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Vegan Mythbusting #1: Are Wild Animals Killed When Grain is Harvested for Vegans?
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Vegan Mythbusting #1: Are Wild Animals Killed When Grain is Harvested for Vegans?

The Vegan Mythbusting series uses science to debunk propaganda against veganism.

As a vegan, I’ve often heard the refrain that animals are killed when plant food is harvested – effectively, animal consumers indicate that vegans eat food whose production involves wholesale slaughter of small wildlife that lives on farms. And, as they argue, since harvesting grain kills a lot of rats, fawns and nestlings, and slaughtering a cow kills only one animal, vegans are responsible for more animal cruelty than meat eaters are.

This, of course, is easy to refute, because most of the world’s grain is fed to livestock, which means that the process of producing meat kills more mice, birds and insects, plus one cow or pig or chicken. But then meat eaters argue that they consume only “grass-fed beef” – cows raised on pastures, not fed on grain. “Grass-fed” beef is all the rage now. The fact of the matter is that the “grass-fed” label is nothing more than a vague, feel-good word for scamming consumers – right up there with “farm-fresh”, “pure”, “humane” and other make-believe nonsense. I’d love to talk about how “grass-fed” cows are actually raised (hint: it’s not all that different from “grain-fed” cows), and the impact this has on our environment. But that’s something for another time.

In this little post, I'd like to have a chat with you about harvesting deaths. Is it true that producing grain kills lots of wildlife? And how much is “lots”? A few million? Thousands? Dozens? And where does this silly myth come from anyway?

In terms of marketing tactics, the meat industry today is not all that different from the tobacco industry was in the 1950’s. One of their Standard Operating Procedures is to commission ‘scientific’ studies that paint a favorable picture of their industry, or to dig up independent studies that even vaguely support their business. They then use their financial resources to use media and advertising to promote them widely. Repeat a lie a few hundred times and it becomes a valid point of view. Repeat it a million times and you’ll have yourself an irrefutable fact.

In 2003, a guy named Steven Davis, who’s an animal science professor at the Oregon State University, published a paper about the number of animals killed in producing crops, versus beef production. He didn’t actually go out into the field and measure anything, oh no, no, no! He reviewed older, existing field studies, then performed some calculations using that data. To be specific, he used studies about the drop in the numbers of mice and other animals before and after a harvest. He then proceeded to declare that producing grain causes the deaths of lots and lots of critters, eating a diet of “large herbivores” (I think he meant cows, not rhinos) kills fewer animals than cultivating crops [Davis, 2003]. Predictably, the meat industry gobbled up that study faster than actors in their TV commercials hog down bacon strips. And they promoted it wherever they could, as often as they could. Soon, media as diverse as Time, NYT Magazine and Australian Broadcasting Corporation were writing about it. Why, they asked, is the life of a cow more important than the life of a harvest mouse?

Well, scientists being scientists, decided to examine these claims more keenly. And ............ they found that the research is correct. There are a lot fewer wild animals on farms after a harvest, than before. Ouch!

But wait a minute – how do we know that all those mice and voles and birds are dead? What if they are not? Did the scientists who did this research – the very same data that Davis used to announce that beef involves less cruelty than bread – try to find out what happened to those animals? The answer is, yes, they did. Let’s have a round of applause for them.

For one, Davis used a 1993 study by Tew and Macdonald. In 1992, T & M had a fun time fitting tiny little radio collars to cute little, furry, brown, wood mice, whom they called Apodemus Sylvaticus, because that’s their sciencey name. Not one or two, but 33 of them. That almost makes me want to quit my boring desk job and become a public-funded field researcher – now where’s that shady back-alley shop that prints college diplomas?

