The Conscious Case against Veganism

EcoSalon originally published this article. I’m a new columnist with this fantastic mag and look forward to contributing more to their vibrant virtual-community of ideas. Big thanks to Editor Sara Ost.

For nearly a decade, I was an evangelical vegan – a born-again, plant-powered fundamentalist, resplendent in my animal-rights halo and heavenly faux-fur robes. I fiercely guarded my inflexible morality, never daring to reexamine the orthodoxy’s most illogical presuppositions. Yes, meat is still murder and factory farms still cause animal cruelty and suffering – none of that has changed. Somewhere along the way, however, veganism stopped being synonymous with ethical treatment of animals and people.

Over the past six months, I’ve come to believe that strict dogma is a drag. Conscientious consumption means eating and living ethically, not religiously. As Slate’s Christopher Cox says, “Eating ethically is not a purity pissing contest, and the more vegans or vegetarians pretend that it is, the more their diets start to resemble mere fashion—and thus risk being dismissed as such.”

Below are eight instances where mainstream-vegan doctrine doesn’t stand up to scrutiny:

SAD: The Standard American Diet: with its 100-calorie, reduced-fat, Omega-3-fortified, fiber-added, high-protein, low-carb, soybean- and corn-based, triple plastic-wrapped snack-packs – is the cause of this country’s obesity, heart-disease, cancer, and diabetes epidemics. This industrial diet requires industrial farming – with all the pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified crops, and exploited farm workers therein. If veganism is about eating ethically, soy-based ice cream, frozen, faux-cheese pizza, and meatless buffalo wings don’t cut it. Sure, it’s cool that cows and chickens aren’t directly harmed in the process, but what about the farm workers’ daily exposure to pesticides and fertilizers, the degradation of the environment, and our population’s chronic sickness? If there were ever a fail-safe argument for eating local, sustainable, fresh, slow-foods, this is it.

Oysters: These bivalves aren’t technically part of the Plant Kingdom, but eating oysters is ethically equivalent to downing a big bowl of kale chips. Not buying it? Remember that the primary tenet of veganism is minimizing suffering – for other animals and the planet. An oyster doesn’t have a central nervous-system; the pain it experiences when farmed from the sea is indistinguishable from that experienced by a potato when removed from the soil. What’s more, oyster farming is one of the world’s few sustainable aquacultures; environmental groups even cultivate oysters to boost marine-water quality. Unfortunately, the seabed dredging required to harvest similar bivalves, like clams and muscles, ruins underwater ecosystems – it’s best to stay away from them. But with oysters, go ahead and shuck ‘em and suck ‘em.

Faux-Flesh Faux-Pas: “Bacon” crisps, fried “chicken,” Teriyaki “beef,” pulled “pork:” I could go on. It would be easy to enumerate reasons to eschew faux flesh, but that seems silly in the face of one, summarizing thesis: Who wants to eat food that requires quotation marks to describe what it is? I mean, would you eat “apples” or “corn” on the cob? Processed food is processed food, even if it is “vegan.”

Wool: Aversion to wool from confined, miserable sheep is sensible and ethical. But not all sheep farmers are bad, and mainstream veganism’s blanket prohibition against wool fails to account for exceptions to the rule. Being vegan is about being mindful, and conscious consumerism isn’t so hard to come by that we should prejudge all wool. Is all cotton harvested sustainably? Are all synthetic fibers better than all wool? A quick Internet search yields scores of results for ethically-sourced wool transformed into hand-woven, lovingly-designed scarves, mittens, winter hats, and more.

Backyard, Egg-Laying Chickens: Flax seeds and fresh bugs, a nice plot of green grass for scratching and pecking, room to roost, and cruelty-free living in a halcyon idyll. Wouldn’t it be tragic to deny a chicken such luxury? That she happens to lay eggs only solidifies the relationship as mutual, reciprocal, and equal. Plus, a fried egg on whole-wheat toast with a side of steamed collard greens is a heaven unto itself – just don’t forget the hot sauce!

Honey: I buy local honey from bees that pollinated the urban gardens where I buy my produce. No bees means no fruits or veggies. Yes, I’m taking the honey against the bees’ will and, sure, it probably stresses them out to have it taken away. But in this case, I choose to prioritize sustainable and fresh instead of imported, cash-crop sugar or agave nectar that’s technically vegan. Because these sweeteners come from abroad, I don’t know if the sugar-plantation farm-workers receive fair hours, fair pay, and safe working conditions (reality check – they probably don’t). Whereas with honey, I actually know the San Francisco beekeeper from whom I sustain my sweet tooth.

Milk-Producing Pet Goats: Goats are even cooler than chickens, because they’re mammals, and thus a lot more fun to have around because they’re furry, good communicators, and nibble your fingers. Any critter that is loved and cared for as a pet – in vegan parlance, a companion animal – is non-exploitative. Humans’ relationships with other animals provide a sense of well-being and increased happiness, which is why we love our cats and dogs so much. Goats are cool and enjoy being milked – it’s physically pleasurable and relieves their udders; fresh, unpasteurized, pet-goat milk is delicious, mindful, and non-harming. I know the anti-dairy camp says humans are the only animals to drink the milk of other species, which is true. But that argument, for me, no longer holds up. We’re also the only species to eat high-fructose corn syrup and partially-hydrogenated oil, and we’re no better for it. I’d much rather get my fats, calcium, and protein from clover field-grazed goat’s milk. Yum, yum!

