The Vegan Argument
Why it’s not working, and what we can do to change the way we think about our food.
About a year ago, shortly after I moved back to LA, I decided to try this whole veganism thing because, well, SUSTAINABILITY! Seriously though, if you want to save the planet, veganism really is the way to go. Just look at the toxic runoff from factory farming, combined with the decimation of our ocean populations by rampant and unchecked overfishing, topped with the ridiculous amounts of water and land dedicated to animal agriculture (yes, it’s more than almonds)!
Besides, plenty of populations around the world have been living off of primarily starch based diets for millennia and doing just fine. Societies such as the Adventist’s Vegetarians have purported lowered overall mortality rates associated with vegetarian and vegan diets, and documentary films such as What the Health and Forks Over Knives champion a plant-based diet as a cure-all to a myriad of ailments from cardiovascular disease to cancer. As a literal cherry on top, you can now get any vegan substitute for any comforting foodstuffs you’ve ever craved.
So what gives? Why is the entire world not already vegan?
Well because people like bacon. No, but really, eating meat played a key role in our evolutionary journey from monkeys to humans (bigger brains!). Also, most of the arable land that we could be using to sustainably farm grains, legumes, and veggies for people is currently being utilized to grow food crops for factory farm animals. The U.S. government prioritizes subsidies towards these animal food crops, while championing the meat and dairy industries which line their pockets. Agricultural monopolies like Monsanto are also dominating the seed stock and contaminating organic crops, and the meat and dairy industries are quietly but fervently battling against small farmers and food activists who threaten their behemoth business models. Not to mention the sorrowful lack of education regarding where our food comes from and what consequences our food choices reap. Grim, I know.
But what about the animals?
The biggest and most compelling argument behind veganism is animal welfare. The idea is, your life does not matter any more or less than any other being on this earth. Therefore, eating animals and animal byproducts is cruel and unnecessary exploitation of intelligent beings. You have to admit, it’s not inherently wrong.
“Screw it!” You may say. “I won’t eat anything but grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, and certain strains of bacteria for the rest of my life.” Good for you! So you decide to completely overhaul your Standard American Diet (yes, it’s SAD) in favor of animal-saving plant based goodness. If it works for you, congratulations! You are one of those people who can happily survive without hurting other living creatures, and thus have the right to feel morally superior to the rest of us, right?
But what if you’re not one of those people?
About a year into my vegan adventure, I was NOT feeling good. My energy was chronically low, coffee and sugar were my besties, I was having horrible hormonal acne breakouts, and due to all of this, my self-esteem plummeted. The seemingly healthy amount of guilt I’d been carrying took a steep downturn into shame. Why couldn’t I just swallow my health issues and take one for the planet? Lo and behold, I started eating animal products again (mainly fish and eggs), and I immediately felt better. My skin improved, my sugar cravings were dulled, my energy levels were back up, I was basically a brand new human. Then I was met with the backlash.
Almost immediately after I made the switch, a particularly self-righteous vegan commented on one of my Instagram posts. He told me that I was completely deluding myself, and abusing animals needlessly. He discounted all of my experience as misinformation and not trying hard enough, and told me that I was contributing to the downfall of humanity. Mansplaining aside, this extreme point of view is not uncommon in the vegan community. There is plenty a vegan who will respect your food choices and your specific dietary needs, regardless of their beliefs. But, in my experience, even those well meaning people hold the same principle to be true: that their life is no more important than that of any other species.
But…they’re right, aren’t they?
Well, yes. IF you’re goal is to weed out the percentage of the population that cannot survive without eating animal products. Yes, they’re right. Survival of the most…altruistic?
Amazingly enough, we are not alone in this apparent desire to help other species. Animal altruism has been explained by psychologists as either “kin selection,” the process of helping other members of the same species with similar genetic traits; or “reciprocity”, the idea that the favor will one day be returned. However, this doesn’t really manifest into one animal swearing off a main portion of their diet in order to give their food supply an evolutionary break.
