Devouring the world

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Devouring the world

Photo by Roland Gerth/Corbis

A former vegan who now hunts deer is troubled by what it takes to put food on our plates

Tovar Cerulli is the author of The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance. He lives in Vermont in the northeastern US.

1300 1,300 words
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Once upon a time, I believed in the tidy taxonomy of the grocery store.

In the meat coolers, near the back of the store, I could find Animalia: beef steaks, pork chops, chicken legs, and fish fillets. In other coolers, along a side wall, I could find gentler products from that same kingdom: eggs, milk, yogurt, and cheese. In other sections, I could find all things Plantae: vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains.

The realms seemed clear and separate, each kind of food carrying a distinct meaning. When I ate meat, that meant animal death. When I ate dairy products, that meant animal confinement. When, inspired by the compassionate teachings of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, I turned to veganism — that meant harm to nothing but plants. My conscience seemed clear.

Eight years later, this fairy tale began to unravel. In the garden my wife and I tended, for instance, I began to see that squash and green beans were not just the fruit of plants. They were also the fruit of animals.

Like all living things, our garden plants had to eat. As their hungry roots drew sustenance from the ground, nutrients had to be replaced. So each year I drove our pickup truck a few miles down the road and brought home a cubic yard or two of compost: rich, dark, dense material made from the manure of cows and other animals, and from their bodies as well, as farmers sometimes compost carcasses.

Squash and green beans owe their existence to the lives and deaths of animals

I could have insisted on supplementing our own kitchen-scrap compost with fertilisers made from nothing but plants. Such products were certainly available. Most, though, were imported from out of state in bright plastic bags. Depending on them to feed our soil would, I reflected, be like subsisting on grocery-store tofu made from soybeans grown a thousand miles away, instead of eating chicken from a neighbour’s backyard or venison from nearby woods. These choices would keep animal products away from our garden and plates, but they made no ecological sense.

And even if I found a local source of animal-free fertiliser, would it make a difference? Though crops can be grown without manure, such approaches typically require more acreage than do integrated plant-animal systems. Why till more land, and perhaps displace more wildlife habitat, for the sake of excluding domesticated creatures from the agricultural landscape? Though this might help shore up my own conceptual categories, would it serve any other purpose, any greater good?

Plant-animal integration is, I realised, the norm in nature. It is how prairies and savannahs and all manner of ecosystems have been sustained for countless millennia. It is the most natural, ancient, and sustainable of systems — flora and fauna feeding one another in endless cycles. But our participation blurred boundaries I had taken for granted. If the squash and beans we grew were fed by local dairy farms, were we really eating just plants?

In his book Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us to attend to interconnections, to look deeply into the origins of the materials of everyday life, including food. The more I looked, the more complex things became.

In our own garden, I saw the earthworms we accidentally cut in two with our shovels whenever we turned the soil. I saw the beetles I crushed to protect tender young plants. I saw, too, that the compost we imported linked our garden not only to dairy products but also to meat: to give milk, cows must be impregnated. Pregnant cows give birth to calves. And virtually all male calves end up as veal.

In larger-scale crop production, I saw prairie and forest habitats disrupted across North America. I saw birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects maimed and killed by machinery and pesticides. Even in produce from small-scale organic farms, I saw rodent burrows cleared by deadly smoke bombs and deer populations kept in check by hunters and farmers alike.

When I visit the grocery store these days, I realise we have a choice, but it is not simply the choice I once made between the purity of veganism and its alternatives, based on suffering. Walking down the aisles, we can let the orderly bins and shiny packages cultivate our forgetfulness. We can let ourselves believe in all the tidy separations: plants and animals divided into neatly compartmentalised kingdoms, food severed from earth, our shopping disconnected from others’ farming. We can let ourselves be comforted by our own ignorance, by everything we neither see nor want to see.

Or we can remind ourselves of just how intertwined everything really is. Uncomfortable though it might be, we can remind ourselves that lettuce is not as innocent as it appears, that squash and green beans owe their existence to the lives and deaths of animals. We can remind ourselves that pastoral landscapes are not just backdrops for recreational hikes or idyllic rides through the countryside. They are not an ‘environment’ that exists around us. They are the places that feed us, the soil in which we are rooted. They are us.

We can remind ourselves, too, of all the people who work the land for a living. Day in and day out, they draw sustenance, theirs and ours, directly from the earth. They know the nature of the places where they live and work — the soils and waters and climates and non-human inhabitants — more intimately than most of us do. They know the nature of living and eating more deeply, too. They know it’s a messy business.

We can remind ourselves that our lives are not separate from theirs. As a teenage omnivore, I never thought seriously about the connections between my living and eating and the gritty realities of agriculture. Nor did I think about those connections as a twentysomething vegan, up on my ethical high horse, wanting nothing to do with the confinement, let alone the deaths, of fellow creatures. I assumed I could remain aloof from all of that. Only later did I begin to see more clearly.

Those connections are, in the literal sense of the word, vital. They keep us alive. The teacher and the student, the artist and the office worker, the doctor and the attorney, are all utterly dependent on the farmer. Whatever romantic notions we might have about ourselves and our ethically or environmentally motivated food choices, the boundaries between vegans, vegetarians and veal eaters are somewhat ambiguous. We are all part of the same food systems.

We can — and should — advocate changes in those systems, promoting both animal welfare and ecological health. Our efforts, however, will be most effective if people of all dietary persuasions can collaborate, remembering that we, like the foods we eat, inhabit an integrated whole, not isolated kingdoms. My wife and I, for instance, don’t buy beef or veal, yet we applaud the local farmers who produce those meats in humane, ecologically sound ways. And we recognise that the yogurt we eat is linked to the lives and deaths of cows, just as our garden is.

It is easy to forget, of course. I know I do. In the bustle of everyday life, the interconnections slip my mind. I eat a bowl of salad and see nothing but greens.

Then the phone rings. It’s a neighbour calling. Woodchucks have begun to obliterate her garden, in spite of the electric fence. I’m one of the few hunters she knows. Would I be willing to lend a hand?

Ah, yes, I think. Hidden costs.

Taking a deep breath, I fetch my .22 rifle.

