Animal rights and food justice

ALAN PECK ends his August 13 letter ("For an end to animal exploitation") with a series of demands that he thinks socialists should take up. I will attempt to summarize them:

1. End the most cruel and environmentally destructive farming practices.
2. Repeal the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.
3. End subsidies for animal agriculture.
4. All people should have access to an affordable, healthy plant-based diet.

He adds a statement which seems intended as something which would become part of a socialist program--that "[w]e should fight for a future free from exploitation and oppression, not only for humans, but all animals."

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I agree heartily with the first and second demands, but I believe the rest is problematic and will challenge it. I also want to advance a call for food justice, something that really ought to be part of a socialist program. The starting point is similar to Alan's fourth demand, but would include access to animal products like meats, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs.

I think it is important to make a distinction, which Alan does not, about the acquisition of animal foods. The dominant food model in the U.S. is a disaster for everyone involved--from the animals to workers to consumers. And I believe Alan when he says that capitalism has only accelerated the cruelty that has been going on for thousands of years since the beginning of agricultural society.

But clearly, there is another model, or a variety of other models. Many farmers reject cruel practices such as the use of hormones, feeding corn to cattle (which makes them sick, but big), packing animals so closely that they are susceptible to disease and then giving them big doses of antibiotics, etc. And just as certainly as the fact that through history there have been farmers and ranchers who were cruel to their animals, there have also been people for whom their livestock is their most valued possession and they care for them as such--even though they plan to eat them or sell them to slaughter.

All of this is to say that the production of meat doesn't have to be a horror show. In fact, it can be a fairly mutually beneficial deal between the people and the animals--although capitalism has largely abandoned these good practices in favor of big profits.

Alan's analysis also doesn't acknowledge that humans have been consuming animal foods since well before the rise of class society. For example, archeological records estimate hunting (not herding) practices to date back to the dawn of the human species. Evolutionary scientists directly link the capacity of the human gut to digest nutrient-dense animal foods with the ability to grow and maintain brains that are twice as large as they should be for an average primate of our size. Eating meat literally made us human and is deeply engrained in our nature as a species.

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WHAT ABOUT Alan's argument that capitalist agriculture has reached the point where it is no longer necessary to consume animal products? Here, nutritional arguments in favor of the judicious consumption of animal foods are far too abundant to be ignored, but nevertheless would require a whole other letter to elaborate.

According to, in 2008, 7.3 million U.S. adults (3.2 percent) were vegetarians. Of these, 1 million (0.5 percent) were vegans. Some 22.8 million (10 percent) said they "largely followed a vegetarian-inclined diet." Presumably, most of these people work very hard to consume plant foods (and probably supplements) that provide the nutrients that could otherwise be consumed in quality animal foods, and probably still don't get there.

By what means has capitalism created this abundance of plant foods? Here, I think that Alan's "plants = good; meat = bad" approach lets capitalist plant-agriculture off the hook; it is also disastrous for the ecosystem, the workers and for human health.

How many animals are chased off land and die when terrain is leveled or creeks diverted for soy production? How many fish die in rivers and deltas polluted by fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide run-off? A largely immigrant, oppressed workforce labors in the baking sun. And the end product is typically a nutrition-poor, processed "food" which fills the stomach and provides calories, but actually results in malnourishment and poisoning. Preserving or expanding this system cannot be the way that we feed everyone. I'm sure Alan agrees.

As a meat-eater, I don't want to scoff at Alan's soy burrito, as he half-humorously suggests. But since he is proposing that under socialism we should all have a diet more like his, I do want to be able to have a serious conversation with him about soy burritos.

I disagree that products like soy are any kind of improvement for a human diet or for the environment, nor are they any less implicated in large-scale capitalist "food" production. A serious, materialist look at that soy burrito would include, at the very least, (a) the almost total devastation of the American prairie to grain agriculture, (b) the decimation of South American rainforests by soy cultivation, and (c) the mass marketing of tofu as an eco-chic "health-food" following its failure to strike it big among lower-income consumers.

Animal food production is an essential and time-honored component of sustainable agriculture. Many domesticated animals can range on largely unaltered terrain; with skillful rotation their activity can transform and improve the soil and flora. Their waste, as well as compost, is what farmers used for plant-food fertilizer before factories started churning out ammonium nitrate. The current system, as previously stated, is disastrous, but animal-food production should not be singled out as especially or inherently unsustainable.

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I HAVE enjoyed other contributions to which have challenged the notions of animal exploitation and liberation. I think these ideas follow from a flawed and outmoded way of looking at the natural world.

