Why Vegan Values are Humanist Values

A couple weeks ago, I gave a presentation to the Humanist Community of Central Ohio about “Why Vegan Values are Humanist Values.” It was a pretty laid back presentation that I had a lot of fun giving. Video is below the jump. :)

If you’re video averse, don’t worry, I plan to write out everything I covered in my presentation. If you’d like to view the Prezi I used on your own browser, you can see it here.

Special thanks to my friends Simon, John, Justine, Katey, Ryan, and my partner Sean, who came to help answer questions!

If you have any questions about veganism that you’d like me to address in future posts, please leave a comment below!


Sarah is a feminist, atheist vegan with Crohn’s Disease, and she won’t shut up about any of those things. You really need to follow her on Twitter (and probably Google+, just to be safe).

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  1. That was a very nice presentation.

    I know you can’t control what your audience says but wow, that did turn into “OMG Monsanto is teh Ebil!!!” at the end. I appreciate that you tried to shoot some of that down, Monsanto isn’t evil but it is a huge company with many shady practices.

    Oh, and the only place I can find information on Monsanto grains causing holes in your intestine is, just to let you know where that particular person may be getting her information.

    I have been eating a lot less meat and trying to be more conscious of where all of my food comes from. I suspect that I may eventually become a vegetarian (vegan may be a bit of a stretch for me) and I’m working towards it and trying my best to drag my wife and daughter along with me.

    1. Normally we edit out all of the QA from our videos (I was the person behind the camera – you can blame me if the video is crap), because sometimes the audience can be unpredictable and sometimes go way off course from the subject of the presentation (and privacy concerns). But, since that was handled well and because some of Sarah’s friends were also involved in the discussion, it seemed appropriate to keep it all.

  2. As a farmer one of my issues with Monsanto is the desire to make seeds an exclusive commodity. Viable seeds contaminate and Monsanto wishes to control what I grow regardless. I certainly can’t use seeds from plants I grow–I must buy new seed. I used their seed once and never again. 20 pages of paperwork and tracking. Instead I am returning to more native corn that I can harvest and use for seed. It used to be seed companies made enough money in developing a seed that controlling seed harvesting wasn’t necessary. Now, they want to lock you into their seed forever, legally. Hybridizing had a capitalistic collateral success in that their sterility required buying seed every year. Blah. I’ll trade yields for freedom. Sadly this is not an option for most farmers where 1-2% differences in productivity–profit make the difference between survival or not. Farm culture has been hijacked to conservative values as much by industrial agribusiness monopolization as religion–we usually blame religion. When a job field shrinks as much as farming has the remaining farmers will do and say anything to keep farming.

    Without a doubt veganism is a humanistic value. With store meat so pathetic and still expensive when at its cheapest I have sworn to eat only meat I raise or harvest, a privileged position. Yet, grains are the bain of organic markets deluding folks into thinking they are sustainable. A tremendous amount of farm land can’t grow grains or other produce but do grow grass which can be eaten by animals. Oddly, I would rather eat the meat I have raised and had a relation with, though that’s getting damned had too. Perhaps the Hindu method of allowing animals more freedom and then eating at natural death. The issue here is the USDA doesn’t allow an animal to be butchered unless it can walk in. In any case humans require very little meat.

    I certainly follow the Native American practice of thanking my animals for their gift but that’s kind of two-faced for modern folk. At some point I will go fully vegetarian or better resolve this. It’s hard to be sympathetic with chickens and ducks who are bullies and rapists. Shrimp are tough too as they don’t smile. CultureD yogurt is still full of living things as is fermented soy. I am not sure where to draw the line but at least meiosis though my buddhist Phd psychologist friend says whether they can smile or not. And for politeness sake he does what’s custom as a guest if it doesn’t affect their purchasing decisions.

    At the same time I raise draft horse and have tremendous difficulty using them for farming as it still seems like animal slavery. Yet, draft horses love to work and hate to be idle so I’m in a hard spot. For 40 years now I have said pets are happy slaves in gilded cages too. It’s just hard. Sometimes being aware and empathetic is just plainass difficult.

    1. I struggle with the gilded cage issues too. When we first brought our cats home we wanted to let them roam outside, but then discovered that outdoor cats live something like 1/5 as long(mostly due to cars) – and then there are the bird deaths… Anyway, when we brought them in I felt so conflicted because they obviously wanted out. Let them out and let them get run over or keep them as permanent slaves? I’m not sure I know the right answer – and I’m also not sure I like the right answer. Thanks for the video Sarah.

  3. I’m working my way through this, and I have a few comments. Note that none of these are intended as “gotchas”, merely comments.

    Comment 1: Did anyone else notice how US-centric this was? Many of the arguments in this talk don’t apply to some other countries. (Other arguments might, but these ones do not.)

    Consider, for example, Margaret Ensminger’s quote near the start, about the amount of grain that it takes to produce meat. Many countries (I’m thinking Australia and New Zealand, but there are others) manage to produce the vast majority of its beef and lamb (not chicken, of course) and dairy without feeding them any grains whatsoever; they eat the grass that’s on the ground under them. Humans can’t eat grass, so just shipping the cattle food to humans wouldn’t work. It’s difficult to argue that converting that land to grow crops would have a positive nett impact on the environment; not only may the land may be unsuitable for crops, but pasture grass typically doesn’t require fertiliser, pesticides or irrigation.

