Ellen DeGeneres recently launched a national campaign endorsing veganism, and I give her a lot of credit. Along with people like Jonathan Safran Foer and many other media stars, she is putting the question of eating meat on the table as a significant public conversation. Anyone who can achieve that deserves our gratitude.
Yet I worry that a vegan campaign is somewhat misguided if it is pitched as the singular way of helping animals into a better world. We all know that systems of oppression are deeply interlocking and built on foundations that we can’t see until we start uncovering the many ways we all inhabit the world together. My reservations about veganism are personal, politically motivated, animal-centered, and ecological.
1: Personal. While, in my opinion, it’s really not that hard to shift to vegetarianism, I think it is really hard to be a vegan. I tried once for about a year, didn’t know what I was doing, ate a lot of processed vegan foods, and developed insulin dependent diabetes. It was not animal products that brought on my diabetes—it was the soy ice cream, the potato chips, and the many frozen vegan meals that were made with corn, soy, and sugar. I have since learned that there are better ways to be vegan, but it takes a lot of nutritional education and a lot of money to do it right. You need to learn how and where to shop, and how to cook whole foods (and not everything that comes from the store Whole Foods is a whole food). When I switched to a diet that included even a small amount of animal protein, my need for insulin decreased immediately.
Vegan doctors tell us no one needs animal protein, but I just don’t think that is true, at least for me. It cannot be disputed that bodies are different; some of us need a lot of sex, or exercise, or quiet time, or whatever, while others need much less of any of these. When you are inside your body, these things feel as if they are non-negotiable. That’s how I think about dairy and eggs, and sometimes even meat. There is no question that none of us needs meat three times a day, but a day without at least some cheese or eggs or meat for me spikes my blood sugar and leaves me with a headache. Most plant-based proteins—like tofu and legumes—eventually turn into glucose, while animal products are digested differently and do not. It may be possible that some people need no animal protein, but it is also possible that some of us need some. The trick is negotiating between the PCRM and PETA doctors that tell you that you need none, and the USDA food pyramid folks who say you need too much. The middle way is always the best.
In this vein, I worry about how veganism has attached itself to the weight-loss industry, even for someone as enlightened as Ellen. The fat-phobic world we live in has lead to public conversations about an “obesity epidemic.” Even Michelle Obama is on that bandwagon and the general public seems to be in full agreement that being overweight is always bad. But the middle way is better here too: on the one hand it is true that many people are out of shape. Many of us don’t exercise enough and rely on fast and processed food too much. But it is equally true that bodies come in different sizes and there are many people who are “overweight” that are healthy. Our media-saturated world is so focused on the idea that everyone must be thin that (by many estimates) the morbidity factors associated with anorexia and bulimia are twice as high as those associated with “obesity.” The problem is not “fat” per se; it’s sedentary lives coupled with bad food options. It’s the fact that gym memberships cost a lot, public parks are being shut down, and today in America, unhealthful food is cheaper than healthful food (this has to do with subsidies, which I can’t take up here because of space. But I cover this side of the story more fully in Loving Animals.) We need to strive for health, but health does not equal thin. And thin does not equal vegan. For human health and well-being, we need a broader program than veganism; we need one that is accepting of different body needs and different body sizes, and advocates healthy eating (and appropriate exercise) at every weight.
2: Political. I worry that people who become vegans think that they are doing enough to make the world a better place for animals. First off, there are so many things available to us to today that contain unnamed animal products. GOOD Magazine argues that “there is no such thing as vegan”; products from crayons to guitar strings to rubber include parts of animals who have sacrificed their lives for us. What we need is not to eliminate these goods from our lives, but to figure out a way to make sure those animals had great lives prior to our taking them. One of my best friends, a vegan for many years, was recently diagnosed with cancer. She is maintaining her veganism, but as she puts it, it’s “only a token.” “Every drug I ingest or inject,” she tells me, “has been tested on animals in much more dire circumstances than even the worst of the worst farm animals.” Some of her drugs, undoubtedly, are even made from animal parts. We cannot escape the enmeshment our human lives have with animal bodies. Becoming vegan may be, for some, a step in the right direction for ending this abuse. But it is only a small step; there are many fronts on which the battle for animal advocacy must be fought.
And what of companion animals, i.e., pets? Ellen’s vegan website features her with two dogs. What does she feed them? Virtually everyone agrees that dogs need some animal
|Ellen DeGeneres as she appears on her new
website, Going Vegan With Ellen. Is a vegan-only
agenda alienating to the general population?
protein (even most so-called “vegetarian” pet food includes fish—as if fish were not animals), and everyone agrees that domestic cats need mostly animal protein. A world that is fully and truly vegan will be a world that includes no domesticated pets. Indeed, this is the agenda of many animal rights advocates; is that a world even Ellen would want to live in?
Finally, I worry that Ellen’s vegan-only agenda will be alienating to lots of people. We humans have been eating meat from the dawn of our species; indeed lots of evolutionary anthropologists now believe that hunting and cooking meat gave humans the evolutionary advantage to grow our big brains. I believe that the overwhelming majority of people in America aren’t going to start eating vegan any time soon, and in rejecting veganism, they could be rejecting animal advocacy in any form. Again, I think a middle way is better. Humans have been eating hunted animals for millennium, and free-range pastured meat for at least 10,000 years. It’s only in the last fifty years that animals have suffered the horrors of industrial farming, the hot sheds, the bad food, the short lives, the unnecessary drugs, the miserable conditions that we should all be ashamed of that produce our cheap meat. We can turn back the clock fifty years, quite easily, and purchase only pastured meat, eggs, and dairy from local sustainable farms. Many people in many communities across the country are doing so. It’s sometimes a little confusing and usually more expensive, but this is a middle way that people who need some animal protein can follow.
