Veganism is a worldwide movement that has taken diets by storm in recent years. There is little need for introduction; vegans advocate for the ethical treatment of animals, the protection of our environmental resources, and the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Yet simultaneously, a backlash has emerged against veganism, claiming that the promotion of a vegan lifestyle is inherently classist and, in some cases, racist and ableist. While there is some truth to these statements, in the majority of situations this type of rhetoric is incredibly misleading and wrong.
The benefits of a plant-based diet cannot be understated. First, there is the undisputed environmental cost. Consider these figures: globally, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all the world’s transportation systems combined. It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef while producing 1 pound of tofu only requires 244 gallons. Animals on U.S. factory farms produce about 500 million tons of manure each year, which often runs into rivers and pollutes our water. And more than 90 percent of all Amazon rainforest land cleared since 1970 is used for grazing livestock. According to the United Nations, a global shift toward a plant-based diet would significantly help to combat the worst effects of climate change.
Next is the “health” argument — or the claim that meat is necessary for a healthy lifestyle. Yet endless studies link meat to obesity, cancer, heart complications, and endless other diseases. Any animal that has been raised with artificial hormones, fed a GMO diet and treated with endless antibiotics is unsafe for human consumption, but despite the abundance of vegetarian options such as tofu or lentils, meat-eaters are often held back by the lack of awareness of the situation in which their food was factory farmed. A lot of this unawareness derives from the fact that meat and dairy companies spend millions of dollars in advertising and biased research in order to try to convince consumers that animal products are necessary to the human diet, and these corporations have spent millions more entering into lawsuits against small vegan companies over their use of words like “milk” or “cheese” to describe plant-based foods. The food pyramids and plates plastered across school hallways are directly financed by lobbying dollars from the meat and dairy industry. But the good news is that these companies are losing ground; in 2018 the dairy industry lost $1.1 billion, and in 2019 Canada officially removed dairy from their official food guide in favor of plant-based milk.
Meat and dairy companies spend millions of dollars in advertising and biased research in order to try to convince consumers that animal products are necessary to the human diet.
Lastly is what many vegans call the “common-sense” argument: the sheer amount of animal cruelty and abuse in industrial farming facilities. The horror of factory farming is not something that can be adequately captured in writing, so visit this link (trigger warning: excessive violence, animal cruelty and death, rape, abuse, blood) for an insight into these farms. In the wake of the disastrous Australian bushfires, much of the reaction was focused around the loss of animal life. Many were devastated by the widely circulated images of dead and burned animals, and it is estimated that a total of 1 billion animals were killed. To put this into perspective that’s how many are killed for food every five days.
Some additional helpful documentaries include Cowspiracy (2014) for the environmental impact, Forks Over Knives (2011) for health reasons, and Earthlings (2005) for an extensive inside look at animal cruelty in factory farms (warning: this one is particularly difficult to watch for those strongly affected by violence and abuse).
In light of these benefits — as well as many more emerging reasons — for most people veganism isn’t a diet, it’s an ethical stance against the environmental effects of capitalism and the brutal exploitation of living beings. @Veganarchy writes, “From an outside perspective veganism is most visibly acted out as a consumer choice, but to reduce veganism to an act of consumption or economic boycott demonstrates a profound lack of understanding of this holistic resistance.” It can be easy to misconstrue veganism as a choice made by privileged health nuts, but it’s impossible to truly understand the underlying principles of veganism without learning of its centuries-old history.
The origins of vegetarianism can be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization in 3303-1300 BCE in Ancient India and have now become a central tenet of Hinduism and Buddhism. In these religions and associated cultures, vegetarianism was (and still is) promoted as a stand against harm to living beings. In a time of small farming, acquiring dairy and eggs didn’t harm the animal. Yet, as human technology has progressed, commercial factory farming dairy and egg industry have proven to be horrifically abusive, and there is a clear argument that this idea of “no harm” should be redefined to advocate for full veganism. The earliest known full vegan was Arab poet Al-Ma’arri (972-1057 AD). He argued that if humans deserve justice, other living beings do too.
Since then, the diet has spread across the world, adopted by a wide range of people, like the Nyabinghi Mansion of Rastafari in the West Indies. Most notably, however, is the co-option of veganism by white, middle- to upper- class, western cultures beginning sometime in the 20th century. Veganism went the same way as yoga; the traditions of ancient cultures were white-washed and rebranded as a “new fad,” creating and disseminating a misleading image of vegans as exclusively white and privileged.
