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Every diet has a body-count: in the garden with the vegetarian killing snails.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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When the demand of my job and my family life allow, I try to take advantage of the fact that I live in California by maintaining a vegetable garden. One of the less pleasant aspects of vegetable gardening is that, every winter and spring, it requires me to embark on a program of snail and slug eradication — which is to say, I hunt for snails and slugs in my garden and I kill them.

As it happens, I’m a vegetarian and an ethicist. I’m not sure I’d describe myself as an “ethical vegetarian” — that suggests that one’s primary reason for eating a vegetarian diet is a concern with animal suffering, and while I do care about animal suffering, my diet has as much to do with broader environmental concerns (and not wanting to use more resources than needed to be fed, especially when others are going hungry) and aesthetics (I never liked the taste of meat). Still, given my diet and my profession, one might well ask, how ethical is it for me to be killing the slugs and snails in my garden?

Killing the snails is not something I relish, and not just because of what a slimy job it is. It used to be more slimy, when I was dropping them into a bucket of salt and sucking all the water out of them. Lately, I dispatch them is a solution of cold water and Ivory dish soap (the “Soapy Bucket of Merciful Deliverance”), which seems to drown them, after which I can pour their corpses onto the compost pile.

Although they are molluscs, I’m inclined to think slugs and snails might experience something like pain while the salt is turning them into goo, and I cannot rule out the possibility that they have negative sensory experiences in the “Soapy Bucket of Merciful Deliverance”. I suppose it’s also likely that they would experience pain while being eaten by a chicken, or while being cooked to be eaten by a human. Would drowning in beer be painless to snails? I don’t know. (I do know, however, that the beer method has been less effective for us than pick and destroy — and that I find it galling to buy beer for gastropod that drink up and then take their party to my lettuce plants.)

Anyway, what I’m doing to the snails probably causes pain. If I knew of a painless (for them) way to destroy them, I’d probably use it. From the point of view of animal welfare, my snail eradication plan is suboptimal.

So what is the interest pulling against minimization of snail pain here?

The short answer is that the current snail population makes it next to impossible for us to successfully raise food crops in our yard. On its face, this looks like a practical consideration rather than an ethical situation. However, our gardening is motivated at least in part by other ethical issues.

Raising food in our back yard is not just a way to feed the family a variety of fresh and nutritious fruits and vegetables (and maybe someday grains). It is also an effort to reduce our toll on the environment by removing a significant proportion of the food we consume from the big agriculture (and even the big organic agriculture) system. The food we are growing has fewer petroleum inputs, since we aren’t applying petroleum-derived synthetic fertilizer (we use rabbit poop instead), nor driving tractors or other motorized farming vehicles, nor putting what we grow on trucks to get to the store (and driving to the store to buy it). There is also less packaging generated, since we keep using the same bowls and baskets to carry our crops from the garden into the kitchen.

I suspect we’re making more efficient use of water in raising our food crops, too. We use a bucket system to redirect vegetable-washing water, vegetable-boiling water, and the water that comes out of the shower while we’re waiting for it to warm up to the garden. In addition, we plant crops close enough to each other that they provide “living mulch” that reduces evaporative loss.

And, I strongly suspect that fewer animals are killed in our garden than are killed in the fields that big ag (even big organic ag) uses to raise crops. Mechanized tilling routinely kills small mammals who may be living under the soil, and pesticides and herbicides kill identified pests while running the risk of killing wildlife (either directly or when they wash into streams and such).

Slug and snail infestation at the commercial growers? I’m willing to bet they’re killing those gastropods promptly.

It’s probably not the case that everyone with a back yard garden intends it as a means by which to unplug from the big agriculture/supermarket/fast food cycle. However, for us, it is; while we might not be able to unplug completely, we can drastically reduce our participation in the cycle. And this, in turn, is intended to have a positive environmental impact, and thus a positive effect on the prospects of the human community as far as not rendering the earth unlivable.

But we can’t have that positive effect without getting a handle on the snail population in our garden.

At this point, you might wonder if we could keep the garden snail population down without killing the critters. I don’t see relocating them as much of an option. They’re endemic to this region, and seeing as how they were brought here from elsewhere (France, I’m told) and became an invasive species, I would not want to risk doing the same thing to another region.

If I were to buy all our produce at the store, rather than raising it myself in the snail killing fields, that would not necessarily reduce the number of critters that die to make it possible for the peas, the tomatoes, the potatoes, or the carrots to grow to maturity. It would just be the case that I wasn’t intimately involved in these killings (whether intended or accidents following upon mechanized tilling or pesticide use), an so would not be directly aware of them.

Plenty of people are happy just to get the food without knowing the details of its provenance. I’d rather shoulder the responsibility of doing my own dirty work here. The karmic costs of my food are not hidden out back in the fields behind the farm stand.

If snails were at all aesthetically appealing to me as a source of food, I’d be eating them instead of just killing them. They aren’t, so I don’t. I hope that by composting the ones I kill that we’re making some use of the nutrients they provide to support the growth of the things we do want to eat.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Larry Ayers 9:05 pm 08/9/2011

    Lately there has been quite a flurry of activity as my favorite science bloggers move to new sites and networks. You are one of the Scienceblogs writers who left after the Pepsi incident; next you showed up at Scientopia. Now I find you writing here for the SciAm blog network, which has grown quickly. Are you continuing to write for Scientopia?

    This post is a thorough explanation of one gardener’s ethical choices. As for me, I have no mercy when I encounter a tomato hornworm!

