Ethical eating demands more than veganism

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Veganism is about embracing a diet that is largely plant. It is about saying no to cruel treatment of animals and to animal farming that has ruined Australian soils since invasion*. It is about standing up against keeping so-called 'free range' chickens within the confines of 10,000 hens per hectare.

Vegan man is plagued by other ethical food concerns. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonI was pleased to read Cristy Clarke's 'Will veganism save the planet?' (7 June 2018) exploring the rise of veganism in Australia and globally as well as how we may collectively become more sustainable, plant-based eaters in the not-too-distant future. However, just because we're not eating animals or their by-products, does not mean we're eating ethically.

Take for example the rise of the coconut and its related products. These days you will find three or four varieties of coconut water in Coles. What you may not know from the unassuming cartons is that coconuts, despite being considered crucial to global food security, are endangered. While endangered animals tend to attract media attention, plants in the same category don't seem to ignite similar concern. Britannica.com has an entry dedicated to ten of the most famous endangered species, which does not include plants.

Futhermore, human exploitation is inherent within the coconut farming industry, with farmers of the Asia-Pacific remaining in poverty despite a booming trade and industry worth billions.

Another exceedingly popular source of protein and base of a milk alternative (mylk) is cashews. These are largely produced and processed in India, where the workers, a large portion of whom are women, often suffer permanent damage to their hands due to exposure to caustic liquid during the labourious de-shelling process. Again, farmers also get the raw end of the stick due to exploitation by middle men

There seems to be a body of research that is dedicated to making the West feel better about their consumption and glossing over some of the more damning facts. This brings us to quinoa. In 2013, The Guardian told us that imported junk food was cheaper for farmers in the Andean region of Peru and Bolivia than their native quinoa as the grain had become too expensive due to soaring popularity in the West.

Three years later, it reported that high quinoa prices improved the welfare of poor rural communities. This was based on a study conducted by the International Trade Centre (ITC), the joint agency of the UN and World Trade Organisation and written by Senior Advisor Alexander Kasterine.

 

"Without an investigative eye examining what we eat, we are just sheep following food fads."

 

Already alarm bells ring, as the World Trade Organisation is very much entrenched in neoliberal economics that favour Western countries. Further, Kasterine cites research based on a survey that found quinoa only makes up four per cent of a typical Peruvian household's expenditure on food, suggesting it is not a staple.

The data he refers to was collected from households across both urban and rural Peru and is by no means specific to quinoa-producing regions, as outlined in the University of California research paper referenced. The article does acknowledge how global demand limits diversity, with higher demand for lighter, larger grains as well as high prices encouraging excessive pesticide use and reducing crop rotation.

During a recent trip to one of Melbourne's premiere organic stores, which also stocks the full spectrum of vegan delights, I observed two aspects that have translated directly from the mainstream capitalist consumer market to, if I can judge by the length of the queues, a growing alternative. First was the number of products people were buying, with no shortage of packaging. Trollies were teeming with cashew cheeze, hummus, raw vegan chocolate, almonds, cashews, avocado, olive and sesame oils as well as an array of coconut products: water, oil, yoghurt, butter and chunks.

Second was the high number of products either imported or made from imported ingredients, leading to questions about the carbon footprint. If we are to really shift our consumption to more ethical territory, would it not necessarily include engaging in a more conscious consumption with a local focus? Would it not be about shifting our understandings of food, rather than substituting milk for mylk and cheese for cheeze?

If vegans are indeed recognising that 'the protection of the planet is fundamental to protecting both humans and animals' as some activists told Cristy Clark, merely taking on a label such as vegan is not enough. We need to consider plants and people along with animals and environmental factors. We need to consider what kind of eaters we want to be.

The reality is there is no obstacle-free path to ethical eating you can prance along without thinking critically. Another example is the rise of 'organic', as demystified by Food Wise. Thankfully, there are other forums like Sustainable Table, who offers helpful resources such as a Seasonal Produce Guide and an Ethical Meat Suppliers Directory. Without an investigative eye examining what we eat, we are just sheep following food fads.

 

 

Lika Posamari is an Australian of northern European settler ancestry leading a fairly nomadic life in which she writes in English and Spanish. Her writings have appeared in Westerly, The Red Corner, Kitaab, Clot, Rabbit and Big Art. She tweets @LikaPosamari and blogs here.

 

*For information on Australia's rich agricultural history pre-invasion see Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (Magabala Books).

Topic tags: Lika Posamari, veganism, climate change, ethical eating

 

 

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Existing comments

Plenty to think about in this article, which is always a helpful thing. However, to call vegans faddish sheep certainly is not. Granted that some vegans may be oblivious to and unthinking about broader concerns about third world human beings and the world about us, but this is as likely to be true of many carnivores as well. Rather than being a fad, the majority of vegans I know have adopted their diet after deep moral and ethical reflection. Most do not consider adoption of their diet a conversation terminator or a reason for solipsistic self-satisfaction. In my experience they are usually involved involved in groups committed to the advancement of human rights and the natural world. A key motivation of moral and ethical veganism is the rejection of the worldview that our fellow animals, sentient beings like ourselves, are ultimately means to human ends. And that the natural world has a vaslue independent of environing us. Otherwise Orwell' s observation will likely remain our default ethical position - 'All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others'.
THOMAS RYAN | 23 July 2018


Actually, Thomas, the whole of creation IS a means to humans ends. If you read Genesis, creation is given to the human to enjoy (which is not the same as abuse). Even Jesus ate fish and lamb.
David Crowley | 23 July 2018


