From Diet to Dogma: The Ethical Problems with Veganism

Diet is one of those topics which goes beyond simply what you put into your body and speaks to deeper truths about how you see the world and your role in it. It’s ethical, and probably the most well-known example of this is veganism. 

Bali

I’ve lived the past few years in a hot spot of vegan restaurants, cooking schools, and practicioners — Ubud, Bali. I’m around vegans a lot: I’ve dated several, I can count probably a dozen friends who have been or are vegans, and I’ve found myself at many meals where someone is proclaiming the benefits of going vegan. Thus I find the whole topic fascinating for a variety of reason I’ll get into below.

Okay so before I get going what do I admire about veganism?

  1. Veganism encourages conscious eating. There are benefits of taking photos of the food you’re about to eat. It causes you to think a bit more about what it is you’re putting in your body. I think the average vegan is more aware of this phenomenon than the average non-vegan — if for no other reason than they sit down at every meal and think through what’s gone into it.
  2. Veganism encourages people to make sacrifices for a cause they believe in. I think that’s admirable. Ongoing sacrifices are hard to make.
  3. Veganism encourages self-discipline. Having an ethical framework by which to make decisions — and then sticking to it, even when it’s not popular — takes courage.
  4. Vegan food by and large tastes good. It’s inventive, interesting, creative, and a lot of times surprising — when it’s done well.

Those are some of the benefits in my opinion. As I understand the path for a lot of vegans, their decision to “go vegan” is akin to a religious conversion. It’s as if they’ve “seen the light” let’s say, and decided there’s No Way Back.

(And yes, I do mean to capitalize No Way Back.)

For anyone not familiar with veganism, here’s a good definition from The Vegan Society:

“Veganism is a way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals.”

Joe Rogan: Almost All Vegans Go Back to Eating Meat w/Cameron Hanes

That’s a pretty stringent definition. I suspect it’s part of the reason why about 70% of vegans eventually go back to eating meat. And why veganism remains so niche amongst the larger U.S. population at about 1% of all Americans.

Having listened to the merits of veganism many times, I’ve come to disagree with the underlying ethical framework for several reasons; reasons which I think anyone considering veganism (or anyone who is sympathetic to veganism’s claims of moral superiority for how they eat) should consider, especially if they live in an urban environment.

Veganism Becomes Dogma

First, I’d argue that most urban vegans participate in the industrial food system as much as their omnivore counterparts if they’re eating foods which aren’t grown locally.

Flying food around the world pollutes the environment — those airplanes generate a lot of carbon dioxide to put fruits and veggies on your plate which aren’t in-season where you live or don’t grow nearby, refrigeration takes a lot of energy, all that plastic packaging is made with petroleum and generates waste.

In my experience this is important because one of the main reasons urban vegans cite for their choice is in response to the industrial food system when it comes to farm animals. They don’t support their breeding, slaughter, or consumption en masse, so they’ve opted out of the animal portion of the industrial food system. But they have not opted out of the entire industrial food system.

Take that delicious bottle of coconut water or that tasty coconut milk curry you’re enjoying – it likely traveled from the Philippines or Indonesia to get to your glass or plate if you’re a wealthy Western consumer. Doing so required petroleum-based packaging, flash pasteurization (which takes energy likely derived from dirty fossil fuels), cargo shipping, etc.

Thus the belief that going vegan is somehow better for the planet without considering the petroleum-based supply chain that got your supposedly more ethical food to your plate is either naive or willfully blind because it disregards that it’s not in-season nor is to grown locally.

Second, most urban vegans eat food which comes from poorer places where environmental degredation is happening en masse to feed us wealthy consumers, pesticides are rampant, loads of water is needed (to produce things like almonds and avocados, both of which are notorious for high water consumption), and child labor is used. 

Take pineapples and the EU for instance: 75% of the pineapples Europeans consume come from Costa Rica. Costa Rica’s pineapple industry is riddled with a number of social, environmental and health issues – issues which wealthy consumers would never tolerate in their home country.

