We tend to be so quick to label ourselves and, often unconsciously, think in terms of black and white. What we consider to be vegan might be different to someone else. Some who take the meaning in a superficial sense might argue that the definition is quite simple, while others might have a different perspective and wonder if a cruelty-free diet and lifestyle is even possible in this society.
Let’s take a deeper look at this issue, and by the end of this article, you can decide if you are as much of a vegan as you thought you were. As for me, I’m not so sure.
If you are someone who relies on animal products for food, then you have already overtly or tacitly decided that death is a necessity of our vitality. You have given human life priority over the life of other creatures. You accept a kill-or-be-killed paradigm and are comfortable with the rule of force; the idea that diet is an imperialistic endeavor in which humans can, and therefore should, take forceful dominion over “lesser” living creatures to enrich their own existence. In that case, killing insects that would threaten the yield of your crops should seem to be no less than perfectly ordinary, even rational. After all, you have staked your claim; those are your crops, and you shall covet them with lethal force.
However, if you are a vegan who does not consume animal products, then you have decided that death is not a necessity of human nourishment. You believe our capacity for compassion and empathy, our innate fascination with and affection toward animals, and our basic anatomical composition is unerring proof that we were not designed to be predators. You recognize the striking parallels, the attitudes of domination- and fear-based aggression, that exist between animal husbandry and global imperialism; forceful domination based on a boundless concept of superiority. Then, obviously, you wouldn’t be complicit in the mass execution of billions of living creatures for the sake of your sustenance, would you? This is a question I’ve had to ask myself and, so far, I’ve been none too satisfied with the answer.
About a month ago, I made a startling discovery in our garden. We had planted about 20 summer squash plants all around the garden, and they were all doing quite well. One morning I went out to inspect all the beds and noticed that one of the Fordhook zucchini plants had taken a nosedive. The leaves were all yellowing, and the stem was breaking apart at the base. I looked around and happened upon a mating pair of squash bugs!
This is a proper dilemma for gardeners. When you build beds, plant seeds and wait weeks for plants to grow, it can be extremely disconcerting to imagine all that being obliterated within days by hosts of hungry insects. The reality is, however, that insects will always live in your garden, and they eat plants too. So what do we do about it? What can we do about it?
Let’s start with what we can do about it so that we can weigh our options. We can, of course, kill these garden “invaders” under the euphemism of “pest control.” This is certainly the norm since the beginning of modern agriculture. Farmers and home gardeners have a plethora of pesticides at their disposal to keep their crops “safe” from insect invasion. Conventional farmers use harsh chemicals to kill insects that might make a meal out of their crops. Of course, these chemicals get into the air, water supply and, furthermore, remain on or in the foods that go to market and are ingested by those who consume them. “Organic” growers use pesticides, too, but their pesticides are made with natural ingredients and bacterias that are designed not to cause “collateral” damage to the environment or consumers. It is clear that the organic method is, relatively, far better overall, yet we should be quite aware that these methods are still lethal to specific living beings that are viewed as a threat or nuisance.
This course of action may seem quite normal and almost rational, yet, by definition, it cannot come under the umbrella of what we may consider to be “vegan.” Of course, there are a million angles from which to justify this process, yet if we wish to do so we must begin to adopt the same essential talking points we vegans have been combating from the side of the meat consumers.
We might say that insects are barely animals. They are on the bottom of the food chain, and how do we even know if they feel pain? Let’s face it, for the average person, some animals are just easier to eat than others. While someone may have a hard time eating a sweet, furry, gentle cow they may think nothing of chowing down on a slimy fish or clam. It all comes down to how closely we identify with the animal in question. When we perceive a creature to have a similar emotional and mental experience to us, we have a harder time justifying its suffering. The more we can remove ourselves from the experience of that creature, the easier it is to eat it. Vegans often argue that death is death, and they will use household pets as an example of a blatant idiosyncrasy in omnivorous culture. They will point out the stark contradiction that is apparent in the passionate, humane society supporting dog lovers who eagerly and thoughtlessly consumes cows, chickens and pigs.
If we are to consider ourselves vegans, we must clearly establish where we draw that line. Are insects too low in the food chain to be afforded the grace of our peaceful philosophies? Are they not as pleasing or valuable or sentient as the other creatures we have pardoned from our dinner tables? I would assume that most vegans, when directly confronted with these questions, would immediately answer “No.” They would declare that every life has equal value and that every creature should be given the same right to life as any other. So why do vegans everywhere allow themselves to tacitly engage in the willful eradication of insects through their own food industry? The answer is the same answer given for those otherwise kind, rational and caring souls who, day by day, tacitly participate in the suffering and slaughter of billions of animals in their animal product industry. The answer is detachment, ignorance and life in a society in which people take little to no personal responsibility for their own day-to-day requirements of human existence.