    Link to this
  2. 2. mkiyota 12:44 am 08/10/2011

    I too live in CA and have experienced the snail/slug problem. I have a very small garden and don’t grow any food except blueberries. But the snails used to enjoy my lovely, leafy plants. I used to use that stuff that cuts them up but have found that putting copper mesh around my plant beds, I have been able to keep them out.

    Link to this
  3. 3. kclancy 11:37 am 08/10/2011

    I am very grateful to not have to deal with snails and slugs. However, here in central Illinois the squirrels occupy an ecological niche similar to rabbits — they eat veggies in everyone’s back garden. They also dig up our bulbs. And there are very few ways to keep squirrels from food that they really want.

    As distasteful as I would find killing snails and slugs, I would do it to preserve my family’s garden. And I will keep erecting different kinds of clumsy fences to keep squirrels from my veggies. But I wouldn’t kill squirrels, though I do eat meat (I am able to get it almost entirely locally by small farmers, at least — same with dairy and eggs).

    Anyway, reading your post made me think of where these different boundaries were for me. Thank you for such a thoughtful post!

    Link to this
  4. 4. mskele 4:05 pm 08/10/2011

    Eat a peach, disturb the universe. Clearly, the only ethical solution is to retroactively not exist.

    Link to this
  5. 5. leggedfish 7:48 pm 08/10/2011

    A thing to try might be to find out what type species like to eat slugs/snails in your area, and then provide a habitat for them to live in. That way they’ll be attracted to your yard for nesting, and have a ready food source. They would do all of your dirty work for you.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Tonomoya 7:58 pm 08/12/2011

    Why don’t you just share your garden with the little critters? plant a few of their favorite food in a small designated area just for them, and instead of spending your time gathering them just to kill them, simply gather them and relocate them into their little piece of heaven that you’ve created for them….then you can sleep in peace and gather some good karma

    Link to this
  7. 7. J4zonian 8:38 pm 08/16/2011

    Famous permaculture saying: Is it a snail problem or a duck deficit? As one who has ducks and now has what I consider a snail deficit (friends occasionally drop off 5 gallon buckets of them from their gardens) I’d have to say all the solutions that involve someone eating the snails sound useful. You, ducks, chickens, wild creatures… the fact that you grew up not eating snails (essentially the same as saying they don’t appeal to you) doesn’t seem like a good reason to me. I’m sure you can look at your diet now and find dozens of things you eat that you didn’t grow up eating. Try em.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Billyv 8:10 pm 10/23/2011

    answer to: 1oldsarg 4:01 pm 08/12/2011 who asked:

    Why are we so concerned with killing just animals? Plants strive to live to and demonstrate distress when damaged. Just because they do it chemically instead of sonically doesn’t mean they don’t scream. The human inability to detect these chemical distress calls indicate nothing but our own obtuseness. So, the only way to avoid causing suffering is commit suicide . . . painlessly, of course.

    Thank you for reminding people that plants are living entities with an inherent right to live.

    Animals do [all] have what science calls ‘fully developed nervous systems’ and most are known to possess an emotional self of the kind that humans can relate to. No one can dismiss the first part of that statement… It appears to be somewhat different for plants, but assumptions can be deadly.

    There likely are exceptions to your “demonstrate distress when damaged” assertion as it applies to food, though I am not arguing. Self-harvesting plant expressions (the fruits of most fruit plants, which fall from the mother plant and soon rot if not used for instance),… This allows some folks to feel good about eating an apple but not a root vegetable.

    Many people agree (in casual philosophy if not in practice) that it is reasonable to endeavor to do the least harm possible as we move through life.

    A major point to keep in mind is that each bite of ‘animal sourced’ food represents bushels of corn, mounds of soy, un-countable alfalfa plant lives, and so on. Therefore, the person killing a food commodity animal: even if by contract as most people do, and even if the execution were painless (which it never is) and at the end of the victim’s natural lifespan (which is never the case), is also killing many thousands of individual plants. In fact because of the extreme inefficiency with which animals produce edible tissue (the vast majority of energy input makes movement, heat and [mostly] waste), every single bite (or sip) of animal sourced food kills many thousands of plants.

    This is why I can defend the statement that: first-world meat eating people consume at least 40,000 calories a day.

    Authoritative recommendations are in the range of well under 2,000. But,

    Statistically, Americans ‘take in’ at least 2,500
    The most conservative estimate for the ratio of energy input to energy value of food produced as meat and milk is 30:1 (a very conservative average of known inputs, some individual inputs are reduced by factors of 200 and greater).

    So, 2,500 Daily individual caloric intake (not actual consumption)
    Multiply 2,500 x 15 (lets just do one half of the 30:1 ratio) = 37,500 (Yes, Thirty-Seven Thousand)… There is the 40 grand in round numbers, and remember we already cut the thirty factor loss in half in the calculation and that may be fair because meat eating people eat some plants (without cycling them through animals) too.

    This dialog discusses only the lives most directly harmed and taken, not the lives negatively impacted by the disease born of eating animals and the diseases created by intensively producing commodity animals, the diseases spread by handling ‘cadavers’ and so on. Big issues to be sure.

    Nor does this dialog touch on the huge environmental aspects and numerous other insults to the people, the planet, the future.

    Thanks, and all the best,


    You are Everywhere, Everywhere is You


    Organic Grains to be Phased Out on Planet Earth

    How many land animals have been killed for the meat, dairy, and egg industries since you opened this webpage…

    Plant Based Diet Guidelines, a Primer

    Link to this

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