Veganism and harm to animals before harvest

The aim of veganism is to avoid harming animals as much as possible. 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 the animals harmed during clearing land for farms and factories, the animals used to produce manure, fish meal or 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.

Does the fact that living vegan causes some harm to animals 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. It is equivalent to 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 in plant agriculture than in animal agriculture. Authors, such as Mike Archer, argue that a vegan diet causes more suffering than a meat diet, claming that plant growing results in over 25 times more sentient animals being killed per kilogram of useable protein. While he gives some evidence for this, the argument has been thoroughly discredited and we refer you to 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.

Given that animals are currently harmed in plant farming, the solution should be to improve the production of plant foods, which do not have to inherently lead to the killing of other animals. So, as well as not eating animals directly, we should encourage better plant farming practices to reduce this nonessential harm to animals. 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 used widely 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, 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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