Carnism as Cultural Appreciation

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.

Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 3.40.38 PMOn 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.

Now the Bay Area is stirring again. As a result of the above-mentioned protests, The Local Butcher Shop agreed to post an animal liberationist message on their window front; a likely first in the history of all butcher shops. The Bay Area is marching towards animal liberation; let’s be unwavering this time.

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Earth Day at Alemany Farm

 

“In the spirit of earth day bring reusable cups…” but let’s go ahead and roast a pig.

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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.

 

 

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The Strange Case of Milk

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.

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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.

calf-834528_1920When 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.

Yak_TajikistanLet’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.

 

 

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Veganic en marche

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:

Conventional
Organic
Agroecology
Regenerative
Veganic

But we can also think of it this way:

Non-vegan Vegan
Conventional Conventional
Organic Organic
Agroecology Agroecology
Regenerative Regenerative

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.

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