Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism
Intention Does Matter
Written by Benny Malone
I was saddened recently to read about the large number of deaths of wild birds due to the harvesting of olives. Olive Oil Times reports millions of birds are killed each olive harvesting season in the Mediterranean basin according to research from Portugal’s Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests.
‘The songbirds, many of which migrate from northern and central Europe to winter in North Africa, frequently stop in southern Spain, France, Portugal and Italy, to rest while they are traveling and are sucked out of the trees at night by super-intensive harvesting machines. The group estimates that in Andalusia, 2.6 million birds are killed each year during the harvest, while in Portugal an additional 96,000 birds die.’
This is a tragic death toll of animals. What happens is that bright lights from the harvesting machine dazzle and disorient the birds and they are unable to escape. These non-nocturnal birds are disturbed when they are resting at night and they are vacuumed up from the trees by the olive harvest machines. The reason farmers started harvesting at night was for the cooler temperatures to preserve the aromatic flavours. The machinery does not harm birds in the day light because they are able to hear the machinery and fly away to safety. This was the usual practice until very recently when night time harvests were initiated.
Shockingly local rural hotels have been sold the dead birds to make the dish “pajarito frito” or fried bird by the operators of the harvesters.
It has been proposed that night time harvesting of olives should be banned and there is a large petition to end the practice and protect the birds at the time of writing. Critics of veganism and animal rights like to point out that vegans are ‘responsible for animal deaths in the same way as non-vegans are’. It’s true that naïve vegans may repeat lines about being ‘cruelty free’ and how their choices have not killed any animals. Vegans for the most part are aware that no lifestyle can be zero-impact or zero harm to animals. However it is important to understand the difference in numbers of deaths and what veganism means. All the calculations I have been able to find show that a vegan diet kills the fewest animals when deaths from harvesting are taken into account. The next fewest is a lacto-vegetarian diet and then a ‘Davis-style diet’. Anupam Katkar writes
‘In 2003, Prof. Stephen Davis wrote a paper that essentially argued that practices such as mechanized harvesting kill more animals per hectare than, say, slow grazing by cattle – therefore, eating large herbivores (he recommended cows, not elephants or horses) might be more ethical than raising crops. This was music to the ears of meat industry supporters, who have shared it widely, despite the fact that it was soundly refuted the very year that it was published. For one, Davis’ assertion was not based on any field studies. He cherry-picked data that supported his point of view and did some back-of-the-hand calculations. Without conducting controlled studies, he assumed that pasture grazing kills only half as many wild animals per hectare as crop cultivation. Well, even if we assume that figure to be accurate, he is still wrong, because it takes only a tenth as much land to produce protein from soy and corn, versus grass-fed beef. In a detailed rebuttal, Gaverick Matheny explains that even using Davis’ own figures, the average vegan’s diet kills 0.3 animals a year (or one wild animal every 3 years), whereas an omnivore who eats “ethical” pasture-grazed beef causes the death of 1.5 wild animals each year. Most meat eaters eat grain-fed livestock.’
It is important to note that veganism is not merely a ‘least harm principle’ but a principle of non-exploitation. It is the use of animals that is opposed. Many more additional harms are caused to animals from our exploitation of them. Some anti-vegan commentators miss the mark by arguing against a version of veganism that they have created where number of animal deaths is the only isolated criteria. It’s interesting to note that many people using this argument against veganism have not really looked beyond the headlines and will just repeat things like ‘It’s possible to kill fewer animals than vegans by only eating one cow’. Even worse they use it as an argument for their own business-as-usual consumption of any and all animal products and support of animal exploitation in all other areas. If they were to take the principle they are using to argue against veganism seriously and actually follow the consequences of it themselves there is no way it could justify indiscriminate consumption. Firstly, if the Davis diet (consuming one large herbivore) was the one they thought was least harmful to animals , or a diet including oysters was thought of as the least harm then they themselves should be 100% plant based in every other aspect of their diet. It also follows that they should not support animal exploitation in other areas such as cosmetic testing on animals. For the principle to work this is the necessary reduction in animal slaughter that would be required. How can anyone using this argument consume fishes or shrimps bought from a store given the massive amount of animal deaths from by-catch in fishing? A reduction of support for animal exploitation is required down to the level the person believes the consumption of one type of animal product makes their diet less harmful. This is why it is mainly a disingenuous argument when used by someone with no intention of reducing or having reduced their own support for animal exploitation and slaughter to a certain level. It’s like saying ‘veganism is only a lesser evil’ but then choosing the greater evil. A Tu quoque or the appeal to hypocrisy, is a fallacy that intends to discredit the opponent’s argument by asserting the opponent’s failure to act consistently in accordance with its conclusion(s). This is dependent on an individual vegan’s claims. Veganism as a philosophy is opposed to animal exploitation and it seeks to avoid this in all areas. Vegans are usually aware that we can’t completely avoid all harm or have zero impact. This is true for any human living on the planet and so applies to everyone. The difference is that vegans have taken steps to remove support for animal exploitation. If there are other areas where harm or exploitation can be minimised or eliminated then I would hope vegans would listen to people seriously advocating for those things. Veganism is a practical step to do so and vegans ought to help with practical advice on being vegan. Are the critics of veganism advocating for change in these other areas such as use of plastic, transport, food waste and the environment? It should be noted that these other areas that can be advocated for will not conflict with veganism either, unless they involve animal use and slaughter. You will of course want to be following your own advice and have taken the steps you think vegans should take in order to avoid any tu quoque fallacy.
