Veganism, Idealism & Living in the Real World

More than any other diet I can think of, veganism is a diet based on ideals. I respect its adherents and admire them for upholding their principles despite considerable social and cultural adversity. But. (And you knew there would be a but.) Veganism does tend to attract extremists who either a) equate people who eat the occasional egg as evil, environment-and-animal-hating, er, haters, and/or b) paint their own diets as completely compassionate, morally faultless, and ideal for everyone, in every situation.

Here’s something you probably don’t want to hear: even a vegan diet comes with a considerable price tag in animal suffering and exploitation. When it comes to eating and morality, it’s not about whether to compromise; it’s about where, and how much. I’m a vegetarian, a moderate, and a pragmatist, and I’m officially tired of hearing these things:

Vegan myth #1: No animal dies for my food.

I wrote about my experiences visiting a local organic farm a while ago. I can’t get the memory of that trembling, wretched squirrel in the trap out of my head. This was a farm that was not aggressive about trapping ground squirrels (even though they cause serious damage to crops) and clearly felt bad about killing squirrels. Yet they and virtually all non-hobby farms engage in forms of pest control that involve animal death, to say nothing of the ones that are killed incidentally. And even deterrent methods mean that some animals don’t get enough food or land or resources to survive. Either way, a lot of small, cute, fuzzy animals — and plenty of insects, worms, and arachnids — died for our spinach.

Vegan Myth #2: My diet does not exploit any animals.

A plant-based diet is in fact highly dependent upon the labor of one animal: the honeybee. About 1/3 of our diet is produced through insect pollination. (This is why colony collapse disorder really, really sucks.) While it’s true that wild honeybees pollinate during the course of their own natural activities, to pollinate on the scale we need to produce enough food for our population, we cultivate honeybees, move them around the country from farm to farm, rent them out, and otherwise manipulate their lives.  Want to let honeybees go back to being wild? Be prepared to give up things like blueberries, peaches, and almonds and watch as world hunger skyrockets.

Also, and I don’t know why this doesn’t come up more often, but the workers picking our morally righteous organic produce are almost certainly either 1) underpaid, 2) overworked, 3) illegally here or in another situation that would make it hard for them to demand better pay and working conditions. Exploitation of animals includes humans. Short of growing your own food, there’s no easy fix for the system.

Vegan myth #3: Veganism is always better for the environment

You won’t get much argument that industrial agriculture is a major part of how we screwed over ourselves and our environment. However, I think it’s also reasonable to keep in mind that a vegan diet requires a greater variety of plant foods to cover nutritional needs, and that not all places on Earth are well suited for producing that variety. To offer an extreme example, an Inuit eating a native diet of primarily fish and other meat will have a smaller impact than a vegan Inuit who has to import fresh vegetables, grains, beans, and supplements. In other areas, ruminants and chickens can take advantage of nutrients unavailable to humans and turn them into essential sources of vitamin B and protein. No doubt most vegan diets in the west are lower impact than the SAD (the highly appropriate acronym of the standard American diet), but even so, your total impact will depend on how much processed, non-local, and non-organic food you eat and a bevy of other lifestyle decisions you make.

Vegan Myth #4: Veganism makes me morally superior.

Morally consistent, perhaps. But superior? That depends on how you treat the other people and animals that you’re not, um, not eating. One of my personal heroes is a nurse by day, a hero to stray and feral cats by night. She started a no-kill cat rescue out of her own resources and has since rescued, cared for, and adopted out hundreds of cats. She’s not a vegetarian. But see, I think it’s as much about what you do for animals as what you don’t eat that decides your ultimate karmic balance, or whatever you want to call it. Your compassion brownie points.  

Feel discouraged? Don’t. The takeaway here is not that we should stop eating in order to have a truly compassionate and cruelty-free diet. (Compassion should extend to our own bodies, too.) It’s that any moral absolute, taken too far, starts clashing with the realities of the physical world.  It’s good to think about and take food seriously. It’s great to have ideals about your food, and it’s great to try to live up to them.  But as physical beings, falling short is inevitable. Marble pedestals are not appropriate.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. You’ve made some good points, but I do think despite what group you fall into you’ll have your extremist. So Vegan’s can’t claim that title for themselves. I’ve met vegetarians like that, Democrats, Republicans, Religious folk, non-religious, well you get the idea. :) Personally I stay away from people like that.

