By Carolyn Zaikowski (pictured above at Farm Sanctuary with rescue cow Thunder).
Due to the unfortunate state of the planet, it is impossible to eat an ethically perfect diet. But we can minimise the animal suffering and environmental destruction caused by our food choices. No diet does that better than a vegan one.
Despite increasingly popular claims, vegans are far from responsible for the problems of plant agriculture. Creatures are inevitably killed by any farming method, but those billions of farmed animals – and there are literally tens of billions of them per year – all need to eat.
Of the corn, grain and soy grown where prairies and rainforests once existed, up to 80 percent feeds animals for Western diets. When you go vegan, not only do you remove yourself from the impact of animal agriculture, but you are responsible for less plant agriculture than most omnivores.
Local, pasture-fed animal products are often put forward as an ethical choice, as they don’t rely on feed crops grown elsewhere and shipped long distances, and also give animals a better life. However, grazing and “free range” methods still involve much animal cruelty.
They also typically require more than double the land of factory farms, not to mention the energy and water used. And the fact that animal agriculture is the number one cause of global warming, surpassing all forms of transportation combined, is generally ignored by “locavores”. Producing animal foods does not magically cease being a major cause of global warming when done locally.
I try not only to eat vegan but also local, as much as is possible. My goal is to minimise, in obtaining my food, the use of animals, plants and fossil fuels. As a resident of the Northeastern United States, I have not found this diet impossible by any means. Challenging in some ways, certainly; requiring compromises sometimes, of course, especially in the winter.
But it is possible in most bioregions to maximise the amount of local, sustainable plant foods you eat – even if you cannot, yourself, build your home and lifestyle around vegan permaculture for a range of valid reasons. You can support local, sustainable farms and local stores that sell their products, and encourage vegan farming where it is lacking. You can also forage wild edibles, as well as grow your own vegetables, fruits and legumes in your house or garden.
Contrary to another common anti-vegan argument, there is no necessary connection whatsoever between topsoil renewal and grazing animals, let alone killing them or using their products. In some parts of the American Midwest, there are so many large grazers that topsoil has been rendered useless from impact and erosion.
Humans have evolved many ways to renew topsoil and land with no or minimal animal input: crop rotation, companion planting, ley farming, composting, humanure, green manure, and more.
In the anti-vegan polemic The Vegetarian Myth, Lierre Keith writes that ten acres of sustainably farmed (grazing) land can feed nine people. In an analysis of Keith’s research, Vegans for Sustainable Agriculture found that when taking into account the adjacent acres necessary to sustain healthy land, that ten-acre plot only feeds two people.
This means that hardly any localities on Earth, using these methods, can come close to producing enough animal food for their human inhabitants. The numbers become absurd when we begin to think about feeding cities.
Any discussion about sustainability must recognise that the human population long ago exceeded anything that could reasonably be called sustainable, so when we speak about sustainability we are, necessarily, using the term loosely. Veganism can’t be expected to fully offset the problem of human overpopulation, but it certainly succeeds in massively minimising use of land and resources.
In contrast, local, pasture-fed animal products are not a viable solution to any of the most pressing problems facing us. There simply isn’t anywhere near enough grazing land on the planet to feed anything but a privileged minority this way. The fact that some persist in promoting this as the solution opens a whole can of worms involving first world privilege, capitalism, racism, mass exploitation, and on and on.
All this, when we could be growing plant crops and using non-animal methods to keep topsoil healthy instead. For every style of animal agriculture, there is a more sustainable vegan alternative. Industrial animal agriculture wastes more resources than industrial plant agriculture. Animal permaculture wastes more resources than vegan permaculture.
Erroneous health claims
“Paleo diets” romanticise a past in which humans, allegedly in harmony with the earth, subsisted mainly on meat and fat. To extrapolate from this that, therefore, it is not only “right” to kill animals for food, but necessary for our health, is a dangerous mischaracterisation of both evolution and paleontology.
Human evolution has been a constant process of struggle, adaptation and change across widely varied situations. Paleontology involves the study of necessarily incomplete evidence. Even if we did have a full picture of what our ancestors ate, this bears little on what we should or shouldn’t eat in an overpopulated, post-industrial capitalist world.
Anti-vegan Weston A. Price Foundation zealots and several marketers of brand-name fad diets are among the proponents of this reactionary stance against vegan health and plant agriculture. Here are some of their favourite angles:
- “Vegans don’t get vitamin D.” Vitamin D is hard to get in any diet; most people get the majority of it from sunlight and fortified foods. One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that even meat, especially in colder climates, isn’t always sufficient to stop Vitamin D deficiency (Smith, Gardner, Locke, and Zwart.) In other words: veganism is not the cause of Vitamin D deficiency, it’s common for omnivores to be Vitamin D deficient, and most people should take supplements.
