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Vegans, know your privilege!

Eating plant-based food is good for animals and the climate, but should we impose veganism on cultures where eating meat is an important tradition? Or on people living in poverty? Iranian-Dutch vegan Mina Etemad doubts it. ‘It’s better to ask how we break free from the system that oppresses both animals and people.’

By Mina Etemad

One of my favourite Iranian dishes is khoreshte gheymeh. This stew is easy to make vegan by omitting the beef; the aubergine and split peas, along with rice, make it a full meal. Yet, the times I was on holiday in my native Iran, I could not find a restaurant that prepares the dish like this. Only a handful of eateries served vegetarian or vegan food, and even in people’s homes, meat ended up on their plates most evenings.

For a long time, this was not the case; when my parents were young, most people could not afford to eat meat several times a week. With the vegetables, pulses and beans that Iranian cuisine contains, most still ate nutritious meals. Over the years, that way of eating has changed.

And not only in Iran; global meat production has increased fivefold since the 1960s, while the world population is 2.5 times larger. The rise in meat consumption is especially high in non-Western countries: in Iran it went up by 160 per cent between 1961 and 2017, in a country like China by as much as 1,700 per cent.

If this trend continues and non-Western countries soon eat as much meat as we do, tens of millions more animals per day will die and the earth will warm up even faster. One might conclude that if we want to save the climate, we need to stop this (extra) meat consumption.

Better yet: we should all switch to plant-based food, as I have often heard Western vegans proclaim. Go vegan, save the planet!

But that’s easy to say from my comfortable life in the Netherlands, with a stable economic situation and access to countless meat substitutes. It makes me wonder: am I striving for a better world with my veganism propaganda or am I imposing my Western ideals on others?

When my parents were young, most people could not afford to eat meat several times a week. Over the years, that way of eating has changed

Imposition of Western ideas has been happening for centuries. Since the beginning of slavery, colonials have come up with ever more efficient ways to grow crops on a large scale, without regard to biodiversity or healthy ecosystems.

Meanwhile, they deprived enslaved and indigenous people of basic human rights, and animals were also seen as tools rather than beings with sentient life or autonomy. The indigenous people of North America, among others, were deprived of their land and traditional lifestyles. For several decades now, their rights have been better protected, including propagating their culture and traditions.

For the Inuit, seal hunting is one of those traditions; it has historical and cultural value for them. Moreover, seal meat is a rich food source in areas where little other sustenance is available. That’s why in Canada, the Inuit have the right to hunt the animals within certain frameworks.

That this tradition can clash with the views of Western animal rights activists was evident when an Inuit restaurant in Toronto put seal meat on its menu. A group of people then set up a petition to remove it. In such a case, what weighs more heavily: the rights of animals or of indigenous people?

Since the beginning of slavery, colonials have introduced more efficient ways to grow crops on a large scale, without regard to biodiversity or healthy ecosystems

Indigenous scientist Margaret Robinson belongs to the Mi’kmaq, a community of indigenous people from north-eastern North America. Via Zoom, she talks about the effects on the Mi’kmaq of colonisation; for instance, there were the so-called residential schools, a kind of boarding school system that two-thirds of the indigenous children in Canada were required to attend.

Robinson: ‘They were not allowed to speak their own language there and did not receive anything of their own traditions and values in their nurturing and education.’

The relationship between the Mi’kmaq and animals changed after colonisation. ‘When the French settled in our area, fur trade began. Beaver hunting, for example, brought those animals almost to extinction. We drifted away from our traditional values and began to see animals less as part of an interconnected network.’

Originally, the Mi’kmaq hunted only what was needed for their own subsistence; they see animals as beings who have personhood rights and who sacrifice themselves during the hunt. Since we do not need animals for our livelihood in today’s times, Robinson chooses to live a vegan lifestyle; for her, this is a way of committing to her traditional values.

Other Mi’kmaqs do choose to hunt and eat animals, to do justice to their traditions and values in their own way. Robinson respects that. ‘But it can be difficult to explain to well-meaning white vegans that keeping indigenous people from hunting is not the way to change the world,’ she says. ‘White vegans’ activism may be more effective within their own communities; after all, indigenous people are not the ones causing global warming with the cattle industry, for example.’

‘It can be difficult to explain to well-meaning white vegans that keeping indigenous people from hunting is not the way to change the world’ - Margaret Robinson

I think back to the Inuit restaurant in Toronto: while animal rights activists aimed their arrows at that one restaurant – hindering the survival of Inuit culture – thousands of other restaurants in the city serve meat from the cattle industry. The question of whose rights carry more weight (those of animals or indigenous people) now strikes me as misplaced; it is better to ask how we break free from the system that oppresses both groups.

Besides: although indigenous people make up only about 6 per cent of the world’s population, they protect 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity, for instance by obstructing oil drilling. So if you care about animal lives and nature, indigenous people are not the ones to fight.

Robinson explains that many indigenous people of Canada do not have access to healthy food and 25 per cent live in poverty. ‘When people live in difficult circumstances, they may make decisions that do not quite align with their values.’

