This essay was originally published on Ecorazzi.com.
Sometimes it’s easy to compartmentalise ethical issues and to forget that abstaining from one moral wrong doesn’t eradicate all others. Many vegans proudly proclaim that their food is “cruelty-free” as though issues of justice and injustice begin and end with our use of nonhuman animals. What is probably an innocent shorthand for “no nonhuman animals were exploited to make this”, though, can appear as a complete disregard for the fact that many of the foods that we commonly consume are products of forced labour, human trafficking, exploitation and suffering.
Certainly, there are more issues surrounding nonvegan consumption, and in no way can nonvegans hold the fact that food production systems are exploitative over us as a “gotcha”. Nor does the enormity of the exploitation in which the nonvegan participates by way of their food choices mean that we, as vegans, don’t have to try harder or do better.
Cashews are often processed by people who receive caustic burns from the acids that lie between the two layers of the hard shell of the nut. Some cashews are produced in forced-labour camps where the workers are beaten and shocked into harvesting, cleaning, and preparing a vegan staple. Much of the chocolate that we consume is the product of child labour, with reporters finding children as young as five using dangerous tools to harvest cocoa beans. Workers on coffee farms are often housed 40 to 60 to a room without sanitation, working without a signed contract and not receiving a minimum wage. Farm workers are frequently exposed to toxic chemicals, endangering their health and those of their families. And, in fact, an estimated sixty percent of child labour worldwide takes place in the agriculture sector.
When we talk about cruelty-free food, then, we’re ignoring the fact that food production is bound up with many forms of injustice. At the very least, we ought to find another shorthand to convey the idea that our food does not contain animal bodies or products. But if we really take seriously the idea of living in a way that minimises harm, then we are morally obliged to educate ourselves on the human rights issues involved in food production, to support ethical and fair-trade companies where we can, and to learn more about where our food choices come from and how they were produced.