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How Non-Veganism Contributes to Human Rights Violations

“You’re thinking of going vegan? But what about farmers? Slaughterhouse workers will lose their jobs!” Here’s why I think non-veganism actually contributes towards human suffering.

“Vegans only care about animals, what about the humans?”

“Why worry about animal suffering when there is so much human suffering?” 

“You are a vegan? Man, why do you guys hate humans so much?”

“What about human rights? Aren’t people more important than animals?”

One of the constant retorts thrown at vegans is an accusation that they hate humans or that they do not care about human suffering. While that cannot be generalized – because we have all kinds of humans going vegan – women, queers, blacks, marginalized sections (against the media shown picture of elitist vegans enjoying dishes I cannot pronounce) – who pretty much have good reasons to hate at least certain sects of humans for oppressing them along with animals -- I’m writing this piece not as adefense to how vegans care/do not care about humans, but how non-veganism (the sole consumption in itself) hurts humans, and how that is never spoken about by those opposing veganism on humanitarian grounds.

But before I move to that, let’s just clarify what veganism IS NOT:

  • A Diet – You will not find an ethical vegan having a cheat day.
  • A Lifestyle – You will find many corporate, social sector and various field-working vegans, it’s not a ‘hippie’s thing’.
  • Anti-cruelty – Yes, a large part includes oppression through cruelty, but that’s not all about it. Just because it is not cruel does not make it vegan.
  • Welfare – Well, let’s put it this way – Welfare says, “Let’s humanely murder the animals”, while veganism says, “I will not myself murder, or fund anyone to do that on my behalf. I do not support this murder – humane or not does not matter, that animal does not want to die – either in a stinking slaughterhouse floor covered with yesterday’s murdered remains or on your clean and soft satin sleep mattress.”

Veganism, as defined by the Vegan Society, resonates the most with this principle – Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. Now, moving on to the most common humanitarian grounds used to discard the philosophy that speaks against the use of animals:
“But slaughterhouse workers will lose their jobs! They will run out of employment!”

It is no news that slaughterhouse workers work under extremely dangerous conditions – health-wise and safety-wise. Safety hazards like heavy and repetitive lifting, proximity to dangerous equipment, and health hazards like the susceptibility to respiratory illnesses, infections by antibiotic resistant bacteria, etc. But apart from these physical dangers, slaughterhouse workers are also exposed to mental issues. Connecting the link with PTSD, psychologists now believe that slaughterhouse workers experience something similar to child soldier conflict situations in which children are forced to commit horrific acts.

And guess who’s working in these slaughterhouses -- with huge physical and mental risks associated to this ‘occupation’? Nope, not the upper classes. I have a Brahmin family of more than three generations that I know of, all of whom mostly consume meat, but never have I ever even seen them step into a slaughterhouse, nor do I know of anyone within my social class working in a slaughterhouse. So who is working there, then? Abroad, the illegal immigrants who do not have the capacity to drag employers to courts for labour and humanitarian violations; and in India, well – you guessed that right: it’s Dalits and Muslims. It’s a global practice to only employ marginalized and/or communities that will not have financial standing to sue employers over any employment issues like low wages, unsafe conditions, lack of secure facilities, etc. Non-vegans talk passionately about maintaining employment of slaughterhouse workers, but kindly note that nobody wants ‘slaughtering animals as a career choice’. So, this passion can be redirected in probably either getting them an alternative form of employment, or at least getting them some therapy sessions for the PTSD they face for the meat that non-vegans cannot give up.

And let this come best from the workers –

Ed Van Winkle who worked at Morrell Slaughterhouses, Sioux City (quoted in the minutes of Tyson Foods’ Annual Shareholders Meeting in 2006):

“ ‘The worst thing, worse than the physical danger [of on-the-job accidents] is the emotional toll,’ Winkle said. ‘Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them – beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.’ ”

Virgil Butler – worked in a poultry plant in the US, run by the American firm Tyson (1997-2002) – who started working as an anti-slaughter activist and helped in setting up a sanctuary for rescued animals with his partner Laura Alexander, said:

The sheer amount of killing and blood can really get to you after a while. Especially if you can’t just shut down all emotion and turn into a robot zombie of death. You feel like part of a big death machine. You are pretty much treated that way as well. Sometimes weird thoughts will enter your head. It’s just you and the dying chickens. The surreal feelings grow into such a horror of the barbaric nature of your behaviour. You are murdering helpless birds by the thousands (75,000 to 90,000 a night). You are a killer.’ 

The same capitalistic food production system that is responsible for the oppression of billions of animals is also to be blamed for the below-average work conditions and hazards of thousands of humans working in these murder chambers. Anyone who consumes the carcasses processed through this industry, is directly responsible for everything that that slaughterhouse worker will go through as a direct consequence of their/her/his ‘employment’ in the torture house. And as a nation that is lynching minorities left right and center, for even trading beef, it is pretty ironic to use humanitarian reasons as excuses to not 'give up' on meat. 

“But what about the farmers?! What will they do?”

All right, so let’s see if the farmers of India are happy being farmers in the first place –meaning whether they consent to this occupation that’s seen over 3 lac farmers’ suicides since 1995:

As per the FAO - India reports, the total food grain production for 2017-18 was estimated at 275 million tonnes (MT). India is the largest producer, consumer and importer of pulses in the world. Our annual milk production was 165 MT (2017-18), making India the largest producer of milk, jute and pulses, and with the world's second-largest cattle population (190 million) in 2012. We are also the second-largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, cotton and groundnuts, as well as the second-largest fruit and vegetable producer, accounting for 10.9% and 8.6% of the world's fruit and vegetable production, respectively.

