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An Animal Rights Advocate Contemplates Growing Green

by Lee Hall

[This article was originally published in Growing Green International, Summer 2006, for The Vegan-Organic Network.]

Thank you for asking me to say a few things about North American advocacy for Growing Green International, a publication that has influenced my outreach and that of our group, Friends of Animals, in positive ways. I’ll offer a brief update on how we’re working to bring ideas about organic vegetable growing, and specifically veganic growing, into animal rights advocacy.

Advocating Total Vegetarianism

Starting at the beginning, we see a connection between animal rights, organic growing, and vegetarianism, and we envision a holistic view that weaves these ideas together.

Sometimes, vegetarian and environmentalist groups expressly make allowances for animal products in their promotions. A number of individual Vegetarian Societies, citing the International Vegetarian Union for authority on the point, define vegetarianism as including eggs and dairy products as optional components. In the year 2006, no realistic argument can fit dairy products and eggs into ethical activism, and the founders of the original Vegetarian Societies did, after all, clearly establish them on ethical principles.

The cream in the coffee might seem, to some, unworthy of political action, but the milk of the mothers of others is a good place to begin to interrogate our universal domination of other conscious beings -- indeed, the idea of domination itself. In the cream, we see the experience of a cow whose life consists of pregnancies and separations and whose death is violent, and if animal-rights activism means anything, it involves that cream, that product of deforestation that ruins the earth for animals who could have enjoyed a life of freedom. The cream in the coffee connects us with the polluted streams and the pesticides that poison workers and the land.

So mainstream environmentalists, as well, need to summon the courage to explain to their members and prospective members that the planet can’t go on in the way it is now, burdened by animal agriculture. If anything, rather than tailoring their policies to suit the least progressive definition of vegetarianism, advocacy groups in North America and elsewhere ought to be hosting vegan organic workshops. But alas, they’re nowhere near that point if they haven’t acknowledged the urgency of making the dairy industry obsolete.

Social Cultivation

Perhaps the best way to look at this is as an opportunity for cultivation. Friends of Animals has written up proposals, asking various advocacy groups to see the importance of defining vegetarianism consistently -- that is, as a diet based on preparing foods with ingredients derived entirely from plants. This, we think, will permit more people to envision their own roles in the interconnected struggles for environmental justice, food security, individual healthcare empowerment, and respect for the health of agricultural workers. We hope to inspire these groups to learn about and support community gardening. It has to happen in North America if humanity is to have a hope of addressing and reversing the ecological damage we’ve inflicted on a fed-up planet.

A number of individual animal advocates and small vegetarian groups have shown some promising support. If we are carrying a healthful message, perhaps it is to be expected that toxins rise to the surface, though -- and we have met with some rather harsh resistance. People wanting to stay on expressly lacto-ovo-vegetarian terms adamantly claim that allowing dairy products into events is the best way to encourage people to eventually become vegans, and that “our members are on the path.”

At least they acknowledge a path. The problem is that when anyone’s moving along it, they tend to get in the way. And there’s an urgency to our work, as in any activism on behalf of living beings. Vegetarianism at its best respects the lives of other conscious individuals, as well as one’s own body. This holistic view connects diet to a political consciousness that views humanity as part of a biocommunity rather than in control of it.

Humane Meat-Whole Foods Myths

[Friends of Animals questions plans by international grocer Whole Foods Market to sell meat with an "Animal Compassion" label. ] This view resists the pressure to support trendy grocers’ ideas such as the “Animal Compassion Foundation”, cage-free eggs, and animal products marketed through various other humane certification schemes. Such promotions are popular because both sides -- advocates and agribusiness -- can claim to have orchestrated humane victories.

The Label Game

The free-range label appeals to shoppers who see factory farms as inhumane, uncouth, or biologically dangerous. For investors in this sector, profits can be impressive. Britain’s latest figures show that the value of non-cage egg sales has overtaken cage-produced eggs. Even McDonald’s uses free-range eggs these days. Of course, most “free-range” offerings are, in reality, mass-produced commodities involving no pastures at all. True free-range production, by its very nature, could never be affordable to most of humanity. And as they push their expensive plans, advocacy groups become gatekeepers, consultants available to share recommendations on how to handle domesticated animals. Their employees commit to memory the dimensions of cages, the mechanics of slaughter. Radical activism, in contrast, entails going to the root of the problem, dissuading the public from supporting animal agribusiness. And although no one can be arrested for vegan gardening, setting oneself free from the social addiction to animal products is serious direct action. It’s not a matter of decrying the worst abuses -- agriculture’s torture photos -- but of challenging the systematic injustices of the everyday.

