Skip to main content

Field Deaths in Plant Agriculture


We know that animals are harmed in plant production. Unfortunately, though, we know very little about the scale of the problem. This matters for two reasons. First, we can’t decide how many resources to devote to the problem without a better sense of its scope. Second, this information shortage throws a wrench in arguments for veganism, since it’s always possible that a diet that contains animal products is complicit in fewer deaths than a diet that avoids them. In this paper, then, we have two aims: first, we want to collect and analyze all the available information about animal death associated with plant agriculture; second, we try to show just how difficult it’s to come up with a plausible estimate of how many animals are killed by plant agriculture, and not just because of a lack of empirical information. Additionally, we show that there are significant philosophical questions associated with interpreting the available data—questions such that different answers generate dramatically different estimates of the scope of the problem. Finally, we document current trends in plant agriculture that cause little or no collateral harm to animals, trends which suggest that field animal deaths are a historically contingent problem that in future may be reduced or eliminated altogether.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Similar content being viewed by others



  2. Singer (1975), Regan (1983), McMahan (2002), Cochrane (2012).

  3. Protection-based arguments for meat-eating not only flourish in the philosophical literature (Davis 2003; Schedler 2005; Meyers 2013; Bruckner 2015), but have been promulgated in The New York Times and other notable media outlets (Pollan 2002; Corliss 2002).

  4. For a discussion of new omnivorism, see Lamey (forthcoming).

  5. Singleton et al. note that while mouse plagues have been reported in China they occur primarily in Australia, particularly south and eastern Australia, and are rare in Western Australia and Tasmania (2005: 619–20). According to the Australian Government, “The majority of Australian wheat is sold overseas with Western Australia the largest exporting state. The major export markets are in the Asian and Middle East regions… Wheat grown for domestic consumption and feedstock is predominantly produced on the east coast” (Australian Government: 2017). This suggests that Archer’s analysis pertains primarily to Australians, but nevertheless remains important.

  6. This study aggregates and generalizes from US data, so that’s further reason to take the estimate seriously. It’s, of course, a bit odd to take such a circuitous route to this number, but since we aren’t aware of a paper that aggregates all this information for the US specifically, the circuitousness is unavoidable here.

  7. This 6% figure is high, but we don’t know by how much. The report says that agricultural deaths were due to insecticides, fertilizers and “manure-silage” (9). The glossary clarifies that this third category should be understood as “manure drainage, ensilage liquors, or feedlot operations” (77). Both ensilage liquors (liquids that leak from silage; i.e., what’s fed to cattle, sheep, etc.) and feedlot operations aren’t part of plant agriculture, but just given their relative sizes, it seems implausible that they account for a significant portion of the harm footprint. So we need to hedge a bit here.

  8. Among the known unknowns, consider the death tolls associated with less prominent crops, such as pecans and leafy greens, consider the death tolls associated with alternative production environments, such as greenhouses, and consider the death tolls associated with parts of the farm other than the fields, such as rodent problems in barns, which are often managed using cats and sticky traps.

  9. These numbers are not meant to represent the total number of animals killed to provide meat. Plainly, to generate that estimate we would need to factor in all the animals that are killed in plant agriculture to produce feed crops for farmed animals. However, our goal here is simply to draw attention to the significance of over seven billion animals being killed in plant agriculture.

  10. We owe this point to Animal Liberation South Australia (2014c). For additional empirical criticisms of Archer by Australian animal rights advocates see Animal Liberation South Australia (2014a, b) and All Animals Australia (2014).

  11. This seems plausible even if it turns out that our actions don’t make any difference to the total number of wild animals that die. After all, it seems unlikely that the predators who kill exposed field animals would go hungry otherwise; if that prey weren’t available, they would probably just kill other animals in other locations. But on the assumption that intervening can create responsibility, and our interventions influence which animals end up dying, our hands don’t seem to be clean.

