Do You Eat Animals? Ecofeminism and Our Food System by Ivy Helman

10953174_10152933322533089_8073456879508513260_oCarol Adams in her article “Ecofeminism and the Eating of Animals,” argues that ecofeminists should be vegetarians, since ecofeminism is, among other things, action-based and “one’s actions reveal one’s beliefs,” (129). According to ecofeminism, the patriarchal domination of animals and nature is linked to the oppression of women. For her and many ecofeminists, the survival of our planet rests on two foundations: first, fixing the conditions of women and other oppressed groups and, second, envisioning differently our relationship to the natural world. In other words, a better arrangement of human relationships requires better human relationships with the environment. Vegetarianism and veganism are two ways in which ecofeminists opt out of the patriarchal system of domination and exploitation and help create a better world.

But, does one really? Does adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle really have such an impact on the world? Yes and no. Yes, because it has been shown that raising animals to eat uses exorbitant amounts of fuel, water and land, not to mention, the larger environmental impact of farm run-off in the forms of disease-carrying manure, valuable topsoil and harmful pesticides. Yes, because animals are often inhumanely treated, housed in horrible conditions, genetically and/or hormonally-modified and cruelly killed.

At the same time, however, our fruits, vegetables, beans and grains participate in this system as well. Most food across the globe is steeped in destructive environmental practices such as food miles, GMOs, multi-national farming conglomerates, pesticides, over production and the like. Processed food (even if vegetarian or vegan) contains high numbers of additives and preservatives and is packaged in dangerous containers leeching detrimental chemicals into the food. Often these containers are destined to be thrown in the trash because they are not recyclable or facilities that recycle them do not exist in a given area. This does not even begin to discuss how workers in the fields and at food processing plants are exploited, abused and oppressed.

I agree with Adams (and most ecofeminists) that eating meat contributes detrimentally to environmental destruction, the mistreatment of animals and the continuing of patriarchal standards. cow in fieldTherefore, cutting out meat, and if one chooses all animal products from one’s life, does subvert the system. This is especially true in Western societies heavily inculcated in meat-eating tendencies and who also produce and consume many more animals on average than the rest of the planet.

But is it enough? Does it reach to the heart of the issue? Does it truly undermine patriarchy in the way intended?

Last week, I challenged my students in a master’s level class entitled, “Feminism and the Environmental Movements” at Charles University in Prague to consider those questions as we read Adams article and others on the same topic. Our discussion drew the following conclusions. First, environmental destruction feeds off of and is nourished by capitalism. Second, being vegetarian or vegan only changed so much. Third, and finally, what one really needed to do was figure out on a larger scale how to opt out of the entire system of food production.

We decided that what would be more ecofeminist than vegetarianism or veganism was bringing back the small-scale, local, seasonally-based, organic farm. My students were set on keeping one’s ability to choose to eat animals and/or animal products such as milk and cheese. They didn’t see eating animals as problematic as long as they had a certain amount of freedom, were well-treated and humanely killed. They believed that since various strands of feminism value the freedom to make choices so should a feminist approach to eating.

On the whole I tend to agree with their conclusions. I spent many seasons working on an organic, seasonal, bio-dynamic farm in Wisconsin called Michael Fields which ran a local CSA (Community Support Agriculture) food share as well as educational and other activities. I took home not only my

Photo from Michael Field's facebook page.

From the organization’s facebook page.

own fresh box of fruits and veggies every week but also a bouquet of flowers since I was responsible for picking and arranging their flower shares as well.

I was lucky. I had a flexible enough daytime schedule that I could volunteer during the day and therefore receive a box for my work. I would not have been able to afford one otherwise. I was also lucky to have lived five minutes from the farm so that I could volunteer there.

Many people cannot afford to participate in CSA programs. Some of this has been mitigated when some communities have recognized the importance of fresh fruit and vegetables allowing food stamps to be used at farmer’s markets. Yet, one still has to have time off of work to be able to go and many jobs do not allow for time off during the day. Finally, not everyone lives close to small-scale farming like this. So what are we to do?