The traditions of ancient cultures were white-washed and rebranded as a “new fad,” creating and disseminating a misleading image of vegans as exclusively white and privileged.
The truth of the matter is that compassion and mindfulness are not unique to one race; veganism is gaining rapid traction in many minority communities as well. Vegans of color have often been marginalized in the community, but are speaking out more and more. Prominent vegan activist Aph Ko maintains that “the black vegan movement is one of the most diverse, decolonial, complex and creative movements,” and the Metro has published an article centered around black vegans, asserting that “veganism has been a moral, spiritual, physical and tool for radical liberation for many people of colour for many years.” Even Angela Davis is vegan!
Given that veganism has its origins in some of the most impoverished areas in the world the claim that veganism is “classist” and “racist” is simply not true. This statement outright ignores the fact that people of some of the poorest cultures have sustained themselves on a vegan/vegetarian diet for millennia. A plant-based diet isn’t a “first world luxury,” rather, it can be argued that eating pounds of meat is. People in a lot of countries that are traditionally considered “underdeveloped” sustain themselves on a plant-based diet, and meat is considered a luxury; after all, a pound of lentils and grain is far cheaper than a chicken.
A common way to think about this is to compare the refrigerators of the rich and poor. A wealthy vegan would have their shelves largely full of “health-conscious” but often pricey and highly-processed vegan versions of common foods (like vegan meats and cheeses). On the other hand, the refrigerator of a less wealthy typically includes beans, lentils, grains, and frozen fruits and veggies (which are a cheaper alternative and maintain nutritional value). Let’s contrast that with a diet of a carnist. A wealthy carnist’s refrigerator would consist of very expensive, high-quality cuts of meats and cheeses, but a poorer carnist would be stuck with carcinogenic, heart-damaging, diabetes-inducing, overly-processed “pseudo-food.” In either diet, the wealthy person wins (largely due to capitalism), but for the poorer person, the right choice is pretty clear: veganism.
Another claim is that veganism is ableist. At its root, the concept of veganism is simply that animals do not exist solely to be exploited by humans. While there are a small number of people have a disability so that it is impossible for them to be healthy under a solely plant-based diet, their condition cannot be appropriated by able-bodied individuals who refuse to hold themselves accountable. Using people who are physically unable to maintain a vegan diet as an excuse for a non-vegan’s personal choice to consume animal products is inherently exploitative and opportunistic.
Still, many animal rights activists who are unable to sustain a completely plant-based lifestyle (due to time, money, health, or other constraints) pride themselves on doing everything they can. An “all or nothing” mindset is incredibly harmful, and this binary thinking is responsible for an untold level of animal abuse and environmental destruction. There are even disabled animal liberationists who view veganism as resistance to ableism!
Finally is the argument that “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.” The first fallacy of this argument is that implies that it’s possible to ethically consume animals in a post-capitalist world. Unlike fruits, vegetables, grains, etc. consumption of animal products is inherently exploitative and unethical, and this will never change. @Veganarchy on the Medium argues that “The consumption of animals will be unethical in communist societies, and they will be unethical in anarchist societies.” Secondly, the biggest power we have as consumers in a capitalist society our decisions as to where we spend our money. After all, you vote with your wallet. Even if you are waiting for some sort of socialist revolution, in the meantime you can make the choice to live as ethical a life as possible. Companies respond to demand, and it’s the responsibility of consumers to demand plant-based alternatives over harmful, unethical animal products.
What’s more, this mindless consumption of animal products is something that has been quite literally shoved down our throats by corporate and government interest groups. As mentioned earlier, corporate advertising systematically manufactures a craving for and naturalization of meat products, and extensive government subsidies (financed by consumer taxes) on animal products conceal the true cost of these products. It becomes easy to push this narrative of vegan privilege when corporate and political elites are working to artificially control the American diet. So in fact, veganism is actually one of the most anti-capitalist things you can do and it’s an action made more attractive by the fact that it is accessible to the masses.
It becomes easy to push this narrative of vegan privilege when corporate and political elites are working to artificially control the american diet.
No matter what your motivation may be–health, sustainability, compassion, the destruction of our capitalist overlords (joke–but if eating the rich is your thing, by all means, go ahead)–veganism is a natural conclusion. In 2020, I believe we should make a resolution to live a plant-based life, not just so-called “privileged white people,” but people of color and activists as well. Let us all reclaim the history of veganism and make the world a better place.
Photo: Magda Ehlers via Pexels