Vegans are at least following their own advice.
‘Eating a vegan diet could be the “single biggest way” to reduce your environmental impact on earth, a new study suggests.
Researchers at the University of Oxford found that cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent.
Meanwhile, if everyone stopped eating these foods, they found that global farmland use could be reduced by 75 per cent, an area equivalent to the size of the US, China, Australia and the EU combined.
Not only would this result in a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions, it would also free up wild land lost to agriculture, one of the primary causes for mass wildlife extinction.’ https://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6392/987
Another fallacy is the Nirvana fallacy. The nirvana fallacy is the informal fallacy of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives. (2) It can also refer to the tendency to assume that there is a perfect solution to a particular problem. A closely related concept is the perfect solution fallacy. By creating a false dichotomy that presents one option which is obviously advantageous—while at the same time being completely implausible—a person using the nirvana fallacy can attack any opposing idea because it is imperfect. Under this fallacy, the choice is not between real world solutions; it is, rather, a choice between one realistic achievable possibility and another unrealistic solution that could in some way be “better”
For our purposes, anti-vegans are using this fallacy when they say there could be a zero-death system – this is the idealised alternative – and then dismissing veganism because it doesn’t or will not reach this goal of perfection. Veganism is a real world solution and our choice is between this as a possible current solution or other models of animal use and slaughter that are also actually practiced. It is also an appeal to futility if people say we can’t avoid all deaths so why bother. This attitude would be unthinkable in other areas that people care about.
I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
– Edward Everrett Hale
A practical solution (veganism) is rejected because it does not reduce harm to zero (perfect solution) all the while a worse model (animal exploitation) is what is actually supported. It’s not a choice between perfect and status quo – therefore rejecting perfect in favour of status quo – it’s choice between vegan and nonvegan. This is typical of arguments that try to use the vegan argument and turn it back on itself to say it doesn’t achieve its aims. People attempting this are therefore obliged to accept the premises of vegan arguments in order to attempt this type of argument against veganism. They will often begin by saying how their argument may sound paradoxical or counterintuitive. This is because they are indeed like a type of self-referential paradox. In the proper meaning of ‘the exception that proves the rule’, anything that was actually found to be less harm than veganism would be in one area and would still entail following a vegan ethic in all other areas. As a general principle, veganism still holds up. Loopholes. In other attempts to argue against veganism people will try to find loopholes. This line of argumentation is another that is only possible if a lot of vegan premises are accepted. By ‘vegan premises’ I mean that the person arguing will be committing themselves to accepting animals matter morally, have some criteria for moral consideration to animals, will think this criteria should mean humans live a certain way, will think that less animal slaughter is better than more, will think that less wild animal suffering is better than more and will think it is better to be consistent in reducing impact where you can. It’s a sign of the strength of the vegan argument that people think the only way to compete with it is to accept its premises but try to just show that they will lead to different results in some marginal areas. This is of course only true if they are serious about the argument and not just playing Devil’s Advocate to argue against veganism. If they are serious however they will be committed to the vegan premises but just believe they have found a certain area where less harm to animals would result. An example of a ‘loophole’ might be the person asking ‘what about the ethics of eating roadkill?’ or ‘what would be wrong with eating an egg you find in the woods?’. They may set up elaborate situations that do not involve animal exploitation and where an animal product becomes available – in essence it is like short-circuiting the usual pathway that involves animal use and getting animal products direct from non-domesticated animals. Imagine a world where all the vegan critics were taking advantage of as many loopholes as they could and were causing the least harm – a world where veganism was the most harmful practice! I imagine that would be a much better world than the present one. Of course it would be impractical or impossible for all but a minority to take advantage of these loopholes , so like 7 billion people hunting wild animals, they simply aren’t scalable to a population, unlike veganism. The thing about using a loophole argument is that it would commit you to ‘being vegan’ in all circumstances except for the loopholes you think you have identified. It’s hard to take any critic of veganism seriously when they are arguing these points but still eating any and all animal products. If you think there are genuine grey areas then this implies that there are shades of grey, increasingly getting darker as they become black at one end of the spectrum and white at the other. Arguing from any grey areas to justify areas outside of these that are not ‘fuzzy’ is dishonest. Grey areas may provide dilemmas but they only exist because the premises to create the intersection of concerns are accepted. Where the dilemma does not exist the answer should be clear and the solution outside of the grey area accepted and adhered to. It should be no surprise that veganism consistently comes out on top due to ecological efficiency. Attempts at loopholes can only exist because of this efficiency. Arguing against veganism is often like people trying to invent a perpetual motion machine. They try to circumvent the Second Law of Thermodynamics. With veganism this principle is that of trophic levels and ecological efficiency.
