Nothing justifies sending a terrified animal to slaughter. Yet through the increased popularity of the food movement (which is positive in some ways), animal cruelty has a renewed appeal.
It’s not that the food movement is “worse” or that they are more attached to meat consumption than your average person (save in the case of people who are themselves linked to animal husbandry through family/community tradition). Rather, the food movement legitimizes and anchors society’s natural resistance to change. But, their main arguments are nonsense:
We are often told that what we’re being sold is necessary because it’s harder to argue against necessity than against preference. A good example is milk; the dairy industry got us by instilling the fear that without milk, our kids were missing something essential to their normal development. So these days, the argument is that we NEED cows to save the soil, we NEED manure to grow sustainably, we NEED beehives to pollinate the crops and so on. Don’t believe it. They are tapping into our Eurocentric biases to make cruelty appear unavoidable and enlightened.
Another favorite of enlightened foodies and food activists. Why yes, liberating animals does go against almost all of our cultures, there’s no denying it. And we don’t have to deny it, because culture should not trump ethics and tradition should not be dogma. A double win of doing away with this nonsense justification is that we can also stop treating people of color (especially the “Native American hunter in touch with nature”) as Noble Savages, which is another manifestation of racism.
Only industrial animal agriculture is harmful
This is where the food movement and the animal rights movement are speaking at crosshairs. It’s true that factory farming is not representative of all animal husbandry, and that traditional forms may well be much better… for the environment. But this is not about the environment. If someone were breeding and killing puppies on their land, we wouldn’t say “That’s wonderful because this sustainable puppy farm sequesters carbon and supports biodiversity”. These pigs feel happiness, pain, joy and extreme terror just like dogs do. There is no rational justification for treating them differently.
To celebrate Cesar Chavez Day a couple years ago, I developed a vegan tamale workshop that explores social justice along the food chain. As participants cook together, we discuss the issues faced by various demographics and anchor them in the different components of the tamales, e.g. masa=farmers and relleno=farm workers.
Conversations on food justice often focus on one group, like farmworkers and low-income consumers, so this approach allows to build on the pre-existing knowledge of participants and to expand their understanding of our food system. We stress the interconnectedness of the issues facing everyone along the food chain, and by extension, the common solutions and the need for a radical approach in working towards social justice.
Participants also get to cook and eat vegan tamales, which seems to be the main draw. Whether they care about animals or their health, veganizing tamales is something that people get excited about. And what we show them is that we are not creating a novel dish but rather a more traditional, pre-Columbian one. As we peel away past European influences, we see how they echo the very changes happening today through forced migration and the corporatization and Americanization of Mexican food systems.
This workshop has been a perfect Cesar Chavez Day celebration, as we wanted to include animals in our consideration of those suffering in our food system. Cesar Chavez was a Mexican-American farm worker and a labor and civil rights organizer. After his death in 1993, he became a major American icon. Cesar Chavez Day became a national holiday (San Francisco has a yearly Cesar Chavez Day parade) and a movie was even made about his life. Sadly and predictably, most accounts fail to mention that he was a vegan and a strong advocate for nonhuman animals. At a farm conference in 1996, United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez said “Cesar took genuine pride in producing numerous converts to vegetarianism over the decades. You’re looking at one of them. He felt so strongly about it that sometimes I think he took as much personal satisfaction from converting people to vegetarianism as he did to trade unionism.”
It is not always clear from accounts whether Cesar Chavez was vegetarian or fully vegan. Chema Hernández Gil, who teaches the vegan tamale workshop with me, met Cesar Chavez’s niece last year; she confirmed that her uncle was vegan and told Chema that Cesar Chavez was so passionate about animal rights that when people would eat meat in his presence, he would make animal noises to unsettle them.
The past two years, we partnered with non-vegans in organizing this workshop, and seeing their openness to a vegan message has been heartening. Next month we will present this workshop (slightly modified as it will be a demo) at UCLA. This time, a vegan professor invited us. I don’t know whether many of her colleagues are vegan, but the workshop has elicited wide support. I look forward to learning about the interests of students and faculty and connecting these with Seed the Commons’ perspectives on decolonization, radical food activism and animal liberation.
Yesterday some car was speeding towards the intersection to make a right turn while aiming to come into the right lane, where I was on my bike. Instead of just slowing down and merging behind me like someone who isn’t sociopathically entitled, the driver almost hit me from the left. My only recourse was to glare at him and proceed. At the red light, he rolled down his window and demanded what my problem was. I answered that my problem was that he almost hit me. His answer: “You need to stop smoking and put the bike down.” (huh?)
Riding a bike in SF is incredibly stressful and it’s really when people get in their cars that – sorry to say – they put on display the ignorance and entitlement that make up the American stereotype.
I say ignorance because most drivers here are completely clueless about the rules of the road. They’ll throw tantrums about cyclists running red lights (which I don’t condone) but drivers flout the rules of the road at a much higher frequency, posing a very real danger to people on bikes, pedestrians and people in wheelchairs.
I say entitlement because even if they do know the rules, they don’t care. There is a sense that the road is for drivers, the crosswalks are for drivers, the bike lanes are for drivers to double park in, etc. There’s a tangible attitude of “gimme ALL the space” and when people’s entitlement is challenged, they often become aggressive.
It’s not just biking that’s stressful. I live in a neighborhood with heavy traffic where there is no concept of pedestrian right of way. Getting almost hit at crosswalks, or being forced to walk into traffic because the crosswalk is blocked by cars, is a normal daily occurrence. People in wheelchairs are even more vulnerable to this anti-social prioritization of speed over safety and decency.
The dude yesterday was big, burly, aggressive and straight up intimidating. I’ve had drivers shout out me, honk at me, accelerate within inches of me, just for being on the road. As a pedestrian, I’ve been called a bitch for simply walking on a crosswalk when I had a green light, because it forced a driver to have to slow down. When I was recovering from pneumonia and couldn’t walk fast, trying to cross the street within the allotted number of seconds was a nightmare. I don’t know how people with less mobility deal with it.
Reclaiming the city and reclaiming the streets is not just about land trusts, public parks, urban farms and so on. It’s also about ditching this car culture, funding public transit (I’ve been to plenty of “third world” countries with better transit than SF), funding better infrastructure for people who walk and bike, driver education (SF bike coalition, a large and influential bike advocacy organization, does not prioritize this but I am convinced it is key and can be effective if done properly), and probably, unfortunately, better enforcement. (Of course, a big problem with enforcement is the anti-poor and anti-cyclist bias of SFPD.)
Because at this point it’s pretty damn difficult for people to get from Point A to Point B without spending money or putting themselves at risk. Our daily movement is taxed, mostly to support the fossil fuel industry. We live in a tiny city with great weather, we could make it into a paradise if we prioritized the needs of the many instead of those of the few.
No, veganism doesn’t require destroying the Amazon, and no, farmers’ “love” for animals doesn’t justify killing them.
The Guardian published an article titled Cows are loving, intelligent and kind – but we should still eat them. It follows Rosamund Young, a farmer who wrote The Secret Lives of Cows. She bonds with her cows, observes the richness and complexity of their social and inner lives, and even provides this memorable quote “The animals themselves are by far the most qualified individuals to make decisions about their own welfare.” She also brings her cows to the slaughterhouse, despite this being the most extreme and violent opposition possible to the decisions that cows would make for their own welfare.
This trope of the farmer who loves their animals and has a zen-like maturity about death has been fed to us for a loooong time. Already in 2000, I remember meeting a guy who, upon learning I was vegan, told me he had been vegan for a while. He had started to eat meat again when he met a farmer who really, really loved his animals – but would kill and eat them. He figured that if the farmer, who really, really loved his chickens, still ate them, it was a green light for him to also eat animals. We’re supposed to see farmers as the example to follow, since they are actually in close communion with animals whereas us urban folks have led a disconnected life of Disney movies and supermarket food.
It would be just as ludicrous to look to men who beat and rape their wives as experts on the validity of women’s emancipation or on how to treat women. They live with them right? And they love them. So if they think patriarchy and male domination of women is ok, then it is. There is so much to deconstruct here in the concept of “love” when applied by a dominant class, but what I want to comment on is the soy – yet something else that is peddled out like truth again and again.
