent on her parents for food and protection for 5% of her life. Contrast this with human beings, who depend on their parents (and society) till they are 15 years old – for the first 20% of their lives, assuming a lifespan of 75 years. Or elephants, who also need maternal care and protection for 20% of their lives. Or lions, who depend on their mothers and aunts for food till they are 3 years old (16% to 20% of their lives). Which is to say, it’s pretty phenomenal that a rodent can fend for herself for 95% (!!!) of her life. And when a combine harvester menacingly heads toward a wee lil’ harvest mouse, there’s a 95% probability that he won’t be all that blind and helpless.
Fine. But still not as awesome as a pasture, right?
Simple math explains why buying meat means killing more mice and birds and whatnots.
Ask someone about how livestock are raised, and most people imagine cows grazing on idyllic meadows, munching lazily on soft, green grass and smelling edelweiss while honeybees hum drunkenly around them. People think that factory farming is an ugly reality for “some” animals – and certainly not the ones they eat. Few people have an inkling of the true scale of grain-based livestock farming. Worldwide, 91% of the world’s beef cattle are raised on a diet of grain – thus spaketh the FAO. And in industrialized countries such as the United States, around 97% of all cows are fattened on grain – or almost all of them. So if you eat meat, chances are high that the animal was fed grain, even if the package comes with a “free-range”, “pasture-grazed”, or any other fancy label.
And since almost all of the world’s meat is produced by cultivating grain as feed, it’s pretty obvious that almost all meat production puts wild animals at the same risks as cultivating grain for direct human consumption. Worldwide, 40% of all grain is fed to livestock. In the United States, over 70% of all grain is fed to farm animals; in some other countries, this proportion is even higher. So, even if your argument is, “Harvesting is a death sentence to innocent mice! Vegans are rodent killers!!!”, the fact remains that less than a third as many wild animals would be dying today if the demand for meat didn’t exist. Just ask a Casio calculator.
If you’re a wee mouse, idyllic pastures can be far from idyllic
Some people eat “grass fed”, “pasture-raised”, or another fancy-labeled meat, even paying premium for it, because they want to do the “right thing”. They sincerely believe that grass-fed meat is better for the environment. Let’s say that you’re one of the more conscientious meat eaters who only eats grass-fed cows. That sure means that all the mice, voles, pikas, gerbils, prairie dogs or tuco-tucos on that pasture are safe, right? Right? Meat companies would certainly like you to believe this lie. In reality, grazing does exactly what mechanized mowers or combine harvesters do – reduce tall, luxuriant grass to something resembling the head of a bipolar hedgehog. Research indicates that small animals are even more at risk of predation on a pasture, especially since, unlike cultivated areas, they have no forested areas to escape to.
In 2003, Prof. Stephen Davis wrote a paper that essentially argued that practices such as mechanized harvesting kill more animals per hectare than, say, slow grazing by cattle – therefore, eating large herbivores (he recommended cows, not elephants or horses) might be more ethical than raising crops.[A] This was music to the ears of meat industry supporters, who have shared it widely, despite the fact that it was soundly refuted the very year that it was published. For one, Davis’ assertion was not based on any field studies. He cherry-picked data that supported his point of view and did some back-of-the-hand calculations. Without conducting controlled studies, he assumed that pasture grazing kills only half as many wild animals per hectare as crop cultivation. Well, even if we assume that figure to be accurate, he is still wrong, because it takes only a tenth as much land to produce protein from soy and corn, versus grass-fed beef. In a detailed rebuttal, Gaverick Matheny explains that even using Davis’ own figures, the average vegan’s diet kills 0.3 animals a year (or one wild animal every 3 years), whereas an omnivore who eats “ethical” pasture-grazed beef causes the death of 1.5 wild animals each year.[B] Most meat eaters eat grain-fed livestock.
An American study on gray-tailed voles living on pasture land showed that their numbers were reduced by more than 50% when the pasture was mowed or grazed. That’s a lot of dead and missing voles!!! Those who didn’t die suffered from “disrupted social organizations”. The study showed that grazing was traumatic for pregnant voles, who were forced to abandon their territories and seek new homes. This is far from the only study that shows that grazing causes widespread devastation to wildlife. Here are some damning quotes from other studies:
“Large herbivores consume the same vegetation as many rodents and they therefore have the potential to compete for food resources. They also reduce vegetation height and cover through trampling and grazing, which may damage nests and increase the exposure of small mammals to predation. The factors mentioned can all lower species richness.”
— Froeschke and Matthee, 2014
“Although owls seem to search for areas in which vegetation is sparse, transforming an entire pasture through intensive grazing would decimate small mammal numbers.”
