Chances are – especially if you are a vegan, or interested in becoming one – you’ve heard veganism dismissed as a lifestyle choice of the privileged. But why? Vegans work wonders with simple ingredients. In towns and cities worldwide, no-frill Mediterranean diners offer spinach and onion pies, and smoked baba ghanouj or smooth hummus with salad in a fresh, warm wrap. For about the same amount as one would pay at a burger joint, we come out with simple, real food from a local business, and more nutrients for the money. Creative vegans find a use for most everything. A cashew roast saves bread by employing breadcrumbs, and any remaining roast can fill large vegetables the next day. There you have your Baked Stuffed Aubergine (Eggplant) or Chiles Rellenos – hearty, aromatic and intensely nutritious dishes, no strangers to the frugal cook.
Once we learn to make Vietnamese spring rolls (“Red Rose” wrappers, sold cheaply at many corner shops, work like a charm), we’ve got a simple way to share attractive, zesty and healthful plates of food. A pitcher of gazpacho (great with croutons made from any extra bread and a little olive oil) pleases for days; such is the magic of its blend of ingredients that cost little and require no cooking energy. Pasta e fagioli (pasta and beans) is inexpensive, for it is a tradition of everyday people. It’s a dish best made with beans from the bulk bins, soaked in one’s kitchen. Bruschetta (the correct pronunciation – broo-SKET-ah – isn’t elitist; it’s Italian) is the original garlic bread. Delicious with olive oil, basil and oregano, it becomes “the protein” when served with beans; this is fett’unta con fagioli, or “oiled slice with beans.”
“We are indoctrinated into thinking we need to recycle our nutrition by way of dead animals, or animals living miserably,” says vegan advocate Kate Sharadin. “It’s nothing but a common myth perpetuated by those who benefit from this `prevailing wisdom.`”
The Real Elitism
Those who benefit, speaking of elites, from selling animal products and animal feed include seven billionaire family members connected with the multinational Cargill, Inc. – the largest private U.S.-based company (Koch is the second). All eggs used in U.S. branches of McDonald’s come through Cargill. No other company exports more flesh from Argentina. And its rival, Archer Daniels Midland, is also a major trader of commodities grown in former rainforests.
Businesspeople worldwide aspire to such wealth, and China, alas, is now a major dairy producer. Before the 1980s, Chinese people ate only small rations of animal flesh. Most had never eaten cheese at all. According to Xinran, a journalist and the author of What the Chinese Don’t Eat, the current demand in China for dairy products involves a social psychology that says eating animals has made Westerners strong and influential. How well it has been marketed, this myth! A study conducted by Michael Allen at the University of Sydney and published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people who prize traits such as authority and wealth rate “beef” rolls tastier than “vegetarian” rolls – even if the so-called beef roll is really the vegetarian item.
The time is ripe for shifting perspectives. Now, we see British hospitals removing animal flesh from their menus in order to address environmental damage – a recognition that agriculture should involve far less resources and energy use than the omnivore’s diet demands. In Philadelphia, New York and many other cities, community gardens are showing politicians how the people can take the lead in social policy. What the world needs now (in addition to love, sweet love) is local gardening and vegan cookbooks. We need a garden in every school; we need a farmers’ market at every train station.
Another Culture Is Possible
For those of us accustomed to subsidized dairy conglomerates and burger chains, producing and trading food with care will sometimes seem expensive. True, we’re sometimes hard-pressed to find good, healthful food at the urban (or rural) corner store, but we must fix that. The nourishment of humanity shouldn’t be assigned to multinationals and their biotechnologists. Local growers (of crops – not of beings who must be beaten into submission to produce for us) empower local communities. They enable our whole culture to address and reverse the damage we’ve inflicted on a fed-up planet. If veganism is elitist, denial is a river in Egypt. (Speaking of which, didn’t Egypt have to shift to imports to feed its people after taking the advice of the U.S. Agency for International Development and investing heavily in animal agribusiness?)
Vegan-organic growers feed communities without animal agribusiness – even its by-products. They respect the roles of the small animals on cultivated lands, and use plant-based manures. Some people might raise practical objections: What about slanted and rocky terrain? A farmer can’t grow crops there, but could have hardy grazing animals such as goats, right? Vegan-organic growers show us how such land can support fruit trees. And as land is converted to fruits and vegetables, the pressure to use marginal plots eases; less land is needed overall. And that land, critically, is home to free-living animals.
The shift to genuinely planet-friendly growing methods will be a big change for affluent people – and struggling people too. But it’s worth the effort. The exploitation of otherness is intertwined: Asian and South American regions lose vast, rich forestlands and farmers are harmed by pesticides as they grow grains and soybeans for feed, or graze cattle whose bodies will be eaten by people who can pay for the imports. We can stop this harmful chain, but not by waiting for governments and corporate scientists to present technological fixes. We the people must find our way to secure healthful and abundant food.
Preparing for a Better Future
Within the coming few decades, extreme weather is expected to put a strain on our water, shelter, emergency transport, and other lifesaving provisions. Environmental degradation and greenhouse gases are strongly related to meat and dairy enterprises. When disaster strikes, the financially poor will bear the brunt. And animals will be killed, consumed, and abandoned in droves in the desperate struggles for survival.
The vegan movement offers us a genuine hope of freedom from this cycle. This is not only about reacting to an environmental crisis, although it is that. If we could respond to the crises before us with a commitment to end our dominance-driven relationships with all of the planet’s residents, we could learn a way to stop placing ourselves in crises, and to instead live creatively, seeking a fairer world for all. And that’s no baloney.
Lee Hall: Lee is the co-author of Dining with Friends: The Art of North American Vegan Cuisine as well as various articles, books, and encyclopedia entries on food security, climate and migration, environmental law, the feminist movement and animal rights. Lee’s most recent book is On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth. Lee has taught immigration law and animal law, and now works full-time as the legal affairs VP for the international advocacy non-profit Friends of Animals.