Read more essays on ethics, food & drink and nature & environment


  • Marjorie Hise Moss

    Fantastic! I love your writing and your thinking. Thanks for sharing this.

  • John

    Splendid! You address well some points I've pondered as an ex-vegan/vegetarian omnivorous urban farmer in Tampa. The planet's ecology has been based on predator-prey relationships for at least 3 billion years, in spite of our sentiments.

  • hendor

    great insights here. the connections are always more intertwined than we know. all eaters need these thoughts in their minds.

  • Nick Hart

    Ah yes. Amazing, isn't it, how self interest – individual, collective – over-rides principle? Just like real life, in fact. Who'd have thought it?

  • NBMaggie

    Life is messy, indeed. We yearn for clear boundaries to define moral choices. Veganism, according to this author, does seem to be bound up with animal life when the issue is examine more closely. But if we wait for the perfection of objective truth we will all be left at the starting line. We have to make choices, no matter how flawed. Best case scenario for me with regard to personal health, environmental health, and the ethical treatment of animals is still a plant-based way of eating as it has been for many years.

  • drokhole

    Brilliant! That life feeds on life to sustain life is one of nature's most sacred truths, and should be regarded and honored as such. So, too, is the deeply integrated web-of-life in which nature depends and thrives. Thanks for putting it so well, I've been looking for something exactly like this!

    Biological farmer Joel Salatin covers the same sentiment, among many others, in his most recent book "Folks, This Ain't Normal." I'd also recommend this fantastic article, which covers the intensely interconnected aspect of nature, and how to provide the best conditions (with animal and plant inputs/recycling) for it to thrive:

    Organic agriculture: deeply rooted in science and ecology

    Further, I've got a thread on another message board that deals with how management-intensive grazing of cows is one of the best methods to restart and build soils, something we drastically need to do in this country (and the world over) given its depletion/erosion rate (thanks largely to our industrial farming methods and urban sprawl):

    To Kick Climate Change, Replace Corn With Pastured Beef

    I've got extra videos/articles buried in subsequent posts in that thread, please be sure to check them out.

    Finally, philosopher Alan Watts tackled this subject beautifully in his essay "Murder in the Kitchen", which can be found in his book/anthology "Does It Matter?" You can also here him talk on the same subject/theme in this clip from one of his lectures (starts speaking on it directly at 7:23...but the entire clip is worth listening to):

    Alan Watts - World as Play

    "The necessary thing about any species you live on is that you must love it."
    - Alan Watts

    Thanks again!

  • Vegan with a vengeance

    I tend to think a 'has been' is a 'never was'. You were a wannabe who never quite made it.

    There is a big jump between realizing the scale and complexity of life, and the limitations to vegan philosophy, to going back to killing or endorsing animal exploitation.

    Sadly, a lot of simply lazy people will just use it as an excuse not to bother making any change in their lives.

    It's funny but, as a vegan of more than 25 years, I felt the same things about killing in my garden and it moved to discover that 'no till' farming is not just possible but good science and less effort than orthodox organic farming.

    Although I, personally, am perfectly aware of the limitations of vegan philosophy, underlining it is good ecology science. We need to reduce our footprint and for metropolitan human beings it is the primary ethical and environmental responsibility. A city dweller really has no need for animal products and live perfectly well, even better, without them.

    As someone who has lived on a farm, I also agree that the further out into the wilderness one lives, the more that balance changes and that there is less of an environmental impact by reverting to becoming more of an animal. At that point, there is less of an obvious reason to being vegan, it might even come down to a question of faith (the belief in the spiritual benefit of not killing). Although for the sake of the environment and its energy balance, one should still find one's self remaining 'primarily vegan'.

    I would accept that it is human to live in the wilderness, or even the borders of the wilderness, following a primarily vegan diet supplemented by local sea/river food or game. In a truly natural environment, what would be your limitation would not be abstract ethics so much as energy requirements, i.e. how much you get back for how much you put out.

    I am sorry but folks cannot con yourself they're being "natural" if your depending on guns and trucks and refrigerators.

    Many people have take Steven L. Davis's essay on "the least harm principle" as a defence for meat consumption as you hint at here but it is a faulted essay. One of the more obvious faults is that it equate each and every life as equal, therefore the death of a rat is equal to the life of an ox. That is obvious not true.

    It also ignores or rather exploits the question of intentionality which does matter. Vegans are not intentionally killing fields of dormice. Indeed, most were entirely unaware of the issue. Rest assured now we are, come the revolution, we'll have you walking in front of the combine harvesters with a little bell scaring them all away before the corn is cut. Actually, they had no right to be there in the first place. Thieving grain and living off us, their populations were artificially high in the first place.

    We are a long way from a bucolic, vegan utopia but in our hearts that is where we will humanity to be. A land of abundance for all where lions will lie with lambs, each contributing according to their own abilities and living according to their needs ... not wants or indulgences. Unrealistically idealistic? Of course. But a lot more sustainable than the current ugly nightmare.

    In the meanwhile, let's be fair, when's the open season for hunting hunters and slaughter men?

    • whofanz591jp


    • nipkilla59259299

      hope you end up dismembered and decapitated

    • Derek Wolf

      Interesting that vengeance filled vegans are oblivious that when you maim and uproot vegetables to further YOUR life, you are actively killing what is a living entity.

      Extremely ironic for people who insist on being "humane."

      Convenient considering it does not fit in with your high horse nonsense. Every one else who acts within the framework of nature is an animalistic menace... but all the life you destroy to sustain yourself is irrelevant? Twisted logic.

      • Dick Leigh

        Yep. When I read that plants "scream" when they're in danger to warn other plants and give them time to activate their defenses, all I thought about was "what are vegans gonna eat now!?".

    • Origami_Isopod

      but in our hearts that is where we will humanity to be

      Not me. I like urban life, thank you, not the romanticized ~bucolic life full of crop failures, domestic violence, incest, and ignorance. BTW thanks for yet another example of why most vegans are the worst possible advertisement for their own lifestyle.

  • p1970

    Well written article. I think farmers and hunters live more honestly and with a deeper understanding of nature than most. But I still disagree.

