The Leftist Case for Veganism

I’m standing in the grocery store, taking much longer than I usually would to choose a sauce from the Indian section. Sometimes, I still crave tikka masala, but the word “milk” in bold font stands out in the ingredients list, so my days of enjoying it are over. But when I pick up the tikka masala paste, I notice it doesn’t contain any dairy. I drop it in my basket and move on.

It’s been a little over a month since I officially decided to commit to a vegan diet. I used to work in restaurants where I would order cheesesteaks every day during my lunch break for weeks at a time. Now, my fridge is filled up with fruit, and there’s always a box of black bean burgers in my freezer. Eating out is a challenge, but my cooking skills have certainly improved. My skin cleared up, I started drinking more water, and I became more educated about nutrition, sustainability, and animal welfare.

At first, veganism was just a diet choice. Slowly but surely (like everything in my life), the decision felt more and more like a political statement.

In the 2016 Democratic primary, I proudly cast my vote for Bernie Sanders. This was the only time I felt like I was voting FOR someone instead of against someone else. After seeing his platform for the first time, I didn’t need to be persuaded because his ideas all supported policies that I had already wanted to see. He had finally given me a word for my own beliefs: democratic socialism. Growing up in a country where criticizing the capitalist system was out of the question, this was empowering. Ever since the recession, I had gotten the feeling that something was overwhelmingly wrong with the system, but I never really had the language or the context to explain it. I had never met anyone who called themselves a “socialist,” and my view of the political spectrum was limited to two positions: liberal or conservative. Bernie’s campaign changed the way I saw the world, and while it was a depressing perspective, everything finally began to make sense. He had opened peoples’ eyes to the root of the problems we faced as a country.

By the time the New Jersey primaries rolled around and it was my turn to vote, I already knew there was no way that Bernie could secure the nomination, but I could sense that something bigger was happening. People were waking up to the exploitative and oppressive nature of the current capitalist system in America, and a Trump presidency couldn’t stop that movement.

I wouldn’t call myself a “single issue voter,” but I will never vote for a candidate who doesn’t “believe in” climate change. My hometown is on a barrier island that is currently experiencing erosion and increased flooding due to rising sea levels. After Trump’s victory, I knew that the US was about to backtrack on any progress we had made in regards to climate change. And I felt powerless. I decided to go vegetarian because it felt like the only thing I could do was lower my own carbon footprint. I knew it wasn’t even a drop in the bucket, but I had just begun to learn how animal agriculture contributes to climate change. A few months later after doing even more research, I pushed myself to go vegan and found it easier than I had imagined. Now, my diet is entirely plant-based, and I couldn’t be happier.

There were a few reasons why I decided to make that final step towards veganism. I found out how dairy and eggs could be detrimental to my health, and I also saw more videos depicting the abuse that goes on within the dairy and egg industry. But one major factor was learning about how the meat and dairy industries have consistently lobbied to market their products as “healthy,” despite all the research to the contrary-and how that lobbying has worked. There were massive amounts of money behind these industries, and they were blatantly lying to the American people. Since rethinking my political beliefs, I no longer wanted to support industries like this if I didn’t have to.

Within the growing socialist movement in the US, there is plenty of focus on racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and nearly every other –ism and phobia that you could imagine. There’s also a ton of discussion about how capitalism puts profit before the health of our planet. Yet I’ve only encountered a few other people who share my political beliefs who have cut out meat or other animal products from their diet. This may be because the idea of being an “ethical” or “conscious” consumer is largely regarded as a myth-one person changing their diet won’t change the whole system-but is there really no room for veganism within the socialist movement?

I beg to differ.

First, there is the obvious question of exploitation. Within the meat and dairy industry, workers don’t just toil long hours in awful conditions for low wages-they’re also forced to harm and kill animals, which often results in PTSD and other psychological issues. This industry also takes advantage of undocumented workers, and while this is an issue throughout our entire food system, working in this industry always involves being exposed to death on a daily basis. And while people have differing opinions on whether or not it is ever moral to consume animals for food, there is no doubt that the animals in factory farms are exploited for their meat and milk-they are abused, killed in horrific and painful ways, and treated with no respect for what they produce. No matter what your opinion is on animal welfare, it’s undeniable that there is no “welfare” in factory farms.

Then there is the issue of “environmental racism”: “the placement of low-income or minority communities in the proximity of environmentally hazardous or degraded environments, such as toxic waste, pollution and urban decay.” This concept is just beginning to gain more awareness, and animal agriculture plays a big role in environmental racism. Animal agriculture is a major source of pollution, and these plants and factory farms are often located near low-income communities where many people of color live. They are subjected to the toxic emissions and waste from these farms and plants, causing higher rates of disease. This is a prime example of environmental racism, and supporting these industries contributes to this form of oppression.

We also have to consider the health impact of dairy. People of color are much more likely to be lactose intolerant, and women also have increased risks of certain types of cancers when their diet includes dairy. Yet the federal government’s recommendations for a complete diet always include dairy, despite the fact that consuming milk, cheese, ice cream, and similar products comes with increased health risks for women and people of color. Recommending these products to people who may suffer if they eat them on a regular basis is an often-ignored example of institutionalized racism and sexism.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this discussion is the future of our planet.

Eating a vegan diet has the lowest carbon footprint of any diet and requires the least amount of land used to grow food. Animal agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and with small island nations already disappearing due to rising sea levels, it is far past the time to act. Animal agriculture is an industry that will always put profit before the planet, and the amount of meat that Americans are eating is not sustainable. When companies see a higher demand for plant-based products, they will respond to that demand.

It’s always necessary to acknowledge that there can be barriers to going vegan. Many people live in areas known as “food deserts” where they do not have access to grocery stores with healthy, affordable vegan food. Meat and cheese substitutes can definitely get pricey. Longer prep times for homemade, plant-based meals can pose challenges for people who are already working long hours and struggle to find time to cook. It’s not possible for everyone to go vegan-but for those of us who can, isn’t it worth it to just give it a try?

We don’t need to exploit animals, harm the planet, and jeopardize our well being to live a healthy and fulfilling life. And maybe veganism does have a place in the growing socialist movement. If it helps the planet, it’s probably worth discussing.

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