Until recently, Greta Thunberg kept a filmed appeal to stop eating meat and dairy as the first item on her twitter account—she has been a vegan for half her life, so that is not surprising. Her message begins with pandemics but swiftly segues to climate change, as might be expected. (Assertions linking deforestation with pandemics are tenuous and speculative: there is no established link between COVID19 and deforestation or the wildlife trade.) The film was made by Mercy for Animals, which she thanks.
The film remained top of her twitter account for months. She has several million followers, so the value of the advertising she gave this little-known not-for-profit must run into millions of dollars. As opposition to livestock has become a major plank of climate activism, it is worth looking at how the world’s biggest climate influencer chooses to influence it.
Mercy for Animals is an American NGO with the stated purpose of ending factory farming because it is cruel to animals, a fact with which few would disagree. There are other reasons to shun factory-farmed meat as opposed to meat from animals raised on pasture, not least because some of the meat thus produced is subsequently heavily processed using unhealthy ingredients and then shipped long distances. The reason factory-farmed meat remains profitable is, obviously, because it is cheap and those who cannot afford expensive free range or organic have little other choice.
There is no doubt that factory farming is an industrial process that pollutes. There is also no doubt that an average Western—especially urban—diet contains a lot of unhealthy things, including too much meat. But whether or not folk who eat sensible amounts of local, organic meat and dairy, and try to stay fit and healthy, would have any significant impact on the planet’s climate by changing their diet is another matter, which I will come back to.
Mercy for Animal’s beliefs go much further than opposing animal cruelty. The organisation believes in speciesism or rather anti-speciesism, the idea that humans have no right to impose their will on other animals or to “exploit” them. It is a view that is shared by a growing number of people, especially vegans in the Global North. Thunberg goes as far as believing that only vegans can legitimately “stand up for human rights,” and wants non-vegans to feel guilty. Even more radical is Google founder, Larry Page, who reportedly thinks robots should be treated as a living species, just that they are silicon-based rather than carbon-based!
Whatever novel ideas anti-speciesists think up, no species would evolve without favouring its own. Our ancestors would never have developed their oversized brains if they had not eaten scavenged or hunted meat, and we have always lived in symbiosis with other animals, sometimes to the benefit of both. It seems likely that the wolf ancestors of dogs freely elected to live close to humans, taking advantage of our hearths and our ability to store game. In this, the earliest proven instance of domestication, perhaps each species exploited the other.
Having visited many subsistence hunters and herders over the last half century, I know that the physical – and spiritual – relationship they have with the creatures they hunt, herd or use for transport, is very different from that of most people (including me!). Most of us now have little experience of the intimacy that comes when people depend at first-hand on animals for survival.
Hunters, for example, often think they have a close connection with their game, and it is based on respect and exchange. A good Yanomami huntsman in Amazonia does not eat his own catch but gives it away to others. Boys are taught that if they are generous like this, the animals will approach them to offer themselves willingly as prey. Such a belief encourages strong social cohesion and reciprocity, which could not be more different from Western ideals of accumulation. The importance of individual cows to African herders, or of horses to the Asian steppe dwellers who, we think, started riding them in earnest, can be touchingly personal, and the same can be found all over the world.
Our ancestors would never have developed their oversized brains if they had not eaten scavenged or hunted meat
Everyone knows that many small children, if they feel safe, have an innate love of getting up close and personal to animals, and projects enabling deprived city kids to interact with livestock on farms can improve mental wellbeing and make children happier.
This closeness to other species is a positive experience for many, clearly including Thunberg; her film features her in an English animal sanctuary and cuddling one of her pet dogs. Those who believe speciesism is of great consequence, on the other hand, seem to seek a separation between us and other animals, whilst paradoxically advancing the idea that there is none. Animals are to be observed from a distance, perhaps kept as pets, but never “exploited” for people’s benefit.
Mercy for Animals does not stop at opposing factory farming. It is against the consumption of animal products altogether, including milk and eggs, and thinks that all creatures, including insects, must be treated humanely. Using animals for any “work” that benefits people is frowned upon. For example, the foundation holds the view that sheepdogs are “doubly problematic” because both dogs and sheep are exploited. It accepts, however, that they have been bred to perform certain tasks and may “experience stress and boredom if not given . . . work.” In a communication to me, the organisation has confirmed that it is also (albeit seemingly reluctantly) ok with keeping pets as they are “cherished companions with whom we love to share our lives”, and without them we would be “impoverished”. Exactly the same could be said for many working dogs of course.
Anyway, this not-for-profit believes that humans are moving away from using animals for anything, not only meat, but milk, wool, transport, emergency rescue, and everything else. It claims “several historical cultures have recognized the inherent right of animals to live . . . without human intervention or exploitation,” and thinks we are slowly evolving to a “higher consciousness” which will adopt its beliefs. It says this is informed by Hindu and Buddhist ideals and that it is working to “elevate humanity to its fullest potential.”
We all exalt our own morality of course, but professing a higher consciousness than those who think differently casts a supremacist shadow. The alleged connection with Indian religions is a common argument but remains debatable. The sacredness of cows, for example, is allied to their providing the dairy products widespread in Hindu foods and rituals. The god Krishna, himself a manifestation of the Supreme Being Vishnu, was a cattle herder. The Rig Veda, the oldest Indian religious text, is clear about their role: “In our stalls, contented may they stay! May they bring forth calves for us . . . giving milk.” Nearly a third of the world’s cattle are thought to live in India. Would they survive the unlikely event of Hindus converting to veganism?
Most Hindus are not wholly vegetarian. Although a key tenet of Hindu fundamentalism over recent generations is not eating beef, the Rig Veda mentions cows being ritually killed in an earlier age. The renowned Swami Vivekananda, who first took Hinduism and yoga to the US at the end of the 19th century and is hailed as one of the most important holy men of his era, wrote that formerly, “A man [could not] be a good Hindu who does not eat beef,” and reportedly ate it himself. Anyway, the degree to which cows were viewed as “sacred” in early Hinduism is not as obvious as many believe. The Indus Civilisation of four or five thousand years ago, to which many look for their physical and spiritual origins, was meat-eating, although many fundamentalist Hindus now deny it.
Vegetarians are fond of claiming well-known historical figures for themselves. In India, perhaps the most famous is Ashoka, who ruled much of the subcontinent in the third century before Christ and was the key proponent of Buddhism. He certainly advocated compassion for animals and was against sacrificial slaughter and killing some species, but it is questionable whether he or those he ruled were actually vegetarian.
We all exalt our own morality of course, but professing a higher consciousness than those who think differently casts a supremacist shadow.
Whatever Ashoka’s diet included, many Buddhists today are meat-eaters like the Dalai Lama and most Tibetans—rather avid ones in my experience—and tea made with butter is a staple of Himalayan monastic life. Mercy for Animals however remains steadfast to its principles, asserting, “Even (sic!) Jewish and Muslim cultures are experiencing a rise in animal welfare consciousness.”
Mercy for Animals might look at how racists have supported animal rights over the last hundred years, sometimes cynically and sometimes not. “Concern for animals can coexist with a strong strain of misanthropy, and can be used to demonise minority groups as barbaric, uncivilised and outdated . . . in contrast to supposedly civilised, humane Aryans. . . . The far right’s ventures into animal welfare is sometimes coupled with ‘green’ politics and a form of nature mysticism.”
Mercy for Animals was founded by Milo Runkle, a self-styled “yogi” who lives in Los Angeles. He was raised on an Ohio farm and discovered his calling as a teenager on realising the cruelty of animal slaughter. He is now an evangelical vegan who believes an “animal-free” meal is, “an act of kindness”. He is also a keen participant in the billion-dollar Silicon Valley industry trying to make and sell “meat and dairy” made from plants, animal cells and chemicals. He is a co-founder of the Good Food Institute and sits on the board of Lovely Foods. Like others in the movement, he rejects the term “fake” and insists that the products made in factories—that are supported by billionaires like Richard Branson and Bill Gates—are real meat and dairy, just made without animals.
The multi-million dollar Good Food Institute is also supported by Sam Harris, a US philosopher who came to prominence with his criticism of Islam, which he believes is a religion of “bad ideas, held for bad reasons, leading to bad behaviour”, and constitutes “a unique danger to all of us.”
Ersatz animal products are of course ultra-processed, by definition. They use gene modifications, are expensive, and produce a significant carbon footprint, although figures for the gasses emitted for any type of food depend on thousands of variables and are extremely complex to calculate. The numbers bandied about are often manipulated and should be viewed with caution, but it seems that the environmental footprint of “cultivated meat” may actually be greater than that of pork or poultry.
Is opposing livestock—and not just factory farming—and promoting veganism and fake meat and dairy a really effective way of reducing environmental pollution? Few people are qualified to assess the numerous calculations and guesses, but it is clear that there are vastly different claims from the different sides in the anti-livestock debate. They range from it contributing some 14 per cent of greenhouse gases, to a clearly exaggerated 50 per cent—and the fact that livestock on pasture also benefits the atmosphere is rarely mentioned by its critics. Thunberg plumps for a vague “agriculture and land use together” category, which she thinks accounts for 25 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, but which of course includes plants. It is also important to realise that some grazing lands are simply not able to produce human food other than when used as animal pasture. Take livestock out of the picture in such places, and the amount of land available for food production immediately shrinks.
In brief, some vegetarians and vegans may produce higher greenhouse gas emissions than some omnivores—it all depends on exactly what they consume and where it is from. If they eat an out-of-season vegetable that has travelled thousands of miles to reach their plate, it has a high carbon footprint. The same thing, grown locally in season, has a much lower carbon footprint. If you are in Britain and buy, for example, aubergines, peas, beans, asparagus, or Kenyan beans, you are likely consuming stuff with a high environmental impact.
Mercy for Animals might look at how racists have supported animal rights over the last hundred years, sometimes cynically and sometimes not.
In any event, there is no doubt that a locally sourced, organically raised—or wild—animal is an entirely different creature from one born and living in a factory on the other side of the world. There is also no doubt that the factory version could be a legitimate target for climate activism. So could the felling of established forests, whether it is for cattle, animal feed or any number of things.
Why should anyone who does not want real meat or dairy want to eat an expensive lookalike made entirely in a factory? Is it mere taste, habit, or virtue signalling? Few would dispute that the food we eat is at the centre of our identity. This has long been recognised by social scientists, and is in plain sight in the restaurant quarter of every city, everywhere in the world. “You are what you eat” is also as scientific as it is axiomatic.
Diet is central to many religions, and making people change what they eat, whether through the mission, schoolroom, or legal prohibitions, has long been a significant component in the colonial enterprise of “civilising the natives”. Many traditional indigenous diets are high in animal protein, are nutrient-rich, and are low in fat or high in marine sources of fat. Restricting the use of traditional lands and prohibiting hunting, fishing and trapping—as well as constant health edicts extolling low animal fat diets—have been generally disastrous for indigenous people’s wellbeing, and this is particularly noticeable in North America and Australia. The uniquely notorious residential schools in North America, where indigenous children were taken from their families and forced into a deliberately assimilationist regime, provided children with very little meat, or much of anything for that matter. Many died.
Western campaigns around supposedly improving diet go far beyond physical welfare. For example, the world’s best known breakfast cereal was developed by the Seventh Day Adventist and fiercely vegetarian Kellogg brothers in 1894. They were evangelical about the need to reduce people’s sex drive. Dr Kellogg advocated a healthy diet of his Corn Flakes, which earned him millions. He separately advised threading silver wire through the foreskin and applying acid to the clitoris to stop the “doubly abominable” sin of masturbation. Food choices go beyond animal cruelty or climate change!
The belief that meat-eating—particularly red meat—stimulates sexual desire and promotes devilish masturbation is common in Seventh Day Adventism, a religion founded in the US in the 1860s out of an earlier belief called Millerism. The latter held that Christ would return in 1844 to herald the destruction of the Earth by fire. Seventh Day Adventism is a branch of Protestantism, the religion that has always underpinned American attitudes about material wealth being potentially allied to holiness. I have written elsewhere on how Calvinist Protestant theology from northern Europe underpins the contemporary notion of a sinful humankind opposing a divine “Nature”, and it is noteworthy that Seventh Day Adventism starts at exactly the same time as does the US national park movement in the 1860s.
Restricting the use of traditional lands and prohibiting hunting, fishing and trapping have been generally disastrous for indigenous people’s wellbeing.
Although this is not widely known by the general public, Seventh Day Adventism is one of the world’s fastest growing religions, and has sought to push its opposition to meat into wider American attitudes for over a century. For example, the American Dietetic Association was co-founded by a colleague of Kellogg, Lenna Cooper, in 1917. It evolved into the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and is now the world’s largest organisation of nutrition and dietetics practitioners.
Protestants figuring out what God wants humans to eat dates from before Seventh Day Adventism. The famous founder of Methodism, John Wesley, did not eat meat; some years after he died, a few of his followers started the vegetarian Bible Christian Church in England’s West Country. They sent missionaries to North America a generation before the foundation of Seventh Day Adventism and were also closely involved in establishing the Vegetarian Society in England in 1847—three years after Christ did not come to end the world with fire as originally predicted. It was this society that first popularised the term “vegetarian”. In 1944, a hundred years after that non-appearance of Christ, the word “vegan” was coined.
Fundamentalist Christians might believe that humankind’s supposedly vegan diet in the Garden of Eden should be followed by everyone, and that is obviously open to question from several points of view. What is clearer, and worth repeating, is that the “normal” Western urban diet, particularly North American, contains a lot of highly processed factory foods and additives and is just not great for human health.
In 1944, a hundred years after that non-appearance of Christ, the word “vegan” was coined.
It is also true that, in spite of generations of colonialism trying to erode people’s food self-sufficiency, hundreds of millions of people still depend on eating produce—animal as well as vegetable—which is collected, hunted, caught or herded by their own hands, or by others close by, often sustainably and organically. Perhaps rather paradoxically, Thunberg visited Sami reindeer herders the year before her Mercy for Animals film. They are recognised as indigenous people in her part of the world and are about as far from veganism as is possible. They not only eat the reindeer, including its milk, cheese and blood, but also consume fish, moose and other animals. As far as I know, there are no indigenous peoples who vegan anywhere in the world.
Like the Sami, about one quarter of all Africans depend on sustainable herding, and the pastoralists in that continent have an enviable record of knowing how to survive the droughts that have been a seasonal feature in their lives for countless generations. It is also the case that pasturelands created or sustained by their herds are far better carbon sinks than new woodlands.
Some wild as well as domesticated animal species feed a lot of people. In spite of conservationist prohibitions and its relentless demonisation, “bushmeat” is more widespread than is admitted and remains an important nutritional source for many Africans. Denigrating it has an obviously racist tone when compared to how “game” is extolled in European cuisine. If you are rich, you can eat bushmeat, if you are poor, you cannot.
Many do not realise that bushmeat is openly served in African restaurants, particularly in South Africa and Namibia, the countries with by far the highest proportion of white citizens. During the hunting season, no less than 20 per cent of all (red) meat eaten is from game with, for example, ostrich, springbok, warthog, kudu, giraffe, wildebeest, crocodile and zebra all featuring on upmarket menus. Meanwhile, poor Africans risk fines, beatings, imprisonment or worse if they hunt the same creatures. When “poachers” are caught or shot, Western social media invariably erupts with brays of how they deserve extreme punishment.
Some conservationists would like to end both herding and hunting and, even more astonishingly, advocate for Africans to eat only chicken and farmed fish. In real life, any step towards that luckily unattainable goal would result in an increase in malnutrition, in the profits of those who own the food factories and supply chains, and probably in greenhouse gas emissions as well.
Controlling people’s health and money by controlling their access to food has always featured large in the history of human subjugation. Laying siege was always a guaranteed way of breaking an enemy’s body and spirit. If most food around the world is to be produced in factories—like fake meat and dairy—then the factory owners will control human life. The drive to push small-scale hunters, herders and farmers off their land, supposedly for rewilding or conservation, is a step towards that ruin.
