Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Death By Ignorance

Yesterday's New York Times contained an op/ed piece titled "Death By Veganism," by a woman named Nina Planck. Planck begins the column by referring to a case in which a baby died of starvation after his parents -- who were later convicted of murder and assorted other offenses -- claimed that they had simply fed the child a vegan diet of soy milk and apple juice. At the time of his death, Crown Shakur was six weeks old and weighed three and a half pounds (a dangerously low weight, even for a newborn baby). Planck uses this case as a springboard for arguing that a vegan diet is nutritionally inadequate for fetuses and children. The argument is deeply flawed and will needlessly frighten parents.

The first thing to note is that the prosecutor who brought the case against the parents rejected the defendants' claim that what distinguished their child's diet from that of other (surviving) children was the exclusion of animal products. The prosecutor argued that the parents were consistently underfeeding their child as he slowly and obviously starved to death. The evidence supported his argument, in which he emphasized repeatedly that the case had nothing to do with being a vegan and everything to do with not feeding a child. Despite the clarity of the case, Planck relies on the parents' transparently self-serving excuse to stir up the natural fear that people have of "unknown dangers" confronting their children.

No one (other than a murderer or a crazy person) wants to deny their children the nourishment they need. Even if we took the defendants' claims at face value (as Nina Planck appears to do), the parents were blatantly neglecting their child's needs. As any pediatrician whose patient's infant cannot tolerate dairy foods will tell you, the best choice is breast-feeding, and the second best choice is soy formula. Neither soy milk (which specifically says on its label that it should not be used as infant formula) nor apple juice would appear anywhere on any responsible professional's list of newborn foods.

Planck's larger point is not about starvation, though. She wants to persuade us that fetuses, babies, and children must have animal products and that plant foods are "inferior." As a vegan who is conscientious about my children's needs, I have consulted nutritionists, and they strongly disagree. They say that plant-based diets are extremely healthy for adults and children alike, that there is plenty of protein in such diets. The typical American diet (which consists of huge amounts of animal fat and protein, generally dosed with hormones and antibiotics) is, by contrast, a disaster. (Planck's own website describes her as "a food writer, entrepreneur, and the leading American expert on farmers' markets and local food." She apparently has no formal training in nutrition, biology, medicine or any related field.)

It is likely, as Planck suggests, that vegans need to take a vitamin B12 supplement. What she fails to mention, however, is that the diets of carnivornes and omnivores also leave them nutrient-deprived. We know this because prenatal vitamins decrease the rate of birth-defects across the population (most of which regularly consumes the products of slaughterhouses). Planck suggests that we crave animal products because we need them. But this argument would support the (incorrect) view that we should sit around eating ice-cream and burgers all day, because many of us crave this diet. Cravings are evolutionary adaptations to times of scarcity and intense competition for food. That is why so many of us suffer from obesity and diabetes in modern times. The fact that we "crave" something does not make it healthy.

Planck pretends to be courageous in attacking the vegan diet. She says that "food is more important than fashion," adding that "[t]hough it's not politically correct to say so, all diets are not created equal." Veganism, however, is not a "fashion." It represents opposition to the unnecessary and truly shocking cruelty and torture that turn sentient animals into edible corpses and milk-and-egg-making machines. Planck is also quite mistaken (if not disingenuous) about the politics of veganism. Nothing could be more politically correct than dismissing the vegan diet, and that is precisely because of the very "traditions" of meat-eating that Planck praises. Like meat-eating, of course, human beings have "traditionally" engaged in slavery, genocide, torture, and the violent subordination of females and gay people, all without apology. Change is often for the better.

19 comments:

egarber said...

It seems to me that a sincere intellectual approach to assessing health impact would include studies of vegan (or basically vegan) populations around the world.

For instance, I have a friend from India who must be a vegetarian for religious purposes. So are all practicing Hindus destined to starve like the baby in the cited case? I doubt it.

