It seems to me that the impact of producing certain goods on wildlife is not well understood, even in the vegan community. It is easy to assume that plant products are just made from plants or that animal products are just made from animals, but this does not reflect reality. Producing products of any type impacts the animals that inhabit our shared planet.
One way to quantify this is through the animal cost.
The animal cost is the number of lives that are taken to produce an amount of some product or while participating in some activity.
For example, suppose it costs the lives of 1.04 dairy cows for every 490 lbs of boneless trimmed beef (the .04 represents premature death loss due to predator or illness).
That is fairly straightforward to understand. Some amount of a final product requires the death of a number of animals. This is the same with plant products.
Suppose it costs the lives of
- 1 orangutan for every 5,000 lbs of palm oil sourced from region A during a period X
Perhaps the orangutans died from starvation due to displacement, or they were shot by a farmer to protect the harvest. Either way, they would not have died if not for the production of the palm oil.
Furthermore, suppose it costs the lives of
- 1 honey bee for every 20 almonds grown in California
- 10 fish for every 500 lbs of seaweed harvested
- 50 frogs for every 1000 lbs of acai produced in a region in Brazil
- 1 vaquita for every 10,000 lbs of shrimp caught in the Gulf of California
- 5 squirrels, 10 birds, and 20 lbs of insects for every 1,000 board feet of lumber harvested
- 100 butterflies for every gallon of neonicotinoids sprayed in a neighborhood
- 10 mammals (struck and killed) for every 100 miles traveled by car in the Australian outback
The examples above illustrate the basic idea that nearly all products and activities result in animal deaths. Given this fact, we have to rethink what it means for a product to be considered vegan. Just looking at whether a product is derived from the bodies of animals fails to take into account indirect exploitation. For example, a “vegan” chocolate bar whose cocoa beans were grown in west africa would have contributed to the deaths of critically endangered frogs due to deforestation.
The same is true with human activities. It would be a mistake to ignore indirect deaths. Hunting requires an animal to be killed; but other activities such as driving a car or boating regularly cause fatal collisions with animals. While the intent to harm is not there, there are still animal casualties.
Animal cost can include more than one species. For example, there could be incidental capture of non-target species, use of bait for fishing, use of fishmeal to feed carnivorous fish in aquaculture, or pest control to protect agricultural harvests.
In fisheries, the capture of non-target species is called bycatch. Shrimp trawling, which involves dragging a large net along the seafloor, has one of the highest rates of bycatch of any product. Hundreds of non-target species of fish, crustaceans, sea turtles, and other marine species are killed and discarded. In the Gulf of Mexico the ratio is 5.25 bycatch to 1 of shrimp—relatively low compared to other areas of the world.
Just like bycatch in fisheries, cultivation of plant products in agriculture can involve killing multiple species. To fully capture the extent of animal deaths we have to consider the entire process from before seeds are planted to getting the final product on retail shelves. This means taking into account deaths caused by pesticides, harvesters, pollination, pest management, transportation and more. In the honey bee almond example listed above, it would be more accurate to include additional pest species such as rats and squirrels that consume almonds and threaten harvests. Farms use fumigation, trapping, bait poisoning, and more to control their populations.
Another aspect of animal cost is that it tends to decrease over time. Take the conversion of an old growth forest into an agricultural field. In the beginning, the animal cost is at its highest as species are directly displaced and killed. Mobile animals are pushed into adjacent areas where they face higher competition for resources, which leads to mortality over an extended period. Animals that wander back into the fields may be killed by farmers in order to protect the harvest. Over the long run, the animal cost of producing the harvest decreases, as local populations of wild animals diminish or collapse.
In highly developed regions of the world, land has progressed to the later stage of lower animal cost. This differs to developing areas, especially biodiverse tropical regions, that are currently experiencing high animal cost due to rapid deforestation and development. According to the WWF’s 2020 Living Planet Report, vertebrate populations in Latin America and the Caribbeans have dropped 94% between 1970 and 2016. This is far greater than other regions such as North America and Europe in the same period.
This raises the question: how should we think about products that no longer have a high animal cost, but once did in the past? It could be interpreted as a positive thing from the perspective of reducing animal suffering, but it also means the loss of local wildlife populations.
With all this in mind, individuals who care about animal ethics should take a more informed approach on how they choose certain products or activities. It is not sufficient to label products as vegan or not simply based on the ingredients of the final product because many products indirectly cause animal deaths. Because we know this, individuals should aim to choose alternatives or options with the lowest animal costs available.
One way to apply the concept of animal cost in reducing animal exploitation in plant products is to create a science-based recommendation program, modeled like the Monterey Bay aquarium Seafood Watch, that assesses and estimates the animal cost of certain plant foods sourced from different regions of the world. Similar to the seafood watch, products can be placed into one of three categories: green would be “best choice”, yellow “good alternative”, and red “avoid”. This would enable consumers to choose products with lower animal costs.
Veganism and environmentalism at times seem to be two separate things. Most of the attention in veganism is focused on intensive factory farms and the direct exploitation of animals for consumption, but it should be just as important to acknowledge the impact that producing plant products has on wild animals.
As for non plant-based consumers, consider the cost of animal products on factory farmed and wild animals. Is a piece of meat worth the life of a sentient being that had to endure stress and suffering up until its last moments? Is a certain food worth the extinction of a species? If you have eaten shrimp in the US in the previous years, then there is a high chance that you contributed to the critical endangerment and likely extinction of the vaquita, the smallest living species of cetacean.