Normally I steer clear of vegevangelism, but surely it says something about the ethics of how we feed ourselves today that when someone actually does take it upon himself to defend modern factory farming, the result looks like this. Perhaps “defend” is putting it strongly: Wesley J. Smith’s strategy isn’t to offer any kind of affirmative justifications, but rather to build an organic, non-GMO straw man, woven from all the batshit craziest notions ever spouted by members of PETA.
Smith’s case is based on the earthshattering observation that animals are killed in the process of raising and harvesting crops, too. One obvious response is that the killing pigs and cows seems morally more problematic than killing insects and rodents. And indeed, Smith sees this response, but doesn’t actually have anything substantive to say in reply. He just points out that Ingrid Newkirk once said something nuts about how “a rat, is a fish, is a dog, is a boy.”
The other obvious response is that livestock also eat crops, that of course we cannot live without causing any animal deaths, and that the point is to avoid surplus suffering or unnecessary suffering. Here, too, Smith sees the obvious response, he just doesn’t want to deal with it, so he avers that this is not the “real issue” because “The argument made by animal-rights activists is that meat is murder, while veganism is supposedly cruelty-free.” Which is to say, Smith is too terrified of serious ethical questions to engage with anything weightier than a slogan.
We get one very feeble attempt to engage the utilitarian argument, by way of a passing reference to a paper arguing that more animals are killed on land used for crop cultivation than on grazing land. There are a number of rather glaring problems with this paper. For one, the underlying per-hectare death toll used to calculate the net difference in animals killed appears to be, in essence, a guess. Since that underlying number gets multiplied by a few hundred million over the course of the argument, it would be something of an epic understatement to say that the conclusion is apt to be tainted by any initial imprecision. The paper operates on the utterly implausible Newkirk premise that a mouse and a lamb and a cow are all to be treated he same way. It also focuses on death rather than suffering, which is an important distinction for anyone who’s fundamentally concerned with cruelty: It is not of particular concern to me if field mice are being instantly killed in threshers.
But all these concerns are, believe it or not, secondary. Smith himself actually brings up the most fatal problem with this argument, and either fails to notice or pretends not to. Earlier in the article, Smith quotes an ethicist as follows:
It takes 3 ¼ acres to feed an omnivore for a year; 20 vegans can be fed from that same space. Therefore, to the extent that there is harm caused to sentient beings by the production of plants, that harm is only multiplied by the omnivore.
I have no idea whether the 20-to-1 figure is right, but I’m pretty sure it’s on the right order of magnitude, and Smith never contests the idea. Which you’d think would be pretty significant, given that the methodology employed by the paper Smith cites depends on holding constant the amount of agricultural land in the United States and projecting the result under different mixes of land use. In other words, the calculation just ignores the fact that—as Smith has told us only moments earlier—an omnivorous diet requires vastly more land. This is like claiming a set of encyclopedias will take up less shelf space than a dictionary, because after all, each volume is thinner. At this point, our options are limited: We can assume Smith is so stupefyingly dim that, though he is apparently writing a book on this topic, he has not noticed this incredibly obvious problem with his argument. Alternatively, we can assume that Smith assumes his readers are stupefyingly dim, and has no qualms about making a transparently invalid argument if it might help him needle the hippies.
For all that, the chief fault of this piece is not dishonesty, or even stupidity; it is cowardice. At every opportunity, Smith flees from difficult questions or serious debate, preferring to instead bat around the nuttiest views of the most extreme animal rights activists. In other words, like any bully, he’s full of bravado when picking on the weakest targets. So just this once, I’ll make an exception to my general rule and actually advocate meat cultivation: Mr. Smith, grow a pair.