‘In comparing the cultivation of animals versus plants, there is a clear difference in magnitude of energy efficiency. Edible kilocalories produced from kilocalories of energy required for cultivation are: 18.1% for chicken, 6.7% for grass-fed beef, 5.7% for farmed salmon, and 0.9% for shrimp. In contrast, potatoes yield 123%, corn produce 250%, and soy results in 415% of input calories converted to calories able to be utilized by humans. This disparity in efficiency reflects the reduction in production from moving up trophic levels. Thus, it is more energetically efficient to form a diet from lower trophic levels’
Land use, water use, GHG emissions If harvest deaths are identified as a problem then it is usually due to monocropped farmland using intensive harvesting machinery. Much like when people try to use these type of arguments against veganism it actually backfires. Any argument about plant sentience, harvest deaths, growing soya, land use and use of other resources must take into account the magnitude in differences between efficiency of animal agriculture and plant agriculture. It’s hard to get round the facts of other animals eating plants and then humans eating those other animals. When food or land that could be utilised for growing plants for direct human consumption is instead used to feed animals that are then consumed by humans
Food waste is inherent in the animal agricultural system. Almost half of harvested crops – or 2.1 billion tonnes – are lost through over-consumption, consumer waste and inefficiencies in production processes, researchers say.
Livestock production is the least efficient process, with losses of 78 per cent or 840 million tonnes, the team found. Some 1.08 billion tonnes of harvested crops are used to produce 240 million tonnes of edible animal products including meat, milk and eggs.
This stage alone accounts for 40 per cent of all losses of harvested crops.’
Perhaps some people have realised that the arguments most commonly used against veganism were fallacies. They have changed tactics to try and beat vegans on their own terms. In a way this is a welcome development. It shows veganism is being taken seriously. If genuine it also shows a commitment and adherence to the vegan principles of other animals having moral worth and being against killing animals. The idea that less slaughter is better than more and that it is better to be more ecologically efficient. The difference is the attempt to create the counterintuitive conclusion of killing fewer animals overall by killing animals intentionally. Apart from that one area where they think this would apply it’s clear that their own argument commits them to accepting the other premises and vegan arguments. However they often prove to be the most vociferous and angry critics of veganism. It should be clear anyone using a harvest deaths argument without consuming a strictly ‘Davis Style Diet’ is being disingenuous.
The question is ‘What forms of animal exploitation and slaughter would deaths of wild animals from harvesting justify?’
Anti-vegans like to point out that intention does not matter. Anti-vegan Rhys Southan does this in his article Veganism is Not the Lifestyle of Least Harm, and “Intent” Does Nothing For Animals on his blog ‘Let Them Eat Meat’ (but what type of meat Rhys?) Southan is typical of the vegan critics that don’t offer any criteria of their own or any practical advice that they then follow it themselves.
So Southan’s argument is that to the mouse killed in the field it doesn’t matter whether the vegan or non-vegan did not intend to kill them. Southan writes that ‘If animals cannot look at our intent to determine whether they should feel vengeful, and good intent is not protecting them from future assaults, intent is absolutely useless for the animals.
Even if intent did matter to other animals, it makes no sense to say that the intention of a vegan is the best simply because vegans wish no animal had to die, ever. Who doesn’t wish that?’ This is coming from someone who expressed a desire to eat a live octopus for the experience.