T & M then set those 33 mice free to munch on grain, scurry, groom their fur, build nests, or whatever. All through the harvesting season, they tracked their rodent gang. Guess how many died in a grain harvester? One. One out of 33 – that’s 3.3%. In other words, 96.67% of the mice on a harvested farm were not killed by cruel bladed machines. But 17 – that’s almost 50% - were killed by other critters – owls and weasels, to be more specific. Their radio collars were found on carcasses, or chewed up in burrows, or as fancy new toys for owlets. Statistically speaking, harvesting machines had virtually no impact at all.

It’s interesting that Davis used this study and counted 18 dead mice, but didn’t care to factor in that 17 had died of predation. The devil – the Vegan Devil (RAWR!) - is in the details.

But why didn’t harvester machines kill those mice? Common sense tells you and me that since mice have ears and eyes and whiskers, when they see a huge, loud machine heading their way, they bolt for their lives - a prudent and successful strategy. Mice have perfected the art of escaping faster and stealthier things than harvester machines. Sure, baby mice in nests, or the old and infirm can’t do much, but most mice are quite adept at avoiding large, noisy things. However, since science does not place much stock in “common sense”, a team of six scientists in Argentina did research, just to be doubly sure [Cavia et al., 2005]. They measured the density of rodents on farms in central Argentina, as well as in forested areas around those farms, before and after harvests. They found that while the density of wildlife on farms was lower after the harvest, the numbers of animals in the forests had gone up significantly. That meant that when grain was harvested and their cover vanished, the animals abandoned the farms and moved to the shelter of forested areas close by.

Does the Davis study need more refuting? Why not. Davis made another mistake in his calculations. He assumed that producing food for meat eaters and vegans uses the same area of land. In fact, raising animals requires vastly more land and water than cultivating plants does. On average, meat production uses 16 times more land than producing vegan food of equivalent nutrition. There goes the math.

But all this arguing over harvester machines overlooks an important fact: most of the world’s food production does not even use machines. You see, most of the world’s farmers live in the developing world. They farm small areas of land, which makes mechanized farming cost-prohibitive. Most of the world’s farmers plow their fields with water buffalo in Vietnam, oxen in India and donkeys in Kenya. Seeds are sown with rudimentary tools, pesticides are sprayed by hand pumps and irrigation channels are dug using picks and shovels. They use this produce to feed their families and sell the surplus at local farmer’s markets. Let me put it another way: most of the plant food eaten by humans is farmed without using machines – no tractors for plowing, no aircraft for spraying chemicals, and no grain harvesters.

Crops raised for feeding meat animals, on the other hand …

 

References:

  1. ASPCA (2014). What Is A Factory Farm? 
  2. Capper, J. L. (2011). Replacing rose-tinted spectacles with a high-powered microscope: The historical versus modern carbon footprint of animal agriculture. Animal Frontiers, 1(1), 26-32.
  3. Cavia, R., Villafañe, I. E. G., Cittadino, E. A., Bilenca, D. N., Miño, M. H., & Busch, M. (2005). Effects of cereal harvest on abundance and spatial distribution of the rodent Akodon azarae in central Argentina. Agriculture, ecosystems & environment, 107(1), 95-99.
  4. Davis, S. L. (2003). The least harm principle may require that humans consume a diet containing large herbivores, not a vegan diet. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 16(4), 387-394.
  5. FAO (2012). “The State of Food Insecurity in the World”. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome, 2012. 
  6. Lamey, A. (2007). Food fight! Davis versus Regan on the ethics of eating beef. Journal of Social Philosophy, 38(2), 331-348.
  7. Matheny, G. (2003). Least harm: A defense of vegetarianism from Steven Davis's omnivorous proposal. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 16(5), 505-511.
  8. Tew, T. E., & Macdonald, D. W. (1993). The effects of harvest on arable wood mice Apodemus sylvaticus. Biological Conservation, 65(3), 279-283.

 

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Leave a Comment

  1. beachgurl
    Awesome post! Love your writing style! It's a pleasure to read and I voted, as well as hooked up to read anything else you write. Something on Grass Fed Beef next? Informative, and gave me some good arguments to share with folks who tell me what I kill because of my diet. Thank you!
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    1. Anupam
      Hi, Thanks for the compliments, and thanks for subscribing! This was my first-ever post on this site. I was thinking of writing about meat and human evolution next, just to add in some variety. Did our ancestors get their bigger brains from a diet of meat? And will we get dumber if we stop eating meat? That's what we'll be exploring in my next post. Have a great weekend!
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  2. SKimball
    Thank you for the sourcing, I'm excited about the next mythbuster!
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  3. sejal
    Thanks for a great myth-buster. would you also help me bust this? "Ploughing and harvesting kill small mammals, snakes, lizards and other animals in vast numbers. In addition, millions of mice are poisoned in grain storage facilities every year. However, the largest and best-researched loss of sentient life is the poisoning of mice during plagues." - http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/ordering-vegetarian-meal-there-s-more-animal-blood-your-hands
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    1. Anupam
      Haha, I've seen that article. What's hilarious is that IFL Science closed comments within ONE day of posting that article. ONE. Just goes to show how much confidence / sense of integrity that IFLS have about something posted on their site. Websites often try to bait vocal communities like vegans (and in the past, homosexuals, racial minorities, etc.) in order to gain web traffic. What IFLS doesn't see is that by allowing scientifically hollow articles on their site and then blocking comments, they are only ruining their reputation before it takes off. I've already addressed harvesting in this article. As for lizards and snakes being killed in "vast numbers" during ploughing ... well, they have to PROVE it before I can disprove it. Where are the statistics, numbers to back this up? As for mice being poisoned in storage facilities and to manage plagues ... mice feed on the stored grain. What is most of this grain used for? For feeding to animals. On an average, 70% of the world's grain is fed to livestock. Keep in mind that highly populated parts of the world, where people eat a lot of grain, bring the AVERAGE down. I don't have any numbers for Australia but considering that it is a country with low human population and high meat production (mostly for export), the percentage of grain fed to livestock must be significantly higher. It's also important to keep in mind that the numbers quoted in the article are skewed because they are describing the Australian scene. Mice breed in vast numbers in Australia because they are an invasive species, meaning that other animals have not evolved over a long period of time to compete with mice or to hunt them. It's not true for the rest of the world, where a vast array of predators hunt rodents. It's also important to keep in mind that cows and sheep are also an invasive species in Australia. :) And they do more damage to the Australian ecosystem than rodents do.
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    2. Anupam
      Sejal, a writer named Joanna Schlosser has written this amazing rebuttal to that sham of an article. There are a bunch of links at the bottom of her post that will serve as excellent references for you: http://www.theflamingvegan.com/view-post/A-Response-to-the-Article-Ordering-the-Vegetarian-Meal-There-s-More-Animal-Blood-on-Your-H
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  4. Anupam
    For your reference: This page also has some excellent data - http://www.animalvisuals.org/projects/data/1mc
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    1. alysdexia
      They're not excellent. Or do you think quantity is better than quality and calories are better than nutrients? You ignore that the vast majority of health problems come from plant products rather than animal products. Why? Plants don't want animals eatan them so they develop defenses that harm or kill their predators. Neither did this hýpervolic editorial refute Davis's work. It shouldn't matter what the animal killers were. Vegans cannot eat cattle feed, and the earth cannot support vegan crops. Vegans keep in their bubble where their food is imported and nutrients added as they can't simply grow anything anywhere. This whole story ignores the insects killed, and those that wind up in food. There is no such thing as a vegan fruit or vegan crop unless you grow everything yourself in a bubble, pollinate it yourself, and fertilize it yourself with minerals. What would vegans do if they found rabbits, swine, or moths in their crops?