This matters because whilst their concern for farm animals is admirable they willfully turn a blind eye to the sourcing of the food they are choosing to eat when it’s grown abroad. What’s especially ironic is that a lot of times they’ve chosen to go vegan because of their concern for Mother Earth, only to then purchase foodstuffs which are procured in ways that still damage our planet. And are processed in a way that’s arguably more damaging when the total environmental footprint of what one eats is considered.

Third, GMOs are at the heart of veganism, otherwise there’s a limited variety in the food. Soy is the number one genetically modified crop in the world, representing half of all worldwide biotech crop acreage with an 82% adoption rate among soy farmers according to the Non-GMO Project. Soy is also a staple of vegan diets – despite the fact that it’s been linked to deforestation in some of the world’s most valuable ecosystems.

Raw Vegan Cooking: Cucumber Pizza

Fourth, veganism as an ethical framework disavows the fact that death begets life, starting with the sun (which is a dying star) and has given us life here on Earth.

Fifth, it’s reductionist because it presupposes that all human interaction with animals is exploitive. There is no distinction made between a hunter who tracks and kills a wild deer versus someone who eats a cow grown on a feedlot or a pig kept in crates who’ve never see the light of day.

(The latter of which is usually the sort of anti-meat propaganda which makes up vegan-friendly documentaries.)

It also conveniently ignores that it’s a privileged position afforded by modernity. Consider Bill Gates advice to women who want to escape poverty: Raise chickens.

“If you were living on $2 a day, what would you do to improve your life?…It’s pretty clear to me that just about anyone who’s living in extreme poverty is better off if they have chickens.”

An adherent to veganism wouldn’t permit such a solution because raising chickens is, according to vegan dogma, exploitive.

Sixth, veganism intentionally limits optionality. A strict vegan cannot even eat lab-grown meat because it originally came from an animal:

“Is it (lab grown meat) vegan? So far, a few animal cells are needed to start the cell culture, and these are extracted from a living animal. So no, it’s not vegan.”

Seventh, veganism in my opinion is a pseudo-replacement for more traditional religion. If you dig into the heart of veganism, you find religious dogma that Nietzsche would immediately recognize, who feared that in the aftermath of God’s death, humanity would become entranced, even possessed, by utopian political ideas. 

There is also a real desire to “be different” embedded in a lot of vegan paraphernalia. Practitioners are encouraged to stand up for what they believe, to question established diet dogma, to disavow any industry-funded research, to accept persecution for their views – all symptomatic of a quasi-religious conversion and No Way Back attitude:

“I told my mom and dad that my decision was based on animal welfare and the high carbon footprint of meat. But the truth is that while I theoretically cared about animals and the planet, mostly I just wanted to be different.

Joe Rogan: Negative Health Consequences of a Vegan Diet w/Chris Kresser

Eight, there is strong evidence that eating meat was the catalyst for us humans to develop tools and tame fire. Tools allowed us to crack the bones of other animals and get at their marrow.  It also allowed us to slice meat into smaller portions so that we could more easily digest it. Fire allowed us to cook meat and make its nutrients more bioavailable.

This runs counter to the narrative that being a vegan is more natural than being an omnivore because, after all, how far back in time are you going to go to establish what is “natural” versus what isn’t (and what behavior are you willing to exclude during that same time period, such as human sacrifice or slavery, in order to make your point)?

Mankind’s development of primitive tools and harnessing of fire are the earliest indications of shifting from a hunter/gatherer modality. They facilitated our growth and development, and thank goodness!

Thus I always find it bizarre when vegans cite pseudo-science and hazy historical anecdotes about humans not being naturally omnivores. You see these sort of claims on many vegan food blogs as grounds for why it’s the ethical choice for humans to eschew animal products.

Ninth, veganism is built upon the discredited yet very seductive ideal of the “noble savage” – one that didn’t destroy nature, lived in harmony and was in balance with his or her surroundings.   This myth came from the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century:

“The search for a paradise has been a preoccupation of romantics, adventurers and the alienated since explorers proved the world wasn’t flat and Rousseau invented the noble savage.” 

