Tag Archives: Food

The Social Psychology of Veganism – Moral Licensing

What is Moral Licensing?

In one fascinating psychological study, researchers found that doing a bit of good gives folks the license to do something naughty (Sachdeva et al. 2009). So, for instance, a person may go for a jog and then feel they can reward themselves with a box of donuts. Maybe that person participates in Walk a Mile in Her Shoes to raise awareness to domestic violence and later feel licensed to use pornography later.

When it comes to human relationships with other animals, this moral licensing could have implications for vegan activism. If someone donates to an animal charity, for instance, perhaps they feel they can “treat” themselves to some chickens’ wings later. Researchers would refer to this as a sort of moral self-regulation or licensing.

Limited Evidence

Although it is often the case that consumers will try to suppress any guilt they may feel for complacency in animal suffering by buying cage-free or donating to an animal welfare group, it is not necessarily the case that they will feel compelled to hurt Nonhuman Animals more as a result of acting prosocially.  Indeed, replication studies on moral licensing have not supported the existence of this psychological effect (Blanken et al. 2015).

Instead, cognitive dissonance is more likely at play. Cognitive dissonance occurs when folks become uneasy when confronted with a disconnect between their values and behaviors and then attempt to alleviate that conflict. Nonvegans can either tweak their values or behaviors to achieve psychological equilibrium. It is often the case that consumer values and behaviors shift toward the speciesist. In other words, when confronted with their empathy for other animals, some nonvegans double-down on their nonveganism to ease cognitive dissonance, not to engage in moral self-regulation.

Although moral licensing has little scientific support, it does remind us of the importance of scientific rigor. To be reliable, evidence should be supported by multiple studies. Activists, meanwhile, should investigate the source of scientific findings and determine their veracity before applying them to social movement efforts.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Moral licensing is not strongly supported by research
  • Individuals who practice prosocial behavior toward animals are not likely to “treat” themselves to speciesist practices in exchange

References

Blanken, I., N. van de Ven, and M. Zeelenberg. 2015. “A Meta-Analytic Review of Moral Licensing.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41 (4): 540-558.

Sachdeva, S., R. Iliev, and D. Medin. 2009. “Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation.” Psychological Science 20: 523-528.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Segregation

Sociologists understand segregation to be one of the most potent and fundamental processes of oppression. Creating separation entails highlighting difference. This, in turn, justifies inequality. Segregation literally marginalizes vulnerable groups.

Segregation can happen by race, impacting housing. It can also happen by gender, impacting education. Vegan activists also recognize how segregation aggravates the human-animal divide. Since the industrial revolution, Nonhuman Animals have been increasingly segregated in remote agricultural spaces in feedlots, barns, and other intensive operations. This physical disconnect leads to a social disconnect. Even policies that ban dogs from public spaces or require the abandonment of companion animals during disasters help reinforce this physical othering.

Interestingly, social psychologists have noticed that segregation can also lead to the formation of negative attitudes about food. In a study of a restaurant’s menu design, reseachers discovered that lumping all plant-based options together in a separate section reduced their appeal. They were seen as marginal, out of the ordinary, and foreign. Alternatively, by integrating plant-based meals into the main menu space, nonvegan diners gave these dishes equal consideration. Diners were much more likely to choose vegan plates from the integrated menu than from the segregated menu.

Although lumping plant-based options together can make it easier for vegan diners to determine if the restaurant caters to their political and dietary needs, this is not a tactic that is likely to increase the popularity of veganism. After all, lots of nonvegans eat vegan meals regularly without thinking anything of it. It is only when these meals are labeled and segregated as “vegan” that nonvegan consumers disparage them as bland, unwholesome, or unfulfilling, claiming that they “could never be vegan.” This happens because the segregation elicits negative connotations of an otherized and stigmatized out-group.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Avoid segregating vegan choices
  • Integrate vegan choices with nonvegan choices if nonvegan choices are provided

References

Holzer, J. 2017. “Don’t Put Vegetables in the Corner.” World Resources Institute.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Reality Politics

What is Real?

