Thanks to Ann Kreilkamp for linking to one of those uncomfortable posts that breaks through conditioned, seemingly obvious beliefs about compassionate eating.
I loved being strictly vegan for over eight years, and I still eat a predominantly plant based, mostly homegrown or personally known farm sourced diet, supplemented by locally sourced, picked up at the farm, very well treated and well loved raw goats’ milk and occasional free-range, organic eggs from local farmers. The more I garden and study permaculture, and the more organic farmers I meet, the move I’ve realized that a strict vegan diet isn’t the “feed the world” cure or even the most compassionate or sustainable way to eat. It sure was nice to think so, though! Just eat superfoods and buy organic, then you’re good to go, right? No one gets hurt if we all eat vegan. We can feed the world if we all eat vegan. Trouble is, that theory breaks down when you really start learning what it takes to grow food on a large enough scale to feed yourself, let alone the world.
As Daniel Zetah notes, why do cows matter more than other creatures? Beyond the obviously egregious factory farming, why are monoculture crops (even organic ones) that steal wildlife habitat and kill ecosystems “more compassionate” than personally raised and grazed animals with “one bad day”? How is a superfood shipped in from 1000’s of miles away, jacking up the price of staples for indigenous communities in South America and driving natives off ancestral land whose ecoculture they maintained for generations, or turning rainforest into a monocrop “more compassionate” than eating an egg from a chicken you lovingly raised in your own backyard? I don’t eat meat, but I have yet to meet a vegan organic farmer who remains vegan. Even Marjory Wildcraft (“Grow Your Own Groceries”) began as a strict vegan and then recognized that she was putting way more calories into growing food than she received from her best efforts. Running a deficit of return is not sustainable on an individual level, nor will it feed the world.
Number crunching of acres of soy or grain directly eaten vs. acres of grain or grass eaten by animals works in theory, but not in practice. Humans don’t have the digestive systems to break down that amount of grain in a safe, sustainable way. Too much soy causes all sorts of imbalances, and many people can no longer tolerate any grains. Without some kind of perennial vegetables, fruit/nut trees, and foraged “weeds,” eating and growing a diet of all grains and annual vegetables, or monoculture soy and corn crops, don’t lead to thriving. Not for the planet and not for most humans.
I’ve watched too many severely ill vegans reclaim their health on a paleo diet to espouse “all vegan all the time as the cure for all disease,” and I’ve witnessed enough closed permaculture loops utilizing manure, fish waste, and “blood ‘n’ bones” to recognize that we’re not really better off rising above these processes rather than returning them to the Earth. Nature has its own cycle of life that very much includes death and decay. Just because we don’t see it on our “peaceful plate” doesn’t mean that cycle ceases to exist. Without it, “life” begins to require all sorts of unnatural inputs and destructive things — chemical herbicides and pesticides, or spending hours hand killing bugs and slugs, tilling the soil, stripping the land each year instead of working more in harmony with natural succession.
Without regular inputs or carefully planned polycultures such as Daniel Zetah describes (sometimes even requiring grazing animals), the soil eventually won’t support annual crops, and certainly won’t maintain nutrient levels that provide enough minerals long term. Unhealthy soil leads to unhealthy food, and without renewing the soil, crops become more prone to insects and disease, making organic farming more difficult, not easier.
I highly recommend this piece, as it really challenges how far our compassion extends — for animals traditionally eaten? For animals in nature? For the Earth Herself? If we care for our planet as a whole, then the efficiency and closed loops of food production do matter. Just because we don’t see the consequences of our organically farmed veggies doesn’t mean those consequences don’t exist.
Growing your own food beyond hobby level makes you acutely aware of how everything we do impacts the rest of nature, and how simple answers don’t always stand strong beyond the theories. This piece challenges me, too, but it’s worth a read by anyone who loves animals and loves our planet. Ultimately, we need to choose what feels right and balanced to us. I’m still an organic eating vegetarian who grows much of my own food with permaculture principles. Sometimes I feel a little selfish and reckless about that choice, though — not because I should be vegan, but because my friends here who raise their own meat with zero waste and eat nearly all calories from their own farm are actually living with far lower impact than we are with our store-bought quinoa, tempeh and grains.
“There is no magic bullet. There is no one way to eat that is going to be devoid of guilt or devoid of suffering. There is no way to exist in this world without taking the life of other beings. And that complex truth was missing for me, and it’s still missing for a lot of people.” ~Daniel Zetah