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.