Mice: The Omnivores’ Newest Red Herring
May 1, 2012 28 Comments
The “mice argument” has been getting some traction lately, including here at eatingplants.org. By the “mice argument” I mean the claim that growing plants causes the death of untold millions of animals, such as mice.
There’s no denying that it’s true: rodents and other creatures are systematically exterminated–both actively and passively–to clear space for and protect monoculturally produced crops. It’s also true that many of these plants are eaten by unsuspecting vegans who skip through the daisies under the blissful impression that their diets are “cruelty free.”
Less clear, though, is how this unfortunate reality of agricultural life–the fact that animals routinely die when humans grow plants–provides a legitimate ethical justification for animal-based agriculture. In other words, how does the death of animals in plant-based agriculture make growing and harvesting plants ethically equivalent to raising and killing animals?
An effective response begins with the idea of intentionality. An animal-based agricultural system is explicitly designed to exploit, kill, and commodify obviously sentient animals. Harm to these animals is pervasive and–key point here–directly intentional. You cannot have animal agriculture without inflicting the unneeded suffering and intentional killing of animals whose lives have intrinsic value. No getting around that one.
A plant based system, by contrast, is designed to exploit soil, air, and water to grow and harvest plants. This is its raison d’etre. Tragically, most of the plant matter produced these days becomes stock for animal feed. However, with crops grown for people to eat (a sad rarity), the primary intention is decidedly not to exploit, kill, and commodify animals (even if that happens). It is, instead, to produce plants–forms of nutrient rich life that are not sentient, do not suffer, and have no conscious individual interest in staying alive.
When animal suffering happens in this latter system, it’s only indirectly intentional. It is not intrinsic to the act of growing plants for food. Moreover, killing animal in plant-based agriculture doesn’t require ongoing animal exploitation or commodification–only extermination, much of it inadvertent. If growers didn’t pragmatically have to kill animals when they grew plants, they wouldn’t. These deaths thus are, for all intents and purposes, casualties of agriculture, casualties of eating.
That said, these deaths must be taken very seriously. Because in doing so we get to draw another crucial distinction between plant and animal-based agriculture. Working assiduously to eliminate all animal suffering in plant-based agriculture–to whatever extent we succeed–affirms the noble goal of not only reducing animal suffering, but of highlighting the fact that this noble goal necessarily belongs to plant systems alone. Animal-based systems, after all, cannot by definition aim to eliminate the practice of killing animals. That would be like a potato chip company working to abolish potatoes.
Put differently, plant-based agriculture would thrive if the killing of animals were reduced to the point of elimination. Animal based agriculture, by contrast, would disappear if the killing of animals were reduced to the point of elimination. To me, the argument ends here.
Please note that none of what I’m saying is pie-in-the-sky. From integrated pest management to growing more plants indoors to vertical farms to crop diversification to eco-farming, modern agriculture is pioneering numerous ways to diminish the killing of animals in plant-based systems. Methods of achieving this noble goal are readily available. But not, once again, in animal agriculture.
There’s more that could be said about this argument, but for now I think the bottom line is clear: killing animals is an unfortunate by-product of the necessary endeavor of growing plants for food–an endeavor in which killing can be dramatically reduced and someday even eliminated. But killing is an absolute requirement when it comes to growing animals for food, an endeavor that (with rare exceptions)happens to be unnecessary. To call these systems ethically equivalent makes no sense.
Thus I’m totally unpersuaded by “the mice argument.”