In the 1970s, Pringles Newfangled Potato Chips was ordered by the US Food and Drug Administration to call itself by another name. Pringles are fried crisps comprised of compressed potato flakes rather than the typical thin slice of potato. Since their launch in 1967, have been a huge hit. Incumbent snack barons were threatened by this success and pressured the US government to order the name change. Pringles were still chips of deep-fried potato, of course, but Big Food hoped to convince the public that Pringles was something other. They weren’t real chips.

Real hellmans mayonnaise reality politics

Big Food, like other institutions with government backing and elite funding, has the power to manipulate reality. As vegan products and analogs become popular, they have faced the same resistance. For example, Hampton Creek, maker of the vegan Just Mayo product, found itself the target of government-funded attempts to undermine the company at the behest of the American Egg Board (a branch of the US Agricultural Department that is supported by taxpayer dollars). Major mayo companies based in animal bodies also began to label their products as “Real Mayo.”

Meanwhile, in France, the popularity of vegan products of all sort has prompted the government to ban all “meat” and “dairy” related words from plant-based products.

Language Politics

All of this political wrangling points to the sociological importance of language. For humans, language not only reflects their social reality but helps to shape it. In the realm of vegan activism, this language politicization is seen in the language change of the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorist Act. Politicians, pressured by animal industries, strategically inserted “terrorist” terminology into the act. In an instant, Americans practicing their fundamental right to protest as part of a long tradition of American resistance and critical discourse were reframed as anti-American and criminal.

Language is political given its sway over psychological processes; it can be leveraged to maintain the status quo or to disrupt it. It is generally those entities in power who retain the privilege of determining social meaning vis-a-vis language, but social movements are effective agents in disrupting social meaning. Movements can manipulate meaning, too.

Language cues individuals about how they should relate with a person, thing, or circumstance. Just Mayo, labeled and packaged as a fat-based sandwich spread, makes more sense to the uninitiated customer. Tofu, by contrast, makes many folks scratch their heads. Activists must find the right balance in working within the existent reality of non-vegans while pushing them to incorporate new attitudes and behaviors.

Pringles may not be an official “chip,” but they have consistently reigned as one of America’s (and Europe’s) best-selling potato products for over fifty years. Can vegan products expect similar success despite restrictions on their product labeling? While I hesitate to dismiss the potency of label language, I think there is reason to be hopeful.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Language matters
  • Present vegan products as similar to already popular foods

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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The Social Psychology of Veganism – Variety

Unfamiliarity with new foods can be a major barrier to successfully promoting veganism, but this is an easy enough fix. One study found that non-vegans who were repeatedly exposed to vegan alternatives to “meat” began to view them more favorably (Hoek et al. 2013). This is consistent with the mere exposure effect, a psychological response that surfaces when an audience is exposed to something many times over. Eventually, the audience will grow more comfortable with that something and form positive associations with it.

However, participants in this study also reported boredom with the three products repeatedly used by researchers, indicating the importance of variety. Indeed, the human brain is programmed to respond to novelty (Gallagher 2011). Activists could, therefore, increase persuasion by emphasizing the variety of vegan foods and recipes available. Stereotypes about tofu, twigs, and leaves will need to be challenged. Activists might also cue novelty by introducing provocative anti-speciesist theory, as this is not something many have had a chance to consider before.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Expose audiences to vegan foods to increase familiarity and liking
  • Try to include a variety of vegan foods to peak interest and avoid boredom

References

Gallagher, W. New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change. New York, NY: The Penguin Press.

Hoek, A. et al. 2013. “Are Meat Substitutes Liked Better Over Time? A Repeated In-home Use Test with Meat Substitutes or Meat in Meals.” Food Quality and Preference 28(1): 253-263.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

Part of this essay was originally published by VegFund on May 7, 2013.

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New Package, Same Old Problem: Animal Crackers and Veganism

In a 2016 blog post, I tackled the cheeky but oft-espressed question as to whether or not animal crackers are vegan.  Technically, the ingredients are vegan, but what do these cookies symbolically represent in a society that is deeply speciesist?

In 2018, Nabisco revamped their packaging design to remove the old circus car cages at the bequest of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Although this marketing tactic suggests a greater respect for Nonhuman Animal autonomy than the old packaging which had featured them as inmates, there are a number of fundamental issues that remain unaddressed.

Are Animal Crackers Vegan?

Animal crackers (comprised primarily of wheat flour, sugar, salt, and leavening agents) usually do not contain actual animal ingredients. They are designed for a long shelf-life, and, since animal corpses and fluids are quick to putrify, plant-based cookies preserve better.