It has been argued that eating meat is what helped us develop larger brains and smaller guts, moving from Homo Erectus to Homo Sapiens. It has also been argued that hunter gatherer societies rarely ate meat, and relied heavily on foraging skills of starches and legumes in their local environments. Ann Gibbons of National Geographic Magazine argues for both possibilities:
“These examples suggest a twist on “You are what you eat.” More accurately, you are what your ancestors ate. There is tremendous variation in what foods humans can thrive on, depending on genetic inheritance. Traditional diets today include the vegetarian regimen of India’s Jains, the meat-intensive fare of Inuit, and the fish-heavy diet of Malaysia’s Bajau people. The Nochmani of the Nicobar Islands off the coast of India get by on protein from insects. “What makes us human is our ability to find a meal in virtually any environment,” says the Tsimane study co-leader Leonard.”
Sadly, we probably won’t return to what our ancestor’s ate without surviving an apocalyptic event that decimates industrial agriculture. Nor will we soon convince the entire human population that they can survive off of starch and fiber. We must find a way forward that is inclusive, no matter how self righteous or morally superior we may feel.
There is a dire problem in the vegan community of severe shaming and demoralizing for anyone who disagrees with the dogmatic position that our survival is less important than that of other species.
The more we alienate ourselves from each other through our food choices, the less we focus on what’s really at stake: ensuring food security for future generations, which is dependent on the viability of our planet. I believe we must focus first and foremost on sustainability rather than altruism, if we have any hope of shifting a species-wide consciousness. Instead of saying, cut out all meat and animal byproducts today, or else you have no moral compass; let’s start with education around what consequences our food choices have on the world we live in, and what options are currently available to us.
For example, in 2013 Time Science had estimated that the world’s bluefin tuna population (you know, sushi), had been depleted by 96.4%. In addition, most of the fish being caught have not reached reproductive age, meaning that we’re decimating the population without giving them an opportunity to rebuild. We’re looking at a near extinction event, with no regard whatsoever to the consequences for ocean environments, just so we can eat poke bowls.
Thankfully, there are examples of sustainable wild fisheries (Alaskan Salmon), and sustainable fish farming or “aquaculture” (mostly in Europe). There are also examples of more sustainable and regionally based animal agriculture operations, where animals are a crucial part of the farm’s ecosystem (check out Polyface Farm and Blue Hill Farm). Urban agriculture projects are also on the rise, in tandem with community p-patches and housing developments that include terraced farms or rooftop gardens. Grocery stores like Sprouts Farmer’s Market and Whole Foods are sourcing more bulk local and seasonal produce, and regional farmer’s markets are on the rise. Subscription boxes focused on food waste are repurposing “ugly” produce that would’ve otherwise gone to the landfill. Whether or not it feels like it, we are trying, and we do have options!
Vegans, I thank you for encouraging me to eat more plants, to be more conscious about where my food is coming from, and educating me as to the consequences of my food choices. I know that you’re on the right track. I also know that in order to affect any kind of change, we must ramp up our educational efforts surrounding sustainable food choices and local opportunities for food production. I must also acknowledge that veganism and any conversation regarding sustainable food systems must account for privilege. Food that is sustainably produced is typically more expensive. Choosing to not eat meat is a privilege, as is choosing to eat meat from more sustainable sources.
One of my favorite books, The Third Plate, by chef and sustainability aficionado Dan Barber, details the future of food in terms of cauliflower steaks. Plates made up of mains of grains and vegetables will feature, accompanied by sides of animal products focused on using the whole being, not only the most desired or valuable parts. This is the way forward for those of use who truly need meat in our diet. I know many will continue to argue that a vegan diet truly is a “one-size fits all.” But to do so would not only discount and alienate the majority of the population, it would encourage us to ignore this possible compromise. Perhaps it is possible for us all to eat what we need in order to survive, and still ensure the security of our food system for future generations. I sincerely hope so.