Why Go Vegan?
There are typically three reasons people cite for adopting a vegan lifestyle.
- to reduce the suffering of animals.
- to reduce negative impacts on the environment.
- to improve one’s health.
First, a definition of veganism
Donald Watson, a founder of the Vegan Society, coined the term “vegan” in 1944. The Society later published their definition of veganism as follows:
A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.
Why go vegan for animals?
A driving purpose behind veganism is to reduce the suffering of animals, primarily non-human ones. Non-human animals were once thought to be mindless machines without emotions. Scientists today understand that animals raised for food such as cows, pigs, and chickens, experience many of the same emotions as humans in similar ways to humans. It is now understood that these non-human animals are social, have family bonds, desires, and can experience intense physical and mental pain.
Today, most meat, dairy, and egg products come from large-scale factory farms. Factory farms demonstrate the extreme outcomes of a worldview that sees animals as commodities, tools, property, or things. The methods for every part of the process of using an animal to create a sellable product, including confinement and slaughter, are designed to maximize profit. These large-scale methods only take into consideration the well-being of animals insofar as they must be kept alive and in sellable condition. Even small welfare improvements such as slightly bigger cages have only grudgingly been made by the industry once consumers took notice of and joined in efforts of animal advocates. Animals killed for fur and leather have it no better. In both food and fur farms animals spend their lives in tiny areas of confinement and are unable to follow most of their natural instincts including playing, grooming, preening, mating (unforced), running, and stretching. In short, their lives and deaths are mostly miserable.
There are small farms where animals are treated far better than on factory farms, and there are fur trappers that cause animals to suffer for a few days rather than a lifetime – not including the babies of trapped animals who may be orphaned. There is still suffering in these cases, including slaughter and the separation of mothers and babies. In any situation where it is permissible to use an animal as a means to an end, an animal is vulnerable to extreme exploitation and suffering, because one farmer may have some compassion, but another may not.
Vegans seek to reduce the exploitation and suffering of all animals, including humans. Vegans mainly focus their efforts on non-human animals because most societies already explicitly value humans as individuals with rights, if only in theory sometimes. Legally, most societies treat animals as property, so there is more work to be done to improve the lives of animals because thinking needs to be changed before treatment is changed.
That being said, animal agriculture continues to negatively impact many humans. Because few people want to work in slaughterhouses and processing plants, those jobs often fall to the most vulnerable populations. Workers are often exploited and are prone to serious physical and mental injury. Workers have to slaughter gentle creatures at a fast pace with no time for care or comfort. As a result, slaughterhouse workers not only lose fingers at a high rate and suffer from other physical injuries, but can suffer from PTSD, be prone to domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and anxiety. They must become desensitized to unprovoked violence as part of their jobs and areas around slaughterhouses have shown rises in domestic violence. People living near factory farms, often the working class, suffer from respiratory issues and must keep windows closed to keep out smells. They can also be affected by water and soil contamination from waste runoff. Moreover, much of the grain produced in the world goes to feed factory farmed animals and could be fed to people instead.
By reducing your consumption of animal products you can have a tangible impact by lowering the numbers of animals brought into the world to suffer and reducing the negative impacts of animal agriculture. Producers base their future stock on demand and when demand decreases, they breed fewer animals as commodities and may invest in alternative industries. And by abstaining completely from animal products you can set an example and live the principle that animals are not things, but individuals with emotions that deserve respect and compassion.
Further reading and viewing:
- “Earthlings” – Documentary – Watch Free on Vimeo
- “Peter Dinklage: Face Your Food” – Video
- “Animal Liberation” by Peter Singer – Book
- Hatchery Horrors – Video
- Drone footage of factory farm in North Carolina – Video
- Psychological Harm in Slaughterhouse Workers – Article
Why go vegan for the environment?
Reducing or eliminating your consumption of animal products is one of the most effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gases, which come from animals’ digestion, decomposing manure, and the transport of farmed animals and animal products. A UN study found that animal agriculture accounts for 18% of global gas emissions, more than the entire transportation sector. Animal agriculture also causes soil contamination, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and wildlife, overfishing, and loss of freshwater sources. A World Bank study found that animal agriculture is responsible for 90% of the deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest. In 2013, 30% of the earth’s non-ice surface was used to support animals for consumption. That includes crops raised to be fed to animals rather than humans. As the human population continues to grow, producing the same amount of animal products per capita is non sustainable when it comes to simple numbers as well as negative impacts to the earth. Similarly, the leather industry pollutes areas where it is produced and is harmful to the health of workers. Fortunately there are many new eco-friendly and animal-friendly leather alternatives coming on to the market.
- Meat and Dairy Impact on Global Warming – Article
- “One Industry that is Destroying Our Planet – Georgetown Law Review – Article
- The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production – Time Magazine – Article
- How Leather is Slowly Killing the People and the Places that Make it – Gizmodo – Article
Why go vegan for health?
Many of the world’s greatest athletes like tennis superstar Serena Williams, track star Carl Lewis, and strongman Patrik Baboumian follow a plant-based diet to enhance their performance. There are many health benefits associated with a plant-based diet though some claims you see online have not been proven. There haven’t been enough long-term studies on specifically vegan diets yet. But some studies have shown that reducing animal product intake can reduce risk for cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
While the myth that vegans lack protein and iron is now widely debunked, it’s true that vitamin B12 can be difficult to obtain from a vegan diet. Vitamin B12 is produced by microorganisms which tend to live on animals. However, there are many vegan B12 supplements.
Everyone’s body and health is different and a vegan diet may not be possible for every person. People with certain cancers, allergies, and eating disorders may not find a vegan diet plausible. Similarly, people who live in food deserts may not have access to enough foods to sustain a vegan diet. Veganism is about doing what is possible and practicable to reduce suffering. If you are unable to maintain a vegan diet for health reasons, you might consider abstaining from purchasing leather.
The truth is that most people don’t eat solely based on health. If we did, we would never eat cookies or cake. Many of the foods we choose are based on tradition, taste, and accessibility. Plant-based diets are trendy right now, which is great for animals and the environment and people who thrive on them. One problem with advocating veganism through health arguments alone is that if a study suddenly finds some other diet healthier, people will switch. Studies have found that people who switch to a plant-based diet for ethical reasons are more likely to stick with it.
Further reading and viewing:
- Great Vegan Athletes – Website
- Advice from a Vegan Cardiologist – NY Times – Article
- Six reasons to go vegan according to science – Telegraph – Article
- Forks Over Knives – Documentary (trailer)
Part of committing to a vegan lifestyle means supporting ways to make veganism healthy and accessible for everyone. Ways to contribute to this effort include supporting organizations that promote access to affordable produce, or that develop lab grown meats.