Food for thought: why vegetarianis still matters: an environmental perspective

By DIT Collective

In January 2015, news media began reporting on two studies published in Science magazine under the singular title “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet”, which explained that four of Earth’s nine essential life processes have been breached. Published by the Stockholm Resilience Centre, an international team based at Stockholm University, it stated the following ‘planetary boundaries’ have been crossed: human-driven climate change, loss of biospheric integrity, irreversible land system changes, and the oceans’ over-saturation with nitrogen and phosphorus. Just those words in that order sound horrific. The reality must be worse.

The problems, of course, are not reducible to a single issue. It can only be understood through the lens of many different issues coming together in a magically toxic convergence that has managed to do what nothing before it has been able to – not asteroids, not volcanoes, not any other sentient creature. Humans, it seems, have brought the planet to its knees. Yet there are common threads to these issues that are highlighted even by the team of scientists themselves. Human manipulation of the earth multiplied by the power of late capitalist economics have created an explosion of different degradations that Professor Will Steffan, one of the studies’ coauthors, described as a “death by a thousand cuts”.

One of the most environmentally destructive practices currently carried out by humans today is animal farming. A slough of facts and statistics back this up but perhaps the most striking is its contribution to air pollution. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), for example, estimates in their 2009 update to the report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” that 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) come from livestock, with 65% of that total coming from cattle farming. For comparison, the “Emissions Gap Report 2012” by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) approximates road transport to account for 13%. Other environmental problems caused by the animal industry include water pollution, water consumption, deforestation, and topsoil erosion alongside the obvious detriments to the animals themselves. The FAO’s forecasts global livestock numbers to increase by a further 70% by 2050.

The animal industry is a huge business with many different outlets, many of which are commercial but some of which are not: food, clothes, accessories, furniture, scientific research, blood sports, work, religious practice, cultural practice, and many more. Vegetarianism and veganism (both henceforth referred to as veg*nism) are practices that seek to avoid the metaphorical or literal consumption of these products through abstention. Popular veg*n logic states that people can begin to end animal exploitation via consumer boycotts that starve the producers of funds and thereby reduce the size and impact of the animal product industry. History has shown that this is not exactly true.

Veg*nism has been practiced as an ethic since the inception of industrialised farming. The UK’s Vegetarian Society, for example, was founded in 1847; the Vegan Society was founded in 1944, whilst the first modern factory farms were opened in the 1970s. Yet at no point in this 170 year history has the animal industry faltered due to people abstaining from meat, eggs, milk, or leather. Even niche corners of the animal industry such as vivisection, bullfighting, dogfighting, fox hunting, fur fashion, foie gras, and numerous others remain small but thriving subcultures despite overwhelming mainstream opposition. Veg*nism as economic boycott hasn’t eliminated these practices, nor does it seem likely to in the future. During the past 20 years, in fact, capitalism has recuperated these practices and created a hugely successful industry out of them: during 2012, in the UK alone, meat-free alternative sales amounted to £607 million (USD$945 million).

If veg*nism as a practice can’t even stamp out niche pastimes and it has in fact contributed to the growth of capitalism, how can it help the planet? Why is veg*nism still relevant, especially for radicals? How does veg*nism affect environmental destruction in a meaningful way?

There are as many different rationales for veg*nism as there are adherents. True, some of those reasons are entirely antithetical to anarchism, anti-capitalism, and other radical thought. Nothing is revolutionary about buying expensive meat-free sausages at the local supermatket chain outlet or spending the equivalent of three days wages on a pair of leather-free shoes from website Bourgeois Boheme (the clue is in the name), not when class warfare remains as core to revolutionary thought as it was 150 years ago.

In his text “Animal Liberation and Social Revolution: A Vegan Perspective on Anarchism or an Anarchist Perspective on Veganism”, Brian A Dominick writes that, “To embrace veganism and forgo the consumption and utilization of animal products is not an end, but a beginning; a new start affording the practitioner an opportunity to see everyday realities in a different light.” This extends even to the smallest details: look at ingredients lists, for example, and it becomes startlingly apparent that animal products – milk in particular – are in so much of what is consumed as food and drink. In the same way that capitalism has infected almost aspect of our social lives, the animal industry has snuck its way into everything that we eat or drink. Recognizing this ubiquity, being aware of it, builds new windows into life.

