We Should All Be Vegans
Veganism has exploited people of color and continues to do so,
but we should still all be vegans.
Veganism is hitting the mainstream hard. In the past twenty years, what was first viewed as an extremist take on animal rights, has now become The Next Big Thing. Don’t believe me? Walk into any coffee shop around town. Not even a particularly fancy one, and ask for non dairy milk in your coffee. Without batting an eyelash the barista will present you with four different options. In fact, meat consumption is decreasing across the globe, and the rise of plant based diets is a growing megatrend. According to Forbes magazine, it’s a 3.1 billion dollar market in the US alone. The article wraps up by saying:
“It’s a brave new business world, one in which growing numbers of consumers will continue to demand sustainable and ethical products. The plant based revolution is here to stay. Make sure you don’t get left behind.”
You could argue that this is a good trend. Big businesses are finally starting to listen to what consumers are demanding and changing their evil capitalist ways. You could also argue that they are merely shifting their business model and catering to a new marketing goldmine, with many expensive products that are meant to replace meat and dairy.
You could also argue that the problem with mainstream veganism is this: in the rush to sell the idea of ’cruelty free’ living and vegan eating, veganism has become a feel good product, in itself a form of (white) privilege. And, it’s a hard sell, to ask people of color to take part in this conversation. Still, we should all be vegans.
The issues of not eating
are also because
the food supply chain is racist.
Let’s start with the basics. What is veganism really about? After two thousand five hundred studies, it cannot be doubted anymore that animals are sentient beings. The Vegan Society defines it as “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as it possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. The term vegan was coined as late as 1949 by Leslie J. Cross, because “society lacked a definition of veganism”, and so veganism, in its modern format, was born, though the popularity and hype surrounding a “cruelty free” lifestyle did not really enter the marketing stratosphere until fairly recently.
That’s when veganism became a pushy market, especially for people of color. We already live in societies that subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) undermine our identity, legitimacy, and culture. To face these issues while trying to meaningfully connect to another movement linked to ethics and limiting oppression can be exhausting and traumatic.
Where do tofu and seitan originate from? China. Quinoa has been consumed in the Andean region for millennia before the hipsters of Kallio got their hands on it. Chickpeas, falafel, and hummus come from regions like Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, and lentils from South Asia, India and Pakistan. Rice comes from Asia and Africa, hemp seeds from East Asia. Black beans – Latin America and Mexico. Chia seeds, Mexico and Guatemala, and avocado – Mexico again. The consumption of these types of produce was disdained, and the production of them disrupted by colonial masters until of course, they are now ‘rediscovered’ by mainstream bloggers and chefs and marketed as superfoods.
The idea of conserving the planet and animal rights is not foreign to poc persons. In many indigenous and poc communities, living close to nature and a lifestyle of farming and raising crops for food necessitates a respect and conservation of the environment that far predates modern conservation efforts. Bryant Terry writes in his excellent book Afro Vegan:
“-- consider that for thousands of years traditional West and Central African diets were predominantly vegetarian – centered around staples like millet, rice, field peas, okra, hot peppers and yams – and that many precolonial African foods emphasized plant based foods--”
Field to fork eating existed long before the term was conceived, and only with colonialism and, later on, capitalism have the unhealthy choices and convenience foods crept into our diets. It was only when urbanization and gentrification occurred – and in some cases, when indigenous communities were pushed off their land – that these communities were forced to rely on foods that were readily available or economically feasible to them.
In this, the issues of not eating plant based are also because the food supply chain is racist.
In an article called “Dismantling Racism in the food system”, authors Eric Holt-Gimenez and Breeze Harper write “how the super exploitation of enslaved human beings on plantations allowed slave systems to out-compete agrarian wage labour for over two hundred years. The tremendous wealth generated from slavery was sent to northern banks where it was used to finance military conquest, more plantations and ultimately, the industrial revolution.”
Surely this was ancient history? Think again. The article goes on to highlight how the capitalist food system helps explain why people of color “suffer disproportionately from its environmental externalities, labor abuses, resource inequities, and diet related diseases”.
In the rush to embrace a cruelty free, feel good living, we neatly push aside the fact that, for example, cheap labor, often exploiting people of color, is used in producing our food, whether or not it is animal based. In our positions of privilege, we can rally the cry for the terrible injustices done to sentient beings that cannot defend themselves, and ignore the injustices done to those that work to produce our cruelty free quinoa hemp patties.
And then there is the blatant appropriation of foods. First there was jollofgate when chef Jamie Oliver tried to make his version of jollof rice resulting in major outcry. Then Bon Appetit magazine posted the now legendary video of chef Tyler Atkin’s take on pho in a video entitled “PSA: This is how You Should Be Eating Pho”. The resulting backlash resulted in the widespread ridicule for the video as well as for Bon Appetit.
