vegan mythbusting: ethics

Welcome to a new, soon-to-be-regular blog feature: vegan mythbusting!

People ask me all kinds of stuff about vegan life. People probably also assume all kinds of things about it (like that I went vegan because my reaction to seeing a piglet was similar to the drawing below. I probably would fawn over a cute piglet – who wouldn’t?! – but this goes deeper than a squee!) Sometimes those things are evident, and probably a lot of them aren’t. Why not talk about it?

People find out I’m vegan and probably think it’s because I once saw a piglet and did this

Before we go on, let’s be clear: the point of vegan mythbusting isn’t to get all the backup I have and tell the world that what they think is wrong. That doesn’t help anyone. The goal here is to create a clearer understanding of what really lies behind our plates of veggie bacon. I can only speak for myself, so start a conversation if you know someone else who’s veg and are interested in what their motivations are.

Today’s Vegan Myth: Your ethics concern animals alone and/or prioritize non-humans over humans. You must be ignorant and/or insensitive.

This is a common one. It often gets presented to me in the form of “there are so many other problems in the world, why aren’t you trying to help people instead?”

(What a cop-out question. Who says you can’t do both? And who says that being vegan only helps animals? If I started eating animals again, would it help any marginalized group in their struggle? I’ll elaborate on this in a bit.)

When it comes to the question of what motivates vegans, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

I believe it’s important to take a holistic approach to injustice. In order to be understood, the context of injustice must be acknowledged. This intersectional approach to examining oppression was created by black feminists like Patricia Hill Collins. This is not everyone’s approach to veganism or social justice, but it is vital if we really want to have a thorough understanding of what’s going on (and it’s pretty astonishing to make these connections and realize just how many there are). As background, I’ve worked in spaces that promote justice for queer and trans* people, spaces which work for gender equity, have experienced some of those related injustices myself, and have studied how capitalism exploits the bodies of animals and conditions people to become numb to the suffering and injustices within that system. Examining the intersections of these issues (and others) is the position from which I come at vegan-ness. It’s also something I continue to learn about, and I don’t have all the answers, but do recognize that refusing to take part in these systems is a way of challenging injustice.

An incomplete diagram, but these are connected

That said, this post uses ethical considerations related to fish as an example of the many points included in my own motivations to be vegan. All are interrelated. They cover:

  • Class/Income and Food Access
  • Use and Diversion of Resources
  • Environmental & Ecological Effects
  • Animal Suffering
  • Human Health Effects
  • Parallels to Other Injustices/Intersection of Oppressions

You might be making this face right now, but trust me, they are all related.

This is a pretty text-heavy post, so if you don’t want to read a lot, this video (below) covers much of the same info. You might want to come back to this post afterward and look at each part bit by bit.

pattrice jones, ecofeminist writer, scholar, and activist for various worthy causes, gave a great thought-provoking presentation on the many intersections of oppressions at a conference I attended last fall. Hitting close to home, she states “vegans are seen as pleasure-hating prudes”. This similar presentation covers how “speciesism is in fact foundational to social & environmental injustice”, and she does an excellent job at tying together things like poverty, environmental destruction, racism, ableism, sexism, and more. Having doubts about how eating a burger contributes to things like that? Take a look at the video, it’s pretty interesting. And leave me a comment about any of this if it strikes you, or if you have a myth that needs busting!

1. Class/Income and Food Access

Some of you might remember this post from last year, when I spoke with a salmon farm worker about his job.

I asked him if he enjoyed the work he did. He was very insightful and offered me a more nuanced look at fish farming than I’d expected. The company that employs him is one that farms fishes more “naturally”, in ocean cages. He felt that the fishes had better lives than most of the typical salmon farms, but was conflicted about the “product” itself: Salmon is already an expensive purchase to make, and his employer charges even more for their “naturally raised product”. He was concerned that this was unjust to people who could not afford to pay more for fishes raised in less crowded environments. I did some research on organic salmon prices and found that on average, organic salmon flesh in Canada is priced 30% higher than conventional salmon, meaning you’d pay about $8.85/kg (conventional salmon on average this year has cost $6.80/kg in Canada). Essentially, the company produces a luxury product for people who have money to burn and who fall into the “naturally raised” marketing ploy. The use of resources to “grow” the salmon also comes into play when discussing food access, which brings us to point #2 below.

