Where Veganism Gets Food Security Wrong

veganBy: Drew Silverthorn, Assistant Food Centre Coordinator 

I was vegan for a long time. As I wrote in my article The Dietary Policing of the Poor, at one point in my life veganism consumed me. I spent most of my reading time on vegan cookbooks and animal welfare texts. I worked as a restaurant manager, trying to veganize our menu wherever I could. I labored away in my kitchen nightly coming up with whatever new, exciting, and tantalizing vegan dishes I could. I had a long-term relationship with a vegan and eventually we lived with our vegan friend. It was my religion, lifestyle, and identity.

As I went into my undergrad and started studying sociology, social justice movements, and theories of oppression, I started to notice similarities between how we oppress and exploit people and how we oppress and exploit animals. I felt validated and even somewhat enlightened by my dietary habits. I was living a life as compassionate and selfless as possible. I was light years ahead of my classmates, friends, and colleagues.

My schooling in social work would quickly led me to opportunities in food security work. I loved being able to bridge my passions for equity and food together. It opened me to a whole other community of people outside of vegan food activism and, to my unexpected surprise, I started to encounter experiences and knowledges that began to challenge my vegan superiority complex.

As I became more involved in local food security efforts I began to realize something startling. We, as in my ancestors from Europe, brought hunger to North American/Turtle Island. The Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island had developed complex food systems long before our arrival – food systems that were sustainable, local by nature, and based in adequacy rather than abundance.

What’s remarkable about the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island and their relationships to food is that there was no single food system. There were nomadic groups that travelled the plains following the migration of buffalo and collected hundreds of varieties of grasses, fruits, berries, grains, and vegetables along the way. There were communities along the West coast that thrived off of salmon. There were Inuit communities in the Artic that lived off of seal and caribou. Indigenous people in what is now America, Mexico, and South America had been farming for three millennia before European settlers arrived. Mass hunger was not a reality for these peoples because animal and plant life was abundant and they possessed hundreds of years of knowledge passed down from previous generations.

How does the cultural and dietary pasts of Indigenous peoples connect back to veganism? Where veganism gets the fight for food security wrong is its black and white message: eating meat and diary products is bad for the environment and your health and is ethically wrong.

However, here’s a scenario I’d like you to consider. Environmental and animal rights organizations go north to Artic communities and tell the Inuit populations that hunting seal is unethical and morally wrong. These same communities are then expected to rely on imports from southern regions that are outrageously expensive due to astronomical shipping fees. By the time fresh produce reaches these communities it is often already spoiled. Here we have created two environmental problems: 1) increasing pollution through long distance shipping and 2) food waste. These communities simply cannot follow a plant-based diet. Here we begin to see the flawed nature of veganism’s universality argument.

This past summer I brought up the above at a food security conference. Someone said it sounded like I was being “anti-global” and another person said, “Without these imports these communities would suffer from ailments like scurvy.” As it turns out, globalization is what has made these communities food insecure. Traditional Inuit diets are full of Vitamin C thanks to the organ meats of animals who can synthesize the vitamin on their own. Now, these communities struggle with conditions like obesity and diabetes thanks to the Westernization of their diets.

Yes, the above example is an extreme situation that is not applicable to most other parts of Canada. However, what I wanted to emphasis is how something like veganism can be part of the ongoing process of colonization and racism in North America and that the solution to food insecurity cannot be found in sweeping generalizations and universal solutions.

Aside from the above argument, many vegan staples are imported from across the globe. Items such as quinoa, coconut products, palm oil products, avocados, and tropical super foods are yearlong staples for many vegans I know. I’m not saying the solution to achieving sustainability and food security is to never eat another imported food again. However, as vegan activist Alicia Silverstone explained about the importance of local food, “I was in New York City [in the winter] and I was trying to find mangoes because I was eating raw food at the time. [A woman] said to me, ‘Mangoes are not growing anywhere near New York City. They’re growing maybe in Thailand, maybe in Maui and they have to ship them over here.’ “ Silverstone explained further that fruits like mangoes and pineapples having cooling properties beneficial for people in warm climates. So, while it makes more sense for someone in Maui to be eating a mango than it does for someone in New York City in the winter, it makes as much sense for people in the Artic to eat a diet primarily of animals whereas a plant-based diet may be more appropriate in other climates.

It’s not just veganism/vegetarianism that’s getting food security wrong, either. Archaeological scientist Christina Warinner studies the health and dietary histories of ancient peoples. In her TED Talk Debunking the Paleo Diet, Warinner states, “…there is no one correct diet, diversity is key.” The talk explores the varying diets of ancient peoples around the globe, illustrating that ancient diets were dependant on what was locally available, centred on a wide variety of plant and animal species, and were tailored to the specific needs of those populations.

In my opinion, the effectiveness of food security movements hinge on mobilizing efforts emphasizing locally sensitive solutions. This goes beyond merely increasing access to, and promoting consumption of, locally grown foods. It means incorporating local traditions, ecosystems, knowledges, histories, and needs. In our increasingly globalized world this is a tall order, especially in a country such as Canada where histories have been erased, rewritten, and are currently being re-imagined. However, as I heard an Elder from the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations once say, Turtle Island is everyone’s’ rightful home and we all equally belong here. Now it is up to us to figure out how we make this place look, and taste, equally like everyone’s home.

My current diet is still 90% vegan. I by no means want to persuade people from being vegan and fighting for animal welfare, the elimination of factor farming, and having compassion towards animals. What I do want to persuade people towards is thinking about food insecurity and sustainability through a much broader lens. There’s no one solution. This world is too big and too complicated for that.

Here are my top five ways for eating more sustainably in Southern Ontario:

  1. Eat, eat, eat during the spring, summer, and fall! Eat as much locally grown food as you possibly can. Visit a farm, make regular trips to a farmers’ market, and preserve food when possible.
  2. Reduce consumption of non-essential imports. Now, the definition of “non-essential” is open to interpretation, however, I think it is safe to say that avocados, goji berries, acai, maca, coconut, and other “superfoods” like these are not essential for a healthy and balanced diet.
  3. Reduce consumption of chocolate and coffee. I realize that these are some of peoples’ biggest vices. However, chocolate and coffee production often contributes to environmental destruction, loss of biodiversity, and poor working conditions. Plus, we could all do with a little less caffeine and sugar in our diets!
  4. Give up tropical fruit for the winter months. There’s nothing like a fresh mango on a humid and sweltering day in Southern Ontario. However, as Alicia Silverstone noted, these fruits are designed to cool us down and are definitely not beneficial or necessary during our frigid winters.
  5. Reduce or eliminate your meat consumption. Going vegetarian is one of the most impactful changes you can make for the environment. The meat production industry contributes more CO2 than the entire transportation industry. When you factor in the transportation of meat as well, the negative impacts are massive.
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