Animals Killed During Crop Production: Not As Many As You Think

A discussion came up on Facebook recently about the death of small animals, or rodents, during crop production, and how this is a blow against veganism due to its strictly compassionate doctrine (i.e. that by harvesting crops for consumption, animal exploitation is occurring). There are several assumptions being made in that argument, and after some research, I think it falls flat. To clarify, the argument would be something like:

If the doctrine of eating, and living in general, is to maximize the well-being, or decrease the suffering, of the largest number of conscious (or sentient) creatures, then utilizing a model where grains are not harvested and rodents killed, in conjunction with other parameters*, is the most beneficial for all creatures.

*What are these “other parameters?” First, you would need a “lowest-cruelty” food source. Considering that almost all animals raised for food are either exclusively or partially given grains (corn, soy, wheat), a completely grass-fed model would have to be put in place to not use grains for feed, and therefore falling back into the anti-grain argument. This is ultra-rare in the United States, so from a large-scale perspective – which is what we are addressing when looking at mass consumption of common plant-based (vegan) grains like wheat and soy – animals will not be strictly grass fed.

Two other things to consider are that: 1) it is confusing for meat-eaters to make this argument, as most of them by default are not concerned with the well-being of conscious creatures (i.e. they believe is morally acceptable to kill animals for food), and 2) would a high-meat and low-grain diet actually be more compassionate, i.e. resulting in a lower overall number of animals deaths?

According to the research done by Mark Middelton on AnimalVisuals, the answer is no. In his piece “Number of Animals Killed to Produce One Million Calories in Eight Food Categories,” (see infographic above) he references 15 different scholarly articles to conclude that while some animals may be killed during crop production, compared with how many are needed to produce an equivalent number of raw food calories, the compassionate choice is grain, not meat.

The data is astounding: to produce one million calories, approximately 1.65 animals are killed. This figure is based on a few assumptions as well, namely that “a constant estimate of number of animals killed per hectare of annual crops per year [is] 15 animals” and that 0.27 acres of grain can yield one million food calories (based on a Cornell study, #15, cited in his article). When I e-mailed Middleton about this figure, as it seemed so shocking, he replied:

I don’t think that anyone really knows how many animals per hectare are actually killed by harvesting equipment. There have only been a few studies done that I’m aware of, with very small sample sizes, and not very conclusive results. If the studies indicate anything, it’s that very few animals are actually killed by harvesting equipment.

It doesn’t really matter what this number turns out to actually be, I think the point is that more animals will be killed in harvesting to produce meat calories than to produce the same number of grain calories, because you have to grow much more grain to feed to the animals being raised.

So, I think two things emerge: more research in multiple geographic locations needs to be done on the number of animals being killed in crop production (as well as how to minimize or eliminate that “collateral damage”), and that a vegan diet, compared to one using meat or dairy, will result in less animal suffering and death.

Now, if ethically you are not concerned with the well-being of conscious creatures, preserving sentience, etc. then this will do little to sway you. The problems with Speciesism are very real (see “Breast Milk Dairy…“), but that’s an inquiry for another time. What I believe is that the data presented here should put to rest the argument that veganism is somehow flawed due to animals killed during the crop production for grains that vegans eat.

  • Jimmy

    great points sam. fact is we can’t do everything. i find myself wanting the all or nothing idea far too often. less suffering and death is better than continuing the same and sometimes that’s the best we can do.

    • Sam

      Thanks! Yep, not about perfection, but lessening the suffering.

  • Kjellyn Peterson

    I would think then, that the logical conclusion then is that the most ethical people in terms of minimizing suffering and being conscious of what they eat and minimal impact on environment are those who grow their own food in their own vegetable gardens, and can enough for the winter, and hunters who eat free roaming animals and small farmers who let their animals out to pasture. So basically, people who live like the Amish. I spent a good amount of time on Amish farms. They pretty much produce almost all of their own food, aside from a few staples like the sugar they use in their baking. When they plow their fields they do it the old-fashioned way, with a horse drawn plow that is quite slow and less devastating – this gives many animals time to get out of the way of its path. They also don’t own enormous farms, usually just enough to provide for their families and maybe a bit extra to sell. Their cows go out to pasture all day to graze, and are hand milked. Their chickens run free in the yard. They slaughter their own animals, but they respect them and they have good lives up until that point. They don’t waste anything. I do not think the most ethical diet or lifestyle is that of the urban vegan (which is most vegans) with their three cats or dogs (to whom they feed food made from the carcasses of factory farmed animals) – because they’re such animal lovers, who has no idea what goes into the production of their food. It is delusional to think that many animals are killed only once when land is first claimed for agricultural and not yearly in the plowing and harvesting process. My parents had a good sized back yard but it was less than an acre in size, and in that yard alone there was always more than one rabbit’s nest. We tried to spot them and mark them so we would avoid them when mowing but without fail there were always some mangled baby bunnies that turned up at some point – simply from mowing the lawn. In large scale crop farming, no one goes out marking bunny nests ahead of time, and then avoiding them. And if we had at least three bunnies nests that we knew of per year in our yard, I can only imagine how many nests are found in a crop field every year. And that’s just rabbits, I am not even thinking about all the kinds of rodents and other creatures.