April 11, 2011

A Conscious Case Against Veganism.

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.

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