Rosamund Young justifies killing animals because “Britain’s climate and geography make meat production the only truly sustainable land use on its grasslands. Her slopes are too steep to grow crops and vegan diets dependent on imported soya beans from ex-rainforests don’t appear to be sustainable”.
First, vegan diets do not necessarily depend on soy. I spent most of my years as a vegan living in Switzerland and for the most part I ate very little soy. When I did, it was not imported from monocultures in South America; it was organic soy that was grown in Europe. When small farmers and other anti-vegans of that milieu speak of the evils of soy in the Amazon, they conveniently omit that most of that soy goes to feed cattle. Granted, they are not advocating for European cows to be raised on soy either, but that is the inevitable result of the consumption levels in the West today. Grass-fed “beef” is land-intensive. Its proponents sometimes give lip service to the idea of decreasing meat consumption but never center that message in their work.
Going back to soy, people love to wag the finger at vegans but genetically engineered soy is ubiquitous in processed foods consumed by non-vegans. On the other hand, even in the United States, many of the soy products marketed specifically to vegans are non-GMO. And it’s not like pulses don’t grow in the UK. Before they were snubbed as low-class, beans and peas were staple British foods. They’re still grown – now as feed for cattle and for export. Britain is one of the largest exporters of fava beans and Egypt, of all places, is one of its main markets. It’d be wiser for the British to learn to make the delicious Egyptian ful medames and keep their fava beans at home.
You can run around in circles justifying cruelty, but the litmus test is this: would you be ok with dogs being raised and slaughtered like cows? If not, it befalls you to explain why you draw a line between cows and dogs.
There are plenty of veganic growers in the UK, in fact I’ve been told that one of the reasons veganics are more accepted and developed in the UK than in the US is precisely because of the relative lack of land. I hope to see the Guardian start covering their proposal for a compassionate and sustainable food system.
The food movement has long been pushing for small-scale, local and organic animal agriculture. Their idea is that while factory farming is obscene and harmful, traditional forms of animal agriculture are a whole other ballgame. The message that not all meat is equal has morphed into the enthusiastic endorsement and promotion of animal agriculture.
Yes, not all burgers are equal in terms of environmental impact. That’s true, and more vegans should understand this because you can better refute a point if you are first willing to understand it. But burgers are never good for the environment. Before industrial agriculture, animal agriculture was already destructive simply because it uses more resources. That’s why it always was – and remains today – a food for the relatively well-off. Add to that the fact that cows are an invasive species in the Americas and you start to see that this is about protecting culture, not the environment.
Secondly and far more importantly: ALL burgers are equal in that they are all made from the flesh of animals who did not want to die. If you wouldn’t eat local, grass-fed, holistically grazed, humanely slaughtered dogs, why do you do so with cows? How are they different? [Commence sound of crickets.]
The vegan movement also needs to be clear that our movement is not fundamentally about food or agriculture, any more than it is about fashion or entertainment. We are a movement that aims to change how we relate, socially, to other beings. And because those beings are currently exploited in food and agriculture (as well as fashion, entertainment and so on), it just so happens that animal liberation changes the parameters within which we choose what we eat and how we farm. So to the endless chorus of #NotAllBurgers, I emphatically counter #YesALLBurgers. Because animals’ lives are what matter.
The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley sells what foodies consider the right type of meat: grass-fed, pasture-raised, hormone-free, happy animals, all that jazz. They offer daily sandwiches with ingredients like roasted corn tapenade, soft-boiled duck eggs, herbed aioli and nepitella (I had to look it up too). They also offer butchery classes, where those who are seduced by the esthetic of artisanship can learn to hack away at the corpses of pigs, chickens, fish, even deer. Happily, these classes have been the object of protests by animal liberation activists.
On July 10, The Local Butcher Shop posted this picture to Facebook with the caption “Bastille Day is this Friday, July 14th, and we’ve got you Francophiles covered: French onion soup, garlicky Toulouse sausage, Boudin Noir (blood sausage), Crépinettes, pork rillons, duck rillettes, duck confit, whole rabbits & chickens. Call us to place an order! Vive la France!”
