Food, Inc

I finally watched Food, Inc today. It’s a start, but I found three facts conspicuously absent:

  1. Most of the monocropped grain we grow is fed to animals. If we ate it directly, we would need much less of it.
  2. Grass fed beef and dairy are so inefficient with land use that they are less sustainable than feedlots.
  3. Killing an animal that doesn’t want to die is not treating it with respect.

Even ancient farming practices, like the ones promoted in Food Inc and by Joel Salatin (and what we have been taught is “natural” since we were children), are cruel to animals. We don’t realize this because culturally it has always been so taboo to talk about the perspective of the animals used for food. Even today we dance around the issue by blaming factory farms. Yet these hellish factories are in fact a natural evolution of the idea that it’s somehow right and just for us to dominate other species for our own pleasure. It’s not.

Entwined

If we were not ourselves involved in routine violence towards a handful of species, we would find it appalling and step in to shield defenseless and innocent animals from harm.

Because our personal behavior is entwined with the violence in an unavoidable way, we may feel threatened when the message of peace is presented without deference to our cultural habits.

The message is not an attack, it’s an opportunity to disentangle ourselves, enjoy our newfound freedom, and empower those around us to do the same.

On Processed Foods

In response to:

“Oh but isn’t that processed?” Yep so is beer, wine, bread, pasta…processing isn’t what matters. Number of ingredients and whether you can pronounce them are not important either. What matters is nutritional content. That’s a fact. Not an opinion. Can we as a culture just get over this pseudoscientific food snobbery please? Thanks.

“What matters is nutritional content” perhaps, but I would be sure to add some caveats to that. We don’t have a complete index of nutrients nor their impacts on the body. For example plant polyphenols in berries, we’re just starting to understand1, and there is evidence that eating these nutrients in their “unprocessed” state is more effective than just eating the nutrients directly234. Why would that be? It’s possible that we just don’t know what all the co-nutrients are yet, but it is more likely that there are countless interactions between body and food that we haven’t even scratched the surface of explaining.

A second caveat I would include is that food is a “package deal”. You have to eat something. If you’re eating a lot of processed foods (or a lot of animal foods), the likelihood of you getting the nutrients you are talking about goes down5. Also, the likelihood of getting toxins that you don’t want goes up. For example, potatoes, which are generally fairly healthy when steamed or boiled, create acrylamide when cooked at high heat a la french fries6. So even if we ignore my first caveat for a moment, it can be misleading to tell people that how processed a food is doesn’t matter, because that will most likely lead them to get fewer of the nutrients that we agree are important and more of the bad things.

Given these caveats, if you actually want to eat healthfully, it makes more sense to step back and look at the whole diet, rather than individual nutrients. This means you’re basically stuck with epidemiological studies of populations, and dietary intervention studies, neither of which is capable of establishing a sure-fire causal relationship. However, the evidence from such studies is pretty strong6 in favor of eating more foods of plant origin and in less processed form23478.

Valuing human labor in the machine age

In response to:

What happens to your economic theory when the value of human labor is $0? [article suggesting we need basic income]

The idea that the value of human labor will go to $0 is a bit hyperbolic. Sure, maybe drivers, bank tellers, and some other jobs are on the way out. But history is full of this progression. 150 years ago most jobs were on the farm. And then tractors and railroads and industry happened. Did all the jobs disappear? Well, farming jobs did, but other jobs replaced them. What makes this time so different?

I don’t claim to be able to imagine all the new types of jobs we’ll have in 50 years, but I can submit a few to you that I’m willing to bet will still be around:

  • writer, journalist, reporter
  • actor, artist, dancer, musician
  • sports player, announcer
  • lawyer, accountant
  • doctor, nurse
  • programmer, engineer (though these may look a lot different in 50 years)
  • entrepreneur, businessperson
  • plumber, carpenter, electrician, etc

And some may take issue with this one, but I’m pretty sure some basic service jobs will still be around, such as cleaning, cooking, serving food, etc. There may be some instances (i.e. fast food) where waiters are no more, but I think people like the social aspect of having a waiter and will therefore continue to pay for it.

As for basic income, it’s a better idea than our current entitlement system, but until we find a way to make them voluntary (such as a social insurance program that you can opt-out of), such systems are immoral.