— Marsh et al., 2014
“The [ungrazed area] supported 45% more grass cover, a comparatively heterogeneous grass community, and significantly more herb cover than the grazed pasture. … Various studies have shown that livestock exclusion may even accelerate woody plant growth in Southwestern rangelands. … Several of the species more abundant in the grazed area may be valuable indicators of desertification. … Collectively, grazing appeared to favor birds over rodents.”
— Bock et al., 1984
“Despite the relatively recent cattle grazing history in the study region, cattle appear already to have altered vegetation composition in areas where they have grazed more heavily. Total vegetation cover showed a tendency to remain higher in areas where grazing intensity had been historically light.”
Frank et al., 2013
Livestock farmers actively kill wildlife
Okay, so you shouldn’t read this section if you’re particularly sensitive, in a bad mood, or prone to nausea. I’m sure you already know what happens when a special interest group lobbies the government to use public funds – your tax money – to advance their interests. I’m sure you’re aware of what bank bailouts have done to the world economy. And how oil companies get no more than a rap on the knuckles when they destroy a marine ecosystem. Or how the conventional auto industry stalled progress on electric vehicle technology, or industrial lobbies have spent billions (on media and politicians) to confusing the public about the undeniable reality of climate change.
But you probably do not know about all the wild animals that are massacred on behalf of livestock farmers. Many of us know about the cruel reality of factory farming and slaughterhouses, the damage caused to the Amazon rainforest by ranchers, and even all the oceanic fish that are killed to support livestock farming. But I’m talking about wild animals specifically killed at the behest of livestock farmers. Even if they never attacked livestock. With your tax money.
This happens all around the world. In America and Canada, wolves and coyotes are routinely poisoned, trapped or shot from helicopters for eating into farmers’ profits, prairie dogs for eating grass, geese for nesting or pooping, or competing with grazing livestock. It’s not too different in the UK, which also culls animals like badgers for supposedly hurting the profits of dairy farmers. Australia has killed almost 90 million kangaroos and wallabies in the past 20 years under the excuse that they’re at “plague proportions” (and I thought that sheep and cows are the non-native invasive species there). Individual incidents like these make the news if someone creates a petition, or organizes a protest, or speaks out on social media. What is not apparent, however, is the mind-boggling scale of killing carried out, often by government agencies, covertly, using your tax money, on behalf of private businesses and individuals, just so that livestock farmers can make a little extra profit. These include techniques such as gassing, trapping animals in steel snares and letting them starve and die from mutilation, using dogs to rip open live victims, burying them alive in their own dens, shooting them from helicopters, and even using phosphorous bombs to kill helpless cubs. By the hundreds.
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what publicly available data from the ironically-named Wildlife Services unit says about wild animals killed in 2014. At the behest of the livestock farming lobby, the USDA killed around 322 wolves, 580 black bears, 800 bobcats, 61700 coyotes (also destroyed 425 homes), 5500 deer, 300 badgers, 2950 foxes, 8600 gophers (with 1162 homes destroyed) and 16,000 prairie dogs (with 73,560 homes destroyed).. In addition to these massacres, they also systematically killed 22,500 beavers, 325,000 blackbirds, 4000 cardinals, 730 feral cats, 2090 coots, 16,560 cormorants, 542,231 cowbirds, 20,600 crows and ravens, 112,200 doves and pigeons, 6400 francolins, 21,400 geese, 100,730 grackles, 800 hares, 2560 marmots (with 1600 homes destroyed), 5500 skunks (and 30 nests) and 5000 vultures. All in all, they killed 2,713,570 wild animals, destroyed 79,845 homes, and rendered over 27,632,200 animals without territories or home ranges. All this in just one year.
And livestock industry minions complain about all the mice supposedly killed for vegan food production.
In many ways, the controversy over the ethical cost of the vegan diet is similar to the controversy over climate change. Almost all evidence from field studies and controlled experiments clearly shows that climate change is significant and caused by human activity. And yet, industrial groups have orchestrated a controversy using ads, paid articles, hired “experts” and blog posts that double as press releases. They do not care to be right; their intention is to build an alternative narrative sow seeds of doubt in the mind of their customer, the average person. And so to the average person, climate change is unproven or beneficial, evolution is “just a theory”, and vegans are arrogant hypocrites.
On one hand, this obfuscation of facts is driven by corporate greed, by an industry that wants to maintain status quo. On the other hand, it’s ardently supported by some meat consumers – regular people – who are defensive about their lifestyle choices. They do not want to be part of change in any form, want to be right all the time, and feel threatened by anything that challenges their assumptions, their habits and patterns of thinking.