    It seems very unlikely to me that every food choice involves an equal number of sentient animal deaths. All costs are not equal, hidden or not. There is no law of the conservation of energy when it comes to animal deaths that removes my free will to minimize the type and amount of harm.

    We also live in a world in which most humans are not trying to avoid behavior that harms animals. Interacting with them often means, unavoidably, ratifying their harmful choices. But what would I find if I traced every dollar I spent in a world in which all people were trying to live in a way that didn't harm animals?

    My parents have kept a vegetable garden for 40 years. They've had groundhogs, too. They've never had to shoot them. They make sure the fencing is secure. If one digs a tunnel under the fence, my parents live trap it and take it to a large area of woods several miles away. Surely, in the production of the wire fence, or the metal trap--through mining for the metal used to make the fence and the trap, through factory pollution, through air pollution created by the transport of the trap to the retail outlet where it was purchased--harm came to animals. But I still fail to see how they've made a less harmful choice than someone who chooses to shoot them.

  • Guest

    Well written article. I think farmers and hunters live more honestly and with a deeper understanding of nature than most. But I still disagree.

    It seems very unlikely to me that every food choice involves an equal number of sentient animal deaths. All costs are not equal, hidden or not. There is no law of the conservation of energy when it comes to animal deaths that removes my free will to minimize the type and amount of harm.

    We also live in a world in which most humans are not trying to avoid behavior that harms animals. Interacting with them often means, unavoidably, ratifying their harmful choices. But what would I find if I traced every dollar I spent in a world in which all people were trying to live in a way that didn't harm animals?

    My parents have kept a vegetable garden for 40 years. They've had groundhogs, too. They've never had to shoot them. They make sure the fencing is secure. If one digs a tunnel under the fence, my parents live trap it and take it to a large area of woods several miles away. Surely, in the production of the wire fence, or the metal trap--through mining for the metal used to make the fence and the trap, through factory pollution, through air pollution created by the transport of the trap to the retail outlet where it was purchased--harm came to animals. But I still fail to see how they've made a less harmful choice than someone who chooses to shoot them.

  • mijnheer

    Number of Animals Killed to Produce One Million Calories in Eight Food Categories

    • Gabrielle Green

      Not all calories are equal. Grains don't have the nutrients we need like animal protein does. This would result in eating more grains, more calories, more obesity. You see where this is going?

      • cyndishisara

        Protein is protein. If you are talking about b12 everyone gets it the same way from fermentation.
        Animal protein and plant based protein are essentially the same. Complete proteins are had through a plant based diet.

    • Harvest McCampbell

      I don't think this is accurate. Many rodents, birds, reptiles, worms, and insects are killed when plowing, planting, tending, and harvesting plant based foods. That a million calories of anything would only kill 2 or 3 animals seems like wishful thinking to me . . .

  • jukk

    The fact that at this moment it´s not possible - due to the way we are organized - to have a just green meal does not mean is not possible and thus that we have to give up veganism. I found lots of fallacies in this article.

    • Peter

      The question that you need to ask, is not whether you can have a green meal, but whether you can have a green life....and whether the rest of the world can do so.

      A point to remember is that when you rely upon one limited resource, you reduce the degree to which that resource is available for others.

  • Gail Payne

    Beware of rationalizing to avoid examine your own eating habits!

    An email from a wise Californian to a Sierra Club Board member as the Board considers advocating a plant-based diet:

    Dear Steve,
    was born and raised in California -- water-starved California. During
    this current frightful drought, which will be so devastating to
    thousands of plant and animal species, I and my associates have been
    focusing our attention on the water-efficiency of animal-based vs.
    plant-based food. It is clear that, on the basis of water
    considerations alone, our society needs to wean ourselves from
    meat-eating. To say nothing of the other, very profoundly destructive,
    environmental impacts of animal agriculture.

    Society must move in the direction of vegetarian/vegan diet, and Sierra Club must lead.

    In general, vegan
    foods have a much smaller water footprint than animal products. In
    other words, their production requires far fewer gallons of water per
    pound of food. The following figures exemplify this fact:

    Water required to produce one pound (1 lb.) of:

    Beef = 2000 gallons of water
    Pork = 576 gallons of water
    Chicken = 468 gallons of water
    Soybeans = 206 gallons of water
    Wheat = 138 gallons of water
    Corn = 108 gallons of water


    Why is it that animal products require so much more water? There are several reasons:

    The water that the animal drinks constitutes only 1% of the water
    footprint of the meat that will come from that animal. (Why? Read on.)

    Farm animals eat plants for their entire lives; it takes an enormous
    amount of water to grow all of the food that the animals eat.

    Most of the food that the animals eat is not used to build body mass;
    rather, it is used to fuel bodily activity and to maintain bodily
    functions (heartbeat, breathing, eating, digestion, the functioning of
    all organs and the support of chemical reactions that proceed throughout
    the body).

    (4) Digestion is inefficient, resulting in partially-digested food being excreted that still contains nutrients. (see

    Although much of the body is inedible (bone, cartilage, teeth, horns,
    hooves, hair, hide, eyeballs), water-fed plants were required to build
    and support all of those body parts.

    growing plants to be fed to billions of animals for humans to eat is
    vastly more wasteful of water (and other resources) than growing plants
    for people to eat directly.

    -- Mike Sage

    • Susan

      All that is is a letter by a vegan pushing his own agenda, no no checkable facts or sources in it.

  • Singh

    The higher the animal on the food chain hierarchy, the more guilty I am of killing. There is a difference in killing an earthworm and a cow, just like, there is a difference between losing a one dollar bill and a hundred dollar bill. It is so obvious. There are 4 to 6 pounds of friendly bacteria within our gut which help us digest food. Human faeces contain upto 70% of dead bacteria, by weight. Our one day of survival means death to others. Even plants are living beings, but lower on the hierarchy. Plants and animals support us in our survival. They are like stockholders in a company. If the company is doing good, the stock goes up. All those who support the company i.e. the stockholders are benefited. If we do good deeds/karma, all those who support us are benefited.

  • Jess

    So, uh... what does the natural life cycle have to do with someone no exploiting an animal? Pretty sure your beans aren't involved in any exploitation, so rest easy there.