3: Animal advocacy. Buying meat, eggs, and dairy from local farms where animals have long, happy, and natural lives on pasture is animal centered, I believe, even if we kill them for their meat eventually. This may seem counter-intuitive, but I believe eliminating domestic farm animals from our world does not really serve their best interests. Think about it: our own lives are not solely centered on our bodies: we humans write books, make art, build buildings, have children so part of us lives on and changes the world, even if in a future we are not present for. Thinking of the fullness of life only in terms of our immediate bodies is shortsighted. Humans and farm animals have spent 10,000 years building a symbiotic relationship that, I believe, is good for them, and good for us. They get to spend days walking in sunshine, eating good food, mating, loving their young, enjoying the beautiful earth. We give them the chance to have this life, we pay for the land and the grass and the water, and eventually we get to eat their eggs, milk, cheese, and meat. It’s not a bad deal for either side. The idea that our life’s meaning is only contained in our fleshly bodies is dangerous and untrue. If I were a pig or cow or chicken, I would rather be raised on a small farm and keep my kinfolk alive in this world than be banished from the earth altogether (as the vegan agenda advocates.) Making animal advocacy dependent on veganism is asking for species extinction, and is the opposite of what animals really need.
Indeed, the slow food/locavore movement has made a central aspect of their program the recovery of endangered farm animal species. We used to share our earth with over three hundred different kinds of farm animals; the industrial farm system has reduced that number to under twenty species. If I were a Redcap chicken, say, I would rather have a farmer raise me and let me proliferate, even if she is going to kill me to eat in the end. That way, my kind get to stay on this planet; in many ways, that could mean more to me than my own life. I believe species of animals want to stay here just as much as humans we do, and small farms give them that chance. (The reason that most of these species are not used in industrial settings is because they need more room than factory farming allows.)
4: Finally, and most importantly, veganism is not ecologically sustainable. Farming means tending the soil so that it contains the proper nutrients for plants, and this can only be done well with animal manure. For 10,000 years we have rotated plants with animals on land; the animals eat the parts of the plant we can’t and excrete manure that contains hundreds of elements that feed and anchor the soil. There has never been a healthy ecosystem on this planet that did not include animals, and growing plants without animals means a farmer needs to import chemical fertilizers (which are almost always petroleum based and few of which contain more than six elements.) Ecological thinking demands that we return to the integrated system of farming both plants and animals together, and deny the monocultural system that has emerged in the last fifty years. (Broccoli, my farmers tell me, requires forty-two elements to flourish; plant food like “Miracle Gro” contains between four and six; while a synthetically fed broccoli plant may be able to grow with imported fertilizer, it will deplete the soil for the remainder of nutrients it needs. Eventually, that topsoil will wash away.)
Some so-called vegan farmers might quarrel with me on this front. I know a vegan farmer who claims he farms without any animals or chemicals. I give him a lot of credit (and he admits his crops are smaller due to his ideological choices). But when you press him for what he does import, it is telling: he must buy worms (aren’t they animals?) for his soil every year, and he must buy worm food: feather meal, blood meal, and bone meal (don’t these come from animals?). His is the best-case scenario if one wants a vegan world, yet he admits to topsoil loss. His farm mirrors, in part, what is happening in America’s industrial farms today: most plant-only monocultural farms are losing topsoil at rates faster than the great Dustbowl Days of the 1930’s. We are ruining our farmlands with industrial farming and it must stop now. Paying attention to the needs of the soil is critical for sustainable farming and the best way to attend to those needs is with animals and their manure.
But, my vegan critics will say, that doesn’t mean we have to kill them. And I agree. A ten-acre farm can be totally sustainable with several dozen chickens, a half dozen goats, three pigs, one cow, etc. You don’t need to kill any of them to achieve sustainability. But, in such a case, you can’t let them reproduce either. Now I ask you, do you think those several dozen female chickens—who are excreting excellent manure and walking on it to work it in the soil—mind that you take their eggs and eat them? I doubt it. And what about the animals who long for sexual contact and young ones? Do they mind that you take their milk when their young are finished? I doubt that too. The question of killing gets more complex, but if you could have a good life on pasture for many years and enjoyed the gifts of the world, only to be killed as you reached middle age, would you choose that? Or would you choose no life at all to begin with?
These are complex questions, and I don’t mean to be glib, but everything tells me that veganism is not quite the right way to pitch either animal advocacy or sustainability. We have the tools through farmers markets, the small farm movement, and locavorism to promote something that encompasses a broader and more politically savvy agenda. Again, I totally applaud Ellen DeGeneres, Jonathan Safran Foer and others who are putting this issue on the national agenda. We all agree that the industrial system of raising animals in factory farms is horrific, evil, and needs to be shut down. Period. But that does not mean we need to banish these animals from the face of the earth. That’s not in our interest, or theirs.
What we need is something a little more nuanced, I believe. We need to support people who are currently vegan and healthy on that diet and not try to convince them differently. But for the rest of us who feel we need a small amount of animal protein, and those who are interested in environmental sustainability, we need to advocate a (very) reduced diet of local, sustainable eggs, dairy, and meat, along with organically raised plant foods. The cost of eating this way will be higher than either the current industrial diet OR even perhaps industrial veganism, but the human health, broad political, animal advocacy, and sustainability payoffs will be, as they say, priceless.
Kathy Rudy is associate professor of ethics and women’s studies at Duke University. She is author of Loving Animals: Toward a New Animal Advocacy.