Animal Rights Philosophy in the Age of Social Media Clickbait (by Nathan & Jennifer Winograd)
Are avocados, apples, and almonds vegan? What about coconut-based, non-dairy cheeses or butters made with palm oil?
To some, these may seem like odd questions with a self-evident answer: Yes. After all, almonds, apples, avocados, palm fruit, and coconuts all come from plants. But for those who embrace veganism for ethical reasons, like we do, the answer has to be no. These foods may come from plants and are free of animal ingredients, but the methods by which they are grown or harvested involves deliberate and systematic cruelty to animals, the avoidance of which is why we adopted a vegan diet in the first place.
Almonds, apples, and avocados are pollinated by a harmful process known as migratory beekeeping. Rainforest (and therefore animal habitat) is being razed and animals such as tigers and orangutans are being shot, beaten, and burned alive by palm fruit farmers and displaced orangutans are even used for the sex trade. And most of the world’s coconut supply comes from Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand where pig-tailed macaques are enslaved by those who brutally force them to pick coconuts through fear and pain.
As vegans for almost 30 years who have continually adjusted our eating habits in light of new information to ensure that our diet does not deliberately inflict harm upon non-humans, witnessing many of the most outspoken voices in the vegan community either ignore or dissemble about such issues has been alarming. After all, if the goal of embracing ethical veganism is to ensure that our diets not only reflect our values but do not underwrite harm to animals, why are so many of the loudest voices in the vegan community insisting upon a dogmatic allegiance to the list of prohibited (and, by corollary, acceptable) foods that they inherited upon going vegan, rather than embracing an honest and open dialogue about these practices? The vegan community’s acceptance of palm oil and the palm oil industry’s sham “sustainable” certifications, the use of primate slave labor in the coconut industry—both of which we have written about elsewhere—and now, the use of migratory beekeeping to pollinate some of the most currently “vogue” foods like avocados and almonds, are all issues the vegan community should be wrestling with. But with rare exception, that is not what is occurring.
As to the latter, when this inconsistency was recently highlighted in stories that appeared in the Washington Post, BBC, and elsewhere, the pushback within the vegan community was enormous. Much of this pushback united around the common theme that even questioning the veganocity of almonds and avocados was simply preposterous, even though many of those who dismissed such concerns were groups or individuals who also champion the traditional vegan boycott of honey. This makes no sense in light of the fact that the harms associated with migratory beekeeping are not only the same harms as those inflicted on bees by the honey industry, but they are in reality one and the same industry. Migratory beekeepers make their profits in two ways: by stealing and selling the honey made by bees and then “renting” the bees to farmers as pollinators, a process that involves locking bees in boxes and transporting them great distances, including across the nation. Scientific American is instructive:
Between October and February they come to California from all over the country, riding inside more than one million boxes loaded onto thousands of tractor–trailers. Workers maneuvering forklifts stack the boxes on the trucks in the dead of night, when the containers’ residents are all home. They drape nets over the boxes to catch any curious scouts and begin the journey. Sometimes the trucks crash, spilling boxes onto the highway and unleashing living swarms that writhe with anger and confusion, but most of the travelers complete the journey safely. Once the trucks reach their destination, workers unload the cargo and open the boxes for the first time in months. If everything has gone well, a typical box might contain 19,200 adult European honeybees (Apis mellifera). If the majority of bees in a colony were not strong enough to make it through the winter—when they hunker down and live off their stores of honey—the number could be much smaller.
