Human Extinction: It Follows From What Most People Already Believe

In his recent post, “Veganism: It Follows From What Most People Already Believe,” veganism advocate Gary Francione writes:

If you believe–as most people believe–that: (1) animals matter morally; (2) because animals matter morally, we cannot justify imposing “unnecessary” suffering on them; and (3) pleasure, amusement, or convenience cannot suffice as “necessity,” then you are already committed to stop eating, wearing, or using animals in any situation in which there is not compulsion or real necessity, such as being on the desert island or the lifeboat with no access to plant foods.

Francione makes this point again and again, seemingly without realizing that the implications go far beyond giving up all animal products.

A totally vegan human civilization would theoretically be free of non-human animal exploitation, but it would still cause pain and misfortune to wild and liminal non-human animals through competition for space and resources, and other harmful effects of human activities. If pleasure, amusement and convenience are not excuses for imposing suffering on animals, then vegans should stop eating vegan foods that are not needed for health or survival, like vegan cupcakes or any calories above the absolute minimum required to survive.

Vegans who take their own existences to be “necessary” would probably need to mostly subsist on freegan foods or a soylent type concoction that is formulated to cause as little suffering to animals as possible—and that’s only looking at the implications for food. Anything vegans did that wasn’t necessary for survival would raise the question, “is this somehow causing suffering to non-human animals?” If the answer is “yes,” as it most certainly will be, the pleasurable, convenient, or amusing activity becomes forbidden even if no intentional animal exploitation is involved. 

But that’s if we’re being charitable to Francione’s logic. The other problem with his simple formula demanding that everyone go vegan is that continued human existence does not seem to be strictly “necessary,” so anything humans do for any purpose that causes non-human animal suffering is causing unnecessary animal suffering. It’s not veganism that flows from Francione’s premises but immediate human extinction. 

Francione could try to show that human existence were necessary somehow, but I’ve never seen him do that. He throws around “necessary” and “unnecessary” without ever defining them beyond insisting that animal products are unnecessary because pleasure, amusement and convenience are all unnecessary. I agree that pleasure, amusement, convenience and animal products are unnecessary, but only because Francione isn’t defining the “for what” part of “necessary,” and without a “for what,” everything is unnecessary.

But even if mere human survival were the “for what” of Francione’s “necessary,” he still runs into problems because this demands more sacrifice than simply ending animal exploitation, and because it’s still unclear why human health or human existence should be necessary.

If there is no grand purpose to human existence (and I’ve love to see Francione propose one), pleasure and amusement are among the major reasons that we strive to keep the human species going. And if pleasure and amusement are no excuse for harming non-human animals, Francione’s premises don’t allow us to justify continued human existence. 

And “Justify It” Part 3

TheMicroFilmPrinciple’s comment inspired me to clarify my own thoughts on the problems with veganism, so I thought I’d post that as well. My response to “Another take on ‘Justify It’”:

I enjoyed this comment a lot and agreed with most of it. I only have a couple of minor disagreements. One is that I think that the premise of some amount of human selfishness being required to justify meat eating still stands. And you even allude to why it does: because there is technically the option for humans to all immediately stop eating and die, which would be far more selfless and better for non-human animals than our continuing here in almost any conceivable human society I can imagine.

I don’t know of any vegans who are demanding immediate human extinction, because even the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement wants to allow living humans to live out the rest of their lives, which I would say means allotting humans some amount of selfishness. But immediate extinction is still technically an option, which means that rejecting this option (as all or nearly all vegans and meat eaters want to do) is accepting some amount of selfishness for humans. Another more selfless alternative to ultra harm reduction meat eating would be some sort of human society that manages to improve life for animals so much that the animals are better off with humans than without. This is probably impossible, but it’s something that David Pearce dreams about at The Abolitionist Project. This would be another option that, if it’s possible (which it probably isn’t), would be less selfish than even the least selfish form of meat eating.

I basically agree what you said about intent. Vegans don’t actually have good intent based on their own standards, as I talk about toward the end of this post. When it comes to habitat destruction, for instance, vegans think they should get to pretend that destroying habitat with wild animals in it is ethically the same as destroying habitat with no animals in it, just because theoretically the habitat could have had no animals in it. This is a version of The Doctrine of Double Effect. I think there’s a lot of problems with using The Doctrine of Double Effect here, because for one, how do we get to say that feeding ourselves constitutes a “good end” that justifies the inevitable harming of some animals when animals are better off without us anyway and so in some sense the best end (if we’re taking non-human animal perspectives) would be our not eating? Humans non-intentionally killing animals to eat constitutes two bad ends from animals’ POV, not one good end that justifies the bad unwanted consequences (as The Doctrine of Double Effect requires).

There’s also obvious problems with the typical example that Gary Francione uses. He says that when we build a road, we know humans are going to die driving on that road, yet we build it anyway. We’re willing to accept some deaths of humans when we build this road. So if we destroy habitat knowing that animals are unfortunately going to die, that’s the same thing, right? No, because driving on a road is a calculated risk for humans that they take because there is some benefit for them to drive on this road and get somewhere fast. But roads provide no benefit and only harm for wild animals, so it’s a faulty comparison. A better comparison would be to environmental racism, or driving indigenous humans out of their homes to make room for Europeans, which most people would say counts as a rights violation. “Intent,” as vegans typically use it, does not work the way they want it to work.

However, separate from the vegan/non-vegan issue, I don’t totally agree that we can simply dismiss caring about intent rather than consequences as obviously stupid. Personally I am a lot more consequentialist leaning, but I’m not sure we can call deontology irrelevant and leave it at that. Even so, that doesn’t matter in this context because veganism doesn’t satisfy the deontological requirements for giving animals rights, since it allows habitat right violations, for one.

I liked your pointing out that vegans aren’t actually harm/ghg/rights-violation/etc. minimizers. This is something that frequently annoys me about vegan environmentalist rhetoric especially. “You can’t be an environmentalist if you eat meat” makes no sense because it seems to be implying that an environmentalist is someone who only does the ecologically optimal thing — which no environmentalists do. Plus, even if someone is eating some factory farmed meat, they could balance that out by eating not very much of it and reducing their environmental impact in ways that not all vegans are doing, and thereby reach the same GHG footprint. And anyway, as you point out, various forms of meat eating are better than a purely vegan system as far as the environment is concerned. If we want to reduce methane from animals, then hunt methane emitting animals, for instance. And certainly don’t let animals live out their methane-emitting lives on sanctuaries.

But again, we have to allow for some environmental non-optimality if we’re going to be okay with meat eating, because not eating anything and dying is still technically an option. And that would be better for the environment than just about any version of us staying here. 

Another Take on “Justify It”

My last post, Justify It, was a response to vegans demanding that meat eaters justify not being vegan. I liked the detailed comment by TheMicroFilmPrinciple on that post, so here it is:

As someone with a background in looking at mathematical models, the vegan mentality that people must somehow “justify it” strikes me as completely nonsensical (as well as arrogant, hypocritical, smug, and rude).

Some points on reality generally overlooked by such a request: (1) One first needs some structure to the problem. “Justify it” is vague, pointless language. Come up with a metric with a clear definition of what terms we are supposed to “justify” action under, such as choosing what “kills the fewest vertebrates” or “causes the least suffering among life forms that appear to suffer [by some definition]” or “preserves as much habitat as possible” or “preserves biodiversity” or on and on and on. Pick the metric with clear definitions, and we can look at the results.