I really hope that in 20 years we will look back on this gleeful barbarianism in disbelief. And even while the food movement has been turning ex-vegans into carnists, the renewed vigor of the animal liberation movement has me hopeful. Last week in San Francisco I participated in our city’s first March to Close All Slaughterhouses, and intrepid open rescue networks as well as a slaughterhouse vigil movement are compelling the world to finally empathize with farm animals.
There is nothing surprising to me about using Francophilia to sell meat. In recent years the vegan movement seems to have exploded in Europe, but when I was a kid in Europe it truly was more difficult to be veg*n, and when I would visit the Bay Area, it felt like such a breeze. Then a reversal started around the time I moved to the Bay Area (2010), largely due in my opinion to different streaks of identity politics. One was the idea that Europeans are more nuanced and sophisticated, and so instead of rejecting all animal products, they eat the right kind.
Under Bush, many Americans felt self-conscious and strove to imitate Europeans in an effort to distinguish themselves from all the other “dumb Americans”. Appreciation of local cheeses and artisanal sausages soon conveniently fell into this fold. Veganism was another example of misplaced zeal from Americans who, untethered to tradition and lacking nuance, swing from the extremes of fast food to fat free. San Franciscans especially seemed to have something to prove. After traveling to New York and witnessing an amazing vegan scene, I moved to San Francisco to see vegan businesses shutting down, ex-vegans popping up en masse, and carnism as a new enlightenment.
The problem was that people accepted a framing of the issue that is wrong. Veganism is not about refraining from a type of food entirely versus consuming with distinction and moderation. It’s about rejecting the entire notion that certain animals are food. When I lived in Europe, not a week went by without someone dropping the thought-terminating cliché “faut manger de tout” (“one must eat of everything”). I don’t have much of a problem with that message per se; the question is, what constitutes “everything”? The word everything is used as a synonym for “every food”. In my opinion, animals are not food. In the opinion of those people, certain animals are. Discussions should have centered on this difference, instead they were dismissed.
When a European travels to Asia and sees dogs raised for food, they don’t nod appreciatively and say that some dog meat in moderation is a wise food choice. No, they constantly lament the fate of the dogs (I speak from the experience of having traveled in Asia with Europeans). They wouldn’t be very open-minded if a local told them “faut manger de tout”. Where vegans departed from the mainstream is that we questioned why society doesn’t afford the same empathy to those defined (in the West) as “farm animals” as it does to dogs. Not coming up with a good answer, we changed our ways.
Veganism is about changing our social norms and social relations with other animals, and I think Bay Area folks should have been proud of our willingness to do this.
As Mexican food systems are incorporated into the global economy, rapid changes are underway in the dietary habits of the population. In The Narrative of Lack I spoke of dismantlement: indeed, local food systems can only be integrated into the global corporate food system through the dismantlement of their traditional structure and elements. For example, the move to a large-scale, centralized tortilla market is paired with the disappearance of biodiverse corn-based agricultural systems, small local retail outlets for traditional farmers, and the loss of their knowledge as they are forced to migrate towards other opportunities for subsistence.
Through a variety of mechanisms, globalization and corporatization of food systems have led to a drastic shift in dietary habits, characterized by an increased consumption of both highly processed foods and animal foods, and a decreased consumption of nutrient-dense plant foods. This leads to the “double burden” affecting an increasing number of countries in the Global South: malnutrition and obesity. Mexico is an unfortunate leader: its long-time epidemic of malnutrition is unabated while obesity and diabetes become ever more severe. It is in this context that milk is delivered to malnourished populations as a panacea. Around the world, milk is marketed both as a necessity and as the default children’s food – a symbol of basic needs met.
Currently, the main nutritional selling point for milk is calcium and this marketing has been so successful that it has established the belief that other adequate sources of calcium do not exist. The irony is that in Mexico, other sources of calcium not only exist, they are front and center. Tortillas, the very staple of Mexican food, are traditionally made with corn that was processed in a way that renders them highly rich in calcium. Yet, the disappearance of traditional tortillerias has led to a decrease in the nutritional quality of tortillas. Tortillas are also increasingly replaced by bread, which further limits calcium consumption.
While the narratives that accompany food aid often paint a lack that is either false or created, malnutrition is real. Zinc and iron deficiency are common amongst Mexican children, but social assistance is centered on milk, which has neither. This mismatch indicates at least two things: first, food distribution is more about benefiting donors than addressing the real needs of recipients; second, the symbolic appeal of milk is powerful indeed.
