Veganism and harm to animals before harvest

The aim of veganism is to avoid harming animals as much as possible. One of the main ways to do this is by eating and wearing products derived from plants rather than animals. However, due to common agricultural practices currently in use, the growing of some plant products involves animals being harmed at some stage before harvest. These can be animals harmed during clearing land for farms and factories, animals used to produce the manure, fish meal and blood and bone used as fertiliser, insects killed by pesticides, other 'pest' animals killed to protect crops and animals such as mice harmed by harvesting machines. In addition, some commercial crops are fertilised by bees owned and transported by bee keepers.

The fact is that, at present, living a vegan lifestyle causes some harm to animals. But does this invalidate the principle that we should avoid hurting others wherever we can? Since we can not be "perfect", is there any point in trying at all? This view is clearly illogical. The secondary deaths due to plant farming in no way excuse the deliberate killing of over half a billion farmed animals in Australia for food every year. We must always do our best. This view, that since we can not avoid all harm then we should not try to do better, is like claiming that since we may not be able to reduce the number of road traffic accidents to zero, then we should stop trying to make the roads safer.

Another issue is whether more animals are harmed by a plant-only diet than by a diet which includes animal products. Authors, such as Mike Archer, argue that a vegan diet causes more suffering than a meat diet, claiming that plant growing results in over 25 times more sentient animals being killed per kilogram of usable protein. While he gives some evidence for this, the argument has been thoroughly discredited and we refer you to the links listed at the end of this article.

In any case, a huge volume of crops is grown to feed farmed animals. In Australia, farmed animals consume more crops than humans, eating twice as much grain as people. Just like plant foods grown for human consumption, the production of these feed crops also harms animals. So, by eating plants directly, rather than feeding them to animals whom we then eat, there would be fewer acres of land under cultivation and so less incidental harm to animals.

The production of animal products inherently involves the suffering and death of animals, whereas in plant farming it is not a necessary part of the process. To solve the issue of animals being harmed in plant farming, we should encourage better plant farming practices to reduce this nonessential harm to animals. This is in addition to not eating animals directly. There are alternative methods of farming, such as veganics and stock-free farming, that try to address some of the issues, by using green manures, companion planting, encouraging natural pest control, more use of netting, etc. Other ways to protect animals could be the introduction of improved planting and harvesting methods. See this excellent video on veganics:

These alternative methods of farming are not yet widely used and do not yet produce enough food to feed a vegan world. Also, most plant products are sold as commodities and so it is very difficult to trace them back to the source to check how they were grown. Finally, information about which plant products cause less harm to animals is not yet widely known. It may be that, for example, millet causes less harm than rice and so we should tend to eat more millet.

All this means that currently vegans must eat plant foods that were grown in ways that may have caused harm to animals. This is unfortunate but unavoidable and is consistent with the principle that we should try the best we can to cause the least harm possible.

As Gary Francione says: "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." (See in comments here.)

Vegans avoid directly consuming animal products, avoid products tested on animals and check that animal products were not used in the production process after harvest. In general, they currently do not insist on absolutely no animal use before harvest. This is because, at the moment, it is not practicable to avoid all harm occurring before harvest and still provide enough plant food for all. However, many vegans will avoid cases where the harm caused to animals before harvest is well publicised or widespread, such as harm caused to orangutans due to palm oil plantations and the integral use of animals on traditional biodynamic farms.

In the future, when veganic methods of agriculture become more widespread, vegans will begin to insist on food grown using farming techniques that cause as little harm to animals as possible.

Links

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