Only some people have access to this “product” based on their income

Sidenote: Of course, there are populations of people in the world who rely on eating fishes and other animals for their survival. I feel that people in such places can hardly be blamed for their consumption of fishes – what I’m trying to address in this post is the menu of the average consumer in north america.

Some of you are probably reading this going wait, isn’t she an organic farmer herself? Not everyone can afford organic food… And you’d be correct in thinking that this in itself is something that needs to be examined. It’s something I think about a lot. For the sake of keeping this at a readable length, I will save that conversation for another post, but will say that it’s definitely present in my mind.

so, Ethical Dilemma #1 is Classism and Food Access issues

2. Inefficient Use of Resources

The salmon farm worker also told me that as part of the “natural” methods used by the company, the salmon who live in the farm cages are fed herring. I didn’t realize at the time that salmon are carnivorous. After some research I discovered that in general, salmon are given a feed made of corn, soybeans, fish meal (generally herring, mackerel and sardines), and feather meal. Feather meal is a by-product of factory farming, and the world’s corn and soybeans, as we already know, are being grown mainly to feed “livestock” so that people can eat animal flesh. As a result, land is being clear cut (including parts of the Amazon rainforest) not to directly feed people, but to feed animals (and also to make biofuels, but that’s another story). This pushes other wildlife out of their homes – if you’re into conservation, take a look at how your food comes into play.

A section of the Amazon which was clear cut and now hosts a monocrop soybean plantation.

Another point on this subject is money. Huge amounts of government subsidies are granted to agriculture operations in North America in order for the corn and soybeans grown for animals to be more cheaply supplied to animal farms. In 2011, farm subsidies totalled about $2.5 billion in Canada. That’s not to say that farmers don’t struggle to make ends meet  – it’s a huge problem – but the issue with subsidies is that the main industries they support are the feed industries, which supply corn and soybeans to animal feed companies. Those feed ingredients, by the way, are generally genetically modified and grown using chemicals that are damaging to soil, water, animals and humans. Without subsidies, this kind of supply chain would not be sustainable economically, and currently is not sustainable environmentally.

These (above chart) are US statistics.

We already know that feeding animals is costly with respect to resources like water and land, and also costly to the environment. It’s worth asking what else could these billions of subsidy dollars be used for? Affordable housing? Raising minimum wage? Improving health care or public transit? Maybe diverting it toward growing the foods that are healthier for people to eat, but currently more expensive to buy? Anyone blaming those living in poverty for their own health issues should take a closer look at this, as well as forms of environmental racism and classism. It should be noted that communities of colour are widely lactose intolerant, yet dairy products are allotted a large portion of subsidies as shown above, and things like milk and yogurt are pushed heavily in schools as healthy snacks for kids who don’t have enough. But if children of colour are more likely to be poor, they are more likely to use school programs that provide extra snacks and lunches. What happens to these kids who are told milk is good for them, but frequently become sick at school when they consume it?

Back to the fishes. Feeding herring to salmon raises another issue that ties into our first point, as herring itself is a type of fish that is eaten by humans. It is generally caught from the wild where it feeds on plankton. This puts the company in question’s “product” at an even more resource-intensive location on the food chain: the herring must be caught, shipped, “processed”, fed to the salmon, and then the salmon grow, are killed, are butchered and shipped, and finally eaten by humans. This puts salmon at 4 trophic levels of resource use by the time it reaches human kitchens, instead of the 1 that would be required if we directly ate the plant foods instead of feeding them to fishes and birds to make feed for other fishes. Resource use intensifies if we also include the feed and water fed to the farmed birds and used in the “processing” of their bodies, whose feathers were made into meal and put into the fish feed.

Another question that needs to be posed is whether this is justified considering how many people go without food the world over, including in our own backyards, while water and plant foods are being diverted from hungry human mouths to create expensive foods that many of us don’t need in order to be healthy and happy, and land is being cleared to build land-based fish farms and/or for monocrop animal feed.