(2) Once (1) is decided upon, just about every sensible structure to the problem leaves all vegan systems as sub-optimal solutions. Pretty much no matter the vegan food system chosen, there always exists a non-vegan system that has superior results by the chosen metric (greenhouse gases, land use, killing the fewest animals, etc.). This reality is not hard to see once one actually models a food system, such as Vaclav Smil illustrates in Should We Eat Meat? or the “default livestock” discussed by Simon Fairlie in Meat: A Benign Extravagance. The conclusion is obvious to anyone who has looked at system-level modeling, and it is the standard conclusion of all mainstream research that an optimal system will include livestock (not to mention hunting and fishing, which score even better). The only question is at what level and with what methods (lots of disagreement on that). When any vegan system is sub-optimal, why would one need to “justify” not being vegan?

The only exception to the clear superiority of an optimally designed non-vegan system I can think of is one that bases its morality on “intent” instead of actualized consequences, which seems about the stupidest concept one could propose. Why would animals, who have no concept of our intents, care about whether we “intended” their suffering or not? Are we so self-centered that what goes on in our minds is the deciding factor, overriding what actually will happen to animals, when supposedly “considering others”? And, even if we concede such an “intent” concept, we also would have to have a bizarrely distorted concept of “intent,” because a vegan system would take actions that blatantly will kill, maim, and cause suffering (to a greater extent than an optimally chosen non-vegan system), actions that could not be excused as “accidental” any more than someone who plows through a crowd of people with a car, but claims it wasn’t “intended” harm because, while the plowing through the crowd was completely a conscious choice with known results, the “intent” was to park in a space on the other side of the crowd, not killing all those people who just happened to be killed in an entirely foreseeable manner. If I were a victim of such a driver, I would consider that equivalent to murdering me, whether that was his stated intent or not (and I’d rather be shot than crushed). The inevitable and foreseeable consequence of action is similar when we destroy habitat.

(3) Besides the fact that any vegan system is sub-optimal to an optimally chosen non-vegan system, we also have the problem that absolutely no one truly optimizes by these sorts of metrics (suffering, GHGs, habitat preservation, etc.) in their personal decision making. I often see vegans mention “minimizing suffering” (or whatever we are maximizing/minimizing), but then when they describe what they mean it becomes clear that they don’t know what “minimize” means. As soon as one makes a choice that in any way isn’t the absolute minimum, we are no longer minimizing. If one is going to be so rude as to ask other to justify their actions, then you had better make sure to have a list of justifications for each and every choice that prevented optimization. A little humility is warranted, and this touches upon the idea that it’s alright to act selfishly on some level, because we all do to at least some extent.

(4) In light of points (2) and (3), I don’t actually think one needs to get acknowledgement about humans being able to act selfishly as part of the premise, as you suggest your opening premise would be. I agree that of course humans should be able to act selfishly, so I’m not arguing that it’s not true. For example, any food system that leaves humans starving would be one I find unacceptable, even at the cost of the environment and non-human animals, and I find it implausible and cruel to ask someone to be genuinely unhealthy for the sake of animals or even other humans, especially when the gains for others would be small and hypothetical (sidenote: sugar crops usually have better caloric yields, so one should load up if trying to minimize land use or GHGs). However, asking for the right to act at least a little selfishly is not a necessary condition, because under any metric our hypothetical vegan proposes, other than an arbitrary and nonsensical “my intentions” concept, there will be a non-vegan choice that will be superior. Well-managed hunting beats any vegan way of feeding oneself. Fishing is vital to our food system. Waste-fed pigs or crop-residue fed cattle will score better than planting additional crops if we forgo the resources of food waste and crop residues. Even if the long-term goal was human extinction, the food system on the way there would be better including a well-chosen set of animal foods with plant foods (unless we were choosing no food whatsoever, starting immediately, in which case the question is “How do you justify eating?” and the choice would clearly be immediate mass suicide).

(5) Usually, when confronted with research justifying point (2), a vegan will suggest that because of the industrial system we have today, some optimal animal products are irrelevant, so we should be vegan in order to reduce demand. That’s not entirely illogical, but it’s still not really correct. Such a concept would only apply if all possible efficiencies of livestock, hunting, and fishing—the ones where they are improvements over vegan consumption—were already being used up, so that any reduction in overall demand implies a reduction in inefficient production. However, we don’t come close to using all of the waste food that could be fed to pigs, so a former vegan that creates a market for a waste fed pig is making a strict improvement over the vegan alternative. One could say the same thing about hunting an abundant wild species (deer are not close to being overhunted in the USA, for instance). If we are talking about people justifying sub-optimal choices, then the vegan who refuses to hunt the abundant deer outside of town should be on the list. So, if choosing optimal consumption, the answer is not vegan on an individual or system level.

(6) Some vegans are good enough to realize my following point, but far to many are not, so I will add it anyway. Livestock are absolutely essential in the developing world. They expand the food supply and enhance food security for people who are vulnerable. Any debate on diet should come with the caveat of “in the developed world,” with clear exception made for the multitudes that would starve without livestock or major changes to the system as it exists today. That’s pertinent to one of the above “justify” requests, because the 56 billion is one of the estimates for world land animals killed, and I find it rather morally repugnant to question the peasant farmer’s use of chickens when living in a western lifestyle.

"Justify It"

A couple of weeks ago, a relatively new vegan emailed me to ask:

Is there a rational excuse to eat meat for pleasure? Because that is the only reason that you can find today to actually eat meat. We don’t need it to survive anymore, so all 56 billion land animals killed every year are being killed for palate pleasure. Since I became vegan nine months ago I’ve been trying to find a rational justification to eat meat in today’s society, but I never found it. I want to know if you did.

Yesterday James McWilliams made a similar request of meat eaters in general in his recent post “Local Nonsense”:

What needs to be acknowledged in this moral delusion is this: it does not matter where your animal’s ethically unjustified death happened. Your ethically unjustified animal death remains ethically unjustified if it happened half a world away or in your own backyard. It’s still unjustified. An animal does not care where it’s slaughtered. It cares about not being slaughtered.

So, to demand what I’ve been demanding of meat eaters for almost a decade: justify it.

All right, all right, I’ll justify it! Or rather, I’ll sketch out what the justification would look like, and elaborate on it later. 

The basic justification for meat eating would have to open with this premise: It’s okay for humans to be selfish in regards to our interactions with non-human animals.

I imagine there are a few vegans reading this who are tempted to jump in now and say, “Aha, that’s where we disagree!” But they can’t do that! Almost all vegans have to agree with meat eaters on this basic premise, though there are a few exceptions.

The vegans who favor immediate human extinction don’t have to agree with meat eaters here, for obvious reasons. Neither do utilitarian transhumanist vegans who believe humanity could reduce suffering and increase pleasure overall by using technology to engineer suffering out of the world – thus allowing humans to earn their keep by being an actively positive presence that is better for animals than if we weren’t here at all. Maybe the vegans who want the end of human civilization are kind of off the hook as well, although it’s hard for me to imagine primitivist vegan humans coexisting with wild animals in a purely mutually beneficial sort of way. Animals are probably better off without even post-civilization humans, since these humans would still be taking up space and competing for vegan resources. 

