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2013 Fall Issue 8 (November 15, 2013)

"Where's the Tofu?": Reflections on Food Privilege

November 15, 2013
By Anna Schmiel

 Sometimes, lovely ideas are completely ridiculous. The other day at Sayles, I was asked to watch a short, graphic video about animal rights abuses and discuss my reactions. Now, I’m a vegetarian, so I was on board until one of the members of the student organization that sponsored the event began talking about complicated topics like "veganism" and "speciesism." I disagreed with him, but felt stupid and non-progressive doing so. However, I realized that many of his ideas were the result of the one-way discussion we were having. I was not disagreeing, questioning, or offering my own perspective on the issue.

I eventually spoke up and we had a good argument. I’m not trying to chastise the person I was debating against, but I do want to offer another perspective. This week’s Viewpoint is on privilege, and this topic covers it two-fold. First, it allows for open discussion, something that people who are not open to other ideas sorely lack. Also, it covers the topic of "food privilege." Food privilege means that people, because of their privileged backgrounds, don’t understand that their ideas of food aren’t the same as everyone else’s.

The person I was discussing this topic with argued that no one should be allowed to eat meat, and that using animal bi-products is wrong. As part of a generally affluent community, it’s easy to imagine that everyone can walk down the street to the nearest food co-op and shell out $5 for a box of organic, fair trade tofu, but this completely ignores reality. The fact is, people are living in poverty and dying because of a lack of food. According to the World Bank, "2.4 billion people live on less than US $2 a day in 2010." Many of these people are subsistence farmers, who rely on animals to survive. According to the New York Times article, "Backgrounder: African Agriculture," "Roughly 65 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s populations relies on subsistence farming" (Hanson, pg. 1). These people are not large corporations. They aren’t putting their animals is small cages until they are ready to kill and sell them for a profit. They are interacting with these animals on a daily basis. It’s a culture, in which communities graze and rely on livestock for their livelihood.

The climate of sub-Saharan Africa does not supply communities with fertile land to farm. Individuals use what they have. Thus, telling these people that how they survive is wrong is a privileged act, especially when very little is being done to improve the long –term viability of areas such areas. According to the same article by the New York Times, "Just 4 percent of current development aid to the entire continent [of Africa] goes to agriculture investment" (Hanson, pg. 1). If you don’t like that people have to eat animals to survive, devote your time to the creation of climate durable food sources instead of judging. Sub-Saharan Africa is just one example of the reliance on animals around the world, but it shows that there are always reasons behind what people do. If we don’t acknowledge the unfair reality--that people are hungry and use what they can get—we will continue to focus on fancy fights. We cannot make the whole world vegan. Instead, we ought to focus on the actual tragic fights at hand.

Another point made during this discussion was that producing meat wastes a lot of food by feeding animals grain. I agree with this statement, but not the follow up point. My opponent said that if no one ate animals or used animal bi-products, no one would be hungry. I’ve heard the argument that commercially produced animals eat more than they produce, but hunger is the result of more than just the amount of worldwide food production. Many people don’t have enough food because people are selfish. The World Food Program reports "There is enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life." The reason this issue persists is because large corporations, which are the direct result of human greed, control and increase global food prices. Thus, only those who have the money to buy increasingly expensive food are able to eat. This wouldn’t change if everyone became vegan. If anything, large grain corporations would become even more powerful, which would allow them to further increase grain prices. Instead of meat, grain would become the new symbol of hunger.

I agree that the treatment of animals by large corporations needs improvement. Animals should be raised in large pastures, fed grass, not separated from their young, and killed in humane ways. But telling others how and what to eat, especially when you have never been severely hungry, is ignorant and rude.

As Carleton students, we need to understand that addressing the issue of hunger is more important than discussing the ethics behind eating animals. While we are coming up with nuanced definitions about what constitutes moral consumption over a nice, no-whip soy mocha, people are telling their crying children that there is nothing for dinner. People who are hungry are not benefiting from these types of academic conversations. This doesn’t mean that our discussions are useless; it just means that they should be directed at solving real-world problems. I know how determined and opinionated Carls can be, and I suggest we channel our efforts more wisely.

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