Carol 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. Therefore, 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
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).