Common cookie additives like milk derivatives and eggs add nothing to the flavor but are used instead for binding purposes. These additives are utilized instead of plant-based binders due to their availability; meat and dairy industries sustain themselves and remain profitable through the repurposing of waste products like whey and gelatin. Animal byproducts glut the market and are simply cheaper ingredients for cookie manufacturers.

Although Nabisco’s animal crackers are technically vegan, they certainly capitalize on this glut of cheap animal ingredients for a large variety of other products. Nabisco animal crackers may be vegan, but Nabisco itself is not.

What Do Animal Crackers Mean Symbolically?

Ingredients are only part of the story. When it comes to food, processes of intentional invisibility serve the cultural reproduction of speciesism. Vegan sociologists note that processing, packaging, and labeling are applied to effectively remove any reference to the nonhuman persons killed to provide animal products for human consumption. Furthermore, ag-gag laws in many states in tandem with the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorist Act now make it exceedingly difficult for the public to access information about the exploitation and killing of animals. This manufactured and institutionalized invisibility is unique to the animal sector of the food industry.

In the case of animal crackers, however, Nonhuman Animals are intentionally visible. Animal crackers are, as a result, functional in their ability to socialize children with ideologies of human dominance. The consumption of animal crackers reiterates to children their privileged access to the natural world and any subordinates who live within it. By being able to “collect” animals, pick them up, handle them, and eventually eat them, notions of human supremacy are underscored.

Wait, What about Gingerbread Men?

Of course, bakeries manufacture human-shaped cookies, too, but these products usually take on generic forms. If they were designed to specifically resemble persons of African descent and were marketed to white children, for instance, the symbolic inequality manifest in the product and its consumption would be evident. In a white supremacist society within which people of African descent are systematically underemployed, victimized, and incarcerated, it would be morally problematic to objectify and infantilize this marginalized group even further by turning them into cookies for white kids.

The cultural context of animal crackers must be considered. Animal crackers are marked to human children in an anthropocentric society that engages in widescale, systematic violence against animals. As such, animal crackers are symbolically potent.

Is Nabisco’s New Packaging Vegan?

In the new Nabisco packaging, the depicted Nonhuman Animals are no longer categorically separated, stacked, and placed on display for the human gaze. They are now grouped together in solidarity moving toward the viewer with a commanding presence.

Nabisco’s decision reflects a larger trend in American industry. Companies that rely on all sorts of horrible animal exploitations have taken a cue from the Nonhuman Animal rights movement and increasingly frame their exploitation as “happy.” So, while animal crackers still symbolically represent human control over other animals, human consumers can avoid any feelings of guilt and are less likely to question their entitlement since the animals appear to be consenting, happy, and free. This same framing is engaged by zoos, circuses, and meat, dairy, and egg enterprises that oppress actual Nonhuman Animals.

Dropping the imagery of the circus indicates cultural progress since Nabisco’s classic cookies have played a part in the romanticization of an inherently inhumane industry. Yet, Nabisco’s focus on freeliving species in the context of the circus imagery it employed for decades could actually aggravate symbolic inequality. There is an element of thrill associated with the control of persons who are culturally understood to be uncontrollable. It is entirely possible that children will experience even greater feelings of supremacy and entitlement through repeated consumption of Nabisco’s now wild but capturable animal crackers.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the sociology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Can Flexitarianism Facilitate a Vegan World? Research Suggests Another Agenda

Can flexitarianism build a vegan world? In a meta-analysis of dozens of articles on vegan motivation, flexitarian dietary patterns, and consumer psychology, I conclude that the ideology of semi-vegetarianism promoted by the vegan/Nonhuman Animal rights movement is not supported by evidence.

Research does not support that flexitarianism facilitates meaningful change, but it does support a conservative movement culture that is conducive to industry, state, and elite interests. Activists frequently default to “common sense” mantras of “pragmatism” promoted by movement elites when deliberating strategy, but movement success will ultimately rely on objective analysis of social change processes independent of bureaucratic, institutional, ideological, or celebrity hearsay.