Opting out of the most destructive of the patriarchal domination of nature by being vegetarian or vegan is a good and beneficial step in the right direction. However, it is clear that the system will not be brought down only by that. We also have a responsibility to create a new system of responsible, sustainable, local food production accessible to everyone. This new system must also carefully and thoughtfully consider its relationship to animal eating. This change won’t happen overnight, but if local trends I see in various communities are any indication of positive change, we are well on our way to making this vision come true.


Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D. is a US feminist scholar currently living abroad in Prague in the Czech Republic.  Her most recent publications include:  “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).

Categories: Activism, animals, Ecofeminism, environment, Feminism, Food, Nature, Patriarchy, sustainability

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

17 replies

  1. Great post. Living in rural Greece, I would add that in traditional economies, meat was not eaten every day. At most there was a chicken or a rabbit once or twice a month, and sheep, goat, or pig was reserved for celebrations of weddings and baptisms or religious festivals. However, here in Greece, cheese and yogurt are eaten more often and are part of the meat economy as much of the meat eaten at special times comes from the male animals that cannot produce milk and the older females. I think that small farms such as you describe can work without volunteer help. Friends of mine were contributors to one and they paid for the box of fruit and veg as did many of the other participants. England has a much stronger grow your own and support small farms with traditional livestock and types of plants than the US seems to have. No matter what choice we make, we should not support factory farming, and no matter where meat comes from we should cut back on the amount of it we eat. Thanks for raising these questions again.


  2. I think the things you raise are very important and I came to much the same conclusion. Another aspect that I think is really important is the whole notion of relationship: relationship to land, relationship to animals, relationship to the foods we eat which is enhanced if we also grow them.

    I write about this in my book Wild Politics; Feminism, globalisation and bio/dicersity. I critique economics and politics based on separation and disconnection including the system of export orientation and free trade which is ruining economies around the world. It made me much more alert to NAFT, the currently -under-negotiation TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) and more.

    I grew up on a farm and although it was not a small farm in the European sense (that part of Australia would probably not work) we ate our own produce including the home- killed sheep, lots of citrus fruits, and eggs. We did not self supply evrything, but it gave me a sense of how differently one can live.

    Thanks for your article.


  3. I embrace the concept of being an ecofeminist and the mandate to eat a vegetarian diet, which I have for 20 years. I have never understood the idea of “humanely killing” animals for our consumption. It still makes us killers of sentient beings and I cannot justify it on any grounds. Surely if more people saw animals being killed just so they could eat meat, there would be fewer meat eaters. We wouldn’t dream of killing our beloved dogs and cats for food so how do we rationalize killing cows, pigs and chickens? Why are they deemed “less than” and acceptable animals to slaughter and eat?

    Having raised chickens and eaten their eggs, I couldn’t imagine killing these sweet creatures who followed us around the yard and enjoyed being held, petted, and talked to. Mother Earth has enough delicious plant-based foods to sustain us. It seems like the natural evolutionary step on our path to becoming more caring human beings and creating a more sustainable and humane civilization. And yes to women leading the way as responsible caretakers of the beautiful, living, breathing mother beneath our feet who supports us. Happy Mother’s Day to all!


    • So what would you say to those in Indigenous/Native cultures who do their own hunting and have long-standing traditions of honouring the animals they kill by using the whole animal (meat for food, hide for clothing)?

      What would you say to poor people in rural Newfoundland and Labrador who rely on the seal hunt to feed their families and stay in NL (as opposed to packing up to find work in Alberta on the environmentally-damaging tar sands)?

      What would you say to those who MUST eat meat for health reasons because a veg(etari)an lifestyle does not suit them?

      To those with allergies to various fruit and veg?

      To those who live in food deserts?

      To those for whom a veg(etari)an diet is prohibitively expensive?

      To Muslims who ritually sacrifice lambs for Eid?

      To those in other cultures wherein meat is an integral part of their cuisine?

      To those who don’t have access to a fully-equipped kitchen and can’t cook veg(etari)an meals?

      To those who simply don’t have the time to prepare a meal because they’ve got multiple children and have to work multiple jobs just to keep a roof over their heads?

      To those with chronic illness who don’t have the wherewithal to cook every day?

      To those who are physically incapable of preparing and cooking food?

      To autistic people who cannot eat certain fruit and/or veg because of textural issues?

      To non-factory/free range farmers who rely on farming animals for meat, dairy, and produce for their livelihood?