However as we have seen from the deaths resulting from olive harvesting intention plays a key role. For an animal already killed, the intent made no difference. But for future generations of animals it plays a key role if the intention is to shift practices away from the likes of night time harvesting or to new technologies that may detect and warn wild animals. It seems unfair to blame vegans for a system they have to currently use that we have all inherited whether vegan or not which has not taken these issues into consideration. People can attempt to use this as an argument against being vegan or they can join us in trying to reform these practices and build a vegan world where animal interests are properly taken into account. As technology advances there may be much promise in producing food in other ways that does not involve harvest deaths. Growing algae and indoor vertical farming may be two methods with improved efficiency. Star Trek replicators may be a way off but they represent the ideal to aim for and who could argue against that ideal? Southan seems to at once want to argue against veganism but not the ideal of not killing animals. He thinks where the two ideals overlap means it invalidates the current practice of veganism, classic Nirvana fallacy material. It is tragic that animal deaths can still result from plant food harvesting despite the fact we would rather no animals were killed, exploited or slaughtered for us. The thing we can work on straight away is removing support for the intentional exploitation and slaughter of animals. Where intention does matter, despite what anti-vegans say, is in reforming plant agriculture to minimise or remove harm from accidents. A friend told me that in Poland bells were attached to harvesting machines to warn leverets in the fields so they could make their escape. Using harvest deaths to argue against veganism relies on a world where animal interests and harvest deaths are not currently taken seriously. As we have seen intention does matter because in the case of olive harvest with machinery at night with a different intention we can revert back to a different form of harvesting that does not cause these deaths. We can support the olive producers that guarantee that they are not using harvesters at night. If we oppose harvest deaths we can take it seriously and campaign for changes in practices and research into technologies that might reduce or eventually eliminate animal deaths. Plant agriculture could be made more ethical but animal agriculture will always have the animal themselves as the product and can never be made ethical. When people feel cornered by an insistence they should follow their own advice and logic and the consequences of their position they tend to go nuclear to get out of the argument. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/believing-bull/201109/kab...
Typically, highly nuanced arguments that are very largely in favour of a shift to plant based diets are spun to say veganism isn’t optimal (due to some dubious skewing of possible scenarios in favour of including at least some animal protein). These arguments are then used to justify any and all animal consumption and this is plainly wrong and does not follow the conclusions of these studies. Why is the headline always about the supposed failure of veganism or what vegans are obliged to do? If a Davis-style diet was argued as being obligatory for vegans why is everyone else exempted or not advocated to? In the case of a recent land use carrying capacity study for the USA veganism was found to be able to feed 735 million people which is 238% the current population. Remarkably though perhaps unsurprisingly this study was spun to say veganism was harmful to the environment in numerous articles. When this was pointed out as a ridiculous stretch the article was changed to ‘veganism not as good for humanity as you may think’! This laughable journalistic incompetence or deliberate misrepresentation can only exist where there is a credulous audience willing to hear bad things about veganism and get some justification to carry on with the status quo. Why weren’t the headlines about how the current dietary model is the one that would need 3 Earths to support it?
Veganism only seems extreme in proportion to how normalised violence against animals is in a society. With the right intention we can remove support for the practices of animal exploitation and slaughter and begin building a world where animal interests are taken seriously. In such a world harvest deaths like those from the olive harvest can be eliminated. To say intention doesn’t matter is defeatist and shows a lack of will to find solutions. The olive harvest can be changed to not harm animals and the plant agriculture that doesn’t support night time harvesting can be supported. The ideology of animal exploitation and slaughter has no reason to want to stop harvest deaths. In the case of the olive harvest we see how eating animals supports the death of the birds by buying them from the harvesters. Why would the harvesters switch if there is another revenue coming in from killing the birds?
If you oppose the deaths of birds from olive harvesting there are ways to avoid it.
The numbers are dwarfed by those of birds slaughtered directly for food.
982 million chickens are slaughtered in the U.K. each year. 40 million chicks considered useless by the egg industry are gassed, discarded or macerated alive in the U.K. each year.
18 million ducks and geese are slaughtered in the U.K. each year.
14 million turkeys are slaughtered in the U.K. each year.
These are the figures for their deaths and do not detail the exploitation of the animals in their breeding, forced inseminations, transport, harms from procedures and organ and bone failure from how they are bred to grow and finally the vast number that suffer and die during transport.
This too, can be avoided.
The first step is going vegan and modelling the world we want to see.
Further Reading –
Good Vampires Go Vegan
Meat Logic by Charles Horn – https://freefromharm.org/book-reviews/meat-logic-the-book-that-exam...
Benny Malone is a vegan animal rights advocate in the UK. He has worked in the disability care industry for 20 years and volunteers at an urban fruit and vegetable farm. Read more from Benny at his blog site, Vegan Logic.