Research supports that most people who go vegan and stay vegan do so out of concern for Nonhuman Animals. Nonprofits, however, often focus on the health benefits of veganism. This is not supported by the research as a major motivator for behavior change. Nonprofits focus on health because it is less political and threatening than the idea of animal liberation.

Nonprofits mask this rationale by claiming that folks operate on self-interest and are more likely to be swayed by appeals to their own health. Research does not support this. Humans are more likely to be motivated by compassion and altruism when it comes to relations with other animals. Therefore, by promoting veganism as a moral obligation, nonprofits would be far more likely to affect change.

The Free-Rider Problem

In my body of research, I have suggested that nonprofits intentionally engage strategic blunders because nonprofit goals are generally distinct from radical social change goals. Could the vegan/Nonhuman Animal rights movement also be intentionally alienating the public from veganism even though veganism is an unavoidable necessity to end speciesism? I think so.

Historically, social movements have had to grapple with the problem of motivating people to participate. This is a problem because, theoretically, a rationally acting individual is more likely to want to sit on the sidelines and let someone else do the risky and costly work of activism. Activism can entail social stigma, risk of arrest, and career damage. It could even simply turn off folks who do not want to be bothered with crowds, bad weather, walking, calling up politicians, etc. If someone else is willing to do that work, why not just leave it up to them?

As one means of overcoming free-riding, collectives have begun to professionalize to ensure a dedicated cadre of activists working full time on a given social problem. Since the late 20th century, movements have taken on a bureaucratic, corporate form which allows them more stability and state support at the cost of their radical politics. Industries working in tandem with the state now funnel money into nonprofits as a means of soft control. Radical politics, as a result, are simply starved while moderates are glutted. What I suspect is that social movements today are actually encouraging free-riding in order to maintain control over movement organizations and the social movement arena itself. In effect, they are helping industries and the state to neutralize and deradicalize politics.

If a movement can facilitate a public that supports its cause but is not encouraged to actually participate beyond donating intermittently, this manufactured free-riding strips the democratic essence of a movement and ultimately weakens it. Movement organizations that use this strategy can expect institutional longevity, but the ability to create meaningful social change with power centralized in this way is stifled.

Why Unstructured Incrementalism is Less Effective 

These structural influences shape a social movement’s claimsmaking. The Nonhuman Animal rights movement’s leading nonprofits mask their allegiance to conservative cash flow by making appeals to common sense notions of behavior change. Rather than asking someone to make the big leap to veganism, nonprofits insist, ask them instead to make a few changes and ease their way into it. However, social psychological research has demonstrated time and time again that “common sense” explanations are frequently misleading. Humans are far less rational than we think we are.

Although the United States is a country with major economic, political, and social ties to exploiting Nonhuman Animals, values of freedom, fairness, and compassion mean that few Americans want to see themselves as someone who is cruel to other animals. Flexitarianism, then, is a form of incrementalism that allows people to keep participating in exploitative behaviors as the system encourages them to do, while also enacting deeply held values about compassion. America is a country of animal lovers who want to keep eating animals—charities can appeal to this cognitive dissonance by promising folks that they can identify as an animal lover without having to make any real behavior changes. This is the very definition of a free-rider.

In “Free-Riders in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex: The Problem of Flexitarianism” published in Society & Animals, I have explored dozens of studies on vegan motivation and consumption change. In many cases, those eating flexitarian are not really eating any less animal products and they are less committed, more likely to exhibit characteristics of eating disorders, and sometimes actually eat more animals than people who did not identify as flexitarian.

Other research finds that participants asked to eat prescribed diets of omnivorism, flexitarianism, and veganism experienced similar levels of satisfaction and adherence to the diet—so why not go for the gold and ask folks to go vegan? After all, veganism has a bigger impact on the well-being of both Nonhuman Animals and humans.

The research, in short, does not support that asking folks to go vegan repels them, but the movement repeatedly assures activists that it will. Something else is fueling this rationalization since the evidence explored in my meta-analysis is not lining up.

Evidence to the Utility of Vegan Campaigning

Some research from tobacco cessation programs supports the importance of being straightforward and honest about the desired change. Participants in some studies, for instance, who were asked to quit immediately were more successful than those asked only to cut back. Furthermore, participants who were given a scheduled means of reducing toward cessation were successful, too, since behavior change can be cognitively straining. Vegan organizations, however, are more likely to promote vague ideas about cutting back and never mention the word veganism.