Some researchers, beekeepers and journalists have argued that migratory beekeeping is one of the primary reasons that so many bees die each winter as well as an explanation for colony collapse disorder (CCD)—the sudden and mysterious disappearance of an entire hive’s residents, save for the queen and a few stragglers. Bringing so many bees together all at once in Central Valley and other flowering sites guarantees that they will spread viruses, mites and fungi to one another as they collide midair and crawl over each other in the hives. Forcing bees to gather pollen and nectar from vast swaths of a single crop deprives them of the far more diverse and nourishing diet provided by wild habitats. The migration also continually boomerangs honeybees between times of plenty and borderline starvation. Once a particular bloom is over, the bees have nothing to eat, because there is only that one pollen-depleted crop as far as the eye can see. When on the road, bees cannot forage or defecate. And the sugar syrup and pollen patties beekeepers offer as compensation are not nearly as nutritious as pollen and nectar from wild plants. Scientists have a good understanding of the macronutrients in pollen such as protein, fat and carbohydrate, but know very little about its many micronutrients such as vitamins, metals and minerals—so replicating pollen is difficult.
If migratory beekeeping contributes to CCD and honeybee deaths in general, it is likely one of many different causes: Pesticides that linger in plant tissues and weaken the bees’ immune systems, tenacious varroa mites that suck out the bees’ vital fluids, drought and reduced genetic diversity are also partially responsible…
The only difference between the treatment of bees who are abused for their honey and those abused to pollinate avocados is that the latter suffer a host of additional harms to which those exploited for their honey do not. Otherwise, they are the same bees who are suffering in the same way, and at the hands of the very same people. Yet vegans avoid one product that results from this exploitation, but not the other. Why?
Vegans will argue that honey is an animal product and an avocado is a plant, but we believe that is a difference without an ethical distinction. Embracing a vegan diet for ethical reasons is not about the food per se. It is instead about the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to which all sentient beings are entitled. Whether the form of the food which leads to a violation of those rights is an avocado or honey doesn’t really matter. From the standpoint of the harm, an avocado is honey.
Foods and cosmetics tested on animals may also be free of animal by-products. They may be entirely made from plants. But if they intentionally and directly cause harm to animals in their testing, then ethical vegans rightly avoid them. Ethical vegans also avoided Guinness beer for years because it was filtered with isinglass (fish bladder), even though the final product itself was made from plants (thankfully, Guinness eliminated the isinglass to create a truly vegan product. Cheers!). They continue to avoid wines filtered with isinglass. And they avoid refined sugar if it is filtered with bone char, as some refined sugars are, even though the bone char—a slaughterhouse by-product—doesn’t make it into the final product. So why the double standard for foods pollinated by migratory bees?
Of course, eating avocados but avoiding honey and products made from animals is still more animal-friendly than eating animal products. Thus, following a plant-based diet, even one that includes avocados, apples, and almonds but avoids honey reduces the number of animals harmed. But when a product always hurts animals in its production, is predicated on hurting animals, and the means exist to do better (like not eating avocados or almonds) then it becomes an ethical imperative not to. No one has to eat avocados or almonds anymore than they have to eat meat or cheese. And if enough of us didn’t, we’d spare a lot of bees a lot of suffering.
Unfortunately for bees, having a genuine, well-meaning conversation about this issue is not how the vegan community responded to the recent news. Instead, it dismissed the concerns out of hand. Vegan.com’s Facebook page shut the door on any discussion before real reflection began. It offered its half million followers only two sentences in response to practices that lead to the deaths of tens of millions of sentient individuals annually, dismissing what are weighty ethical issues by flatly insisting that we don’t need people “redefining veganism in a stupid arbitrary way.” Such a response not only seems to show a raw nerve has been hit, it’s hypocritical.
This is not a situation where Vegan.com doesn’t think bees, as insects, feel pain or warrant a call to conscience. Elsewhere, it has told its followers to avoid honey because of the harm to bees, the injuries to bees in its cultivation, the use of pesticides that harm bees, and the stress which subjects bees to disease, while admitting (or opining) that “bees are animals.” It is not, therefore, “stupid” to question such treatment of the same animals simply because it is being done for a different reason. Claiming that one food should be avoided (honey) due to the harm it is reliant upon but not another that harms the same animals in the same way by the same people (avocados) is the very definition of “arbitrary,” not the other way around.