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  5. cckelsey
    I think there is another element behind the propaganda campaigns that isn't being registered by the bulk of the collective. Not only are social and physical scientists who are on the take attempting to mess with people who are onto data that would help them make wiser choices, they're also performing duties to try and help those who are also on the take (yet at lower levels of knowledge, a decent proportion of which is corrupt - yet they don't know which parts) maintain a delusion about the malevolence they're involved in before they've gotten more crooked by climbing the pyramid scheme. If you're on the take and you know your cult pyramid is profiting off of the slaughter based food industry and then you're confronted by the vegan and vegetarian phenomena, its a really convenient call to buy when a higher up suggests to you, "Guess what, those who are adopting a vegan and vegetarian diet are secretly slaughtering more animals than those directly facilitating meat consumption, they're being bad and they don't know it, you're the really good angel, go get another steak, can you buy it?" "Yes I can buy it!" And that's how the telephone system turns you into a monster. The problem is that those who are buying those calls seem to have a logical processing component effectively cut out of them and can't comprehend that its their worst enemy that is deliberately giving them bad information, so the second that higher up gets caught in a lie and you ask them, "Why didn't you tell us that study involved the mice dying from natural predators?" Then it becomes, "Well I had to give you this misinformation at that point to maneuver you to a position where you're now ready for more accurate data, can you buy it?" "I can buy it!"
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  6. jay
    You are picking on the incidental killing of an occasional animal and ignoring the actual intentional slaughter of many more. Just because the soy is harvested, doesn't mean the death toll has peaked. http://timzimmermann.com/2014/11/07/counterarguments-do-vegetarians-kill-more-animals-than-meat-eaters/
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  7. jay
    You are picking on the incidental killing of an occasional animal and ignoring the actual intentional slaughter of many more. Just because the soy is harvested, doesn't mean the death toll has peaked. http://timzimmermann.com/2014/11/07/counterarguments-do-vegetarians-kill-more-animals-than-meat-eaters/
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    1. LouBricano
      There are so many problems with your argument. First of all, it's not "an occasional animal" that is killed in crop farming. There are millions. Secondly, the fact that you try to wave it away as "incidental" is vile. It isn't necessary to kill any animals "incidentally," but no farmer takes any steps to avoid it...and you don't care. Third, a lot of animal death surrounding vegetable agriculture is deliberate, not incidental. Animals are wantonly slaughtered as pests, both at farms and at food storage and processing facilities. The issue surrounding so-called collateral animal deaths in agriculture is not a numeric comparison. The issue is that the "vegan" claim to be "cruelty free" is thoroughly falsified by animal CDs.
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      1. vmorello
        Have you ever actually stopped to look at animal agriculture and the conditions those animals live and die in (yes, your precious ~grass-fed~ ones too)? It's rich for someone who doesn't scruple to feed on their overbred and tortured flesh to call something 'vile' ...
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  8. ChrisS
    Overall a logical piece, but you forgot one piece of the puzzle. There are both direct (killed by harvesting machinery) and indirect sources of mortality. In article you reference the rate of predation increases during / post harvest. If you have ever visited an ag field post harvest, or a recent prairie that has been burned prescriptively, you will notice that predators like hawks show up quickly to take advantage of now exposed small critters (rodents, snakes, etc.). Essentially harvesting the crop causes the mortality (indirectly). From the paper's abstract: "The process of harvesting itself had little direct effect on the mice, but the removal of the cover afforded by the crop greatly increased predation pressure on the mice. After harvest, mice either emigrated from the arable ecosystem or reduced activity. Nevertheless, over half (17 of 32) of the mice radio-collared before harvest were taken by predators in the FIRST WEEK following harvest [- an indirect effect of the harvest]." We should really stop auguring over what is 'best' (being a vegan vs. vegetarian vs. omnivore) and go after the real issue... overpopulation. All dietary choices negatively impact the environment in an unsustainable way given current human population size and reproductive rates. - The Non-breeder