Widespread iron and zinc deficiency are due to politics of poverty and hunger and do not point to an inherent lack of these nutrients in traditional Mexican food systems. As with calcium, there are no a priori reasons Mexican children should be deficient in iron and zinc. On my trip to just one region of Chiapas last year, the existence of local, native sources of these nutrients became abundantly clear.
Pozol is a hearty corn drink that indigenous Chiapanecans equate with strength, health and immunity. In the past it was consumed daily; now it is being replaced by milk and coke. Pumpkin seeds are native to Mexico and notoriously high in zinc. In Chiapas, a variety of indigenous and introduced greens have traditionally been harvested around milpas and in wild areas. People spoke to me in particular about hierba mora, a local green reputed to make one strong. Hierba mora is easy to prepare – like spinach or collard greens – and likely has a comparable nutritional profile.
These foods are disappearing from the diets of the population because of systemic changes to their food system. In San Cristobal, pumpkin seeds have become surprisingly expensive and beyond the means of many people, but one woman told me that growing up, tortillas with ground pumpkin seeds were a daily go-to snack. The nutritious greens that were once ubiquitous are being lost as many move to the city, unable to make a living as farmers. Those who continue to farm now use herbicides, killing off the greens that once grew spontaneously. Even in the countryside, people have access to less land, which limits both the amount and variety of food they can grow. The woman who spoke of pumpkin seed tortilla rolls told me that in her childhood, it was normal for every family to have an avocado tree, and now it’s a rarity. And though avocados abound in the farmers markets, they are not cheap. Fried foods and animal fats have largely replaced the healthy fats once easily available.
It is absolutely possible for these foods to be made accessible again with policies that help build local, biodiverse food systems. Indigenous and peasant movements are fighting for just that – their vision is based on recognition of the abundance to be found in their ecosystems and traditional knowledge. In contrast, the marketing of milk and many social assistance programs are based on the myth that they fill a void that exists by default.
The Encuesta Nacional de Nutrición (National Nutrition Survey) of 1999 found that half of Mexican children under two, and a third under five, were anemic. Interestingly, it also found that iron consumption levels were sufficient, but that children weren’t absorbing it properly. It is common knowledge that consuming vitamin C with plant-based sources of iron increases its bioavailability, and the report indeed points to low levels of vitamin C as a probable factor in the anemia rates. In other words, eating more produce might have been a simple step towards decreasing anemia. To address the causes of malnutrition, we must turn our attention to a global economic system that mandates that produce be flown hundreds of miles to well-stocked grocery stores, while the children who live near where it is grown consume one of the world’s highest rates of soda.
Biodiversity and complex food cultures are not unique to Mexico; the traditional food systems of other countries also contain foods that are nutritious and calcium-rich. Yet in so many countries, school milk programs are implemented with the explicit purpose of creating a culture of milk consumption. This goal is always coupled with that of “teaching children healthy habits”. Around the world, we’re being lulled by a modern tune that says that this one singular food, traditionally consumed only by a minority of humans, is paramount for the development of human children.
Liconsa is a federal program that distributes milk to disadvantaged populations, such as low-income children, pregnant women and nursing mothers. It has existed since 1944 and its coverage is in continual expansion. Liconsa started to fortify its milk with iron in 2001, because why feed children foods that are naturally rich in iron and vitamin C when you can fortify nature’s perfect food and make it extra perfect? Studies that measure the effects of consuming fortified Liconsa milk find, unsurprisingly, that it is an effective way to redress anemia. However, childhood anemia was a noted problem in Mexico for decades before Liconsa started fortifying its milk. The benefits of fortified foods for malnourished children are much touted today, but fortification is evidently a post-facto justification for the program. Milk distribution is not based on an objective assessment of needs but is instead legitimized through the representation of milk as the default nourishment for children.
When it comes to milk, a departure from Western norms is perceived as a lack instead of a simple difference. Most traditional food cultures do not include dairy, so naturally they are targeted for change. Children who don’t drink milk lack proper nourishment, or even just “food”, since milk is the generic children’s food. Conversely, any deficiency can be remedied with milk even when the milk needs to be supplemented so as to alter its nutritional makeup.
