The Ethics of a Vegan Diet

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
James Hamblin sat down with Def Jam founder Russell Simmons to swap strategies to defend vegan diets from common counter-arguments (e.g. “I can’t give up meat, because meat is delicious.”):

Among the counter-arguments they didn’t discuss: That a vegan diet may not be entirely bloodless. One reader summarizes this somewhat-disturbing take below. (Warning: You might not want to read this while eating.)

There is no such thing as a vegan. Every piece of food you eat is crawling with little animals. Your stomach is currently slaughtering millions of worms and other critters. Furthermore, to get your soy, they killed thousands of mice and other ground dwelling animals. Not to mention the insects.

Mmmm, dead mice in your soy—delicious. So how accurate is the argument? Scientific American’s Kyle Hill covered the bugs we accidentally digest each year:

Try as we might with insecticides and other engineered poisons, bugs crawl all over our food to feed (and procreate) on it. When we harvest and package our crops, a lot of bugs come along for the ride. Be aware, all the hitchhikers aren’t removed. At least there are limits on how many bugs the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lets you unknowingly eat.

The FDA’s Defect Levels Handbook lays it all out.

Staples like broccoli, canned tomatoes, and hops readily contain “insect fragments”–heads, thoraxes, and legs–and even whole insects. (I won’t tell you about the rat hair limits…) Fig paste can harbor up to 13 insect heads in 100 grams; canned fruit juices can contain a maggot for every 250 milliliters; 10 grams of hops can be the home for 2,500 aphids [...]

The “action levels” set by the FDA are for maximum insect contamination, so you ultimately ingest less than these limits. Nevertheless, bugs are making it into your gut whether you see them or not. Layla Eplett over at the Scientific American Guest Blog estimates that “an individual probably ingests about one to two pounds of flies, maggots and other bugs each year without even knowing it.”

But what about mice? ABC reported on research by an Oregon State University professor named Steven Davis that claims several types of small critters are killed during the farming process:

Nobody’s hands are free from the blood of other animals, not even vegetarians, he concluded. Millions of animals are killed every year, Davis says, to prepare land for growing crops, “like corn, soybean, wheat and barley, the staples of a vegan diet.” … The animals in this case are mice and moles and rabbits and other creatures that are run over by tractors, or lose their habitat to make way for farming, so they are not as “visible” as cattle, he says.

And that, Davis says, gives rise to a fundamental question: “What is it that makes it OK to kill animals of the field so that we can eat [vegetables or fruits] but not pigs or chickens or cows?”

A post on The Flaming Vegan disputes Davis’s research. An Atlantic reader takes a lesser-of-two-evils approach to veganism:

Being vegan isn’t perfect, but it’s more about doing your best to cause the least amount of damage. Humans cause damage with anything they do, even walking. It’s unavoidable, but you can minimize it.

Have thoughts on the philosophical underpinnings of a vegan lifestyle? Let us know.