Does Veganism Kill More Animals? The Argument, Decoded

One popular defense of a meat-heavy diet is the “crop death” argument, but does the evidence actually stack up?

A dish of vegetables and tofu.
Credit: Marco Verch

Perspective Food Food Systems

It’s not often a week goes by without someone contacting me with what they believe is the ultimate defense for killing the billions of farm animals we consume each day. They are certain they’ve discovered the big “gotcha” to rebut the scientific research documenting the impacts of the meat and dairy industry. And I can’t really blame them. What has come to be known as the “crop death” argument (aka, veganism kills more animals) has become widely peddled by eaters resistant to cutting back on meat. And without further digging, it can sound pretty convincing. But what are the facts?

The argument is old. One of the earliest mentions might be an episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast in 2018, when singer and avid hunter Ted Nugent claimed that “if you want to kill the most things, be a vegan.” Nugent argued that compared to the one animal he kills per arrow, combine machines used to harvest soybeans “plow and dismember” every little animal in their way — referring to the many rodents, snakes, birds and bugs that live in fields. “And if anything does survive my first slaughter,” he continues, “I’m going to come in with Monsanto and poison the shit out of everything so you can have a tofu salad and not be responsible for any death.” He then ends his rant with, “fuck you.”

A year later, another guest on the same podcast, acupuncturist and functional medicine practitioner, Chris Kresser, who also promotes the Paleo diet, made much the same argument, citing a research paper that estimates 7.3 billion animals are killed annually due to plant agriculture.

It’s an argument that has stood the test of time, as it continues to circulate half a decade later via social media and on Reddit boards also discussing conspiracy theories and Bill Gates. As a result, it has also fallen victim to the telephone game, so to speak, shifting meaning along the way. Still, the question remains: Does eating a plant-based diet contribute to more death and suffering than eating meat?

Not quite.

First, it’s important to look at the original argument, which is not actually in support of eating farmed animals. Nugent compares the death of multiple small animals due to crop harvesting, to one animal killed by hunting, which suggests that if we all just hunted for our meat, we’d actually cause less death and suffering. While the numbers may work out for individual avid hunters like Nugent, there is no reality where the entire human population can shift from eating farm animals to hunting wild creatures. According to Our World in Data, farmed animals make up 62 percent of the world’s biomass, while wild mammals make up only four percent. In other words, at current rates of global meat consumption, wild animals would be rapidly wiped out if everyone swapped their beef for venison, chicken or pheasant.

In my experience however, the crop death argument is more often used to support eating meat that isn’t sourced from hunting, but rather factory farmed meat that you find at the grocery store. For example, I’ve been asked how eating soy can be justified over eating pork, when only one pig has to die for a serving of chops, while countless innocent rodents and birds are surely killed for my block of tofu. But this is where the argument really loses. Because when it comes to soy, the greatest consumers on earth are not vegans, or even humans at all – it’s farmed animals, by a lot.

Nearly 80 percent of soy produced on earth is fed to farmed animals. And around 80 percent of deforestation in the Amazon is due to cattle and soy farming. When it comes to other global crops, only about half (55 percent) are actually fed to people, while 36 percent are fed to animals, with the rest being used for biofuel.

In other words, eating farmed animals causes not only the direct slaughter of those animals, but also the indirect death of all those other creatures killed in the harvesting of their food.

“But what about grass fed beef?” often comes as the next reply, with the implication that eating animals who graze on pastures rather than eating crops would result in less crop death. Once again, though, we run into the scaling issue. Agriculture already takes up an incredible amount of space, nearly half of all habitable land globally. In the U.S., cattle farming occupies 41 percent of all land, even though 99 percent of livestock are raised on factory farms. With 36 million cattle and calves slaughtered for food annually in the U.S., transitioning that number of cows to grazing grass would require about 270 percent more land. We would need several more planets for that.

What’s more, “grass-fed” or “pasture-raised” don’t always mean what consumers imagine it to. Grass can also mean harvested crops. And that brings us back once again to the deaths of all those little animals.

But how accurate is that statement really — are billions of little animals being inadvertently butchered for plant crops? The study Kresser cites utilizes synthesized data from older research, contrasting it with contemporary farming practices. The researchers cautiously projected that over 7.3 billion animals perish annually from crop harvesting in the U.S. alone, excluding insects. But they also caution that this estimate is likely inflated due to unreliable data, stating “there are several reasons to question the accuracy of these calculations,” and an “absence of evidence poses a problem for any high estimate of the fatality rate that’s driven by harvesting machinery.” In other words, say the researchers, “7.3 billion is clearly too high,” and “There are too many reasons to be skeptical about generalizing from the available data, which is obviously quite limited in its own right.”

For example, a 2004 study (also cited in the research Kresser leans on) found that the “disappearance” of field mice after harvesting was in fact the “the consequences of movement and not of high[er] mortality in crops” — field mice numbers were actually found to increase in border regions as the animals presumably fled.

The bottom line: we may never know just how many animals and insects are killed in the production of our food. What we do know is that eating more plant-based foods causes less harm than the typical U.S. diet consuming three times as much meat as the global average. Food systems that grow more plant proteins also require far less land and other resources, which makes them far more scalable compared to eating solely free-range or hunted meat.

No diet is free from negative implications for the environment nor the animals that inhabit it. But some diets are certainly less harmful than others. The desire to condemn plant-based eating is often deeply rooted in politics, culture and psychology, but ultimately the “crop death” argument fails to prove its case, no matter how many times meat eaters make it.

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