Whataboutism is always wrong

Whataboutism is a rhetorical strategy — a kind of counter argument — made popular during the Cold War. Back then, the US would assail the USSR over human rights violations, and instead of responding to the charges, the Soviets would say, “But what about your own abuses of the homeless? What about your treatment of women? What about etc. etc.?” Whataboutism is a tool for distraction and deflection.

The Cold War is (mostly) over, but whataboutism is still going strong. Our president is a big fan of it, and so are carnivores, apparently. People learn that I’m a vegan and ask, “How can you care more for animals than people? What about all the starving children in Africa/Asia/Appalachia? What about people dying of cancer?”

The obvious answers that line of questioning is “Do you think I can only care about one thing at a time?”

A recent study has shown that I’m not alone in my thinking. In fact, it’s not only shown that people can care about the welfare of multiple groups, it’s shown that people are more likely to do so. The big takeaway:

“In other words, concern for human suffering seemed to feed concern for animal suffering, and vice versa. It’s the suffering, not the species, that matters to many….

Compassion begets compassion. The response, both in argument and in practice, to ‘what about X?’ is ‘yes, that too.‘”


Circus in Germany Goes Cruelty-Free by Replacing Real Animals with Holographs

[A] circus in Germany known as Circus Roncalli has taken a more creative approach to the issue [of animal cruelty] to help to keep circus shows alive—it has swapped real animals for holograms.

Circus Roncalli first began entertaining crowds with animals in 1976; but today, the organizers are the pioneers of the futuristic hologram approach in an attempt to fight against animal cruelty in the entertainment industry. While the traveling shows still feature real acrobats and swirling fires, none of the animals are real. Instead, Roncalli project 360° 3D holographic images that fill the entire 105-foot-wide, 16-foot-deep arena.

via My Modern Met

Beyond Meat, but not beyond masculinity

[M]eat-eating has long been associated with masculinity. And so the Los Angeles-based company, in its mission to make meatless choices mainstream, has leaned into the manliness of a hearty, red-liquid-dripping burger (even if that liquid isn’t blood). Its marketing strategies avoid potentially off-putting words like “vegan” or “veggie burger“….

If Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods succeed in instilling this new idea of meat, the cultural link between meat and masculinity may well remain intact. “We can’t just eat our way out of toxic masculinity,” says Max Elder, the research director at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research center in Silicon Valley.

“Are these plant-based meat alternatives sufficiently different that they will challenge existing ideologies?” he asks. “I’m sort of skeptical that we can both preserve everything that these companies want from meat, and get rid of everything these companies don’t want from meat at the same time.” 

— Sarah Todd, writing for Quartz

Food for thought

The newest version of the Impossible Burger–the plant-based meat that uses food science to replicate the taste and feel of beef–has a carbon footprint 89% smaller than a burger made from a cow.

A new  analysis found that the burger also uses 87% less water than beef, uses 96% less land, and cuts water contamination by 92%. Those numbers are improvements on the last iteration of the burger, in part because the company has become more efficient as it grows and because it switched from wheat to soy as a key ingredient, because soy also yields more acres on a farm. But the majority of the impact simply comes from the fact that the product isn’t made from an animal.

— Here’s how the footprint of the plant-based Impossible Burger compares to beef


I think anthropomorphism is not such a big deal with species that are close to us, and that’s why I invented the word “anthropodenial,” which is the opposite. [It means] that you deny that there are connections between humans and other species. And actually, entire areas in the university — like philosophy, anthropology [and] parts of psychology — they are anthropodenial. … They’re saying that the human mind and the human spirit are so totally different, we cannot compare them with what a monkey or a dolphin or [another] animal is doing. They are denying that connection, which I think is detrimental and is actually much more dangerous, in my opinion, because anthropodenial has a lot of negative side effects in my mind. It’s much more dangerous than anthropomorphism.

Frans de Waal on NPR, where he speaks about his new book, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves

Food for thought

Uniquely human emotions don’t exist. More and more, I believe that we share all emotions with other species in the same way that we share virtually every organ in our bodies with them. No exceptions. 

Like organs, the emotions evolved over millions of years to serve essential functions. Their usefulness has been tested again and again, giving them the wisdom of ages. They nudge us to do what is best for us. Some emotions may be more developed in humans, or apply to a wider range of circumstances, but none is fundamentally new.

— Frans de Waal in the New York Times

Nonprofit that advocates for meat alternatives lands start-up funds from Y Combinator

From Fast Company:

At the demo day for Y Combinator’s summer batch of startups, most of the companies are, unsurprisingly, focused on digital tech–like Bot M.D., an AI assistant for doctors working in developing countries, or Shelf Engine, a startup that uses demand forecasting to help grocery stores eliminate waste. But the roster also includes a startup nonprofit that is working to grow the burgeoning market for “clean meat”–animal protein grown in vats from stem cells, so that it can avoid the problems inherent in producing meat from animals.

Good Food Institute, founded two and a half years ago, is working on building that larger ecosystem. It works with universities to recruit young scientists and entrepreneurs to the new field of clean meat. It performed market research to land on the phrase “clean meat” for the industry (rather than “lab-grown meat,” or “cultured meat,” or “animal-free meat”; “clean meat” is meant to contrast with the pollution and antibiotic use in conventional meat production). It lobbies policymakers and meets with traditional meat companies, such as Tyson, to convince them to fund plant-based and clean meat startups. It funds open-source research on plant-based and clean meat, so startups don’t continually repeat the same basic research, and will soon release a startup manual that walks companies through basic steps like how to find lawyers or a contract manufacturer, so founders can focus on their own product and business plan. It has also launched three startups directly itself.

This asshole is why people hate vegans

Anthony Dagher–known to his 932 Twitter followers as @7AnthonyDagher7–is one of veganism’s worst enemies. In case you missed it, Dagher spent a few minutes over the weekend lambasting a fellow vegan who’d purchased some non-vegan ice cream for a distressed child. He’s spent the hours and days since replying to his critics with the blind, facile zeal of a college sophomore.

Like many young vegans, Dagher has fallen into the trap of self-righteousness. He’s why people always ask other vegans, “Why do you care more about cows and chickens than about starving children?” He’s developed sympathy for animals and left humans to fend for themselves.

I understand the temptation, of course. Humans have come to dominate most other species on this planet–certainly those we use for food, anyway. I understand the impulse to protect those who can’t protect themselves from our inhumane practices. The thinking goes something like: humans can fend for themselves, so animals are more deserving of our care.

To me, however, veganism isn’t about prioritizing one species over another. In fact, it’s about showing that all species are equal. An abused man, woman, or child deserves just as much compassion as an abused pig, goat, or fish.

In this particular instance, a woman was buying ice cream for a crying child–someone who was clearly in need of compassion. Would it have been better to purchase vegan ice cream for the kid? In an ideal world, sure–especially if the child weren’t distressed and the woman had the luxury of being choosy. But in the heat of the moment, she made the right decision. And Dagher didn’t.

What’s behind the vegan trend? Could it be…Instagram?

I’ve been vegetarian/vegan for a big chunk of my life. Sure, I’ve gone through periods where I’ve eaten meat, but those have felt more the exception than the rule.

In other words, unlike golf or embroidery or a dozen other things I’ve taken up in spurts over the years, being vegan (or at least vegetarian) feels like a fairly stable part of me, of who I am.

Now, I’m not entirely stupid. I understand that veganism is on-trend these days–the fact that Gordon Ramsay (!!!) has announced plans to go vegan makes that plain as day. Knowing that the trend might fade sooner or later doesn’t worry me. Hell, I’m just happy that more folks are giving veganism a shot. When they do, companies change their offerings to meet demand, and even if those offerings get scaled back, incremental progress has been made.

But there’s an intriguing piece in last week’s Independent that suggests veganism might have some staying power. And it has everything to do with food blogging on Instagram:

So how did veganism go from a mocked subculture to a mainstream lifestyle choice?

According to Google trends, searches for “veganism” have been rising steadily since 2012 in a similar trajectory to “Instagram”.

While the photo-sharing app was launched exclusively on iOS in 2010, it became more widely-used in 2012 when a version for Android devices was released.

Now, with more than 800 million users, it’s practically everyone’s favourite social media platform.

Could it be that Instagram is responsible for veganism’s PR overhaul, in which it has transformed from a kooky diet to an aesthetically-pleasing cacophony of “earth bowls” and “green goddess” smoothies?

“The vegan community are incredibly active online,” explains Beth Trundle, head of food at marketing agency Social Chain.

This is likely because their dietary choices are driven by their fundamental beliefs, she explains, which can boost their social media activity as they are keen to share their passion for veganism with the world.

Is that proof of causality–proof that Instagram gave rise to the current popularity of veganism? No, but it’s an interesting theory. And a pretty interesting read.

Study: If America went vegan, we could feed the entire nation and 350 million more

Another study has shown that going vegan isn’t just good for animals, it’s good for the planet–and for our fellow human beings. The Independent reports:

Of the 327 million people living in America, over 41 million will experience hunger at some point during the year, says the US Department of Agriculture.

However, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, switching to a plant-based lifestyle would allow the nation to feed all 327 million Americans – plus roughly 350 million more.

The new report analysed the potential of US farmland currently dedicated to raising cattle, pigs, and chickens – and the results may surprise some.

According to the research, if this land was used to cultivate plants instead of animals for slaughter, the land and US farmers could feed double the number of people they do now.

If you can handle science writing, here’s a link to the PNAS’ full report. Not sure if you’re up for that today? Check out the abstract:


Food loss is widely recognized as undermining food security and environmental sustainability. However, consumption of resource-intensive food items instead of more efficient, equally nutritious alternatives can also be considered as an effective food loss. Here we define and quantify these opportunity food losses as the food loss associated with consuming resource-intensive animal-based items instead of plant-based alternatives which are nutritionally comparable, e.g., in terms of protein content. We consider replacements that minimize cropland use for each of the main US animal-based food categories. We find that although the characteristic conventional retail-to-consumer food losses are ≈30% for plant and animal products, the opportunity food losses of beef, pork, dairy, poultry, and eggs are 96%, 90%, 75%, 50%, and 40%, respectively. This arises because plant-based replacement diets can produce 20-fold and twofold more nutritionally similar food per cropland than beef and eggs, the most and least resource-intensive animal categories, respectively. Although conventional and opportunity food losses are both targets for improvement, the high opportunity food losses highlight the large potential savings beyond conventionally defined food losses. Concurrently replacing all animal-based items in the US diet with plant-based alternatives will add enough food to feed, in full, 350 million additional people, well above the expected benefits of eliminating all supply chain food waste. These results highlight the importance of dietary shifts to improving food availability and security.