A Conscious Case Against Veganism.

Via Abigail Wick
on Apr 11, 2011
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EcoSalon originally published this article. I’m a new columnist with this fantastic mag and look forward to contributing more to their vibrant virtual-community of ideas. Big thanks to Editor Sara Ost.

For nearly a decade, I was an evangelical vegan – a born-again, plant-powered fundamentalist, resplendent in my animal-rights halo and heavenly faux-fur robes. I fiercely guarded my inflexible morality, never daring to reexamine the orthodoxy’s most illogical presuppositions. Yes, meat is still murder and factory farms still cause animal cruelty and suffering – none of that has changed. Somewhere along the way, however, veganism stopped being synonymous with ethical treatment of animals and people.

Over the past six months, I’ve come to believe that strict dogma is a drag. Conscientious consumption means eating and living ethically, not religiously. As Slate’s Christopher Cox says, “Eating ethically is not a purity pissing contest, and the more vegans or vegetarians pretend that it is, the more their diets start to resemble mere fashion—and thus risk being dismissed as such.”

Below are eight instances where mainstream-vegan doctrine doesn’t stand up to scrutiny:

SAD: The Standard American Diet: with its 100-calorie, reduced-fat, Omega-3-fortified, fiber-added, high-protein, low-carb, soybean- and corn-based, triple plastic-wrapped snack-packs – is the cause of this country’s obesity, heart-disease, cancer, and diabetes epidemics. This industrial diet requires industrial farming – with all the pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified crops, and exploited farm workers therein. If veganism is about eating ethically, soy-based ice cream, frozen, faux-cheese pizza, and meatless buffalo wings don’t cut it. Sure, it’s cool that cows and chickens aren’t directly harmed in the process, but what about the farm workers’ daily exposure to pesticides and fertilizers, the degradation of the environment, and our population’s chronic sickness? If there were ever a fail-safe argument for eating local, sustainable, fresh, slow-foods, this is it.

Oysters: These bivalves aren’t technically part of the Plant Kingdom, but eating oysters is ethically equivalent to downing a big bowl of kale chips. Not buying it? Remember that the primary tenet of veganism is minimizing suffering – for other animals and the planet. An oyster doesn’t have a central nervous-system; the pain it experiences when farmed from the sea is indistinguishable from that experienced by a potato when removed from the soil. What’s more, oyster farming is one of the world’s few sustainable aquacultures; environmental groups even cultivate oysters to boost marine-water quality. Unfortunately, the seabed dredging required to harvest similar bivalves, like clams and mussels, ruins underwater ecosystems – it’s best to stay away from them. But with oysters, go ahead and shuck ‘em and suck ‘em.

Faux-Flesh Faux-Pas: “Bacon” crisps, fried “chicken,” Teriyaki “beef,” pulled “pork:” I could go on. It would be easy to enumerate reasons to eschew faux flesh, but that seems silly in the face of one, summarizing thesis: Who wants to eat food that requires quotation marks to describe what it is? I mean, would you eat “apples” or “corn” on the cob? Processed food is processed food, even if it is “vegan.”

Wool: Aversion to wool from confined, miserable sheep is sensible and ethical. But not all sheep farmers are bad, and mainstream veganism’s blanket prohibition against wool fails to account for exceptions to the rule. Being vegan is about being mindful, and conscious consumerism isn’t so hard to come by that we should prejudge all wool. Is all cotton harvested sustainably? Are all synthetic fibers better than all wool? A quick Internet search yields scores of results for ethically-sourced wool transformed into hand-woven, lovingly-designed scarves, mittens, winter hats, and more.

Backyard, Egg-Laying Chickens: Flax seeds and fresh bugs, a nice plot of green grass for scratching and pecking, room to roost, and cruelty-free living in a halcyon idyll. Wouldn’t it be tragic to deny a chicken such luxury? That she happens to lay eggs only solidifies the relationship as mutual, reciprocal, and equal. Plus, a fried egg on whole-wheat toast with a side of steamed collard greens is a heaven unto itself – just don’t forget the hot sauce!

Honey: I buy local honey from bees that pollinated the urban gardens where I buy my produce. No bees means no fruits or veggies. Yes, I’m taking the honey against the bees’ will and, sure, it probably stresses them out to have it taken away. But in this case, I choose to prioritize sustainable and fresh instead of imported, cash-crop sugar or agave nectar that’s technically vegan. Because these sweeteners come from abroad, I don’t know if the sugar-plantation farm-workers receive fair hours, fair pay, and safe working conditions (reality check – they probably don’t). Whereas with honey, I actually know the San Francisco beekeeper from whom I sustain my sweet tooth.

