Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Humdrum Tantrums

It's telling when the best thing a writer for an online meat industry magazine can muster up for a piece is one big fallacious anti-vegan tirade. An unspectacular example of this can be found in an editorial published yesterday on The Pork Network, a website which features the cleverly named Pork Magazine. In "The ultimate vegan con", Dan Murphy (described as a "veteran food-industry journalist") attempts to undermine veganism by juggling strawmen and red herrings. You can almost sense his glee or imagine him doing little "gotcha" jigs as you read through his piece.

His article was triggered by his having read something on what he calls a "pro-veggie website". A reporter had apparently asked for input for a piece on the pros and cons of veganism and had then supposedly ignored any of the pro-vegan input, instead choosing to list off cons that are the usual bunk disseminated about veganism. Someone on the "pro-veggie website" wrote that the cons raised as issues had already been refuted and this, I guess, outraged Dan Murphy.
Well, I guess that settles it.

But I have a some questions for vegans to which they really ought to respond, if only to themselves, because far from being the perfect lifestyle and the ultimate diet they convince themselves it is, veganism is fraught with contradictions, misconceptions and a wholesale refusal to engage with what those of us not living in Fantasyland like to call “reality.”
Murphy does a little play on words sort of thing to present what he views as inherent contradictions (i.e. the "cons") and inconsistencies in veganism that he feels somehow undermine its validity overall.


He sort of starts off with a loose appeal to tradition with the accusation that "human experience over so many millenia" means nothing to vegans since we apparently don't show enough recognition for "the cultural, spiritual and culinary traditions of the Natives who populated this hemisphere for upwards of 20,000 years before Europeans showed up" by acknowledging or endorsing the whole notion of its being possible for people to treat the animals they choose to kill with "respect and reverence" as they track them down and slaughter them. See, according to Murphy, if I don't buy into that, then I am writing off the wisdom of "generations of elders from [...] hundreds of tribes". It makes me a cultural elitist and racist. Do we accept that it was possible for people to kill with so-called respect and reverence   
"Or do we label them as ignorant savages? Bloodthirsty carnivores? Misguided primitives who just didn’t know enough, or possess enough modern technology to subsist on soy protein, salads and processed concoctions manufactured to resemble meat, dairy and poultry foods?"
Where to start with this false dichotomy? Rather, where to start with what is just a big tangled mess of completing unrelated things? What on earth does what people did hundreds of years ago--people who in Murphy's own words did not "possess enough modern technology" -- have to do with whether or not it is the right thing to do here and now to be vegan, in this age and with our current technology? And how is it that vegans' not showing veneration for hunting and killing--however they are qualified--is tantamount to our considering people "ignorant savages" or "bloodthirsty" or "has-beens whose time has passed"? How does any of this show contradictions or downsides to veganism? Right. It doesn't.

Land Use

Is it really possible that a veteran food-industry journalist could be completely clueless about agriculture? Apparently so. Murphy suggests, somewhat melodramatically, that a vegan population just couldn't be sustained, implying that there would not be enough farmers to grow plant-based foods for everyone: 
Without recruiting literally millions of newcomers to agriculture, it’s difficult to envision the wholesale emergence of thousands of the small-scale, labor-intensive farms needed to grow all the fruits, vegetables, beans and grains on which vegans insist we all should live. Or is it acceptable to maintain the input-heavy, capital-intensive agricultural system currently in place, only somehow convince existing ranchers, livestock producers, dairy farmers, even farmsteads with a small flock of chickens to simply give it all up and somehow, some way switch over the growing the crops you believe could replace their lost income? Is that really plausible?
So basically, if all of a sudden one day the United States went vegan, too many people would need to get into farming for all to be fed if small-scale farming was done. If industrial-scale farming was maintained, then it would be unrealistic to ask those who raise animals for slaughter or for their secretions to switch to growing plants, since they wouldn't be able to earn a living. The thing is that almost 80% of agricultural land in the US is actually used to raise animals for food and to grow crops to feed them. About 80% of all corn in the US is used to feed farmed animals in the US or overseas, as is 22% of all wheat. Around 30 million tonnes of soybeans grown in the use are used to feed farmed animals. (Check it out here.) Surely it wouldn't be such a massive effort to use some of the croplands used to feed farmed animals to instead grow food for humans? As for those who raise animals for human consumption not being able to earn a living if they were asked to instead grow plants? In keeping with the sort of scenario implied by Murphy, the lack of demand for animal flesh and secretions would pretty much rule out any profitability in continuing to raise them for human use. So what's his point, you may ask? I really dunno.

