It seemed so simple at first; I was an empathetic person, so I became vegetarian. Little did I know that my journey to ethical and socially just eating was only beginning – and it was a much more paradoxical road to get there than I thought.
Growing up near my godparents’ farm and bonding with the beasts that produced our dairy was a formative experience. The moment I knew that I was cut out to never eat animals came much later, though. It was during a three-week-long family road trip through the United States when I was 12 that my sister asked what was in a large transport truck. She was confused, they looked like cows – but why would cows be in a truck? Where were they going? My mother, never one to insult our intelligence or maturity, explained to my sister how hamburgers actually worked. A few years later I still couldn’t shake the image in my mind and became vegetarian. I went vegetarian on-and-off until I was 19 years old – I gave up meat for good and became a vegan not long after.
As with many vegans, I thought the ethical choice was simple – don’t kill other things to eat them, don’t eat the products of animals cruelly confined and exploited for food. While animal rights are a good starting point, a truly ethical diet must take other factors into consideration. Plant-based diets are touted as being an environmentally-friendly choice – 18 per cent of total global climate-changing emissions are from livestock production (more than all forms of transportation combined). It takes 227 litres of water to produce a pound of potatoes and 908 to produce a pound of soybeans, but 45,459 litres to produce a single pound of beef. In a world with increasingly less fresh water security, it seems that conserving water seems like the obvious sustainable choice.
Organic fruits and vegetables, however, only make up 11.4 per cent of all U.S. fruits and vegetable sales. Organic food sales in total only make up 3.7 per cent of all food sold in the U.S.. If one’s diet is plant-based, this means that chances are that it is likely heavily comprised of non-organic plants. According to the USDA, the detrimental effects of non-organic farming include, but are not limited to: soil erosion and dysfunction, water scarcity, water pollution, destruction of forests and loss of wildlife wetlands, and reduced genetic biodiversity. It’s not just the environment that suffers – conventional farming also harms farm workers.
An estimate from the World Health Organization puts the total cases of pesticide poisoning worldwide at between two and five million workers each year. Forty thousand of those workers will die due to pesticide poisoning. Animal rights are important, but what about human rights?
Child labour is rampant in agriculture. The International Labour Organization estimates that 10 per cent of the workforce in developing countries is made up of children between the ages of five and 14, 70 per cent of which are working in the agricultural industry. In a country with a short growing season as our own frozen home, we rely on produce to be imported from many of those developing countries, meaning that we are financially supporting these industries. In America, there are an estimated 300,000 to 800,000 child labourers according to the National Centre for Farmworkers health. The numbers are hard to extract, but many children of the many migrant labourers who come to North America accompany their parents to work in the fields. This problem is not exclusive to conventional farming.
While a certified organic sticker may mean that the farm follows environmentally sound practices, it says little of the labour standards of the farm. The labour standards in Canada’s Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program have not changed since 1966 and organic and conventional farms use the program alike. In fact, organic farming requires human labour to do the job that pesticides and herbicides cannot, and it is a much more labour-intensive growing process. Although many organic farmers are trying to create a new food system and do avoid using migrant labour, there are some that do.
While in search of a diet whose politics line up with mine, I have found I will almost nearly fall short. I literally cannot fathom killing and butchering an animal for food and so I will continue to abstain from meat. As a vegan living in Manitoba, the only way for me to realistically eat the ultimate sustainable and socially just diet would be to eat only local, organic, produce and spend my summer days preserving enough vegetables to get me through the winter months, so as not to rely on food produced with questionable labour practices that is shipped miles and miles. This is not financially or realistically feasible, but I haven’t given up – if we all made one or two changes to our diets regularly, we could begin to refine the system.
My friend Janessa says that every dollar you spend is a vote for the kind of world you want to live in. I think that is a true and important statement. I buy from the farmer’s market in the summer – fresh organic vegetables from people I know. I buy organic when possible, year-round. I try to eat more in-season vegetables in the winter – root vegetables and squashes. I buy specialty organic and vegan products from local specialty stores to keep money in our community and support local businesses. I buy fair trade wine, coffee, and chocolate. In search of a truly ethical diet, it’s not about being perfect but being aware of what goes in our bodies and how it got there.