A Primer on Veganism - By Stella Floyd

A Primer on Veganism - By Stella Floyd

Capitalism produces similar animal and human slavery

Almost all of our meat (and, indeed, milk) comes from factory farms run by giant corporations that torture animals and abuse workers. What’s so “good and decent” about that?


Vegans are often considered a fringe group, lumped together with “eco-terrorists” and mocked for their “extreme” diet. Yet, according to a recent study, there are now one million vegans in America. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain described us thus:

“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”

The enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit? Of course, Bourdain seeks publicity, and this attack on vegans serves as a useful sound-byte and an opportunity to further his own personal branding as a rugged-individualist-cum-foodie. Why, though, are most Americans still meat eaters? Despite the profit-motivated claims of the meat and dairy industry, we do not need meat to live. Almost all of our meat (and, indeed, milk) comes from factory farms run by giant corporations that torture animals and abuse workers. What’s so “good and decent” about that?

Considering that the most common phrases a vegetarian or vegan hears from omnivores include “We need meat to live,” and “Oh, I just couldn’t deprive myself like that,” and “Vegetarians are sissies,” and, of course, “But it tastes good,” Bourdain’s screed is only an honest – if overblown – magnification of the prevalent, mainstream opinion of vegans in this country.

Yet one million people are doing it: giving up milk, and cheese, and butter, along with meat. This number is likely to grow as people seek out ways of eating that are more environmentally sustainable, nutritious, economical, and humane, while opting out of the exploitation that is inherent in industrial capitalism.

We’re starting to hear more about the environmental costs of meat consumption. According to a study published in 1997 by David Pimentel, Professor of Ecology at Cornell University, "If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million." That’s well more than double the current population of the United States. And it’s not just Americans who are sacrificing millions of acres of land otherwise useful for grain or vegetable production (or indeed for non-production and reclamation by pressured wildlife populations); China is now following our lead in developing an intense, industrial food production system, and has increased its total domestic feed grain supply from 12 million tons in the mid-1960s to 107 million tons by the mid-1990s.

In the mid-1960s 34% of maize produced was used for feed, and by the mid-1990s, maize production had quadrupled, while 80% was used for feeding animals. The population of China is currently approximately 1.3 million people and continues to increase. Globally, the livestock population has increased 60% since 1961, and American beef and pork consumption has tripled since 1970.

One of the first questions people ask about a vegan diet is often, “But where do you get your protein?” This well-intentioned, if tiresome, query is easily answered. In fact, most Americans consume too much protein (recent studies link protein overconsumption with insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes), and many commonly available plant-based protein sources have more protein than meat. For example, one cup of cooked lean beef contains 25 grams of protein (and 75 milligrams of cholesterol) , while one cup of tempeh (fermented, cooked soybeans) contains 41 grams of protein (and has zero cholesterol). And it’s not all soy: one cup of cooked lentils packs 18 grams of protein, black beans 15 grams, and chickpeas 12 grams. It’s also important to note that all foods (except fats and alcohol) contain protein. A bagel, for instance, contains 9 grams; 2 tablespoons of peanut butter has 8 grams; and a medium potato contains 4 grams.

The only nutrient not abundantly available in the vegan diet is vitamin B12. Humans need very small amounts of B12, but it is very important, needed for cell division and blood formation. This vitamin is made by neither plants nor animals, but is produced by bacteria, which is then consumed by animals, including humans. There are several reliable, plant-based sources of B12, so this need is easily met. The souce most commonly consumed by vegans is nutritional yeast, a food yeast grown on a molasses solution, which has a cheesy taste and flaky, yellow appearance. Other sources of B12 are fortified cereals, meat substitutes (such as veggie burgers), and soy or rice milk. Supplements are also available.

Meeting one’s daily recommended intake of other nutrients on a vegan diet is otherwise very similar to an omnivorous diet; it is very important to eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, and avoid processed convenience foods and refined white flour and sugar. These are challenges all Americans face, and, in my experience, it’s much easier to eat healthy on a vegan diet. There are also scores of excellent cookbooks available now, with instructions on how to make everything from bean croquettes to vegan cupcakes.

What’s more, vegans eating a well-balanced diet are healthier than meat eaters. According to the American Dietetic Association:

Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and phyto-chemicals. Vegetarians have been reported to have lower body mass indices than non-vegetarians, as well as lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; vegetarians also show lower blood cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer.

Veganism need not only be the diet of the privileged, health-conscious, trendy Whole Foods shopper. Cutting meat and dairy out of your shopping basket will lower your grocery bill, as vegetable protein sources are consistently cheaper than meat. If you have a back yard or access to a vegetable plot or community garden, you can grow vegetables and herbs yourself. If you’re in a densely populated urban area, you might try the nearest farmer’s market or local produce delivery company, more and more of which seem to be cropping up each season. The vegetables you can get there will be fresher and sometimes cheaper, due to the fact that they haven’t been shipped halfway around the planet by truck, airplane, and/or ship. You’ll also be pleasantly surprised by the taste—nothing can compare to freshly picked fruit. However, if you don’t have access to these, you can still be vegan. Regular old imported, pesticide-sprayed, week-old apples are still a better choice for your salad or sandwich than high-fat, high-cholesterol, antibiotic-injected, industrially farmed, tortured flesh.

Beyond these frequently cited reasons, anyone actively working against capitalism and the culture of exploitation ought to consider veganism as a logical next step. Many people are now looking for alternatives to the standard American lifestyle, predicated as it is upon sweatshop labor, wars for oil, an unjust justice system, corporate mis-education, and worker abuse. Many consider these festering symptoms to be manifestations of the violence that is an unavoidable part of our society’s profit-first organization. Factory farms and the exploitation of animals are just another link in the chain, one that kills nearly 10 billion land animals for food each year. The idea that animals are mere objects, to be abused and used at our whim, should be eschewed along with the ideas that wives are chattel property or that only white males are human. Who confers subject status? Misogynists view women as objects, and most people view animals as objects, with the notable exception of many indigenous cultures. When will those of us who otherwise consider ourselves as fighters against the twin engines of profit and exploitation realize that animals have lives and purposes of their own, and that it is no more our right to determine their “use” than it is for men to assign similar values and uses to women (or for the owning class to assign uses to wage slaves)?

Sure, I grew up eating meat, and humans have pretty much always eaten meat when it was available. Sure, sometimes a cheeseburger sounds good, and I am not immune to the smell of bacon (though how much of this is biological and how much is the result of a lifetime of training one's tongue on pig parts, I'll leave to evolutionary biologists to determine). Sure, I could occasionally eat some egg to get a quick protein boost. I could eat some chicken to avoid offending someone. But to do so would be to support the industrial farming of living, sentient beings. Animals feel pain. That alone is enough reason not to eat them. What meat eaters may view as “the pure enjoyment of food,” something to which they have an unquestionable right to enjoy, despite the fact that this enjoyment is predicated upon pollution, exploitation, cruelty, and death - I view as morally indefensible.

I don't view my diet choices as dogma. I retain the right to alter them whenever I see fit. If I become convinced by new scientific evidence that my diet is nutritionally deficient, I will change it. But, for now, I am not convinced, and thus choose to err on the side of compassion and health. I am privileged to live in a time and place where I have this choice. I don't have to eat meat to live, or to live robustly.

The fact that omnivores in the vein of Anthony Bourdain feel the need to proselytize to and demean vegetarians and vegans, often resorting to outdated science, old cultural clichés, and name-calling, hints at the fact that they feel on the defensive, and feel offended by the very existence of vegans. Why is Anthony Bourdain offended by my not killing animals?

I don't have to kill animals to live. So why should I?