So, with the high rates of food production – grains, milk and meat – why are our farmers still committing suicide?

According to reports, nearly 70% of India’s 90 million agricultural households spend more than they earn on average each month, pushing them towards debt, which is now the primary reason for more than half of all suicides by farmers nationwide. The Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), based in Delhi, found that given an option, the majority of farmers in the country would prefer to take up some other work. Poor income, bleak future and stress are the main reasons why they want to give up farming. The data from the last Census Report of India showed that 8.6 million farmers gave up farming and chose a different means of earning.

So, why are we using farmers as an excuse to not go vegan?

“You know how many hungry people are there? Do you not care about them? They cannot afford vegan food!”

Currently, the world population is around 7.5 billion (expected to be 8.5 billion by 2030) and about 800 million people are starving – meaning 1 in 9 people suffer from starvation, and 1 in 3 people suffer from malnutrition. Although we are succeeding in food production, India is also winning the race of being home to the largest starving population in the world. India today homes a quarter of the world’s hungry people and over 190 million undernourished people. Every year, 9 million people die from succumbing to starvation.

But when we have global reports stating that the world food production output is about enough to feed 10 billion people, why are we losing millions of humans to starvation? Well, mostly because hunger is ironically not related to food production, but poverty.

NSSO conducted a survey on Household Consumption of Various Goods and Services in India 2011-12, and it revealed a mass distribution of food in India based on the class-caste system:

  • The richest 5% of the urban population spends around Rs. 3,000 - Rs. 2,859 per head, i.e. 9 times more than that spent by the bottom 5% of the rural population.
  • Although the top 5% in urban India/Fractile 12 spend only about 2.2 times more than the amount spent by the poorest 5% of rural Indians on cereal, you go up the nutrition ladder and a very different picture emerges. 
  • The richest 5% spend around three-and-a-half times more on pulses than that spent by the poorest 5%. 
  • On vegetables, they spend around 3.8 times more. 
  • On eggs, fish and meat, the multiple is 14.5 times; on milk products, 23.8 times. 
  • And on fresh fruits, which are obviously a luxury, they spend 61 times more than what the poorest 5% spend. 

Classes are maintained and poverty continues, leading to starvation mostly in the under-developed or developing nations because we refuse to acknowledge the disaster animal agriculture is causing – not only to the animals who are bred to be killed, but also our fellow humans who starve because we chose to use that vast land and water resources to continue animal agriculture – and we aren’t even the beneficiaries of this in any way. It’s been well-documented that Western developed nations are the highest meat consumers.

Veganism is not about ending human suffering, world hunger, or unemployment – it is about not using animals as if they were nothing more than a commodity. While going vegan will definitely reduce the demand for animal products and hence the employment in that area, that necessarily does not imply a big unemployed population. Going vegan does not mean you stop eating food, it means you stop consuming animal products – and there is no reason why plant-based food cannot generate employment. Also, as consumers, it is not our sole responsibility to ensure the running of all the industries in the business. This is like telling someone not to quit smoking because it would cause unemployment to the workers in the tobacco industry. Or using self-service facilities which no longer need cashiers – so now please do not use electronic modes of money transfer because cashiers are losing their jobs. Even if this wasn’t true and a strong argument, I would still ask this: is a job or accepted means of livelihood a moral justification to breed, to kill, enslave, mutilate, torture, murder animals and profit at their suffering?

While veganism is not a solution to every issue in the world – it is and should be made a part of the solution of the most crucial crises we are facing, including climate change. Veganism has faced a lot of criticism – mostly because it directly questions the everyday choices we make, and although the initial defensive response is understandable, continuing to use someone else’s suffering (unemployment, hunger, etc.) as your excuse to not give up funding the deaths and torture of billions of animals is cognitively shameful.

The questions should not be ‘does veganism lead to unemployment of workers’ or ‘does it solve world hunger’ -- there has not been enough research on this yet. But there is ample documented data and research to show how non-veganism has contributed to a large number of human problems.

Most of the vegans I know have turned vegan because they could find the connection between different forms of institutional oppressions – there are queer vegans, black vegans, non elitist vegans – who inherently turned vegan because they already did care about humans. Just because you stand against one form of oppression does not stop you from calling out other forms of oppressions and discriminations, especially when veganism is a basic philosophy of ‘non-action’ – meaning all you have to do is stop funding these horrific things in the name of food, clothing, and entertainment.

Apoorva Katpatal

Apoorva Katpatal

Jeevoka member since Nov 2019

Yo! I am an intersectional feminist and a vegan who happens to be a lawyer. I wish to use my academics, skills, experiences, and my intersectional privilege for the liberations (or at least my participation in em) of the marginalised communities - currently using those for the largest discriminated category, i.e. non-human animals. I super hope to use law as an instrumentality of change - for animals and for marginalised human communities like women (there are those who haven't reached the 'glass ceiling' and my trans-sisters are still struggling to be called a woman nuff so it's a long battle), queers, and sexual abuse survivors. I'm a vegan and doing awesome health-wise, except my tolerance for unsolicited opinions/conversations and uniformed privileged opinions runs in negatives. I like to chill by myself, and the 2.5 peeps I've in life. #DeathInMyMetalNotOnMyPlate
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