Something has become glaringly clear lately even to people who haven't thought much about this topic in the past. On one hand, we have a dominant culture that continues to use animals as resources without a second thought, including eating from their bodies and feeding them to their children pretty much every time they sit down to eat.
On the other hand, we have a growing body of scientific evidence showing that doing so is actually quite bad for everyone and everything including our planet itself, along with a consensus from dietetic associations that it's definitely unnecessary and perhaps even harmful. We have more efficient plant-based alternatives rapidly increasing in tastiness, availability, and affordably, along with information at our fingertips to help us understand how using animals as resources is wildly exploitative and wasteful even under the best of conditions. And we have vegans emerging in every segment of society along with options for social support to make the transition.
It seems that for many people, the more clear it becomes that a vegan shift seems to be gaining traction, the stronger their desperation to confirm their existing bias and maintain the status quo of animal use grows.
In fact, chances are you clicked on this piece hoping to confirm your own pro-meat bias, perhaps even unconsciously so. If this is so, you'll especially want to read on.
One of the recent news stories illustrating this societal dissonance was that – brace yourself – an Italian politician has proposed a bill that would actually imprison parents who raise their children on a vegan diet.
Apparently, the act of providing a child with such a diet would land parents up to one year in jail. Should the child become sick “because of the diet,” the sentence rises to four years and to six if the child dies.
Perhaps challenging The Mistress of the Dark title of her more famous namefellow (who is, ironically, an animal rights supporter and fluctuating vegan), Italian Parliament member Elvira Savino’s disturbing proposal apparently came about because four of the presumably hundreds of her country's children who were hospitalized in recent months for malnutrition ate a vegan diet.
At face value, that may sound extremely alarming to any parent, as it should. But let’s pause for a moment and think about this critically. What do we actually know about these children? Did a vegan diet really cause their medial issues?
Let’s take a look at one example for which we know details.
Veganism, or Something More Sinister?
In short, when we examine the anecdotes blaming veganism for a health issue, we always find much more beneath the surface.
As reported in the Washington Post, this baby had dangerously low calcium levels.
As not reported in the Washington Post, calcium is prevalent in plant foods like greens, broccoli, oranges, figs, white beans, almonds, soy beans and all the awesome stuff that can be made out of them without cycling them through animals first, and more.
Despite the sensationalist headline screaming, “An Italian baby raised on a vegan diet is hospitalized for severe malnutrition and removed from parents,” we learn that the poor thing also had a damn congenital heart condition, which was aggravated by said low calcium levels, resulting in an emergency operation.
The director of pediatrics at the hospital “was careful not to take sides on the issue of what constitutes an optimal diet for a baby” but recommended that this particular baby, who again had a dangerous and entirely separate health issue, “should have had support in this case with calcium and iron.”
The pediatrics director did not specify that those nutrients needed to be obtained from the animal kingdom versus the plant kingdom, which would of course be very weird, or if the child's precarious condition meant he needed a level of support and/or supplementation that a typical child, regardless of whether they are vegan, would not.
Speaking of iron, as with calcium, vegan foods high in iron are abundant and include the Italian staple of freaking tomato sauce. It's recommended that eating iron-rich plant foods with vitamin C powerhouses like lemons or oranges (again, also high in calcium) boosts iron absorption, which is manageable enough.
Given the abundant and common foods high in calcium and iron that grow from trees or the ground and don’t solely derive from an animal’s flesh or bodily secretions – animals who themselves eat said plants – how is the logical takeaway here that the lack of an animal’s flesh or bodily secretions caused this baby’s deficiency, which then exacerbated his congenital heart defect?
Don't Fear the Vegan
The answer is that it’s not a logical takeaway. Society is simply not operating on all four cylinders when it comes to this issue. As vegan sociologist Dr. Richard Twine gingerly puts it, "when approaching veganism we are confronted, still, with something of a chasm of unintelligibility."
Due to perceptions that are deeply entrenched and socially conditioned, our dominant culture has an extreme and irrational fear of or aversion to simply choosing alternatives to animal use. (And while it is a belief that people need to eat from the bodies of animals and otherwise use them, it’s a fact we don’t have to.)