  • Anim Argumen

    As Leo Tolstoy, the former hunter turned vegetarian said: "as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battle fields. " I dont believe these so-called former vegans were ever vegan--they just claim it for advertising. The basic moral problem with the meat supporter argument is that humans are not biologically suited to eat meat like real predators. They require tools--traps, knives, etc. Real natural born predator animals only require their bodies. Even the Kalahari bushman needs tools. Another problem is that that tool making ability is flexible-it is used for gardening and for killing other humans--lots and lots of em. Thus, if you claim hunting by humans is natural-sorry to burst your dream but then so is homicide. Cant have it both ways bubba. You never hear about real natural born predators accidentally falling on their claws or mistaking another lion for a gazelle. Human hunters kill an awful lot of humans annually though--to the point where they have to put on orange vests! I wonder how many get jail time for aiming their guns and arrows in the direction of houses and killing someone watching tv? It happens. Anyway enough with the hunter myth, opponents of animal rights have two unsolvable problems.

    The first is that human moral supremacy beliefs are personal opinion just like a belief in racial, gender, or religious supremacy. Any trait, criteria, or attribute cited to
    confirm this alleged superiority, whether mind, intelligence, soul, creativity,
    Divine specialness, Evolutionary specialness, survival of the fittest, moral
    reciprocity, or an unspecified faculty X, are as much subjective personal opinion
    as the importance given to skin colour or gender or a particular interpretation
    of scripture. Nature does not confirm this alleged superiority through natural
    phenomenon like weather, gravity, earthquakes etc and the constant routine
    natural exploitation of humans by other humans, which is the second problem.
    If you claim humans can justify the systemic exploitation of nonhumans based on biased personal opinion then someone can justify the systemic exploitation of humans using biased personal opinion. If you want human rights you must accept nonhuman rights to close this loophole..

    Only humans can be shown to use laws in an effort to control their behavior thus they are the only ones obligated to follow them, nonhumans benefit without needing to reciprocate out of fairness and consistency, since punishing them for being unable to follow human laws when you know they cannot would be like punishing a blind man for not reading warning signs or an armless man for not grabbing a drowning swimmer. And they already follow our codes by not putting us in zoos, farms or labs. They are far more moderate with violence than we are.

    Moral perfection is impossible; you only do the
    best you can in any given situation. The failure to stop homicide or child
    abuse does not justify concentration camps, thus the failure to stop the
    accidental death of microbes or plants etc. does not justify vivisection labs
    or farms.

    In other words, in principle, you can’t have human rights
    without nonhuman rights. It’s about fairness really. This is the most basic
    reason that farms, zoos, meat eating by humans .etc is unethical. It is simple. But humans have a lot of trouble with
    basic rational ideas like “unnecessary killing is wrong.”

    • Derek Wolf

      Yet you eat plants, which requires their destruction to sustain YOUR life. That is hypocritical. Get off the high horse and come back down to reality.

      • john649

        LOL! what an idiotic attempt to make sense.

        • Derek Wolf

          Which part are you having trouble understanding?

          That the life of a plant is ended when eaten?


          Humans are omnivores and eating plants and animals is a part of nature?

    • Franklin Mason

      That humans use tools to hunt does not imply that it's unnatural. It would only I'd tool use is unnatural, which is most certainly false. Sparrows fly, wolves run, humans fashion tools and hunt with them.

      • Susan

        Pre Human Hominids also used both weapons and tools.

    • Susan

      Utter feldercarb, so called "Non Human rights" have no bearing on Human Rights outside of a discussion in a philosophy class.

  • jaimbo

    This... compared to the endless amounts of animals who are factory farmed? Also, what is going on to feed all these, mass produced animals? The exact process this author laments. This article seems like one more in the endless list of rationalizations of those who wont be vegan or at least make substantial decreases in consumption. Hidden costs? Check out all the hidden costs and ripple effects of animal agriculture.

    • David Jewett

      Check out the hidden costs and ripple effects of humanities collective folly.

    • Derek Wolf

      FYI buffalo roamed wild in North America in numbers reaching ~75 million. Sustained responsibly off the grasslands, no antibiotics, no grain, no BS industrialized farming/processing (a true threat). There was no cost to maintain these ruminants.

      With all the money spent on sustaining our current (poorly designed, IMO) cattle system, all the grain, chemicals, trucking of product thousands of miles etc... we are struggling to support only ~45 million cattle.

      Returning ruminants to the grasslands reverses desertification and eliminates many of the costly, hazardous problems of our current model. Combined with keeping free range chickens close to your kitchen to consume all scraps etc.. there is a powerful option to return to nature, improve the eco system and our health. IMO given the history and research, the problem isn't consuming meat - it's the highly industrialized, dangerous manner that corporations have molded our system.

    • sabelmouse

      grass and other wild plants that grow on pasture.

  • brightgeist

    i think there's an error in his analysis, and its core lies in this paragraph:

    "Though crops can be grown without manure, such approaches typically require more acreage than do integrated plant-animal systems. Why till more land, and perhaps displace more wildlife habitat, for the sake of excluding domesticated creatures from the agricultural landscape? Though this might help shore up my own conceptual categories, would it serve any other purpose, any greater good?"

    so... his point is that fertilizer is needed to grow plants... and if we used fertilizer that doesn't come from manure and animal carcasses, then we would need more land to grow the same amount of plants... therefore, he concludes, it is better to keep enslaving animals, to get their manure and carcasses, because that uses less land and is therefore more sustainable... which is INCORRECT.

    what he seems to forget in his calculation is the fact that the animals also need plant food to "create" all that manure, and to grow themselves... so, basically he's suggesting that we create fields to grow food for animals, so that the animals can create manure, which we can then use as fertilizer to grow plant food for ourselves... and that somehow uses LESS land than simply growing plant food for ourselves?!?

    absolute nonsense.

    • Colin

      Great comment. We don't need ad hominem or non-sequitur attacks to address the author's arguments, the analysis is the issue.

      I was also surprised that the author doesn't seem to have addressed the potential solution of using sustainable practices for ensuring soil fertility, for instance, by using plant matter to increase nitrogen content:

    • sabelmouse

      we don't need to create fields to feed animals. grasslands already exist.