Milk-Producing Pet Goats: Goats are even cooler than chickens, because they’re mammals, and thus a lot more fun to have around because they’re furry, good communicators, and nibble your fingers. Any critter that is loved and cared for as a pet – in vegan parlance, a companion animal – is non-exploitative. Humans’ relationships with other animals provide a sense of well-being and increased happiness, which is why we love our cats and dogs so much. Goats are cool and enjoy being milked – it’s physically pleasurable and relieves their udders; fresh, unpasteurized, pet-goat milk is delicious, mindful, and non-harming. I know the anti-dairy camp says humans are the only animals to drink the milk of other species, which is true. But that argument, for me, no longer holds up. We’re also the only species to eat high-fructose corn syrup and partially-hydrogenated oil, and we’re no better for it. I’d much rather get my fats, calcium, and protein from clover field-grazed goat’s milk. Yum, yum!

Vintage Leather: Vegans balk at thrift-store purchases, such as a faded pair of bonafide Mexican boots or a gorgeous Italian book-bag from the Fellini-era – because the leather came from a cow slaughtered decades ago. I used to think this way too – right along as I purchased some cheap, pleather jacket or some-such slave-labor shoes from Forever 21. Reclaiming worn leather endows a discarded garment with new life that respectfully and mindfully acknowledges the animal’s sacrifice. Consider it a vote-with-your-dollar political purchase. You support re-use, rather than contributing to a modern-day economy of mass-consumerism – whether it’s built on the backs of farm-animals or underage wage-slaves in developing countries.

Want to know why it’s sexy to eat your kale and collard greens? Interested in the ecological-agricultural revolution? Love farmers’ markets and the local-foods revival? Visit Eating with Abs to have it all–from cooking shows and contributing columnists to damn-good, plant-based grub, you’re going to dig it.


About Abigail Wick

Interested in glamor and good food? San Francisco-based writer and editor Abigail Wick is the creator of Eating with Abs, a cool resource that encourages innovative, intuitive, plant-based meals. It’s about DIY sophistication and culinary art on a budget. You’re invited!


65 Responses to “A Conscious Case Against Veganism.”

  1. SgtGroovy says:

    Thanks for this article, Abigail Wick!

  2. SgtGroovy says:

    Hey Waylon:

    How do I get in touch with my inner Elephant?

  3. Val says:

    This doesn't seem to be an argument against "veganism." It's an argument against eating non-organic, non-local, non-fair trade, processed food. As if vegans are the only people eating those things?

    I certainly don't judge anyone for eating local honey or wearing a leather jacket from the thrift store, but it seems patently unfair to judge someone for choosing NOT to do those things…

  4. Val says:

    You could just as easily write an article entitled "The Case Against Omnivorism" and list things like "McDonald's" or "Kraft Mac and Cheese." That doesn't prove there's anything wrong with being an omnivore, it just proves that, no matter the diet, some people are going to make poor food choices.

  5. Sarah says:

    YES! Amazing response.

  6. claywise says:

    Most people are unaware that sheep and beef cattle are raised almost exclusively on pasture. There really are no "factory farms" for these species. (Dairy cattle also, for the most part, but you have the immense and unacceptable cruelty of veal calves to deal with there.) So the idea that sheep are raised in "confined, miserable" conditions simply doesn't reflect reality. With beef cattle – I worked as a cowboy for more than 6 years – you are talking about a pretty good life with a couple/few bad days: branding, shipping, slaughter. Even feedlots – which I've opposed for years as wasteful; they were created to help time beef markets – aren't as horrible as one might think.

  7. Erica says:

    Thanks for your bold and honest opinions. I agrees wholeheartedly with your stand and appreciate that someone can be nuanced about being "cruelty free". Huzzah!

  8. Fawny says:

    You forgot to mention couscous- what was once the main food source for the general populace is now completely fiscally impossible. People are starving because a native food item is now harvested and shipped instead of feeding them.

  9. @Wild_Clover says:

    Considering cross species foster mommas- dogs raising kittens, cats raising squirrels- the statement that humans are the only species that drink the milk of other species is false. Habitually, yes. In reality? There are exceptions. Humans are the only species that continues to drink milk after they are weaned. Large difference. I've never seen the logic behind not eating eggs or drinking milk, the best one can do on milk is that it isn't really natural to consume milk in adulthood- much of the world doesn't, though cheese is pretty ubiquitous. Even a chicken will eat an egg. If someone is vegan or vegetarian because of a lack of an enzyme or other health problem, hey, I'm cool with it. But to make a political statement out of being a herbivore when your genetic heritage is similar to the dog- scavenger and omnivore- when there are far, far more ethical choices than packaged Tofurky…… oh, an Kudos to the author for figuring out that wool and leather is okay, at least from Good Will…..I can see avoiding fur, but leather is going to be a by-product to sustaining my meat habit, and wool is in today's world coming from sheep that have been raised for their full, heavy coats. You trim your furry dog in the summer to keep them cool, most of the wool sheep are going to appreciate the help, your trick is going to be knowing the source. But once it is used, your "statement" by refusing to reuse and recycle simply means the sacrifice of the unethically treated animal means less, because less good it gotten from it.