The development of human society has resulted in relationships of exploitation and oppression, theories to explain it, class and group identities, and moralities to bind those identities. But a problem arises when we take these understandings and try to impose them on the natural world. The work of generations of naturalists was and continues to be stunted by assumptions of purposeful progression, because that is what the capitalist class thinks they are doing, and their ideology permeates everything. But the natural world is governed neither by capitalist ideology, nor the morality of oppressed people.

As others have pointed out, the inescapable reality is that very nearly every single species--whether plant, animal, or other--is reliant in some way on a host of other species. Biologists painstakingly document these relations in all their complexity, relations that run the gamut from mutual benefit to mutual destruction. It is essential that we take care not to consider all relations of mutual ecological dependence to amount to exploitation or an evil comparable to the class, gender or racist oppression socialists fight against in human society.

Humans evolved over millions of years to be dependent on a very large number of species, including some animals that we have domesticated into a condition of dependency on us. It would be to everyone's benefit if we were to give them a good life, even if we intend to kill and eat them, take their eggs, etc., in the end. We should be ashamed of the cruelty that exists in factory farms, but we should not be ashamed of carrying out our biological needs in a respectful, compassionate and minimally wasteful manner.

As opposed to veganism, the majority seems to agree. In 2008, 63 percent of California voters defied the millions spent by the animal-abuse industry to pass the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act (Proposition 2), which mandates that farm animals be confined in a way that at least allows them to move. Most people enjoy--and the half-starved billions of the world largely treasure--animal foods not out of backwardness or indifference to suffering and death, but because these foods nourish us and make us feel good in a fundamentally human way. (One reason why I think "bacon worship" is as or more reasonable than the worship of anything else.)

Alan insists that he is not calling for it to be mandatory to be a vegan in order to be a member of a socialist organization. But this is contradicted by the conclusion of his letter: that under socialism, we will ideally all be vegans, and that we ought to start now. He makes the reasonable request that socialists not harass vegans and vegetarians over their dietary preference. But by effectively calling for veganism to be part of the socialist program, he has opened the door for debate.

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AS REGARDS the environment, human health and morality, I have attempted to elaborate that, abuses aside, the consumption of animal products is not the central concern. Alan's argument only scratches the surface of the real issue--the destructive production techniques of both plant and animal "foods" under capitalism. His red-herring arguments about plant- versus animal-based diets cut short a very important and complex conversation about nutrition, sustainability, environmental justice and the relationship between human and animal rights.

The real issue for socialists should be food justice, and we should make it one of our major demands. Capitalism has robbed most people of access to quality foods and replaced them with highly processed, nutrient-poor garbage. Combined with the sedentary conditions that most of us are compelled to work under, the system is making us depressed, tired, and chronically sick (then blames us for it). It is destroying our soil, polluting our rivers, causing unprecedented mass extinction and, yes, horrendous and unnecessary animal suffering. It's not just the meat industry that is doing it--soy, corn and all kinds of agricultural mass-production are equally problematic.

Maybe no people have ever been so separated from the production of the food that they eat as Westerners are today. Only a tiny, single-digit percentage of the population is employed in agriculture, fishing or hunting. Our demand for food justice should include a revolutionary transformation in the way that we interact with our food: a breaking down in the division between city and countryside, between people who work in industry and those who work in agriculture; it should directly involve the majority of the population in food production--perhaps our most essential activity as humans. And it should be done on the basis of well-informed, sustainable and humane practices, even if it takes a greater portion of society's resources. It's worth it.

The stance socialists take on the consumption of animal foods matters. In San Diego, some activists recently achieved a "victory": they got the public schools here to have a vegetarian day in the cafeteria. Note that this does not mean that one day a week there is a vegetarian option (that should be every day), but that one day a week there is no meat. In this case, with such low quality meats being served in our children's schools, it may not be the worst thing, nutritionally. But whether we choose to fight these moves or not, we should see them as cuts that go in the wrong direction.

Instead of teaching our children the dogmatic myth that meat is bad, wrong and makes you unhealthy, we should feed them a nutrient-rich, natural, balanced diet with nourishing and sustainable animal foods for those who want it. We should also provide them opportunities to learn--really learn, in as much detail as possible--about where their food comes from, be it animal, plant or other.

We should be outraged by the treatment of whole ecosystems under modern capitalism; we should be outraged by the entire food system for robbing us of the nutrition we require to be healthy and happy. Our demand should be for high-quality plant and animal foods, both of which are essential to human health. Veganism is not the answer. Food justice is.
Chuck Stemke, San Diego