Going vegan is an important first step in the fight for animal liberation. But it’s not enough. Individualizing the problem of animal exploitation to consumers absolves them from taking any additional, meaningful steps to dismantle the oppressive system of animal agriculture. By not eating animal products, there exists a fallacious assumption that by purchasing only vegan food, it will decrease demand for animal products, and thus the animal agriculture industry will eventually collapse. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and this post will explain why.
Capitalism with an animal face
As veganism moves from the fringe to the mainstream, the normalization of veganism can be seen as an overall good. The positive aspect of vegan consumerism is that living in accord with vegan principles is becoming more accessible to people. Those who want to make the shift away from animal products and boycott animal exploitation in any form (be it in food, cosmetics, clothing, etc.), are able to easily find vegan products in almost any store. Companies have been quick to respond to a rising demand in veganism and are cashing in on the “vegan lifestyle” movement. Business savvy vegan entrepreneurs are making money, and consumers feel good that they are supporting vegan options; they purchase products with the belief that their consumption is helping to end animal exploitation. This logic can be referred to as “capitalism with a human face”, echoing Slavoj Žižek’s critique on environmentally conscious consumers who, through ethical consumption, believe they are doing something positive for the environment. In this vein, vegan consumerism can be characterized as “capitalism with an animal face.”
While it is important to show our support for vegan businesses and organizations, individual boycotts of animal products are not effective strategies in actually dismantling the economic and political institutions that protect and perpetuate animal exploitation. Vegan consumerism creates an illusion that individual consumer choices alone will eventually change the world. The argument goes something like this: If there are more vegans, there’s more demand for vegan products. If there’s more demand for vegan products, then there will be less demand for meat, dairy, and eggs. Therefore, if we focus on increasing demand for vegan products, animal agriculture will eventually collapse because of the declining demand for animal products. But how long will this take? How long should the billions of animals living in extreme confinement wait for the whole world to go vegan?
Vegan consumerism will not end animal agriculture. Ending animal agriculture will end animal agriculture.
While the number of vegans worldwide grows every year, the number of animals being bred and slaughtered for food is also growing. The former does not affect the latter. In the Canadian context, the number of vegans is growing as well, but like global trends, the number of animals being slaughtered in Canada is also growing as shown in the following graph. We need to be careful not to focus on the number of vegans as an indicator of success for animal liberation. The increasing number of animals suffering in factory farms aren’t affected by the number of vegans in the world. The real victories are when animal suffering is reduced through corporate, policy, or legislative changes, or more importantly, the absolute number of animals being bred or killed for food starts declining. These are the metrics that we need to focus our attention on.
By all accounts, the trend in this graph is expected to continue. The global population is increasing and the demand for meat is expected to double by 2050. There is (and will continue to be) an incredible demand for meat. And Canada happens to be one of the top countries that will help meet that demand.
Canada is one of the largest exporters of both meat and live animals in the world. Nearly half of all beef in Canada is exported. More than half of all pork in Canada is exported. Tens of millions of animals are bred and slaughtered in Canada, only to have their meat shipped across the world. Canada is also a global leader in the live animal export trade, exporting over 22 million live animals to 73 countries in 2019 alone.
If we focus on “going vegan” as the only solution to animal exploitation, then these sectors will remain unscathed. Even if nearly every Canadian went vegan overnight, Canada would still be farming, killing, and exporting animals to the rest of the world to meet a rising global demand. If anything, a decrease in domestic demand for meat will signal to the industry and government that they should focus on finding new international markets for our meat and dairy products instead. The unintended consequence of focusing on demand-based solutions to animal exploitation is that it may lead to an increase in the supply of animals bred for food for international markets. As we pointed out in a previous post, this actually occurred during the first few months of the pandemic in Canada. When restaurants closed and domestic demand for meat dropped in Canada, slaughterhouses ramped up production, increased slaughter capacity, and ended up exporting meat at record high levels.
3 charts unaffected by the rise in veganism
We compiled Statistics Canada data for the past 20 years to look at 3 key trends that demonstrate why veganism is not enough. Although these figures are unique to the Canadian situation, the underlying argument can be applied to other countries, especially those with strong export sectors. These 3 trends are: 1) the amount of meat exported from Canada, 2) the value of Canadian meat exports, and 3) the number of live animals exported from Canada. For the first and second charts, both land and aquatic animals were included. For more information regarding the third chart, a full analysis of Canada’s live animal export trade can be found in our previous post.