It is unsurprising that the lack of dairy in non-Western countries is seen as a growth opportunity for the dairy industry, but the support of governments and international institutions has been crucial to the industry’s success. A recurrent justification for investing in building local dairy markets is the discrepancy between consumption levels in the Global South and North, where the former are seen as having to catch up to the latter. Several East African countries reference a World Health Organization recommendation of a whopping 200 liters of milk per person per year, clearly looking to Western consumption levels as an ideal. For reference, per capita consumption in most Western European countries lies between 200 and 370 liters (data from 2007). Consumption levels in the Global South are markedly lower, with many countries in Asia and Africa consuming less than 40 liters per capita.
Food aid does not address the structural problems that create hunger and malnutrition, but even within its limited framework, milk distribution shows that food aid is not always based on an objective assessment of recipients’ needs. Milk is not a good source of many nutrients and it is has been linked to myriad health problems. Worse, it is particularly detrimental to those who are lactose intolerant, which is the dominant trait in populations that don’t traditionally consume dairy. The people who are harmed the most by dairy are those who are seeing milk suddenly dumped into their communities as their governments urge them to drink up.
We must of course address the root causes of hunger and build up local food systems, but some forms of food aid will still be necessary, for example in the short term and in emergency situations. And fundamentally, providing healthy meals to schoolchildren is a good idea. In these cases, the needs of recipients should be given priority and addressed objectively, away from industry input, cultural bias and emotional appeal. Currently, our representations of proper children’s food are shaped by Eurocentric norms and by the powerful association of milk with motherhood, childhood and nurturing. Through this biased lens, we allow for policies that harm those they purport to serve.
 In the process of nixtamalización, corn is soaked in a slaked lime solution, which can increase its calcium content by 750%, amongst other benefits.
 Morales-Ruán Mdel C, Villalpando S, García-Guerra A, Shamah-Levy T, Robledo-Pérez R, Avila-Arcos MA, Rivera JA. (2012, Mar-Apr) Iron, zinc, copper and magnesium nutritional status in Mexican children aged 1-11 years. Salud Publica Mex.
 Instituto Nacional de Salud Publica (2004) Impacto de la leche fortificada Liconsa en el estado de nutrición de los niños beneficiarios del Programa de Abasto Social. Instituto Nacional de Salud Publica.
“In the spirit of earth day bring reusable cups…” but let’s go ahead and roast a pig.
When Seed the Commons organized the first People’s Harvest Forum, I invited one of the founders of Alemany Farm to come speak about land and urban gardening in San Francisco. I explained that this was a forum that promoted veganic farming, and he was ok with veganics as long as it isn’t promoted exclusively, or in his own words, as long as it was “without dogma”.
Compassion is such a very dogmatic thing, of course. No, wait, it’s only dogmatic when it’s the compassion of the minority. The compassion that the majority has for dogs and cats is not seen as “dogmatic” (even though the majority second-guesses themselves much less). When vegans apply our ethics to our actions in the very same way that the majority does, we get dismissed as dogmatic.
This is a double standard that serves to insult us and to detract from the challenge that we present to dominant social norms. Because the question that needs to be answered is this: why should we treat a cow or pig differently than a dog? If there is no good answer to this question, it follows that we should farm veganically, and it is no more dogmatic than farming without dogs or cats. To maintain the status quo of animal commodification, the question is skirted.
We must liberate the class of animals known as “farm animals”. People will resist and insult and try to avoid ever engaging in a discussion on why farm animals are uniquely suited to their lot. This is normal. We are fighting to change social norms, and it’s always an arduous task. Humans protect the status quo and especially their own privilege. Those who farm, roast or eat pigs want to protect their entitlement to pigs’ lives and bodies, and all the better if they can be self-congratulatory about it. At Alemany Farm, they justify their celebration of domination with the trope of the “circle of life”, but nobody uses this argument to justify cruelty to animals that are deemed to matter.