Tobacco cessation research supports that either asking folks to quit altogether or providing them a clear plan towards a clear goal is effective, but Nonhuman Animal charities do neither. The reason for this is that nonprofits—as businesses–are ultimately more interested in financial stability and institutional survival than they are interested in actual social change. This is a basic sociological observation found across many industry sectors.

So long as nonprofits are beholden to foundations and the state for support, it is unlikely that vegan programming will ever be designed according to evidence-based scientific research. This is because the nonprofit goal is to promote generic, promotable social services for the purpose of ensuring its survival, not to promote radical social change which would threaten the elite-run foundations, the state, and the nonprofits themselves. Promoting flexitarianism allows the charity to appear to be doing good works without really mobilizing any radical change.

The Imperative of Critical Thinking and Scientific Accountability

Nonprofits with a genuine interest in creating a vegan world will need to reconsider the role of the public in pushing for change. Relying on foundations and the state for financial support creates an inherent conflict of interest. These organizations will also need to engage with scientific evidence to support their proscription for social change.

This research must be objective. Increasingly, nonprofits produce their own in-house research to draw on the legitimacy of science to lend credibility to tactics and strategies that, when studied objectively by outside parties, would not demonstrate effectiveness. In other words, nonprofits recognize that science helps sell their strategy as effective, but, since science cannot support their ineffective tactics, they simply create their own science.

A new movement culture that genuinely wishes to address the crisis of speciesism should, therefore, nurture unbiased, replicable research that is designed to benefit effective Nonhuman Animal liberation. Research manufactured by nonprofit staff with little to no scientific training with aims of improving the institution’s appeal to elite-run foundations is not the sort of research that will achieve a vegan world.

Ultimately, nonprofits present a serious conundrum for effective activism. Nonprofits have essentially become an extension of the state, making their long-term utility to the movement questionable. Large sums of money are too frequently thought necessary to enact social change, but this economic logic of growth has protected the nonprofit industry from necessary scrutiny. Sociological theory has demonstrated that capitalist structures both create and aggravate inequality. Grassroots mobilization that challenges hierarchical movement structures, the hegemony of capitalist interests, and concentrated decision-making could allow for an openness to strategies supported by the science.

 

Readers can access the entire article here.
A condensed version of this research in the context of wider vegan movement studies was covered by The Atlantic.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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How Effective is the Vegan Lecture? Exam Scores Tell a Horrifying Story

How Many Animals Killed?

Can you estimate how many animals are killed for food in the United States each year?

In 2015, I added this innocuous extra credit question at the end of an exam in my Introduction to Sociology course. Since we had discussed violence against animals in class, students had been assigned readings on the topic, and it was explicitly listed in the study guide, I expected that most students would guess in the ballpark of several billion. Instead, many were reporting numbers in the several millions, or even several thousands. The lowest guess was just 2,000.

I was so utterly astonished by the exam results, I was compelled to repeat the question on future exams. I have shared my findings in an open-access article with the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food. Over the course of seven semesters, I eventually presented the question to nearly 200 students. All students (presuming they did not skip class) had been exposed to an 80 minute lecture on human/nonhuman relationships. This lecture clearly stated the FAO statistics on the numbers of animals killed in the United States (about 10 billion). I even made sure to linger on the sheer magnitude of individuals killed.

Results

Sixty-six percent of the class significantly underestimated the number of animals killed, and only 29% offered a reasonable estimate of between several billion and trillion (I clarified in lecture that FAO statistics do not include aquatic life). About 1 in 5 students were not even confident enough to hazard even a guess. Because 2% of students grossly overestimated the number of animals killed, the class average was skewed. However, the median response was in the millions. The bottom 10% of student responses averaged just 24,667. About that many chickens are killed every one and a half minutes in the United States (or 9 billion annually).

Predictably, students who scored A’s and B’s were more likely to guess an appropriate number. This suggests that students with good classroom behavior and study hygiene are more likely to retain information (at least up to the exam date). There was no significant correlation with gender.

Low Food Literacy

Low food literacy is well-documented across developing countries by food justice organizations, states, and industries which work to manipulate consumer decisions and public nutrition. Sociologically speaking, the systematic killing of other animals has been effectively removed from our social sensibility. Most consumers only relate to other animals as packaged products and menu items. Psychologically speaking, people employ a number of cognitive barriers to avoid uncomfortable knowledge.