As for Murphy's droning on about "the extensive use of tropical oils, spices, nuts and other food ingredients commonly incorporated in the manufacture of all those 'super-healthful' vegan foods" and then bringing up the environmental destruction caused by growing cocoa, palm and sugar cane, you would think that he was suggesting that no non-vegan has ever consumed tropical oils, spices, nuts, cocoa, palm oil and sugar. He must not watch a lot of non-vegan cooking shows and I'm guessing that he's never purchased groceries for himself,  nor cooked from scratch. I can't possibly find any other explanation for why someone would think that vegans somehow have a monopoly on consuming these goods. I certainly wouldn't expect that sort of uninformed thinking--these types of blatantly misleading and dishonest claims--from a veteran food-industry journalist. Would you?


Murphy tries a little clumsily to perpetuate that old familiar myth that eating vegan is too expensive. You know the one. Wagging his finger with great fervour, he does his best to convince his readers, vegan or otherwise, that expecting everyone to go vegan discriminates against the less wealthy in that it would leave them hungry. Says Murphy:
Most organic, vegan and similar specialty foods available at retail are already two, sometimes three times as costly as comparable products not carrying those label claims.
He continues, somewhat nastily:
[A]re you okay with knowing that a lot of the dietary choices you want everyone else to make are out of many people’s price range? If not, doesn’t your holier-than-thou stance on food choices reek of hypocrisy? Can you answer that question honestly, vegans?
Sigh. There is nothing about avoiding animal products that necessitates eating organic plant-based foods. Or specialty foods. Apples are vegan. Rice is vegan. Rolled oats are vegan. Black beans are vegan. Just because they're being consumed by a vegan doesn't suddenly double or triple their price. I always shake my head at claims like these, remember how as a college student living on next to nothing, it was switching to basic, plant-based foods and teaching myself to cook from scratch that kept me from going hungry.

Sure, if you're on a limited budget and are going to try to live off of Amy's frozen entrees, Earth Balance puffs, Beyond Meat or Tofurky frozen pizza, you're going to run out of money. They're convenience foods, though. You don't need them. Save the $3-4 you'd spend on an Amy's Bean & Rice Burrito and instead make four burritos from scratch for the same price. As for shmancy meat substitutes, homemade seitan is cheap and easy to make if you want to eat something like that. Popcorn sprinkled with salt and nooch makes a good snack and pizza is super-easy and inexpensive to make at home. My point is that (as most of us who are vegan already know), you don't to buy expensive processed foods to go vegan. Murphy's shaming is all for naught.


The rest of Murphy's piece just gets more shamelessly vitriolic. He brings up cats and dogs and insists that nobody could possibly deny them what they're meant to eat. He asks: "So is it okay to deny them the food their bodies are best suited to handle?" and then asserts that vegans feed their companion animals vegan food to "feel superior" and that it's about our wanting "domination" over them. He likens our relationships with our furry family members to "a master-slave relationship". That's just silly at best and a really cheap shot at worst. Vegans who rescue other animals do so to offer those other animals a chance at a better life in a safe home. We care for them as well as we can, using our knowledge and resources while following our consciences.

Domestication has left us with a sad mess and with millions of animals abandoned into shelters and killed each and every year, it's up to us to do what we can to provide shelter for these refugees and to care for them the best we can. Have a listen to Gary Francione's Abolitionist Approach podcast Commentary #2: "Pets" to hear more. As for whether or not feeding cats vegan food undermines the validity of veganism, I think that it's a an extraordinarily complex issue and that it's not one treated likely by any single vegan I've known who shares his or her home with feline friends. Murphy would have us think that if we don't feed the dogs and cats in our lives the flesh of other animals that we're sacrificing their happiness for the sake of our moral posturing, and that our working towards a vegan world would also eventually deprive our animal friends of food to eat and that this is somehow the ultimate "gotcha" to throw on our laps to prove that veganism is, in fact, a bad thing. It's essentially a bundle of guilt trips, when the truth is that most of us do the best we can to conscientiously care for our loved ones, whatever choices we make for them.