      • brightgeist

        if you believe that billions of humans can be fed with meat from grass-fed animals, then you need to do some more research and better calculations. because you're very wrong.

        • sabelmouse

          did i say that we should eat nothing else? grains are not needed. on the other hand more than half of animal feed is byproducts from crops for humans such as mush from soy oil, stalks and leaves and mush from corn syrup/methanol, and bran from wheat flour production. throwing those away wouldn't be economical and plain stupid.

  • Anjali

    It's a fair point to bring up the interconnectedness of the ecosystems that feed us, but I found many logical fallacies in this article. For example, you equate the consequential deaths of certain animals to the ritual, intentional, mass-torture and slaughter of animals that were only ever brought into life to be killed and eaten. These forms of killing and torture are simply not equivalent. Beyond that, I find that this article romanticizes farm life and the way our food industry functions: "We can remind ourselves, too, of all the people who work the land for a living. Day in and day out, they draw sustenance, theirs and ours, directly from the earth. They know the nature of the places where they live and work — the soils and waters and climates and non-human inhabitants — more intimately than most of us do. They know the nature of living and eating more deeply, too. They know it’s a messy business." The majority of the food we eat is farmed in a factory setting, with very few people "tending to the land" or whatever your picture of farming today as. There is also no consideration of the energy expenditure involved in the processes of farming vegetables vs. farming meat in this article. Agreed, the fruit/vegetable industry is far from ideal and is fraught with ethical dilemmas, but not nearly as much as the meat industry. You say that we compartmentalize them; that is only because the industry wishes us to, and because they do it themselves in the production of our food. Finally, I think the biggest issue of all, this presumes that people can afford to know exactly how their food was grown. It is a privilege to have any insight into your food production beyond what you see at the supermarket, one only afforded to a minority of the population who is rich and/or educated, and only an even smaller minority has any control over the way the food they eat is produced.

    • Susan

      Dead is dead, Anjali. And quite frankly animals die a far faster and kinder death being slaughtered then they do cut into pieces by a disc or plow.

      • sabelmouse

        or poisoned to protect crops!

    • sabelmouse

      there's no ritual usually.

  • Robert Grillo

    In the last several years, a number of scholarly and non scholarly arguments have gained traction by claiming that if vegans factor in the amount of animals killed in the harvesting of plant crops, they would find that vegan and vegetarian diets result in a greater number of animals killed than diets based on pasture-raised animals. And they conclude that if vegans seek to minimize harm, then a vegan diet is not the way to go. Many counter arguments have emerged to refute this claim. One of the best among them is AnimalVisuals’ comprehensive and well-researched study, Number of Animals Killed to Produce One Million Calories in Eight Food Categories. See chart and details of this study in the link provided at the end of this comment.

    It’s important to note that aside from the actual numbers of animals killed, intention is a critical factor in assessing the moral weight of an action. The unintentional killing of field mice and other animals during the process of harvesting essential food crops is a vastly different intention from that of deliberately and artificially breeding billions of sentient individuals into existence for the sole purpose of exploiting and killing them, for flesh and secretions we have no need to consume. If killing certain animals in the process of raising necessary food crops is morally objectionable, then how can our ethical accountability for their deaths be rectified by breeding even more animals into existence in order to intentionally exploit and slaughter them at a fraction of their natural lifespans?

    Professor Gary Francione points out that this claim that eating pasture-raised animals is more ethical than unintentionally killing animals in the harvesting of crops is “a version of the argument that if we cannot avoid unintentional death, we might as well engage in intentional killing. Think about that. We cannot avoid accidental or unintended death in manufacturing anything, including the most innocuous and beneficial of products. So it’s okay to kill humans intentionally? Surely not.” ”If we all went vegan because we cared morally about nonhumans, that would necessarily translate into methods of crop production that would be more mindful of incidental and unintended deaths,” argues Francione.

    For links to source used here please see

    • sabelmouse

      intention means nothing to dead/maimed animals and their left to die young.

  • Robert Grillo

    If eating animals is honoring what the author refers to as the natural "plant - animal integration," then so is rape, slavery, murder, war, genocide and any of the other human vices that are an unfortunate part of our human legacy. All that comes naturally to us does not automatically qualify as ethical. Free will is also natural, and with the choices we freely make comes a responsibility to weigh the negative and positive impacts of those choices. We cannot remedy the harm we do to animals in the process of growing necessary food crops by artificially breeding and exploiting more animals for food nor by hunting others that we have no biological need to consume.

  • Nitin Jain

    Only thing you missed is that human is not isolated kingdom, so eating featuses/huma and local farmers doing faetus farming/human farming for that matter should be encouraging. Similary, you want to go for hunting a deer you should also try to hunt humans.. So what I really want to know is how you categorise human kingdom separately from all other.. Then may be I could answer your post

    • Susan

      One of the sicker posts I have ever read. In order to do what you suggest one would have to both support and practice human slavery -- don't think that is going to happen.

  • Shari Bambino

    Beautiful and insightful as always. Thank you.

  • Alex Dubois

    One of the best points made in the article details the symbiotic relationship that should exist on the farm, the relationship between the farmer, the land and the animals on the farm. I have heard it explained as the farmer has an agreement with the animals. He provides food, shelter and protection for the animals and they provide milk, meat, eggs, and manure for him. Without the farmer needing the animal products, the animals would never have existed.

    Face it that man disrupts any environment he moves into, especially in large numbers. That is just the nature of things. And man is also PART of nature, not outside of it. When man moves into an area and either kills or drives out the resident predators, he has to take over that "job." It is now his responsibility to control the number of deer and rabbit and every other animal whose numbers exceed nature's ability to provide for.

    This is the same responsibility and agreement that is made between the farmer and cattle when they are part of a managed intensive grazing program or mob grazing. The husbandman provides food, water, protection and management for the animals. He culls his herd to insure that the genetics are constantly improving. He keeps his animal numbers in check so that his land can support them. In so doing he rebuilds the land, increases diversity in both insect as well as plant species and re-establishes the balance that nature strives for.

    There is virtually no example of an indigenous culture that was vegan. Does anyone ever wonder about why that is? Could it be because vegetarianism/veganism (yes I know what the difference is) is not a healthy way of life for the long term?

