On Thursday, Nov. 7, author James McWilliams gave a lecture at Vassar entitled “Veganism for Omnivores” hosted by the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC). If interested in what else McWilliams has to say about compassionate eating, one can visit his blog “The Pitchfork” or read his book Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.
Co-Presidents of VARC, Katie Mcguire ‘16 amd Alessandra Seiter ’16 [Full Disclosure, Seiter is the Social Media Editor of the Miscellany News] wrote in an emailed statement, “We brought James McWilliams because the Exec Board of VARC is vegan, and we often entertain questions from our peers who consume animal products about the acceptability of eating so-called humanely raised, local, organic, free-range, etc. animals. McWilliams’ talk effectively addressed why these alternatives to factory farmed animal products are not viable options, both in terms of their ethical and environmental implications.”.
Sustainability at Vassar served as a co-sponsor for the lecture. Assistant to Sustainability Activities Alistair Hall commented in an emailed statement, “We were interested in McWilliams’ talk because he’s a well known lecturer on the topic and brings a thoughtfulness to the issue that we believed, like the title of his lecture, would appeal to a broad array of people on campus.”
The event was also supported by the Grassroot Alliance for Alternative Politics (GAAP). “GAAP was proud to co-sponsor the lecture by James McWilliams because our food choices have implications and are inherently political,” said Vassar Student Association liaison for GAAP Alan Darer ’14 in an emailed statement.
McWilliams began by discussing small-scale farms and how they became an alternate method to industrial meat factories. There are now various types of nonindustrial farming options that are supposed to be better for the animals and the environment. McWilliams conjectured that small-scale farming seems like a great substitution to the iron cages and concrete walls of industrial farms.
“Many people know that the image of ‘Old McDonald’s Farm’ is no longer a reality for farmed animals in America and during their miserable lives on factory farms, pigs, chickens and cows are intensively confined, mutilated without painkillers, and violently slaughtered. Factory farming also contributes greatly to environmental degradation and many health problems,” Darer commented.
McWilliams then revealed that while small-scale farming may seem better in theory, it is under much less scrutiny and in actuality contain many critical flaws in their systems. The farmers claim that animals on non-industrial farms are humanely raised, but McWilliams keenly asked about for what they were humanely raised.
Ultimately, McWilliams affirmed, they are still going to be slaughtered for food. He wondered how, if farmers granted these animals moral consideration, they could so easily slaughter them.
McWilliams answered this question by bringing up his “evasion equation,” which was made up of unthinking simplicity and impassioned idealism.
McWilliams also examined the claim that eating meat is humane and healthy—as long as from non-industrial farms. He brought up five methods of small-scale farming that supposedly made them superior to industrial farms: mobile slaughterhouses, grass-fed beef, “DIY/backyard” slaughter, pastured chickens and eggs and local pig farmers.
In reality, however, these methods exhibit not only ethical but also economic issues.
McWilliams said he eventually wants veganism to spread across the United States.
According to Hall, “There is a wealth of often overlooked evidence that industrial agriculture and a diet that includes meat is a large driver of carbon emissions, consumption of scarce water resources, unjust labor practices and climate change.”
He continued, “For this reason we have collaborated with VARC on a number of events in the last year and a half, Food Day two weeks ago being a big one, as they work to bring this important perspective to light.”
Marisa Tomaino ’17 was among the audience of the lecture and spoke to the reasons she had for attending the event. “I went to the lecture because I went to a joint Feminist Alliance and VARC meeting, and since then I’ve wanted to learn more about veganism and food issues,” she said.
Darer was also intrigued with the question the lecture provoked. “Speaking with attendees immediately following the lecture while feasting on delicious vegan pizza prepared by VARC, it was evident that the event was a huge success in that many Vassar students were asking the critical question ‘If we wouldn’t eat our dog or cat, why eat chickens, pigs, or cows?’ The truth is, there is no meaningful difference between animals we call pets and those we consider food in that all animals can suffer from pain and experience pleasure in many of the same ways,” he said.
He continued, “The lecture prompted Vassar students to be critical of the cruel meat, dairy, and egg production in the U.S. and taught us that simply by adopting a meat-free diet we can spare 35 animals every single year a lifetime’s worth of suffering. After all, the best way to help animals is to simply leave them off of our plates by adopting a compassionate vegetarian and vegan diet.”
Mcguire and Seiter echoed this idea, arguing for a more compassionate approach to the food people eat. “We believe that when choices are available—in terms of food, clothing, toiletries, or entertainment options—individuals can conscientiously make a choice that minimizes the violence and exploitation inflicted upon other individuals,” they said.
Mcguire and Seiter continued, “We would love to see greater attendance at VARC events so as to foster a greater consciousness surrounding the exploitation of animals.”