Under the Volcano: The Story of Bali

The “noble savage” is such a compelling myth because it’s rooted in a sense that our modern lives are out of touch with how we evolved, and we need to redress that imbalance.  This translates into what we eat, barefoot running, sleeping with our infants, how we give birth, etc. 

Underpinning this is one of those uncomfortable truths of life: Living things are all made up of trade-offs. All organisms have to do multiple things with limited resources, and thus that old axiom about “there are no solutions, only compromises” comes to mind.

Every living thing, including humans, have never been perfect for our environment.  Or in perfect harmony with our environment.  We’re more akin to a broken zipper whereby some teeth align and others just don’t….except it only looks broken to our unrealistically perfect eyes, eyes which themselves have blood vessels that were suited to our “old” hunter/gatherer environment but aren’t perfect for our 21st century one filled with screens, blue light, halogen bulbs, etc.

When presented with evidence of more of the unsavory parts of ancient cultures such as ritual killings that they’ve got in mind when picturing us living in harmony with Mother Earth, vegans eschew them as “not what they meant” because they don’t want to give up the meta belief in noble savages.

The “Blue Zones” and Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs)

Eat locally-sourced, in-season nutrient dense whole foods. Eschew factory foods and limit sugar intake, especially refined sugar. Drink at least 3 liters of water a day. And have slower meals with your friends.

Essentially go back to the way your elders ate before processed food and eat what’s both biologically-appropriate and regionally-responsible. Meat shouldn’t be the star of the plate. It can be a side dish (or not at all, as eating plant-based is healthy).

This is what some of the longest-living people on Earth, those in the “Blue Zones”, eat:

  • People in the “Blue Zones” eat an impressive variety of garden vegetables when they are in season, and then they pickle or dry the surplus to enjoy during the off-season. The best-of-the-best longevity foods are leafy greens such as spinach, kale, beet and turnip tops, chard, and collards.  
  • People in four of the five “Blue Zones” consume meat, but they do so sparingly, using it as a celebratory food, a small side, or a way to flavor dishes.
  • People in all of the “Blue Zones” eat eggs about two to four times per week.
  • Beans reign supreme in “Blue Zones.” They’re the cornerstone of every longevity diet in the world: black beans in Nicoya; lentils, garbanzo, and white beans in the Mediterranean; and soybeans in Okinawa. People in the “Blue Zones” eat at least four times as many beans as Americans do on average.
  • People in the “Blue Zones” eat sugar intentionally, not by habit or accident. They consume about the same amount of naturally occurring sugars as North Americans do, but only about a fifth as much added sugar—no more than seven teaspoons of sugar a day.
  • Eat two handfuls of nuts per day. A handful of nuts weighs about two ounces, the average amount that “Blue Zones” centenarians consume—almonds in Ikaria and Sardinia, pistachios in Nicoya, and all nuts with the Adventists. 
  • Eat only sourdough or 100 percent whole wheat bread.
  • Eat local. Almost all of the foods consumed by centenarians in the “Blue Zones” grow within a 10- mile radius of their homes.
  • Eat with your friends to combat loneliness.

Disconnected from Our Food Sources

As Rousseau’s “noble savage” myth is so deeply embedded in so many places, it’s interesting to hear from holistic farmers (i.e. the people who actually grow and procure our food in a sustainable fashion) how they eat and what they recommend we eat. From the interview with Joel Salatin on “how to eat animals and respect them, too”, the self-identified farmer made famous by Michael Pollen’s book The Omnivore Dilemma :

Madeline Ostrander: What do you think a sustainable diet should look like?

Joel Salatin: What would a sustainable diet look like? Oh, my!

Ostrander: Because it’s often talked about as a vegetarian diet.

Salatin: No, not at all. I think we need to go back to localized diets, and in North America, yes, we can really grow perennials, so there would be a lot of herbivore—lamb, beef—in a diet. And our fruits and vegetables, which have a high water content, would be grown close to home, preferably in our backyards. In 1945, 40 percent of all vegetables consumed in the United States were grown in backyards.