  12. As Brian Tomasik pointed out to us, almost all the creatures in Pearse’s study were mites and springtails, which aren't in the class Insecta. So, we are simply using "insects" here as shorthand for the wide range of small invertebrates that are affected by our agricultural practices.

  13. For an overview of the current debate, see Visak and Garner (2015).

  14. We say that we "might" generate such an estimate because this number assumes a number of stances on the choice points discussed earlier, each of which requires defense.

  15. Arguments that do require a particular estimate have a better shot at working if they attempt to defend eating animals that haven't been fed grain and other crops, since they won't have to factor in all the field animals killed to provide feed for those farmed animals.

  16. This isn’t to suggest that there are no other costs to no-till and conservation tillage: they do tend to use more herbicides, which may offset any gains for animal populations. But based on the data surveyed above, it seems fairly clear that deaths due to herbicides are going to be a relatively small portion of the total deaths associated with plant agriculture.


  • Albers, P. H., Linder, G., & Nichols, J. D. (1990). Effects of tillage practices and carbofuran exposure on small mammals. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 54(1), 135–142.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • All Animals Australia. (2014). Debunking ordering the vegetarian meal? There’s more animal blood on your hands. All Animals Australia.

  • American Bird Conservancy. (2017). Protect birds from pesticides.

  • Animal Liberation South Australia. (2014a). Archer’s dodgy claims I … health advice.” Animal Liberation South Australia. Accessed 26 Sept.

  • Animal Liberation South Australia. (2014b). Archer’s dodgy claims II … land use.” Animal Liberation South Australia. Accessed 26 Sept.

  • Animal Liberation South Australia. (2014c). Archer’s dodgy claims III … mouse deaths. Animal Liberation South Australia. Accessed 26 Sept.

  • Archer, M. (2011a). Slaughter of the singing sentients: Measuring the morality of eating red meat. Australian Zoologist, 35(4), 979.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Archer, M. (2011b). Ordering the vegetarian meal? There’s more animal blood on your hands. The Conversation. Accessed 25 Sept.

  • Australian Export Grains Innovation Centre. (2016). Australian grain production—A snapshot. Accessed 22 August.

  • Australian Government: Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. (2017). Wheat. Accessed 25 September.

  • Bollinger, E., Bollinger, P. B., & Gavin, T. A. (1990). Effects of hay-cropping on eastern populations of the bobolink. Wildlife Society Bulletin (1973–2006), 18(2), 142–150.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bruckner, D. (2015). Strict vegetarianism is immoral. In B. Bramble & B. Fischer (Eds.), The moral complexities of eating meat. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cahoone, L. (2009). Hunting as a moral good. Environmental Values, 18, 67–89.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Calvert, A., Bishop, C., Elliot, R., Krebs, E., Kydd, T., Machtans, C., et al. (2013). A synthesis of human-related avian mortality in Canada. Avian Conservation and Ecology, 8(2), 1–18.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Carruthers, P. (2007). Invertebrate minds: A challenge for ethical theory. The Journal of Ethics, 11, 275–297.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Castrale, J. S. (1985). Responses of wildlife to various tillage conditions. Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference (USA), 50, 142–156.

    Google Scholar 

  • Caughley, J., Bomford, M., Parker, B., Sinclair, R., Griffiths, J., & Kelly, D. (1998). Managing vertebrate pests: Rodents. Canberra: Bureau of Resource Sciences.

    Google Scholar 

  • 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), 95–99.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cholbi, M. (2017). The Euthanasia of companion animals. In C. Overall (Ed.), Pets and People: The Ethics of our Relationships with Companion Animals (pp. 264–278). Oxford University Press.

  • Cochrane, A. (2012). Animal rights without liberation: Applied ethics and human obligations. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Corliss, R. (2002). Should we all be vegetarians? Time.

  • 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), 387–394.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Elder, M., & Fischer, B. (2017) Focus on Fish: A Call to Effective Altruists. Essays in Philosophy.