Why Vegans Lose Debates

Ok, if you look at some of these online debates, the pro-vegan side doesn’t typically lose (though it’s possible that the audience planted themselves to create that result). Nevertheless, they still make mistakes. Here are some of them:

  1. Claiming that the only solution to factory farming is to go vegan. We can make the argument till the cows come home that factory farms are awful, toxic, environmentally damaging and cruel. Few will argue with us. But many will disagree that the only possible solution is animal rights or veganism. That’s not to say that factory farming practices have no place in a debate about veganism. For one thing, veganism certainly offers a neat solution to the factory farming problem. We can also make the argument that without factory farms, there would necessarily be much less meat and dairy and it would be more expensive.
  2. Defending or promoting vegetarianism. Lacto-vegetarianism still has all the ethical, environmental, and health issues that non-vegetarians have, though perhaps to lesser degree. If we promote vegetarianism as a solution, we expose ourselves to being called out on one of these inconsistencies. Promote vegan as the standard, and we are on much firmer ground. We can still applaud and encourage the ideals that compel people to go vegetarian, and even promote vegetarianism as a natural step towards veganism.
  3. Overstating the position. Overstatement hurts the cause and loses debates, because it destroys credibility. Here are some things not to say:
    • 100% vegan is the only way for the environment. It’s true that the planet can’t sustain the level of meat/dairy/fish/eggs that we currently consume. The facts are starkly on the side of veganism. A great example is the proposition that a sustainable amount of animal food per person is about 2 ounces of animal foods per week. That’s almost nothing. But it’s not nothing! It may be true that ultimately a vegan solution is the best way forward for the environment, but in a debate, we’ll get much further by arguing with well established facts — for example, that consumption of meat/dairy/etc products must be drastically cut in order to reach a sustainable level. Similar to the factory farming issue, veganism offers a neat solution for our environmental problems, but the facts do leave a little bit of wiggle room between about 98% and 100% vegan.
    • 100% vegan is best for physical health. John Mackey makes a good move by backing away from this claim in this debate. There is ample scientific evidence for the health benefits of a mostly plant-based, whole foods diet (see here. There is not, however, anything conclusive that says when you go from a 99% vegan diet to a 100% vegan diet, you’re doing yourself a favor. So when we argue that 100% vegans are nutritionally healthier than 99% vegans, we are destroying our credibility.
    • Veganism is ethically pure. Even for vegans there are murky ethical issues. We act with compassion towards the animal kingdom, but what about plants? By some accounts, plants may have the capacity to suffer to some degree. Even a plant-based diet has some impact on the environment, ecosystems for animals, and insects. We aren’t perfect, and it’s crucial that we admit that. This forces us to give the ethical debate a little bit of fuzziness. Eventually it leads us to the fact that just because some harms aren’t avoidable, doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and toss morality out the window. This point is rarely argued with, and really strengthens the vegan position.

One nice tactic for winning a debate is to reduce the claim. By pointing out the ways in which being mostly vegan is beneficial, we get to present all of our best arguments without having the burden of them being 100% black and white. Here are some suggestions:

  1. (ethics/science/evolution) Paint the picture of the evolution of human perspective. Gallileo showed that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. We are continuing this trend by discovering that humans aren’t the center of the ethical universe. Science can’t dictate ethics, but it can certainly show that animals are capable of much of what we consider worthy of ethical consideration; including intelligence, emotion, communication, and perhaps most important, suffering. We know animals suffer, and we know that humans have the choice and ability to reduce this suffering.
  2. (environment) The environmental facts are good enough without being overstated. Just make sure the facts are correct before repeating them. If a hamburger takes as much water as 6 months worth of showers, saying that his impressive enough that there’s no reason to exaggerate it to 12 months.
  3. (health) Point out what studies have shown, namely that a diet consisting of primarily whole, plant-based foods dramatically reduces the incidences of many of our nastiest diseases. Acknowledge that the jury is still out on the space between “mostly vegan” and “all the way vegan”, but it’s also fair to point out that there are many “all the way vegans” who have excellent health.
  4. (personal) Few people actually want to harm animals, given the choice. Most people see themselves as kind, compassionate beings; yet their plates would indicate otherwise. Just point this out, and demonstrate that there is a choice by being a healthy vegan.

10 reasons not to give animals rights

Imagine that it’s before the abolition of slavery, and you are a normal person. One day, you wake up and realize that slavery is immoral. You begin to see everything differently. You feel compelled to speak out, but alas, nobody wants to hear what you have to say. When you raise the issue with others, they dismiss your concerns with one or more of the following 10 reasons.