That is why even they sometimes eat burgers from the cattle industry, because those are available and affordable. ‘Vegans who shout that everyone should eat plant-based food are ignoring the conditions in which people live,’ she says.

‘Western colonisers held that meat equals luxury. That idea still prevails’ - Nicola Kagoro

Food insecurity and malnutrition are major problems in many non-Western countries. Looking at the meat consumption of Zimbabwe, for example, one might applaud the figures: while in the Netherlands, we eat 75 kilos of meat per person per year, in Zimbabwe it is ‘only’ 18 kilos. But this is not the result of a consciously vegan lifestyle; serious food insecurity plays a role here. By 2020, one in three children in that country was malnourished, and last year a food crisis affected some 346 million people across Africa.

Food insecurity comes in large part from the effects of colonialism, says Nicola Kagoro over the phone. She works as a chef in Zimbabwe and South Africa and is the founder of African Vegan On A Budget. ‘Western colonisers held that meat equals luxury. That idea still prevails.’

Kagoro wants to convey to her compatriots that their ancestors actually ate plant-based food. ‘I want to show them that we can live sustainably and healthily while maintaining our traditional values. That’s my way of fighting against colonialism, against the idea that we need things like lots of meat, McDonald’s or KFC.’

When I ask her how she shapes that mission, she explains that she goes to different – often rural – communities and puts together menus and dishes for people there. ‘Many go to bed hungry because they don’t have the resources or ingredients to prepare healthy food. I help them cook or plant a small vegetable garden, which they can use to feed their families.’

Kagoro also creates entrepreneurial opportunities. ‘For instance, I worked with the organisation International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF). A cook we came across was helping hunters, but the IAPF gave him the opportunity to come and work for us. I then taught him and about 10 other chefs to cook plant-based meals. Now they collectively make about 600 vegan meals a day for their communities.’

Behind ideas about eating or not eating animals can be superiority thinking

Behind ideas about eating or not eating animals can be superiority thinking. That this can be harmful to certain groups of people is proven by India. The country is often cited as an example of vegetarianism – some even claim it originated in India. Hinduism, which prescribes ahimsa (non-violence, including towards non-human animals), is seen as a peaceful religion.

‘India does indeed have a reputation for caring about animal rights,’ says independent researcher Rama Ganesan via Zoom. She grew up in India and lived in England and the US from the age of 10. ‘But vegetarianism in India is not about animals, it is about what is seen as pure.’

Indeed, it is mainly Brahmins, the highest caste in Indian culture, who do not eat meat. ‘Brahmins see those who do eat meat as unclean and untouchable, like Adivasi, Muslims or “lower castes” like the Dalits. Some of them even eat cows, which Hindus say are sacred.’

Ganesan tells me that she herself belongs to the Brahmins and has therefore been a vegetarian all her life. Since she became a vegan 10 years ago, her awareness about the caste structures in which vegetarianism is entrenched grew – especially about how harmful that system is. ‘People have been oppressed and seen as less human for thousands of years because they belong to oppressed castes. Now that the BJP [the right-wing, Hindu nationalist political party, ed.] rules, you see fascist ideologies growing. Some BJP supporters are lynching Dalits and Muslims for eating cows.’

When the West praises India for vegetarianism (for instance, Bengaluru is called the best city for vegans), we feed that violence, Ganesan believes. ‘The more these cow vigilantes hear how great veganism is, the more they can feel justified in their violence.’ Ahimsa is therefore a hollow term. ‘How can you call a religion that has codified a caste system and declares some people untouchable non-violent? Someone from the oppressed caste would say: this is bullshit.’

Ganesan sees oppressed castes becoming increasingly proud of their origins. ‘For example, they organise beef festivals to celebrate their traditions.’ What does she think about people promoting meat-eating that way? ‘My oppressive caste has always made judgments against the oppressed castes. On the contrary, I want to listen to them. At least they don’t want to endorse the deceptions of the Brahmins and praise India for vegetarianism, which the West does.’

‘The more these cow vigilantes hear how great veganism is, the more they can feel justified in their violence’ - Rama Ganesan

Meanwhile, meat consumption in Iran has declined in recent years. That is not a victory for animal rights, because it is accompanied by skyrocketing inflation due to economic sanctions against Iran, among other things; the price of food has risen 80 per cent in a year. So, fewer dead animals end up on Iranians’ plates, but only because less food ends up on their plates anyway.

I cannot imagine that telling them khoreshte gheymeh is nutritious enough without meat is a structural solution.

On top of that, Iranians have had bigger concerns in recent months. They were busy getting through the days alive, fighting a repressive regime that treats its rebellious citizens with violence.

It would be best if, as vegans, we committed to a sustainable world for animals and for people. Not a world where your moral compass lashes out at animal suffering but not human suffering. Both forms of oppression are embedded in the same kind of system: one that has wrecked traditional ways of living and ecosystems, and exploits living beings.

Mina Etemad is an Iranian-Dutch journalist and podcast producer, with an interest in topics such as migration and animal rights. This article previously appeared in OneWorld Magazine’s September/October 2022 issue.


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