Vintage Leather: Vegans balk at thrift-store purchases, such as a faded pair of bonafide Mexican boots or a gorgeous Italian book-bag from the Fellini-era – because the leather came from a cow slaughtered decades ago. I used to think this way too – right along as I purchased some cheap, pleather jacket or some-such slave-labor shoes from Forever 21. Reclaiming worn leather endows a discarded garment with new life that respectfully and mindfully acknowledges the animal’s sacrifice. Consider it a vote-with-your-dollar political purchase. You support re-use, rather than contributing to a modern-day economy of mass-consumerism – whether it’s built on the backs of farm-animals or underage wage-slaves in developing countries.

What are your thoughts?


5 thoughts on “The Conscious Case against Veganism

  1. I don’t consider myself vegetarian by any means, but over the past year I’ve been reducing my meat consumption to about once a week (as opposed to daily). Partly, it’s been because it’s hard to find halal (halal is meat that is prepared according to Islamic code). But it has also made me aware of how I can still get better nutrition by substituting with other products, like legumes for example. Going all out vegan, however, seems impractical on so many levels. I have friends who struggle all the time and usually can’t even answer as to “why” they are doing what they’re doing. It seems like you have specific ethical concerns and I totally respect that.
    After reading your post, I have a few questions. It seems like being vegan or vegetarian is tied to a range of ethical issues (for you at least). One of the key points you mention is the unfair wages to workers.
    I’m not trying to sound apathetic, but I’m genuinely curious as to how anyone can trace the ethics behind a product? For example, what constitutes slave/exploitative labor and what happens to these workers if they lose their jobs? What exactly is wrong with working in a plantation (assuming workers are getting paid fairly, I imagine a plantation something like a large farm where a lot of workers reside and work daily)? Also, how is “organic” defined? I see a lot of organic products, but I’m not sure how it’s beneficial to me nor address larger ethical concerns. I’ve looked online, but it seems like there is no specific criteria for an “organic” product.
    How would a vegan/vegetarian (or anyone who wants to consider these ethical issues when buying products) learn the facts? I also liked that you brought up how buying vegan products doesn’t necessarily line up with ethics (e.g. ethical wool versus some made from synthetic fibers). This makes total sense and I think treating their diet like a religion (as you said) blinds people from considering the larger picture.

    Sorry for all the questions, but this is interesting to me. I’ll admit that I’m pretty skeptical (perhaps bc i see so many friends take up these lifestyles without clear convictions) but from an ethical standpoint, I’m curious nonetheless.

    1. I’m impressed with your thoughtful, measured response and thank you for commenting. In this article, I examined aspects of the vegan “rule book” that–after ten years as a vegan–stopped adding up for me. The “why” with which your friends struggle became more apparent to me this year, as I started studying whole-earth ecology and local agricultural movements.

      Being vegan, at it’s core, is about non-harmfulness to other sentient creatures. Non-harming, over time, began to assume new depth and proportion as my vegan activism developed. I began to gravitate toward real, whole foods; the American local-foods revival; and purifying my diet. Non-harmfulness–for me–became more holistic, including but not limited to other animals.

      In terms of farm-workers and environmental-sustainability, the best possible way to source food is from local gardens, roadside farm stands, CSA boxes, farmers’ markets. It’s easier to verify what these producers are up to when there’s up-close accountability. I’m lucky to live in California, the country’s agricultural fertile crescent–local, sustainable, seasonal, personal grub is at my fingertips. Especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I can get rice, beans, and even salt from regional growers.

      As much as possible, I cook my own food, avoiding packaged products; I have no way of knowing what it takes to get them on a grocery store shelf, and I’m loathe to put processed or refined foods in my body. Plus, they don’t taste as fresh, they usually contain stabilizers and preservatives, they discourage culinary art, they’re wrapped in plastics…I could go on.

      There are various organic-certifying agencies within the U.S. and the world. These different organizations establish strict standards that must be met in order for a product to be “certified organic.” The standards address chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides; and, in the case of farm-animals, requirements for their humane treatment. What’s more, for a chicken’s egg or a cow’s milk to be considered organic….even their feed must be organic-certified, creating a closed-loop system.

      Eating mindfully isn’t a so-called purity-pissing contest, either. It’s just doing what you can for the planet, for other people and animals, and especially for your community and own body.

  2. Oh, and I forgot to mention coffee. I know there is a lot of issues around coffee plantations and workers who are exploited. Coffee should be fair game to vegan as it is not an animal product. I guess why questions is what comes first for you as a vegan? Animal cruelty concerns or human cruelty concerns? Of course, I imagine one wouldn’t decide between the two, but vegetarianism/veganism is often related to animal ethics, but you are bringing up some ethics regarding human beings which I think is so important and people often overlook. And it seems that vegetarianism/veganism is tied to consumer choices in general…

    1. Great question! Rather than creating dichotomies like choosing animals over people, or environmental concerns over opposition to genetically-modified organisms, it’s about what causes the least amount of harm and maximizes good.

      Fair-trade certified products change the dynamics of buying, selling, and trading food imported from elsewhere; it guarantees a minimum price to farmers, often many times over the market price, these products provide farmers security and an essential source of income. With fair trade, farmers operate as partners, not just providers. They gain power in a world market,

      * I excerpted much of this from “Grub,” a wonderful book by Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry.

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