By S.L. Davis, Department of Animal Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331.
Published in the Proceedings of the Third Congress of the European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics, 2001, pp 440-450.
Although the debate over the moral status of animals has been going on for thousands of years (Shapiro, 2000), there has been a resurgence of interest in this issue in the last quarter of the 20th century. One of the landmark philosophical works of this period was the book by Regan (1983) called “A Case for Animal Rights.”
In that book, Regan concludes that animals do have moral standing, that they are subjects-of-a-life with interests that deserve equal consideration to the same interests in humans, and therefore have the right to live their lives without human interference. As a consequence, he concludes that humans have a moral obligation to consume a vegan (use no animal products) diet and eliminate animal agriculture.
However, production of an all vegan diet also comes at the cost of the lives of many animals, including mice, moles, gophers, pheasants, etc. Therefore, I asked Regan, “What is the morally relevant difference between killing a field mouse (or other animal of the field) so that humans may eat and killing a pig (or chicken, calf or lamb) for the same purpose? Animals must die so that humans may eat, regardless whether they eat a vegan diet or not. So, how are we to choose our food supply in a morally responsible manner?”
Regan’s response could be summarized by what may be called the “Least Harm Principle” or LHP (Regan, Personal Communication). According to LHP, we must choose the food products that, overall, cause the least harm to the least number of animals. The following analysis is an attempt to try to determine what humans should eat if we apply that principle.
Regan’s Vegan Conclusion is Problematic
I find Regan’s response to my question to be problematic for two reasons. The first reason is because it seems to be a philosophical slight of hand for one to turn to a utilitarian defense (LHP) of a challenge to his vegan conclusion which is based on animal rights theory. If the question, “What is the morally relevant difference?” can’t be supported by the animal rights theory, then it seems to me that the animal rights theory must be rejected. Instead, Regan turns to utilitarian theory (which examines consequences of one’s actions) to defend the vegan conclusion.
The second problem I see with his vegan conclusion is that he claims that the least harm would be done to animals if animal agriculture was eliminated. It may certainly be true that fewer animals may be killed if animal agriculture was eliminated, but could the LHP also lead to other alternative conclusions?
Would pasture-based animal agriculture cause least harm?
Animals of the field are killed by several factors, including:
1. Tractors and farm implements run over them.
2. Plows and cultivators destroy underground burrows and kill animals.
3. Removal of the crops (harvest) removes ground cover allowing animals on the surface to be killed by predators.
4. Application of pesticides.
So, every time the tractor goes through the field to plow, disc, cultivate, apply fertilizer and/or pesticide, harvest, etc., animals are killed. And, intensive agriculture such as corn and soybeans (products central to a vegan diet) kills far more animals of the field than would extensive agriculture like forage production, particularly if the forage was harvested by ruminant animals instead of machines. So perhaps fewer animals would be killed by producing beef, lamb, and dairy products for humans to eat instead of the vegan diet envisioned by Regan.
Accurate numbers of mortality aren’t available, but Tew and Macdonald (1993) reported that wood mouse population density in cereal fields dropped from 25/ha preharvest to less than 5/ha postharvest. This decrease was attributed to migration out of the field and to mortality. Therefore, it may be reasonable to estimate mortality of 10 animals/ha in conventional corn and soybean production.
There are 120 million ha of harvested cropland in the US (USDA, 2000). If all of that land was used to produce a plant-based diet, and if 10 animals of the field are killed per ha per year, then 10 x 120 million = 1200 million or 1.2 billion would be killed to produce a vegan diet.
If half of that land (60 million) was converted to forage production and if forage production systems decreased the number of animals of the field killed per year by 50% (5 per year per ha), the number of animals killed would be:
1. 60 million ha of traditional agriculture x 10 animals per ha = 0.6 billion animals killed.
2. 60 million ha of forage production x 5 animals of the field = 0.3 billion.
Therefore, in this hypothetical example, the change to include some forage-based animal agriculture would result in the loss of only 0.9 billion animals of the field instead of 1.2 billion to support a vegan diet. As a result, the LHP would suggest that we are morally obligated to consume a diet of ruminant products, not a vegan diet, because it would result in the death offewer animals of the field.
But what of the ruminant animals that would need to die to feed people?
According to the USDA numbers quoted by Francione (2000), of the 8.4 billion animals killed each year for food in the US, 8 billion of those are poultry and only 41 million are ruminants (cows, calves, sheep, lambs). Even if the numbers of ruminants killed for food each year doubled to replace the 8 billion poultry, the total number of animals that would need to be killed under this alternative would still be fewer (0.9 billion + 82 million = 0.982 billion) than in the vegan alternative (1.2 billion).
In conclusion, applying the Least Harm Principle as proposed by Regan would actually argue that we are morally obligated to move to a ruminant-based diet rather than a vegan diet.
Davis, S.L. 2000. What is the Morally Relevant Difference between the Mouse and the Pig? Pp. 107-109 in the Proceedings of EurSafe 2000; 2nd Congress of the European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics.
Francione, Gary L. 2000. Introduction to Animal Rights: Your child or the dog? Temple UniversityPress. Philadelphia.
Regan, Tom. 1983. A Case for Animal Rights. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Shapiro, L.S. 2000. Applied Animal Ethics, pp. 34-37. Delmar Press.
Tew, T.E. and D.W. Macdonald. 1993. The effects of harvest on arable wood mice. Biological Conservation 65:279-283.
Posted by FFC on July 13th, 2009 :: Filed under Consumers,Education and public awareness,Vegan
Tags :: animal rights, animals, beef, diet, Vegan
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