This results in a desire to confirm a deeply held anti-vegan bias and soothe one’s cognitive dissonance when presented with factual information that contradicts their bias and acquired tastes, habits, and traditions – and apparent need for a feeling of domination over other animals – resulting in absurdities that defy basic logic yet make it past or perhaps are even encouraged by editors and authority figures everywhere.
Let’s be clear: the consumption of any other animal’s flesh or a female animal’s reproductive secretions including her lactation (milk) or ovum (eggs) does not cure or prevent any disease or deficiency in humans, whether in children or adults.
If that were the case, surely the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) would specify this, no? Given the fact that one of their major sponsors is actually the National Dairy Council, they are presumably under immense pressure to falsely position so-called animal products as necessary for normal human development while at the same time invalidating plants as sources of those same nutrients.
Instead, their official position is that vegan diets are healthful and appropriate for individuals in all stages of life – going so far as to specify this is "including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes” – and their international counterparts have similar positions, including:
Dietitians of Canada
The British National Health Service
The British Nutrition Foundation
The Dietitians Association of Australia
Other organizations with similar positions that vegan diets are appropriate for human beings include:
The United States Department of Agriculture
The National Health and Medical Research Council
The Mayo Clinic
The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
Harvard Medical School
(Those not hyperlinked above have all been painstakingly summarized and hyperlinked here.)
Guess how many medical associations/government agencies take the opposing position?
Yet whether a vegan diet is appropriate for people and especially babies and young children is portrayed as “a hotly debated subject” when in fact the consensus is in and has been for years. Most people just aren’t aware of or won’t acknowledge it.
And it should be noted that just like omnivorous diets, vegan diets vary wildly in composition from one person to the next and don't necessarily have to be very healthy. The only thing uniting the latter is that they don't include the bodily flesh or fluids of our furry, fuzzy, feathered, or finned friends. It couldn't possibly be determined by law that any deficiency is caused by that exclusion and not from the addition of one or more of the 10,000+ edible plant foods that could have remedied the situation just as effectively.
In other words, if someone is eating a nutritionally deficient vegan diet, it's not the lack of animal products that is to blame. Otherwise, deficiencies in non-vegans wouldn't exist, but in fact most people with deficiencies are not vegan. Why does correlation apparently imply causation in one case but not the other?
Might vegan parents want to do a little research and experimentation when everyone around them is eating other stuff? Yes. All parents should take efforts to ensure their kids are getting all the nutrients they need and not too much of the things they don't. And yes, vegans do need B12 supplements, since they are not getting it from B12-supplemented animals like other people do. By the way, the USDA reports that nearly two-fifths of the U.S. population may be flirting with marginal vitamin B12 status because the vitamin isn't getting absorbed, regardless of intake.
Note: Similar digging is necessary when it comes to the media's misleading anti-vegan interpretations of environmental studies that fly in the face of basic laws of trophic levels, including the latest half-baked study making the rounds ranking vegan diets only 5 out of 10 for land use efficiency, prompting headlines like "Selfish Vegans Are Ruining the Environment" and lines such as "If you’ve ever suspected nothing is more annoying than prissy, sanctimonious vegans, it turns out you have company: Nature wants to punch them in the face, too." No mention of the study that came out in April showing not only does a vegan diet use land most efficiently, but a vegan shift is the only way to produce enough food to feed a growing population by 2050 without another tree being felled. Funny enough, that study didn't result in any cruel headlines implicating those eating the SAD (Standard American Diet) for destroying the planet, nor journalists stating that nature wants to punch them in the face, despite both studies showing they are doing the most damage by far.
Are We Being Punked?
A lot of these anti-vegan articles could pass for being in the Onion, except they're not intended as a joke. It’s important to take a brief look at the almost satirical language used by the journalists reporting on the proposed Italian bill to understand how insidious these articles are.
Vegan diets are described by these journalists as being “imposed” on children by parents who “force” or “restrict” them.
Let’s see, when you give the dismembered flesh or repurposed reproductive secretions of another species to a child before they are agents of free will and for no vital reason – and worse yet, you don’t explain how these products are obtained from the lovable creatures they cherish so very much and would never hurt in their wildest dreams – and you even lie about it should they catch wind of what’s going on and ask you for clarity – you honestly believe you’re not imposing anything on them?