The following 10 reasons not to abolish slavery are being used around the net by liberty proponents, towards the abolition of government. I found them also to be eerily similar to arguments opposing animal rights.

reason not to abolish slaveryreason to oppose animal rights
Slavery is natural. People differ, and we must expect that those who are superior in a certain way—for example, in intelligence, morality, knowledge, technological prowess, or capacity for fighting—will make themselves the masters of those who are inferior in this regard.Raising animals for food is natural. Species differ, and we must expect that those who are more intelligent, make moral decisions, or are just plain stronger will make themselves masters of the inferior species.
Slavery has always existed.People have been eating animals since ancient history. (Other ancient practices include rape and murder.)
Every society on earth has slavery. The unspoken corollary is that every society must have slavery. The pervasiveness of an institution seems to many people to constitute compelling proof of its necessity.Every society on earth eats animals, therefore every society must continue to eat animals. (Although the premise is debatable, it’s moot because the argument is not valid anyway.)
The slaves are not capable of taking care of themselves.The animals are not capable of taking care of themselves.
Without masters, the slaves will die off. This idea is the preceding one pushed to it’s extreme.Without animal agriculture, the cows/pigs/chickens/sheep/goats/etc. will die off.
Where the common people are free, they are worse off than the slaves.Living on a farm is a better deal for the animals than the alternative. They are fed and sheltered on farms, unlike in the wild.
Getting rid of slavery would occasion great bloodshed and other evils. In the United States many people assumed that the slaveholders would never permit the termination of the slave system without an all-out fight to preserve it.Ceasing to eat animals will cause great economic hardship to the farmers (ok, this one is a stretch, I haven’t really heard anyone argue that there would be “great bloodshed”. Does “I would have to give up cheeseburgers” count?).
Without slavery the former slaves would run amuck, stealing, raping, killing, and generally causing mayhem.Without farms, the animals would run amuck, stealing from suburban gardens, crowding the streets, and generally causing mayhem.
Trying to get rid of slavery is foolishly utopian and impractical; only a fuzzy-headed dreamer would advance such a cockamamie proposal.Veganism is a foolishly idealistic and impractical, misguided attempt at showing compassion. It’s just not realistic.
Forget abolition. A far better plan is to keep the slaves sufficiently well fed, clothed, housed, and occasionally entertained and to take their minds off their exploitation.Forget veganism. A far better plan is to focus on welfare reforms; keep the animals sufficiently well treated, “humanely” confined, exploited, and slaughtered.

Why Animals Matter

People often ask me why I think animals matter, when compared to all of the other problems in the world. World hunger, world peace, economic and political stability—aren’t these things more important than animal rights?

It’s a fair question, and actually a very important one because the answer to this question turned my world upside down when I learned it.

Why is the world so violent? Why can’t we manage to implement solutions on issues of simple justice?

Animals matter precisely because they are deeply integrated into issues such as world hunger and world peace. They matter because our treatment of animals affects our psychological outlook on the world. And they matter because caring about animals and adopting a vegan lifestyle is perhaps one of the most powerful things we can do to change the world for the better.

World Peace

Imagine an idealised future in which humans have learned how to live without physically harming each other. There’s no need for armies, bombs or guns. The people live in peace and prosperity all the world over.

Except at the slaughterhouses. These are places of massive slaying machines, steeped in blood and entrails. People work at the slaughterhouses. They numb themselves to their emotional connection to animals, then come home to our peaceful paradise..?

If something seems wrong with this image, it’s because it’s so farfetched as to be nearly unimaginable. We can’t expect to live in an enlightened peaceful world while we’re still practicing mass slaughter of innocent creatures.

Now turn the example upside down: imagine a vegan future, in which our hearts are so sensitive that we fully reject outright the harming of animals. Could people of this temperament really go to war and kill other people? We can’t rule it out, but it certainly seems less likely.

Dig behind the surface level of burger ads and war propaganda, and you’ll find that our treatment of animals and violence in our culture are so interlinked that it’s nearly unimaginable that we could ever solve one without solving the other.

Happiness


I think most people want to feel inner peace. When we’re at peace with ourselves and the world, we’re content and happy.

I also think most people are kindhearted. In fact, I think the vast majority of people would choose not to harm animals if all other things were equal.

When we eat animals and animal secretions, we create an inner conflict; on the one hand we are kind, compassionate beings who would rather not harm anyone, and yet, there are the bodies of innocent beings on our plate.

Empowerment

Adopting a vegan lifestyle is dramatically empowering. It’s empowering because it’s a radical rejection of violence and coercion towards all beings, of environmental devastation, and it requires no assistance. An individual can decide to make a stand for peace and love, directly, without needing help from any community, government, or corporation. It’s a profound expression of the power of the individual.

And it has resounding effects. Right now, it’s estimated that less than 1% of people in the modern world are ethically committed to a vegan lifestyle. And yet, as a testament to the power of the vegan message, nearly everyone in society knows about us and has given at least some small thought to the perspective.

Imagine a world in which 75% of people are committed, ethical vegans. Restaurants that serve meat are the exception to the rule, and most people think meat eating is strange and disturbing. Wouldn’t that pressure quickly convert the remaining 25%?

At 50% or even 25%, huge pockets of society would be committed to the cause of animals and we would begin to see radical shifts in the public perception of animals and veganism. Each person who commits themselves to veganism can truly have a far-reaching effect, not just for animals, but for humans as well.