Across the Great Divide

Environmentalists and Animal Rights Activists Battle Over Vegetarianism

In September, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) shocked its foes and supporters alike by putting up a billboard in Vancouver, Canada, the launching pad for many a whale watch.

PETA has crusaded against environmentalists, accusing them of wearing leather and caring only about "charismatic megafauna" like whales.

PETA is well known for its provocative ad campaigns, which sometimes feature nude models proclaiming they’d rather go naked than wear fur. But this was different. "Eat the Whales," it said.

Had PETA gone mad? Could the group really want people to chow down on the largest, most majestic mammals on the planet, simply because they offer a greater meat yield than domestic pigs and cows? What’s more, the group seemed proud to be alienating environmentalists. "Anti-whaling charities are spitting mad," it crowed in a press release.

A PETA spokesperson, Andrew Butler, says pissing off the greens was precisely the point. "I hope that environmentalists will see past their anger," he says. "They’re always ready to condemn the Japanese, Norwegians and Native American whalers like the Makah, while ignoring the greater suffering from the buckets of chicken wings or fish sticks that they harvest at the drive-through or haul home from the meat counter. What we’re saying to them is that it’s time to get real."

Iain Kerr, CEO of the Massachusetts-based Ocean Alliance (which includes the Whale Conservation Institute), is one environmentalist who takes exception to the PETA campaign. "I really like PETA, but I also think that environmentalists need to work together instead of upsetting each other," he says. "Environmentalists need all the help we can get, and we can’t go around saying, "I can’t take your data on PCBs because you’re not a vegetarian.""

Dick Russell, a veteran environmentalist and author of Eye of the Whale, agrees. "PETA is seriously stretching a point," he says. But whale campaigner Annelise Sorg, a spokesperson for the Canadian group No Whales in Captivity, believes PETA’s campaign has merit. She admits that some activists are hypocrites "for advocating on behalf of one species while eating another."

PETA is not the first animal rights group to try to persuade environmentalists to go vegetarian. But the effort, to date, has been strikingly unsuccessful. An informal E survey of top environmental leaders found that most of them still eat meat, though they usually express support for those who choose a vegetarian path. Comments ranged from, "I"m cutting down on red meat," and "I think people should move in a vegetarian direction," to "I"m 60 percent vegan and 95 percent vegetarian," and "I"m not a vegetarian because I like to eat meat."

Voices from the Top

PETA’s campaign puts in stark relief one of the key differences between environmentalists and animal rights advocates. Environmental leaders tend to think strategically about bringing the greatest number of people into the fold. Since the great majority of people leaning green eat at least some meat, alienating them with vegetarian absolutism is anathema. But personal ethics and choices are very important to animal rights groups. At a recent national conference, "Animal Rights 2001," there was strong sentiment that becoming a vegan (a vegetarian who also eschews all animal products, including dairy) was an essential commitment. Although some expressed concern that this was alienating potential support, the general feeling was that vegetarianism was not negotiable. Many attendees, in fact, criticized PETA itself because of what they termed "sensationalist media campaigns." PETA’s representatives pointed out with some justification that the media ignores any campaigns that aren’t sensationalized.

"Agribusiness has developed an immense slaughtering machine that causes great suffering to animals, creates long-term environmental disasters, endangers healthy food production and, ultimately, threatens the economic independence of developing countries who support this growing American appetite." —Michael W. Fox

The environmental community tends to see animal issues through the lens of wild populations, not individual suffering. Right whales get considerable attention, for instance, not only because they are so-called "charismatic megafauna," but also because there are only about 350 of them left. Factory-farmed pigs, cows and chickens are often left off the environmental radar screen because they are purposely bred, are certainly not endangered and would not even exist in the wild.

But the lives of those commodified animals are crucial to animal rights activists motivated by compassion. "It’s not just species," says Butler. "We’re fighting for individual animals." And that fight—for animals with feelings and lives of their own—characterizes the movement. John Robbins, the former Baskin-Robbins heir who turned his back on ice cream and fast food to become a spokesperson for a healthier lifestyle, is overwhelmed by the suffering that goes into the American diet. "Seeing what we as a society do to animals so that we can mass produce their flesh has made me, at times, ashamed of my species," he says.

