Contrasting Harms: Vegan Agriculture versus Animal Agriculture

In last week’s essay about veganism as the moral baseline, I promised to address the anti-animal rights claim that since 1) vegans consume grains, soybeans, corn, and other crops, and 2) crop production causes field animals to die, that 3) vegans cause animal deaths, and 4) are therefore violating the rights of animals.

Before I address the related issues of the nature of rights (human or nonhuman), prima facie duties, conflicting rights, the principles of least harm and double effect, intended purposes, foreseen consequences, and how these issues interact with crop production deaths, I would like to assess and compare the harms done to animals under vegan and animal systems of agriculture. Because both of these topics (i.e. so-called rights “violations” and respective harms) are somewhat lengthy, I will break the discussion into two essays. This essay, as its title suggests, will discuss respective harms done by vegan versus animal agriculture. The next essay will discuss the so-called rights “violations” which animal exploitation advocates accuse vegans of.

Amusingly (from a human psychology standpoint), animal exploitation advocates kick up much righteous and defensive dust over this rights “violation” claim on Internet forums and elsewhere, as if it provides them with a toehold of moral ground to condemn animal rights advocates and, for themselves, take a permanent moral holiday with respect to our obligations toward animals, particularly our obligation to be vegan. If you pay them enough in public relation consulting fees, the most dishonest exploitation advocates will even go as far as to dig up an old and refuted study about how – “paradoxically” – intentionally killing more animals actually saves more animals, and publish it without publishing the related successful refutation. Indeed, the sleazy front group for the promotion of the special interests of the tobacco, alcohol, meat, dairy, and egg industries, misleadingly named “Center for Consumer Freedom” (“CCF”), posted such an article on their website as recently as April 3, 2007. The article was about a 2003 article entitled “Least Harm” written by Oregon State University animal science professor, Steven Davis, and published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, which, as CCF put it “suggests that switching to a food system dominated by beef and dairy would save the lives of 300 million more animals annually than switching to a vegan system.”

Really? A system dominated by “beef and dairy” would save 300 million more lives than a vegan system? How counterintuitive; who would have guessed at such an odd state of affairs?

To be fair, Steven Davis never put it the way CCF did above; and where we properly assume Davis made honest errors (as we will see below), CCF’s failure to mention the well-known rebuttal leaves us wondering not only about CCF’s positive inclination to plainly defraud the public, but also about their stupidity in the attempt.

Least Harm

Steven Davis argued that the number of wild field animals killed in pasture-based animal agriculture is less than the number of wild field animals killed in crop agriculture (due primarily to machine tilling and harvesting); therefore, according to the least harm principle central to most, if not all, ethical thought, we should adopt a diet of ruminant products (e.g. cows, sheep, and dairy) rather than a vegan diet.

Davis’s “Least Harm” article was immediately and successfully refuted in 2003 by Gaverick Matheny at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. Matheny’s article, which also appeared in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, challenged Davis’s claims on three counts: “first, Davis makes a mathematical error in using total rather than per capita estimates of animals killed; second, he focuses on the number of animals killed in production and ignores the welfare of these animals; and third, he does not count the number of animals who may be prevented from existing.” Of Matheny’s three objections, the third one is an objection on utilitarian grounds, and therefore, for purposes of discussing deontological rights, the first two of his objections are of primary relevance.

Since Matheny’s article is linked above for those who are interested, I will spare the casual reader the details and references of Matheny’s accurate and successful rebuttal and go on to his conclusion on the first objection: “to obtain the 20 kilograms of protein per year recommended for adults, a vegan-vegetarian would kill 0.3 wild animals annually, a lacto-vegetarian would kill 0.39 wild animals, while a Davis-style omnivore would kill 1.5 wild animals. Thus, correcting for Davis’s math, we see that a vegan-vegetarian population would kill the fewest number of wild animals, followed closely by a lacto-vegetarian population.”