All of these clichés – “the circle of life”, the rejection of dogma, the wisdom of moderation – have the veneer of sophistication, but they simply provide a knee-jerk defense of the way things are. I grew up in Switzerland, land of the middle ground. Rejecting “extremes” and lauding moderation is a national pastime. It’s not enlightenment, it’s conservatism. When people urge for moderation, they conveniently draw the contours of that moderation around what is normal to them. But if we persevere, veganism and veganic farming will become the new normal.
I’ve heard people – especially vegans – moan that vegans aren’t active enough around the political or social justice issues of our food system. I knew a vegan who used to volunteer at Alemany Farm and who left because every year they would roast the dead body of a sentient, intelligent, sensitive being. We should not have to betray our ethics to be able to engage in important community activism.
As vegans, we must set up our own urban and community gardens. Urban agriculture is too important for us to hold back until we achieve widespread animal liberation. Let’s reclaim the streets, grow our own food systems with a vegan ethic, and help build up a genuine people’s movement for land reform and a better world.
A friend sent me this video, in which the speaker aims to convince us that drinking milk is unnecessary and harmful. To convey the absurdity of our habit, he highlights an obvious fact that many fail to consider: milk is produced by mammals to feed their babies.
Milk is species-specific: camel milk is designed to meet the unique needs of a growing infant camel, cow’s milk meets the specific needs of calves, human milk those of baby humans. They are not interchangeable; nature has tailored the milk of each species to the unique needs, growth rate, and physiology of the infants of that species. A baby whale will not thrive on human milk. Likewise, milk is designed to meet the particular needs of infants, not adults. All mammals wean their young and move them on to other foods. Only humans graduate to the milk of another species.
This novel behavior is so normalized that we rarely think about it. The function of lactation in a cow is evidently not to feed humans, and humans have not evolved to be shackled to a cow’s udder until death. Without a doubt, our behavior is unique in the animal kingdom.
The responses to the video show that most people were having none of its anti-dairy message. One commenter pointed out that while humans are indeed the only species to drink the milk of another species, we are also the only ones to skydive, race cars, or do other things that define our civilizations. If drinking milk is weird, so are most of the activities that make up human history.
When I first went vegan, I shared the perspective of the video’s speaker. I realized that we were the only animals to drink the milk of other species, as adults no less, that to do so we were robbing babies of the one food they need to be healthy, and the whole affair seemed bizarre. But my perspective has changed and I now tend to agree with the commenter.
To be sure, for humans to drink cow’s milk goes against the purpose of the milk from the perspective of cows and nature. What has shifted is that I think differently about the relationship between naturalness and weirdness. That a small group of humans at a recent point in our history domesticated certain animals to exploit their bodies and labor, and took their milk while they were at it, is not all that strange in light of the diverse and ingenuous ways that humans have expanded into and dominated their environments.
Humans who domesticated bovines, milked the females, and adapted by producing lactase past the age of weaning, benefited from it. The nutritional makeup of the milk wasn’t ideal, but nonetheless, they got calories out of it, with fat and protein and all that good stuff. Drinking milk is unethical, but it’s not weird by human standards. However, the idea that human children require milk is a strange conclusion to reach. We’ve been made to believe that cow’s milk is not just another source of calories, instead that it’s a unique beverage upon which human children are engineered to be dependent.
When I was growing up, I wasn’t told that the world is replete with foods containing protein and calcium and fat. What I was told was that I needed milk to grow and be healthy. As an adult, I was told by an endocrinologist that if I wasn’t drinking milk, I could be sure that I had countless deficiencies. Drinking cow’s milk may not be weird, but believing that humans require cow’s milk is very weird.
Let’s think about the implications of this belief. Did humans evolve to be dependent on cows? Even though we domesticated them (and the few other animals who are milked) so very late in our history? Even though most human cultures never developed dairying at all? Why would we have to go through the arduous task of domesticating other animals to get the nutrients we need to grow to adulthood? Would this not have doomed our species early on? If the history of dairying shows us anything, it is how very adaptable humans are, whereas this belief paints a humanity that is stubbornly dependent on one very specific and difficult to procure food.
Through milk, we see an example of social norms being so entrenched that we never pause to render explicit the ideas that support them, and without doing this, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to reject them. The belief that cow’s milk is necessary to humans is absurd because it’s based on an absurd model of how nature works.