    Google Scholar 

  • Elvers, B. (Ed.). (2017). Ullmann’s food and feed (Vol. 2). Weinheim: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  • Environmental Protection Agency. (1975). Fish kills caused by pollution: Fifteen-year summary 1961–1975. Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fagerstone, K. A., & Ramey, C. A. (1996). Rodents and lagomorphs. In P. R. Kausmann (Ed.), Range wildlife. Denver, CO: The Society of Range Management.

    Google Scholar 

  • Flegenheimer, M. (2013). As rats escape death, MTA turns to sterilization. New York: The New York Times.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fleharty, E. D., & Navo, K. W. (1983). Irrigated cornfields as habitat for small mammals in the sandsage prairie region of Western Kansas. Journal of Mammalogy, 64(3), 367–379.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Getz, L. L., & Brighty, E. (1986). Potential effects of small mammals in high-intensity agricultural systems in east-central Illinois, USA. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 15(1), 39–50.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gianessi, L. (2014). Importance of herbicides for no-till agriculture in South America. Washington, DC: Croplife Foundation.

  • Horta, O. (2010). Debunking the idyllic view of natural processes: Population dynamics and suffering in the wild. Telos, 17, 73–88.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jacob, J., & Hempel, N. (2003). Effects of farming practices on spatial behaviour of common voles. Journal of Ethology, 21(1), 67.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jensen, R. A., Wisz, M. S., & Madsen, J. (2008). Prioritizing refuge sites for migratory geese to alleviate conflicts with agriculture. Biological Conservation, 141(7), 1806–1818.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Johnson, D. R. (1987). Effect of alternative tillage systems on rodent density in the palouse region. Northwest Science, 61(1), 37–40.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kertész, Á., & Madarász, B. (2014). Conservation agriculture in Europe. International Soil and Water Conservation Research, 2(1), 91–96.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Klein, C., & Barron, A. (2016). Insects have the capacity for subjective experience. Animal Sentience9(1).

  • Lamey, A. (2007). Food fight! Davis versus regan on the ethics of eating beef. Journal of Social Philosophy, 38(2), 331–348.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lamey, A. (forthcoming). Duty and the beast: Should we eat animals in the name of animal rights? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • MacDonald, F. (2015). This indoor farm is 100 times more productive than outdoor fields. ScienceAlert.

  • Marcelis, L. F. M., & Hemming, S. (2013). Greenhouse production in The Netherlands. Resource: Engineering & Technology of a Sustainable World, 20(2), 14.

    Google Scholar 

  • McLeod, R. (2004). Counting the cost: Impact of invasive animals in Australia, 2004. Canberra: Cooperative Research Centre for Pest Animal Control.

    Google Scholar 

  • McMahan, J. (2002). The ethics of killing: Problems at the margins of life. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Meyers, C. D. (2013). Why it’s morally good to eat (certain kinds of) meat: The case for entomophagy. Southwest Philosophy Review, 29(1), 119–126.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mineau, P. (2010). Avian mortality from pesticides used in agriculture in Canada. Ottawa: Report: Science and Technology Branch, Environment Canada.

    Google Scholar 

  • Molteni, M. (2017). NYC’s newest weapon against the rats? Sterilization. Wired. Accessed 13 June 2018.

  • Nass, R. D., Hood, G. A., & Lindsey, G. D. (1971). Fate of polynesian rats in hawaiian sugarcane fields during harvest. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 35(2), 353–356.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • New South Wales Government: Department of Primary Industries. (2017). Mouse biology.

