The problem with: Veganism
This is the first post in what I hope to turn in to a series where I look at some of the problems associated with my own beliefs and practices in an effort to better understand my own biases as well as other peoples point of view. And what better way to start than by diving straight into the ever contentious topic of Veganism.
TL;DR: 'Vegan' is a loaded term that encompasses many different beliefs and ideas, with a lot of misinformation and stereotypes surrounding its practitioners.
What is it?
Let's start by first defining Veganism (from Wikipedia):
Veganism is the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in diet, and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals.
At first glance that seems pretty clear, however we also need to think about why people adopt Veganism as a lifestyle in order to get a complete picture. People often identify themselves as part of one or more of the following categories with regards their veganism:
Do not eat any animal based foods such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy usually for health reasons.
Refrain from eating or using animal products in any capacity. This would include wearing leather or suede products, or even consuming honey. Ethical vegans oppose the idea of using animals as a commodity - as stated in the definition above.
Environmental vegans are primarily concerned with the environmental impact of raising animals for human consumption.
A lot of Vegans will primarily identify with one of these categories, but philosophically identify with all of them in some capacity.
What's The Problem?
The Vegan 'Diet'
As a diet Veganism is problematic due to its vagueness. Being a Vegan means there is a very specific subset of foods that you do not consume, however the remaining subset of food that you can consume is large, varied and not always healthy. From a dietary point of view the word 'Vegan' can mean different things to different people. You can be a Vegan and eat nothing but Oreos all day. For any Vegan whose primary concern is health this is clearly not representative of their views.
There is also a common belief that Vegans cannot get all the required nutrients for a healthy body and mind through their diet, but this is the case with any diet. There are even some people that may give up on Veganism because they claim it left them feeling tired or malnourished. This may be true, and perhaps their diet had a negative impact on their health - but that doesn't mean the Vegan diet was the problem, it simply means their diet was a problem. Having said that, the Vegan diet can be deficient in some nutrients. B12 for example is generally found in meat so supplementation is required. However many people who consume an omnivorous diet are also deficient in B12.
It's also important to note that 'Vegan food' is often conflated with 'health food'. Just because something is Vegan absolutely does not mean that it is healthy. This is why (as I have mentioned in previous posts) I prefer the term 'Whole Food Plant Based' (WFPB) when describing my diet. Yes, technically I am a Vegan, but from a dietary point of view I specifically try to avoid processed foods. As someone coming at this from a health point of view I would avoid many Vegan alternatives to meat based products due to their processed nature. Some Vegans that are primarily concerned about the ethical or environmental impact of the meat, egg and dairy industry may care less about the processed nature of some of the Vegan food options available to them.
So for me the first problem with the idea of Veganism is dietary in nature and revolves around the fact that many Vegans and non Vegans alike use the word to describe the diet. I don't think the 'Vegan diet' is a thing - it is a dietary restriction, not a diet. It describes what you don't eat, not what you do eat so it very easy to generate confusion around whether it is actually a healthy or sustainable lifestyle.
The Vegan Ideology
I didn't adopt a plant based diet for ethical reasons. My concerns, as I have mentioned, were more environment and health related. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely want to see less animal suffering in the world and would love for humans to live in greater harmony with nature, but I'm no animal rights activist. I even have a somewhat pro hunting stance*... you probably didn't expect to hear that from a Vegan.
When it comes to eating meat my view is simple - if you couldn't kill the animal yourself then you shouldn't be eating it. If you are willing to trek through a forest for days, potentially risking your own safety, to respectfully kill an animal that will feed you and your family for weeks then I have zero problem with that. I'm not going to do it myself, but I'd much prefer someone do that over going to a supermarket and buying a plastic wrapped packet of chicken slices that in no way resembles an animal.
With regards to hunting I clearly don't share the same view as many Vegans - which is why I feel that this is another problem with veganism. Am I a Vegan because I avoid the consumption of animal products? Or am I not a Vegan because I'm not a staunch anti-hunting/anti-animal killing activist? I know that if I tell someone that I am Vegan they will likely assume the latter.
Of course I find the idea of animal cruelty despicable and factory farming disgusting, but many if not most meat eaters would also feel that way. What I find problematic about the Vegan ideology, much the same as any other ideology, is that it is reductionist. It is often too simplistic and tries to turn a complex grey area riddled world into a black and white one.
Our relationship to animals and our environment is a complex one and society is not served by creating yet another division between people. I'd much rather start with the encouragement of environmental and social consciousness. This is something that benefits us also and opens up doors to conversations about our relationships to animals and a better understanding of our place in the ecosystem. Naturally this resonates with me because it is the very path that I followed.
From an ideological point of view veganism is also subject to groupthink and confirmation bias. We all have a tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs. Something that has been made easier than ever by the internet. We get together in groups and avoid uncomfortable truths about the down sides of our chosen lifestyles. It's totally natural and understandable, and is partly the reason why I wanted to start this series - to see if I can avoid falling into that trap myself. I wasn't sure whether to include this paragraph because it isn't really specific to veganism, it can be applied to anything, but in the end I figured that it's worth constant reiteration regardless of the context.
I don't think there's any one thing that can be done to address any of the problems I mentioned in this post. These are complex and emotionally charged issues. There is definitely a discussion that needs to be had around the sustainability of the food industry at large, but that discussion needs to address the concerns of many parties that are often at complete odds with each other.
One thing that I do think should be avoided at all costs is identity politics**. The best thing that any one social group can do is live by example. If your beliefs lead to a happy a fulfilled life, then my hope would be that others see that and seek to replicate it in their own lives. Though non-judgemental education and open discourse is vital, especially with regards to environmental issues that affect us all.
* Not trophy hunting - that is absolutely abhorrent as far as I'm concerned
** Identity politics refers to political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify.