A quiet wave of veganism has tacked its roots in pop culture. Veganism, vegetarianism and to a lesser extent, pescetarianism — existing for so long on the fringe — are finally having their moment in the mainstream, with many adopting the practices of eating solely vegetables and/or cutting out red meat, pork, poultry and dairy. Celebrity chefs, actors, athletes and musicians extoll the virtues of going vegan. Vegan challenges, wherein participants attempt to go entirely vegan for an allotted amount of time, are wildly popular. Smoothie bowls run rampant on social media; vegan options have crept onto menus everywhere from five star restaurants to fast food restaurants. (The popular California hamburger chain Fatburger, was recently the first fast food chain to introduce The Impossible Burger, made entirely of plant protein.)
There have been a variety of reasons for this rise of interest in plant-based diets, one of the most prominent of which has been factory farming. The detrimental effects of factory farming, wherein animals like cows and livestock are raised for the sole purpose of consumption, have impacted the environment and the economy, as well as our public health. The use of unnecessary antibiotics and growth hormones to keep animals alive and much heavier than they would be naturally has raised questions about the impact these chemicals have on humans that consume the meat. And the impact factory farming is having on the environment due to creating huge amounts of pollution, toxic waste, and water run-off/land contamination cannot be understated. ‘Sustainability’ snuck into the natural lexicon around food, as questions also arose about the ability to maintain our consumption of meat at such a gargantuan pace: according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American consumes roughly 60 pounds more meat annually than they did 50 years ago, which amounts to almost 20% more calories.
A swell of animal rights activism accompanied the push for veganism/vegetarianism, advocating for it due to the inhumane treatment of animals in factory farms and the moral questionability of raising animals purely for slaughter. Vegans in particular have gained a reputation as staunch animal welfare activists, fighting for the rights of animals as living beings with a consciousness, and therefore a set of inalienable rights. Yet many vegans have a nasty habit of equating factory farming with chattel slavery, utilizing the ‘peculiar institution,’ as it was called in the American South, as a metaphor for how it is inhumane to consider the consciousness and rights of ‘chattel’ – in this case, animals raised for consumption – to be different from the consciousness and rights of humans.
This logic downplays the fact that one of the most horrific aspects of chattel slavery was the very nature of man attempting to ‘own’ his fellow man, and, in a sense, continues to compare Black Americans to animals. While animals do in fact display intelligence and a sense of consciousness, in an era where Black Americans are routinely stereotyped as unintelligent, violent, hulking ‘demons’ and still not seen as human, fighting for the ‘humanity’ or ‘consciousness’ of livestock in a comparison to chattel slavery is a mite ridiculous at best, and erring on perverse at worst. There are a plethora of reasons to fight for veganism and the end of factory farming that don’t include the false equivalence of chattel slavery to factory farming.
Meat, especially of the factory-farmed variety, isn’t necessary for a balanced diet, and the consumption of extra calories from grossly and often chemically engorged animals can actually be bad for you. Demonstrations, public protests, and think pieces likening factory farming to chattel slavery have garnered many vegans the reputation of being out-of-touch, pretentious, racist, and classist. And said whiff of thinly veiled racism and classism has long dogged the majority-white, majority upper class proponents of the veganism movement.
It often seems as if vegans place the rights of animals above Black people and the poor, two categories that are often one and the same. The shaming of individuals who live in food desserts (which are oftentimes low-income neighborhoods without access to a grocery store) for not eating more fruits and vegetables – let alone even higher cost specialty foods like tofu and quinoa – is insulting. And when you consider the state of the food ecosystem for many Black Americans, the equating of factory farming to chattel slavery becomes even more offensive.
Dating back to the Obama administration and Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, there has been a national conversation on nutrition and eating habits. The high obesity rates in the United States, lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and low emphasis on exercise, health and wellness has also contributed to a question of the dietary needs of Americans, in particular Black Americans and those living below the poverty line. But proponents of veganism and vegetarianism have repeatedly hit a wall when discussing how attainable a plant-based diet is for the Black and poor people who live nowhere near a grocery store, let alone a produce stand or farmers market, and accusations of racism and classism have dogged the movement. The high cost of fresh fruits and vegetables nationwide and lack of access for the poor and minority groups are indicative of the clear delineations of class and race that impact our current food ecosystem.
Factory farms are bad for the environment, the animals are treated inhumanely, and meat eating isn’t really seen as much of a viable option for most of humanity moving forward, especially as the human population grows. Logically, there aren’t too many reasons to continue with it, and the introduction of American chattel slavery as a comparison point to factory farming truly feels like a bit of a moot point in the grand scheme of things. It is utterly inexcusable to dismiss the fact that the horrific institution of slavery was a crime against humanity. It is utterly inexcusable to play ‘Oppression Olympics’ with Black lives versus the lives of animals. And it is utterly inexcusable to use slavery and racism, still so resonant in the lives of millions, as an intellectual talking point for animal rights and to argue in favor of the consciousness of animals. If these animals could talk, they might speak solely to their own horrific conditions — and ways of correcting them immediately — and steer clear of the more profoundly immoral horrors that preceded them.
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, Ms. Sensei creates race-based video content and also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.