This Vegan Professor Says There's No Such Thing as Real Vegetarians

Andrew Smith is an assistant professor of english and philosophy at Drexel University. He's also a vegan. Which may surprise you once you learn that he has written a book called A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism. In other words, he's a vegan who doesn't think vegetarianism and veganism are morally defensible. Yup.

In an essay that just appeared in The Conversation, Smith argues that even if you avoid eating animal-based products, you are what your food eats. And the bottom line for Smith is this: Plants get their nutrients from the soil, which is partly composed of decayed animal remains. So, he wants the vegans and vegetarians of the world to understand that they're eating animal remains in and through the plants they eat.

And, yes: Smith says he has been a vegetarian for about 20 years and "nearly" vegan for six. So, while clearly not opposed to these practices, he just doesn't want anyone out there deluding themselves that their way of eating is justified on moral grounds. Basically, he says, we're all eating meat whether we realize it or not.

We just had to learn more about how Smith feels regarding his own eating choices and those of the vegan and vegetarian communities at large, so we spoke with him today.

MUNCHIES: You critique the morality of vegetarianism and argue that people who choose not to eat meat on moral grounds—for example, because they object to eating sentient beings—are simply fooling themselves. Can you explain why? Andrew Smith: I'm not saying that vegetarians are fooling themselves, per se. I'm saying they're taking a limited view of the food choices they make based on those grounds. Yes, animals are sentient, but the problem with suspending one's eating on the basis of sentience is that plants are sentient, too. This is something that is really only coming out in the scientific literature on plant biology over the last ten to 15 years or so. I don't fault vegetarians for not recognizing this—it's just a matter of increasing one's knowledge about the beings from which we make our food.

You say it is literally impossible to be a vegetarian. How so? Surely not all plant matter is using animal remains or waste as sustenance. Determining which plants aren't would get really, really tricky. Now, it would be possible within controlled environs to feed plants plant matter. That is possible, but practically speaking, if we are eating fruits and vegetables that grew on the ground, the ability to make these distinctions breaks down. That's the point that I'm looking at and am concerned with. It's not that I'm trying to make a point about who is defining their eating choices wrongly. I'm trying to broaden people's view of our relationship with food and the land itself. Our eating practices are part of a much larger biological and ecological system.

Isn't there a difference between plants absorbing nutrients from animals that die of natural causes and those gaining nutrients from the mass slaughter of livestock for the industrial food complex? The animal industrial complex is a moral and ecological abomination. It simply shouldn't exist. What I'm trying to point out is that in order for all of us to live, killing has to happen and it has to happen to sentient beings. Once we accept that, it doesn't entail that we should accept the status quo or accept how animals are treated. Instead, I think we should respect, care for, and take care of any being that can potentially be our food.

Do you feel there is a particular reason there is such a big disconnect between plant-based life and sentience? There are historical reasons, cultural reasons, and philosophical reasons that go all the way back to philosophers like Plato and Aristotle—particularly the way they classified animals, plants, humans, and the gods. Today, that still reverberates. We look at the grass in our lawn and the trees outside our windows and we see beings that are certainly alive, but passive and largely inert. That's simply not the case. These beings are aware and very active in their environment. In some respects, they are far more aware of their surroundings than animals are.

You've stated that vegetarianism and veganism aren't always eco-friendly. Can you explain why that is? The reasons that vegans and vegetarians tend to see their diet as more ecologically friendly is because the way that animals are raised and slaughtered is an ecological horror. That said, there are better and worse ways to be a vegetarian or a vegan. Coffee, for instance, is in such high demand today that tropical rainforests are being destroyed to grow the crop. Chocolate is very destructive. Cashews are being farmed in Indonesia at the expense of the rainforest. Almonds require an astronomical amount of water to grow. What I'm trying to suggest is that we pay attention to the land and the beings that make up our food and consider their needs and interests as a barometer for how we determine how we should eat. If coffee and chocolate are harmful, we should pay attention to that and change our consumer habits and demands.

In your essay, you point out that humans are also part of the food chain because we die and decompose in the earth just as animals do. In that regard, would you go so far as to say that we are all cannibals? I'm not trying to establish a new label for us. I'm trying to get rid of these labels that obscure our relationships with the world around us. Can we consider ourselves cannibals because we may eat the atoms of humans? You know, go ahead. If you want to do so, fine! Does that mean I'm morally condoning the killing of neighbors and eating them? No. I'd really prefer if we just do away with arbitrary labels and instead think about our relationship with not only our human neighbors, but our non-human neighbors—the biological communities in which we live.

So, if there is no moral basis for being a vegetarian or vegan, why in the world are you still a vegan? This is, in some respects, the big question that is very fair for people to ask me. There are two reasons. You had mentioned, in an ideal world, what would this set of eating practices look like? We're far from anything like that ideal. So eating in the way I describe, because I live in an urban setting, is incredibly difficult. In fact, I'm not sure I can do it. So my second best, sub-optimal fallback is vegetarianism. I've been a vegetarian for so long now, that I still have, if not moral reasons to abstain from eating animals, I still have emotional reasons, sentimental reasons. It's hard for me to feel comfortable doing it. That doesn't rise to the level of being a moral justification, but it certainly does impact my decision making.

Thanks for speaking with us, Andrew.