The reasons for low food literacy are many, but the results presented here are especially sobering. Afterall, these are college-educated adults who have been trained to think critically and are exposed to current events, global trends, and multiculturalism. These are also college students who had been specifically exposed to information about nonhuman experiences in the food system. This suggests to me an inherent limitation to lecture as a means of lasting knowledge transmission.

Are Lectures Effective?

My suspicion is that, as Sociology 101 is a survey course, I am obligated to cover a large variety of sociological theories, concepts, and trends. I am not able to frequently return to each and every concept to aid with retention–that privilege is granted to key theories and paradigms. For vegan lecturers outside of academia, these results suggest that one-off lectures may not be sufficient to persuade. However, in research I conducted in 2017, I did find that a significant number of respondents became vegan after having watched a film or read a book on the topic.

There are a number of methodological shortcomings to this research. For one, my Introduction to Sociology course is aimed at first-year students, meaning that many respondents were still finding their academic footing. Second, I offered no control group. The estimates provided by my experimental group were so very low, however, I would find it hard to believe that a control group would have done much worse in having not been exposed to lecture.

I also did not conduct a post-test to measure if the knowledge was retained beyond the exam. After the exam, I went over the extra credit results with the class. When I explained how numbers so low could not possibly be accurate given that several thousand nonhumans are killed just to sustain the university cafeteria each semester, many students laughed and nodded. I would be curious to know if this debriefing had any effect on knowledge retention.

Readers can access the entire article here.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Why Food Justice is a Feminist Issue

In an interview with Alternet’sHere’s Why Our Food Systems are a Central Feminist Issue,” I was asked to elaborate on women’s contributions to critical food justice and how current sexual politics inhibit or even invisiblize women’s contributions today.

Both the Nonhuman Animal rights movement and the environmental movement, I note, were established by women who strategically employed stereotypes about women’s proper role in nurturing and caring. This strategy was necessary to gain access to the public sphere in an era in which women were expected to remain inside the home and well outside of politics.

Unfortunately, this feminization persists in modern food justice efforts. Sociological and psychological research supports that environmental and vegan campaigns and products are less likely to find male support simply due to this feminization. This gender divide translates into a serious barrier to success given that men’s recognition is necessary for a movement to gain legitimacy in a patriarchal society.

Rather than celebrate women’s contributions to anti-speciesist efforts, the vegan movement has opted to elevate men in campaigning and leadership. This, to me, is indicative of intersectional failure. Patriarchal bargains are unlikely to liberate Nonhuman Animals given the historical relationship between sexism and speciesism:

… the fact that men have to be involved to bring legitimacy to a cause demonstrates that we still haven’t come to terms with the underlying ideological roots to oppression.

Readers can access the entire interview here.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about feminism and veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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The Problem with Milk Not Jails

Food Justice and Prison Abolition

The American prison system threatens not only urban communities but extends into rural areas as well. The food justice movement has become increasingly aware of this association and has aligned with other collectives focused on prison abolition. Strategies often entail combatting incarceration by providing employment and economic growth. They hope to accomplish this by reconnecting the community with value-added food production and mindful consumption.

New York-based collective Milk Not Jails is one such initiative. Small farming in the United States has become less and less profitable, while, in contrast, the exploding private prison industry offers many tantalizing opportunities for profit. Milk Not Jails posits that the decline of animal agriculture has encouraged impoverished rural areas to switch from the mass incarceration of Nonhuman Animals to the mass incarceration of people of color. Subsequently, it advocates that communities switch out prisons with more dairies as a measure of resistance. It also engages in heavy community outreach to increase the demand for dairy and sustain the model.

Intersectional Failure

As with many anthropocentric food justice campaigns, Milk Not Jails exhibits a limited intersectional perspective. While Milk Not Jails hopes to alleviate the systematic exploitation of vulnerable lower class communities and communities of color, it does so by bolstering the systematic exploitation of vulnerable nonhumans.

Intersectional failure is a term that legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw applies to situations in which activists prioritize relatively privileged groups in social justice campaigns. Her work, for instance, has examined how the Black Lives Matter movement prioritizes men of color, giving scant attention or leadership opportunities to women of color.