So what do environmentalists say about going veg? Some are very positive, though their language tends to downplay strict vegetarianism in favor of reducing meat consumption.

Dr. Michael W. Fox, a veterinarian and vice president of the Humane Society of the U.S. who calls vegetarianism "an ethical or spiritual imperative," adds that the average American consumes thousands of animals in a lifetime without thinking much about it. "In order to satisfy this meat consumption," he says, "agribusiness has developed an immense slaughtering machine that causes great suffering to animals, creates long-term environmental disasters, endangers healthy food production and, ultimately, threatens the economic independence of developing countries who support this growing American appetite." Others point out that the U.S. diet is also a model for countries in the developing world that until recently ate very little meat.

"There is no question that the choice to become a vegetarian or lower meat consumption is one of the most positive lifestyle changes a person could make in terms of reducing one’s personal impact on the environment," says an emphatic Christopher Flavin, the president of Worldwatch Institute. "The resource requirements and environmental degradation associated with a meat-based diet are very substantial."

Less convinced is Lester Brown, the chairman and founder of Worldwatch, who now heads Earth Policy Institute: "If someone enjoys being a vegetarian, I think that’s fine as long as they’re careful to get the right nutrients," he says. "That’s not too difficult in the U.S., but for people in developing countries, being a vegetarian often means eating only rice, and I don’t think I would recommend that. Every society that I’ve looked at, when incomes go up, one of the first things people do is add protein to their diets. The fact that this happens everywhere leads me to think that the taste for meat is probably an innate appetite, reflecting four million years of hunters and gatherers. If we’d only been gatherers, we might not have made it. I think the human body is basically omnivorous."

"There is no question that the choice to become a vegetarian or lower meat consumption is one of the most positive lifestyle changes a person could make in terms of reducing one"s personal impact on the environment." —Christopher Flavin, President, Worldwatch Institute

Another environmental leader who stops short of wholeheartedly embracing vegetarianism is Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Washington, D.C.-based group that has led millions of Americans towar

d a healthier diet. "People should move in a vegetarian direction," says Jacobson. "On average, vegetarians eat a more healthful diet than the rest of the public, and there are clear environmental benefits. However, from a health point of view, one certainly need not be a purist about it. Fish, lean chicken and fat-free dairy products are very nutritious and can certainly fit into a healthy diet."

Jacobson’s argument doesn’t stop there. "On a macro level," he continues, "the vast majority of corn and soybeans goes to animal feed. If people stopped eating meat, Illinois, Indiana and Iowa would be returned to forest and grassland." Some environmentalists and nearly all animal rights advocates would reply, "What’s wrong with that?" There would certainly be major economic impacts if the American heartland stopped producing agricultural products, but why couldn’t the Midwest become a huge exporter of grain to feed the world’s hungry? Jacobson says economic realities mean it would more likely be eaten up by suburban development—a point well taken.

Diet for a Small Planet

Skeptics make sophisticated arguments downplaying the environmental consequences of eating meat, and they need to be countered by equally authoritative voices. The Ecologist argues, for instance, that the impact of animal grazing has been overstated by environmentalists. "The pasturage argument ignores the fact that a large portion of the Earth’s dryland is unsuited to cultivation," the magazine says, adding that the range "yields its fruits to grazing animals, not to arable crops."

Frances Moore Lappé, author of the influential Diet For a Small Planet (appearing in a 30th anniversary edition), provides excellent rebuttal. The founder of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, now a visiting scholar at MIT, refers to grazing animals as "four-legged protein factories" that performed a vital role for our ancestors" herding cultures. "But once we began feeding livestock from cropland that could grow edible food, we began to convert these animals into our protein disposals," she says. "Only a small fraction of the nutrients fed to animals return to us in meat; the rest animals use largely for energy or they excrete. Thirty years ago, one-third of the world’s grain was going to livestock; today it is closer to one-half."

Another writer whose work leans heavily on environmental arguments for vegetarianism is John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America and The Food Revolution: "When the Union of Concerned Scientists did an analysis of lifestyles in the U.S. and their ecological impact, it concluded that the two most damaging things Americans do is drive sport-utility vehicles and eat meat."