So, all the vegans who don’t want human extinction, who aren’t demanding that humans engineer suffering out the world, or who aren’t suggesting a human return to pre-agricultural ways that is mutually beneficial for humans and animals, are willing to accept the harms that non-human animals experience because of vegan human civilization selfishly persisting to the detriment of animals. Even when vegans try to be less selfish than standard veganism requires by imposing more limitations on a hypothetical vegan human society beyond giving up animal products, as the authors of Zoopolis do, they still end up allowing some human selfishness that benefits us at the expense of other animals

So we could just as easily turn the question around on James McWilliams or the person who emailed me. Justify it, guys: why are humans allowed to selfishly persist on this planet when most animals would be better off if we weren’t here? 

The debate between meat eaters and most vegans, then, is not about whether humans are allowed to behave selfishly in ways that harm non-human animals. The debate is over what degree of human selfishness is acceptable, what forms we want to allow this selfishness to take, and how harmful certain forms of animal exploitation really are.

Most vegans want to draw the line at blatant kinds of animal exploitation, at hunting, medical testing, animal entertainment, and animal agriculture, and argue that these are the distinct and unacceptable forms of human selfishness. The trick for vegans becomes showing how these are distinguished from all the vegan ways that humans harm animals, like through habitat displacement and side effects from pollution, global warming, vegan agriculture, pesticides, roads, wind turbines, and so on. Typically they try to do that by arguing that non-vegan actions are unique in the amount of suffering that they cause or unique in the way that they violate animal autonomy or rights. 

I can think of four possible general responses for the meat eater who cares about ethics to make: that it’s okay for us to be even more selfish than vegans want us to be; that vegans are right about the amount of selfishness we should aspire to but wrong that giving up animal exploitation is compatible with a reasonable level of wellbeing for all humans; that animal exploitation and hunting are not necessarily distinct in the form and degree of human selfishness that they represent; or a combination of the three. 

The Stone recently published an essay I wrote that is an attempt to argue the “animal exploitation does not have to be uniquely selfish” point. They titled it, “The Enigma of Animal Suffering,” and the main idea was that if we could design a form of animal farming that didn’t cause animals much suffering, we could exploit non-human animals without their realizing it. And if we did that while accepting the Epicurean idea that those who die are no worse off than those who are never born, animal farming could apparently be as harmless as the ways that vegans kill animals. From my perspective, it’s hard to see what makes this kind of animal exploitation uniquely selfish in contrast to the ways that vegans hurt animals. Of course this kind of high-welfare animal agriculture would still be selfishly motivated, but again, most vegans can’t exactly critique it on that basis. Vegans could disagree with Epicurus about the harmlessness of death for the one who dies, but then there’s the problem that a vegan human civilization selfishly does things that end up killing animals too.

Vegans could say that intentionally killing animals is much worse than killing them as a likely or inevitable side effect of vegan behaviors, and that could persuade some people. But I have to question the “good intent” of selfish vegan human behaviors that we know will harm or kill animals for the sole benefit of humans (sometimes intentionally and directly so, like with pesticides), especially since there’s no apparent purpose to humans being here other than that we like existing and most of us are disturbed at the prospect of humanity going extinct.

As I said, I will elaborate on this more later, but in short, here’s how I would justify low-suffering animal farming: almost all vegans and meat eaters agree that humans can selfishly put our interests before those of other animals, vegans underestimate the sacrifice that veganism would be for many people, and animal farming doesn’t have to be the distinctively harmful and offensive form of human selfishness that it mostly is today. 

Will future people look back on us with scorn for eating meat? Click on the headline to see my take on this at Ethos Review.

Why Vegan Diets For Infants Are Controversial, Part Four: Could an Animal Rights Ethic Bias Vegan Nutrition Experts?

If you want the hunting and farming of animals for food to end, it would help your cause if it turned out that humans could healthfully thrive on a vegan diet. So let’s say there are some dietitians who want the hunting and farming of animals for food to end, and they’re telling you that humans can thrive on a vegan diet… do you trust them?

For some reason, vegan dietitian Ginny Messina’s short blog post “Safety of Diet for Vegan Babies” — which is about how veganism was nothing but an incidental detail in the recent case of a vegan parent endangering the life of her infant — inspired me to write multiple related posts in response. This will be the last one.

In the comments to Messina’s post, I said that vegans can’t really argue that veganism is the best for babies, and that it didn’t help vegan dietitian credibility that so many vegan dietitians arrived at veganism through ethics rather than health. Messina disagreed, writing:

Rhys, if there is no health argument for veganism, then how can it be problematic when vegan dietitians are motivated by ethics? I’d be far more likely to question the credibility of someone who insists they know the one and only healthy way to eat. And if there is more than one way to eat to support good health, why not promote the option that is most ethical? I don’t see that as a problematic stance.

What Messina says here makes some sense, but she’s overlooking the concern people may have that if your ethics have you wishing for the entire world to go vegan, you potentially have an incentive to present vegan nutrition in the best possible light. Thinking merely that veganism is the healthiest diet without caring whether the world goes vegan or not seems to come with less risk of an incentive to exaggerate veganism’s positives. 

What Messina is getting at, though, is that the people who do end up pushing a vegan diet purely for its health benefits, and who might not care about the ethical or environmental aspects of it, often end up being less credible and science-oriented than the ethics-motivated vegan dietitians. The people who promote veganism as the healthiest diet and only care about human health are often married to a specific form of the vegan diet, and that gives them a marketable “ideal” diet to sell. Build your career on that marketable diet, and science becomes something to cherry pick when it defends your diet and to ignore when it doesn’t.

The ethics-motivated vegan dietitians, in contrast, want the world to go vegan, but they don’t necessarily have a patentable vision of how this veganism should look. They want vegans to be healthy so they can stay vegan and they want outsiders to view veganism in general as not detrimental to health, but they’re not stuck arguing that a low-carb/low-fat/all-fruit/macrobiotic or whatever else veganism is clearly the healthiest diet in the world. Therefore, they can acknowledge studies that look bad for say an all-starch diet without destroying their careers. 

Not that this eliminates all possible incentive for pro-veg bias. Even if vegan dietitians aren’t pushing a specific kind of veganism, they do still want humans to stop consuming all animal products. What prevents vegan dietitians from saying, “All animal products are highly detrimental to health and in general most plants are good for health, so as long as you don’t eat only vegan junk food, you’ll be healthier if you go vegan — and coincidentally the animals will be better off too”?

This is essentially what the vegan MD Dr. Michael Greger does, or at least that’s how I and some other people see it. Greger went vegan for animal rights reasons in 1990, and he began his veg activism by hyping the dangers of mad cow disease and possible link between beef consumption and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Now he makes nutrition videos and speeches that review studies showing the harms of all animal products, the benefits of many plant foods, and the harms of some plants. If you watch enough of his videos, it becomes clear that eating plants has a ton of advantages while animal products are close to 100 percent bad — with the possible exception of insects.