  • sandy

    Got to agree with the vegans. This article seemed like an excuse from someone who was never quite able to make the switch.

  • said the crow

    If the author can hunt, kill, prepare and grow their own produce with as little waste as possible I condone it. I want all to move away from supermarket/grocery produce of all kind.
    If people know the process of making food available then I believe we can have a sustainable future.would you eat the pig if you had to kill it, and could you buy the hole tuna and maintain it long enough to eat? Would you have access to all those fruits and vegetables from your own garden, and if so would they grow all year round?
    This is a really tough issue we survived off animals to get to where we are but we are also responsible for them and soon neither will exist naturally if not already, this is for the worlds engineers, scientists and everybody to think about we cannot sit here and do nothing and for this article and all the comments I am thankful at least we're talking about it. Let's not forget third world food issue either.

  • Peter

    An issue that needs consideration is how we affect the world on a global scale by our personal actions. We have more people in this world than can be supported without highly-productive, intensive agriculture. It is easy to argue that the world population needs to fall, but how many of those seeking the moral high ground are willing to deal with the consequence that in order to make this happen, they must kill people, control people in the same manner that they condemn when it is applied to animals..... Or kill themselves.

    I produce both plant (grain) and animal (lamb) food for human consumption. You - the consumers - will not pay me enough for a loaf of bread to permit me to live by growing wheat in an organic, low-input system. In order to lev, I must grow these crops in as near to a monoculture as can reasonably be achieved.
    Where I run livestock, on the other hand, I have such a high level of biological diversity that the Australian National University has included my farm in a long-term study into the retention of rare native species in farming systems.

    Please have the honesty to recognise that not all animal production can be stereotyped as "factory farming".

    Please also have the honesty to admit that the choice to eat a salad instead of a steak does not automatically mean a reduction in animal suffering. All animals die, and (outside of Disneyland) the vast majority of such deaths are painful. The common deaths are not of old-age made comfortable by drugs, but by predation, exposure, disease, parasitism and disease. If, as a farmer, I treated my livestock with the lack of care and compassion that natural systems routinely display, I would be fined, jailed or otherwise denied the opportunity to keep on farming.

  • Aleenum

    There is no moral high ground in the game of consumption, especially mass consumption.

    • Harvest McCampbell

      To eat and drink and breathe is to consume. I suspect you mean something somewhat different. As long as humanities numbers remain high--there will be masses of people consuming. We can individually make choices not to go with the masses, but the masses are still involved with consumption.

  • Nick

    Woodchuck stew. Yum!

    • Susan

      I've never had woodchuck, but it did remind me of an old tongue twister "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood".

  • Drea

    I love this. I am also a former vegan, and I have come to a similar realization about the interconnectedness of everything. The universe eats itself. Life feeds on life. I think that veganism is a symptom of industrialized food and the separation of humans from our food sources and nature. We get this totally unrealistic notion that we can eat without killing, which we can't. And in trying, we damage our bodies which are designed to eat both animals and plants.

    • murdock_541

      Why do you say we are designed to eat both animals and plants?

      • Susan

        Because Humans are omnivores. We are neither carnivorous nor herbivorous.

  • Mu Geistlicht

    If we were hunter-gatherers your argument would be somewhat valid.
    In the logic of your argument all animals should be free to roam around and thrive while we the humans would be supposed to live in harmony with nature and without habitat destruction (and probably even without farming, maybe?).

    Is it part of the natural cycle of life to have 150 billion animals killed a year fed on recycled animal waste and chemicals?

    And what about us? Doesn't it makes humanity more progressive, peaceful and just to avoid violence and destruction as much as possible? Isn't it better for out bodies and the environment to have a vegetarian/vegan diet?

    Aren't all those reasons and many more ones, more important than the romantic view of carcass fertilizers?

    • sabelmouse

      a vegan diet is neither more sustainable nor better for food security. that it makes people more peaceful has not been proven either.

  • Harvest McCampbell

    Thank you for this well thought out article. Another point, animals can be raised on land that won't support crops--because of slope or lack of water. And the tilling involved with farm production of plant based foods, almost always slowly depletes top-soil, year by year. On the other hand, rotational grazing, even when plant food production is part of the rotation, can be managed in ways that increase top-soil. People don't tend to take top-soil seriously enough. It is only renewable if we renew it. Every molecule in our body and all the oxygen in every breathe we take owes its existence to top-soil and the delicate balance of nutrient cycling organisms. If we squander our top-soils, we squander our great grand-children's futures.

  • creuynni

    so does that mean its 'ok' to kill and eat humans too?

    (if we choose to accept this interpretation of the theory and experience of interconnectedness)

    • Richard Lawton

      Have you read "Alive" by Piers Paul Read? Essential reading for anyone interested in human beings!

  • Susan

    Actually he made some valid points. There is cost associated with everything, it is how you strike the balance that is important.

  • Susan

    Actually California isn't mostly desert, and the water for the oranges and lemons out in Orange Cove, Lemon Cove, Exeter, Lindsay, and Porterville come from dams less then 40 miles from those areas. I live in Fresno just North and West of all of those towns.

    • sabelmouse

      where does the water in the reservoir come from?

      • Susan

        We are right next to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and it comes from that water shed. Originally rain and snow.

  • Susan

    I've seen both that figure and the figure of 60,000,000 before 1492 (and since it was centuries later before anyone with a rifle or even a mussel loader arrived in the Great Planes a gain in population of bison between 1492 and say 1792 is entirely possible.

  • Harvest McCampbell

    Grain can be grown organically and sustainably in ways that increase top soil. All the stalks and chaff of the grain can be plowed back into the soil with only the usable grain removed. You actually get increased carbon and humus into the soil that way, if you know what you are doing. And there are a plethora of grain crops available. If you match the grain to the climate and water availability, you can grow grain with little or nor irrigation. Whole grains pared with legumes are every bit as nutritious, if not more so, than animal protein.

    However, not everyone does well on grain. And the machinery used for plowing and harvesting kills tons of worms, insects, reptiles, amphibians, rodents including mice and rabbits, as well as ground dwelling birds. And grain crops represent mono-cultures, they are diversity deserts when compared to pasture and range land.