  • Ng, Y.-K. (1995). Towards welfare biology: Evolutionary economics of animal consciousness and suffering. Biology and Philosophy, 10, 255–285.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nilsson, L., Bunnefeld, N., Persson, J., & Månsson, J. (2016). Large grazing birds and agriculture—Predicting field use of common cranes and implications for crop damage prevention. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 219(Supplement C), 163–170.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pearse, A. S. (1946). Observations on the microfauna of the Duke forest. Ecological Monographs, 16, 127–150.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pech, R., Hood, G., Singleton, G., Salmon, E., Forrester, R., & Brown, P. (1999). Models for predicting plagues of house mice (Mus Domesticus) in Australia. In G. R. Singleton, L. A. Hinds, H. Leirs & Z. Zhang (Eds.), Ecologically-based management of rodent pests (pp. 81–112). Canberra: Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pinkert, M., Meerbeek, J., Scholten, G., & Jenks, J. (2002). Impact of crop harvest on small mammal populations in brookings county, South Dakota. Proceedings of the South Dakota Academy of Science, 81, 39–45.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pollan, M. (2002). An animal’s place. New York: The New York Times.

    Google Scholar 

  • Regan, T. (1983). The case for animal rights. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sabrosky, C. W. (1952). How many insects are there? In Insects: The yearbook of Agriculture. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Dept. of Agriculture

  • Schedler, G. (2005). Does ethical meat eating maximize utility? Social Theory and Practice, 31(4), 499–511.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schwer, L. (2011). Small mammal populations in switchgrass stands managed for biomass production compared to hay and corn fields in Kentucky. Master’s. Lexington: University of Kentucky.

    Google Scholar 

  • Singer, P. (1975). Animal liberation. New York: The New York Review of Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Singleton, G. R., Brown, P. R., Pech, R. P., Jacob, J., Mutze, G. J., & Krebs, C. J. (2005). One hundred years of eruptions of house mice in australia—A natural biological curio. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 84(3), 617–627.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smart Floating Farms. (2017). Smart floating farms.

  • Solomon, M. (2016). The final days of hawaiian sugar. NPR.Org. Accessed 26 Sept.

  • Strasser, A.-R. (2014). The weird and wonderful world of indoor farming. ThinkProgress. Accessed 26 Sept.

  • Tew, T. E., & Macdonald, D. W. (1993). The effects of harvest on arable wood mice apodemus sylvaticus. Biological Conservation, 65(3), 279–283.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tomasik, B. (2015). The importance of wild animal suffering. Relations, 3(2), 133–152.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tye, M. (2017). Tense Bees and Shell-Shocked Crabs. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • UCLA. (1994). UCLA animal care and use training manual. NewYork: UCLA Office for the Protection of Research Subjects.

    Google Scholar 

  • USDA. (2013). Fertilizer use and price.

  • USDA. (2014). Pesticide use in U.S. agriculture: 21 Selected crops, 19602008.

  • Visak, T., & Garner, R. (2015). The ethics of killing animals. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Wegner, J., & Merriam, G. (1990). Use of spatial elements in a farmland mosaic by a woodland rodent. Biological Conservation, 54(3), 263–276.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wang, F. K.-H. (2016). Hawaii’s last sugar plantation finishes its final harvest. NBC News. Accessed 26 Sept.

  • Warburton, D. B., & Klimstra, W. D. (1984). Wildlife use of no-till and conventionally tilled corn fields. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 39(5), 327–330.

    Google Scholar 

  • White, J., Hoskins, K., & Wilson, J. (1998). The control of rodent damage in Australian macadamia orchards by manipulation of adjacent non-crop habitats. Crop Protection, 17(4), 353–357.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Witmer, G. (2007). The ecology of vertebrate pests and integrated pest management (IPM). USDA National Wildlife Research Center—Staff Publications, Paper 730. Available at

  • Young, R. (1984). Response of small mammals to no-till agriculture in southwestern Iowa. M.S. Thesis, Ames: University of Iowa.

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Bob Fischer.

Additional information

Andy Lamey and Bob Fischer—Both authors contributed equally.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Fischer, B., Lamey, A. Field Deaths in Plant Agriculture. J Agric Environ Ethics 31, 409–428 (2018).

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: