Wednesday, March 23, 2011

No Need for Absolutism: In Defense of the Vegan/Omnivore Alliance Against Factory Farming

It makes sense.  Tom Philpott proposes that vegans and omnivores work together against factory farming.  I don't think he's sure exactly what we are going to do yet, and that is fine.  Point is to promote the idea that we are a much larger force if we work against factory farming together.

Here is his article:  I didn't find the article to exactly express warm welcome toward vegans, but that is OK.  It is a great place to start.

The fighting begins immediately following the article's release. If you haven't already, you should see the thread that resulted from Food Inc.'s posting of the article on Facebook.  Wow.  I haven't even checked Twitter yet, I've been in the Facebook discussion for a long while now.

My thoughts are as follows:

We are going to face the same issues as always between vegans and omnivores in said alliance. We need to start by avoiding the fighting, stereotyping and name-calling. One issue Tom doesn't take up is that there appear to be at least two schools of vegan ideology: the "abolitionist" and the "welfarist." The abolitionist vegan wants to do away with animal agriculture entirely. The welfarist vegan still eats a vegan diet and agrees with much of the sentiment, but ideologically supports welfare measures to improve the lives of farmed animals (and, might also support improvements in slaughterhouse techniques, improved stunning, slowing speed of the line, etc.).  It gets in the way of effective, open communication between vegans & omnivores when the argument focuses only on rebuking abolitionist thinking.

Plant-eaters who are interested in working side-by-side with omnivores on this issue should consider this: If we support (not necessarily promote) welfare vs. abolition given the current (and historical) demand for animal products, 10 billion land animals a year, we acknowledge the realistic goal of decreasing and not necessarily eliminating demand for animal products. We don't have to compromise our own value system to do this. Some people will choose veganism and some people won't, as a direct result of learning the same information. We can give the information. We can discuss the information. And then people choose.

A rigid focus on absolutism, as in going 100% vegan is the only way to fight factory farming, may not be as helpful as a focus on decreasing demand in general.  There are so many factors in play that keep omnivores eating meat and animal products: strong taste preference, embedded ideology and decades of misinformation promoted by the USDA to name a few.  We can definitely still educate and support those interested in totally eliminating animal products and embracing veganism with all of the resources we already know and love.  But others need help setting more flexible goals.  I see supporting flexibility to reduce demand as a realistic strategy for dealing with the complexity the topic brings to the table.

Let's accept that the idea that truly eliminating factory farmed meat and animal products would be just as "radical" as not eating any meat and animal products (as "radical" vegans do).  Let's work instead of argue.  We have no where to go but down...from 99% of available animal products being factory farmed to even 80% would be a great success.  Borat would definitely approve.

I don't know how many other "welfarist vegans" are out there, and therefore we have the next problem: I'm sure some vegans already don't think I'm a vegan. I truly hope we stop marginalizing each other in this way and can agree on some obvious common ground.   Vegans against vegans, vegans against vegetarians, vegans against omnivores, omnivores against vegans, selective omnivores against eat-everything omnivores, the debates rage.  There is a continuous spectrum of eaters, from the eat-everything omnivore to the vegan with multiple food allergies, and we all fall somewhere along that spectrum.  If we are within an arms reach of the next person down the line, why not reach out and hold hands?

I choose a vegan diet and support the lifestyle for many reasons.  Another important reason to choose a vegan diet, one that can ring true to many, is that it is near impossible to accurately source and purchase more ethically farmed meat and especially more ethically produced animal products (butter, cream cheese, etc.) very tough. There is also the question of the actual meat.  Where are family farmed animals sent to slaughter?  It seems that some family farmed animals are still sent to commercial slaughterhouses (where the atrocities are well known) because the small butcheries have been put out of business. I don’t have more information on this issue.  And, for those interested in this topic, I can't seem to get more information on it, despite some looking and my respectful questions on the AWA blog.  Omnivores should be as informed as possible when choosing to eat animal products from any source.  If folks want to do the research to source more ethically farmed animal products (including going to the slaughterhouses used by family farms) then that is their decision, but they should be as informed as possible when making that decision.  

I'm here to support whatever measures will help people to eat less (hopefully significantly less) of that 99% of factory farmed foods. If a person ate vegan one, two, three or more days a week, they could eat family farmed animal products on the other days and reduce a lot of suffering, ethical problems and demand for factory farmed meats. Let's go there.

What goals do folks propose? Let's start working, and leave education of the finer points for another time. Maybe we can create a page with links to the resources, books, articles & webpages people we are all discussing so that can be put out of the way and people can access it at their leisure. 

Questions for the masses:
If you support welfare reforms to animal farming, are you still eating factory farmed products? If so, which ones? Let's assume the why answer is because they taste good, fine, let's accept that. Let's get some data on what foods people are having difficulty sourcing ethically and refer them to vegan versions or somehow to ethically sourced animal versions (I don't know about this, though, I will need people's help and not just a referral to the AWA website). Since everyone will not go vegan in my lifetime (or likely any other) what do folks propose omnivores do instead? Please be specific as I have not heard a resource put forward that was not somehow linked to commercial slaughterhouses which many people, knowledgeable omnivores included, are against. Not saying they aren't out there, just saying I don't know about them and I have done some digging.

Ideas? Obviously I say eat as many vegan meals per day, per week, per year as possible.  We also must work together to create options where it seems like there are none, to share resources, to support and encourage each other when the going gets tough.  I can help with the vegan end of things.  Who else will come to our aid?  Will Rohan answer? Light the beacons!

Feel free to comment on this post with ideas, insights, and solutions.  No criticisms or attacks, please.  I know it is a lot to ask, but let's stay solutions-focused.  For the animals, for ourselves, for our future.



  1. I am curious whether you are familiar with Donald Watson's definition of vegan (he is the person that created the term) and if so do you feel like your version of vegan is consistent with his thoughts?

  2. Hi Veganelder,

    Great question. I believe this is the definition you are referring to, "Veganism is a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose." (from the vegan society's website,

    Welfarism is really a strategy for advocacy and not a new definition of veganism itself. Let me explain. The “welfare” vegan supports reform measures in addition to promoting full-time or part-time veganism as a solution to the problems of animal agriculture. Due to the astronomical demand for animal products, I feel that supporting (and especially not opposing) welfare measures in addition to providing as much education about animal agriculture as possible to omnivores is likely to have a significant impact on demand. It is a realistic strategy, is both possible and practicable. We must reduce demand for animal products.

    In the social work profession this strategy is called “harm reduction,” and the approach of support is a way to soften the overpowering message of cruelty and torture we know to be true of animal agriculture. It is very difficult to hear that message for folks who are still dependent on animal products. We must remember that.

    Welfarism is a reductionist rather than an abolitionist strategy. Not all will agree with it. My point is that even if we promote veganism, we can still support welfare measures. Of course I am not asking that vegans promote welfare measures instead of veganism, or encourage eating or using APs. But, I’d like to see more purist vegans (whom I support 100%) attempt to be more open to people who aren’t willing to go all the way, or even most of the way. If folks soften their approach just a little through tone, word choice, etc. it will allow their same message to be heard much more effectively. This is a basic and extremely effective strategy that I use as a therapist to work through defensiveness with my clients.

    Listening is also just as important. People must feel heard to be receptive to new information. We must truly listen to the concerns of omnivores. Desire, especially for food, is incredibly motivating. People are dependent upon, even addicted to animal products. Fear of the unknown (the vegan diet) is a huge barrier. We need to support interest, provide education to alleviate fear and lack of resources, and certainly, not attack those who express interest (even if at first that “interest” is in the form of attacking us).
    I am also trying to raise awareness of and increase tolerance for differences in how we eat or don’t eat, how we change and move along the spectrum of eating plants and animals. If we educate in a way that is matter-of-fact and don’t get defensive ourselves, we can reach omnivores who are willing to change. We must also believe that people can change.

    Helping others to eat fewer factory farmed animal products seems to me to be in line with Donald’s vision, though may fall short of providing the utopia he desires (and there is nothing wrong with hoping for that utopia). Again, we can educate without defense and some people will listen. Then they will choose. Some will choose vegan. Some will not. But those who don’t choose vegan today may choose it tomorrow. Those who don’t choose vegan may also stop buying factory farmed products as a direct result of information we have provided and with our support. There is a chance for growth and change with each and every choice we make. Let’s not push folks away, let’s call them in and welcome them. Let’s help them see more choices.

    I also found Donald's first original, quarterly magazine! Cool!

    Hope this helps you understand where I’m coming from. Please let me know your thoughts.


  3. Lovely post. I was shocked by many of the responses to the actual article, from both sides. You have done well to bring some productive sanity to the conversation.

    I was veggie for 6 years after putting myself through my first year of University flipping burgers. (I felt a serious sense of karmic responsibility after making all those cheeseburgers.)

    I have since returned to my omnivore ways, but I do my best to do so consciously. I don't think changing the rules or legislation regarding factory farming is the way to go. The critics are right - the industry is too sneaky and too powerful.

    You touch on an important point - it's tough to eat consciously. As meat eaters we need to make it easier for ourselves to step outside the industrial process entirely.

    For me, it means keeping backyard chickens for both eggs AND meat. The rest of our meat is pastured & raised by a family that cares about animal welfare. Buying meat this way is more expensive and means we eat less of it. Meatless Mondays are a fixture in our house, despite the fact my husband is serious meat-and-potatoes guy. It's not perfect, but its a start.

    More alternative options like mobile slaughterhouses would mean it would be much easier for folks to find responsibly raised and slaughtered meat locally.

    We saw Joel Salatin speak last weekend and he made a good point that applies here: We can't expect to convert someone who's eating fast food daily into someone who shops at the farmer's market. We have to focus on moving people one step closer towards our goals. Baby steps.

    Vegans and their allies need to remember that there are lots of people who don't eat veggies at all!! (Check out Oprah's one week vegan challenge - some of her staff ate ONLY fast food and were only having one bowel movement a WEEK!!! No WONDER they were pooping like crazy when they went vegan!!)

    If all of us as allies can find tiny ways to move people one tiny step closer to more ethical eating, all of us, our environment AND the animals will be drastically better off.

    Do folks agree? Some is better than none? Or is the best solution an all-or-nothing approach?

    Thanks again for the great post,

    @slowfoodsmama on twitter

  4. The vegan/non-vegan alliance already exists; they're called PETA, HSUS, Farm Sanctuary, Vegan Outreach, and every other mainstream animal welfare organization. Maybe you all can organize a "pastured Mondays" or "I'd rather go naked than wear factory-farmed leather" campaign!

    Of course, if we really care about the welfare of animals we will stop killing and eating them.

  5. Thank you Dawn for elaborating re your post. Of course less suffering is preferable to more suffering and measures to reduce suffering are desirable.

    However, you wrote in your original post: "The level of research and time it takes to source truly ethical products is overwhelming, so I personally choose to eat a vegan diet."

    You seem to be saying that if you could access what you consider "truly ethical products" you would not be eating a vegan diet. I am sorry to be confused but are you saying that you think it is ok to exploit and use the other animals for our (human animal) purposes if it is done in a "truly ethical" way?

    Vegan is not just a "diet", it is a way of living that excludes exploitation.

    Sorry for my confusion, thanks.

  6. @Anonymous, Is that you, Erik? Anyone who follows me on Facbook knows I love and appreciate those organizations. I think you miss the point of my article. I don’t know if you read the whole thing, but it is important not to skim it as I elaborate on many of my ideas of strategy, one being that vegans can still promote veganism while supporting and informing folks who are working towards welfare measures. Bruce Friedrich also promotes this idea.

    In terms of the VOAAF, I think it is an interesting idea to specifically invite omnivores as a primary audience, and those organizations named above tend to be geared towards folks who have already embraced veganism.

    Thanks for your feedback!

  7. @Stacey,

    Thanks so much for your feedback. You make many excellent points. I hope others can understand what I am trying to get at here.

    I hope other folks are as willing as you are to work together on this.


  8. @Veganelder,

    I thought about your feedback and realized my original response to you wasn’t quite what you were asking. I took it down. So, if you are still out there:

    I edited my article to remove that sentence, because I agree with you regarding what it implies. I also removed the qualifier, “truly,” also totally agree with you there.

    I wouldn’t like to eat anything that came from a slaughterhouse, regardless of the methods of slaughter. I also realize that there is (realistically) no such thing as slaughter-free animal products such as eggs, milk, etc. because those animals, too, must go to slaughter after their working life. Regardless of the conditions of raising and “production,” slaughter is slaughter, and I don’t agree with it.

    The word vegan can be either a noun or an adjective. You are referring to the noun form in your comment. It can also be used as an adjective, as in a “vegan diet.” It can be used either way. Both are appropriate and correct.

    I am in the process of editing “About Dawn,” but it is there if you are interested. It’s not perfect and doesn’t explain everything about me or my veganism, but I am working on it.

    I am constantly evolving, changing as a person, as a vegan, and truly thank you for your interest in my ideas.


  9. @Dawn - You are right on about the benefit of a group like VOAFF vs. a group like PETA.

    As an omnivore I respect PETA's work, but I have some major philosophical differences from them, and from vegans in general. I'd be unlikely to get involved with them overall (although I might on certain issues - the KFC campaign comes to mind). I don't think I'm alone in that.

    Concepts like VOAFF have the potential to bridge the gap and find existing areas of common ground that PETA could never take advantage of (and probably wouldn't want to if it could).

    @veganelder I'm a bit confused about where you're coming from. Isn't an "imperfect" veganism better than nothing? Would you rather see a spectrum of people in the vegan "spirit" than folks doing nothing at all? Does any notion of "exploitation" completely negate the spirit of the thing? Please help me understand your point of view.

  10. We are now touching on my next article, Stacey!

    There are plenty of pro-vegan venues (PETA, Vegan Outreach, Farm Sanctuary, etc.) that support what is called the "abolitionist" mindset. Veganelder is a self-proclaimed abolitionist from her blog. Abolitionists are vegans who don't compromise their vegan values and believe, in general, that going 100% vegan is the best (and to them, the only) way to go for understandable ethical reasons. I totally and completely respect that view, but, like I said, there are already many venues for that. The VOAFF is something different, supporting a totally different population. Though I hope some abolitionist vegans will come on board, I don't know how likely it is given their philosophy.

    Furthermore, I find there is a corresponding level of unnecessary hostility towards omnivores in those organizations’ social networking pages, tough to handle if you are just a beginning vegan or curious omnivore. I visit those sites/pages, support them, and comment there on a regular basis. However, I see many conflicts that are needlessly aggressive and outright hostile very frequently.

    I would like a VOAFF where curious omnivores could feel safe posting questions or concerns about animal welfare or cruelty or how to go about eating some plant-based foods, and where vegans (of whichever “school” and to whatever degree they follow “veganism” or eat a vegan diet) will answer without defense, without guile. A VOAFF could be a place where vegans could ask about slaughterhouses (I have some interesting questions and no one to ask!) and not be attacked for "not being vegan" for wanting to know more about farming. I would like it to be more, even, than those things, but I am still working on my thoughts there.

    More to come. Stay tuned. Thank you so much for engaging.


  11. I hold very similar ideals, now you know there are more out there than just you :-)

    FWIW, Farm Sanctuary isn't considered an abolitionist group as far as I know. In fact some abolitionist groups keep a distance from FS because of their work towards laws that are geared towards more humane treatment of farm animals. It is viewed as promoting "Happy Meat" laws. I think the work they do is beyond reproach, myself, but I just wanted to clarify that point.

  12. Duurrrrrr, Dawn. You know its time for bed when you have no idea who you're addressing things to :-)

  13. No worries, Tara. You actually make an excellent clarification, thank you. I don't think Farm Sanctuary is an abolitionist group either, and certainly love the work they do. I just think that abolitionists feel very comfortable getting support there, and omnivores may not.

    In general, I just think that curious omnivores could benefit from something different in addition to the admittedly awesome (but very vegan focused) resources that are out there already. Likewise, I would also like a place for vegans to be able to share and not be labeled or criticized for their questions or concerns. A "VOA" (I think we need to shorten it to the "Vegan Omnivore Alliance") could provide that if done right.

    I am working on it.

    Thanks so much for your feedback. Stay tuned.
    Sincerely, Dawn

  14. Excellent post, Dawn, and some fabulous follow-up comments to boot!

    I think part of the problem is with the definitions themselves, and if I may, I'd like to offer my take on it. There's actually a fair bit of division in the "abolitionist" camp as well, with the Francione-style abolitionist segment being the most vocal, but certainly not representing all abolitionists. Unfortunately though, they seem to have co-opted the term "abolition" to only mean their particular version, and refer to most everybody else as "new welfarists". But there ARE abolitionists who while favouring abolition as an end goal, support (or are certainly not opposed to) welfare measures to reduce current suffering. I count myself as one of them (in essence I share your philosophy but call myself an abolitionist vegan while you term yourself a welfarist vegan), and I'm quite sure that from what I know of him, veganelder also falls into this camp. Norman Phelps is a good example of this type of abolitionist (see link below).

    I agree that we need to stop some of this ridiculous fighting (which ironically some of us vegans seem to have an almost "carnivorous" appetite for, snort), and focus on reducing animal consumption so that one day there won't be any consumption at all. That means, hello, we need to reach out to those that we tend to define and treat as the hostile enemy.

    Sadly, our position is not a popular one within the vegan community, but to me it's the one that's most useful. So I welcome your voice, no matter what you call yourself! ;)

    Also, here's an excellent article by pattrice jones:

  15. Thank you very much, Have Gone Vegan. It is heartening to hear your encouragement.

    I really appreciate your insightful feedback, links, and the very nice clarifications on the finer points of abolitionist vs. welfarist vegan politics, which I am still learning about. I totally agree with you, and would consider that we are of the same "school" regardless of the technicalities of how we name ourselves. I actually hadn't fully realized how unpopular our position is (until I had written the posts, that is :-).

    My hope is to provide information, resources, support, and encouragement to anyone curious about a vegan (or even a "plant based") diet, animal welfare, animal agriculture or anything vegan related without hostility, aggression or judgement. Add that notion to my political position on veganism and, well, I don't think I'm gonna win any elections ;-)

    I look forward to reading those links as well, thank you so much.

    Sincerely, Dawn