I think a local diet would have an indigenous flair. If you’re along the coast, you’d eat more seafood. If you’re inland, you would eat more herbivore and vegetables. If you’re in Florida, you would eat more citrus. Historically, it’s not about the relationship of meat to vegetables or whatever. It’s more about, what does this area grow well with a minimum of inputs?

Ostrander: Cows have gotten a bad rap lately for their contributions to environmental problems. What’s your response?

Salatin: Don’t blame the cow for the negatives of the industrial food system. All of the data that the anti-meat people use assumes an irrigated, concentrated animal feeding operation. Over 50 percent of the annuals that we grow in American agriculture are to feed cows. Cows aren’t supposed to eat corn. They’re supposed to mow forage. It’s completely inverted from nature’s paradigm. To use that inverted paradigm to demonize grazing, the most efficacious mechanism for planet restoration, is either consciously antagonistic to the truth or is ignorant of the kind of synergistic models that are out here.

Here’s the thing. There’s no system in nature that does not have an animal component as a recycling agent. Doesn’t exist. Fruits and vegetables do best if there is some animal component with them—chickens or a side shed with rabbits. Manure is magic.

Now, we could argue about how many animals we should be eating. I really don’t think Americans should be eating so much chicken. Because chicken requires grain; it’s an omnivore. Historically, herbivores—beef, lamb, goat—were every man’s meat because they could be raised on perennials. The kings ate poultry because they’re the only ones who had enough luxury of extra foodstuffs for birds.

Poultry used to fill a recycling niche. Today, if every single kitchen had enough chickens attached to it, there would not be egg commerce in America. All the eggs could be produced from kitchen scraps. What a wonderful thing that would be. There’s no excuse for an egg factory.

Beef cattle—there’s no excuse for a feedlot. We don’t need all those irrigated acres in Nebraska. See? And suddenly all of the data that the animal demonizers are using just crumbles like a house of cards.

Ostrander: Your website says that your farm respects and honors the animals you raise. What does it mean to respect an animal and then eat it?

Salatin: It is a profound spiritual truth that you cannot have life without death. When you chomp down on a carrot and masticate it in your mouth, that carrot is being sacrificed in order for you to have life. Everything on the planet is eating and being eaten. If you don’t believe it, just lie naked in your flower bed for three days and see what gets eaten. That sacrifice is what feeds regeneration. In our very antiseptic culture today, people don’t have a visceral understanding of life and death.

Ostrander: What do you feel is your responsibility to the animals that you raise on Polyface Farm?

Salatin: Our first responsibility is to try to figure out what kind of a habitat allows them to fully express their physiological distinctiveness. The cow doesn’t eat corn; she doesn’t eat dead cows; she doesn’t eat cow manure, which is what is currently being fed to cows in the industrial food system. We feed cows grass, and that honors and respects the cow-ness of the cow.

Chickens—their beaks are not there for us to cut off, as industrial operations do. Their beaks are there for them to scratch and to hunt for insects. So we raise them out on pasture, in protected enclosures, in a free environment, so they can be birds.

We look at nature and say, “How do these animals live?” And we imitate that template.

We have the chickens follow the cows, the way birds follow herbivores—the egret on the rhino’s nose. The chickens sanitize behind the herbivores, scratch in the dung, eat out the parasites, spread the dung into the pasture, and eat the insects that the herbivores uncovered while grazing. 

The pigs make compost from cow manure, which we mix with wood chips. They love to do it, and they don’t need their oil changed, they don’t need spare parts, and they’re fully allowed to express their pig-ness. Then animals become team players—partners in this great land-healing ministry.

This is all extremely symbiotic and creates a totally different relationship than when you’re simply trying to grow the fatter, bigger, cheaper animal.

But the animals also have an easier life than they would in nature. Nature is not very philanthropic. I mean, every day the gazelle wakes up and hopes she can outrun the lion, and every day the lion wakes up and hopes she can outrun a gazelle. We protect our animals from predators and weather. We give them good food and care for them, and in return, they are more prolific.