It is important to remember that these are the results of capitalism and mass industrialisation. At no previous point in history could animal industries have reached the scales reached today. The “outsourcing” of farming space to regions such as rural Latin America and Africa, for example, was impossible 500 years ago while the large scale transformation of forests or deserts into farmable land has been made possible only by the technology and carelessness of advanced capitalism.

As is often the case with large business, following the trail of names up the supply chain often leads to a single company. Tyson Foods is a producer of beef, chicken, and pork foods that supplies to many big name US fast food outlet including McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, and KFC as well as supermarkets such as Wal-Mart and IGA. In 2014 it had sales totalling $36 billion whilst operating a trans-continental business involved in killing 6 million chickens, 48,000 pigs, and 30,000 cows per day across its 123 processing plants. It has also had multiple accusations and prosecutions during the past 15 years for water contamination including a Tyson Foods plant in Missouri that was found guilty of 20 violations of the Clean Water Act. Massive sections of capitalism are built with the blood, flesh, and bones of animals. Anti-capitalism cannot dismiss this and environmentalism cannot ignore this.

Veg*nism consumerism suffers from this to an almost comically ironic degree. The popular UK dairy-free ice-cream brand Swedish Glace for example is owned by Unilever, a company condemned for its animal testing, and widespread UK dairy-free margarine brand Pure is owned by multinational dairy and meat producer Kerry Group. Both Kerry Group and Unilever are major palm oil users, with the latter having a particularly atrocious environmental record that includes massive deforestation in Indonesia for palm oil and paper. Though both utilize Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certification, the Worldwatch Institute reports criticisms of this certification from many different fronts including Greenpeace and Centre for Orangutan Protection because of loopholes that allow companies to continue deforesting. In this case popular veg*n ‘alternatives’ offer only personal change and do little to affect where the money actually goes.

There is no buying a stop to pollution and destruction because capitalism is unable to function without them. Veg*nism is not an answer to environmental problems but it may help us find the solutions, though only when married with a wider anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian worldview. Similarly, environmentalism and anarchism become much more effective when they incorporate understanding of the animal industry.

To quote the anonymously-written article “Beasts of Burden – Antagonism and Practical History”: “[V]egetarianism/veganism is not just a matter of sanctimonious handwashing. […] Not eating animals brings about qualitative improvement in the well-being of animals (as well as quantitative reduction in animals killed), even if as an isolated act it can be commodified and turned into another lifestyle marketing niche.”

Veg*nism is an easy personal step to take, one that requires only personal decisions and necessitates no authority figures or educational training. For all the recuperation of the industry, a large section of veg*n culture still relies on DIY principles such as locally sourced food, homegrowing and cooking, recipe creativity, local communities and community work such as Food Not Bombs, zines, events, etc. Filtered through the lens of anarchy, veg*nism takes on an increasingly powerful dimension that helps contribute to a more compassionate and liberated life. The opposite is true as well.

Anarchy is not just redefining the society around us but redefining ourselves as well. Withdrawing from the animal industry, and withdrawing from animal products altogether, offers new opportunities to relate to the world around us.

If you are raising and killing your own animals as an individual or community then this article is probably not aimed at you. If you are interested in anti-capitalist or anti-authoritarian practices then eating animals when it is not necessary – and it is not necessary if you live in the Europeanised West – is nothing but habit. A habit contributing to the deaths of billions of animals and the destruction of the planet on an unimaginable scale.

Like feminism, decolonialisation, queer theory, and many others, veg*nism provides tools for the analysis of and resistance to the dominant culture of today. Like those veg*nism cannot simply be ignored if we are to create a truly holistic and liberated culture that respects humans, other animals, plants, trees, and the rest of nature for what it is rather than what we want it to be. Veg*nism still matters because it still contains important seeds of resistance and reaction to capitalism and the state. Veg*nism still matters because it offers one of the most potent connections to a more compassionate and liberated culture.