The issues of veganism as an obligation and income inequality/poverty as ”impossibility” to going vegan are often conflated. They are two separate issues. Only one of them requires real structural change.
The first is related to whether anyone can be vegan. The answer is yes. There is nothing stopping one’s mind and heart from concluding that killing someone for one’s pleasure or convenience is wrong. If it is wrong, then it is wrong under all circumstances, not just some. If it is not wrong, then we need to come up with a good reason. Whatever good reason we come up with must focus primarily on the victim of that wrong.
Veganism is a matter of fairness and a baseline for good, whether to the animals, our health or the environment, and we owe it to the animals to be fair (that is, to not be speciesist and not being speciesist means going vegan), just like we owe people of colour to not be racist, the LGBTIQ to not be phobic, to women to not be sexist, the differently abled to not be ableist, the aged to not be ageist and so on.
Let’s go through an exercise. We can replace the word “speciesist” with another: racist, sexist, classist, ageist, ableist, homophobic.
I’ll use the word “sexist”.
- Can someone be sexist and poor? Yes.
- Is sexism always wrong? Yes.
- Do we have an obligation to others not to be sexist? Yes.
- Does that mean that it is okay for someone to be sexist and poor? No.
- Are individuals who are subjected to sexism still harmed, whether at the hands of a rich or poor person? Yes.
- Is there something else to mitigate or explain the sexism? Yes.
- Does that reason give the sexist person a pass to continue being sexist? No.
- Do we have any right to judge the person who is being sexist? No. However, we do not have to like or condone the sexist person’s behaviour. We can speak up, educate and respectfully engage with that person or we can choose to walk away. And NO, we do not get to judge whether as a whole they are a good person – we have no basis upon which to do that. We can only engage them as best we can to shine the light on their sexism.
The same logic applies to speciesism. Therefore, if anyone can be poor and not sexist, then anyone can be poor and not speciesist and go vegan.
The second issue, that of income inequality/poverty can be directly related to access and affordability of non-animal foods – fresh or otherwise. Places where it is difficult or impossible to obtain affordable nutritious and non-animal food are called food deserts. Whether food deserts exist is disputed, but we assume that they do.
The issues that give rise to food deserts are serious and important. These require addressing on their own terms because of their importance and for the sake of all those who are affected. However, the existence of food deserts is not related to whether a rich or poor person can be vegan.
It is not acceptable that a segment of society, a vulnerable and exploited segment of society, only has access to foods that also physically represent and are connected to the most vulnerable and exploited members of the planet (that is, the animals and the humans who work in animal farming and slaughterhouses). And it is also not acceptable that this segment of society also bears a markedly greater health burden that limited food choices can bring about.
It is this structure that must be challenged and taken down – the structure that makes it so easy for non-vegan foods to be, arguably, the “only” available choice; the subsidised choice; the only choice because there is no transport; the only choice because there is no knowledge of a better choice; the only choice because it is not cool to discuss veganism as something that we owe others – that which we owe to animals.
Let us discuss veganism for what it is: an obligation we owe to others. And let us also address income inequality/poverty and find solutions to food deserts. But let us not conflate the two. Doing that betrays the animals and the humans.