    I totally agree with you that there are plenty of range land areas that are totally not conducive to producing crops that do produce animal protein--and they can do that with little or no water development and without the use of chemicals. If people buy organic or free range grass fed and finished animal protein they are not supporting the environmentally damaging and wasteful feed lots . . . .

    We must remember, however, that not every one does well on animal protein. We won't all thrive on the same type of diet.

    Thank goodness our choices are not restricted to what other people hold as beliefs or ethics.

  • sabelmouse

    i think you should change your username.

    • notation

      I can't figure out which of you is the stupidest human on the web: you, egg man, ccdaddy, or suz norcan. Right now, you're definitely out in front of the pack. You are an idiot.

  • Alisson Patrício

    Be the change you want to see in the world!

    Don't try to change it, or you will be frustrated. Buddha did teach enlightenment don't come from helping others, but by you being in harmony with yourself and nature. We're all one organism. And sure, everything is part of the process of understanding, even eating meat.

    I think he failed to understand plants are also lives, they do make conscient actions and are sentient beings, just like we are. But as buddhism tells us, there's no problem of eating animals, what really matters is your intent! That's why animals do what they do. Any creature, any person on any place makes the best action considering all the information they perceived.

    We don't need animals to have food. Waste of fruits (or even plants) are perfect to make a good soil to grow. That's why Amazon Forest has such a good one. No need to use animals shit, even thought they're really good too.

    There's a way to be harmonic, but that's a very very narrow door to cross. You must shape your whole being to be able to cross it.

    Follow the heart, no the brain. Peace!

  • Paulo Paulo

    The writing itself is pretty mediocre; his arguments are nonsensical. There’s no such thing as “humane” veal production. Yes, male calves are the “byproducts” of the diary industry, but we have a choice NOT to consume cow’s milk, yoghurt and cheese, and therefore not support the rape of mothers and the theft of their calves. If we all decided not to drink cow’s milk, there’d be a great deal LESS suffering. The same can be said of yoghurt and cheese, which the author happily consumes. His argument, in other words, is totally flawed, not to mention his morals; ‘applauding’ milk, yoghurt, cheese and veal production because (some) plant-foods are grown in soil containing manure is disgraceful.

    The boundaries between vegans, vegetarians and veal-eaters are definitely NOT ambiguous. The MORAL boundaries are indeed clear-cut and definitive. The author’s boundaries are obscure because his moral standpoint is decrepit and close to worthless. Does the author know that consuming yoghurt, cheese and milk endorses traumatic recto-vaginal rape of mothers? Does he know that female cows wail and bellow every time their calves are taken away at birth, thus denying any sort of natural bonding experience? The mother is constantly subjected to the removal of the milk that she knows should be given to her missing calf.

    We already know that a plant-based diet is MUCH more sustainable than an animal-based one. Animal products require shitloads of water!

  • crashtx1

    Great article. Too bad you are going to get blasted by the "open minded" folks.

  • brad mayeux

    so how do you propose feeding billions of people with animal meat ?
    if everyone in India and Chine were meat eaters we would need 10 America's to feed them.

    you must know it takes 10x the area to raise animals than plants.

    100x+ if they are free-range, and not tortured.
    how much water does this pollute ?

    you have to raise plants FIRST to feed the animals also...

    and, unless you have the perfect permaculture system, you are not living in harmony one bit with the environment.

    pigs, sheep, ducks, mice can all live in a permaculture system

    without you HAVING to eat them.

    Our bodies are naturally designed as vegetarians, and we know that meat is bad for you, obviously, if you have any sense of living in harmony with nature, you would FEEL this at some level.

    i go to the grocer, and there is 1 isle of fresh fruits AND veggies.

    the rest of the 40 isles are canned processed bullsh**

    Yes, animals are a part of nature, but it doesnt mean we need to eat them.
    cows normal diet is grass, some legumes etc... not corn.

    corn has been hybridized to the point it no longer resembles anything found in nature.

    rocks are a part of nature too, but they dont look good on my plate.

    i also have read Thich Nhat Hanh... i doubt he would be impressed.
    Earthworms were first introduced to northern North America by Europeans BTW

    Thich Nhat Hanh didnt own a .22 rifle

  • Gareth

    I am really inspired by your article and thought I would share my story too.

    I am living in a very busy city in South Africa called Johannesburg. I am currently developing a sustainable farming business where we may farm from within the city on top of parking garages on the top levels that never see much traffic. We will one day in the not so distant future be able to supply vegetables and fruits within 150km radius of these farms with the next farm within reach of the first. This will greatly reduce fuel consumption, make use of wasted space and feed the people fresh, vine ripened fruit picked the day before. I hope to bring food security to South Africa and 1 day to the rest of the world.

    Keep up the awesome content :)

  • Dick Leigh

    Not if you're eating organic produce, which takes way more land and resources than traditional agriculture; it's why organic produce costs more.

    • yoginiX

      Organic is traditional agriculture, Dick.

      • Dick Leigh

        If you think industrial organic agriculture is traditional, you're very mistaken. There's very little that's natural about it. The pesticides used in industrial organic farming can be more harmful than the synthetic kinds.

        • yoginiX

          I'm an organic farmer, and I don't use any harmful pestiicides, your argument is invalid, Dick.

          • Dick Leigh

            Yes, you have convinced me that you're an industrial organic farm owner that uses no pesticides at all because you say so. I have never been so wrong. Thank you for convincing me with your eloquent arguments about my mistaken thinking. You are a hero, and a saint. May the angels sing your praise.

          • john649

            Thank you for realizing your argument was useless.

  • forber

    Fundamental errors. Only eat wild meat you have killed yourself? If all your neighbours start doing that we will have no wildlife left - too many people! If you eat farmed animals they will be fed on the soya you avoided in the tofu!
    We are naturally omnivores yes but that would be insects and carrion if we stuck to what we were before we started altering the environment to suit us rather than being in balance with the beings around us. NB. Many indigenous human groups brought about the extinction of competing/prey animals by the use of fire and over hunting.
    By the way do you use a gun to kill your prey?