- “Vegans don’t get omega-3s.” Fish is not the only way to get omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, fish is increasingly dangerous to eat due to pollution, and overfishing of oceans and rivers is an ecological crisis. Vegan sources of omega-3s include flax, walnut, sunflower seeds and hemp seeds. One need only take two tablespoons of flax oil a day to get the recommended omega-3s.
- “Vegans don’t get saturated fats, which are critical for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins and other nutrients.” There are abundant plant-based sources for saturated fat, including nuts, seeds, avocados and certain plant oils, and they’re generally considered healthier than animal fats.
Because veganism is a non-mainstream diet that even doctors and nutritionists don’t know much about, it is easy to assume that veganism is the source of health problems when something goes wrong. Veganism, like any diet, can be unhealthy if executed badly. But the American and Canadian Dietary Associations are just two of several varied groups whose extensive research shows that veganism can be perfectly healthy.
The three Ns and human privilege
Melanie Joy, psychologist and author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, introduced the term “carnism”, which she defines as “the belief system, or ideology, that allows us to selectively choose which animals become our meat, and it is sustained by complex psychological and social mechanisms”.
Like other ideologies, carnism is passed off as normal, natural and necessary, when it is actually an intricately structured system of assumptions, choices and behaviours.
The naming of carnism shines the spotlight on what I believe will be the future of the animal liberation debate: the interaction between unnecessary meat-eating and our psychology. If we fail to address this, we will be ignoring mass inconsistencies of mind, spirit and heart that could be affecting us in ways we do not see.
All oppressive ideologies employ the Three Ns: Normal, Natural, and Necessary. Examples are inexhaustible: Women have smaller brains than men, so they aren’t as smart. Indigenous people are naturally simple, so unable to build great civilisations. Men have a natural and normal propensity for violence because of their testosterone. Humans have always been at war with each other; it’s an unfortunate but unchangeable part of who we are.
These justifications are frighteningly similar to those used in regards to animals: Humans are natural hunters. Violence is a natural part of life. Animals are made for humans. Animals are less than humans. Animals are naturally unintelligent so it’s okay to use them. Other animals eat meat, so it’s natural for humans to eat meat. Farmed animals need us to survive. It’s necessary to eat meat and drink others’ milk to survive. You must be sick, anorexic, obsessive-compulsive, too sensitive, or otherwise weird if you’re vegan.
The Three Ns keep us in denial about violence and oppression. They let us off the hook. They’re a quick fix to the existential problem of having choices, agency and critical thinking capacities. They maintain and protect the status quo; enable it to remain unquestioned.
As in patriarchy there is male privilege, and in racist society there is white privilege, so in speciesist society there is human privilege.
We have developed unprecedented methods of domination over all life. Humanity’s ability to dominate the planet is a radical deviation from the rest of the planet’s relationship to itself.
We cannot conveniently sing that we are on equal ground with the circle of life, involved in a beautifully choreographed dance of give and take, when, actually, we are bullying and destroying that entire circle of life from the outside.
There are significant reasons to believe that carnism and capitalism are responsible for much destruction of the planet. They intersect to create one more violent, instrumentalist ideology analogous to sexism, racism, and on. What do we risk by not considering this?
No diet is perfect, but if we are in a position to make a healthy choice and there are viable alternatives, why support keeping captive and killing sentient animals – and much unnecessary environmental destruction to boot?
Ultimately, I’m vegan because I don’t believe that any body should be defined solely as a means to another’s end, and I do believe that every body has the right to take up its own space, and that no body has the right to take up the space of another unnecessarily and without consent.
Animal agriculture turns subjects into objects. Can we have a healthy earth if our bodies and minds are permeated with ideas about “meat”? Most of us understand “meat” in some way as the ultimate objectification – feminists, for instance, myself among them, don’t want to be treated like it; at least subconsciously, we understand the implications of “meat” when applied to ourselves.
The anti-vegan camp’s implied choice between personal and planetary health on the one hand, and the liberation of individual sentient animals on the other, is a false dichotomy that needs challenging.
In some regards, we don’t even need to be having this conversation: the mere existence of thriving, healthy vegans and widely successful vegan permaculture is really all that is needed to undo those arguments.
A critical conversation about the destruction caused by human civilisation and agriculture is necessary. A convenient, paleo-fantasy-based nostalgia for a perfect time that never existed is not.
Humans have created languages, electricity and civilisations, split the atom, lived in space, and mapped the genome. If we can’t figure out how to live without creating needless suffering and destruction, we’re not trying hard enough.
Carolyn Zaikowski is a long-time advocate for animal liberation and human rights. Her critical writings on veganism, feminism and trauma studies have appeared widely – as well as her fiction and poetry. You can read more of Carolyn’s writing at the Myths About The Vegetarian Myth blog and at her own blog, life roar: a safe space for anarchist apes. Her first novel, A Child is Being Killed, will be published this June.