I am part of an ethical omnivore group. Part of the basic tenants is trying, where possible to source food locally and to support farmers who actively practice regenerative agriculture, with care for the animals they raise. I am lucky in Australia in being able to find local farmers who fit this. I also grow a lot of food myself using permaculture principles. The use of animals in the system is pretty important, whether it's chickens, bees and earthworms. All natural systems use animals at some point and even the most vegan friendly crops cost animal lives in either loss of biodiversity, pest management or the realities of industrial agriculture on the animals living amongst crops. A thoughtful article. Thank you.
Martine | 23 July 2018


Whatever happened to "A man is not defiled by what enters his mouth, but by what comes out of it"?
Peter K | 23 July 2018


Thank you for your comments. Thomas - if you read what I have said, I did not refer to vegans as faddish sheep. I quote the line: 'Without an investigative eye examining what we eat, we are just sheep following food fads.' It is about being conscious and critical regardless of your food category. I also follow a mostly vegan diet which is actually why these concerns surfaced strongly for me. Martine - great to hear of your group and of your use of permaculture principles. A general shift towards more of that would be very positive indeed!
Lika | 23 July 2018


There is another problem which no-one seems to willing to address on the world stage and that is over population. Some of these pressures wouldn't exist if there were less people.
Jillian Curr | 23 July 2018


Ahh Yes, the complexity of ethical eating.. Thomas takes the defensive position But risks missing the point. Supply chains are hard to understand and manufacturers deliberately present in a misleading way : not lies, but not complete truths either. “ assembled in Australia”, “sourced from local and imported ingredients”. The truth is that so few of us understand the full social and environmental impact of the products we consume. We applaud battery storage for on demand use of electricity and yet China has poisoned 6-7% of its arable land with Cadmium producing many of these batteries. We love our new NiCd devices .. We happily order “sustainably harvested” fish not understanding the fish meal they are fed on is produced from one of the Chinese fishing factories that scours and tears at the ocean and all its living inhabitants - clear felling the ocean floor. Thomas this debate will overtake you unless the many high and mighty eaters/consumers engage with the facts it presents and allows us to take even greater responsibility. It’s not an easy journey but I fear Ms. Alexander is correct in her analysis.
Patrick | 24 July 2018


Jillian Curr, so-called "over-population" is definitely NOT the problem. In fact the false claim of "over-population" is a major factor in the problem. For most of human history, the main food problem in the world was famine and malnutrition. In the 21st century the world's major food problem, in fact the number one health problem, is obesity. Even in the poorest group of countries. There is plenty of food for everybody.
Peter K | 24 July 2018


Thanks for your clarification Lika - I accept that that was not your intention. In which case it would have helped to offer a definition of what constitutes a food fad in article, given the emphasis on veganism - as it stands, it seems a not unreasonable inference to have drawn. Thanks again for getting us all thinking more! David, I accept that your position is one consistent with Catholic orthodoxy, which is largely informed by Aquinas's anthropocentric teleology. But there are Biblical passages that send explicitly different messages - Genesis (1:29) initially indicates that the preferred diet is vegetarian, while Ecclesiastes (3.19) outlines a moral fellowship between ourselves and other animals. You might find the writings of Anglican theologian Andrew Linzey on Christian theology and animals of interest. As to your certitude that 'all creation IS a means to human ends' - apart from the fact that this worldview has got us into the environmental pickle we find ourselves in, crocodiles and lions might beg to differ about your teleology! Martine - I agree wholeheartedly that we should all grow as much of own food as we can, and also to source locally whenever possible. Eating food seasonally is also a good thing. Peter K. - Surely what we put into our mouths, and what comes out of them, both matter. Jillian and Peter - population has obvious deleterious environmental impacts, but I think levels of consumption in affluent countries are just as big a problem. As Gandhi observed, 'The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed'. Patrick - regardless of my perceived negativity in your eyes, I agree with you on the importance of a holistic vision. The point I was making was that our moral concern for nonhuman animals matters morally and ethically, and is something that will only continue gain traction.
THOMAS RYAN | 24 July 2018


Thanks very much for the article, Lika - it raises some excellent issues. I have been eating a vegan diet for about 13 years and prefer to say that (quietly) than 'I am a vegan' because it has so much baggage. I don't think it is the be all and end all solution and it is one of the many ways to live more lightly on our Common Home. It is about becoming more aware of where our food and other consumer products come from - and that includes food miles, slavery in production, etc. I know I am not a perfectly ethical eater and don't like to be a hypocrite (which we so often are in many ways). But back in 2009 I wrote something for myself that expressed how I understand this way of consuming: "Being a vegan is an act of faith. It is something you cannot quite explain, without defying logic. It will not be understood by the majority, yet it is something that carries a promise. To be a vegan does not mean to solve the world's problems or demonstrate the perfect way of life, but to be a sign. To represent the environmental and ethical destruction of the whole of creation. To point to unity between all of God's creatures. To reject abject consumerism, exploitation and disconnection. To feed creatively and healthily from the earth, while celebrating its riches. To be a vegan is not to know, is not to be right. It is an act of faith in life."
Elizabeth Young | 26 July 2018


Equitable sharing of the world's resources would disperse the smokescreen of "overpopulation" and faux 'solutions' of the neo-Malthusian variety proposed and implemented as remedies which deprive the world of its most precious resource: people.
John | 03 August 2018


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