Vegans, and Solidarity, and Hope
Rachel and I have both been called animal murderers. I understand what people mean when they fling that word at us. Believe me, I carry a lot of killing with me, so I know it deeply. I don’t like the insult, but I understand why in a polarized world someone might feel that we’re too “other” to be reasoned with.
Last time I promised I’d give my opinion on veganism. Without being ironic or patronizing, I am glad that people become vegans. I sincerely believe the world is a better place because of vegans. As much as my life choices show that I do not agree with veganic conclusions, I am delighted that people take the time to study our contemporary food systems and I respect that people come to the conclusion that they don’t want any animals involved in food in any way. Veganism has a structure of internal logic and consistency. I think it is weak on understanding of the ecology of nutrient cycling, human physiology, and human psychology. I believe it places an unwarranted emphasis on the arbitrary concept of animal sentience, especially in a time when we are learning more about plant, fungal, and bacterial intercommunication and awareness. But for all my criticisms, veganism isn’t something that can be dismissed offhandedly. Its emphasis on dismantling systems of domination and oppression is a tremendous moral high ground.
While my vision for agriculture is different than a veganic vision and there can and should be discussion or debate, my greatest concern is with the overall tone of the discourse between vegans and omnivores at the broader cultural level. The interactions I’ve witnessed usually involve moral outrage and blanket condemnation from vegans and dismissive mockery and taunting from omnivores. Neither of these approaches does anything to bring people toward understanding.
Importantly, the wedge between food factions is being exploited by the food industry to create profitable food niches that appear to meet the objectives of the various groups without actually changing any of the status quo behind the scenes. I don’t need to rehash the list of desolations caused by cheap food. But it is worth pointing out that choosing grassfed or organic or vegan labels at the grocery isn’t necessarily doing anything to fix the brokenness. When meat eaters clamor for grassfed beef, voilà it shows up in stores, but nobody sees that the cattle are from “grassfed feedlots” with thousands of cattle standing in manure, entirely dependent on heavy irrigation, herbicide-suppressed alfalfa crops, beet pulp, and other annuals, with not a single perennial grass blade to be found. This isn’t the grassfed ideal, but it is what supermarket grassfed really is. The same sorts of fakery applies with dairy, poultry, and really everything else in the organic and grassfed mass market.
Similarly with vegan food choices, buying mainstream means participating in the dismantling of communities and ecosystems. When people go looking for vegan food from the many restaurants, stores, and home delivery services that surround us, none of these services lifts the curtain to show that the food production depends on destroying tropical forests and evicting small farmers to satisfy America’s craving for organic coconuts, avocados, mangoes, and bananas plantations somewhere in some other country. Closer to home, much of the domestically-grown produce and crops are coming from regions of the country where water resources are being withdrawn far faster than they can replenish and where ever-growing farms are destroying plant and animal habitats. It isn’t what any vegan would want, but it is what is happening as we go about our lives as issue-based consumers.
My preferred way out of this mess is to call for a ceasefire to the fighting along food faction lines. Rather, I wish everyone would focus on creating the food system they support. PETA billboards and rude carnivore bumper stickers don’t make anything better. Fight the man, but not the vegan or the omnivore next door. The system is relentless, and it continues to grow and consolidate as eaters splinter into smaller groups, profiting from each niche as a marketing target, and yet not taking any of these customers seriously. The perfectly portioned packages are produced on a downward slope of cost cutting measures to achieve the best chance to snag a piece of the market while keeping customers as uninformed as possible about the social and environmental consequences of their buying choices.
The first step always starts with ourselves and the people closest to us, so I want people to grow and to prepare more of their own food together. And for whatever can’t be done at home and in community gardens, then the next step would be finding a farmer who can do the rest. Find a farmer who is real with you. It is a relationship, so find someone who clicks with you. I’d like to be the ideal farmer, but I know I am not the right person for everyone. Once you have a farmer, realize that you have a connection to your food. If you have a question about something, ask. If you have a suggestion for improvement, offer it. If you want to pick a cucumber or to toss apple peels to a chicken, visit the farm to do it.
There’s always the thrill of the cheap shot, putting the burn on someone for choosing differently and being vegan, vegetarian, paleo, keto, carnivore, or whateverian. But those thrills are shallow and ephemeral and only serve to bully and belittle others. We can do better than slogans and hashtags. Building a food system based on shared work and relationships, bringing people together around the table to enjoy a well-made meal, now that is something that lasts a lot longer. That is what I am striving for in the New Year. I’ve been encouraged that over the past year our family has been able to put down some deeper roots in friendships and collaborations with various folks on the vegan-vegetarian side of the food spectrum, and I am hopeful that this is just the beginning of good things to come.
Happy New Year to all, whether you put beans or beef or both in your burritos.