  10. @Wild_Clover says:

    Funny, I never have to justify my diet choices until some militant vegan comes up to tell me I'm poisoning my body with the tasty steak I'm consuming. My diet is consistent with my genetic heritage, and shouldn't be something I need to justify to anyone buy maybe my doctor. Guilt? Not a bit guilty. Well, maybe over the pie I had for dessert. But the diet evangelicals are everywhere, be it the Vegans, the "you should only eat organics" (all my food is organic, it digests better than the inorganic stuff-I avoid Twinkies and other things that won't rot on a compost heap) bunch, the "Paleo-dieters", the "no wheat or grains" bunch….bombarded by folks convinced they have found the one true diet and feel the need to tell me how "wrong" I'm eating. You attempt to lay a guilt trip on non- vegetarians in your comment "If they truly felt the pain Yadda, yadda, yadda…..". So why do you feel the need to attempt to "guilt" a carnivore/omnivore into change? I don't think you "feel the pain of being slaughtered or tortured"- you obviously haven't been slaughtered. I doubt you've experienced torture either, but I wouldn't know and won't presume to tell you you haven't.
    We had a pet goat, who for some unknown goat reason went out of character and left my yard and got hit by a truck- he was my buddy, and breathed his last in my arms. I personally thought it a better end for him if we didn't let his untimely death be in vain and ate him. My partner however wouldn't hear of it. So his useful life ended in a hole in the front yard, rather than being honored and remembered as he helped nourish his human herd. To me, it seems more ethical to not waste an animal humans raised and bred out of their desires as a food animal than to bury it- an accidental death of my happy animal meant not needing to buy meat raised to purposely die, probably in less than ideal conditions. So which choice ought to make you feel guilty? Shall I feel guilty about the lovely soup I just ate made from the marrow bones from a cow slaughtered because she'd become crippled with arthritis? Should the cow have been left to live crippled, or put down and left to rot in the ground? Yet the typical Vegan evangelical would see my soup, and convince me it would be better to be beans and carrots. Yet you try with your phasing to instill guilt, while accusing others of covering it up. Deal with your own your own way, and stop projecting it on others.

  11. Time for a T-shirt:
    "People are Animals too!"

  12. @Wild_Clover says:

    Couscous isn't harvested- it is made from seminola wheat, or in the past millet, or even in some parts of the world corn meal. It was a way to use the duram- the hard part to grind by hand- sprinkling it with water and rolling it in the flour also ground from the same grain. Now, the wheat may be being harvested and processed in factories into couscous for export, but couscous itself isn't harvested. Your grocery store product is pricy because it it pre-steamed to cook more rapidly. Couscous itself is labor intensive….and my thought of trying to make it myself fails in the face I'd need to either hand grind whole grains to get sufficient duram bits or find sources.

  13. Christina says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful article- I'm so glad veganism has been getting enough attention lately to provoke such discussions. I've been vegan 13 years, and I know of the "evangelical" sort that you're talking about, but have never met one. There are so many different kinds of vegans, and most are actually very sweet, forgiving, compassionate people.

    I agree with you on the honey and have never avoided it. Though insects are obviously animals, bees are much more a part of plant agriculture than animal, and by their populous nature, killing insects is an unavoidable part of life for most people. I also agree about thrift store items and have never heard vegans say they were against such purchases.

    It's common for vegans to choose organic, local, and fair trade wherever possible and I don't think your first point is an argument against veganism, specifically.

    The oyster issue if far from settled. We don't know enough about nervous systems to know for sure that they can't feel pain, and the fact that they physically move away from painful stimuli, unlike plants, would suggest otherwise.

    I think wool could be humanely produced, but humans have such a strong tendancy to mistreat animals used for commerce that this gets tricky. Definitions of what is humane vary widley too, and a lot of people are misled when they think they're buying humane products.

    There's nothing inherently wrong with eating eggs from pet chickens, though many backyard egg operations go horrifically wrong. The thing to consider is, where are those egg-layers coming from? Every lovingly cared-for backyard hen has a brother who was chucked into a meat grinder or thrown live into a dumpster to suffocate. I think one would be hard-pressed participate in animal agriculture without supporting the industry as a whole. Same goes for the dairy goats.

    Thanks again for sparking this discussion.

  14. @piarconmigo says:

    I don't think the author is trying to find justifications for not being vegan, just pointing out every diet has it's flaws and people sometimes like to preach when they are not much better.

  15. Magna Mater says:

    well, all I can say is: "Meh!" this article boosts labeling and lack of active thinking as any other. Why are people so desperate to put everything under a common name and give it strict boundaries such as the ones the revolted journalist here writes about?! I am "vegan", if you must but I use my own mind in telling the "rights" form the "wrongs". of course processed food is bad for you, and FWI completely unnecessary. And recycling leather is also ok, if you feel it to be ok. Veganism is not a religion, it's empathy in action and we all choose what we think is best. Also, coming form a small European county, we find it normal to make food from scratch and think about what we buy and where it comes from. Reading labels and knowing what you eat is important, no matter what kind of diet you practice. It's all about self education and using your brain and not blindly following the holy freakin' commandments (so in life choices as in religion, diets etc.).

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