Greger isn’t selling a particular form of veganism, even though he does see some problem plants that should be avoided, like coconut meat and oil because he opposes saturated fat. Still, I doubt we’ll ever hear anything good about animal products from him, no matter what the science says, and as obsessed as he is with antioxidants and phytonutrients, if the research started showing them as useless or harmful, I would expect him to find a way never to accept that. Harriet Hall at Science-Based Medicine seems to feel the same way, and Joe Schwartz, Director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society, wrote a bemused and not entirely negative post about Greger’s fixation on all the negative things about eating animals.

I haven’t watched anything close to every one of Greger’s videos, so it’s possible that there’s more nuance than I’ve seen. Or maybe there is no nuance and Greger is giving a fair representation of the science, which happens to be that it’s universally harmful to consume animal products. I of course have my own biases, but what it looks like to me is that Dr. Greger is using nutrition as a form of vegan outreach, and that might be influencing the sorts of studies he finds and discusses.

However, dietitians Jack Norris and Ginny Messina are themselves evidence that Messina might be right that we can trust ethics-motivated vegan dietitians. Together they wrote Vegan for Life, which I thought provided such a good overview of nutrition science that I recommended it to a non-vegan roommate who wanted to learn more about nutrition. If I’d thought they were blinded by their pro-vegan bias, I wouldn’t have done that. Messina and especially Norris don’t seem to be using their nutrition work as a form of outreach. As much as they would like more people to become vegan, their audience is primarily vegans who want to keep up on the science behind plant-based nutrition, and stay vegan; Norris and Messina are doing inreach rather than outreach, and the incentive for pro-vegan bias might be weaker with inreach.

It’s not that Norris is adverse to outreach. He co-founded Vegan Outreach with the goal of racking up as many vegan conversions as possible. But he got into nutrition because during his activism work he heard from a lot of people who experienced health problems as vegans and went back to eating animal products. He became a dietitian so he could try to do something about this. If the goal is to prevent vegans from feeling unhealthy and running back to animal products, it doesn’t work to just say, “Veganism is the best diet, you can’t go wrong with it.” You actually have to pay attention to the science and figure out what vegans need to do to stay healthy. That seemingly frees Norris to look more honestly at the research and see what it says about veganism, good and bad.

Messina was already a dietitian when she became vegetarian and then vegan for ethical reasons, but she now seems to largely share Norris’ nutritional philosophy, which is basically that even if veganism isn’t necessarily the healthiest diet conceivable, it’s healthy enough that health concerns shouldn’t override the ethical obligation to be vegan. They can’t exactly say, “you should raise your child vegan because that’s in the best interest of your child.” Instead they have to say, “you should raise your child vegan because that’s in the best interest of non-human animals. Fortunately this need not entail any health sacrifices on your child’s part, and it might even come with some health bonuses, though we can’t be sure.” The point is that the consequences of changing your diet between non-vegan and vegan are supposed to be largely ethical, not nutritional. That’s good news for those who want animal farming to end, if not the very best news, which would be that animal products kill us the second they touch our mouths. 

When the goal of nutrition research and writing is to keep people vegan rather than to make new vegans, it seems like potential for bias is less of a concern. But as I discussed in “Final Thoughts on the American Dietetic Association/Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Vegetarian Position Papers”, the potential for bias in vegetarian and vegan dietitians sometimes does lead to biased results. A classic case of vegan dietitians being too eager to ignore veganism’s possible risks was when they said vegans didn’t have to worry much about calcium because a lower-protein diet was better for retaining calcium. This is from a 1991 Vegetarian Times article called, “Six Steps to a Balanced Diet”:

There is also evidence, says [vegan dietitian Reed] Mangels, that vegetarians may not need as much calcium as meat eaters because people who eat lower protein diets excrete less calcium than people who eat high-protein diets. “The RDAs for calcium were made for people consuming typical American high-protein diets,” Mangels explains. “For those whose protein intake is lower but adequate, or whose protein is from nonanimal sources, calcium intakes below the RDAs are probably adequate.”

The bottom line for vegetarians is if you’re going to eat diary products, you should use them as a condiment, not an entrée, says [Suzanne] Havala.

This was a common belief amongst vegans at the time. In 1990, Messina wrote to the New York Times, “A high-protein intake, especially a high intake of animal protein, is linked with loss of calcium from the body. Our love affair with protein may be increasing our risk of osteoporosis.”

The argument that vegans didn’t need to worry about calcium because they didn’t eat animal protein had real consequences, as Reed Mangels herself later noted in a comment on Jack Norris’s blog:

I’ve been troubled for some time by emails from long-term vegans who are now in their 60s and have (to their shock) osteoporosis despite weight bearing exercise and plenty of fruits and vegetables (but very low calcium, protein, and vitamin D). The situation reminds me a bit of where vitamin B12 was at one point. Some people were saying that you didn’t need much and that stores could last a long time and, basically not to worry about it. Then, vegans started experiencing B12 deficiencies. More people seem to be aware of vitamin B12 this days. Perhaps the same awareness is warranted for calcium, vitamin D, and adequate but not excessive protein.

Some vegans would blame Mangels’ mistake on the state of osteoporosis research at the time she was telling vegans not to worry about calcium, yet Mangels was already getting called out for being too easy on veganism in the same year she told Vegetarian Times that animal protein was the big culprit in osteoporosis. In 1991, also in Vegetarian Times, Brian Ruppenthal (co-author of The New Laurel’s Kitchen) wrote:

Of course, Mangels is not a disinterested reviewer, and her summaries occasionally reveal her pro-vegan bias. For example, her section on osteoporosis features studies that concluded that American vegetarians tend to have better bone structure and less osteoporosis than nonvegetarians. What she doesn’t point out is that these studies looked at lacto-ovo-vegetarians, not vegans. Or she’ll omit the negative studies; virtually all studies of the “reproductive performance” of vegans (which includes the health of the mother during pregnancy and the infant) up until the Farm study were quite discouraging, for example, but Mangels mentions only the Farm study in her summary.

This isn’t to say that a vegan diet isn’t healthful; in fact, the Farm study shows that it is possible for vegans to have healthy pregnancies and healthy toddlers, but that such results depend on a level of commitment, common sense and knowledge of nutrition like that of the Farm community. But most people pay very little attention to their diets. For those who adopt a restricted diet and aren’t attentive to nutrition, this can lead to problems. Mangels’ easy confidence in veganism as a healthy diet for all people therefore left me uneasy.

This doesn’t mean we can never trust Mangels again, but it does seem to be one example of a belief in vegan ethics leading to unfounded nutritional conclusions in veganism’s favor. Fortunately, it does look like vegan dietitians have learned from specific mistakes like this; if they’re making new mistakes because of bias, I don’t know what they are.

There’s also bias potential when religion and dietetics mix. Seventh-day Adventists believe that God told their prophet Ellen G. White that vegetarianism was the most suitable diet for humankind. Perhaps not coincidentally, Seventh-day Adventist dietitians have been leaders in showing that vegetarianism is one of the healthiest diets for mankind. Even Ginny Messina used to mix religion and dietetics, as when she and her husband wrote that soy was a miracle from God and that Genesis describes all the foods that we need, which happen to be vegan. Potential for bias is of course different than definitive documented bias that does in fact misinterpret research as a way to peddle ideology; in itself, it proves nothing. It’s just something to keep in mind.

