“Probably the most vegan item you can buy in the supermarket is a pound of grass-fed beef.”
I was thinking that heretical thought as I drove through my neighboring countryside, scanning empty cornfields for signs of life, and wondering at the hubris of mankind. When did we decide that we can stake our claim to all of the lands on the Earth, and use every square inch of it for our own purposes and needs?
About 10,000 years ago, actually, when we invented the idea of agriculture.
Sadly, in the practice of agriculture as it exists now, it is impossible to refrain from causing endless suffering to many living creatures. One could argue that the most suffering of all is caused by the practice of annual agriculture, which is the cultivation of vegetables, including grains, beans, and rice, that only take one year to grow from seed to food. We displace countless wild animals from their homes and landscapes when we cultivate annual crops. Not only that, we also kill thousands of creatures when we till the soil and pull our harvests from its depths.
A perennial agriculture, on the other hand, based on trees, shrubs, grasses, and livestock, allows nature to thrive without annual destruction. If the craft of agriculture can embrace the long-term advantages of the perennial plant over the short term ones provided by the yearly abundance of grains and beans, than we may be able to invest the significant wealth of today, including our fossil fuel resources, onto the accumulative returns of tomorrow.
But the short-sightedness of man is limitless, and so those who understand what is truly at stake must stand up and speak clearly and proudly.
I meditated on the empty corn fields for hours on end. Ultimately, what it represents is a graveyard for all wildlife, from the invertebrate worm to the feathery bird. The entire wild ecosystem is completely interrupted by our incessant and constant tillage and badgering of all arable land.
About 392 million acres in the US alone is used to grow crops, which is about 17% of all US land. https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=84879
This use of arable land provides ample food for all humans, but it takes away the daily meals of billions of wild animals such as rabbits, bees, rodents, turkeys, earthworms, and endless insects, and it destroys their habitat, family structure, hunting grounds, and nectaries. Not to mention the terrible slave-like conditions that many farm workers in the field are subjected to. Humans are animals as well, you see.
See, I don’t believe in any way that a vegan diet actually causes less suffering in the long run than any other diet. All annual agriculture provides fertile ground for the casual extermination of hundreds of species of animals on a yearly basis. If I include in my analysis all of the animals harmed in the grand scale of agriculture, including the invertebrates and not just the large mammals, I have to conclude that cultivating the cornfield is the most murderous of all activities.
That is why, in truth, a pound of grass-fed beef accounts for less suffering per capita than a pound of corn.
We are all looking at the problem of food morality through the wrong lens.
We think “I need a moral framework on which to hang my hat and proudly proclaim myself this or that in order to feel like I am not a bad person.” Instead of clustering around a moral high ground, I would like to encourage us all to accept the fact that life feeds on life, and to examine the real and important differences between regenerative agriculture and the chemical and GMO-based agriculture that now dominates the landscape, with unclouded eyes. We need to begin the healing process on the land by adopting regenerative practices, cultivating the spirit of respect, by acknowledging the life energy that resides in everything that we eat.
We should respect the life energy (in breath, blood, sap, and cell) in everything that we consume, from the tree that we use for firewood to the petroleum that we use to fuel our car, both the accumulated energy of ancient sunlight captured by perennial plants.
We exploit life energy endlessly, day after day, in various and sundry ways, including driving our cars on tarred roads and turning on our plastic phones to surf the internet, all of which is powered by the dark black blood of dead trees, crushed under the weight of millennia only to power our new way of life.
Veganism is a laudable idea, but for some it provides a framework for moral superiority. Cultivating a savior complex is a natural result of following any ideological cause, and life is then seen through a frame that excludes anything that doesn’t fit into its limited ideology. And the reality is that we all consume life energy, endlessly, in order to live our daily lives.
The least harmful foods to eat come from perennial plants, and the animals that eat those perennial plants. The synergy of cows and grass can hardly be bested as an ideal system.
If the primary goal of veganism is to reduce suffering, then many of us are vegan, and a diet composed of primarily grass-fed beef and dairy, as well as free-range chicken eggs and perennial plant products, is the most vegan diet that I can think of. A diet based on grass that is never tilled, with no worm disturbed, no gopher sliced in half, allows nature to grow and flourish without our annual agricultural blades, machines, and chemicals.