      You’re not considering how institutional privilege and oppression collide, here. (And you’re not the only one in the comments doing this.) Suggesting everyone go veg(etari)an is ableist, classist, and even racist, which is not feminist.


      • I am not sure what Ivy would say, but what I would say is that the issues that Ivy raised are issues that everyone needs to think about and that we all should do what we can. What I liked about the tone of Ivy’s piece was that she was not telling anyone what to do, but rather raising questions that I believe everyone could and perhaps should think about.

        To reflect on your question of “what about other cultures where meat is an integral part of their cuisine,” I would say that few cultures have eaten as much meat on an every day basis as is eaten in modern western culture, where meat may even be eaten with every meal, including breakfast. Questioning this is something those of us in these cultures need to do. In most pre-modern cultures eating meat is for special occasions and there is a greater balance with nature and other lives.


      • In response to your ad hominem argument (attack?) saying it is racist, classist and ableist to discuss being vegetarian or to suggest others consider moving towards a more plant-based diet given all that we know about the impact of growing livestock on our planet, not to mention the compassion for animals that some of us feel, I wonder why we can’t have a discussion about this subject, with all its implications, without making it about being politically incorrect? I notice that some people really get their dander up when it’s suggested they might consider giving up their meat or making different dietary choices. For those who have no choice, I would never judge. However, most people in developing countries are eating plant-based diets. It requires more money to buy meat than fruits, vegetables and grains. Most fruits and vegetables don’t need to be cooked to be enjoyed. I have respect for indigenous people who sustainably kill and eat only the animals they need for food and other things as opposed to the inhumane mass slaughter of animals. If the rest of the world lived in such a sustainable way we would not be having this discussion nor facing the dire consequences we are now.


      • I know this is a bit odd, but I am going to respond to this discussion with two poems. When I wrote them, I was thinking about the issues raised here. I do eat meat, but I go in and out of doing so. I have been vegetarian sometimes, but I don’t eat it as often as I was raised to. I agree that patriarchy and the mechanisation and concentration of farming has increased meat consumption out of all proportion. I have shared native foods with Aboriginal women in Australia who have caught their own food. That’s the source of these poems from ‘Lupa and Lamb’.

        1. Sulpicia’s grammar lesson

        the library has outgrown its space
        and I am caught on the bluff of books
        needing a harness to rappel this precipice

        as if it’s not enough to die for another
        at the base of the cliff is plastered
        a sheet bearing this quote

        If x was the sound representing the idea of a wolf,
        y a lamb, and z the act of killing,
        then xyz or xzy could be a comprehensible sentence,
        representing the idea of a wolf killing a lamb.

        but I’m a vegetarian and have no wish
        to kill a lamb for dinner
        or for poetry

        2. xyz says Diana

        I am x and you are y
        we should be enemies
        but we are lovers
        Agnese and I

        let’s get some history straight
        I came to you
        that winter when it was so cold
        you already had lambskin
        wrapped around your body
        so let’s not deflect responsibility

        if x was the sound
        representing the idea of wolf
        y a lamb and
        z the act of loving

        Agnese says
        I am y and you are x
        I should fear you but I don’t
        there are more of us
        we vibrate when our noses
        catch scent

        I am trying says Diana
        to refuse meat
        just because I like it
        doesn’t mean I should indulge

        it’s not okay answers Agnese
        pain does not make me kind
        recovery is millennia long
        the scars are visible still
        but I am resilient
        my story can wait


  4. I agree with you, Ivy, that bringing back, or perhaps creating anew, the small-scale, local, seasonally-based, organic farm tackles the problem of food production in a broader way than “just” not eating meat. However, I cannot fathom, nor envision, any scenario where animals are “humanely killed” for food. (Contrary to what many people think, humans are not dependent on animal flesh for sustenance.) And, even though I am not opposed in theory to eating animal products such as eggs, milk, and cheese, the procurement of these products is often (at least on factory farms) cruel and inhumane. A restructuring in the way we obtain our food, as you clearly write about, is way past due. Thanks for keeping this important subject alive.


