What I, a Vegan, Learned From Debating Animal Farmers Online

While I was personally attacked by some farmers, many attempted to actually teach me something.

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Mar 6 2019, 6:54pm

Images via Shutterstock

For the last two months I’ve been fighting with farmers on Twitter. As a vegan on social media, they are hard to avoid, with their many pro-ag hashtags, loud anti-vegan defences, and strong aversions to having their ethics challenged.

Of course, they would likely say much the same about me. And after being invited onto Charles Adler's national radio show to talk about the mounting ethical arguments for why Canadians should ditch old habits and go vegan, they came for me.

To be fair, I am not your run-of-the-oat-mill-vegan. I write about animal rights and veganism for major media across North America, most recently declaring 2019 the Year of the Vegan in Maclean’s Magazine, debating a hog farmer in the Toronto Star about “humane” meat, and boasting about famous vegans in the New York Daily News.

So, to say I had it coming would certainly be an understatement.

But while some might see vegans as deserving of the backlash many of us receive online, as we ‘virtue signal’ and ‘pry jobs away from hard working people,’ I can tell you, that’s not what’s going on.

It appears that much of the recent online debating between vegans and the animal agriculture community, aka #AgTwitter, started as a result of the wildly popular Veganuary challenge. As newbie vegans took to social media to passionately proffer their newly-discovered insights into the insanity of meat, dairy and egg production, offended farmers took to the actual media to complain about online bullying. The subsequent #Februdairy hashtag, which as expected was overtaken by vegans, only stoked things hotter. From there, exchanges have continued to spiral, and after two months inside the dark abyss of these online debates, I can report: I’ve learned a hell of a lot.

I’ve learned much more about animal farming, the environment, food production, workers’ rights and about the sentience of plants (nah, just kidding). The most intriguing though, is what I’ve learned about farmers, transporters and slaughterhouse workers as people.

It’s been equally enlightening and disturbing.

Across the globe, farmers are being encouraged to take to social media to share the world of farming with the public. Swinging open the barn doors, members of the agriculture community, from small family operators to media savvy “ag-vocates,” are publicly discussing, debating, and sharing videos of cute cows in green pastures (I have yet to see any from the massive feedlots or hog or chicken sheds) in hopes of proving that things aren’t quite as scary as undercover footage and growing anti-animal Ag discourse would have us all believe.

I can see why some people might find it all reassuring.

But of course, life on even the nicest farm is only one step along a doomed farmed animal’s journey, and my Twitter requests to have the less bucolic parts—the end parts—live-streamed, have yet to be fulfilled.

In contrast to whistleblower footage, former employee accounts, reported cruelty cases, and general perspectives of many animal rights proponents, the farmers I’ve interacted with insist they care greatly for their animals, even better, as some have tweeted, than they do their own kids. “Care” is a word used and debated a lot. As are “love” and “respect.” Many animal farmers believe that providing adequate hay, food, and coats for cold, motherless calves, is proof of love; that working long hours to provide arguably fair quality of (short) life is proof of respect; and that it’s not exploitation if done nicely; not unethical if humane.

Most vegans would of course argue that even in these rare, best case scenarios of pretty fields and caring farmers, that artificially inseminating someone only to take their baby away and sell their breastmilk for profit, is exploitation without doubt, that sending someone off at a young age to have their throat slit is far from love, and that there is no humane way to kill someone who doesn’t want to die.

The word “someone” seemed to cause the most uproar, drawing the fundamental line between those who see domesticated animals as property, without feelings, here only to serve our purposes, and those who believe they are individuals, existing for their own reasons. (Comparing pet guardianship to animal farming is a common tactic used by agriculture folks in attempts to expose vegan hypocrisy. Of course, most of us aren’t exploiting and slaughtering our pets for profit.)

In private messages, one dairy farmer tried to convince me that cows lack the emotional capacity to be aware of their own existence and plight. Rather, she said, cows live only on instinct, desire only to eat and lay about, and are naturally lousy mothers (when in fact humans have been intentionally breeding them to lack maternal instincts). When I offer scientific research about the complex emotions of farmed animals, I’m often told to spend less time on the internet and more on a farm.

Obviously, smart farmers are keen to keep their investments healthy, calm and comfortable, to ensure best quality product and profit. But within the system of animal farming, that care is limited only to that profit, with only the farmers’ end interests in mind, not the animals’—who would surely prefer to like, live.

For the most part, my online interactions with the animal farming community have been civil, even educational. I was inspired by dairy supporters to investigate the origins of the imported cashews I use to make cheese, which still have a smaller carbon footprint than dairy, but can involve workers' rights issues. So I’ve been trying local walnuts instead. I learned that some photos and videos used by animal activists can unknowingly lack context and may be misleading, and to keep the cause credible we must always seek and include that context when sharing. And I realized I have more to explore about slaughter-free soil health, and the comparison of global greenhouse gas emissions of the agriculture industry to the transportation industry, which may or may not be as simple as media sound-bites make it seem.

I learned that as animal agriculture continues to come under criticism, they, like us, are fighting hard against stereotypes: they the cruel heartless farmers, us the militant evangelical vegans.

Animal farmers, I've found, are a diverse group like any other. Some are kind, offering honest insights without defence, or messaging privately to ask genuine questions about veganism. When I was called a “c*nt” by one farmer, dealt sexism from others, and actually threatened with sexual violence by another, there was certainly a divide in the group, with thankfully less for than against.

I’ve also learned vegans can also be nasty, engaging in mean, counterproductive exchanges, like wishing bacon-induced cancer upon others.

Let’s stop that.

Through my discussions with members of the Ag world, I was able to get into the true, gritty dilemma of killing animals. It appears to me that what really feeds their belief that animal farming and slaughtering are natural, necessary and normal (aka the three Ns of justification), is a combination of deeply entrenched cultural context, moral disengagement, including de-sensitization, and cognitive dissonance, and that the financial reward to keep on believing it, is what keeps many of them in these jobs. They seem to just accept that slaughtering billions of animals each year is inevitable, and that they have no desire or power to stop it.

Until they do. And it’s the growing number of those now moving away from animal agriculture, transitioning to more ethical and sustainable products, such as Hawthorn dairy-turned nut milk producers, which will inspire these conversations to continue.

Ultimately though, my greatest lesson gained within the trenches of Twitter debating, is that I don’t know everything. Though vegans are often expected to be environmental experts, evolutionary scientists, nutritionists, veterinarians, philosophers and professional debaters, I am none of these things. I do though consider myself a student of them all.

So let’s keep debating. Just ... be cool.

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