It should be noted here that Matheny’s calculation is referring ONLY to wild animals (i.e. only those animals inadvertently killed in crop land or pasture). A “lacto-vegetarian” population would, as a practical and economic matter, kill significantly more total animals, including ruminants, than a vegan population since 1) vegans don’t kill ruminants, and 2) ruminants, like humans, do not produce milk without being pregnant, which would lead to a massive glut of unusable male calves and “spent” dairy cows which have outlasted their lacto-productivity, a productivity ending several years before their life expectancy terminates. As the old saw goes, there’s a little veal in every glass of milk. The dairy industry is economically dependent on the slaughter industry. So, when we account for the “disposal” of the excess ruminants, we see that a “lacto-vegetarian” population moves away from the vegan population and closer to the Davis-style omnivore population in terms of all animals killed (not just wild field animals), and the vegan population, killing no ruminants, not only kills the fewest wild field animals but stands further alone in killing the fewest total animals.

Matheny’s second objection addresses the differences in welfare and quality of life between crop and ruminant production: “In comparing the harms caused by crop and ruminant production, we should compare the treatment of, say, a wild mouse up until his or her death in a harvester, with that of a grass-fed cow. The wild mouse lives free of confinement and is able to practice natural habits like roaming, breeding, and foraging. In contrast, the grass-fed cow, while able to roam some distance in a fenced pasture, may suffer third degree burns (branding), have holes punched in his ears (tagging), be castrated, have his horns scooped out of his head (dehorning),…” Matheny goes on to describe the cow’s transportation “up to several hundred miles without food, water, or protection from extreme heat or cold; then he is killed in a conventional slaughterhouse. The conditions of slaughterhouses have been described elsewhere (Eisnitz, 1997). Suffice it to say, it is hard to imagine that the pain experienced by a mouse as he or she is killed in a harvester compares to the pain even a grass-fed cow must endure before being killed.” Matheny goes on to properly conclude those principally concerned with the treatment of animals, rather than simply the number of deaths, have more reason to go vegan.

Matheny’s third objection is a utilitarian-based objection which concludes that a vegan population allows more animals with lives worth living to exist than any non-vegan population; a desirable condition, indeed, but not a necessary condition under an animal rights view.

In the end, Matheny correctly concludes that “When we correct for these errors, Davis’s argument makes a strong case for, rather than against, adopting a vegetarian diet: vegetarianism kills fewer animals, involves better treatment of animals, and likely allows a greater number of animals with lives worth living to exist.”

Case closed.

Other Considerations

What the Davis article and Matheny refutation does not address is the more than 10 billion land animals we actually slaughter for food annually, of which more than 9 billion are chickens, and which works out to about 33.3 animals per non-vegan annually, [1] PLUS the animals killed by harvesters to feed both humans and “food” animals, which we can estimate at least another 1.5 animals per non-vegan annually, for a total of at least 34.8 animals per non-vegan annually, compared to the estimated 0.3 of an animal per vegan annually. By going vegan, we avoid ALL (100%) of the animals intentionally slaughtered to feed ourselves and over 99% of all animals killed, intentionally or as a regrettable and unintended side-effect.

Need we say more about contrasting the harms of vegan versus animal agriculture? No, it is very clear that the contrast in harms is an extremely stark one, with the actual deaths currently caused by non-vegans quantitatively greater by 116 times the number of deaths caused by vegans, [2] and the harms caused by non-vegans in terms of welfare and quality of life qualitatively unimaginably greater than the harms caused by vegans.

The next essay will address how this information and other considerations, such as intentional acts and foreseen consequences, relate to animal rights and veganism as a moral baseline.


Eisnitz, G. A., Slaughterhouse (Prometheus Books, New York, 1997)


[1] 10 billion animals divided by the population of American non-vegans estimated at 300 million (these statistics are fairly easy to obtain, verify, or compile by searching on the Internet)

[2] Deaths caused annually per person: 34.8 for non-vegans divided by 0.3 for vegans.

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