My ongoing frustration with some vegan dietitians is that they pretend like this potential for bias isn’t there, which makes this potential seem more serious than it might really be. Mostly I’m thinking of when vegan dietitians cite the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics/American Dietetic Association vegetarian position papers without ever saying that it’s vegans and vegetarians who author these papers.

It makes sense that vegetarians and vegans write these papers, because they’re generally going to be the most familiar with the science on vegan and vegetarian diets. My main complaint is that vegans often use these papers as a way of saying, “Look, it’s not just people who believe in an ethical obligation to be vegan who say that vegan diets are safe — conservative mainstream dietary organizations are saying it too!” It could sound a little less impressive if they added, “By the way, it’s the ethics and religion motivated vegans and vegetarians at those organizations who are saying this.” I would like to see vegan dietitians talk about their involvement in these position papers and explain why we shouldn’t worry about bias there, because they could probably make a plausible case if they ever got around to acknowledging this issue. 

That it’s convenient for ethical vegan dietitians if veganism is acceptably healthy doesn’t mean vegan dietitians are skewing the science — it could in fact be the case that a well-planned vegan diet just happens to be acceptably healthy. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics on a Vegan Diet for Children

In her recent post about vegan diets for babies, vegan dietitian Ginny Messina wrote, “Both the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics say that appropriate vegan diets are safe for babies. (And in case you’re wondering, omnivore diets for babies need to be appropriate as well.)” I’m used to vegans citing the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) to establish that there’s a mainstream nutritional organization that is okay with veganism, but this is the first time I’ve seen the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) used in the same way. That inspired me to look into what the AAP has said about vegan diets for babies.

I emailed Debra Burrowes, who is the Manager of the Division of Technical & Medical Services for the AAP, and asked her if the AAP states that appropriate vegan diets are safe for babies. She responded, “The AAP does not have a specific policy statement on the vegan diet; however AAP’s Pediatric Nutrition Handbook, 7th edition, includes a chapter on the nutritional aspects of vegetarian diets.  Some information regarding vegan diets is included within the chapter.”

Here are some excerpts from that chapter, called “Nutritional Aspects of Vegetarian Diets”. I left in the source numbers of sources that I’ll refer to:

Vegetarianism is a way of life for many individuals for various reasons. However, there can be potentially serious implications for the growing pediatric and adolescent population as a result of self-imposed or misguided limitations of the vegetarian diet. Therefore, pediatricians should proactively ask and assess the nutritional status of their vegetarian patients to ensure optimal health and growth, as well as provide anticipatory guidance to prevent any potential deficits. …

As with any dietary pattern, the degree of adherence to vegetarian patterns varies, and thus, overall nutrient intake differs from one vegetarian to the next. Most dietary patterns can be accommodated while fulfilling nutrient needs with appropriate dietary planning based on scientific principles of sound nutrition. Most vegetarian parents welcome such advice. However, when goals are zealously pursued and nutrition principles are ignored, the health consequences can be unfortunate, especially for infants and young children. Overall, it is possible to provide a balanced diet to vegetarians and vegans13. …

Position papers of the American Dietetic Association and Canadian Paediatric Society state that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases14,15. A vegetarian, including a vegan, diet can also meet current recommended daily requirements for protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin, vitamin B12, vitamin A, n-3 omega fatty acids and iodine. In some cases, use of fortified foods or supplements can be helpful in meeting recommendations for individual nutrients. Well planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence. Vegetarian diets in general have lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol and higher levels of complex carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, Vitamin C and E14 carotenoids and phytochemicals16.

There have been concerns that vegetarians, and in particular vegans, have lower than adequate intakes of vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, zinc and riboflavin. A Polish study suggested that prepubertal vegetarian children had lower levels of leptin, a polypeptide which plays a role in bone growth, maturation and weight regulation, in comparison to their omnivore counterparts, which may contribute towards reduced bone growth and development in childhood. A vegan diet may also put children at risk for vitamin A deficiency and subsequent keratomalacia, anemia, protein and zinc deficiency if a proper evaluation of the diet isn’t performed and the family isn’t given appropriate information of the potential dietary deficiencies relevant to the vegetarian diet. However the overall belief that individuals following vegan or vegetarian diets suffer from nutritional deficiencies may be exaggerated, as reports of specific malnutrition in these populations are rare.

The study they cite for the line, “Overall, it is possible to provide a balanced diet to vegetarians and vegans” is C Jacobs’ and Johanna Dwyer’s 1988 paper, “Vegetarian children: appropriate and inappropriate diets” (Am J Clin Nutr, 1988; 48:811-818). Dwyer and Jacobs are friendlier toward vegetarian than vegan diets in the study, concluding:

An appropriate vegetarian diet can adequately provide for each phase of growth in the child. The nutritional needs at each stage vary. In general, it is difficult to achieve normal growth following a vegan-like diet unless care is taken to ensure that the diet is sufficient in calories, protein, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, and Fe. Well-planned lactoovo- and lactovegetarian diets for children, on the other hand, can provide adequate nutrition. Further, they may help establish healthful patterns that will continue through all the stages of life.

The third paragraph I excerpted from the AAP’s “Nutritional Aspects of Vegetarian Diets” chapter appears to be a paraphrasing of two main sources, one of them being the most recent Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly American Dietetic Association) position paper on a vegetarian diet from 2009 (source 14). The authors of that position paper are Reed Mangels, who is vegan for ethical reasons, and Winston J. Craig, a Seventh-day Adventist vegetarian who believes that God told the Seventh-day Adventist prophet Ellen G. White that a vegetarian diet was the only appropriate diet for humankind. I bring this up because vegans often cite the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position paper on a vegetarian diet as proof that a mainstream organization agrees with them, and I’ve never seen them mention that it’s vegans and vegetarians who write these position papers. I’ve even seen vegan dietitians cite one of these position papers to establish mainstream cred for veganism without admitting that they were one of the authors on that specific paper, or of a similar one from a previous year. 

The other main source for that third paragraph I quoted from “Nutritional Aspects of Vegetarian Diets” is “Vegetarian diets in children and adolescents” by Minoli Amit of the Canadian Paediatric Society (source 15). The introduction of Amit’s paper states:

The concept that a well-balanced vegetarian diet can provide for the needs of a growing child and adolescent is supported by Canada’s Food Guide, the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. There is sufficient evidence from well-developed studies to conclude that children and adolescents grow and thrive well on vegetarian diets that are well designed and supplemented appropriately.

However, certain components of these diets and some required nutrients may be in short supply and need specific attention. This is particularly true in the case of strictly vegan diets and other very restrictive diets in which significant medical consequences could result from inattention to nutrient needs. The present statement highlights some of these areas and recommends appropriate interventions.

By referencing this paper, the American Academy of Pediatrics is using the Canadian Paediatric Society as support for the claim that a well-balanced vegetarian diet can be safe – and in return, the Canadian Paediatric Society references the American Academy of Pediatrics as support for the claim that a well-balanced vegetarian diet can be safe. 

The Canadian Paediatric Society paper goes on to list some concerns they have with a vegan diet, which includes that younger vegan children are at risk of not getting enough calories if they eat too many foods that have low energy density and a lot of fiber. It says that parents of vegan children need to pay special attention to DHA, B12, calcium, and Vitamin D.

