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.
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For a discussion of new omnivorism, see Lamey (forthcoming).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For an overview of the current debate, see Visak and Garner (2015).
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.
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.
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.
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Andy Lamey and Bob Fischer—Both authors contributed equally.
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Fischer, B., Lamey, A. Field Deaths in Plant Agriculture. J Agric Environ Ethics 31, 409–428 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-018-9733-8