    Before Colony Collapse Disorder & the Varroa Mite, our crops weren’t in danger. In fact, there were more wild honeybees than kept honeybees. In a perfect setting going before we the bees faced this issue it wouldn’t have mattered since the wild honeybees would have pollinated the plants anyway. They travel up to three miles to pollinate crops. Although honeybees are the major pollinators, they aren’t the only insects that pollinate. Other bees, and a variety of other insects do this too.

    However, evidence seems to point that this has been reversed. While the beekeeper can keep this mite under control with. These mites attach themselves to the bees and suck their blood. I’m a member of a few bee communities so I try to stay on top of what’s going on in the word. I’ve always been fascinated with bees even as a child. Bees are always working, regardless if they’re wild or domesticated.

    I’ll be getting bees for our land next year, CCD does concern me and I want to do my part to help the bees out. I and a few other gardeners have noticed a huge decline in the wild honeybee population in our area. I strongly suspect it’s the mite, since there isn’t anyone around for a few mile that uses chemicals. However, our crops are still getting pollinated by other insects. Next year, however I’ll do my part to help out the declining honeybee population. It’s something I wanted to do even before I heard about CCD several years ago. Since my daughter is a lot older, I decided it was about time I put the plan into action. I don’t want their honey, but I do know the benefits they do have for gardens and I sure miss seeing them around.

    Eventually I’ll start offering to collect wild honeybee swarms and relocate them to a safer location. If the queen gets in into her mind she’s going to leave a nest for a larger home, the other honeybees will follow her, at times the end up in the most unusual places; cars, houses, low hanging trees, etc.,

    Reply

    • Posted by ailanna on 08/31/2010 at 10:25

      Hi Opal! Thanks for your comment. I’m reading a book about bees and have just gotten into the bit on varroa mites. I didn’t realize how much wild bees pollinate, but even without their population decline, I think our increased needs for food would have been a problem anyway. (How does this always end up returning to our overpopulation/overconsumption problem?) How wonderful that you’ll be getting bees! I live in a condo with zero outdoor space, so that isn’t really a possibility at the moment, though I hope it will be in the future. Along with a few hens and a vegetable garden and a compost bin.

      I’m with you on the extremist thing. (Veganism is the subject of this post because I had a few interesting conversations on Twitter this week, and some of these moral absolutes came up in during them.) Any perspective so singleminded that it does not even attempt to understand or empathize with other perspectives makes getting along with our fellow humans (never an easy task) even harder.

      Reply

      • Posted by ailanna on 08/31/2010 at 20:56

        It’s always sobering to realize the true cost of our existence. I would have been really bothered by the dead mice. Actually, I might be altogether too squeamish and suburbanite-y to do well on a farm. I’m sure there are costs in animal life that I have never realized or thought about before. Sometimes I think an encompassing compassion for animals might also be a luxury of people who don’t grow their own food for a living.

        I’m reading Following the Bloom by Douglas Whynott (love his last name!), but I haven’t gotten far enough to know whether I’d recommend it or not. I’ll think about that book list. Off the top of my head, my ‘most influential’ list would include Collapse by Jared Diamond (this book should be required for high school students), The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan…hmm, why are these all male writers? I guess a lot of what I read is on the net rather than in book form. But I’ll think about it a bit more.

        Reply

  2. Well, here we go, time for my 2cents worth.

    I’ve noticed that many of us vegans tend to have an air of “holier-than-thou” about us (present company included). We can try to psychoanalyze that ’till the proverbial cows come home, and still not agree on an answer. So rather than figure out why some us vegans trend to the militant extremist bent, lets dialouge about the things we can agree on.

    First off, i’ve not always been a vegan. As a matter of fact I’m less than 6 months into my conversion. And I didn’t come about it in the typical “Oh my god, i didn’t realize i was eating animals” fashion. I asked the question on Twitter today if i was a “bad” vegan because i came about it for health reasons and not animal rights issues. Majority of responses were that, “hey, doesn’t really matter how you got here, at least your here.” Which is interesting because some of those respones came from people who diligently demean vegetarians. Hmmm…..seems to me you would want to uplift and support those that have reduced their consumption of animals, right?

