Sunday, April 17, 2016

Where Are All These People Who Need to Eat Meat to Survive?

This is the second of a three part series I’m writing on veganism and global poverty.

As an animal liberationist you often have people ask you: What do you say to people in developing countries who need meat to survive? Note that you only get this question in the U.S. and Europe. I've never gotten it here.

After getting this question all these times, I can't help but ask myself now: Where are all these people who need to eat meat to survive? Well, basically, they aren't.

Groundnut (peanut) soup with fufu.
I’ve probably lived in two of the more difficult developing countries to live in as a vegan. In the more rural parts of Peru, the places to eat are generally chicken joints, and in Ghana, meals are almost always a chicken or fish-based soup with some sort of carb ball (maize, grains, potato, yam). Both countries have absorbed the Abrahamic faiths that are particularly anti-animal in their typical manifestations.

Look around, though, and you can almost always find conscientious objectors. Further south in Ghana many Rastafarians are vegan and have integrated something approaching anti-speciesism into their way of life. In Peru, there’s a Christian community I encountered known as the Society of Alpha and Omega that also rejects animal exploitation and ran at least one restaurant in each of three rural towns I lived in.

Now as I said there aren't many Rastafarians where I am and there's only one Ghanaian vegan I've met in the north (my friend Square de Med, thanks to the wonders of Facebook). It's the same country, though, and cuisine spreads. Beans, lentils, soy chunks, a bean cake known as tubani, rice balls, a couscous-like dish made from yam skins and other grain dishes are regularly in the market. That's not to say they're easy or reliable to find, but you can find them.

Okay, so what does this all tell us? A few things.

First, when people in rich countries object that anti-speciesism is unfair to poor people they are being unintentionally patronizing. Poor people in Ghana do have choices just like people in the U.S.A. Not as many choices, and not as easy, but they make choices nonetheless and they never have this question because they do not see themselves as empty vessels of suffering.

Second, this objection to anti-speciesism rests on a mistaken view of culture. It sees cultures as fixed, immutable things deserving of being respected and left untouched. This is an assumption that seems to be claimed in the U.S. mostly in the case of justifying oppression (e.g. requiring clerks to marry gay couples violates the local Christian culture). Export it abroad and suddenly you’re standing up for the marginalized.

As in the U.S., though, cultures change in developing countries too. Not only do they change – they aren’t monoliths! As Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson beautifully describe in Zoopolis, nearly every culture in human history contains a school of thought denigrating animals, and nearly every culture also contains a school of thought profoundly elevating them. That's exactly what I've seen here.

Third, there's a distinction between needing meat to survive and having a hard time doing without meat, and the latter sheds some interesting light on basic moral ideas. As I said, I think there are very few people who need meat in order to survive. There are many cases though where it's difficult to do without. Access to nutritional knowledge is lacking in general here in Northern Ghana, and vegan nutrition is going to be even rarer. Given the way typical meals are constructed, being vegan is going to require a great shift in your life.

In this sense, though, it wouldn't be all that different being vegan here from being vegan in the United States - certainly in urban areas with less access to fresh produce but also in general for people who grow up with a Western diet. Note though that I don't think many of us believe that the fact that something is difficult to do means that it isn't the right thing to do.

Tubani, made from ground beans.
Instead, when something - not paying to have animals hurt - is the right thing to do but still difficult in many contexts, it requires us to recognize that good or normal people can sometimes do very bad things, and to try to change those conditions. It requires us to recognize that there is a difference between a person and their actions. On my reading of the Milgram experiments and other studies of obedience to authority, many of us would do downright horrific things in the wrong context. 

So what can we do? We can change the context. We can separate actions from persons and love everyone even as we advocate for change. We can empower the conscientious objectors who are there and remind Westerners that there are these conscientious objectors and that they're a lot more common than people who need meat to survive.


  1. I think there's a conflation of two separate issues here regarding animal flesh (I prefer to say that rather than "meat"). There are some who say that they literally cannot survive without eating flesh (and/or eggs and dairy) because they cannot get enough nutrition from plant foods alone. Then there are some who say they cannot survive without eating flesh (and/or eggs and dairy) because they do not have enough access to plant foods. The latter objection is the one usually raised in regard to lower-income people.

    In both cases, it's worth examining surviving vs thriving. I've read US-American vegans insisting that they lived on nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for months when necessary because the ethical requirement to avoid killing animals was more important than their own nutritional needs. One can indeed live on a limited diet for long periods of time; water-only fasts of more than a month's duration have been recorded. But generally such diets are undertaken by choice, not necessity.

    Regardless, thriving rather than merely surviving requires a varied diet, ideally with regular consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. This is true of non-vegans as well as vegans, a point that is often ignored.

    While I do not condone exploiting animals (human or non-human) under any circumstances, I don't prioritize policing what people living in poor or harsh conditions eat. Some non-vegans who have plentiful access to plant foods unfortunately do point to such people as excuses to avoid examining their own flesh-and-dairy eating habits.

    1. Since meat is generally more expensive to raise (and so to buy) I can't see the second situation you posit actually happening in anything but extremely isolated instances. Can you maybe give examples of where this situation is predominant?

    2. This is via Pax (funcrunch) - google would not let them post it directly for some reason:

      Well it's not just about "meat" (I really don't like using that term for sentient beings) but about all animal products. And people who are homeless incarcerated, or otherwise unable to choose foods for themselves might be forced to accept food that contains animal products. These situations might not be commonplace but I wouldn't say that they are "extremely isolated" either.

  2. I am very pro-animal rights, but think there are a few people who might need to eat animal products for medical reasons. We all know people these days who can't eat wheat and I have a friend who is allergic to wheat, corn and soy. Try being vegan and not eating any of that. In the utopia of the future where the world is vegan, these people may need a medical excuse letter.

    1. Unfortunately there are many not only people but pets who have an allergy and that's why they cannot taste many products. In general we can have an allergy of everything, I've read about it in that's why I think that it's very useful information and everyone should know it!