One of my daughters has turned vegan. So I’ve had a crash course on the environmental benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. I respect the passion that comes from wanting to save the planet from avaricious human beasts, but my gripe is the tone and language that’s often used in these passionate declamations.
Case in point, the documentary “Seaspiracy,” which leaped to becoming one of the most watched shows on Netflix soon after its release before much of its secondary messaging started to get debunked as willful exaggeration.
For sure, I like documentaries that don’t hammer home a point. Movies like “My Octopus Teacher,” for example, which won best documentary at the Oscars this year and left a lasting impression. The documentary was a tender, gorgeous exploration of a relationship between a man and an octopus, and the limits to that relationship. But it raised an interesting point: after watching that movie, would you really order octopus if you see it on a seafood restaurant menu?
“Seaspiracy” was a noble undertaking by British filmmaker Ali Tabrizi. The revelations were gruesome and deeply disturbing. It was horrifying to discover that a huge number of dolphins are being killed as by-catch, because of our love for a good tuna sandwich.
Peter Hammarstedt, a director at Sea Shepherd, an environmental law firm, remarked in the film that it’s shocking to realize that “the greatest threat to whales and dolphins is commercial fishing. Over 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed every single year as by-catch of industrial fishing.” Most often when fishing for tuna or shrimp, other sea creatures, like dolphins, whales and sea turtles are caught or become entangled in fishing nets. These sea animals, often injured, are then thrown back like debris and left to die. The documentary captured these heart-wrenching scenes and it felt like I was watching a grisly murder.
The movie explained that this is the collateral damage of increased profit margin fishing. The human palate is taught to adjust to what is readily available. And large scale fishing expeditions are designed to flood the market, driving prices down. And the human appetite adjusts to accommodate more affordable food.
The movie exposes a number of myths.
For one, the focus on plastic straws is misplaced. Most of the plastic pollution in the ocean comes from fishing gear. One report claimed that plastic straws account for only 0.03 percent of pollution in the ocean.
And that the fishing industry gets $35 billion in subsidies. Put that alongside the fact that we purportedly need $20 billion to end world hunger and these subsidies don’t make any sense.
The documentary waters began to get muddied, however, when Tabrizi began to press home his point on veganism.
There was one scene in the film where a hungry fisherman used sign language to indicate why he was out on a flimsy raft, without a life vest, braving the elements. And the answer most evidently was hunger.
Living off the sea has been a way of life for many coastal communities. This way of life has been threatened by large, commercial fishing vessels, depleting the ocean’s resources and leaving little for small fishing villages dotting the coastline who have a give and take relationship with the ocean. Fishermen who have traditionally relied on fishing now have to venture further and further into rough waters.
For these and other indigenous communities, converting to veganism would no doubt be difficult.
Veganism is a worthwhile consideration, indeed, but it’s not for everyone. And especially not when the pantry is bare.
I’ve cooked and served at shelters in the Bay Area where tuna casserole and chili con carne disappear faster than salads and fruits. If it’s your only meal of the day, it’s understandable to load up on animal proteins that keep one going for many hours.
Yes, there are plant-based protein alternatives available, but accessibility and price stand as barriers to this conversion.
For many, it works out to be a balance between cost, food habits, nutrition and sustainability.
Walking the aisles of Grocery Outlet in San Francisco’s Mission, you can bag two pounds of grapes for $2.99 and carry home a single salad for $3 with weekly coupons. However, a frozen pizza can also be procured for under $4 and a pound of shrimp for $6.99. The latter two will likely satisfy gnawing hunger more substantially and for a longer period than the salad or grapes.
I do understand that veganism will tackle the commercialization of animal deaths and acts of animal cruelty, and it will reduce cholesterol, increase heart health, and stave off the dreaded diabetes as well as help with weight loss.
Veganism, devised as a war waged against capitalism, animal cruelty, environmental calamities and lack of government oversight is not a small or short undertaking. And certainly, one way to conduct this war is by jolting and shocking the human mind, like “Seaspiracy” does.
On the other hand, I feel that we can make a bigger dent with smaller changes. For the average consumer, going meat and dairy-free one or three days a week, and buying from ethical farms, is a starting point. Subtlety and encouragement will go further than accusations and judgments.
Undoubtedly the planet needs saving. And hats off to vegans everywhere. But vegan activists, please be mindful of your messaging.
Jaya Padmanabhan is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan.