The Myth of the 'Ethical Vegan'

Veganism dates back to 1944, when British Vegan Society co-founder Donald Watson coined the term to mean “non-dairy vegetarian.” The Society expanded the definition in 1951 to state that “man should live without exploiting animals.” Vegans eschew animal products in food, clothing, household products, or for any other reason.

There are a variety of reasons why people “go vegan.” Some simply don’t like the taste of meat. Some claim veganism is “green,” and that a vegan lifestyle minimizes impact on the environment.

In 1997, a survey revealed three percent of the people in the U.S. claimed that they had not used animals for any purpose in the previous two years. Rutgers School of Law professor Gary Francione argued in 2010 that “all sentient beings should have at least one right -- the right not to be treated as property.”

Do ethical vegans live up to this stated standard? Do their actions live up to their own stated ethical principle, that animals have the right not to be treated as property? Do their actions really result in zero animal use? The parallel in human terms would be slavery, which no rational person thinks is ethically acceptable. Slaves are the property of masters; they live and die at their owner’s sufferance.

Unfortunately for the ethical vegan, the production of their food alone reduces their claim to impossibility. Animals are killed in untold millions, in the course of plant agriculture. Some are killed accidentally in the course of mechanized farming; some are killed deliberately in the course of pest control. Animals are killed, every day. Every potato, every stick of celery, every cup of rice, and every carrot has a blood trail leading from field to plate.

In 1999, while researching and writing Misplaced Compassion, I ran into a rice farmer who posted the following first-hand account on a Usenet forum:

[A] conservative annualized estimate of vertebrate deaths in organic rice farming is ~20 pound. ... [T]his works out a bit less than two vertebrate deaths per square foot, and, again, is conservative. For conventionally grown rice, the gross body-count is at least several times that figure. ... [W]hen cutting the rice, there is a (visual) green waterfall of frogs and anoles moving in front of the combine. Sometimes the "waterfall" is just a gentle trickle (± 10,000 frogs per acre) crossing the header, total for both cuttings, other times it is a deluge (+50,000 acre).

My own family was involved in corn and soybean farming; our numbers were not that high, but they were not inconsiderable. Pheasants and rabbits are routinely killed in planting and harvesting, and rodents are killed by the thousands using traps and pesticides at every step: production, storage, and transportation.

Rational people know this and don’t worry about it. It’s an inevitable consequence of modern, high-production agriculture. The ethical vegan, when confronted with these undeniable facts, collapses. Their reaction, in almost every case, is to do a rhetorical lateral arabesque into a new claim, that their vegan diet somehow causes “less death and suffering” than a non-vegan diet, a ridiculous and unsupportable argument. A pound of wild venison (net cost in animal death: about 1/120th of one animal) almost certainly causes less “death and suffering” than a pound of rice (net cost in animal death: including rodents, insect, reptiles and amphibians, number of deaths may range into the hundreds).