Vegan Diets and the ‘Cruelty-Free’ Commute

The Humane Society of the United States published a new video online this week, showing HSUS vice president John Grandy and a gaggle of other HSUS staffers emptying a forest of all its animals. On camera (natch), they’re all busily moving wildlife—frogs, rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels, and the like—from a patch of woods near HSUS’s Maryland office building to another area. Why? Because a new freeway interchange will soon be built there.

And good for them, we suppose. There’s something admirable about saving Kermit and Thumper from a future date with the bulldozer. But it does raise an interesting question: If HSUS cares enough about every last hop-toad, garter snake, and chipmunk to re-home countless woodland critters, how come the animals’ brothers and sisters on U.S. soybean and broccoli farms don’t rate the same sort of sympathy?

For a variety of reasons, vegans (including those who run HSUS) hate the idea of killing animals for food. The biggest reason, though, is because they’ve convinced themselves it’s unnecessary—that the human race can survive nicely without imposing any casualties on the animal kingdom. This is why HSUS big-shots like Wayne Pacelle, Michael Greger, and Paul Shapiro will never dine on veal scaloppini: Even if the veal calves in question were raised at the Ritz-Carlton, vegan evangelists seem to think a diet of lentils and tofu is “kinder.”

Nonsense.

A dietary “no-kill” philosophy may be compelling in theory, but it runs into a logical brick wall in practice. Farmers simply can’t grow soy, alfalfa, wheat, and all the other vegan-friendly food crops without killing countless animals. Countless living, breathing creatures are routinely cut down on conventional and organic farms alike, losing life and limb to plows, tractors, combines, pickers, mowers, gins, threshers, and all manner of other equipment that most of us never see.

Here’s a challenge for HSUS’s videographers: Put a camera on the business end of a John Deere wheat combine for a week, and see how much blood the machine sheds.

Oregon State University animal science professor Steven Davis first wrote in 2002 that harvesting crops to feed vegans kills millions of animals. Research determined, for example, that mowing an alfalfa field killed up to half of the resident vole population. Feeding an all-vegan America, it turns out, would still require the deaths of billions of animals every year.

It’s for this reason that a vegan diet, by Davis’ calculation, fails the “Least Harm Principle.”  Instead, he writes, we should eat larger animals instead of smaller ones and let them forage pastures. (Think grass-fed beef and dairy.) This would actually reduce the total number of animals killed annually in our food system by 300 million, when compared with a vegan diet.

Davis’ analysis probably has some limitations, but his point is worth thinking about: Animals must ultimately die for people to live. There’s no getting around it, even though it upsets simplistic philosophies like those of HSUS and other animal rights groups.

The noted vegan philosopher Tom Regan is having none of this, but his moral high ground is a bit quicksandy. “The real question,” Regan says, “is whether to support production systems whose very reason for existence is to kill animals. Meat eaters do. Ethical vegetarians do not.”

Of course, this is nonsensical hyperbole. If dairy farmers solely existed to kill cows, milk wouldn’t exist. And why should people’s intentions be more important to a vegan than how many animals die? Is the gruesome death of a free-range field mouse in a soybean harvester really preferable to the slaughter of a pastured cow?

Which brings us back to those woodland creatures in the new HSUS video. Just as daily nourishment is a fact of life, the hour-long commute (at least for those who live near our nation’s capital) has joined the proverbial “death and taxes” in the triumvirate of the undeniable.

Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, people gotta eat, and rush hour’s gotta suck. (And mosquitoes gotta hit the windshield too, we suppose.)

The last time we checked, HSUS’s “factory fundraising” headquarters had a good-sized parking lot. Which means that Grandy and the rest of his forest-clearing posse are just as responsible as the rest of us for the unintended consequences (to animals) of our growing highway system.

Wouldn’t it be nice if they stopped pretending they were above it all?

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Posted on 08/05/2010 at 11:58 pm by humanewatch.

Topics: Animal AgricultureWildlife

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  • So, Tom Regan must be a democrat. More worried about feel good policy, making an effort to support businesses whose “intentions are good” versus supporting businesses whose actions result in less bloodshed.

    And that’s why the road to Hell and Oz are both paved with gold, because you’re either in La-La land or you’re an evil person trying to pretend you’re good.

  • What does this have to do with vegans? It’s livestock that are eating most of the grain.

    • Benjamin Buehne

      It would seem that the article actually addresses this by advocating a more free range approach because grass fed cows are not eating the moles and whatnot like machines would. 😉

      • Valerie Wilkins

        While the articles DOES mention the “free range grass fed cow” idea, that is currently NOT the case in US “factory farms”.
        The way things are AT PRESENT is that eating animals actually INCREASES
        “bulldozer” killings.
        I HOPE the day isn’t too far off when most people will be eating “lab meat.”
        That would REALLY save both farm animals AND animals that are currently being bulldozed!

  • Kate

    This is a very odd article. It seems to ignore the sustainability argument for vegetarianism and veganism, which is that the same area of land farmed for beef is much less efficient than if it is farmed for, say, soya, in terms of the number of people it will feed. While the life of a mouse may matter – in a spiritual or ethical sense – as much as that of a cow, its environmental footprint is minute in comparison. Cruelty is a good reason for veganism but not the only reason.

    On the upside, I think it is important to think through the consequences of any ethical principle. If you choose fake fur, rather than real fur, you need to be aware of the petrochemical resources it uses which are hardly eco-friendly. Huge mono-culture farms that ravage the local ecology and native wild animal populations are not the best way to underpin a humane lifestyle. However, I think there are smaller-scale, organic farming options (maybe more common outside of the US?) that may have much less impact on animal life, and some specifically integrate wildlife refuge areas into their design.

    This article also seems to assume that vegetarians and vegans never think through these things. I would suggest that they do. I think it is always important to raise concerns about major inconsistencies in ethical practices (like clearing forest to farm crops for bio-diesel, or shipping components for low-emission cars all over the world) but I never think the answer is simply not to bother. When some environmental scandal breaks (like materials sorted for recycling being diverted to landfill) there are always people who say “See! See! This green stuff is all LIES”, whereas I tend to think this is reason for greater accountability, greater transparency and time to try harder and to do more. I don’t think the fact that we cannot eradicate human-based animal fatalities is reason not to try to *reduce* our impact on the natural and animal world.

    I’m not a vegetarian, by the way. Not completely – yet. My partner has been for over 20 years and I think I need to join him. But we will do so with our eyes open.

    • A. Antoine

      How is “organic farming” more eco-friendly?

      • Dara Nicole Boyd-Galleguillos

        Is that an honest question…?

        • Kevmo

          He has a valid point. The legal definition of “organic” still allows serious ecological and environmental damage. Just using specific types of pesticides doesn’t mean you’re not still killing animals by the thousands with every crop.

  • Ron Cohen

    .. I don’t know. Clearly, there are animals getting killed by agriculture. For the moment there is no solution that won’t kill SOMETHING.

    But vegetarian consumers accompany not only the IDEAL to avoid animal death, but also an economic incentive for producers to develop the means to accomplish the animal friendly agriculture of tomorrow.

    In a society with meat eaters, who will ever bother?

  • Dara Nicole Boyd-Galleguillos

    Wow. You make vegans/vegetarians seem very empty headed.

  • Cassandra

    You highlight mistaken bouts of ego while missing the entire point which is kindness.

    • Kevmo

      And how is it kinder to slaughter 300 million *more* animals?

    • Kevmo

      Just how is killing 300 million MORE animals per year “kind?”