Veganism, Food and the Global Economy

The Guardian published an excerpt, "Our diet of destruction," from Felicity Lawrence's book, Eat Your Heart Out: Why the Food Business Is Bad for the Planet and Your Health. The article touches on what I called the food-to-flesh conversion as it relates to the capitalist system. According to Lawrence:

For the commodity traders and processors, the livestock revolution has represented the best way to move up what they call the value chain. You can make a good margin on trading grain and soya, especially if you are a powerful enough presence in the global markets. But feed your surplus to animals - it takes about 3kg of protein feed to produce half a kilo of chicken protein - and you concentrate your resources. Persuade the world to eat vast quantities of this cheap meat, consumed preferably in a highly processed way that divides the parts and separates out the "high value" lean meat and treats much of the rest as waste - and you make far greater margins.

Lawrence continues, "It required technological breakthroughs and government protection to create this market, though." Of course, this is the same with the ethanol and biofuel link to the growing global food crisis. The US government's subsidies for the production of ethanol from corn reflect the preexisting subsidies for the production of flesh, dairy, and eggs.

The global politics of food, hunger, and malnutrition are an economic issue. Given that the production of animal-based products is a means of concentrating resources, as Lawrence points out, I think it makes perfect sense that vegans take this issue on.

Yet, the response vegans often get when we say that exploiting nonhumans perpetuates world hunger is something like what Bob Torres and Jenna Torres write in their book Vegan Freaks that, "The problem that we face in hunger isn't an issue of food scarcity. ... The main problem of hunger is a question of distribution of the existing food supplies and who controls that distribution."

Actually, food-to-flesh is all about food distribution and who controls that distribution (e.g. Cargill, ADM, and Bunge). Converting food into flesh, dairy, and eggs is all about the concentration of resources. We can't ignore the food-to-flesh effect on hunger anymore than we can ignore the food-to-fuel effect on hunger. Both are means of concentrating recourses and driving up prices, which creates the very real effect of scarcity for those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy.

Torres and Torres go on to say:

We get frustrated when we hear vegans make this argument because it ignores the real and complex reasons for global hunger. Veganism is the solution to a great many problems, but hunger has to be attacked differently, likely by targeting the global capitalist economy—which is the subject of another set of books entirely.

Veganism is not the answer to all problems. In fairness, Torres and Torres are right to be critical when they cite Peter Singer's simplistic claim in Animal Liberation that a vegetarian diet would "increase the amount of grain available to feed people elsewhere." When I say food-to-flesh perpetuates global hunger that does not mean adopting a total vegetarian diet will magically solve the global food crisis. Anyway, veganism should never to be confused with a vegetarian diet.

I think the important point that Torres and Torres seem to miss is how targeting the global capitalist economy ought to be included as a subject of a book like their's, assuming they're attempting to explore veganism and not just a strict vegetarian diet.

Kathleen Jannaway, co-founder of the Movement for Compassionate Living, placed the economic issue of food at the center of her vegan advocacy. As such, the aims of MCL are more radical than simply feeding surplus grain to humans instead of nonhuman animals. Rather, MCL seeks:

  1. To spread the vegan message and promote simple living and self-reliance as a remedy against the exploitation of humans, animals and the Earth.
  2. To promote the use of trees and vegan-organic farming to meet the needs of society for food and natural resources.
  3. To promote a land-based society where as much of our food and resources as possible are produced locally.

These aims provide an alternative to the way things are supposed to be under capitalism, and I think they are exactly the types of aims veganism encourages. The third aim in particular puts vegan advocacy in a context supportive of social justice movements organizing around food and land all across the Global South; these are the people who are leading a revolution directly targeting the global capitalist economy.

If the global capitalist economy were not a subject for the vegan movement that would mean the vegan movement would ultimately be irrelevant. Capitalist class relations intersect with the exploitation other animals. You can't address this exploitation without also addressing its intersection with capitalism and, yes, global hunger.