Robbins, onetime Baskin-Robbins heir, denies that societies around the world are adding animal protein to their diets because it’s an innate human craving, pointing the finger instead at modern marketing. "They’re putting McDonald’s in Ethiopia, Kentucky Fried Chicken in Egypt and, yes, Baskin-Robbins around the world," he says. "That represents the globalization of the U.S. corporate agenda, not an answer for addressing world hunger or malnutrition."

Robbins also refutes the claim that our Neolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors ate lots of meat. "Most anthropologists say it would be more accurate to call them gatherer-hunters," he says. "With the exception of Nordic cultures, the diet of our ancestors was for the most part gathered." And Robbins isn’t worried at all about losing our Midwestern grain belts. "If we stopped producing animal feed, it would free up land for generating alternative energy, like solar and wind power," he says.

Getting the Message Out

Given the international outbreak of serious meat diseases, meat’s known human health deficits and the newfound availability of organic and natural foods, why aren’t more environmentally aware people becoming vegetarians? The answer can perhaps be found in the political organization of the opposition to meat.

In Europe, the response to the emerging human health threats has been stark and immediate. Great Britain doubled the number of its vegetarians in the last year. Germany now has eight million vegetarians, up from five million last year. Italy added one million vegetarians in the past 12 months. PETA’s European offices, overwhelmed by public interest, have largely become vegan information centers. No similar pattern is visible in the U.S., where a direct threat to personal safety is not a motivating factor.

It’s unlikely that ethical concern for animal welfare is behind the anti-meat explosion in Europe. The same concerns about human health threats could probably motivate a huge upswing in America’s vegetarian population, but because the visible effects are still largely confined overseas, it would take a vigorous, well-coordinated public education campaign to accomplish that goal. Unfortunately, the American vegetarian movement is divided into special-interest groups that rarely work together.

According to Jim Mason, co-author of Animal Factories, a ground-breaking book about the miserable conditions on factory farms, "The vegetarian movement takes a scattershot approach to the issues: every group has its own logo and pet slogan. There’s brand-name identification instead of a coalition that can make a broad-spectrum appeal."

Mason notes that some animal rights groups, like PETA and Farm Sanctuary, concentrate on turning their supporters into vegans, a harder step for many Americans raised on hamburgers, steak, Jello and ice cream. John Robbins says that there may be more to be gained by simply convincing Americans to slow down their meat consumption. "I don’t think we should have a purity patch for people to sign," he says. "If everyone ate 10 percent less meat, the reduction would be much more than if a handful of people became vegans. I shy away from telling people that they should be vegetarians, instead urging them to make informed choices. Divisive thinking is not how we build coalitions."

PETA maintains that it needs to be provocative to get attention in the media, but it’s an open question if all the publicity it does get serves the vegetarian cause. In 2000, the organization was forced to withdraw an ad showing then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (who had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer) wearing a milk moustache. The tagline was "Got Prostate Cancer?" PETA was trying to make a link between high-fat, meat-intensive diets and incidence of prostate cancer, but the more immediate response was outrage that the group was exploiting someone’s illness. Fears about mad cow and other meat diseases no doubt encourage many new vegetarians. "We should be able to utilize the reality of the food production system to educate people to wake up and smell the tofu," says Joseph Connelly, editor of the activist-oriented magazine Veg News. But will these fair-weather vegetarians be committed to the cause? "The ethical issues are a very hard sell," he adds. "We won’t convince people without a very slow evolution of the human heart. But my personal belief is that the only real reason to become a vegetarian is for ethical reasons. It’s a bittersweet, temporary victory for ethical vegans if we basically shock people into becomin

g vegetarians because they’re worried about cancer, heart disease or mad cow. Even if 50 percent of people stop eating beef in France, that doesn’t mean they won’t go right back to it when mad cow is eradicated."

Connelly’s attitude is common in an animal rights movement where ethical concerns dominate all other considerations. Bruce Friedrich, PETA’s head vegan campaigner, says the group sent out 100,000 vegetarian starter kits that stress veganism last year. He thinks ethical concerns can spark a mass movement. "The people who become vegetarians after reading reports of hoof-and-mouth disease animal pyres are making ethical decisions," he says. "Their senses are being assaulted. I think animal suffering is turning people vegetarian in droves, and a window is open to complete disdain for the way these so-called farmers treat their livestock."