The paper concludes:

Well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets with appropriate attention to specific nutrient components can provide a healthy alternative lifestyle at all stages of fetal, infant, child and adolescent growth (7,8,22). Appropriate education of the family and follow-up over time are essential. There are many useful tools and excellent guides to assist families and professionals.

The cited papers there — 7, 8 and 12 — are: the 2003 vegetarian position paper by the American Dietetic Association, which Ginny Messina, Reed Mangles, and vegan dietitian Vesanto Melina co-authored; the 6th edition of the AAP’s Pediatric Nutrition Handbook; and a paper called “Considerations in planning vegetarian diets: Children,” by Ginny Messina and Reed Mangles (J Am Diet Assoc. 2001;101:661–9). 

For the most part, the rest of “Nutritional Aspects of Vegetarian Diets” looks at the various pluses and minuses of vegetarian and vegan diets as far as obtaining particular nutrients. The AAP doesn’t seem to be worried about vegan children getting enough calories, protein, fat, fiber, vitamin A, riboflavin or folic acid. They are more concerned about vegan children getting enough B12, vitamin D, calcium, iodine, zinc, iron and DHA, but they don’t think it’s impossible for vegans to get these things. They also mention carnitine and taurine commonly being low in vegetarians and vegans, but they aren’t bothered about this because they don’t know of any adverse effects this could have.

My impression from reading this chapter is that the AAP certainly wouldn’t suggest a vegan diet to anyone who doesn’t see ethical or religious reasons to be vegan, but that they also don’t believe that it’s unworkable. “Overall, it is possible to provide a balanced diet to vegetarians and vegans” seems to sum up their attitude.

However, just like not everyone at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics seems very accepting of a vegan diet, not everyone at the AAP appears to think that a vegan diet is a decent option for children. On page 303 of the AAP’s Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age Five by American Academy Of Pediatrics (Fifth edition, 2009, edited by Steven P. Shelov and Tanya Remer Altmann), it says:

For some children, however, supplementation may be important. Your child may need some vitamin and/or mineral supplementation if your family’s dietary practices limit the food groups available to her. For example, if your household is strictly vegetarian, with no eggs or dairy products (which is not a diet recommended for children), she may need supplements of vitamin B12 and D as well as riboflavin and calcium.

A post on Jack Norris RD’s blog in 2011 noted that the AAP was thinking of promoting red meat as the best first solid food to introduce to infants, quoting AAP Committee on Nutrition member Frank Greer as saying, “Red meat is the nutrient-rich food that biologically may be best as the first complementary feeding for infants.” The link Norris used is broken now, but I found a story about Greer making a similar claim in 2009, called “Rice Cereal Can Wait, Let Them Eat Meat First”. 

According to the AAP paper titled “Use of Soy Protein-Based Formulas in Infant Feeding” by Jatinder Bhatia and Frank Greer, there is one definite instance in which they feel a vegan infancy may not be workable: when a prematurely born infant doesn’t have access to breast milk. They wrote,

On the other hand, soy protein-based formulas are not recommended for preterm infants. Serum phosphorus concentrations are lower, and alkaline phosphatase concentrations are higher in preterm infants fed soy protein-based formula than they are in preterm infants fed cow milk-based formula. As anticipated from these observations, the degree of osteopenia is increased in infants with low birth weight receiving soy protein-based formulas. Even with supplemental calcium and vitamin D, radiographic evidence of significant osteopenia was present in 32% of 125 preterm infants fed soy protein-based formula. The cow milk protein-based formulas designed for preterm infants are clearly superior to soy protein-based formula for preterm infants.

As Messina pointed out to me in a comment on her blog, soy protein based formula isn’t vegan either, because it contains vitamin D3 that is derived from animals. But she implied that this was a better option for vegans than cow-milk based formula, which is even less vegan.

Overall, though, “it’s not ideal, but we’ll work with it” seems to be the AAP’s unofficial implied motto in regards to vegan diets. That’s the sense I get from an article called “Vegetarian Diets for Children” on the AAP website Healthychildren.org:

If your child is following a vegetarian diet, you need to guard against nutri­tional deficiencies. There are various degrees of vegetarianism, and the strict­ness of the diet will determine whether your youngster is vulnerable to nutritional shortcomings. …

Children can be well nourished on all three types of vegetarian diet, but nu­tritional balance is very difficult to achieve if dairy products and eggs are com­pletely eliminated. Vegetarians sometimes consume insufficient amounts of calcium and vitamin D if they remove milk products from their diet.

Also, because of the lack of meat products, vegetarians sometimes have an inadequate iron intake. They may also consume insufficient amounts of vita­min B-12, zinc, and other minerals. If their caloric intake is also extremely low, this could cause a delay in normal growth and weight gain.

Vegetarians may also lack adequate protein sources. As a result, you need to ensure that your child receives a good balance of essential amino acids. As a general guideline, his protein intake should come from more than one source, combining cereal products (wheat, rice) with legumes (dry beans, soybeans, peas), for example; when eaten together, they provide a higher quality mixture of amino acids than if either is consumed alone.

Other planning may be necessary. To ensure adequate levels of vitamin B-12, you might serve your child commercially prepared foods fortified with this vitamin. While calcium is present in some vegetables, your child may still need a calcium supplement if he does not consume milk and other dairy prod­ucts. Alternative sources of vitamin D might also be advisable if there is no milk in the diet. Your pediatrician may recommend iron supplements, too, al­though your child can improve his absorption of the iron in vegetables by drinking citrus juice at mealtime.

A Zen macrobiotic diet usually presents many more problems than a vege­tarian diet. With a macrobiotic program, important foods (animal products, vegetables, and fruit) are severely restricted in stages. This diet is generally not recommended for children. Youngsters who adhere to it may experience seri­ous nutritional deficiencies that can impair growth and lead to anemia and other severe complications.

Given all this, does Ginny Messina’s claim that the AAP says “that appropriate vegan diets are safe for babies” hold up?

I think it holds up well enough, with the exception of premature infants who don’t have access to breast milk. The AAP may surround much of their talk of vegan diets for babies with negative words like “difficult,” but that’s not the same as saying “unsafe.” 

Even when Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age Five says, “For example, if your household is strictly vegetarian, with no eggs or dairy products (which is not a diet recommended for children)…” it’s not clearly stating that vegan diets are unsafe for children. They seem to be suggesting that a vegan diet is riskier for babies, maybe, or more challenging, or just not the first recommendation they would make. But that’s not exactly the same as saying “unsafe.”

I doubt that very many people at the AAP are crazy about vegan diets, but I don’t see anyone from the AAP overtly calling them dangerous. 

Why Vegan Diets For Infants Are Controversial, Part Three: People Are Suspicious of Non-Nutritionally Motivated Dietary Restrictions For Kids

One of the reasons veganism becomes more controversial once children are born into it is that it’s a philosophy that potentially has nutritional consequences without necessarily having nutritional intent. In other words, the point of veganism is to foster an ethical relationship between human and nonhuman animals, yet practicing this ethical relationship means humans might have more trouble getting certain nutrients that are more prevalent in animal foods. (Or, if they’re lucky, they might instead end up healthier.) Whether it grievously harms animals to raise them to be our food tells us nothing about whether it’s healthful for us to eat animals or not. So if parents are raising their child as a vegan to reduce animal suffering, it impacts their kid’s diet without the kid’s wellbeing serving as the primary motivator.