Omnivorous humans generally eat animals because they are either completely oblivious to the impact of their food choices and coinciding philosophies, or because they have been conditioned to believe that doing so is necessary for our survival. If they do awaken to the practical reality of what fuels their diets, they will either choose to return to ignorance or make a radical lifestyle change. Of course, the extent of any potential change is directly proportional to what they believe is or isn’t possible. If they believe that it is not possible to lead a happy, healthy life without meat, then they will begin to move toward something they see as a more humane, or less inhumane, way to live an omnivorous lifestyle. In an effort to circumvent the systems of factory farming and wanton animal abuse, they will be lead to alternatives such as “free-range” and “organic” meats and dairy products. A vegan would criticize this action and say it does not go far enough to prevent unnecessary cruelty because the animals must still undergo ultimate execution. However, within the restrictions of the omnivore’s belief system, this is as far as they believe they can go, seeing as they cannot conceive of a viable way to survive without animal products in their diet.
Ironically, this is the very same position that vegans find themselves in when it comes to agricultural insect management. Perhaps most vegans can sufficiently distance themselves from the practical experience of food production enough to remain naive of the complicated systems of “pest control” and simply ignore the convention of insect execution that is imperative to their own food supply. When and if they are ever confronted with this reality, they can choose to continue ignoring it or make a drastic lifestyle change. If our beliefs are limited in the area of agriculture and we subscribe to the necessity of insect control that has become convention, then instead of demanding a completely nonviolent system of food production, we move toward the pest management methods of “organic” and “biodynamic” growing. This “alternative,” while circumventing the environmental and health hazards of the mainstream agricultural industry, will lead to the same deadly results for our six-legged neighbors.
In both cases, a great and valuable improvement is being made, yet “better than convention” is hardly a signifier of ideals, especially in these wayward times. In both cases, you see an example of how the manifestation of our intuitive ideals is greatly stifled by our dependency on institutional authority and a societal structure that is built upon a foundation of industry and consumption.
The idea that we cannot achieve optimum health as a person or a society without the use and consumption of animal products may be prevalent in mainstream society, but those who have liberated themselves from the bonds of the “industries of interest” can see how irrational and counterproductive that idea is. Of course, as vegans, we realize that not only is it possible to be healthy, happy and productive on a completely plant-based diet, but it is, in many ways, an essential aspect of a sustainable and peaceful society overall. How can we, as a culture, expect to rid ourselves of violence and oppression when we have allowed those foul things to become embedded in our nourishment.
In the world of fruit and vegetable production, we see the same sort of mass ignorance that suits the status quo. We tend to assume that because all the commercial growers—from large-scale conventional industrial growers to small, local organic farms—are using some manner of deadly pest control, then it must be an essential part of feeding the masses. The fact is: Commercial food production itself is naturally flawed, and in order to successfully reform food production in this society, we’d need a shift that most people—vegans and omnivores alike—are not ready for.
What happens when the meat-eating populous begins to grow sicker and sicker; constantly being plagued by disease after disease and newfound infections and infestations? Do they examine their diet and discover that the consumption of animal products is creating a toxic load in the body, resulting in a severely detrimental physiological imbalance that leaves every system of the body in disrepair, becoming a home to hosts of scavenger bacteria and the like? Or do they claim that all negative results are purely a result of harmful bacterial and/or viral “invaders” and that the only option is eradication of such “pests” by means of pharmaceutical medicines, surgeries, radiation, homeopathies, toxic herbs, etc.?
What happens when a farm or garden is ravaged by insects, hosts of “pests” that clear entire crops within days, eating large portions of plants or spreading viruses and bacteria from plant to plant? Do they judge the congruency of their system to that of the larger ecological system and discover that their conventional methods of creation and maintenance create a heavily imbalanced micro-ecology that leaves it defenseless against the most minor and ordinary influences of nature? Do they admit that the commercial system of food production is entirely counterintuitive to the flow of nature and has little to no consideration for the establishment of a proper predator balance, native plant presence and biodiversity? Or do they perceive that there are simply insects that are pests, created to invade and destroy the fruits of man’s labor, and that these pests must be contained and exterminated by manufactured pesticides, lethal organic herb concoctions or deadly agricultural bacterias?
