Written by Emily – she/her
In his recent article, George Monbiot suggested that “Nothing hits the planet as hard as rearing animals. Caring for it means cutting out meat, dairy and eggs.” He made some pertinent points, such as the fact that “we [humans] use grains and pulses more efficiently when we eat them ourselves rather than feed them to cows and chickens.” And whilst I understand that this article may appeal to some of the readership of the guardian who are concerned with protecting the environment, I found, as an anti-speciesist, there to be many flaws in his article and argument.
Firstly, the whole article is extremely human and environment-centric at the expense of any concern for animals and their well-being. He says, for example, that “we believe we can solve the ethical problems caused by eating animals by switching from indoor production to free-range meat and eggs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Free-range farming is kinder to livestock but crueler to the rest of the living world.” In some ways, the fact that Monbiot is discouraging free-range is positive, as I cannot count the number of times I have heard “oh, but I eat free-range meat so it’s ok” or “my meat is free range so it’s humane”. Clearly there is nothing humane about killing an animal in order to eat them. However, the fact that Monbiot’s main concern here is “the rest of the living world” and not the “livestock” (a word that is in itself a way of othering animals in order to abscond humans of guilt) speaks volumes. He goes on to support this theme by saying that “…extensive farming, almost by definition, does greater harm to the planet: more land is needed to rear the same amount of food. Keeping cattle or sheep on ranches….. is even more of a planet-busting indulgence than beef feed-lots and hog cities, cruel and hideous as these are.” The points he makes about the fact that extensive farming is bad for the planet are valid, but the fact that this takes precedence over the well-being of the animals he is referring to, is , to me, completely missing the point. The cruel nature of intensive farming is merely mentioned as a sidenote at the end.
He writes about what caused him to switch to a plant-based diet, telling a story about the destruction of a habitat surrounding a local river which he used to frequent as a child. He traced this back to a local dairy farm, and highlighted the fact that the Environment Agency (a government regulator) did nothing to regulate the farm, despite being well-informed. I believe that government agencies need to be held accountable for their actions or non-actions, and the fact that George draws attention to this is certainly positive.
However, this is pretty much where the article starts to take a turn for the worse. He then goes on to explain that he is not “religious” about what he eats. Firstly, this draws negative connotations with religion, implying that the “all or nothing” mentality and extreme beliefs/behaviour is commonplace in religion, and by default anyone who is religious must therefore have this mindset. He then goes on to say that he “might revert to vegetarianism” if he’s at a friend’s house, or will “take a drop of milk in his tea if … away from home.” He notes that once a fortnight he has an egg for breakfast and says that
“perhaps once a month [I eat] a fish I catch, or a herring or some anchovies (if you eat fish, take them from the bottom of the food chain). Perhaps three of four times a year… I will eat farmed meat: partly out of greed, partly because I don’t want to be even more of a spectre… This slight adaptation…also reduces the chances of a relapse.”
Firstly, to advise people that eating fish from the bottom of the food chain is preferable seems ridiculous to me. He has completely missed the point of veganism. Fishing causes harm, stress and death to the fish. It makes no difference where they come in the food chain. It’s like saying “if you’re going to kill someone, make sure that you only do it once a month and make sure that it’s someone no one will miss so that it has the least impact”. If we said that, there would be outrage. Secondly, the idea of ‘relapse’ and the need to avoid it suggests that not consuming animal products is a) very difficult and b) something that needs to be carefully regulated in order to be maintained. I can’t speak for everyone, but as a white person with some financial privileges, being an omnivore for the first 27 years of my life, and then becoming vegan, I did not find it difficult to stop consuming animal products. Once I had learned and understood, truly, what carnism (see Melanie Joy for definition of carnism) and veganism were, it was an easy transition. Painting meat-eating or dairy consumption as something that must be indulged in occasionally in order to stay on the wagon is a very dangerous message to be sending out to those who know little about or are interested in veganism. It makes it out to be some sort of chore, or unpalatable dietary choice that one must assume in order for the “greater good”.
Monboit ends the article by noting that we can all “withdraw our consent from … corruption” – but the corruption he is talking about is seemingly only connected to that of Environmental groups.
George means well, and the fact that he has (self-reportedly) switched to a 97% plant-based diet has, no doubt, made some positive contributions in terms of less monetary support for the meat and dairy industry.
But for me, articles like this skew the real purpose of veganism. It is not a dietary choice. It is not solely linked to what you put in your mouth. Being vegan, in my opinion, means absconding from the use of any animal products or any activity which may cause harm to animals. This includes what food I eat, what products I put on my skin, what clothes I wear (e.g. I do not wear leather, wool, etc.), what sports I support (e.g. I do not support horse-riding) and I try as far as possible not to be directly involved with or contribute to animal suffering. This article makes me equally sad and angry as I feel it gives a false account of what veganism really is. I would like to see more articles that, by all means sing the praises of the environmental pros of veganism, but do not do this by objectifying animals and further entrenching the view that animals are commodities that we can ‘use’ for our pleasure.
 As I’m writing this I’m actually wondering about using the word humane – it’s so linked to the word human that it’s as if we decide what is appropriate and inappropriate by using how humans would treat other humans as a bar by which to measure behavior and conditions.