  • DonTex

    A flawed article. Vegans don't consume dairy so not sure what the author is implying when he says "... to give milk, cows must be impregnated. Pregnant cows give birth to calves. And virtually all male calves end up as veal". Who eats veal? Non-vegetarians! So you can't ascribe that to vegans can you? Also if beetles & worms get killed in farming can that be avoided realistically ? Killing birds is a choice - don't hurt them if you don't want to! The principle is one of least damage to "fellow "life forms. If you're not convinced of that you are anyway free to give it up but don't misrepresent veganism!

    Nobody can deny you the choice of your lifestyle - but if you want to trash veganism you've to make sense to others.

  • M G

    What is the .22 for?

  • john649

    This is absolutely not truth.
    Humans were are NOT born to murder animals.
    You use the evolution of humans that lost their way along time ago as some sort of origin of man's abuse of animals today.

    • JR48

      In addition to what the aforementioned person spoke of, we have a mouth filled with teeth, each designed for different work. Simply put, our molars can crush plant materials (vegetables, nuts, etc), while incisors are there to rip flesh. True herbivores have mouths filled with molars. We also require Vitamin B-12 for essential physiological processes, and it can only be obtained naturally through animal products.

      Man is a mammal, and is part of the food chain. To reject his place in the chain or want to modify it is a personal choice. But in his natural state, he is no herbivore. We are not just our minds, but we are also our bodies. Our intellect allows us to make personal choices that other living beings cannot.

      • john649

        OMG!!! what bs! Nice try to ease your guilt for supporting the murder of animals BUT this is made up pseudo-science! Humans like all living beings have a soul. To murder a living being is to snuff out their soul from this earth.
        B12 comes from the PLANTS animals eat.
        Humans are NATURAL herbivores....MILLIONS of humans have never engaged in the murder or eating of animal flesh and are living healthy and happy.
        BTW - your cattle have mega-molars and never eat meat.
        Ever take a vitamin in your life????
        Thats because you aren't eating enough vegetables and fruits. Some plants are a better and more complete protein having all the required amino acids.
        *No 2 cause of death = heart disease from meat!

        • KareemAbdul

          As painful as it is for people to believe, there are over a billion people in India, and most of them never eat meat. Somehow they survive.

          I sense the pain when people start name-calling and such.

          Peace, brothers and sisters

  • Derek Wolf

    Yes, it is hypocritical to end a plant's life to sustain yourself while implying that ending an animal's life for the same reason is unethical, murder, etc.

    Circle of life, friend.

    Plants are alive, "breathe" and reproduce.
    They'd get along better without us ripping them apart to be eaten.

    The irony with the vegan-morality brigade is strong.

    Plants --> Animals --> Humans

    They insist that humans look down to animals and value their life as sacred and not to be "murdered" by us. "They're a step down from humans but still have rights!"

    Yet fail to realize the same argument could be made for plants.

    "They're a step down from animals but still have rights!"

    If vegan zealots don't want destroy life to sustain themselves, then they shouldn't eat plants either.

    Or, they can understand that we are a part of nature. The circle of life. We're omnivores.

    Do the moralists go chase down tigers and lecture them about how ashamed they should be for eating animals?

    Nobody cares if an omnivore chooses to eat vegan. Lets not make the mistake of assuming, however, that humans are herbivores. Biochemistry and evolution demonstrate clearly what our natural diet is.

    Nature isn't like Disney Movies where all the plants and animals sing songs instead of eating each other.

  • Richard Lawton

    Amazing how many commentators have missed the point of the article entirely. Without the death of animals there would be no plants. Our planet has a complex ecology - and we are part of that. Trying to pretend that we can ethically stand apart from it is just as bad as the arrogance that has got the planet into the mess it's in.

  • Richard Lawton

    Oh, so there are NO micro-organisms in it? No earthworms, beetles and the like breaking down the vegetable matter?

  • Angeli Alvares

    I tried being vegan too and ended up with severe headaches from anaemia and fatigue. I realised later our bodies are not just us but also millions of other beings called cells and if they are used to eating meat, they go on strike and just leave you stranded energywise. Now i eat meat twice a week or fish and I feel fine. I find most fanatic vegetarians are really my new headache. All vegans I have hung around with have problems analyzing and making rational deductions. They tend to be stuck on to their agenda and just refuse to allow others a choice. After all if we were meant to be vegans, would we have been born with CANINES???. And all this crap about elephants being strong living only on veggies....they also comsume insects etc that come with the foliage and most of these large mammals have FOUR STOMACHS that ferment and digest the plant material which sometimes takes days before it gets throuh the guts Humans have just ONE stomach and heaven knows if I let food ferment in my belly I get a severe hangover headache, not to mention the heavy farting that follows because I just don't have the bacteria in my guts that like beans and rice!. So spare me the lecture on cruelty to animals. Male buffaloes and male of all cattle go straight to the slaughter house whether we like it or not for no farmer in his right mind will have extra bulls on his farms creating a rukus for dominance with other males. One male impregnates 50 cows so what economic sense would it make for a farmer to keep a bull which neither gives babies nor milk???. I think we ought to focus on keeping cattle out in the fields and give them a free run on the grass and not confine them to tiny spaces in factories and THAT is what needs change desperately. If animal lovers focussed on that issue they would find more adherents to their cause rather than lecturing to people what they should and should not eat. Look at India with a mostly vegetarian population and despite 5000 plus years of history, it still has 50% of it's children MALNOURISHED while a tiny 1% are today some of the world's top billionaires! If everyone was a meat eater, would these malnourished individuals have allowed themselves to be exploited to slavery of this kind under the guise of free market democratic capitalism? Look at the meat eating countries like U.S. with only a few hundred years of history and everybody is taken care of at least via welfare and food stamps etc and everyone is treated equal to opportunity and is now the most powerful country in the world. So this itself proves that eating meat gives strength and also capacity to innovate, advance and produce the best of everything. Right now when Iceland and other countries are chasing away corporates and outside banks which exploit labor, our silly vegan country PM is running around the world begging corporates and outside banks to take over India as their playground to milk at they please. But then this is the direct result of vegetable brains. Instead of being alert and active, they vegetate. Sad state of affairs