Likewise, PETA, unparalleled in the animal movement in terms of rank hypocrisy, is unsurprisingly hypocritical here, too. On the one hand, it says that the exploitation of bees is tantamount to factory farming: “These tiny animals are factory-farmed, much like chickens, pigs, and cows are.” As such, it admonishes people to, “Avoid honey, beeswax, propolis, royal jelly, and other products that come from bees.” It nonetheless told the Washington Post that people can ignore that suffering and feel okay about buying almonds, apples, and avocados.
Not surprisingly, VegNews did what VegNews seems to do when it doesn’t want to take a principled stand to protect animals (such as the enslavement of macaques for the coconut products they regularly promote): it ignored the migratory bee abuse altogether and offered no commentary, no insight, no roadmap for vegans and aspiring vegans to navigate the ethical issues.
But the worst response, the one that takes the prize for lack of integrity, honesty, and intellectual heft; the one that requires a staggering level of mental gymnastics to accept comes from Live Kindly. It offers several reasons why vegans should keep eating avocados and almonds. In fact, Live Kindly goes so far as to claim that the reasons it offers prove avocados and almonds are “definitely vegan,” even though each and every one of those reasons requires redefining veganism to the point that it no longer has any meaning.
Live Kindly Claim No. 1
Live Kindly claims that avocados and almonds are “definitely vegan” because they provide jobs and corporate profits:
A report by the New York Times says the avocado has created nearly 20,000 new jobs and added more than $2 billion to the U.S. economy in recent years. Almonds too have become a cash crop for California, the world’s largest producer. Some growers are even finding profitable industries for almond hulls…
Veganism—which is about avoiding products that come from the exploitation of animals—has nothing to do with jobs or corporate profits. Does this really need to be said? Slaughterhouses provide jobs. So does the egg industry which pays people day in and day out to sort through newly hatched chicks looking for males in order to throw them into macerators to be ground up alive. Moreover, both slaughterhouses and hatcheries are profitable or they wouldn’t exist. Does any of this make their products vegan? If that’s the standard, there is no such thing as veganism.
Live Kindly Claim No. 2
Live Kindly says avocados and almonds are “definitely vegan” because “Millennials love them” and they are “good for you”:
It’s not a secret that people, particularly Millennials, are in love with avocados… there’s no doubt that the avocado love is real. Avocado toast, guac, sliced on top of Buddha bowls, etc.” And what’s not to love it argues, “the avocado is loaded with healthy plant-based fatty acids and lots of heart-healthy fiber…. Almonds, too, are a perfect protein-rich snack by the handful, a creamy heart-healthy fat spread…
This claim, too, undermines the very foundation of ethical veganism. Judging animals in relation to their use or benefit to humans is what the animal rights movement was founded to overcome. And people who go vegan for ethical reasons do so on the belief that whether or not we enjoy eating animals or whether or not foods produced through their exploitation might contain nutrients doesn’t make it moral to consume them. In fact, this is not an argument for veganism, but its antithesis. It is the exact same argument often used to justify meat eating. Animals are taken out of the equation altogether—their needs, their right to bodily integrity and life—made irrelevant by the claim that we have the right to eat whatever we want so long as eating that “food” is enjoyable or nutritious. Again, does this really need to be said?
Live Kindly Claim No. 3
Live Kindly says avocados and almonds are “definitely vegan” because avoiding them would limit choices since other crops, like lettuce, some melons, and blueberries also harm bees:
hundreds of other fruits, vegetables, and grains are also pollinated by bees bred for commercial purposes… it would drastically limit choices.
This argument, just like the other two, turns veganism on its head. It suggests that we should continue to consume products we know are made by the exploitation of animals because choosing otherwise would make it too hard to be vegan, even if it means that in doing so, we no longer are.
Once again, Live Kindly elevates human interests—in this case, convenience and choice—above the rights of animals by suggesting that those who knowingly eat products produced by harming non-humans be allowed the self-satisfaction that comes with thinking of themselves as having a cruelty-free diet even when the foods they eat are produced in ways that knowingly harm animals. It also undermines the political power of the movement.