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    1. Anupam
      Hi - although population is a cause of most environmental problems, I think that the problem is not the numbers of people, per se, but a per capita consumption of resources. For instance, the average American consumes 250 times our planet's resources as the average Somalian. My second problem with saying "population is the real crisis" is that it deflects attention from important problems that are under our control, to what isn't under our control in the short term. No matter what we do, our world's population is not going to reverse overnight, or even over a decade. So rather than simply fretting over populations (which doesn't fix anything), we should be focusing on what lifestyle choices consume the fewest of our world's resources, thereby minimizing the impact of our population. Between the three diets you mentioned: "vegan, vegetarian and omnivore", it's a no-brainer which dietary choice is the best for our environment - the vegan one. The problem with including predation as a consequence of harvesting is that there's really no way to measure it. As another study showed, the numbers of animals in nearby wild areas increases dramatically following a harvest. So if an owl hunted a vole, did the vole die because he lost cover in the field, or because there was a higher density of voles in the nearby forest? That said, the majority of grain cultivated worldwide is fed to livestock, so the most straightforward way of reducing deaths from post-harvest predation is to reduce the frequency and scale of harvests, i.e. stop livestock farming.
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      1. alysdexia
        That was the same thing you said the last time and it's still wrong. Plant diets kill and harm humans and the environment.
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      2. ChrisS
        The issue is a combination of the numbers of people and per capita consumption. And certainly an individual has control over whether or not he/she reproduces. Your same argument can be used against a vegan diet, "[diet] is not going to reverse overnight, or even over a decade." Doesn't mean we shouldn't confront the problem IMO (both consumption and overpopulation). How many children do you have? It is actually relatively easy to test the indirect effect of predation. Have you taking a scientific methods or wildlife biology course? Just because you do not know how doesn't mean it is not possible. We can agree on this, "That said, the majority of grain cultivated worldwide is fed to livestock... "
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  9. LouBricano
    It's not a myth. The irrefutable fact is, animals indeed die in the course of producing vegetables and fruits that "vegans" consume, so the "vegan" claim to be living a "cruelty free 'lifestyle' [sic]" is debunked. So now we move on to a comparison of numbers - the "counting game," as it were. I imagine the typical "vegan" causes fewer animals to die than the typical omnivore. However, merely abstaining from meat and other animal products is no guarantee of that. It is perfectly plausible, even if admittedly unlikely, that some "vegan" consumes a relatively high-harm diet, while some conscientious omnivore consumes a lower-harm diet. Merely excluding meat and other animal products from the diet cannot, by itself, give a definitive answer. In my experience arguing with "vegans" - more than 20 years of it - their arguments involve successive retreats to weaker and weaker positions, ultimately ending up at a vile, ethically empty one. We've seen that the initial claim of virtually all "vegans" - to be living a "cruelty free 'lifestyle' [sic]" - is demolished. The first retreat is to a claim to be "minimizing" harm to animals. That claim is false. In order to be minimizing something, you must measure and count, and no "vegan" does that. If you haven't attempted to measure the harm to animals caused by various vegetable and fruit crops, and then choose only from those that cause the least harm, then you aren't minimizing, except possibly by sheer luck. No one does that, anywhere, and as not all "vegans" eat the same diet, then necessarily some "vegans" are causing more harm than others. Abstaining from meat does not - CANNOT - mean minimizing harm to animals. Let's proceed. The next, weaker claim from "vegans", after they abandon "cruelty free" and "minimizing" - as they are forced by the facts to do - is to claim to be "doing the best I can." That's also false, largely for the same reasons as the "minimizing" claim is shown to be false. If you haven't spent one second trying to identify the least-harm fruits and vegetables, how can you possibly be "doing the best you can?" You're not. Okay, so we've abandoned "cruelty free", "minimizing" and "doing the best I can" - once again, forced to abandon them by the cold, hard facts. So, what's left? What's left is to claim (false) virtue based on a comparison with people you started out by demonizing: "At least I'm doing better than you bastard meat