Politics & Policy

Is the Future Vegan?

Beyond Meat Inc. products on a store shelf in Encinitas, Calif. (Reuters)
Some of us do consider vegan arguments and find them unpersuasive.

Farhad Manjoo writes in defense of vegans — people who consume no animal products — in this week’s New York Times. He describes the insulting behavior and exasperation that vegans face from friends, relatives, and strangers across the Internet. Manjoo speculates that people react this way to vegans because their convictions challenge us, highlighting the unbearable tension between our sentimentality about certain animals and our carnivorous desire to consume them.

Manjoo writes:

Although vegans can marshal stronger evidence to support their claims than adherents of many other belief systems — whether of other diets or major religions — they get little respect, and their ideas rarely receive mass media acknowledgment other than mockery.

And a little later:

We need more vegan voices, because on the big issues — the  criminal cruelty of industrial farming; the sentience and emotional depth of food animals; the environmental toll of meat and the unsustainability of its global rise — vegans are irrefutably on the right side of history.

Let me note where I agree with Manjoo. The stereotype of the endlessly preachy vegan is past its sell-by date. And the people who unload their fury on that stereotype are being nasty. My own experience is that the long-term vegans who are close to me try not to talk about their veganism and avoid debating it with almost everyone. They merely invite you to watch the documentaries or read the studies that brought them to this point. They are mindful of how costly their choice is socially and financially; some practically envy the ignorant abandon with which others consume whatever is served to them. Sometimes vegans are painfully self-aware that their dietary choices impose painful costs on their families, namely in requiring people to cook multiple versions of dishes for family events and seek out new ingredients in order to be hospitable to them.

I don’t begrudge anyone who simply can’t bring himself to eat animals; de gustibus and all that.

But some of us do consider vegan arguments and find them unpersuasive as arguments. Rhys Southan has written about the “vegan shuffle,” in which vegans pursue one line of ethical argument, that animals have rights, until the point at which their opponent points to a hole in it. Perhaps the non-vegan will notice that a strict adherence to animal rights would require the abolition of agricultural techniques that the current vegan diet relies on, since these kill some animals (pests, animals caught in threshing machines, etc.) and steal and destroy the ecosystems on which yet more animals depend. The vegan will then shuffle toward an argument that they are simply interested in harm reduction; they don’t want animal rights exactly, but only to be better.

But point out that there are other strategies that could reduce animal suffering while still allowing humans to eat meat — changes in slaughtering techniques, etc. — and vegans will “shuffle” back toward the animal-rights argument to show why this by itself would not be a sufficient moral response. Or perhaps you could propose a wilder solution that ends more harm than veganism by radically shifting the human diet to the consumption of bivalves, which do not feel pain. This too causes the shuffle back to an animal-rights argument.

Perhaps it is not the muddled moral impulses of meat-eaters that make them uncomfortable with the premises of veganism, but the convictions of vegans themselves, which seem to require moving the human animal outside of the animal food chain in a way that is possible only because of urbanization and the agricultural revolution.

Even the soft defense Manjoo offers, that we all must become a little more like vegans, is open to serious challenge. While a more vegan diet could reduce the distance from farm to table, and thus reduce the carbon usage in making a meal, the nutritional demands — to say nothing of the human desire for greater variety — at the outer edge of the vegan diet require a global supply chain heavy in carbon emissions. Some popular estimates of vegan-diet carbon input simply don’t count the carbon cost of plowing soil without replenishing it through the grazing of animals. Rotational farming and grazing, which abates the carbon impact of agriculture, is making a comeback precisely because of the harm-reducing meat-eaters’ desire for more nutritious and tastier free-range products.

Worst of all, though, is that the argument to be a “little more vegan” for the planet’s sake is same unpersuasive argument that is being tried on Brazilians now. The Amazonian rainforest is burning not just because people want to greedily gum on some beef, but because Brazilians themselves want a better, richer life. The argument that we need to be a little more vegan is, for now, the same argument that you should be or remain poorer than you otherwise would, for the planet’s sake. Don’t swallow it.

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