In contrast, when health-conscious parents, say, starve their children of carbs, they are at least inspired by nutritional concerns, however misguided. Raising a child on an unusual diet for health reasons is controversial too, but only because most people will assume the diet is based on questionable science. The objection is not that parents are tinkering with the child’s diet out of concern for the child’s health, but that because the parents have these weird, likely uninformed nutritional ideas, they’re accidentally harming their children more than helping them. Vegan parents — unless they are motivated purely by the belief that veganism is the healthiest diet for their children — are in the more awkward position of intentionally restricting the diet of their children for non-nutritional reasons. In that sense, ethical veganism for babies is kind of like putting your baby on a hunger strike in protest of working conditions overseas. 

But there are all sorts of behaviors that have nutritional consequences without nutritional intent. When financial issues limit dietary options, nutrition is compromised out of necessity. Eating pizza instead of vegetables because you like pizza better has nutritional consequences, even if those consequences are an afterthought or not thought about at all.

One difference between this and animal rights veganism is that to the extent pizza vs. veggies is a conscious, considered choice, it’s generally a selfish cost-benefit decision: “Would I rather have a meal that might make me feel better in the long run, or do I want a meal that gives me pleasure right now?” In ethically motivated veganism, the deliberation over (non-vegan) pizza and vegetables isn’t to do with financial necessity and it’s not exactly a choice between two different selfish options; it’s more like choosing between selfishness and altruism. Most people are fine with adults choosing altruism over their own wellbeing, but are less okay with parents choosing altruism over their child’s wellbeing. (That there is an actual conflict between a child’s wellbeing and their being vegan is of course up for debate, but for those who believe there’s something healthy or just delicious about animal products, there is at least a perceived conflict.)

Some people wouldn’t use “altruism” the way I just did, because they don’t think altruism even exists, since everything we do ends up being selfish — the reason we choose to help animals instead of eating pizza is because it feels good to do so, we avoid guilt, we get to feel proud of our ethical beliefs, etc. I don’t have strong feelings about this claim either way, but it gets at something that makes veganism seem like an especially raw deal for infants. The parents of vegan children win because they get to feel good about perpetuating their ethics through their children, theoretical future farm animals win because they get to escape being born to become food, but what does the vegan child get out of this? Maybe later the kid will be proud to be vegan from birth, or then again, maybe not. That makes infant veganism a bit like religiously motivated infant circumcision as far as the child’s wellbeing is concerned: not so great before personal identity and ethical beliefs are formed, but something the child may get into later if their personal identity and beliefs converge with wanting to be circumcised/be vegan.

Another comparison might be to religiously motivated dietary restrictions like kashrut or halal, but most people aren’t going to see it as a major health worry if a child can eat cows, chickens, lambs, and fishes, but not pigs. (Interestingly, though, non-religious vegans have a little more flexibility than kashrut-observing Jews in one regard: they can arguably eat oysters and mussels.) The more foods that a religious or ethical system demands you sacrifice for your higher cause, the more concerned outsiders will be for the children whose diets are constrained because of it. 

This is why there is so much pressure on vegans to convince the world that there’s is no significant nutritional difference between veganism and omnivorism, or that veganism is a nutritional plus. (Kind of like the arguments that infant circumcision isn’t that harmful, and may even be beneficial.) That way, veganism for infants allows the parents to live their ethics and for potential future farm animals to not be born, while imposing no health cost on the child. But outsiders are going to have trouble siding with vegans on this when people often link dietary restriction and nutritional deprivation, when babies sometimes need non-vegan medications, when infants have a reputation of being worse at weathering nutritional deficiency than adults are, and when people are suspicious of dietary restrictions that come about from non-nutritionally-related ethical beliefs.

Because of all this, it’s easy for non-vegans to lump ethics-based veganism for babies into the category of health-impacting non-nutritional beliefs that include Christian Scientist parents who withhold medical treatment from their babies for religious reasons — no matter what the science actually says about vegan diets for babies.

Part four will look at the issue of vegan dietitian credibility in light of the ethical motive for wanting veganism to be nutritionally sound.

Why Vegan Diets For Infants Are Controversial, Part Two: Dietary Restriction and Nutritional Deficiency are Intuitively Linked

In her recent blog post “Safety of Vegan Diets for Babies,” vegan RD Ginny Messina criticizes journalists who are quick to label vegan diets dangerous when a baby who happens to be vegan dies or gets sick. I wrote about that post and the latest controversy surrounding irresponsible vegan parenting yesterday. But Messina’s entry made me think about a couple of other things, one of them being, “Why is veganism so easy to blame when a vegan child gets sick or dies?”

Messina wrote:

Why is it that journalists can’t [figure out that veganism itself isn’t to blame when a vegan child dies or gets sick]? …

I see two issues here for vegan activists. First there is no shortage of bad nutrition information floating around the internet. It creates the potential for people to make poor choices for themselves and their children.

Second, veganism is still pretty unusual in our society. Our diets are regarded with some suspicion and they give rise to lots of questions. This means it’s always more news-worthy when a vegan child gets sick than when a child in a meat-eating family develops deficiencies.

I think Messina overlooked a third issue, which is that veganism is a form of dietary restriction, and many people automatically link dietary restrictions to a decrease in nutritional variety and thus an increase in a deficiency risk. Babies and children are thought of as particularly vulnerable to nutritional deficiency because they are notoriously picky and yet need plenty of nutrients to grow, which — if you believe that restriction means an added risk of deficiency — implies that significant dietary restriction is chancier for them. Plus, being babies and children, they have limited control over their diets, so even if they don’t feel like they’re getting what they need from whatever their parents are allowing them to eat, they can’t necessarily try a non-vegan approach the way non-thriving vegan adults can.

People who tend to link dietary restriction with nutrient deficiency risk will already worry about babies and children having their dietary options tethered because of veganism, so when they hear about a vegan baby who died from a nutrient deficiency, they’ll unsurprisingly assume that the dietary restriction of veganism is to blame.

It’s not only vegans who have to deal with this. The Salon article that Messina criticized as a typical instance of journalists unfairly bashing veganism also linked to a story expressing concern over actress Gwyneth Paltrow “starving her children of carbs” because Paltrow doesn’t feed her children pasta, bread or rice. People are generally suspicious of restricting the diets of babies and children in unusual ways, and that’s a significant PR problem for any version of veganism that frames itself as a dietary restriction.

Of course restriction and deficiency aren’t inextricably linked. If you banish candy and alcohol from your diet, the main consequence is likely to be an increase in nutritional diversity by freeing up space for healthier, nutrient dense foods. But you can’t make a direct analogy from anti-sugar-and-booze-ism to restricting all animal foods, since animal products can be relatively dense in some macronutrients, vitamins and minerals that are less prevalent in whole plant foods.

When a vegan baby’s death is due in part to a deficiency of a nutrient that is prevalent in animal foods and less so in whole plant foods, vegans tend to steer the debate toward the fact that a particular baby’s death didn’t have to happen within a vegan framework. Those French vegan parents Sergine and Joel Le Moaligou were inexcusable fools who didn’t believe in supplements, mistrusted doctors, and breastfed their child for too long, and that rather than veganism is why their baby died. Whatever the nutritional problem in question, it is usually possible to address it in a vegan way. Or, if it’s not — like in the case of a desperately needed non-vegan medication or formula — all reasonable vegans will realize that they should make an exception there.

