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Being vegan and the sink holes in the moral high ground

Being vegan and the sink holes in the moral high ground
Being vegan and the sink holes in the moral high ground

Vegans have tried my patience for a while, from the vegan ahead of me in a busy lunch queue who needs to conduct a lengthy cross exam before declaring all  available choices unethical and therefore inedible, to the vegandinner guests who have tested my culinary skills to the limit. More worrying is the small minority of  militant vegans issuing death threats to farmers and restaurateurs, cases have been reported across Europe, in the US and Canada. And then a friend told me about   customer letter he’d had to deal with: what measures had the company concerned taken to ensure that the green tea extract used in one of their products had not  come from a tea estate that uses cow manure as fertilizer? I decided it was time to find out where the official line might be drawn between vegan and crazy and asked the British Vegan Society for an interview.

My thanks to Louise Davies, responsible for campaigns, policy and research at the Vegan Society, who kindly answered my questions in a telephone interview and in a follow-up email. First up, here’s the official definition of what Veganism is: “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and  practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” That sounds good and when it comes to industrial animal agriculture I couldn’t agree more: It is cruel to breed dairy cows that have trouble standing because their udders are too big, to keep pigs in confinement with no room to move, nothing to play with and just a slatted floor separating them from the toxic waste in the slurry ‘lagoon’ beneath them, to fatten cattle in CAFOs1 and trim the beaks of hens.

But there is a different way to farm, there are millions of farmers who care for the land, care for their animals and grow healthy food. I’ve met a lot of livestock  farmers, in the US, in the UK and in continental Europe who want their animals to have ‘just one bad day’ in an otherwise good life – i.e. their last. These are  farmers who work with nature, they see animals as an integral part of the natural life cycle. Animals produce manure which nourishes the soil from which plants grow which then feed animals and humans. That’s why, by definition, biodynamic farming is impossible without animals, cows in particular. But Vegans won’t stand for that. ‘In an ideal world, we would of course prefer that no animals, including bees, were used in the production of foods,’ says Louise Davies.

So here’s my problem with this: agriculture doesn’t work without animals, not even in an ideal world. Prime example: we need insects for pollination. Vegans don’t support beekeeping, confirms Louise Davies, but almond milk is certified as vegan by the Vegan Society. 80% of the world’s almonds are produced in the Central Valley in California. In 2017 almonds were grown on 1.24 million acres of land in California2. It takes 1.5 to 2 hives of bees to pollinate one acre of almonds which means that every spring some two million beehives need to be transported to the Central Valley for pollination. Many of them are transported over thousands of miles. Since almonds are grown as a monoculture there is nothing for the bees to feed on once the almond blossom is over. So they are packed onto flat-bed trucks once more to be driven north into the apple and pear plantations of Oregon and Washington, or east to Main and New York.

Regularly transporting bees over thousands of miles has been identified as a major contributing factor to Colony Collapse Disorder which causes commercial beekeepers to lose about half their colonies each year. How then can almond milk from California be a vegan product? Here’s Louise Davies’ answer: ‘This is a difficult and challenging issue but we live in an imperfect non vegan world with limited food choices which involve absolutely no animal usage. At The Vegan Society we have chosen to draw the line on our labelling around animal ingredients and animal testing. Our robust assessment process ensures that any products carrying the Vegan Trademark contain no animal products or derivatives and have not been tested on animals. At present, we do not consider the production methods of food and any associated animal use.’

With all due respect: this answer isn’t good enough, it’s hypocritical. Why? Because the industrial use of bees is well known and unnecessary. In a diversified agricultural system almonds can be grown without causing harm to bees. Bees in stationary hives or solitary bees could pollinate the almond blossoms and then move on to other crops nearby as a food source. Of course such a diversified system would not produce the extraordinary volumes that are being marketed today; and sustainably produced almonds would be more expensive. For vegans not to consider production methods is drawing a very convenient line.

If production methods, too, were to meet the vegan standard of animal exploitation and cruelty, a considerable part of the world’s apple, pear and berry production could not be considered to be vegan. And most produce from greenhouses would be ‘out’, too – tomatoes and other greenhouse crops are mostly pollinated by bumblebees. These bumblebees are specifically raised for the use in greenhouses, they can be ordered online and arrive in small cardboard boxes which just need to be placed in the greenhouse in sufficient numbers. At the end of the season these industrially produced bumblebee colonies are dead but the vegetables can be harvested and sold.

The Vegan Society’s take? ‘We would encourage the consumption of seasonal food grown in natural climates, however we do not consider the consumption of greenhouse produce to be non vegan, assuming the produce itself does not contain any animal products and has not been tested on animals.’ Vegans, you are welcome to a seasonal British diet of potatoes, carrots, cabbage and turnips in winter and fasting until the ‘hungry gap’ ends, but please don’t classify greenhouse produce as ‘vegan’.

Production methods can be changed, says Louise Davies and tells me about Tolhurst Organic, a certified organic and stockfree farm. I’ve met Iain Tolhurst, he and his team produce fabulous vegetables and they do so without using animal manure. Soil fertility can be maintained through methods like intercropping, composting and compost teas.

But what about pest control? If, as Louise Davies explains, no animal is more valuable than any other to a vegan, does that mean leaving the lettuces to the slugs while mice and rats are welcome to the grains? Here the ‘as far as is possible and practicable’ clause applies, I’m told. ‘We accept that pesticide use is prevalent and it is not practicable to completely avoid this, we would welcome research into alternative methods. (…) Vegans do not claim to be perfect, we are just trying our hardest to live in a way that is as compassionate as possible.’

That’s an individual choice and a position I can respect. But quite often being vegan means occupying the moral high ground and being vocal about it – while carefully choosing your facts. Like defining a product as vegan if it does not contain animal ingredients or involve animal testing, while totally ignoring production methods. Facts don’t vanish just because you close your eyes or come up with an arbitrary definition. As Andrew French writes in the May edition of the US organic farming magazine Acres U.S.A.: ‘If you choose to eat meat, you take life. If you choose to not eat meat you also end up taking plenty of lives. In a field cultivated for grains or beans, thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives are lost seasonally. In order to procure our grains, beans and vegetables, we slaughter hundreds of pounds of vertebrate and invertebrate life in thousands of fields daily. This is the price of agriculture.’

The farmers of the world who farm sustainably, look after the soil, take care oftheir animals by giving them access to pasture, sunshine, good feed, space
and company and whatever else they need, the farmers who grow my food have my respect and my gratitude.


1 CAFO stands for concentraded animal feeding operation, defined as a unit with 1000 animals or more.
2 http://www.westernfarmpress.com/tree-nuts/california- almonds-reach- 124-million-acre- milestone


Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.

Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel Images used with kind consent @M.Kunz

The Slow Food blog welcomes contributions on the topics of Food, Farming and Agriculture. The contents may not entirely match the views of Slow Food, but reflect the journeys of the authors. To write for us please click here

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