Ostrander: So honoring the pig-ness of the pig is about ecology as much as ethics.

Salatin: Honoring the pig-ness of the pig establishes a moral and ethical framework on which we build respect for the Mary-ness of Mary and the Tom-ness of Tom. It is how we respect and honor the least of these that creates an ethical framework on which we honor and respect the greatest of these.

A culture like ours—that views plants and animals as inanimate piles of protoplasmic structure to be manipulated however cleverly we, in our hubris, can imagine—will soon view its citizens and other cultures in the same kind of disrespectful way.

Ostrander: Can you describe how you slaughter animals at Polyface?

Salatin: Well, the chickens, for example, are taken from the field right into our open-air slaughter facility, and we don’t electrocute them like the industry does. We do a kind of a halal, or a kosher type of kill, which is just slitting the jugular, and they gradually just faint or fade away.

We have raised them. We have nurtured them and cared for them. It’s different from the compartmentalization of the industrial system, where we have people who have never seen the animal alive doing the slaughter.

And frankly, I believe it is psychologically inappropriate to slaughter animals every single day. Even in the Bible, the Levites drew straws; they ran shifts in the tabernacle where they did animal sacrifices.

Ostrander: Is there a different emotional experience that people have when they’re eating food raised on Polyface than if they’re eating a McDonald’s hamburger?

Salatin: We have a 24/7, open-door policy. Anyone is welcome to come at any time to see anything, anywhere without an appointment or a phone call. We encourage anyone to come and walk the fields, pet the animals, bring their children, gather the eggs out of the nest boxes—in other words, to build a relationship and create a memory that can follow them all the way to the dinner plate.

Our culture has systematically alienated people from the experience of dining. I can’t believe how many kids come here and watch a chicken lay an egg and then say, “Oh, is that where they come from?” The amount of culinary and ecological real-life ignorance in our culture is unbelievable.

So what we want to do at Polyface is provide a platform, so that anyone can come and partake of this marvelous theater that was all a part of normal life 150 years ago. We want to create a greater sense of all the mystery and appreciation for seasons and for the proper plant-animal-human relationships.

Some people even want to process some chickens with us. And that is a very powerful memory to take to the table with you. If the average person partook of the processing of an industrial chicken, for example, they probably wouldn’t eat chicken. But by coming here and seeing the respect that’s afforded to that animal all the way through, we can create a thankful, gracious, honoring experience when we come to eat. 

Salatin’s diet is much more holistic in nature. It’s not reductionist nor is it dogmatic. He speaks to the same underlying discontent with the industrial food system that many vegans take issue with. But instead of eschewing all animal products he advocates treating the animals with dignity and respect whilst honoring their unique likeness and the natural circle of life.

To put this another way, vegans view animals as the leading cause of global warming. And it’s not the animals; it’s the way the animals are managed because we’ve developed this mono-culture, hyper-specialized industrial food system which can produce a tremendous amount of calories at scale (good) yet doesn’t take into account the nutritional density of what’s produced (bad) because it was originally geared for feeding more people.

Our industrial food system is reductionist in nature by focusing strictly on producing as many calories as possible to combat threats like famine, and vegans have responded in-kind by eschewing all animal products. The solution is more holistic: Animal activists should emphasize reduction, not elimination, of eating meat.

In Summary

After thinking about it more, my objection with veganism is that practitioners should call it what it is – namely a lifestyle choice based on personal preferences afforded by modernity – and not a science-based choice based on biological data.  

Vegans lose credibility when they make pseudo scientific-based claims like we’re not biologically designed to be omnivores.  

I can respect someone who says I feel healthier when I eat a predominantly plant-based diet.  That’s an expression of personal preference.  I have a lot of friends like this. 

It’s when those people take the leap from expressing a personal preference to making scientific claims as the basis for the superiority about their diet that I call B.S. because it just doesn’t stand up to the scientific method.  

This is quasi-religious in nature in that it’s ultimately rooted in faith and not in facts, and they feel a certain religious zeal in converting others to veganism.

Community supported agriculture.