We need to examine our relationship to land and the life energy it contains. In the early 1900s farmers knew that to keep the land in good tilth, which meant healthy and productive, they needed to let their fields go fallow. The idea that a piece of land is worthless if it is wild and free is prevalent in our society, and the idea that land should be allowed to go fallow is anathema.
In our modern society we feel that all things should at all times be as productive as possible. This exhausts us, the land, the wildlife, our seas, and our air.
But the funny part of the term fallow is that it doesn’t mean that land is actually resting, doing nothing. No, what it means is that the farmer is not coercing the land into productivity with a blade, engine, or chemical. When allowed to fall back into fallowness, the land itself bursts forth with wild life and energy beyond what is possible with an annual agriculture. The life stories of a million creatures play out and contribute to the regeneration of a piece of fallow land, a wild acre, a small part of planet Earth.
Much like that exhilaration that we feel when we quit that toxic job, so does the land, the wildlife, the sea, and our air feel when we stop exploiting the natural resources of the world for our endless hungers. In a fallow state we all begin to regenerate.
Our current framing of the food production problem is this: Farmers need to utilize annual agriculture as heavily as possible in order to feed the population. Most farmers mode is “boom or bust”. They don’t think they can spend 10 years to consciously design a perennial animal-based agriculture, because they need cash right now.
So what is really anti-vegan, what really harms animals, is this idea — that we need to produce annual crops on every square inch of land, creating a wildlife graveyard on 17% of America’s land in order to feed our endless hunger.
When we get right down to brass tacks, I don’t think that the majority of the people on the planet really understand what it takes to grow our own food. And this disconnection plays out across urban centers all around the globe, where people make a thousand choices trying to do the best they can with the panoply of annual agriculture products available, but think little of the variety of perennial based whole foods that pepper the outer shelves of the supermarket.
Cheap food is killing our connection to the landscape.
More people on the planet means more resources being extracted from the earth, regardless of whether or not we are vegan. Avocado producing countries are feeling the avocado squeeze because of American’s high demand for guacamole. Acres of rainforest are being bulldozed to plant more avocado trees. Demand is so high that Mexico, which produces about half of the world’s supply, is thinking about importing avocados,while an average Mexican can’t even afford to buy them to eat.
All this to say, having your vegan raw food avocado chocolate cake isn’t as harmless as you may think.
If we really do take a true audit of the death and destruction our lifestyles wreak upon the natural world, we would all be surprised. We all leave a trail of devastation as we go through each day, because all life consumes life in order to thrive- -this is the natural way of things, as far as I know. Is your plastic fleece hoodie so innocent, and is your root vegetable lunch so kind to the earth?
All root vegetables have to be planted in tilled land — how many deaths occurred when the land was tilled? Weeded? Cultivated? And finally, all root vegetables have to be dug up and the land prepared for next years crop.
When you wash your fleece in your washing machine, microbeads of plastic flow into your waste stream, and ultimately down into rivers and out into the sea, causing serious health problems for marine life.
What is important right now is to focus on gaining perspective on the larger, overarching issue that have as a society: We do not respect the life force.
Modern man just doesn’t respect the life that resides in all things, and is consciously and with much deliberation consuming all the useful energy until nature, the planet, is completely out of balance.
The planet will recover one way or another. But Earth’s healing process may not include us if we do not choose to live more consciously.
And I certainly don’t think that means going vegan.
What it means is cultivating a real relationship with your food, for one thing. Eating locally will always trump any dietary morality play. When we eat locally, we create a relationship with the food that we put in our mouths every day. This relationship is like any other relationship, it needs work and care.
As Michael Pollan advocates, skip all the bullshit foods in the middle of the supermarket, all the packaged nonsense that is 90% corn-based. Corn-based foods are the least vegan foods you can purchase. They contain the most externalized suffering of any food group that I can imagine other than sugar, the other main ingredient on most of that packaged-foods garbage.
Instead of any packaged garbage, stock up on meats, vegetables, dairy, eggs, and all other whole foods. Just start there. Then search out your local farmers and purchase whole foods directly. Cultivate real relationships, in one way or another.
That is the only way to begin the real healing process.
We can reduce suffering on the planet by consciously entering into a relationship with the land, the people that live on the land, and the plants and animals that we consume.