Dogs are omnivores and their bodies are "best suited" to handle a variety of foods and that, as it turns out, they do really well on vegan fare. I usually avoid weighing in on the whole question of feeding vegan food to cats (who, unlike Anthony Bourdain, are obligate carnivores). For every story I hear from a vegan friend whose cat is doing well on vegan cat food, I hear one from another about a cat's having become gravely ill. I have tried in the past to feed vegan food to my cats and actually did so on the advice of a vet because one of the cats had developed severe food allergies. None of my gang at the time would eat it and so that was the unfortunate end to the experiment. More personal anecdotes from a few vegans whom I trust have left me wary of attempting to experiment any further for now. I do advise anyone who does so, however, to first speak to your cat's veterinarian about it and to learn how to monitor your cat's urine's pH levels to prevent urinary tract issues. (For more on the vegan/non-vegan cat topic, listen to Gary Francione's Abolitionist Approach podcast Commentary #4: Non-Vegan Cats.)

As for the striving for a vegan world's leaving obligate carnivores without food to eat? It's a scenario that I'll park on a shelf alongside that old familiar "if-you-were-stuck-on-a-deserted-island-would-you-eat-another-animal" scenario often brought up smugly to attempt to trip up vegans. I mean: Oh boy! I'd better stop trying to convince others to go vegan because when the entire world does, I'll be responsible for starving all of the world's cats. Seriously? The thing is that as an abolitionist vegan, I don't wish to perpetuate the institution of "pet" ownership and in an ideal world where everyone went vegan, I would also hope to see the end of the our deliberate breeding of cats and dogs for the pleasure of humans who want to own them. In the interim though, those who are here need our help, and we--vegans and non-vegans alike--should do whatever we can to foster and to adopt and to encourage others to do so.

Dan Murphy calls pet ownership the "insurmountable 'con'" for vegans, when domestication is the result of the generations' worth of speciesism against which today's abolitionist vegans are currently fighting. The problem would exist with or without vegans in the world, and I would like to think that those of us who are going out and educating others about veganism are also educating them about the need to help those cats and dogs (or other animals) who've been abandoned into shelters, or who've been left to fend for themselves on the street. The issue is complex, but for Murphy to paint it as somehow undermining veganism shows a pettiness and a complete lack of understanding of what the issues at hand really are. The "veteran food-industry journalist" should do himself and his readers a favour and spend less time ranting and more time reading. But that's just my two bits, for whatever it's worth.


Gary said...

Murphy, the "experienced journalist," could have found answers to his questions on the FAQ page of practically any vegan website written in the last 30 years.

M said...

It's quite sad, isn't it? Utéms just one long rant with so little thought put into it.

sheree boyd said...

Great respond, Mylene. Considering here in America we subsidize meat/dairy at 63% whereas fruit is subsidized at 1% ( I guess it would appear cheaper?

I have my doubts though only b/c I am looking at a recent supermarket flyer (I live in NY) and meat seems pricey even with the subsidies (examples: low fat chicken 3.99 a lb., lean ground sirloin @ 4.99 a lb., deluxe ham @ 8.99 a lb and corned beef @ 2.99 a lb. just to name a few). I am pretty sure I can buy rice and beans for much cheaper.

I love how people cherry pick using the 'buying food at Whole Foods (or wherever you buy your specialty vegan products) is expensive and elitist and you don't care about poor people' meme. Personally, I rarely buy food from a box and make most of my food from scratch b/c it is cheap and as an artist and a vegan I can' afford to buy food that comes in a box.

But what I would really love to see is a cost comparison of a non vegan's food purchases to a vegans food purchases. And they would have to shop at the same store; preferably the local supermarket. I just wonder how much the costs would really differ? Because all those pre-packaged non vegan foods don't look cheap either.

Éamon Poplin said...

I ran into Mr Murphy's work in connection with something regarding GMOs—as a former veteran journalist myself, I found it just a little hard to believe that anyone could be that one-sided and vitriolic in his writing, so I did some research. Turns out Mr Murphy is a former VP of Public Affairs for the American Meat Institute, a lobbying group. His 'journalism experience' seems to be limited to writing for online publications—I can't find any experience for a newspaper.

M said...

sheree, I agree with you. Years ago in college, I switched to basic and mostly-vegan foods and taught myself to cook from scratch partially because it was so very much cheaper. If a vegan focuses on buying things like grains, legumes, fresh or frozen produce, basic soy products, etc. it costs so much less than when he loads his basket up with Daiya, Field Roast, Amy's soups and frozen products, etc.

Éamon, that doesn't surprise me at all. Well, that his so-called journalism experience is somewhat lacking. That he was a former VP of Public Affairs for anybody, on the other hand, surprises me. His piece was such a badly-written rant-y hack-job. Thanks for the information, though!