A Response to the “Conscientious Omnivore”

This is written in response to this Huffington Post article, but it applies more broadly to the concept of the “ethical” consumption of meat and dairy.

The “coming out” of so-called reformed vegans or vegetarians has become something of a social media touchstone in recent years. Research suggests over 80% of those that try vegetarian or vegan diets go back in a couple months. Reconverts generally cite health as the reason they went back, but it’s critical to point out that it is the official position of the American Dietetic Association, the British National Health Service, the US Department of Agriculture, Harvard Medical School, and indeed the opinion of almost every governmental and academic nutritional board in the world that vegan and vegetarian diets are completely nutritionally healthy, balanced, and safe.

Vitamin B12, often cited as a critical shortcoming, is highly misunderstood; research suggests that 10% of the US population is B12 deficient, with a whopping 40% considered to have low levels. B12 isn’t a vegetarian or vegan specific issue. Omnivores that do get enough of it are aided by the fact that factory farmed meat is given B12 injections; vegans simply supplement themselves, rather than consuming these supplements through flesh.

Iron is similar; vegan diets actually include more iron on average than their non-vegan counterparts. Just like with B12, iron deficiency is extremely common amongst the general, non-vegan population; just under 30% of women aged 15 to 49 have inadequate levels. Generally speaking, the number of people that medically require meat is vanishingly small.

That said, I include this information to make clear that per the current body of nutritional science research, veganism and vegetarianism do not promote anemia or other deficiencies at rates higher than non-vegan diets. But: I don’t take issue for a even a second with the Huffington Post author’s decision to make a dietary decision for medical reasons. I don’t know her, anemia is a serious condition, and the assurance of good health is paramount. She made a decision to protect the latter, and good for her.

What I do take issue with is the article’s facade of animal ethics, incorrect characterization and appeals to conveniently cherrypicked aspects of the religion of Hinduism, and appeal to broader civility.

The author begins by stating that as a result of her yoga practice and attunement with her body, she began to recognize her internal desire for meat. But the implication here betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of veganism.

Vegans don’t claim that meat doesn’t smell, taste, or feel good when consumed; the majority of human cultures have cooked meat for millenia so of course there’s a fundamental attraction to it. It’d be a bit silly to deny this. Vegans are well aware of others’ and even their own, at times, attraction to meat and dairy. But because of the tremendous torture that animals endure throughout their lives being raised for meat and the indescribable fear and horror that awaits them at the end, vegans choose not to indulge this craving. For the cows that are hung upside down, often fully conscious, and have their throats slashed, for the pigs that are gassed or boiled alive, for chicks that are suffocated or thrown alive into high-speed grinders, we abstain.

And this is the underpinning of the biggest lie the meat industry sells, one that the author has fallen for hook, line, and sinker: that the meat she eats is humane, the animals she eats connect her poetically with nature. Indeed, she proudly cites the “pasture-raised” chicken she cut up and how it “rooted her to the earth in a profound way.” In reality, these descriptors are simply absurd ways of hiding the reality of the meat industry. “Cage-free” birds are required to have one square foot of space (for their entire lives!) and do not see sunlight until the day they die. “Free-range” birds get an average of two. “Pasture-raised” get more space than the over-the-top cruelty of cage-free and free-range, but are still exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act.

This means that close to a million chickens (pasture-raised buys you nothing when it comes time to die) per year are scalded alive. All chickens have their necks cut open while fully conscious and bleed out while alive. All male chicks in the egg industry are suffocated or ground up alive on the first days of their lives. These aren’t isolated incidents; these are codified, industry standard methods of “humane” slaughter. In what depraved universe does consuming the body of an animal that was held in miserable captivity for its entire life, watched its brothers literally be ground to a pulp alive, had its throat slit, and then was scalded alive “root you to the earth in a profound way”?

The author goes on to point out that the idea of ahimsa, non-violence, which has fundamentally underpinned the broad (but certainly not all-encompassing) Hindu desire to avoid eating animals for millenia, has not been applied to her or to those meat eaters who have been harassed. I agree. The harassment of others is never acceptable. Hate mail and death threats are despicable. It’s terrible those things were visited upon her and upon others, and we live in a culture where online harassment is far too easy to get away with and disturbingly frequent, most especially directed towards women, ethnic minorities, and other minority groups.

But the juxtaposition of her justified appeal to ahimsa, with her total lack of acknowledgement at the absolute antithesis of ahimsa that is the animal agriculture industry (fancy “humane” label attached or not) is a little alarming. The author soon lurches wildly into the “All Lives Matter” equivalent of animal rights by claiming that all humans cause suffering, and the sooner we accept that, the better. This is patently absurd. Because it’s impossible not to cause some level of harm to nature by our very existences, practices like debeaking, dehorning, deteething, ripping out testicles without anesthetic, forcing sentient living creatures into mandatory pregnancy over and over and over (also known as: rape), snatching day-old babies from the anguished, heartbreaking cries of new mothers (all standard practices on the majority of humane “family ranches” across the country) become justified? It’s pure nonsense.

The fetishization of only buying animal products from “humane” sources is absurd. The “amish dairy” farm the author cites her dairy to be sourced from? I’d recommend she find out from them what happens to their male chicks; I can tell her right now what happens to their male calves, because their website openly advertises it: “fat veal.” The fetishization of pasture-raised is devastating for the environment, not to mention the exact upper-middle class-and-above privilege people commonly accuse veganism of being (conveniently forgetting that the staples of the third world, of the world’s poorest — rice, beans, pulses, grains — are the staples of veganism itself).

At the end of the day, there’s absolutely nothing conscientious about the way animals are treated in the first world. 3000 animals are slaughtered per second in some of the cruelest ways imaginable — totally legally, “well” enough to have the humane sticker proudly affixed. 56 million per year. If you want to compare what we do now to the days of Visvamitra, the native Americans, or whomever else, when the global population numbered in the tens and hundreds of millions, go right ahead. After all, if you can believe that a sentient living being that walks into a building and emerges as a bag of bloodied shreds has had something humane and conscientious done to her, you can believe anything.

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