Steven Davis says he didn't set out to start a fight, but found one when he began attacking one of the most sacred beliefs of the vegetarian community.
One of the reasons most commonly cited by vegetarians for giving up meat is the conviction that other animals have a right to life as well as humans. But when Davis began setting up a course on animal ethics for the animal science department at Oregon State University four years ago, he reached a rather surprising conclusion.
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?"
Any disruption of the land, whether it be to farm or to build subdivisions, reduces the amount of land left for other animals, resulting in the deaths of many. And Davis, a professor of animal science at Oregon State who grew up on a farm, says as a child he saw animals killed by the routine operation of farm machinery, so there's no way to have a bloodless farm.
"If they say they don't want to kill an animal so they can eat, I think their conclusion is misguided because they are killing animals so that they can eat that vegetarian diet," Davis says. "Those animals happen to be a little bit invisible. They are not as obvious to the man on the street as killing a steer in the slaughterhouse. But nonetheless, it's still going on."
Ever since he revealed his conclusions, Davis' e-mail box has been jammed with responses, much of it from vegetarians, and not all of it friendly. Most of it, though, has been "quite decent," he says, because vegetarians tend to be well-educated, sensitive and thoughtful folks.
One-Time Kill vs. Continuous Slaughter
"This is something we've been aware of for a long time," admits Jack Norris, president of Vegan Outreach in Davis, Calif., an organization that is dedicated to spreading the gospel of vegetarianism. (Norris is a vegan, by the way, which is even more restrictive then vegetarianism in that it rejects all animal products, including milk and other dairy products.)
It's obvious that some animals die when their land is taken away for farming, Norris says, "but you take it away only once." It doesn't lead to the continuous slaughter of animals for human consumption, he contends, because once the land is turned into a farm, there aren't that many animals around to kill.
Davis admits he doesn't really know how many animals are lost each year to agriculture, but he suspects it runs in the millions. Not many farmers do a before-and-after survey, so the best data are really just estimates.
But it's clear that many are killed to put meat and dairy products on our tables, and Norris and others are just as concerned over the suffering of those animals prior to slaughter as they are over the deaths themselves.