To add to this, it takes 1-2 years for a salmon to reach “market” size – that’s 1-2 years’ worth of 4 trophic levels of resources being used. According to this website, it takes about 5-10lbs of feed to produce 2lbs of salmon flesh.Mortality rates of farmed salmon in BC in 2004 were as high as 9.22%, meaning that if you had 500,000 fish on a farm (an average size for a salmon farm according to that same website), up to 46,100 of those fish would die before growing large enough to be “harvested”, resulting in many wasted resources and undoubtedly, suffering. “Death losses” – animals who die before reaching “market” size – happen in all animal industries. This of course brings up an ethical question regarding how the fishes are cared for and why so many are dying at young ages.

Related recent article: Meat Makes the Planet Thirsty (New York Times)

so, Ethical Dilemma #2:  Inefficient use of Resources

3. Environmental Destruction

That last point brings us to the third dilemma, that of environmental destruction. As was mentioned, acres and acres of forest are cleared to make room for growing more animal feed. Corn and soy beans grown for feed are generally grown using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and are commonly genetically modified (GMOs). Depending on where they are grown, they also need irrigation. The runoff from these chemicals depletes soil nutrients, contaminates water tables, can be harmful to amphibians and fish, and has also created ocean “dead zones” where this pollution is concentrated to the point where no life is able to survive. It should be noted that the corn and soybean varieties grown for animal feed are not the same as those that humans eat; however, much less land and water is needed to feed plants to humans than to the billions of “food” animals killed annually. Stats here.

As well, fish in ocean pens can expose wild populations to parasites, concentrated waste, antibiotic/other drug runoff, and disease. The worker I spoke to also voiced concerns about escapees – farmed salmon on the west coast are almost all Atlantic salmon, and thus are not native to the coastal waters of BC. If a wild population were established (this is currently being called into question) there could be a huge impact on the existing ecosystems and likely competition with native species for food and territory.

It has also been exposed that animal farming is one of the top causes of global warming and a huge culprit of greenhouse gas emissions. When you consider all that goes into it, including resource use and transporting animals and goods, this makes sense. A typical cycle would be:

Clear land for crops –> Plant, fertilize, spray, irrigate and process harvested crops –> Package and ship crops for feed around the globe –> Clear land and construct animal farms –> Breed and feed animals, manage animal waste –> Discard the bodies of animals who have perished before reaching market weight –>Ship animals to auction and slaughter –> Kill, butcher, “process” and package animals’ bodies –> Ship packaged flesh to various locations for sale

If we were talking about wild salmon who were caught for human consumption, a different kind of environmental issue is raised. Fishes are generally caught using nets which are spread over a large area, then reeled in to capture the fish. In the process, nets often damage reefs and undersea landscapes. Nets are also not able to discern the difference between the target species and others such as turtles, seals, dolphins and other species of fish. These animals also get caught in fishing nets and may be mortally wounded or suffocate when they can’t escape entanglement. These “waste” species are referred to as “bycatch”. This is also a concern when wild herring is caught and made into fish meal to feed farmed salmon.

Related note: wild fish populations are also on the decline, another thing the fish farm worker mentioned to me. I did not prompt him on that point, and it wasn’t the first time I heard BC folks talk about how wild fishes in the pacific ocean are disappearing. Overfishing can cause competition with other species, which then become “pests” in the eyes of humans (ie. the seal hunt), but that’s a whole other story.

Ethical Dilemma #3: Environmental Destruction

4. Suffering of Non-human Animals

The last 2 paragraphs above bring us to the next topic. Of course, any time animals are being used by humans to gain profit, their well-being is at risk. If it’s too expensive or inconvenient to provide medical care or a suitable environment in which to live, their needs are not being met. Problems that exist on fish farms include overcrowding resulting in aggression, poor water quality due to concentrated fish waste, and parasites like sea lice. Diseases common in farmed salmon include anemia, kidney infection and pancreatic necrosis.

Added dimensions of concern for farmed aquatic animals include appropriate water pressure, dissolved ions, oxygen content of water, the presence of magnetic fields and vibrations, water current, environmental enrichment, proper social grouping, and handling methods that don’t cause harm. Salmon naturally spawn in fresh water and later move to salt water, and this raises other questions about farm-bred fish. Fish have senses that no land animal does, such as the ability to detect minute changes in water mineral content and electrical currents via sensors in their skin. This means that fish may suffer in an environment where such conditions are not monitored or provided, and it also means that we may still have much to learn about fishes’ abilities and senses, and therefore about proper fish care.