The problem is that ethics-inspired veganism as a restriction on animal consumption is a negative rather than a positive philosophy. I don’t mean it’s pessimistic, I just mean it tells you what not to do rather than what to do. Vegans can’t purchase and consume animal products because that contributes to animal suffering and exploitation. That’s the main rule. Most (not all!) vegan health experts encourage vegans to supplement important nutrients like B12, but doing so is not a necessary aspect of vegan ethics. When vegans restrict animal products from the diets of their babies and children and fail to supplement those diets to make up for whatever is missing because of that, they are obeying all vegan musts while ignoring helpful (but optional) suggestions from vegan nutritionists. They have not in fact violated veganism. They have, rather, practiced veganism in a way that unfortunately may harm or kill their children. This never has to happen because there are vegan B12 pills and most vegans would make an exception for non-vegan medical interventions in an emergency, and these parents may be foolish, but that doesn’t mean their parenting choices somehow fall outside the realm of veganism. Being reasonable is not a requirement of veganism.

Messina told me in the comments of her last post that Sarah Anne Markham — the vegan mother who recently refused non-vegan medication for her near-death baby — should not have refused non-vegan medical treatment for her baby.

“I wouldn’t expect someone to risk their child’s health for veganism (or their own health for that matter),” she said. “So yes, if there was truly no other alternative, then a responsible parent would choose a medication that isn’t vegan. A case in point is soy infant formula. It’s not vegan because it contains animal-derived vitamin D. But for vegan parents who can’t breast feed and who don’t have access to a milk bank (which is very expensive), then this formula is the only option.” 

Well the only reasonable option, but not the only option! Anyway, it’s only the bizarre vegans who take the “no animal products ever” rule that seriously. Of course it’s okay to give your child medicine that has been tested on animals and contains animal products if your child really needs it, and we can simply discount the ridiculous vegan extremists who don’t.

As I said in my last post, I’m not convinced that this is an obvious and necessary stance for vegans to take. Vegans often chide other vegans for being unseemly exception-hunting opportunists or not real vegans if they find and exploit exceptions to the no animal products ever rule. For an example, see this thread on Messina’s Facebook page that started with a link to Diana Fleischman’s post defending oysters as an ethical food source for vegans. Based on what we know about oysters, there’s no reason to think they’re any more sentient than plants, but while some vegans are okay with the consumption of these non-sentient animals, most of the vegan commenters seem to hate that any vegans would embrace this seemingly benign exception to the prohibition on eating animals. So I find it difficult to believe that all vegans can agree that non-vegan medication is sometimes okay. 

The big problem for veganism in these cases of child neglect is that it’s not entirely convincing to say that if the parents of a child are vegan, and they raise their child vegan, and the child dies of deficiencies of nutrients that readily exist in animal foods and less so in whole plant foods, that this has absolutely nothing to do with veganism.

It’s true that death in infancy is not anything close to an inevitable outcome of raising kid as vegans, since supplements exist, the nutrition research is out there, and parents are free to make exceptions for non-vegan medical interventions, and no vegan has to feed their child only soy milk and apple juice. But veganism often does play some role in these cases, no matter how much the sciency vegans may wish for all vegans to be reasonable, pro-supplement, and open to non-vegan exceptions in emergencies. That’s why the connection between veganism and the cases of severe nutrient deficiencies in vegan children will continue to be an all-too-easy one for outsiders to make.

Why Vegan Diets For Infants Are Controversial, Part One: Kids Sometimes Need Non-Vegan Medication

In the most recent highly publicized case of vegan child neglect, a vegan woman was arrested because her 12-day-old baby was dehydrated, and she refused the doctor’s advice to give her baby the proper treatment. According to a Salon article with the misleading and irresponsible headline, ”Is veganism child abuse?”, Sarah Anne Markham wasn’t interested in the medication the doctor prescribed for her kid because it contained animal products. 

As far as I know, there’s no reported instance of totally mainstream vegan parents who believe in science and supplements who lose a child to overt nutritional deficiency. In all the cases I’ve heard of vegan babies being killed or endangered, there’s always some weird thing about the parent or parents that led to their restricting care for their child more drastically than basic vegan rules demand. This time it was that Markham is a Seventh-day Adventist and wanted to raise her child in some sort of naturalistic way, and she didn’t seem to care very much about science or the advice of medical professionals. 

Vegans tend to get snippy and defensive when stories like this come out, and they focus on the point I just made, that the families are always peculiar in some additional way and put too much faith in the worst, most debunked vegan myths, like that vegans don’t need to worry about B12 because it’s in tempeh, or our guts or the air or whatever. 

While it’s true that the neglectful vegan parents all seem to exist in the delusional or just uninformed extreme of veganism, I’m skeptical of the claims some vegan apologists make that cases like this have zero to do with veganism, and that we can file them all under general bad parenting and completely ignore the fact that the parents and child happened to avoid all animal products. In her recent post on the Markham case, “Safety of Vegan Diets for Children,” vegan RD Ginny Messina wrote: 

Vegan diets aren’t dangerous. However, people with irrational ideas about nutrition are. The stories of vegan parents who starved their babies because of mistaken beliefs about infant feeding are clear proof of that. It is horrible and it’s heartbreaking. But it has nothing to do with veganism.

I agree with some of what Messina says in her post, but I can’t see how this has nothing to do with veganism. Certainly it doesn’t have everything to do with veganism, but “nothing” can’t be right either. It’s not like Markham is a mother who happened to be vegan and dropped her child, and now everyone is saying it’s because she has slippery vegan hands. One of Markham’s major sins was that she refused to give her child non-vegan medication. But from a vegan perspective, that’s exactly what she should have done, isn’t it? Don’t purchase or consume something with animal products, especially if it was also tested on animals… right? 

Well, I guess that depends. If your baby is about to die, it might be time to make an exception. In the comments of her post, I asked Messina whether she thought it would have been okay with the animals and with veganism if Markham had given her child the medicine that certainly appeared to violate vegan ethics. Messina responded

I wouldn’t expect someone to risk their child’s health for veganism (or their own health for that matter). So yes, if there was truly no other alternative, then a responsible parent would choose a medication that isn’t vegan. A case in point is soy infant formula. It’s not vegan because it contains animal-derived vitamin D. But for vegan parents who can’t breast feed and who don’t have access to a milk bank (which is very expensive), then this formula is the only option.

That seems reasonable of course, but is this something all vegans must agree with? Messina “wouldn’t expect someone to risk their child’s health for veganism,” but maybe she’s just not as committed as some vegans are. Could it be that Markham took veganism too literally and too seriously, when all the mainstream reasonable vegans would have known to back off and forget their ideals a little bit until their child was safe enough to go back to avoiding the products of animal exploitation? Or was there actually something un-vegan about Markham’s potentially sacrificing her child for the sake of the animals? 

Until it becomes an established and generally agreed upon thing in veganism that non-vegan medication and formula and whatever else are allowed in an emergency — and that in fact, using them to save yourself or your child is actually required by vegan ethics, and that there’s no glory at all in sacrificing your child for animal lives — I’m going to have a hard time believing that all of these vegan child neglect cases have nothing to do with veganism.

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