The clamour against meat and dairy goes far beyond opposition to factory farming, and that is the problem. Of course, there is nothing wrong with celebrating vegetarianism and veganism, but claiming they are a product of a higher consciousness or morality, and labelling those who do not follow the commandment as cruel or guilty if they stick to their existing diet, as Thunberg and Runkle do, turns them into religious beliefs. These invariably encompass fundamentalist undertones that can tip all too easily into violence against non-believers.
Some vegans go beyond persuasion, and try to force others to their belief whether they like it or not. One way in which they do this is by raiding factory farms illegally to “liberate” the animals, as Milo Runkle did, or they engage in other low-level vandalism like spray-painting meat and cheese shops or breaking windows, or go further and wreck vehicles. The fact that the most extremist animal rights activists—usually referencing veganism—do all of this and a great deal more, including physical threats, arson, grave robbing (sic), and planting bombs, is unfortunately no invented conspiracy theory.
The most extreme protests involving firebombs and razor blades in letters are normally reserved for those who use animal tests in research. The homes of scientists are usually the targets, although other places such as restaurants and food processing plants are also in the firing line. One US study found that the activists behind the violence were all white, mostly unmarried men in their 20s. Their beliefs echoed those of many ordinary climate activists. They included supporting biodiversity; that humans should not dominate the earth; that governments and corporations destroy the environment; and that the political system will not fix the crisis.
An organisation called Band of Mercy (unrelated to Mercy for Animals) was formed in 1972 and renamed the Animal Liberation Front four years later. Starting in Britain, where by 1998 it had grown to become “the most serious domestic terrorist threat”, it spawned hundreds of similar groups in forty countries around the world. Membership is largely hidden but they do seek publicity—in one year alone, they claimed responsibility for 554 acts of vandalism and arson.
Of course, moderate vegans are not responsible for the violence of a small minority, but history shows that where there are lots of people looking for a meaningful cause, some will support those they latch onto in extreme ways. In brief, there is a problematic background to opposing meat and dairy that should be faced. Big influencers must accept a concomitantly big responsibility in choosing what to endorse. The most powerful influencers who demonise anything must be sensitive to the inevitability of extremist interpretations of their message.
The drive to push small-scale hunters, herders and farmers off their land, supposedly for rewilding or conservation, is a step towards that ruin.
We know that digital communication is a new and effective way of stoking anger that can lead to violence. For example, the risk that Muslims in India today might be murdered by Hindu fundamentalists if they are even suspected of eating beef seems to have increased with the proliferation of social media. Characterising a meal as cruel if it includes meat or even dairy, as Runkle wants us to, could be used to stoke deadly flames far from his West Coast home.
More broadly, well off influencers trying to make others feel guilty about what they eat should be careful about unintended consequences. Disordered eating damages many people, especially young girls who already face challenges around their transition to adulthood. In addition to everyday teenage angst and biology, they are faced with the relentless scourge of social media, now with eco- and COVID19-anxiety as added burdens. In a rich country like the UK, suicide has become the main cause of death for young people. In that context, telling people they are guilty sinners if they carry on eating what they, or their parents, have habitually eaten could set off dangerous, cultish echoes.
On another level, corporations and NGOs should stop trying to deprive people of any food self-sufficiency they might have left, and stop kicking them off their territories and into a dependence on factories from which the same corporations profit.
The obvious lesson from all this is to eat locally produced organic food as much as possible, if one can. That is a good choice for health, local farming, sustainability, and reducing pollution. Those who want to might also choose to eat less meat and dairy, or none at all. That is a good choice for those who oppose animal slaughter, believe milk is exploitation, or decide that vegan is better for them. However, claiming veganism means freedom from guilt and sin and is a key to planetary salvation is altogether different and, to say the least, open to question.
Thunberg’s core message in her Mercy for Animals film is “We can change what we eat”, although she admits that some have no choice. In reality, choosing what to eat is an extraordinarily rare privilege, denied to most of the world’s population, including the poor of Detroit and Dhaka. The world’s richest large country has 37 million people who simply do not have enough to eat, of anything; six million of these Americans are children. Those lucky enough to possess the privilege of choice do indeed have an obligation to use it thoughtfully. In that respect anyway, Thunberg is right.