Friedrich says the question for him and other animal rights activists is, "When we sit down to eat, do we support animal cruelty or don’t we? When we go vegan, we choose not to support animal abuse."

The corollary to all this is that people who are not ready to become vegans have no friendly haven. Charles Stahler, co-director of the Vegetarian Resource Group, points out that most of the 80 percent of Americans who self-identify as environmentalists are not vegetarians. Environmentalists have not found an ally in the animal rights movement—despite their agreement on many issues—because they deplore what they characterize as an emotional approach to scientific issues. But environmentalists can certainly see the important land-resource issues arising from meat production. At least in private, environmentalists frequently disparage ethical concerns. And some environmentalists believe that organic, free-range animal husbandry can be ethically justified.

Stahler sees progress in the growing corporatization of the natural foods business, which tends to put it on a more level playing field with big players like McDonald’s and Burger King. "Those fast food companies constantly advertise and get their messages out to schools," he says. "But now, because Worthington and Garden Burger are owned by corporations too, we’re seeing more TV commercials for them and space devoted to their products in supermarkets."

That’s to be celebrated, but wouldn’t that availability be more fully realized in conjunction with a broad coalition promoting the same message? Stahler compares the animal rights/environment axis to the civil rights movement, which had every tendency from nonviolence to the Black Panthers. "We need every piece of it to be successful," he says.

Just as many civil rights leaders point to the desegregation of the South as a goal in itself, Stahler is pleased with the vegetarian movement’s progress. "Frankly, I never thought we would see as many vegetarians as we have now. In 1975, when I became a vegetarian, animal rights barely existed, and nobody knew the word "vegan.""

Since then, animal rights has become a significant force. But Gene Bauston, co-director of Farm Sanctuary, which promotes efforts to ease livestock suffering, points out that the vegetarian and vegan banners cannot always be waved with impunity. "Some animal groups have been a little slow to publicly embrace vegetarianism because it can be challenging politically," he says. "If some of the legislators we work with on farm issues learn we promote vegetarianism and veganism, it tends to discredit us in their eyes."

But Bauston still wants to convert as many meat eaters to vegetarianism as possible, even if health is their primary motivation, because "once they’ve switched their diets, they become much more receptive to the ethical message. When they hear about animal cruelty, they’re no longer supporting it, so they lose their defensiveness."

Wayne Pacelle, a vice president at the Humane Society of the U.S., is wary that the movement not be seen as taking advantage of the current fears about meat. "It might seem like we were piggy-backing on the news coverage," says Pacelle. "But changing one’s dietary habits is a process, not an event. We may want people to change overnight, but it’s probably harder to change your diet than it is to change your religion."

Forward in All Directions

Both the environmental and animal rights communities make convincing arguments about the best way to proceed toward a bright future, but they have vastly different ways of looking at the world. And rather than a unifying force, vegetarianism has become something of a litmus test that some animal activists use to exclude would-be allies. On the environmental side, there seems to be a great deal of denial about the impact of animal agriculture and a reluctance to examine personal habits in light of that.

But if the disparate movements galvanized around a single, easy-to-understand message of vegetarianism for health and concern for the planet, it could leverage an unprecedented historical opportunity and double or triple the ranks of American vegetarians. Instead of playing "gotcha" with whale lovers, PETA and other groups could form far-reaching coalitions that would advance healthier diets for the Earth’s sake. These diets wouldn’t necessarily be vegan, or even wholly vegetarian, but if the coalition were mainstream enough, it could single-handedly slash meat consumption.

Davy Davidson, the San Francisco-based owner of Vegtime, an organic and vegan food company, is certainly "walking the walk" for animal rights. She even serves as a board member for Animals Agenda, the movement journal. But Davidson is also an environmentalist, and she’d like to see more collaboration between the two communities. "Working together is the goal, not shaking the shameful finger," she says.

Of course, Davidson would be happy if every environmentalist became a vegan, but she realizes that isn’t likely to happen soon. "Environmental people will go to such lengths to try and prove, for example, that beef can be raised in a sustainable way. I think, unfortunately, that they’re as loathe to give up their meat-eating habits as the average American."