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.