    The long and short of it is this i think. Those that tend to lean to the “Veg” side can agree that the less consumption of meat that occurs is good all the way around. We also have to realize that not everybody is going to be motivated by the same reasons. Some will be attracted to go Veg because it is more ecologically sound, more “green” if you will. Others of us have researched the fact that a Veg diet is healthier. It has been clinically proven to reverse clogged arteries w/o surgery. Which is pretty cool if you want to avoid having your chest split open for heart surgery. And others have a deep affinity for the other earthlings that we share the planet with. They want to end ALL cruelty and pain that animals suffer in the hands of man. You however will not win many converts to your cause if you belittle, judge or demean their current actions. People have a natural tendency to protect themselves (or ideals) if attacked.

    So i think the better solution for those of us that tend to be militant is tolerance and education. Let people know the overwhelming benefits that going veg can bring to ourselves, our planet and of course the animals who are a big part of our lives.

    froward1

    Reply

    • Posted by ailanna on 08/31/2010 at 20:45

      You’re right on with your comment about vegetarian bashing. I have to admit that this post was inspired partially by being judged by vegans as reprehensibly immoral simply because I’m only vegetarian. Most vegans were vegetarians at some point; maybe more vegetarians would go vegan if not for the belittling. Hey, we’re on the same end of the spectrum! Cut us some slack already!

      Reply

  3. Posted by Emily on 08/31/2010 at 19:22

    What bee book are you reading? Could you share other environmental-related books that you’ve read in a future blog? I’d be interested in others’ reading recommendations, too.

    Excellent blog post, by the way; you cover some great topics. You are a very good writer. Indeed, everything we do has an impact and a consequence. I have a friend who has an organic farm and lives (almost) self-sustainably. Her meat chickens and laying hens are free range and scavenge her land to feed themselves These animals use the land in a balanced manner and provide her with nourishment. She has a large field that she lets go to hay. One year, I helped her load her recently mowed hay bales into the barn. I couldn’t believe how many dead mice and insects were caught in the hay bales. She uses the hay to feed her two ponies, which create manure that she adds to her compost, which she then uses in her vegetable garden. The hay is used not used to feed animals that will be killed for meat, and yet, many animals died during the mowing and baling process.

    Also, thank you for mentioning the hardworking, yet often unappreciated farm workers. Typical in America, the owners get the fame and fortune and the workers get the shaft. Worker bees included.

    Reply

  4. You bring up very important points that need to be discussed in order for us to fully understand ourselves, our intentions and the effects of our personal decisions on each other. I struggle with these each day but I try not to get too overwhelmed. I take my decisions one at a time trying to factor in everything I know up to that point and considering as many perspectives as I can. Your post has added to my knowledge base and perspectives – thank you! :)

    Reply

  5. Posted by bitt on 09/05/2010 at 21:52

    Vegans know that animals die in other ways other than for food. It really has nothing to do with not eating animal products. We know that there are plenty of ways that animals will still be hurt. It seems people who have this argument have the kind of throw your hands up in the air attitude that there is nothing really we can do anyhow. You could say this about environmental issues that we don’t have control over. Oh why bother anyhow? Of course we bother. We do what we can.

    Veganism is not about having a moral absolute. It’s about concrete choices we can make in our everyday lives that impact animals. Are there ways to still raise animals in an eco-friendly fashion? Perhaps in the rare case. For those who are vegan for the ethics, hearing of a happy “free-range” animal that will be killed is still morally abhorrent.

    Reply

    • Posted by ailanna on 09/06/2010 at 21:15

      I’m very willing to agree that a vegan diet does the most to minimalize harm to animals. What inspired this post was the holier-than-thou attitude that often accompanies this ideal, in particular the vegetarian/flexitarian bashing which does seem based on an absolute (you exploit animals/we don’t) rather than a gradient (your diet harms slightly more animals than mine does). I think compassion and encouragement, rather than censure, should be extended to everyone who is eating more consciously and eating less meat.

      Reply

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