This argument will be a familiar one to any vegan, it is less an acknowledgement of the inherent issues with crop farming and more an attack specifically levelled at vegans. It is used more often than not as a “gotcha” card, a way to point out that vegans cause harm too, and that being vegan isn’t morally any better from eating animals. There are of course several issues with this argument and the way it is commonly used.
It is important to acknowledge from the outset that there absolutely are inherent issues in the crop industry. The exploitation of migrant farmers to pick crops is a serious and severe issue, and it is something we should all be advocating against. However, blaming vegans specifically for this global problem is deeply unfair, we feed considerably more plants to farmed animals than we ever eat ourselves and livestock take in far more calories in crop feed than they will ever give out in meat, meaning your average omnivorous diet requires significantly more labour than a vegan one does.
At present a full 1/3 of the planet’s land surface and 2/3 of available agricultural land is used for farming animals. Chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output; beef cattle 54:1, lamb 50:1, pork 17:1, turkey 13:1 and milk 17:1, according to the ecologist’s analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. All told, farmed animals consume 40% of all grain produced and 70% of all soy produced globally, which means that most crop labour is expended to meet the demands of meat based diets, not vegan ones. If we were looking for a diet which requires the least crop labour possible, based on these figures alone the first things we would eliminate are meat and dairy, as these are some of the most resource and labour intensive products in existence.
On top of the issues with farming crops to feed farmed animas, one of the things people making these claims always fail to take into account is that animal agriculture is one of the most exploitative industries in the world. Slaughterhouse workers are much more likely than average to have problems with drug and alcohol abuse and with mental health issues like PTSD from working under extremely stressful conditions. These workers have astonishingly high rates of injury due to a high pressure, dangerous working environment. When workers do sustain injuries, The Human Rights Watch reports the industry avoiding administering their workers’ compensation programs by systematically failing to recognize and report claims, delaying claims, denying claims, and threatening and taking reprisals against workers who file claims for compensation for workplace injuries. These are most often poor immigrants with few other choices. These victims of the very same system of oppression as crop workers are, yet their suffering is conveniently ignored by those who profess to care about the exploitation of food workers.
Vegans are fully aware that like everyone else, our lifestyle is far from perfect. The fact that we cannot avoid all harm is contained in the very definition for what it means to be vegan, to avoid exploitation as far as is possible and practicable. It is possible and practicable for most people to boycott all animal products, but we simply could not survive if we had to boycott all plants as well. It not possible to be a consumer in the modern world without causing some harm, but veganism is about reducing that harm as much as we are able to. It is incredibly cynical to berate someone for making an effort to live a lifestyle lifestyle which is as ethical as they can make it just because it isn’t perfect, especially if you are someone who is making no such effort yourself.
With all of this in mind, blaming vegans who make up a tiny percentage of the global population for the existence of exploited crop workers is not only absurd, but blatantly self interested. The exploitation of workers on the lowest end of the economic scale is an inherent issue of capitalism, to expect vegans alone to be able to avoid this exploitation, while simultaneously doing absolutely nothing to avoid this exploitation yourself, is blatant hypocrisy. The sad truth is that the struggles of impoverished farmers are seldom spoken about as anything other than blunt force attacks on veganism; and using them in this way is nothing more than capitalising on other people’s struggles as a smokescreen to disguise selfish and harmful choices.