Vegans are often unreasonably mocked as do-gooders and sniped at for making dinner parties awkward for those who don’t like lentils quite so much. This is unfair: the diet does do the world good and if vegans provoke their friends into going vegan too, so much the better.
There is now a great deal of convincing data that breeding animals for food dirties the air and chews up the earth. One recent peer-reviewed study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine calculates that should the world go vegan, annual greenhouse gas emissions would halve and the new land used every year for each person would near-halve. The diet is also healthier: some meat products have been linked to cancer and saturated fat from meat and dairy products can cause heart disease. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA predicts that global veganism would lead to 8.1 million fewer deaths per year.
Vegans should be encouraged: their choice is high in moral as well as digestive fibre. Their detractors should stop crying over spelt milk.
Okay, it is the Guardian newspaper, so very far to the progressive end of the mainstream. But still, on the edge of the mainstream. I am noting this as a milestone.
Writer David Macfarlane makes a gentle, thoughtful, and deeply persuasive case that veganism is a powerful and undeniable moral imperative.
Once these kinds of ethical arguments began to swirl around in what I like to think of as a reasonably fair-minded brain, and once I took the perilous state of the Earth into account, it became evident to me that eating a hot dog is as much a political act as not eating one. It’s a choice, and what I’m beginning to learn is that it’s a pretty clear one. You can be over there with the interesting looking young people who are enjoying a dinner of lentils, avocado and roasted yams. Or you can be with the multi-billion-dollar industry that pretty consistently put its own interests ahead of health, the environment, social and economic justice — and way, way ahead of the interests of animals.
Macfarlane hopes, riffing on John Stuart Mill (“Every great movement must experience three stages: ridicule, discussion, adoption”), that (at least some segment of) human culture has moved from ridiculing veganism to grappling honestly with it and discussing the arguments. I’m with him on that, and hope that for the animals’ sake, and for the planet’s sake, that the discussion doesn’t last too long before we jump into the adoption phase.
You’re completely correct about what will be viewed as the “barbarous and unimaginable” treatment of animals. Coming from the mind of perhaps one of the “new atheists” you’ve been profiling lately, I believe waste to be one of few true sins. It betrays a lack of appreciation, a failure to understand the interconnected nature of all things in the world, and a selfish hedonism that is driving our species (and others) towards some very unpleasant places. Furthermore, the careless waste of meat – of animals that (in the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases) we ourselves brought into being only to live horrendous lives of invisible suffering and leave a trail of environmental damage, simply for our unthinking momentary pleasure – is especially disgraceful.
Excellent start, right?
But then comes this:
I’m not vegan/vegetarian, nor do I believe it is unethical to eat meat or to raise animals specifically for consumption. But I choose to eat meat judiciously, from better sources whenever possible, and more consciously. The current system is so profoundly wrong that I’m not sure it’s possible to be an honest and compassionate human being without changing our dietary behavior or to continue living with blinders on to the issue. We can, and must, do better.
Hmm. If the treatment is “barbarous and unimaginable” then how can ANY meat consumption be viewed as an ethical choice. I see this all the time: people (like Mark Bittman, for example) who appreciate the fact that our meat industry is built on animal suffering that is monstrous in scale (not to mention the environmental destruction), but can’t quite bring themselves to let go of meat. I guess the meat culture is that powerful.
That means a turn away from meat and meat production will be a long and frustrating process. Which will impose additional costs on animals, and the planet, and human health. But I do take encouragement from the fact that the consensus view of the meat industry increasingly is that it is horrific in its treatment of animals. Once that is completely understood and accepted as the reality, it is only a matter of time before even the most committed meat eater realizes that the only truly ethical response is to stop eating meat. Less meat is better, of course. But no meat is the only way to live in a way that doesn’t impose terrible suffering on nonhuman animals, or contribute enormous inputs of carbon to the climate change disaster.
At least according to this cool Google Trends analysis of searches using the word “vegan” 2008 to the present. It was created by Compassion Over Killing, and, yes, it starts on the coasts (especially the PNW and the NE), but watch as it slowly spreads into the heartland.
There are holdout states, of course (I’m looking at you, Wyoming), but if Google searches are destiny then veganism is an idea and way of life whose time is arriving.
“Surely,” they ask, hopefully, “if I buy organic, humanely raised or free-range, that’s all good, isn’t it?”
Well, actually, no. You are just kidding yourself, I am obliged to tell them, and the animals you are trying not to hurt would tell you if they could that your valiant effort is not enough. I’m not just saying that because I object in toto to the willful consumption of meat, milk and eggs. I’m saying it because labels lie.