The trend in the middle graph is particularly noteworthy. As international demand for Canadian meat grows and the value of our exports grow as well, the industry will be sure to focus their supply chains on serving overseas markets. To put it bluntly: the meat industry couldn’t care less how many vegans there are in Canada. We can buy all the vegan food until the shelves are empty and the industry will still make a killing, both figuratively and literally. However, the meat industry does start to get nervous when vegans become effective activists and begin to strategically dismantle institutions of animal exploitation.
It’s time for action
Here is a hard truth for vegans: consumer choices alone will not end animal suffering. We should be careful not to fall into this capitalist trap. While vegan consumption is not contributing to the problem of animal exploitation, it’s also not contributing to the solution. People that care about the end of animal exploitation need to take action to dismantle this cruel food system and work to replace it with one that doesn’t involve the exploitation of animals.
Another hard truth is that billions of people will not give up meat and “go vegan”. We need to accept this reality and work to get our governments to stop subsidizing the animal-use industries, phase-out factory farming, and redirect public funds to: 1) already existing fruit, vegetable, and grain sectors, 2) plant-based protein industries, and 3) cellular agriculture. Cellular agriculture will be one of the defining agricultural transformations in our history and has the potential to eliminate animal suffering on a global scale. As vegans, we need to support it. As a society, we need to subsidize it. Better still, we need to socialize it. (For more information on cultivated meat, we recommend watching Meat the Future, a new documentary by Canadian filmmaker Liz Marshall. It presents a thorough and insightful examination of the ethical issues that are commonly raised surrounding this mode of meat production).
We recognize the concerns with identifying solutions that may involve corporate involvement. We should always be critical of any corporation and hold their feet to the fire: exploiting animals is a fundamental wrong that can never be justified. Any drive to disrupt the agricultural status-quo must take into account the environment, worker’s rights, marginalized communities, ethnocultural realities, and the health of our broader societal institutions. Through the large-scale replacement of animal meat with plant-based and cultivated meat (and dairy, eggs, etc.), corporations have the ability to eliminate a tremendous amount of animal suffering, but they also have the ability to destroy communities, exploit marginalized workers, pollute our environment, and capture our political institutions. Always hold them to account. Our fight for justice must never be limited to animal liberation. We have a moral duty to speak out against all forms of injustice and oppression.
What you can do
Veganism is not enough. The animals need you to become politically engaged in the movement to end animal agriculture. We need to move from mere veganism to organized action. While vegan outreach is an important strategy in showing people the reality of animal agriculture, it shouldn’t stop there. People need to mobilize and inspire others to take action.
If you are starting out in animal advocacy, we recommend one book from Peter Singer: Ethics into Action. This book looks at the life and campaigns of Henry Spira, who is regarded as one of the most influential and effective animal advocates in the 20th century. We recommend this book for three reasons: 1) It shows that it’s never too late to get involved in the fight to end animal suffering. Henry Spira started advocating for animals at the age of 45 and reduced an incredible amount of animal suffering throughout his life, 2) it shows how powerful the actions of one individual can be in taking on powerful industries and corporations, and 3) Peter Singer provides a detailed summary of the key points that made Spira an effective activist, providing invaluable insights for anyone in the animal protection movement. As Singer writes in the preface to the 2019 edition, “If you are an activist on the side of the weak and powerless, you have in your hands a tool to become more effective. Make good use of it.”
There are countless ways to get involved in the fight to end animal agriculture and push for cultural, attitudinal, social, institutional, corporate, policy, and legislative changes. While this post doesn’t explore strategies people can take to end this exploitative system, we need to stress that action is necessary, not optional. The power to change the structure of our society does not come from consumption. It comes from the commitment and perseverance in our collective fight for justice. Your involvement in ending animal exploitation will make a difference if your actions are thoughtful, creative, strategic, and effective. Use the skills you already have, get informed about the issues, reach out to people in the movement, and start taking steps to transform our food system and eliminate animal suffering.
Animals need you. It’s your time to make a difference.