The handling and slaughtering of fishes (as for any other creature) is of course an issue as well. Currently, methods of stunning fishes before bleeding them to death are questionable. In some cases, fish are caught and directly put on ice or into icy water, resulting in a terribly painful and drawn-out death via asphyxiation and/or hypothermia. According to this website, it is rare that wild fish are rendered unconscious before being gutted, and most are left to suffocate or freeze to death.

Wild fishes who are caught can experience evisceration due to the rapid pressure change experienced when they’re hauled from the ocean onto a fishing vessel when captured; they are also at risk of suffocation and being crushed to death by their shoalmates inside the net.

We know little about fishes’ social attachments and emotional needs compared to other species, but this also affects well-being and is of concern, as with any other animal. Salmon are social animals and as such, we should consider their social bonds when discussing ethical issues (for instance, are family members killed in front of one another?) If you’re sitting there scoffing at the idea of fish or other animals having emotions or consciousness, it’s time to catch up on the current science of animal sentience. Fish have long been considered in a “gray area” due to their differences from humans, however, it should be noted that human physiology is unique to humans, and is not an accurate global standard for measuring consciousness in other animals. It would be sensible to remain open to the possibility that animals like fish can have experiences of pleasure or pain similar to those of humans, or even experience events and stimuli in ways we cannot, given their senses. In any case, it’s much more responsible to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re conscious and capable of suffering before we decide if and how to use them. I am recalling the fact that throughout much of the 1900s, it was thought that animals reacted to painful experiences simply because they were automatons and didn’t actually experience suffering; even human babies were assumed to be similar, rather than actually being able to experience pain and suffering. We now know these assumptions are false, and as a result, extreme suffering on a huge scale has been caused. It would be prudent for us to at least try not to rewrite that awful history.


Let’s not forget the suffering experienced by the herring in the salmon feed, and the birds (likely chickens) whose feathers were used to make feather meal for the salmon feed. The birds are especially vulnerable, as it is often impractical to treat illness and injury in farmed animals due to the cost, and as such many birds die before their “growth cycle” finishes. Slaughter methods of both herring and birds also needs to be considered.

The environmental impacts of growing feed and farming fishes also extends to wildlife – deforestation for feed crops causes loss of habitat, use of chemicals harms amphibians and other animals, wild fishes are exposed to ailments via farmed fishes, etc.

Hence our 4th Ethical Dilemma: Animal Suffering

5. Effects on Human Health

Most people know about the risks of mercury intake from directly eating fishes and the like. Consumption of carcinogenic PCBs and dioxins from farmed fish are also of concern. The higher up on the food chain (or the higher number of trophic levels) we eat, the more toxins we are exposed to. There are a few hidden issues that come into play here as well.

Meat packing plants are still among the most dangerous places to work today. Fish “processing” plants don’t have quite as tarnished a reputation, though there are still concerns mainly related to repetitive motions and the use of equipment that can cause injury to workers, who often get paid minimum wage, many of whom are migrant workers, which raises its own ethical questions. There are also concerns about exposure to infections, diseases and bacteria.

The mental and emotional toll of working in a slaughterhouse or “processing” plant also needs to be acknowledged, as doing repetitive tasks for minimal pay hours each day doesn’t wear on physical bodies alone. There is documentation of slaughterhouse workers’ emotional conflict and though it doesn’t get talked about very much, is definitely an important point. Here is a study about the emotional toll of killing and “processing” animals, in which slaughterhouse workers are interviewed.

6. Parallels and Connections to Other Struggles

A less tangible, but certainly relevant, issue here is the similarities between using animals and other injustices that exist in the world. The root of this mindset is that some individuals have less value than others, and that this gives whoever is in power permission to use those individuals as they see fit. While there are obviously human populations who rely on the use of other animals for survival, the reality for many people is that we simply enjoy how somebody else’s flesh, milk or eggs taste and as such, we continue to exploit animals. This mindset generally dismisses any ideas about certain animals’ abilities to perceive pain, pleasure, emotional attachment to one another, and to value their lives, though we have plenty of proof to the contrary. By focusing on the differences between us, we are able to distance ourselves from other animals and thus feel justified in our use of them.