This positioning a white chef as expert, and his take on the correct way to eat another culture’s ethnic dish was just too much. Yet, this type of whitewashing goes on and on with plant based foods and cruelty free diets. For someone coming from a background where vegetarianism, veganism, cruelty free living was commonplace, the “rediscovery” of cuisines and religions that center around these themes can be at first puzzling, then infuriating. The tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism, Jainism, Rastafarianism all center already around non-violence and plant based living.
Chinese and Indian,
coconut was considered the oil and food products
for the poor.
Then there is the aforementioned prevalence of food insecurity in neighborhoods with greater populations of people of color. It is not because that is how people of color prefer to eat. There are structuralized, systematic and historically stacked odds and the results can be seen in the growing numbers of obesity, the rising costs of diabetes and diet related disease within communities of color. Generations of people are dying, while racial and food justice work is only beginning to identify these issues. Thus, this huge outcry for the justice towards animals may not be issue number one for persons of color dealing with far more pressing issues of survival, and systemic and historical abuse going backs centuries.
In Finland, there is no census collected based on race and ethnicity, so we don’t have data on the health and economic issues people of color may face in our country in regards to nutrition.
While it’s bad enough to see the foods you grew up with being ripped off by someone for a profit, what really takes the (vegan) cake is them driving the prices up and the mom and pop stores that had always stocked them get pushed out of the market by mainstream marketing giants. The craze for coconut water and coconut oil is a good example of this. Growing up Chinese and Indian, it was considered the oil and food products for the poor. But now, it’s everywhere. And just like that prices are up, and you can be sure someone is making a nice buck from it.
However, veganism does not need expensive meat substitutes or commercial plant based milks. The perception that living plant based is expensive and what is marketed to us are two different things.
A plant based diet does not mean eating expensive substitutes, or eating only ’bougie’ foods that can only be found in fancier stores. It’s also not always the task of the person with a different diet to scavenge for alternatives. Asanti Owusu, a vegan based in Helsinki and a member of the Animal Justice Party puts it this way:
“When it comes to public spending on foods. I think it would be most inclusive to offer a choice between vegan and vegetarian foods, as opposed to meat dishes and an ‘alternative’. It is the job of public government and services to help all people, and by including meat (especially pork) you are excluding people like Muslims and non-meat eaters and vegans. Vegan food suits everybody, allergies included.”
And people of color included. To suddenly find mainstream veganism ’discovering’ vegan diets and positioning themselves as the white saviors is not only irksome – it drives persons of color away from veganism. There is the lingering stigma that veganism is ’not for us’.
Yet, it is important to not draw a line in the sand simply because of these problems and say that veganism is not for persons of color. Many poc choose veganism not simply because of health or dietary reasons, but for the deeper connection they see between carnism and the degradation of the planet as a whole.
Ramina Habibollah, artist and animal rights advocate says:
“I realized from the beginning that vegans only care about themselves. When you become vegan, you’re so involved with yourself, what you eat, what you wear, what you do, what can you not do. You sort of forget about the animals. You don’t realize that there are many reasons to be vegan, like the environment and so on. Like, if we think about how vegan food has become so popular,and yet no one seems to care about the new animal law. Veganism is supposed to be a tool that we use against the oppression of animals, not just a trendy diet.”
This animal law that Habibollah is referring to is the twenty-year-old Finnish animal welfare legislation which is now under reform. According to several animal rights groups, no significant reforms are actually happening. In fact,”...no obligations that would cause additional costs to the industry or to the farmers are to be imposed.. A decree to improving the welfare of fur animals, will not be issued at all, and the preparation of the decree will not be continued. ” This is the same law that does not require fur farmers to provide drinking water to fur animals.
How many vegans could rightly claim to be as woke to these issues as they are to their nut-milk of choice?
Kemal Koçak, a poc vegan involved in the animal rights movement in the Nordics echoes Habibollah:
“I think the main issue is that our focus is disproportionately on the choices of individuals. We need to begin looking at a bigger picture and to communicate the structural issues to the general public as well.”
They also give a shoutout to the animal rights movement in Finland:
“The animal rights movement that I have been part of tries to be inclusive, the organisation is horizontal, they have a safe space policy in their events and they try to maintain this with their activism.”
Both agree that while the suffering of animals cannot be and should not ever be equated with slavery or the Holocaust, which is a far too common diuscourse within veganism, it is key to recognize this fact as articulated by Habibollah:
“If I want things to be good for me, I must want things to be good for all.”
It is helpful to see that the issue of animal rights is an intersectional one. We can and should decolonize our thinking, and with it our food systems.
Text: Tania Nathan
Illustrations: Kemal Koçak