Vegans should target the corporate food system, not just dairy and meat!
The rise of veganism represents a step change for campaigners who have long sought to highlight links between the food we eat and the fate of the world’s environment. Headlines such as ‘Avoiding meat and dairy is the ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth’ point to the immensely damaging impacts of mass meat production upon the environment.
The modern concept of veganism (the term is derived from the first three and last two letters of ‘vegetarian’) was coined by Donald Watson in the UK in 1944. While vegetarianism represents a dietary choice based on not consuming animal flesh, veganism, at least in its initial conception, aspired to a more moral approach to human non-human animal relations. So moral vegans not only desist from consuming animal-based food (including milk and eggs, unlike many vegetarians) but also refrain from wearing animal-based clothing or using beauty products that have been tested on animals.
Arguments about the broader impacts of our diets represent a more holistic understanding of global food systems than those before veganism’s rising popularity. They also highlight how public policies designed to combat climate breakdown should seek to change these systems.
It is not surprising that veganism has taken off at the same time as the student climate strike, and Extinction Rebellion movements. They have in common a distrust of mainstream politics and a concern with combatting climate breakdown. Where they differ is that veganism represents, at present, an individualist solution to a global problem, whereas the latter prefer direct, mass-movement type action, including ‘economic disruption to shake the current political system and civil disruption to raise awareness.’
For all its achievements, however, the popular conception of veganism is contradictory. It actually contributes to environmental degradation and animal harm. To understand why, it helps to revisit the modern definition of veganism. It is:
‘[…] a philosophy and 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; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals’ (https://www.vegansociety.com/about-us/history).
The first sentence of this definition is both pragmatic (‘as far as it is possible’) and broad-based, specifying the need for food systems that are beneficial to animals and humans. This is a far cry from the right wing media’s caricature of vegan activists as pretentious virtue signallers.
The second sentence specifies a more limited conception of veganism, based upon non-animal-based diets. It is this second element, with an exclusively dietary focus, that is driving the expansion of plant-based products across retail and fast-food sectors.
It is also this narrow focus, on the immediate origins of the food product, that contradicts the broader vegan philosophy. It risks becoming a fig leaf for the kinds of practices – animal exploitation and environmental damage – that more philosophical vegans, and which the purveyors of new plant-based products claim to, oppose.
It is not just the world’s mass meat sector that harms animals and damages the environment. Plant-based production is also responsible for accelerating these double-ills.
The corporate food system – increasingly organised through global supply chains connecting monocrop farms to giant retailers – is accelerating the depletion of animal species and contributing directly to climate breakdown. It is also responsible for high degrees of labour exploitation, an issue virtually ignored by mainstream veganism.
Mono-cropping is the dedication of stretches of land to a single crop, increasingly orientated to meeting retailers’ demands. It requires hyper-simplification of local ecological niches through eliminating other plants from the land. Combined with intensified competition, there is an ever-present pressure upon farmers to produce increased volumes, and to eliminate potential biological threats to their crops. They do so through converting forests into farm-land, and by the intense application of chemicals to crops.
This destructive dynamic is clearly visible in the example of almond production. Almond Milk is widely touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to dairy milk. In the US almond milk sales have grown by 250% over the last five years, reaching a value of $1.2 billion, far greater than other plant-based milk. Yet almond production contributes directly to the precipitous global decline in bee populations.
Almond groves in California’s central valley produce around 80% of the world’s almonds, over 1.3 million acres. Almond production depends upon active chemical ingredient applications (pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides) which has increased from 29 million to 34 million tonnes between 2013 and 2017.
Commercial bee-keepers across the US have reported losing up to a third of bees as a consequence of their exposure to such chemicals. In the first few months of 2018-19 alone, over 50 billion bees were wiped out.
And it is not just almonds and almond milk. From the quinoa and avocado booms to the increase in palm oil use in a range of foods: all these are linked to worsening environmental conditions as landscapes are converted into chemically dependent monocultures.
Global plant-based production is just as much a part of the food system-climate breakdown nexus as is the mass meat sector.
If the philosophy of veganism is going to have a meaningful impact upon the world’s food system, then targeting meat is not enough. The philosophy needs to confront the dire environmental consequences of plant-based food markets expansion. If it does not, it will be rendered null-and-void by its association with the simplified, dietary interpretation of veganism that is itself fuelling environmental collapse.
Benjamin Selwyn is Professor of International Development at the University of Sussex, UK, where his duties include teaching a course on The Global Politics of Food. His next book is entitled Green Food, Green Planet.