First, there’s no getting around the fact that, no matter whether the hen was fed pesticides or not, or whether she was given another 2 inches of space or not, she will still come to a painful and terrifying end. And her death will pretty much be a blessing, considering how distressing her daily life was before meeting the man with the knife. The labels will not mention any of that because they are a big fat fraud, as evidenced by yet another exposé that hit the news last week, this one courtesy of PETA Germany. This latest case was about “bio” foods, labeled as coming from humanely raised, “free range” chickens and revealed the hell that can lurk behind the shell.
Actually, meat consumption is destroying the planet, and so no meat, even humanely farmed meat, can truly be considered “ok.” Sorry, America (and the rest of the world that wants to eat–and die–like America).
But I completely agree with Newkirk that the labels used on our foods are a scam to try and fool us into thinking an animal has been raised on a bucolic small farm, with lots of fresh air, pasture to roam, and love. The labels have been completely corrupted by Big Food, and its army of lobbyists waving fistfuls of cash. So anyone who thinks “cage free” or “free range” or “organic” means you are dealing with a happy, humanely treated animal, better wake up. Those are just labels which indicate a slightly different form of factory farm torture.
That, however, doesn’t mean that all labels are misleading or unreliable. I think about this question of “humane” farming quite a lot, because while I am a vegetarian I am not a vegan. I could almost get there, but I can’t stand to drink coffee without a splash of Half And Half (I’ve tried every soy and almond milk alternative, believe me, and it is horrible in comparison). And I eat eggs for protein. (I also eat cheese and butter, but I could give those up easily).
So I have looked into labels and whether there are any that can be trusted to help me find eggs and dairy from humanely treated animals. After researching the question (and discovering that there are multiple contradictory and confusing standards) I have come to rely on one that I trust: Certified Humane (argh, website appears to be down for the moment). The eggs that I eat, for example, are “Certified Humane,” which basically means that the chicken lives like you would expect a chicken on a mythical fram to live–free of preventive antibiotics, and with acces sto plenty of light, chicken entertainment, and pasture. Yes, they cost a little more, but $3.50 a dozen seems a reasonable price for what in my house we call “non-torture” eggs.
Finding “non-torture” milk is a little harder. Happily, “Certified Humane” has just produced an app that you can use to find where you can buy Certified Humane products near you. You will see that its main limitation is that there just aren’t that many products, or choices (Whole Foods looms large). But this is a process, and we are dealing with a food production system, as Newkirk points out, in which 95 percent of the products sold to Americans come from tortured animals. Certified Humane is slowly but surely adding farms and their products to the Certified Humane label, but farmers and producers need to know there is a market out there for Certified Humane food. So it never hurts to let your grocery store manager know that you would like to see “non-torture” products on the shelves, though feel free to use other language.
One last note about this dilemma. I actually quizzed some PETA employees on this last summer. I wanted to know whether there was a moral problem eating an egg from a happy chicken that wasn’t on hormones or antibiotics, and spent its days running around like normal chickens do. At first they explained that as vegans, and as PETA employees, they don’t believe that humans should be exploiting animals, or using animals for human purposes. Fine, I said, but pressed them to identify a moral problem with a “happy” egg. There really isn’t one, they conceded.
Reassured, I moved on to milk, and asked about the moral questions around consuming milk or cheese from a dairy cow that was treated to a normal life in a pasture and was producing milk as a result of pregnancy, and not as a result of artificial hormones. The cow gets pregnant, gives birth to a calf, and the milk flows. “Ah,” they responded. “That’s fine when the calf is a female and can grow up to be a dairy cow. But what do you think they do with the male calves?”
Damn, I hadn’t thought about that. Of course, they end up being sold for slaughter. So even if the cows are treated humanely, and the milk production is natural, the process doesn’t work out so well, or humanely, for the male calves.
That sticks with me as I splash Half And Half into my coffee every morning. And I’ll keep trying to develop a taste for black coffee (or, more likely, I’ll make a switch to black and green tea). But for anyone who is not (yet) vegan, the least you (and I) can do is take the trouble, and pay the extra costs required, to find products from humanely treated animals. Laziness or saving a few cents on a gallon of milk or a dozen eggs can never justify the extreme cruelty of industrial farming.
In the end–for health, environmental, and moral reasons–I think Newkirk is entirely correct that humanity should move toward learning to feed itself without exploiting animals. But that is a huge leap, and it is probably counterproductive to tell people that there are no humane alternatives to veganism when there are.
They aren’t perfectly “humane,” as I discovered, which is why I’ll keep trying to make that final leap to veganism. But anyone who adopts a Certified Humane Standard for whatever animal products they happen to eat will be doing a lot to relieve some of the simply incomprehensible suffering that human food production (and consumption) inflicts on animals.