Social movement theory supports Crenshaw’s concerns. Researchers have observed that a lack of intersectional awareness and poor coalition-building decrease a movement’s ability to resonate, gather resources, and reach goals.

Dairy and Environmental Inequality

Milk Not Jails exemplifies this intersectional failure in several ways. First, dairy production (and any Nonhuman Animal production for that matter) is not sustainable. Even localized farming practices create large amounts of waste and pollution. Nonhuman Animals made “livestock” consume massive amounts of water and grain, regardless if they lived on small farms or factory farms.

Climate change is the inevitable result of these farming practices. Indeed, the United Nations has identified animal agriculture as the leading contributor to greenhouse gas, surpassing even that created by transportation. Climate change is an injustice to all of Earth’s inhabitants, but it disproportionately harms vulnerables in the Third World.

Domestically, Nonhuman Animal agricultural operations are usually located in areas of poverty. They disproportionately impact poor whites and people of color who do not have the political power to resist stinky, polluting, dangerous agricultural facilities. Milk Not Jails may be only aggravating this environmental injustice.

Dairy and Colonial Conquest

Second, diets based in Nonhuman Animal products are rooted in a colonialist history. Sociologists have observed that colonial expansion was largely fueled by the desire to expand animal agriculture. This refers not only to the expansion of production but also the expansion of consumption. The traditional diets of many colonized people (such as those living in Asia, Africa, and Latin America) are plant-based. As colonized peoples were absorbed into settler cultures, their traditional diets were undermined and replaced by Western dietary expectations.

As a result, people of color living in the West today suffer the ill effects of animal products dumped on their communities at artificially low prices under the guise of healthfulness. Dairy is especially suspect, as most people of color are lactose intolerant. Biologically, people of European descent are more likely to exhibit the genetic glitch that allows them to consume the breastmilk of another species far past the age of weaning. Given its roots in white settler culture, dairy is promoted as “normal” and “natural” even though most humans cannot safely consume it.

Dairy and Class Oppression

Third, the consumption of dairy (and other Nonhuman Animal products) is directly linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, gout, obesity, and a litany of other serious, life-threatening illnesses. Diet related diseases already disproportionately impact poor persons and communities of color.

Dairy and Species Oppression

Fourth, dairies are themselves prisons. From a vegan perspective, Milk Not Jails truly advocates Nonhuman Jails Not Human Jails. Farmers forcibly impregnate young cows repeatedly in order to produce breastmilk for human consumption. These mothers, still babies themselves, must endure the intense grief and anxiety of separation from their children. Calves are most frequently removed within the first 24 hours and fed on formula so that all of mother’s milk can be redirected to humans.

Today’s cows, due to genetic manipulation, produce about ten times the amount of breastmilk they otherwise would. As a result, about 1 in 4 dairy cows suffers mastitis, a painful infection of the udder.

Although cows live about two decades without human intervention, their bodies become so worn out from dairy production that most are deemed “spent” and sent to slaughter before they reach the age of six. Many of them are too sick and disabled to walk to their death. These victims are termed “downers” and are often pushed to slaughter with forklifts.

Female calves are doomed to the same fate as their mothers. Male calves are jailed in veal crates. Veal facilities typically imprison babies in isolation and darkness. Their diet and movement are restricted to ensure that their muscles remain anemic, underdeveloped, and “tender” for the consumer. Consequently, many babies are too weak to walk to slaughter. Many go lose their sight, wits, and lives before their execution.

Milk Not Jails hopes to bring justice to vulnerable communities. By relying on nonhuman breastmilk to achieve that goal, it demonstrates a critical instersectional failure. By promoting dairy, activists are inadvertently promoting the continued oppression of people of color, peoples of the Third World, lower class persons, and nonhuman persons.

 

A version of this essay first appeared on the Academic Activist Vegan on September 23, 2013.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about intersections of gender, race, and class in vegan politics in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Solving Moral Conflicts in a Non-Vegan World

In “How to Help When It Hurts?” my friend and colleague Cheryl Abbate considers an ethical conundrum often facing vegan activists, advocates, and rescuers who feel responsible for the well-being of Nonhuman Animals in adverse conditions with conflicting needs. In cases of genuine moral conflict, she suggests an application of the guardianship principle to assist with decisionmaking.