We know our dietary choices can create a healthy, balanced living system of countless microorganisms; bacteria and tissues within the body that become self-regulating and impervious to dis-ease. However, making a choice to be conscious of and active in what you eat begins with the seed, not the store. The way we obtain our food is just as important and directly connected to the food itself. To make our efforts complete, we must apply the same idea to every level of the process. A commercial farm or garden is designed and created to produce food. There is no such system in nature with that kind of isolated purpose. Natural systems that become a source of food are all, in and of themselves, complete ecological systems that supply the necessities of life to an entire population of predators, prey and all manner of symbiotic life forms. Conventional farms and gardens are a severely imbalanced manipulation of nature designed for the shortsighted, unsustainable gain of our species alone. This type of dis-integrated endeavor invariably leads to the need for supplementation such as fertilizers and soil amendments as well as medicines such as pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. It also brings the demand of other manufactured atrocities like the capture and exploitation of bees—another issue that should interest the “vegan” community. Everything that is done to grow, maintain, package and transport our food is being done in our name and, whether we are conscious of it or not, has an impact in the creation of all the conditions we come to experience in our lives.
There are, of course, wonderful and effective ways to nonviolently deal with insects, but they do not fit into a commercial model, and many would argue that food production doesn’t belong in a commercial model in the first place. I’d be one of those people, if you couldn’t already tell.
Here, at our budding food forest in Virginia, we utilize a wide range of tactics to facilitate a space of ecological harmony and sharing. We design the aspects of our gardens to mimic nature, and we recognize the right of every creature to live among it. When we plant food for ourselves, we also plant food for them. We observe their favorite foods and plant them near the foods we eat. For instance, by simply planting some mustard greens among our lettuce and arugula, we averted a flea beetle crisis. We left some Jimson weed among the squash for the squash bugs to enjoy. We create micro-climates and micro-terrain to encourage the habitation of jumping spiders, ladybugs, black widows, mantises and other natural native predators. We even spend hours a day scouring the plants to find any potential problems with our vegetables. When we find any nuisances, we simply pick off them and their eggs, relocating them to areas that have been sowed just for them. In the areas that are designated for our six-legged neighbors, we exclude plants like nasturtium, marigold, rosemary and any other plants that they find offensive. This is how to make companion planting effective. By itself, it is only a brief and fleeting deterrent, but when you give them an easier course, they will certainly take it.
Does it take quite a bit of time and effort out of our days? Of course, but what else should we be doing? Should we be working some arbitrary task to earn some arbitrary tokens so that we can go to some place and cash them in for sub-par food grown by people we don’t even know, in soil we’ve never seen or set foot on? These tasks are a part of our lives and essential to our integrity. We do not view them as a nuisance or burden. It is a privilege to be engaged in these, the most important and rewarding aspects of our human lives. They are the most fruitful endeavors in regard to the development of our entire being: mental, physical and spiritual.
I urge you to become more involved in your food. Go to the next step and become conscious of your relationship with the insects of your world. Try to discover the natural balance that they seek and use your observational skills and powers of discernment to see where your food choices may be missing the mark of your philosophical ideals. Think about how you can implement that same harmonious balance in your own life by applying permacultural techniques wherever you can. Plant a garden and try to observe the habits of the native plants and insects the garden attracts. Ask yourself in every stage of development: “How does this happen in nature and how does this pattern present itself in other aspects of my life?”
It may seem like a big step, and perhaps it doesn’t seem that important to you right now. Yet, if the impact that your dietary choices have on any living being is important to you, then why wouldn’t it be so for every living being? We can keep going further down the line to see how our food choices and food sources affect animals, insects, soil and so on. The only logical next step is to begin shaping your life in a way that will enable you to have a deep working relationship with your soil and food.
We thought becoming vegetarian was difficult until we began to go vegan. We thought becoming a vegan was difficult until we began to go raw. We thought going raw was difficult until we began to give up gourmet. Our work is never over, but the more empathy and compassion we afford to those still struggling with what we’ve moved beyond, the easier it will be for us to avoid self-righteous complacency and to move into the next level of awareness.
Understand this: These discussions are not intended to shame or discourage those who strive to live a life free of violence and exploitation or those who live as activists seeking a radical change for the good. On the contrary, this is a message of hope and liberation.
That might sound strange, but just remember there is infinite hope in the realization that the road to perfection is endless and that everything you see as unjust and foul is within your control. When you labor under the delusion that you’ve already done all you can do and the world is still dark, you will feel powerless and full of dread. When you always have the opportunity to seek that change within your own world, then you have the world at your fingertips and global peace is within your grasp.
You may feel as though your options are just too limited where you are, but as you simply allow yourself to be more conscious of these things while maintaining a strong sense of compassion and understanding for yourself and where you are, then the circumstances of your life will begin to change and come into closer alignment with the life you seek to live.
Check out Matthew David’s transformation story!