From time to time I come across someone who declares that they are a vegan. I imagine there may be plenty of other vegans who don’t announce themselves as such unnecessarily but they are not a problem.
I absolutely have no problem with someone choosing a particular diet, it may not be my own choice but they are free to eat what they like and I only really need to know if we are eating together and I either need to cook a meal that will meet their requirements or it affects our choice of restaurant.
The trouble arrises when they raise their veganism when it is not really useful or relevant information. This is usually because they want to persuade their audience that the world would be a much better place if only everyone confirmed to their own particular food fetish.
If this happens in a discussion about particular political strategies and policies then it may be reasonable to debate the question if it is actually relevant to the topic under discussion, but all too often the vegan seeks to shoehorn their personal beliefs into an area where it is clearly not appropriate.
The sheer unpleasantness of many vegans who bang on about their beliefs in comments on Facebook is one of the many reasons I simply gave up on Facebook. I saw this happen often in Green Party debates where it was sometimes a considerable distraction. Recently I have seen the same thing happening in Extinction Rebellion (XR) discussions both at talks and online and emails.
The XR example is interesting because here we have a very clearly focussed attempt not to promote a particular detailed solution or solutions to the ecological crisis, but simply to force the government to acknowledge the problem and put in place on specific short term target (carbon neutral UK by 2025) without mandating how this can be achieved, and to put in place a mechanism for introducing polices to achieve this goal without party political interference – Citizens’ Assemblies to take evidence and set policy, politicians to implement the policies.
In this context there is clearly no place for XR participants to force the merits or demerits of particular strategies to tackle the climate crisis or to have a wider debate about our relationship to the rest of the ecosystem that supports us. Neither cow farts nor animal welfare are relevant at this stage so why bring them up.
There seem to be four main planks used by vegans to build their arguments:
- statements about the impact of food production on carbon emissions
- statements about animal welfare in food production systems
- statements about morality and responsibility, particularly towards animals
- statements about the health benefits of their diet
Of these they clearly have a strong point when talking about animal welfare. There is no doubt that industrial agriculture tends to promote a very instrumental approach to the use of animals and fails to treat animals (wild or farmed) as sentient beings that are part of our life. It is also true that peasant agriculture can involve some pretty poor animal welfare, though this is perhaps less common and not a necessary part of the peasant system.
On this point I entirely agree that we should avoid all industrial agriculture animal products – this would inevitably mean eating less meat, but is not a reason to eliminate it entirely from our diet. It is all about being in touch with your food supply chain, and keeping that chain short – only eating (or using as far as possible) animal products that came from closer from the distance you can walk in a day (difficult for city dwellers) and only choosing products which are organically produced (or arguably in some cases free-range at a peasant/small farm level) as a minimum. Better still if you personally know the farm and farmer well enough to have trust that they are treating the whole animal well.
It is the other two points that are problematic. The issue of carbon impact of farming practices has some merit when applied to high-end industrial food production where vast quantities of fossil fuels are used in the form of fertilisers and production of grain and chemicals to feed to animals to promote (unnatural) growth.
When however the vegan attempts to generalise that hence all domesticated animals have a heavy carbon impact they are on very dodgy ground. There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the carbon cycle here. The ability of grassland, or wood-pasture land to sequester carbon seems to be missed – it is the destruction of soil structure and fertility by industrial farming that is the problem not the animals.
The carbon output (primarily methane – cow farts) produced by domesticated animals fed on natural pasture (and the products of natural pasture, hay and silage, while the grass and herbs are not growing in winter) is entirely part of the short-term carbon cycle and has no impact on the total carbon load in the atmosphere.
Grass, like all plants, grows by drawing carbon out of the air and when an animal eats and digests the leaves a proportion of that carbon is returned directly to the atmosphere as cow-farts. Some if turned into animal matter which eventually we might eat and the rest falls to the ground as poo and eventually the dead carcass of the animal and is absorbed into the soil (sequestered).
The current imbalance in the earth’s carbon cycle comes only from the release of carbon which was sequestered millions of years ago, initially in the soil which eventually got buried and turned into rock with layers of fossil fuels embedded. Until man came along and started burning that buried carbon on a massive scale and releasing it back into the atmosphere the earth system was balanced and the cycle was in harmony. From about the year 1800 with coal and the from 1859 with oil and gas we have disrupted this cycle. That is the only significant source of additional carbon compounds in the air.
Moving on to the vegan point about the morality of meat eating (and, in the case of veganism eggs and dairy products as well) I understand their position but on the whole I do not agree with it. Sometimes they will express the position as “if you are not prepared to kill it then you shouldn’t eat it” – I’m entirely happy with that. I have killed and eaten some small animals – nothing larger than a goose, but given the right tool I would be happy with killing a sheep, pig or cow to use for food and other products.
Even more so if I had raised and cared for the animal myself with that end in mind throughout – I would probably be inclined to care better for the ones I was going to eat myself than the rest of the flock. That would be me exercising my responsibility that arises from my right to determine the outcome of the life that I was caring for. It would be a responsibility that I could successfully discharge because I have control over the circumstances.
Broadening out the moral argument, if I am going to have a right to eat meat then I have a responsibility to ensure that the life is well cared for. If I do not have control, then I can not fulfil my responsibility so I would loose the right. I do have control, however, in the sense that I can make choices about where my food comes from, passing the responsibility on the the farmer and not eating food where the responsibility to care for the animal while alive is not being discharged to my satisfaction. So my responsibility comes down to making informed choices and being as satisfied as possible that the information I have is accurate.
Finally on the question of diet it simply seems to me that to exclude from your diet whole groups of foodstuffs that we have been eating for hundreds of thousands of year and to which our bodies are well adapted is not automatically a healthy choice. Excluding foods which are not organically produced, or are over-processed with the addition of chemicals that were not present in the source is probably a good idea. Excluding anything that you personally find has a negative effect on your body is probably a good idea. Beyond that eating a varied diet is probably a good idea.
Very often the Vegan comes across with an almost religious fervour – and this is revealing I think. Religious belief whilst it is held personally is no problem. I have my own beliefs which are personal to me and whilst I will talk about them if invited they do not include the belief that everyone else should share my beliefs.
Many religions, and in this sense veganism is a quasi-religion, or at least a substitute for a religion, do have as one of their core beliefs that this particular set of “truths” is the only true truth for all people for all time and thus that the duty of the adherent is to “convert” everyone they meet to their particular truths.
I utterly reject such thinking, and frankly despise those who hold to it. You do your thing, and leave me to do mine.