And so you get articles like those written by Mike Archer. Strangely (or not), they are written by a scientist who makes bizarre statements without offering any citation or sources (I’m not a scientist, and yet this article lists 14 references). Their choice of words, captions and title are clearly intended to provoke a reaction from vegans, perhaps hoping that they would make an emotional mistake and say something stupid. They are written by a paleontologist who, like the physicist S. Fred Singer who lobbied for tobacco and Big Oil, is writing on topics he probably has no expertise in. One of his posts was written for The Conversation, which is funded by the CSIRO, which actively partners with livestock farming corporations. It’s hard to take their claim of “no affiliations” seriously. Ironically, his life’s work has been to bring back the thylacine through cloning, although it was the livestock farming industry that caused its extinction in the first place. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.
Social change, even overwhelmingly positive change, is hard. We are emotional beings, and our consumption choices are driven by habits and culture, rather than our best interests. And yet information must be shared freely and plainly, in the hope that eventually, better sense will prevail over the egotistical need to be right all the time. And therefore, the malicious lie that vegans cause the deaths of more animals than meat eaters must be crushed whenever it crops up.
See more common justifications for eating animals.
 Tew, T. E., & Macdonald, D. W. (1993). The effects of harvest on arable wood mice Apodemus sylvaticus. Biological Conservation, 65(3), pp. 279-283. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/000632079390060E
 Cavia, R., Villafañe, I. E. G., Cittadino, E. A., Bilenca, D. N., Miño, M. H., & Busch, M. (2005). Effects of cereal harvest on abundance and spatial distribution of the rodent Akodon azarae in central Argentina. Agriculture, ecosystems & environment, 107(1), pp. 95-99. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167880904002944
 Jacob, J., & Hempel, N. (2003). Effects of farming practices on spatial behaviour of common voles. Journal of Ethology, 21(1), pp. 45-50. Available at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10164-002-0073-8#page-1
 Jacob, J., Nolte, D., & Hartono, R. (2003). Pre-and post-harvest movements of female rice-field rats in West Javanese rice fields. Available at: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1249&context=icwdm_usdanwrc
 De Haan, C., Steinfeld, H., & Blackburn, H. (1997). Livestock & the environment: Finding a balance (p. 115). Rome,, Italy: European Commission Directorate-General for Development, Development Policy Sustainable Development and Natural Resources. Available at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/X5303E/x5303e00.htm#Contents
 Data from the National Resources Defense Council. Available at: http://www.nrdc.org/food/better-beef-production/feedlot-operations.asp
 Edge, W. D., Wolff, J. O., & Carey, R. L. (1995). Density-dependent responses of gray-tailed voles to mowing. The Journal of wildlife management, pp. 245-251. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3808937?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
 Froeschke, G., & Matthee, S. (2014). Landscape characteristics influence helminth infestations in a peri-domestic rodent-implications for possible zoonotic disease. Parasites & vectors, 7(1), pp. 1-13. Available at: http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1756-3305-7-393.pdf
 Marsh, A., Wellicome, T. I., & Bayne, E. (2014). Influence of vegetation on the nocturnal foraging behaviors and vertebrate prey capture by endangered Burrowing Owls. Avian Conservation and Ecology, 9(1), 2. Available at: http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Troy_Wellicome/publication/260634860_Influence_of_Vegetation_on_the_Nocturnal_Foraging_Behaviors_and_Vertebrate_Prey_Capture_by_Endangered_Burrowing_Owls/links/0046353aba61a2ffcb000000.pdf
 Bock C.E., Bock J.H., Kenney W.R. & Hawthorne V.M. (1984) Responses of birds, rodents, and vegetation to livestock exclosure in a semidesert grassland site. Journal of Range Management, 37, pp. 239-242. Available at: https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/jrm/article/view/7711/7323
 Frank, A. S., Dickman, C. R., Wardle, G. M., & Greenville, A. C. (2013). Interactions of grazing history, cattle removal and time since rain drive divergent short-term responses by desert biota. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3713037/
[A] Davis, S. L. (2003). The least harm principle may require that humans consume a diet containing large herbivores, not a vegan diet. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 16(4), pp. 387-394. Available at: https://www.morehouse.edu/facstaff/nnobis/papers/Davis-LeastHarm.htm
[B] Matheny, G. (2003). Least harm: A defense of vegetarianism from Steven Davis’s omnivorous proposal. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 16(5), pp. 505-511. Available at: http://fewd.univie.ac.at/fileadmin/user_upload/inst_ethik_wiss_dialog/Matheny__G._2003_Defense_of_Veg__in_J._Agric_Ethics.pdf