When a person becomes vegan, they not only divest support for the harm and killing of animals being done in their name, their commitment compels others to confront the disconnect between their own values and the choices they make every day. That is how the ranks of vegans grow, and with that growth, a corresponding increase in our ability to influence change through our consumer choices. More vegans means not only less demand for animal-based foods, but more demand for vegan foods, more innovation, and hence, less animal suffering and killing.
So while it may sound paradoxical, when it comes to veganism, limiting one’s choice is actually a tool to increase choice in the long term by creating demand for alternatives or more humane production practices.* The proliferation of such alternatives makes it increasingly easier for more people to go vegan or at least to choose vegan more often. As the size of the non-dairy milk aisle grows, the dairy case gets smaller. But how can we ever hope to create and then leverage this sort of pressure for innovation or change relating to problems we refuse to admit exist? What incentive is there for companies which make products such as coconut-based cheeses or almond-based milks to evolve their own production practices to be more humane if the people at Live Kindly and others like them simply grandfather in newfound harms because they were not on the list of prohibited foods when they went vegan?
We do not foster a vegan society by defining away its meaning so we can keep on eating what we want to eat or so that we can keep on promoting the latest “superfood” in pursuit of social media validation and stardom. Ethical veganism should not be treated as a fad or an identity. When it is reduced to such insipidness, its effectiveness as a tool for change is corroded by competing interests such as ego and fame.
For while there is no doubt tremendous pressure upon the online darlings of the plant-based movement such as Live Kindly to compete with others of their kind for Facebook likes, retweets, and Instagram views, for the animals on whose behalf they claim to speak, we must strive to become a movement in which traffic is driven to those sites with the most thought-provoking and courageous analysis of relevant issues, rather than the most perfectly staged photo of avocado toast sprinkled with coconut-based parmesan.
Live Kindly Claim No. 4
Finally, Live Kindly says avocados and almonds are “definitely vegan” because vegan only means doing one’s best:
it is not possible for any individual to completely avoid all forms of exploitation—rather, it’s about doing one’s very best to not harm animals.
Because no one can truly avoid all forms of animal exploitation, argues Live Kindly, one can only be expected to try one’s hardest not to, a point with which we agree. Where we part ways is in defining what it means to actually do so.
Admittedly, the use of animal-derived ingredients in our culture is so commonplace, it is difficult to divest oneself from them entirely. Consider that the fertilizer used to grow vegan food might be animal-derived, animals such as field mice can be harmed during seed sowing and harvesting, and even the inks and glues used for food packaging may contain non-vegan ingredients. But do these seemingly unavoidable harms and these seemingly unknowable outcomes grant us a pass not to act on those things we know for sure (or at least to a great degree of certainty)? Do they grant us a pass on direct harm which we can influence through our consumer dollars were we to collectively discourage them?
If we know, for instance, that virtually all commercial almonds are pollinated by migratory bees, are we not therefore obligated to act on that information by not buying almonds or sourcing them from local farmers markets who do not use such a method? If we know that most coconuts in the world are grown in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand where over 90% are harvested by brutalized macaques, are we not obligated to use only those coconuts we know come from parts of the world where there are no macaques, such as the Americas? Had these things been widely known and part of the definition of veganism inherited by the young vegans at Live Kindly, what are the odds they would be passionately declaring them irrelevant today? In fact, what are the odds they wouldn’t be faithfully towing the party line relating to the necessity of their boycott just as they do now for honey?
For most people, embracing a vegan diet means four simple rules: no meat, no eggs, no dairy, no honey. Embracing a diet based on these maxims spares billions of animals immense suffering and brutal deaths. That is worth doing and encouraging. And in an age of vegan convenience foods and an increasing abundance of plant-based meat analogues, it has never been easier to do. Even those who have never considered fully embracing veganism are incorporating more vegan meals into their diets, reducing their reliance on animal-based foods. While we do not condone the killing that they still subsidize, eating fewer animals is, of course, preferable to eating more. Therefore we recognize that great progress is already being made to start weaning Americans off animal-based foods, even in spite of the movement’s embrace of foods that enslave primates and kill bees.