The representations of humans that underlie Western milk-drinking culture (Three glasses a day! The more the better! Lactose-free milk for the lactose-intolerant!) also point to a narrative of lack. I’ve written about a narrative of lack in regards to the colonization of Mexican food culture, but in this case, the ideas that humans are dependent on cows and that the world’s vast array of plant foods can’t provide our calcium affect us all. To unpack these narratives and unearth the representations that inform our habits may seem like a mere exercise in abstraction, but they have concrete effects on everything from our health to the policies that we support with our tax dollars. Deconstructing them is an important part of the effort to create a food system built around nourishing people, not lining shareholder pockets. As we unpack dominant ideas, we can consider whether they make sense, whom they serve, and what their alternatives might be.
Many myths of scarcity dominate our increasingly globalized food system: they serve to legitimize corporate takeover and westernization, loss of sovereignty and biodiversity. As I unravel them, I will also share stories of abundance. Like tortillas and chia seeds in Mexico, other countries are rich in foods, traditions and biodiversity that are overlooked, undervalued, erased and destroyed. If we want to defend them, we need to truly understand that there is something to defend and build upon. In the meantime, I posit that nature has offered humans an abundance of nutritious plants to eat, that we can thrive without the milk of other animals, and in fact, we’re best off without.
I spoke about the importance of building the veganic movement at the Compassionate Living potluck this weekend and I will give a few more talks on this topic in the next months. It is wonderful to see interest in this issue catching on. When I decided to focus on veganics a few years ago, there was very little information on social media and even less interest. In Fall 2015, while organizing the first People’s Harvest Forum, I went to a local animal rights meetup to present on what I was doing and why, and I told them that even from a strictly animal rights perspective, activists need to prioritize veganic farming. As the food movement gained popularity, the image of animal-based sustainable agriculture that it put forth was serving to delegitimize veganism. But it seemed niche and abstract to speak about how food is grown, only relevant to food activists or gardening hobbyists, and there was no interest. Less than two years later, the same group is now organizing their own discussions on veganics.
It’s a good time to clarify what my advocacy of veganic farming is about. My message is not that animal agriculture can never be sustainable or that veganic is the only way to achieve the goals of the food movement. It’s great to debunk misinformation around the sustainability of organic and small-scale animal agriculture; I do a bit of that in my presentations and I plan to do more. However, I am primarily coming at this from a different angle. I aim to show that agroecology can exist within a vegan framework. We do not have to choose between agroecology and animal liberation, and we should neither stand for the delegitimization of veganism that occurs when only one version of organic is made visible, nor reject the positives of this movement because we believe it is incompatible with our ethics.
Within various approaches to growing food, veganic can be thought of as an approach onto itself, distinct from others:
Coming from this latter view, my priority is not to convince people that veganic is more sustainable than other organic approaches, and I do not want to reinforce the notion that agroecology and veganic are discrete categories. When veganism becomes mainstream, all types of farming will exclude cows, chickens, pigs and other so-called farm animals. Of course, we’ll no longer qualify this as vegan, just as we don’t use a qualifier to signal that we exclude dogs from our farming or cooking. As vegans, we don’t need to wait for the majority to get there. We can work within a vegan framework, where agroeocology is automatically vegan agroecology, permaculture is automatically vegan permaculture, and so on.
For some, what is written above is counter-intuitive because… don’t organic farming, agroecology, permaculture, and certainly regenerative agriculture necessarily include farm animals? It is this misconception that vegans must address. The Eurocentric image of idyllic farmland with cows frolicking around green pastures, and the erasure of models that do not center farm animals, reassures consumers and activists that animal exploitation is good and proper. They also imply, in a way that is often subtle but always powerful, that the only alternative to small-scale animal-based agriculture is a food system dominated by Monsanto and run on fossil fuels.
The thing is, this false dichotomy is now effectively a real dichotomy as far as consumers are concerned. Many vegans rightfully prefer to buy organic over conventional, but their dollars are supporting the factory farm system.* There is an immediate need to grow the veganic movement from this perspective, but more urgent and far-reaching is to work at a cultural level. We need to deconstruct and change the narrative. This is the project I’ve taken on.
For more information on veganic farming, check out Veganic World.
* For more details, read my interview with veganic farmer Matt Loisel.