The free-range notion presents no such challenge. Ironically, it targets its advertising concepts to the consumers who would otherwise be drawn to vegetarian ideals. And unfortunately, while they focus on goals such as “improving the living and dying conditions” of animals sold as fast food, campaigners let the interests of free animals languish and become invisible. Yet if free-living animals were thought to have a claim to their territory and freedom, then finally the polluting and resource-consuming ranchers and animal farmers would meet a true challenge!

Friends of Animals cannot see any real point to negotiating agreements with animal vendors or believing that they can be reformed. It’s far more sensible to educate our members about vegan living. Animal rights is only a viable idea as long as there is an animal world at liberty to simply avoid being classified as consumer items. Thus, getting serious about animal advocacy means pausing to reflect on the content of our refrigerators, questioning revered social traditions. That’s the work of putting animal-rights theory into action; and it doesn’t require threats or force. It involves a commitment to avoid violence -- a far more radical proposal.

This takes us to the original meaning of veganism, which, as Donald Watson described it, meant abolishing vast industries and establishing new ones. That means swimming against the tide of professional advocacy, and deciding instead to swim with the planet’s tide. Vegetarianism, consistently defined, has a comparatively low ecological impact. And the global ecology is habitat in which animals can live in peace, on their own terms.

March for Peace in DC

[Three Friends of Animals -- Priscilla Feral, Lee Hall, and Bob Orabona -- march for peace in Washington, D.C.] Knowing that animal-rights theory encompasses physical safety for all conscious beings, we have also been present at peace vigils, small and large, in several cities. And of course we are always talking with peace activists about the importance of refusing to digest the products of violence.

Taking a Position on Biotech

We have also been going out into communities and presenting information about the rise of genetic engineering, the threat it poses to organic vegetable growing, and why people should care about both. Most of our genetically modified crops go to domesticated animals, with multinational giants Monsanto and Cargill pushing their “enhanced” products for animal feed markets.

While much of the land of the global south produces soybeans to feed cattle, companies also promote meat consumption inside the less affluent regions themselves. Not surprisingly, the imposition of animal agriculture often foreshadows calamity. Egypt, for example, has had to shift to imports to feed its people after having taken the advice of the U.S. Agency for International Development and investing heavily in animal agriculture.


protesting military in Iraq

[Friends of Animals protesting the military occupation of Iraq.] More recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed to allow contamination of human food crops with engineered crops, showing its willingness to experiment with the whole world’s food supply. Public knowledge is essential if we are to effectively challenge the entanglement of government agencies and corporate motivations.

Informed activism can be effective. After the University of California at Berkeley denied tenure to Ignacio Chapela for publishing facts about contamination of native Mexican corn by genetically engineered corn, public activism prevailed. Chapela told supporters, “I know of no other case where the public’s role in the conferring of tenure has been more evident.”

Chapela vowed to continue writing and building resistance to the pressure applied by the biotechnology industry on the university. The importance of this commitment would be difficult to overstate. It was a Cornell University study that showed how pollen from modified corn descended on milkweed plants and threatened Monarch butterfly populations. As windblown pollen from genetically modified plots can kill insects on surrounding areas, small farms that rely on the interactions of predators and parasites are in danger. Monsanto’s weed-killer, Roundup, may poison fish, earthworms, spiders, mites, and beetles; and it may increase the cancer risk to farm workers.

Vegetarianism and Organics

I’ll conclude with some good news about veganics. The aptly named Sage Publications got me writing an entry on vegetarianism for the forthcoming Encyclopædia of Activism and Social Justice. Simply gathering current, objective information for a reference book makes it clear that animal agribusiness can’t be the way of the future. The entry will discuss the advent of vegan organics, specifically mentioning the work of the Vegan Organic Network in the development of plant-based manures, in preserving the health of the soil, and in raising awareness about the ecological roles of the myriad small animals on cultivated lands.

Some object that uneven terrain, inefficient for cropland, might support hardy grazing animals such as goats. The Vegan Organic Network empowers vegetarians to explain how such land can also support fruit trees. When much of the land is converted, of course, the pressure to use marginally productive plots would be reduced, because less land would be needed overall.

That land is the animals’ home. Clearly the success of veganic cultivation is essential to the best understanding of animal rights.