The Ethics of a Vegan Diet, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A farmer from our inbox responds to our earlier discussion about animal deaths and vegan diets:

First, let me make quite clear that I am a farmer, an organic farmer, and an omnivore. I have no problem whatsoever with vegan diets, vegetarians, or any other dietary choices. We all have different bodies and different nutritional needs, as a growing body of scientific research is discovering.

However, I do take issue with vegan and vegetarian claims of less bloodshed. This is disingenuous and quite naive. Do you know what organic farmers use instead of chemical fertilizers? They use blood meal. BLOOD meal. Or feather meal. Yup, real feathers ground up, and those feathers were not graciously donated by a flock of generous fowl living in bird paradise on earth.

If we go back a hundred years, all farmers kept livestock—not just for milk and meat, but to provide an integrated and natural source of fertilizer for their farms. Today, we have specialized agribusiness to the point where farmers may have 1000 acres of corn or a 1000 head of cattle, but almost never both. Historically, you could run a small family farm and lovingly care for a few cows or goats who produced milk, constant fertilizers, and meat when they grew old.

This cycle is terribly broken. And we all suffer, including vegans in their attempts to remove cruelty from their diets.

Modern Farmer has discussed the sometimes-creepy use of blood meal to feed plants and animals. As for the larger ethical question of eating vegan, does intent matter? This reader thinks so:

The difference between insects and small animals like mice being killed to produce vegetables, soy, or any non-animal food and killing cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and other living beings for food is that in the former scenario, the carnage is an unfortunate consequence; in the later scenario, the carnage is the point. I think as an issue of ethics, the question of intent is the key point to focus on.

Ethics aside, the same reader believes we should discuss the bigger questions in food production:

In the year 2016, we have to evolve our diets in a way that addresses the immorality of factory farming. (We could be factory farming dogs and horses, but we don’t: Why? Because of habit? Not good enough). We have to evolve our diets in a way that addresses the reality of the environmental effects of meat and dairy production. And finally, we have to evolve our diets in a way that addresses the preventable diseases caused by the over-consumption of meat and dairy foods (and its effects on our healthcare system).

All non-carnivores can’t be perfect, one reader argues:

I’m no longer a strict vegan—but I was—and have been a vegetarian for well over two-thirds of my life. And I’m very much not a “militant vegetarian.” I don’t spout my views left and right or refuse to dine with people who eat meat—such behavior generally falls on deaf ears. I’m equally (or more likely) to attack “vegetarian” friends who order a meat dish, pick out the meat, and throw it in the trash—while saying that they wouldn’t kill any animal if necessary for their own survival, all while walking off self-righteously in leather boots. That’s complete BS.

We do what we can in this world, but if there is a cockroach head, leg, or thorax in my peanut butter, my response does not have to be to have (eat) a cow about it. Or to throw in the towel all together. That’s insane. Nothing in life is perfect.

This reader questions the motives behind the ethical critique:

When non-vegans start expressing concern for all the mice and bugs vegans kill, I begin to question their sincerity. My impression is that they don’t actually care about the mice; they just want to remind me that I’m not better than them.

Another reader is curious: What about the plants?

Why is it okay to kill vegetable life and not animal life? It’s all life. Just because some organisms have a central nervous system like us doesn’t mean the other forms of life don’t suffer or feel pain in their own way. It seems like an incredibly self-centered belief, one that creates a hierarchy of life that places things that look like us (or have evolutionary development we subjectively recognize as similar to our own) above things that look less like us.

Of course, the incredible rush of endorphins one feels from broadcasting his or her righteousness is more than enough to make up for the lack of meat in a diet.