Veganism can be an empowering and positive choice for many, and it has become increasingly popular during recent years. Its rejection of the animal industry has helped to fight the abuse that affects millions of animals in our world. The diet is also claimed to have a positive impact on both the environment and people’s health. But is it cruelty-free? No, not if you turn to the food industry as a whole.

By describing the production of all vegan food as free from suffering, one forgets an equally, if not more, important factor: the human aspect. Even though animals aren’t abused in the production of vegan food, humans often are. Food supply chains and the agriculture industry is marked by the common presence of forced labor, exploitation of workers, hazardous and extreme working conditions, child labor, lack of labor rights protecting agricultural workers and extremely low wages.

Social protection systems such as national regulations and insurance schemes do, in most countries, only cover some groups of agricultural workers; the rest remain unprotected. In rural areas, most agricultural workers lack formal contracts and work long hours for very low and unstable wages. In addition, recent estimates from ILO state that close to 110 million children, which corresponds to 71% of global child labor, work in agriculture.

A report from KnowTheChain, which is a large project created by Humanity United, has shown that popular food and beverage companies don’t do enough to address child and forced labor in their supply chains.

“Every day we eat and drink products tainted by forced labor,” said Kilian Moote, the director of KnowTheChain.

While it is important to note that these figures include the animal sector of agriculture, the fact still remains that many crops and commodities are produced under the previously stated conditions. Examples of non-animal products that can be strongly linked to labor abuse and exploitation are soy, rice from India, tea, coffee, cashew nuts, sugar, strawberries, melons, citrus fruits, bananas and cocoa.

The image of moral purity that veganism often is associated with falls flat when one considers the slave labor that may be involved in producing that food.

It is of course not an argument against veganism itself since an all-or-nothing approach isn’t beneficial either. However, it as an argument against the idea that vegan food comes free from harm, and that it is the solution to all issues involved in the production of our food.

So while I do not believe that vegans are obliged to cover the human issues of the food industry as well, it is time we start recognizing that veganism only addresses one part of the suffering caused by food production. The part that remains is so often forgotten and excluded from our conversation surrounding ethical eating today.

The claim that a vegan lifestyle is cruelty-free is simply misleading. This applies to clothes as well; even though avoiding fur or leather is positive, the labeling of these clothes as cruelty-free disregards the workers and children that are exploited in the production of these clothes. 

Vegan or non-vegan; we could all as consumers benefit from trying to be more conscious about the whether the labor that produced the food we buy was fair or not. Even though it sometimes can be difficult, it is equally important to be aware of and focus on. After all, veganism lessens harm, but it does not come without it.

Photo: Lefteris

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