By focusing on qualities we deem unique to humans, we’ve created an uneven playing field when it comes to measuring the emotions and intelligence of other animals

Unfortunately, the same mindset and methods have been employed – whether consciously or not – where human populations have been and continue to be oppressed. Any group considered by the dominant group (ie. the most powerful) to be “abnormal”, “weak”, or too different from the mainstream ideal is marginalized. Some examples are:

  • Women being considered more emotional, and therefore less rational, than men (a dominant group which values rationality). We as humans arbitrarily uphold our idea that rationality makes us superior to other animals, pushing both “more emotional/less rational” women, non-human animals, people with varying disabilities and/or mental illness, etc etc etc to a lower rung on the ladder
  • Gender-variant and queer folks being left out entirely of conversations about health, work, and relationships by heterosexual and/or cisgender people (dominant culture valuing specific gender norms and presentation, thus pushing “deviants” to the position of less-human based on the assumption that their “unnatural” desires or identities mean they are out of control, as they assume animals also are)
  • Disabled people facing many daily barriers to do simple things like go to the grocery store, the doctor, or to school, based on society’s favouring of people who do not have disabilities and thus structuring public and private spaces in inaccessible ways. “Naive/innocent” disabled people, often seen as childlike, thus less rational, and therefore closer to animals, are forced to depend on non-disabled people to an extent, instead of having the ability to live independently and make their own choices about things like work, housing, and having families
  • People of colour having more difficulty finding employment based on their perceived abilities as racialized individuals (whites being a dominant group which excessively criminalizes people of colour, whose cultures have historically been seen as “less civilized”). For example, people of colour comprise a disproportionately large percentage of slaughterhouse and “meat” packing plant workers, doing some of the most dangerous work around. If you happen to have a stereotypically black name, you might want to consider changing it on your resume if you need a job, especially one that isn’t entry-level. The example of lactose intolerance given in the section above about classism and access to food is another embodiment of racism
  • Migrant workers being sent home when injured instead of being treated and able to return to work. Ironically, workers (migrant or not) are in some cases simply considered replaceable when they’re not “productive”, and their medical treatment or recovery not worth paying for. Sound familiar? It’s the same in animal ag industries if you happen to be an egg-laying hen, “dairy” cow, or an individual used for breeding

When no longer profitable, animals go to the slaughterhouse

Ironically, marginalized groups are frequently compared to animals as a way to either insult or further marginalize and objectify them. This means that certain people are not valued as true persons, but rather as primitive, biased, not smart enough, not strong enough, or not attractive or compliant enough in the eyes of the mainstream to be considered valuable members of society – essentially, not “human enough”. Examples of this include referring to aggressive behaviour as “acting like an animal” or the stereotype that some cultures are “less civilized” than others. Humans and non-humans are also blamed for their own suffering or perceived shortcomings by this ideology, which ignores the interaction of many different structures and circumstances that influence their lives (ie. “if poor people just worked harder, they’d have better lives”, or “if animals care about their lives, why don’t they just escape from farms?”, “if women don’t want to be harassed, they should dress modestly or not go out alone”). Ignoring such things allows those in power to create distance and excuse discriminatory laws and behaviours, while at the same time washing their hands of any responsibility for contributing to, or even creating, the problem.

Image above is from a York University student project addressing sexual assault.

But viewing those who are different from us in such a way as to objectify them and exploit them does all of us a disservice. Focusing on differences puts more distance between us instead of creating unity, respect and cooperation. While differences certainly shouldn’t be ignored (see the failures of “colourblindness” in addressing racism), the human track record needs to be vastly improved in the area of using differences as an excuse to treat others without respect or as a way of silencing them. Refusing to contribute to a system that exploits other animals is at the same time a rejection of the notion that some individuals matter less than others, as well as a step to reduce the footprints we leave on the planet. Of course, it doesn’t suddenly provide a rigorous understanding of issues like racism, sexism, imperialism and other “isms” – you have to do that learning yourself. This has been, and continues to be, an ongoing process for me.

quote from Dr Paul Farmer


About tino

I'm an aspiring organic farmer living in canada. I talk about farm life, things I'm learning, other relevant topics like feminism, social & environmental justice, nature, animals, vegan food, and fun.

Posted on March 9, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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