Of course, I'm no expert on the differences (if any) between general veganism and a typical Indian diet. Still, there must be a sizeable enough population somewhere to measure the health impact scientifically.

Ricky said...

I am confident that I speak for the vast majority of the readers of this blog when I say that I'm not touching this one with a ten-foot pole. Thank you.

Kenji said...

"It represents opposition to the unnecessary and truly shocking cruelty and torture that turn sentient animals into edible corpses and milk-and-egg-making machines."

While I respect this view (especially as a serious student of yoga), I also believe that I do not want to subject my personal philosophy to my child, who is not capable yet to make an informed decision about it. The fact is, it is far easier to keep a child healthy through a diverse range of food sources. If you cut out meat from a child's diet, you have a smaller range of options in terms of vitamin B12, iron, etc. While it's not impossible to get those nutrients from vegan sources, it is far more challenging, complicated by the fact that children are picky eaters---Try convincing a child to eat broccoli for iron, if meat is not an option. I agree with you that Planck overstates her case, but I take from this op-ed that I should teach my child to eat from as many food sources as possible. She can be free to choose to be a vegetarian/vegan down the line.

Tam said...

Kenji,

Subjecting your child to an omnivorous diet is itself a choice, though, don't you think?

And I don't think one can truly suspend judgment about the ethical arguments made by Sherry and skip right to consequentialist calculations of meat consumption. It would be like saying "without passing judgment on slavery, one way or another, I'll just note that it's a very economically advantageous system for the slaveholders." It seems to me that even to entertain the latter thought, you have to have already presumed a particular answer to the former.

Maybe I'm overstating the case, but the situations seem analogous to me.

egarber said...

I also believe that I do not want to subject my personal philosophy to my child

As a parent, one is constantly "subjecting a child to personal philosophy."

If my little boy came home and used a racial slur because he heard it at school, should I not use that as a teaching moment about the need to respect diverse backgrounds?

What if I'm a pacifist? Do I not have a right -- indeed an obligation -- to keep violent television programming away from my 5-year-old? Or should I let him watch whatever he wants so he "can choose whether to be a pacifist down the line"?

Now sure, I can refrain from preaching about political affiliation to my child, so he can form his own opinions later on there, but I think the diet example (not taking part in cruelty, etc.) is a closer fit with my initial examples.

There's no way to avoid instilling values in a child; in fact, that's one of the roles a parent SHOULD play.

Tony said...

What makes her argument worse is a quote from one of her sources, which she provides at her personal site. The family practitioner clearly indicates that it's possible to raise a child vegan. The doctor correctly pinpoints that many vegan parents don't pay enough attention to nutrition, but that's also true of omni parents. It's also a different article than what she wrote for the New York Times.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Thanks for posting this, Sherry. The problem with articles like Planck's is that she counts on people's ignorance and willingness (even eagerness) to believe anti-vegan propaganda. Even so, the complete distortion of the legal case is especially galling.

Even if the Times were suddenly to change its neanderthal attitudes about vegetarians and vegans, the damage is done. The Times could print a retraction and post 5 pro-vegan columns, yet I fear that people will remember this very believable op-ed for a long time to come. Confirmation bias seems particularly strong among meat-eaters.

Kenji said...

Tam and Egarber:

Your point is well-taken. Obviously, relativism, at its core, needs to be hooked on some ethical position. I have made my own ethical choices, exposition of which is beyond this post (and probably boring to you anyway).

Garth said...

Sherry picks up the main point here that this was a case about starving a child and the diet was simply a red-herring.

It goes with saying that the topic of veganism seems to drive some people crazy.

I think the craziness comes from a lack of self-examination on Planck's part. There is nothing inherently wrong with someone adopting a stance they feel is representative of the impact they want to have on larger society.

Planck, I posit, feels guilty for eating meat, thus the knee-jerk reaction to this case and, negligent at best, biased interpretation.

