People often ask me why I'm still so rankled by veganism despite having given it up long ago. Unfortunately it's not veganism that gets me fired up, but more troubling political issues at the animal rights heart of the vegan movement. Not long after I stopped being vegan, I got involved with agriculture. I saw the makings of a cold war between the locavores and the animal rights groups and became troubled by it. Animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States and PETA pull in substantial amounts of donations and therefore exert some political clout. They get these donations by pretending to go after factory farms, but in reality small farms are also in the crosshairs. They don't admit this much and publicly don't want to admit it because the general public tends to be sympathetic to small farms.
This year, a history professor, James McWilliams, came out with an anti-locavore book called Just Food. Laughably, I saw some "conservative" outlets endorse the book, probably because of the anti-elite sentiment so tragically beloved by Palinites and their ilk. They probably didn't read it, since the ultimate point of that book is that locavores are stupid because really it's not Chilean strawberries, but meat, that is at the root of all problems. Despite not being an economist*, McWilliams frames his arguments as being all about economic rationality. But I saw right through it from the beginning and it's quite obvious from his recent animal rights posts at the Atlantic that his real beef with locavores is their use of animals. Notice that's not on the jacket of his book.
Can one be locavore and disavow all use of domestic animals? Yes, there are a few small farms practicing veganic agriculture (it's telling that one of this method's main advocates has written a book now called Meat: A Benign Extravagance), but they are few and far between. Because they are so unusual, there is little data on how productive they actually are. Much of the fertilizer used on farms comes from animals and if you want low-impact pest control, hunting is a good way to do it. Not to mention the dietary challenge of being vegan and local in very cold climates.
Animal rights groups also rely on videos of cruelty on farms to win converts. These become less effective on people who have actually been to farms. Animal rights groups rely on people being disconnected from farming and from agrarian traditions. But unfortunately for them, these are being revived. Things have been coming to a head recently with animal rights groups attacking backyard chicken-keepers and DIY turkey slaughter. I love it when people show their true colors— that it's not Smithfield farms they are after, but all farms that use animals**. Often the strategy is to divert: when you talk about soy, parrot back that most soy goes into livestock feed. It isn't until activists are cornered that they admit their true agenda, which is to eliminate all domesticated animal use from lab rats to riding horses to pet dogs to the turkey on your table.
It scares me because I feel that agrarian traditions are beset on both sides by conservatives*** who want their right to munch on their McTroglodyte burgers without worrying about what that means and the leftist movement to make such traditions difficult/illegal, either intentionally in the case of animal-rights activists or unintentionally in the case of the average land-alienated urban liberal.
Why should we care? In my view it's because every good farm is so valuable in preserving the health of humans, animals, and the land holistically. What does it take to make people understand this?
I've been interested in following the reaction towards A Vegan No More, a post by a woman who left veganism for health reasons:
While my original choice to be a vegan stemmed from the always noble impulse to do the right thing and be as compassionate as possible, it was a mistake and a choice I should never have made. If I had done my research and actually asked the hard questions from the beginning instead of letting the graphic images of factory farms guide me, I would have saved myself 3 years of misguided efforts as well as the deterioration of my physical and emotional health.
What can we do to prevent this? I think engaging people in producing food is the answer. It's a real threat for animal rightists and they know it.
Danish backyard chickens
*nearly every Animal Rightist on the internet fancies themselves an agricultural economist and parrots the simplistic and de-localized idea that animal agriculture is inefficient.
**This isn't to omit the outright terrorism that animal rightists inflict on scientists
*** I shudder to use that word to describe people who obviously care very little for conserving anything