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Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating

by Erik Marcus
McBooks Press, 1998

Book Review by Brent Kendall


VeganWhile researching the hog farming industry for The Prism's April Earth Day issue, it really hit me that our society's consumption habits are as much to blame for present environmental threats as the various livestock industries' transgressions. Though corporate farmers have a long way to go to clean up their act, large scale operations are necessitated by the world's insatiable appetite for meat. So it seems that any argument one makes against livestock producers that does not acknowledge wealthy nations' carnivorous diet is reduced to little more than "not in my backyard" sentiment.

Feeling like a hypocrite, I turned to Erik Marcus' Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating to better understand exactly how meat demand affects our surroundings. Having heard that some vegan texts were radical and exaggerated, I instead found that Vegan presents very solid arguments that are well researched, thoughtful, and without hyperbole. Marcus presents the vegan case on three fronts, each of which is convincing separate from the other two.

He first argues that a vegan diet is by far the healthiest, linking meat consumption to heart disease, cancer, and obesity. Marcus also devotes a chapter to mad cow disease, exploring the issue on a level absent from the media frenzy created by the Cattlemen's Association suit against Oprah Winfrey.

Marcus argues secondly that corporate farmers treat their animals in a cruel and inhumane manner. Exempt from animal cruelty laws, livestock are at the owner's mercy. Small farmers value every animal and treat them well to get the most from their investment. Dealing with an incredible animal volume, corporate farmers must ignore individual animal health problems to maximize profits. Vegan details some instances of cruelty but refrains from being overly graphic. The simple truths are bad enough. The section ends with a look at slaughterhouses, noting the horrors for both the animals and the human workers as well. Marcus contends that the workers are completely miserable but prisoner to economic needs or actually enjoy what they're doing. Either way, he argues, the industry fosters a group of people out of step with society.

The book's last argument is that meat production terribly strains the environment and our natural resources. Having initially read the book for this argument, I admit to being a little disappointed. Though Marcus makes strong and accurate points, the environmental discussion is not very elaborate. Vegan discusses the role cattle grazing plays in destroying western pasture lands but then takes environmental degradation issues no further.

Marcus writes that meat production consumes valuable natural resources, explaining that it takes at least ten pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef. He argues that we could do a lot to improve world hunger if we used this grain for people and not animals, but later has to concede that even if we quit feeding grain to animals, the excess would not necessarily go to feed the hungry.

Vegan devotes pages to explorations of world population growth and soil depletion, which are important to understanding future food supply. Yet with the EPA and the USDA working to toughen livestock industry regulation, I hoped for more exploration into how the various livestock industries pollute their surroundings. Marcus' no-nonsense style would be perfect for a book on this matter alone.

Regardless, this book was not written only for environmentalists and the above omissions are understandable. Erik Marcus strongly supports the vegan cause and has written an influential book to help others be aware of why they should do the same. I now understand my eating choices with a new depth and believe that anyone who reads Vegan will do the same.

  Brent Kendall is a Carrboro resident and Prism editor.  

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