Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Why vegetarians should support GM crop production

2 Comments

In a comment responding to my previous post seajay23 wrote the following:

Full-scale vegetarianism also implies extensive agricultural development. Agriculture requires control of pests such as rodents and crop-eating birds and insects. Control means either direct killing or removal leading to likely starvation of said pests. Furthermore alienating natural environments for human agricultural needs necessarily requires the displacement of animals native to the land that is converted to farmland. Modern agriculture usually requires extensive mono-cropping and soy is probably the best (worst) example; can we justify the destruction of complex ecosystems to sustain universal human vegetarianism?

There are some interesting claims in there that deserve serious thinking: I’ll split the argument up and deal with the claims separately.

P1. ‘Full-scale vegetarianism also implies extensive agricultural development.’

For the purpose rest of the post I’m going to assume that this premise is true.

P2. ‘Agriculture requires control of pests such as rodents and crop-eating birds and insects.’

Again, I will assume this to be true, although I do think that things may not be so clear cut.

P3. ‘Control means either direct killing or removal leading to likely starvation of said pests.’

OK, here’s where I think things become interesting: P3 is definitely worth challenging. For starters, ‘control’ might mean something very different: it could mean planting sacrificial crop, it could mean producing pest resistant crops, and it could mean introducing species that feed on pests. Wait a minute, I hear you thinking, didn’t my last post say that we should interfere to prevent predation? True, I did argue that, but I’m going to go a little further in a moment and say why I think there’s a morally relevant difference in the pest case. Let’s continue by assuming that none of these forms of control are viable – which leads to conclusion below.

C1. Killing or causing suffering to agricultural pests is wrong, therefore large scale agriculture is wrong.

The flaw in this argument, I think, is that it fails to account for the fact that the biggest threat to agricultural production (aside from drought, flood, fungus, disease etc) comes from insects. Unlike the impala in the previous example, insects are not what Tom Regan calls ‘experiencing subjects of a life’. They do not have a biographical existence over time. Indeed, they almost certainly lack the ability to feel emotion. When we experience pain we not only have a physiological response to the noxious pain-causing stimulus (the shying away), we also experience a feeling of pain. Pain consists of nociception (the physical response) and also has a phenomenological component (the feeling of pain). Whilst insects have the physical response to pain, they do not experience the phenomenological content. If we think animals worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes, it is because they can feel pain, suffer, and/or are harmed by death. Insects therefore probably aren’t worthy of moral consideration for their own sakes, and thus any wrong we do by ‘controlling’ them is indirect.

If, after all of that, there’s still an argument to be made that controlling pests by killing them is wrong, then our best option may be to genetically engineer crops to be more pest resistant. Yes, you read that right: we may be morally required to grow GM crops so as to avoid causing suffering to non-human animals through farming.

Finally, seajay23 wrote:

Modern agriculture usually requires extensive mono-cropping and soy is probably the best (worst) example; can we justify the destruction of complex ecosystems to sustain universal human vegetarianism?

The problem with this argument is that the environmental harms cause by crop production are far less than those caused by breeding animals for food. The energy needed to breed animals is much greater than that needed for crop production. So assuming the claim above is true (again, I think this is actually an open question), it’s still a better option than breeding animals for food. And the same arguments holds true when you consider the suffering caused to animals in growing crops for direct consumption vs breeding animals for consumption – animal breeding results in more suffering in that case too. Whilst we may be faced with two undesirable situations, that doesn’t mean that should not be ambivalent about which undesirable outcome we pick – this is not a Hobson’s Choice where we’re faced with equally bad outcomes: growing food for direct consumption is demonstrably less bad than breeding animals for food.

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Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Why vegetarians should support GM crop production

  1. This was a very interesting post, especially in light of an article I’ve come across over here in Australia (http://theconversation.com/ordering-the-vegetarian-meal-theres-more-animal-blood-on-your-hands-4659).

    Here’s the dilemma I’ve been dealing with: supposing that what the author of this article says is true, that 1) The majority of cows are raised solely on non-arable land as grazers, without need for agricultural grain, etc. and 2) 100 or so rodents are killed in agriculture, per 1 cow in meat production, is there still an argument for vegetarianism, especially considering the aims of utilitarianism?

    • Thanks for the interesting an thought-provoking link. It does seem to ignore the possibility of importing from countries without the same issues vis a vis arable/non-arable land mix, and it draws a moral equivalence between cows and mice, which might be questionable given comparative sentience levels. Still, lots to think about.

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