  5. A wonderful post. Another important aspect of being vegetarian is the vast improvement in health that can come from a plant-based diet, as is shown in study after study. Can you imagine what a different, and more equitable, just, peaceful, and sustainable, society we would have if all the resources spent on disease that can be prevented by diet and exercise instead went to public education, social services, adequate housing, creating sustainable energy sources, etc? And if all the feminists we have lost or who have been sidelined due to preventable illnesses could have fulfilled their potential for making the world a better place?


  6. I don’t eat meat. There are other animals that don’t eat meat too, like elephants, giraffes or deer, all such gentle, loveable creatures. According to recent studies, vegetarians have much less illness, and they do live longer, an average of 6 to almost 10 years longer than meat eaters.


  7. I think the timing of your post is so wonderful since I wrote about Guanyin being a vegan icon yesterday! It sounds like what you do in your class is quite similar to a class I teach called Gender, Food, and the Body in Popular Culture at Wake Forest University. We read The Sexual Politics of Meat, in addition to several ecofeminist readings about sustainable farming, living simply, food vetting, etc. We even have an Ecofeminist Feast Day where students create menus based on ecofeminist principles and then bring in a dish to share. It’s one of my favorite days of the entire semester, particularly when we all discuss how to eat and create world where all can eat according to ecofeminist princples: for the environment, for workers, and for animals. Perhaps we should exchange syllabi!


  8. For a long time, I lived by the ethic that if I cannot myself personally kill the animal (or think I could kill the animal), then I should not eat it. I agree with those who have said that we don’t need to eat animals. Yet, I know people who sustainably and responsibly raise and slaughter animals. I also agree in principle that there is no truly cruel-free way to kill an animal (person, or even plant for that matter), but I am of the opinion that there are better ways to do it than are currently espoused. That being said, I am more willing to have discussions about how animals used for meat are to be killed, than to continue participating in the destructive way our earth is used for all of the food we eat. There are some vegetable raising processes that are more destructive in my opinion than the sustainable, free range farm which occasionally butchers animals for meat. There, at least, there is a thoughtful well-meaning process behind the whole thing rather than capitalist profit, consumption and demand.


  9. Great post. The first I considered the relationship to feminism and meat eating was in a piece written by Kecia Ali on the subject. It deeply affected my thinking. Thanks very much for this! Very affecting.


  10. Thank you, Ivy. I’ve been a vegan for about 15 years, and began eating this way when my cholesterol went up above normal, thinking it didn’t make sense to EAT cholesterol if I had too much of it in my body. I cut out all animal products, exercised more, and lost weight. My cholesterol dropped 70 points, so I continued on my regimen. Later, I learned about the horrors of industrial animal agriculture, which helped to keep me on my course. We can be healthy without eating animal products, so I don’t see any reason to eat them any more. I might add that I have had no issues with food poisoning (although I know it can happen from eating vegetables) and no problems with constipation as a vegan. Industrial animal agriculture is a major contributor to pollution and global warming, too. I’d like to recommend Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, “Eating Animals,” which covers many of the issues around eating/not eating animal products.


  11. Do I eat animals?


    Is it for myself?

    Only in part.

    Is it for the animals?

    Emphatically, yes.


  12. I’m sorry it has taken me so long to respond. I just finished up the semester here in Prague, so I finally have some time to get back to this. Mainly, I want to respond to what shelly said and thank Carol for her response. I think Carol had it right. I’m not trying to tell people how to live. I never would do such a thing. Likewise, I do not think my post suggests as much.

    I’m suggesting that the debate is bigger than eating animals/not eating animals. Rather it is a systematic global issue in so many ways. Yet, for those who can, not eating animals seems to be the right choice towards dismantling some of the patriarchal systems around food production, environmental destruction and the like. At the same time, being vegan/vegetarian is not enough.

    Likewise, I would never say to someone that they can’t choose how to live, what belief system to honor or the like. What I would say is to truly reflect on your actions and how your actions participate in and support the larger system. If there is something that you can change that opts out of the system, then that is the right thing to do. But reflection and action are key. I would never ask anyone to harm themselves or deny a part of who they are, but I would challenge them to reflect on those things and how they impact animals, the environment, domination, oppression, etc.

    P.S. I do not think labeling me as racist, classist and ableist is warranted.



  1. What is Vegetarian Ecofeminism?

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