As a result, we do not want to discourage people from giving up animal products by setting the bar at what most meat eaters would consider an impossibly high standard. Telling an aspiring vegan that they must avoid not only meat, eggs, dairy, and honey, but also avocados, almonds, coconuts, all foods made with palm oils, as well as onions, broccoli, lettuces, and the other plants often pollinated with migratory bees would seem to risk alienating them, rather than encouraging them to embrace a more humane diet. As more people are moving in that direction because of the relative ease of doing so nowadays, we don’t want to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. But here’s the rub: how do we know for sure that that is what would occur were we to acknowledge all harms in earnest?
In fact, there is evidence to the contrary. Vegans advocate for a diet free of animal byproducts and yet the ranks of vegetarians is growing. Vegetarians advocate for a diet free of “meat” and yet the ranks of flexitarians is growing. Indeed, it is the latter group that is driving the explosion of plant-based foods in restaurants and stores because of their greater numbers, driving not just more flexitarians, but ultimately more vegetarians and vegans. A vegan standard has not limited growth of diets that reduce intake of animals and there is no reason to believe that setting the ethical bar as high as ethics demand would also limit the number of people who join the ranks of flexitarians, vegetarians, “vegans” of the Live Kindly school, and ultimately, ethical vegans who boycott not just animal-based foods, but even plant-based foods produced in ways that we know deliberately harm animals.
Moreover, given that we have already collectively acknowledged that harm to bees is problematic, our failure to formulate a cogent response to the inconsistency noted by the journalists who called out our seeming hypocrisy over migratory beekeeping (no doubt for self-serving interests rather than the actual bees**), we make it easier for non-vegans observing this debate to write off their own moral culpability in supporting harm to animals when we refuse to acknowledge, or grapple, with our own. Worse, we sacrifice tens of billions of sentient creatures when it is not for us to do so. Once we learn of enslavement, abuse, and killing, we are ethically obligated not to participate. Fīat jūstitia ruat cælum. Let justice be done though the heavens fall.
Finally, as the most resourceful species this planet has ever known—one that is in the process of growing meat, eggs, and milk from stem cells in petri dishes and bioreactors—we can do better. None of the harms associated with the production of plant-based foods that now seem so widespread as to encourage vegans to turn a blind eye are problems without solutions. Imagine almond growers who were certified as bee-friendly because they either pollinated their crops without the use of bees (e.g., self-pollinating almond trees) or kept bees on their farm but didn’t harm them: did not manipulate hives, did not imprison queens by cutting off their wings, and did not steal the bees’ honey. Instead they merely replicated the conditions under which the plants we eat have always been pollinated until fairly recently: by bees doing what bees naturally do under humane, rather than exploitative and cruel, circumstances.
Why would any almond farmers adopt such an approach? Because demand for truly humane almonds meant that there was a profit to be made by not doing horrible things to bees. If ethical vegans stopped buying products that intentionally harmed bees, almond and avocado growers would have to change their practices for the same reason Guinness changed theirs. If vegans started demanding cheeses or shampoos made only from coconuts grown in the Americas where there are no pig-tailed macaques to exploit, plant-based cheese producers and the manufacturers of plant-based body care products would be forced by their first competitor who bore a “primate friendly” label on their product to do the same. As more and more companies did so, Southeast Asian coconut producers would be forced to adopt humane harvesting practices that replace primates. But none of these changes can be fostered by consumers who refuse to act upon such knowledge.
It is, in fact, increasing awareness of the existing moral quandaries associated with food production and the principled stand of ethical vegans that is already fostering changes to how the most conscientious of farmers ply their trade, with an exciting “veganic farming” movement taking root: “Veganic crops are planted by farmers with principles, grown without exposure to chemicals or animal manure, or the hormones and chemicals animal by-products often contain.” Veganic is a step beyond organic, foregoing not just herbicides and pesticides, but slaughterhouse by-products and animal manure from fish or farms that harm animals.