By way of an example, obligate carnivores like lions who are rescued from circuses and zoos deserve a chance to thrive in sanctuaries, but their ability to thrive is predicated upon harm inflicted against other animals who must be killed for their food. Rather than support systematic violence against cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals whose bodies are purchased as food for sanctuary inmates, Abbate suggests that sanctuaries, as guardians, might take up “hunting” (a euphemism for the killing of free-living animals).

There are a number of key flaws with this application of the guardianship principle. First, although Abbate frames a sanctuary’s decision to “hunt” as a case-by-case decision, that free-living animals (specifically deers) are considered a tappable resource indicates that their status is not much higher than that of traditionally farmed animals. Abbate counters that deers, unlike rescued carnivores and farmed animals, have a higher quality of life having lived free from human oppression. Their being slated for death suggests otherwise. Worse, they are being made to pay the dearest price for humanity’s moral wrongs. If humans are responsible for the injustice suffered by carnivorous refugees, why would human flesh not be offered in retribution?

Deer communities, incidentally, are regularly harmed by humans, too. Humans “manage” their populations, constrict their movements and migrations with boundaries and barriers, and terrorize them with automobiles and pollution. Although this life is pitted as superior given the relative freedom that deers experience, Abbate contradictorily banks on the difficulties of life in the wild (poor weather, hunger, disease, and overpopulation) as justification for sacrificing deers. This justification, however, brings up some troubling assumptions about right-to-life for ill or disabled bodies. It also harkens on a colonialist politic in assuming that demographics coded as inferior must be “managed” by “guardians.”

Obviously, solving moral conflicts such as these is no easy task, but complicating the issue is the tendency for advocates, philosophers, and consumers to constrain themselves to individual-level thinking. Sociology recognizes that oppression stems from a society’s economic mode of production. In this case, it is capitalism’s reliance on animal bodies that has created the oppressive behaviors and attitudes facing circus refugees, farmed animals, and free-living species. The problem, in other words, is much bigger than unethical or irresponsible individual choices. Only through a vegan restructuring of society will painful moral conflicts be eliminated. Whether or not sanctuaries rely on farmed animals as foodstuffs is beside the point; as long as human society is built on speciesism, farmed animals will continue to be killed en masse.

The assumption that consumers control the path of production is a misleading, if predominant, belief that has its roots in the nonprofit logic of the animal rights movement. It is actually industry and the state which control production such that sanctuaries turning to hunting are not likely to reduce the number of animals killed in slaughterhouses. Great quantities of animal products are now produced, and these quantities only increase by the year as markets deepen and expand. Consumer boycott has not been shown to be an effective means of reducing animal fatalities given state and industry control. Veganism’s political power lies in its ability to shift public consciousness and challenge the legitimacy of industries and the state, not in actually reducing the number of individuals killed in production. There must be cultural support for veganism and a political reconfiguring before the numbers begin to drop.

Little Tyke

So how to manage the conflict in lieu of a vegan world? Given the limited capability of consumer boycott in a society in which consumers have very little control, using the bodies of farmed animals who are being killed at high volumes regardless of vegan protest may be an acceptable short-term solution. The vast quantity of edible animal products which go to waste might be repurposed for sanctuaries as well. Universities, for instance, often host food recovery programs to systematize the redistribution of leftover food to the needy. Sanctuaries might also develop such a program.

That said, efforts should be invested in obtaining (or even developing) healthful and tasty plant-based or at least partially-plant based menus for carnivorous refugees. Indeed, veterinary research supports that large cats (such as the hypothetical lion used in Abbate’s thought experiment) can survive healthfully on a vegan diet. There is also the famous case of Little Tyke, a lioness raised on a farm who refused to eat flesh. She lived the whole of her life on a plant-based diet by her own choosing.

Whatever the short-term solution, it is necessary that change-makers begin to conceptualize social problems as systemic. This will entail a move away from individualized solutions that wrongfully pit sanctuaries and consumers as responsible for violence against animals. Individualistic thinking renders invisible the state, industries, and the structures the two have created to normalize and reproduce speciesism.

My full response was published with the Animal Studies Journal and may be read here.

 


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about vegan economies and the politics of consumption in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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