    The fact that producing meat in some places is far less efficient than in other places should not be underestimated. There was a study a couple of years ago which found that someone in the UK eating locally-produced lamb could reduce their carbon footprint by importing lamb from New Zealand. This is more evidence, in case you needed it, that local is not necessarily better.

    (I have no association with the New Zealand meat industry, in case anyone is curious.)

    Comment 2: A “properly planned” vegan diet is indeed adequate for all stages of life. The key phrase here is “properly planned”. Vegans need supplementation (like the yeast product mentioned), and if everyone in the world moved over to that, those supplements would themselves start to become a bottleneck in the world food supply. It is far, far easier to maintain a balanced vegetarian diet than a vegan diet.

    Comment 3: Something that often doesn’t come up in these discussions is the matter of important animal products other than food for which there are no viable substitutes. Leather, for example, is part of the ISO safety footwear standard. At the moment, we don’t have a viable material with the same interpenetration properties which can substitute for this.

    While I’m on the topic, byproduct materials are very important to take into account when you’re examining the environmental footprint of the meat industry is meat, because under PAS2050, the meat industry gets credited with the impact of non-meat products.

    Consider low-grade wool, for example. Meat sheep do not produce wool of an appropriate grade for making suits or sweaters, but the wool is still used in flame-retardant insulation material (including safety wear), and the environmental cost of preparing it is credited to the meat industry under PAS2050. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that wool is a superior material to pretty much anything else for many applications, since it is naturally resistant to fungal growths and pests.

    Comment 4: Insects take less land to farm than crops, have a smaller environmental footprint than crops, and have none of the known health risks associated with eating larger animals. Discuss.

    1. 1. Well, yes, it was US-centric, because my audience (at the presentation) were all Americans, I was limited on time, and I don’t know what it’s like to be a vegan in other countries. I’d rather focus on things I know and understand than try to talk about veganism in other countries.

      2. Uh, yeah, properly planned ANY diet is the key. Non-vegans can eat nothing but potato chips (so could vegans), and that wouldn’t be healthy. Many Americans (I’m talking about non-vegans here) don’t have properly planned diets and are deficient in some nutrients. And if they aren’t, it’s probably because almost all breads & cereals are fortified with vitamins. Also, nutritional yeast isn’t hard to make (, so I’m doubting the bottleneck claim you’re making.

      3. Sure, and I don’t expect everyone in the US to go vegan overnight, so I don’t think that’s an issue right now. The 1% of the population that’s vegan isn’t really affecting that. I think with more research, we’d be able to come up with a replacement for those items.

      4. This isn’t a high school writing prompt.

      1. Like I said, these aren’t “gotchas”, merely comments. I do think that the ethics of food is a very important issue, and that people in the developed world do eat too much meat.

        Something that I thought about mentioning under point 2 (but couldn’t think of a way to put it without sounding rude) is that veganism is much easier in the developed world than elsewhere, and as such, it can be thought of as a product of western privilege, much like the way that womanists point out (with some justification) that the history of feminism is the history of white female privilege.

        There are plenty of traditional cultures across the world which are/were vegetarian, but none which are/were vegan, because veganism is much harder to do than vegetarianism. This isn’t an argument against veganism, but it does suggest that there is some privilege that may have to be checked.

        Incidentally, I do have good reason to be omnivorous, but I’m not going to go into it here because it’s not relevant and I don’t want this discussion to get personal. I just wanted to broaden the scope of the discussion a little.

        1. Additionally, given that her audience for the talk was a group of people able to attend her talk, I don’t think it was particularly presumptive. She mentioned class as a means of food availability, she mentioned slow integration of vegan behavior, she mentioned necessity for health (gelatin in her pills), and she mentioned how the integration of meat into daily diet (at least here) was actually an action of status that has become so rote that it’s assumed as nutritional/whatever instead of as a flaunting of (relative) wealth. So, given both the link to the discussion above and the content of her very talk, I don’t think that her discussion of veganism is very presumptive of privilege. She even emphasizes her definition of veganism to make that point about pragmatism.

          My impression is she was pretty careful to acknowledge without using the word privilege outright that it’s not something everyone can do right away, obviously, but that if you are a humanist or have empathy, acknowledging, considering, and acting upon the reality of food production should be a priority. Veganism just happens to really closely match humanism, because it’s built around the same ideas.

    2. Something that often doesn’t come up in these discussions is the matter of important animal products other than food for which there are no viable substitutes. Leather, for example, is part of the ISO safety footwear standard. At the moment, we don’t have a viable material with the same interpenetration properties which can substitute for this.

      Interesting, because a quick Google search turns up a site in the UK that sells vegan shoes that meet ISO safety standards for safety footwear.

      1. That is interesting, I didn’t know about ceraspace. It seems to be a very new material.

        Though I will point out (again) that a site that styles itself as “eco” that sells petrochemical products is kidding themselves just a bit.

        1. I welded for years in vegan apparel (steel toes, jackets, aprons when necessary) all rated appropriately. I still have my gear, even though I haven’t welded in half a decade. Vegan gear is not super new. I can’t remember the company that I got the shoes from at this point, but I got everything else I needed from the local welding supply store. Vegan safety gear isn’t even rare.

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