Such innovation will ensure that food is grown in a manner which does not harm or kill any animals—inadvertently or otherwise—such as growing plants through indoor vertical farming. Along with veganic farming and cellular agriculture, vertical farming holds tremendous promise for ushering in a cruelty-free transformation of all food production, including avocados, almonds, and other products currently responsible for stress, injury, and cruelty to animals.
That day can come if the incentive to make it a reality existed and if the veganic farming movement was encouraged and cultivated, rather than undermined by whitewashing problems associated with plant-based food production by those who should be the animals’ fiercest and most uncompromising defenders: the vegan community.***
Ethical veganism is not about humans. It’s not about social media superstardom. It’s not even about the food. It’s about animals. It’s about taking action (or refusing to take certain actions) to encourage a kinder, gentler world for them to live in. To achieve that end, it must be a movement that can accommodate change rather than blindly clinging to antiquated choices made by prior generations who didn’t know better. To remain true to its values and goals, it must be a movement that can evolve, and to do that, it must be willing to absorb new and even threatening information with courage, honesty, integrity, and good faith.
* We’ve both been vegan for going on 30 years now, and while that’s one small step for us, in that time, we’ve witnessed one giant leap for mankind. The vegan options available today and the innovations that are underway are truly astounding. They wouldn’t have happened, however, without demand. It was a demand for vegan food innovation—for vegan cheese that actually melted, for vegan meats that didn’t taste like rubber, for non-dairy milks that didn’t taste like dirt, and a million other vegan products younger vegans now take for granted—by vegan old timers like us who have been limiting our choices for over 25 years so future generations could benefit. For the benefit of animals, vegans today should likewise pay it forward.
** Reading the cheap shots that invariably made their way into the reporting about the avocado-bee controversy by the Washington Post and others was disappointing. It is as if the reporters were actually glad bees were harmed in growing avocados given that they have become the “it” vegan food. Instead of writing with circumspection and keeping the focus on the bees and what we should do about their plight, many of them took the opportunity to wield a club to knock vegans off their perch of moral superiority by pointing out hypocrisy. It’s easy to get defensive and respond in kind by pointing out that it was driven by meat-eating, guilt-driven reporters if you make this story about yourself. But that’s not what it should be about. It should be about the bees, what they deserve, and what we owe them.
*** Thankfully, there’s some evidence that smaller farms, especially those who sell farm to table at local farmers markets, may not engage in commercial bee exploitation. In such circumstances, they may provide vegans today an ethical alternative for apples, blueberries, and other fruits, seeds, and vegetables that usually come from large-scale commercial farms that exploit and kill bees.
Postscript: Veganism in a Post-Truth Era
We no longer live in an age of persuasion. We no longer live in an age where people are compelled to opinions by objective facts. We no longer seek out divergent ideas in order to compare and contrast the evidence, or summon the patience and intellectual energy for detailed philosophical or policy discussions. Instead, we are told that objective facts do not exist, that we all have our own “truths,” that complex issues can be reduced to mere soundbites, and that the only thing that matters is doing our best with “our best” left for all of us to define as we desire, irrespective of the real world consequences (to animals) of the choices we make.
As such, our article will surely find no audience. It will not resonate. It will hardly find any readers, let alone inspire earnest and needed discussion. At least not right now. For while our hearts and minds might be stuck in another era—an era in which we and other vegans of our generation often adopted veganism after absorbing compelling books on animal rights philosophy and not because of perfectly staged photos of quinoa bowls, acai smoothies, or cynically-induced envy of beautiful and impossibly happy young vegans doing yoga at the beach—we, too, live in 2018, in the Age of Trumpism, Postmodernism, and social media clickbait, and therefore harbor no illusions regarding the diminishing appeal, and therefore, power, of the written word.
But on behalf of the bees, the primates, and the other animals being deliberately harmed by production practices relating to “vegan” food, we are planting a seed—a seed we hope will someday bloom and bear fruit when the desire for intellectual rigor and debate returns once more, as history teaches us it inevitably will.
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