The Washington Post predictably describes veganism by listing everything that a vegan diet omits (sounds so restrictive!) without mentioning that vegans simply choose from the abundant plant-based alternatives to all these foods – which, may I add, are freaking delicious, and which go straight to the source of the nutrients that are otherwise being inefficiently and needlessly funneled through animals.
(They also position veganism as a diet when in fact it’s a rapidly growing pro-intersectional social justice solution expanding far beyond dietary choices; a movement being embraced by renowned doctors, scientists, athletes, and political leaders who want to leave the world a better place than they found it.)
And the language used by our friend Elvira is even worse.
Unbelievably, she is so brazen to flat-out admit that her proposal actually aims to “stigmatize” the “spreading belief” of veganism, which she calls “reckless and dangerous.” She spouts off the nutrients that vegetarian and vegan diets are “devoid of” and “deficient” in, despite any mentioned qualification to do so and in direct contradiction to the aforementioned consensus of actual international dietetic and medical associations.
Funny, I’m vegan and I don’t have those deficiencies. And we're sitting watching vegan athletes rock the Olympics up in here.
Essentially, this random Italian lawmaker is the world’s worst misinformed, biased, anti-vegan troll I’ve ever encountered – and trust me, I’ve encountered plenty and admittedly spend way too much time sparring with them.
Burn the Witch
Along with people's irrational aversion to choosing alternatives to animal use, causing many to deceptively blame veganism for anything bad that happens to a vegan (like, say, when the media smugly trumpets the fact that a vegan died climbing Mount Everest while omitting altogether the fact that another vegan successfully climbed it the damn day before), what are the real problems we’re not addressing in this case?
Let’s see, does the fact that Italy has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity alarm anyone?
Tell me how parents who feed their children diets that result in them being pre-diabetic with high cholesterol and blood pressure, setting them on the path of almost inevitable and debilitating if not mortal diabetes and/or heart disease, the number one cause of death, are not being threatened with jail time, but all vegan parents are?
In fact, some fear the bill could unintentionally be interpreted to also penalize non-vegan parents of children hospitalized for dietary reasons.
We can't have that! Only the vegans should be punished!
A campaign directed against a person or group holding unorthodox or unpopular views aiming to provoke moral panic or mass hysteria is the definition of a witch hunt. And to be honest, as a vegan contemplating having or adopting children with zero intentions of including slaughter products in their diet, the media and public’s uncritical response to this garbage scares the sh*t out of me.
(And yes, milk and eggs are slaughter products as well since any form of profitable milk and egg production including small or local farms requires routine slaughter due to the nonstop need for only fertile females.)
Despite the fact that I’m going to assume Elvira's absurd proposal could not possibly come to fruition (and I should note that as a female politician of childbearing age she is likely just being used as a pawn by those with vested interests in animal agriculture), such viral fear-mongering sparked by these articles can further perpetuate the half-baked anecdotes and myths that exacerbate society’s profound aversion to moving beyond animal exploitation. It can hinder the progress of the vegan movement, which our planet so urgently needs from us in the face of increasing water scarcity, climate change, deforestation, species extinction, ocean depletion and dead zones, world hunger and more while we breed, feed, water, and slaughter trillions of land and sea animals each year – each trapped in this system imposed and forced upon us all (and which is wildly disproportionately subsidized). “Livestock” systems cover 45% of our dying planet, mostly the fault of Westerners, but now developing nations are following our lead.
Either that, or it will completely backfire, the way that Hellman's ridiculous attempt to sue Hampton Creek for their eggless Just Mayo resulted in the exposure of the government's attempted suppression of vegan alternatives – and ended with Hellman's giving in and creating their own vegan mayo!
So, to make good on my headline, you should support Elvira's proposal to imprison vegan parents if an unscientific, archaic, fear-mongering witch hunt with the aim of ensuring continued profits from squeezing everything we can – and nothing of which we need – out of animals both living and dead while overshooting the planet's ecological limits in the process is your idea of a good time.
The damage by these articles is so much easier done than undone. Please help chip away at it by sharing this article and remaining an informed advocate for perhaps the most urgent social justice solution of our time for people, planet, and animals.
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!