eaters." However, virtue never consists in a comparison with others. Virtue consists only in doing what is right - holding and acting on principles, rather than merely following a rule. You cannot claim to be virtuous based on doing less of something you claim is inherently evil; the only position of virtue is not to do it at all. Suppose your brother viciously beats and sexually abuses the small child next door 10 times per week, and you do it "only" five times per week. Are you "more virtuous" than your brother? No! The only virtue with regard to that is NEVER to do it. Now suppose your brother increases his predation on the poor child to 13 times per week, and you increase yours to six. Your brother's has gone up by 30%, while yours has increased "only" 20%. Is your degree of virtue relative to your brother even higher now? That's patently absurd. You can substitute harm to animals in place of violent sexual abuse of children and get the same result. Suppose your omnivorous brother causes exactly 10 animal deaths per week, and you cause "only" five; substitute any numbers you want, as long as your death toll is greater than zero, because we know it is. Now increase both death tolls, but increase your own by a smaller percentage than his. Are you now even more virtuous than your brother, because while the number of animals you cause to die increased, at least it increased by a smaller percentage than his? By the filthy, sanctimonious logic of "veganism", that's exactly what you would conclude. It's wrong. "veganism" is not a coherent ethical response to anything. All it is is following an empty rule, and virtue never consists in following rules, but only in doing what is right. If causing harm to animals is wrong, then you ought not to do any of it. If it isn't absolutely wrong, deontologically speaking, but instead is merely undesirable in a utilitarian sense, then you'd damned well better make more effort truly to know how much harm you cause, and take serious steps to reduce it. But no "vegan" wants to do that, and no "vegan" does it - all they do is abstain from meat, and pronounce themselves "better." That's loathsome.
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    1. thestingrayrivera
      This response is loathsome. So you have no debunked veganism by arguing with them for over 20 years. And your theory is that because animals still get killed by vegans, that veganism is now dismissed because the ones you argued with, did nothing else to "do their best". What a joke. So now let me guess...because you have now dismissed veganism in YOUR OWN MIND..it is now ethical and morally ok to use animals however we please, abuse and farm them for profits? This makes all of this ok right? Logical fallacy maybe? Vegans kill animals, ok fine. But that makes everything else ok right. Let's not forget the medical and science side of how animal products are not very healthy at all. Even if animals are killed through ag, that does not mean much really. It does not negate the facts of why people are not supporting cruelty and slaughter. You can disprove it all you want, but I and most other vegans just simply will not contribute to the farming atrocities and the lies of the meat and dairy industry. I grew up with animals all my life. I made the connection early on in life, so I am totally happy with my decisions. Yout opinions here don't change a thing and that is the truth.
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      1. Ollie
        Health claims about vegan diets being healthier than meat based ones are simply untrue.. And that comes from someone who actually reads the studies, not just what people regurgitate on blog posts. How about staying on the subject instead of "Oh well, it's unhealthy anyways!". That just makes the rest of your post must less effective and meaningful. I personally think that it's bad to use the argument that animals die no matter what to endulge in eating meat. But he man never said that. So you are just making a strawman here. Furthermore, because you are so obsessed to be able to win an argument you dismiss animal killing done by vegans with just a handwave: "Vegans kill animals, ok fine". Clearly you care more about winning arguments on the internet than whether animals die or not. And that is pretty pathetic.
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    2. vmorello
      Oh, cry me a bloody river. Did you even read the article? It's not the animals' fault that you are a lazy, spiteful individual who is more concerned with alleviating his own conscience about eating bacon than their actual well-being. You are perpetuating animal cruelty for your own pleasure, and no amount of whining and complaining and arguing will change that. Mark, I say "pleasure", not "survival". Yes, humans need to eat to survive. But do they need to support industries which systematically exploit and slaughter animals? No, they do not. Our presence on earth will always mean death to other animals. But it need not be industrial scale slaughter.
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