I sympathize with Planck. It's not easy to reconcile your idea of yourself as a good person with the animal cruelty we now KNOW goes on in the meat industry.

But consider. Humans can obviously eat meat and derive nourishment. We've eaten meat for entire existence on this planet when we could get it.

This was subsistence and survival living. Are we growing ethically as a species?

It's up to each person to decide for themselves how to act in light of the knowledge that meat is murder, but, the issue should be addressed honestly and the considered decisions of others respected.

Benjam said...

i've been a vegetarian for around 20 years. for alomost 2 years i adhered to a vegan lifestyle, including the obligatory plastic belts and canvas shoes. (anyone who sees the shoes can be sure that veganism is not a fashion.) our first child was born while my wife and i were vegans. she nursed, so nutrition was never an isuue, but it really is incredible just how threatened people are by veganism. if you have an old leather jacket in your closet, you're a hypocrite. same if you eat honey, which is technically an animal product.

i think peoples' defensiveness stems from the fact that they do not like to associate themselves with animal cruelty. from that sense of defensiveness, they become more likely to attack. once children are involved people feel free to launch those attacks against anyone outside the mainstream. we raised our kids vegetarian. we had homebirths. we did not vaccinate and we did not circumcise. i wish i could post a picture because all three kids are healthy, strong, bright and vibrant. each of them have experimented with eating meat and we have always honored those choices.

it takes a great deal of courage to raise a child in an alternative lifestyle, even when those choices are sound. articles like "death by veganism" only increases the level of public ignorance and inhibit individual choice.

PG said...

There are significant differences between veganism and vegetarianism nutritionally as well as traditionally and religiously. Aside from the special status of cows, Hinduism generally doesn't have a problem with using animals (goat and buffalo milk and related products are common in India, and of course animals are used in farmwork). There's also variation in what people consider to be vegetarianism; my grandmother doesn't eat egg or any animal flesh, but my aunt will eat eggs on special occasions. Both would describe themselves as vegetarian and have religious reasons for being so.

Obviously a vegetarian diet can be practiced by a large population without ending in mass starvation, or else India wouldn't have a billion people. Indeed, in some rural areas of developing countries meat continues to be a rarity even for middle class people. You can get B12 and every other essential vitamin and nutrient, without supplements, on a vegetarian diet. Of course, most people, whether vegetarian or meat-eating, do not eat with enough variety to fulfill their nutritional needs sans supplements; you'd have to drink three glasses of milk to get your daily requirement for calcium, which most people don't do.

Veganism is different from vegetarianism. It is not merely unlikely, but actually impossible, to get all of your nutritional needs met with a vegan diet, no matter how varied it is, unless you consume supplements or eat foods artificially fortified with vitamins.

I think the underlying problem here is that Planck values what is "natural." She seems to be bothered by things she perceives as "unnatural" in our diets (to which extent it is unfair to imply that she favors animal products "dosed with hormones and antibiotics"). If you are determined to get your nutritional needs fulfilled solely by naturally occurring food sources, then yes, veganism is impossible. But unless you share Planck's values in this respect, her views are essentially irrelevant.

cande1 said...

I've been vegan since 1983, when my 1st daughter was born she weighed 7 lbs 6 oz: at 9 months she weighed 23 lbs, she breastfed until 2 1/2 years, was eating some solid food at 8 months, eating homemade baby food from nutricious recipes books like Vegetarian baby, she was always healthy, she had a balanced diet & plenty to eat.
Since it's true that babies have no choice, then parents shouldn't subject babies to eating meat

there have been many incidents of unbalanced parents or custodians, of children, Starving children, at least as many if not more of these kooks, cite religious reasons for starving, abusing their children

Meat is unhealthy, visit the pcrm website, read Fast Food Nation: the author of the NY Time's article, Planck may be a Schill for the meat & dairy industry, her article is wrong, does a disservice to families with such fear mongering inaccuries it contains.

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