Editor’s note: Anthony Wenndt ’15 majored in Biology and Russian at Grinnell and had an interdisciplinary concentration in Global Development Studies. He currently lives in Ithaca, New York, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology at Cornell University.
A recent article by Sarina Farb petitions for food justice, suggesting that “The exploitation, domination, and use of non-human animals for human desires” is a “largely invisible injustice in society.” The author, obviously justified in their concern, goes on to say that “[some vegans on campus] feel like we are witnessing something akin to a legal and socially accepted stoning that no one else seems to see.”
Of course, this is a discussion of non-human animal rights. Farb is a leader of the active student organization Advancing Animal Compassion Together, and is transparent about their perspective of food justice and the critical importance of respect for animals in securing a healthy and sustainable food system. However, I found the article to be a bit unsettling because this call for animal rights awareness, while an important perspective to be raised, is the rationale for veganism too often portrayed in our society and in fact makes up the bulk of the vegan stereotype. The purpose of my testimony herein is to offer another perspective, one that situates the rights of non-human animals into a larger discussion of injustice that isn’t always represented in a vegan’s “elevator speech.”
Farb rightly describes veganism as social movement. Veganism is certainly a statement of activism in most cases, but the radical animal rights component tends to fill most of the activist space. Farb writes, “It is impossible to ever produce animal products without exploitation, since the products are literally made from the bodies of oppressed individuals.” Near the end of the piece, they plead: “So please, think of the animals, who are individuals that don’t want to die or be ripped from family members, before you eat bacon or ice cream.” Statements like these perpetuate and radicalize the animal rights dogma of veganism. Again, I don’t wish to question the validity of Farb’s argument, as it is valid, indeed. Animals do feel, and do deserve to be treated with justice and compassion. But I feel it is critical that we think of food justice not only as an animal right, but also as a global, systemic right to which all organisms, communities, and environments on this planet are entitled. I’m arguing that the push for humane treatment of animals is situated in a larger ecology of planet-scale interactions—an argument that commands a dramatic reconsideration of Farb’s notion of justice.
Ecology is about interplay. It is about respecting the biological compulsions that carry us through life, and about living at the mercy of those things that threaten to compromise our homeostasis. Humans are programmed for meat consumption; our very biology over the course of evolutionary time has shaped us into chasers, killers, biters, and chewers. In much the same way as a wolf is designed to hunt fawns, so am I designed to outwit and overcome animal prey. This is evidenced in my long human legs, my large human brain, and my sharp human incisors. This is a natural reality, which I’m sure comes as no surprise even to animal rights activists.
Thus, to refrain from consuming animals “for reasons of culture, convenience, and palate pleasure” is inherently contradictory to our biology. Just like any organism, I—as Homo sapiens—am rightfully committed to honoring my culture, utilizing paths of least resistance, and consuming the foodstuffs that are not only nutritious and available, but also satisfying. I am not arguing that animal rights don’t matter, but I think that this mindset alone fails to differentiate between human nature, livestock agriculture, and the indiscriminate abuse of animals. It isn’t fair to suggest that just because animals “don’t want to die or be ripped from family members,” it is excusable to ignore the biological fact that humans can (and perhaps should) consume meat as food. Let’s face it, nobody—neither animal nor human—wants to be prey, or to be displaced, including the fawn in the wolf’s jaws (an interaction that one might just consider a part of nature). Aren’t we, too, a part of nature?
At this juncture you’re probably thinking, “I thought you were vegan?”
I am. Bear with me.
It’s necessary to distinguish the system of abusive animal production (which, indeed, strips animals of their own biological rights in many cases) from the “sentience argument” (or as I like to call it, the “cows are cute” argument) that forbids meat consumption only because animals feel and die in the process. In my opinion, the real “meaty” issue regarding the livestock industry is not that animals are reared to be killed. I could make arguments about comparative animal consciousness and cultural significance, but I won’t go into it. Long story short, there is nothing inherently wrong—as far as I am concerned—with the act of a human killing an animal for food.
On the other hand, as Farb mentioned as well, there is something intensely and violently wrong with the way livestock agriculture is controlled in this country and in much of the developed world. Animals are not meant to be packed in insufferable and suffocating confinement buildings by the hundreds. Energy is not meant to be wasted powering these structures. Grain (and the land and water required to grow it) is not meant to be grown en masse as an inefficient and under-nourishing feed source. Manure is not meant to be trucked out of farms by the ton, only to release loads of greenhouse gases into our already-volatile atmosphere. Our groundwater sources should not be drained to fuel this consumptive industry, which serves only to pollute our waterways in return. The list goes on. These and countless others—including abhorrent animal rights abuses—are the injustices that disturb our ecology and tarnish the idea of meat consumption in the United States, and they are why I have chosen a vegan lifestyle.
That being said, I want to give credit to the farmers, organizers, and consumers that are demanding a sustainable agricultural revolution. Farb states that “meat, dairy, and eggs all inherently involve exploitation and harm regardless of how sustainable and ‘humanely’ they were raised and killed.” I feel that this statement must be interpreted with caution, because for a concerned society to get the idea that sustainability and humane treatment “inherently” don’t matter in animal production would spell disaster to the marked and important progresses in favor of environmental security and animal rights which are in the works or have already been achieved in the livestock industry. There is no foreseeable end to animal agriculture. It is wholly entangled in our global culture as contemporary Homo sapiens. Thus, it is critical that we take personal actions not only to reduce our own “footprint” (i.e. eat no/less meat until the system is fixed) but also that we take action ourselves to fix the system by promoting and incentivizing sustainability in food production.
It is my sincerest hope that the animal rights argument for veganism, which has dominated the vegan stereotype and shaped society’s perceptions of our collective vegan morality, can be situated in this grander ecological narrative whereby injustice is defined by deviations from nature, and not only by ascribing rights to non-human animals.