Addressing some the more common myths perpetuated in the community, in the hopes of encouraging rational, evidence based activism.
There is a great deal of successful vegan advocacy from a variety of sources, but most activists rely on similar ethical arguments to support a belief in animal rights. The vast majority of these arguments are broadly accepted precisely because they are valid, and they are backed up by legitimate and authoritative sources. However, as in all movements, there are still some myths which are repeated often, and which bare closer inspection. Some of this analysis may seem obvious or even pedantic, but since we are forced to operate on platforms where our every claim is dismissed as “propaganda,” we have to be very careful to only make claims which we know we can back up with evidence and reason.
1) You will be healthy if you go vegan.
This is a myth primarily spread by those in the health movement, but it is repeated often enough for people to actually use this as their reason for turning towards a plant based diet in the first place. Promises of weight loss, health improvement, clearer skin and the elimination of chronic health issues can successfully convince people into plant based eating, even if it is unlikely to make them fully vegan. However, when they don’t see the promised results, they will often go back to meat as quickly as they gave it up. Vegan diets are incredibly diverse, there are raw vegans eating a whole foods, plant based diet of course, but then there are junk food vegans subsisting on faux meats, frozen food, ready meals and pasta. There is nothing wrong with either of these ways of approaching veganism, but like any diet, you can lose or gain weight and be healthy or unhealthy as a vegan depending on which foods you select, and how much exercise you get.
2) You cannot be healthy if you consume animal products.
This is a comment quite often implied in vegan arguments, if not directly stated. The facts that animal products are linked with a whole host of health issues is something we can back up with research, the idea that this means you cannot be healthy if you consume animal products however, is a different claim entirely. The existence of even one healthy human who consumes animal products would be enough to refute this argument entirely, and there are plenty of people are the top of their respective athletic fields who subsist on a diet which includes at least some animal products. You would find it difficult indeed to defend the idea that the likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps are not healthy. A healthy diet can include unhealthy foods, so long as they are not consumed in quantities high enough to significantly compromise health.
3) Dairy makes your blood acidic.
This myth primarily emerged from the popularity of a particular video by Gary Yourofsky, but it has been comprehensively debunked many times since it appeared in that video. The claim goes that animal protein and phosphate in milk and dairy products make them acid-producing foods, which cause our blood to become acidic and leaches calcium from our bones. This is repeated a great deal online especially, though it is usually not sourced. These assertions however, are not supported by the science, and there is little evidence to suggest that systemic PH is caused by diet. Dairy is undeniably unhealthy for many, many reasons, from the link with high cholesterol to cancer and diabetes, but making your blood acidic is not one of them, or at the very least it is not one we can prove to any reasonable degree.
4) Dairy causes autism.
This is not a myth I see perpetuated by many vegans, but a large campaign by PETA which made this suggestion was likely viewed by many millions of people, so it does still rear it’s ugly head in debates on occasion. There is an obvious issue with attributing any single food item as a “cause” for something as complex as autism, even if there were a link. This also reeks of the suggestion that autism is something to be avoided at all costs, or “fixed” like some disease emerging from eating unhealthy foods. Besides this, it is a myth based on a wildly inaccurate reading of one particular study. This study was part of a wider research project into a possible link between food sensitivity and a wide variety of symptoms, the authors did not make any claim that dairy directly causes autism. This is research in it’s early stages which hints at a possible link between autism and consumption of the protein found in dairy, but what that link is, how significant it is and how we can account for it is still anyone’s guess.
5) Dairy cows are inseminated in a device called a “rape rack”.
This is a claim which is repeated on many vegan websites, however, I have never seen anyone attempt to provide a source for it. The claim is that the devices farmers use to forcefully inseminate cows are colloquially referred to in this way by the dairy industry itself, but I can find no mention of this on any industry website, in any trade magazine or in any undercover dairy farm footage. I have seen farmers actually react with genuine shock when vegans have presented them with this in activism, and they all do seem genuinely perplexed as to where we got this term from. It may be that it has a legitimate source, and it may be that a dairy farmer did refer to the device in this way, but at the very least it is dishonest to claim that “the dairy industry” as a collective uses this term.
6) Veganism would solve world hunger.
This myth has a rational basis, and is based on the inefficiency of using animals for food when when compared with crops. Chicken meat production consumes energy in a 4:1 ratio to protein output; beef cattle 54:1, lamb 50:1, pork 17:1, turkey 13:1 and milk 17:1, according to the ecologist’s analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. All told, farmed animals consume 40% of all grain produced and 70% of all soy produced globally. All of this means that if the world went vegan and we fed these crops to humans instead of animals, we could add an addition 70% to the world’s global food supply. While all of this is true, not all crops consumed by animals are actually edible for human beings, and we already grow more than enough food to feed everyone, we just don’t distribute it equally or use it efficiently. Globally, roughly one third of the food produced for human consumption every year, which is approximately 1.3 billion tonnes, goes uneaten due to loss or wastage, though some figures place it closer to half. Add that to the fact of global market forces and capitalism meaning that food is unequally distributed, there is no guarantee that the abolition of animal agriculture alone would eliminate world hunger.
7) Animal agriculture is the number one cause of global warming.
It may be that this is absolutely true, so it is not a myth per ce, but it is something we cannot claim without reasonable doubt. Animal agriculture is without a doubt a leading cause of global warming, but based on current data we cannot confidently assert that it is the leading cause. The statistic that is often quoted is that 51 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are the result of animal agriculture. This statistic is a good example of cherry-picking, 51% is probably the highest reasonable estimate, but it is based on a single, non-peer reviewed study. It is a difficult thing to even estimate, but conservative estimates place it closer to 9%. In addition to that, animal agriculture is responsible for around 37% of human-caused methane emissions, and 65% of human nitrous oxide emissions. Even with these emissions factored in, there are other sectors which rank higher, for example, electricity and heat generation account for about 25%. Considering the fact that electricity and heat generation is very necessary for most people whereas as animal products very much aren’t, this is no loss at all to the force of our argument. Animal agriculture is devastating for the environment by just about any reasonable measurement, but making claims like “the leading cause” will invite claims of propaganda and “bad science” which have the potential to derail the debate or call into question the truth of any other claims you are making in your argument.
8) Veganism has been practised for thousands of years.
Appealing to the pedigree of veganism as an ancient belief system is not uncommon, but there is little evidence to suggest that veganism in the form we now understand has been practised by anyone before the turn of the 20th century. Veganism as a term was defined by Leslie J Cross as late as 1949, and though practicing vegans existed before the founding of The Vegan Society in 1944, I can find no reference to this term appearing this time. Most people who talk about veganism existing thousands of years ago are referring to the avoidance of animal products, but in any other context most of us would agree that this is not all that veganism is. Aesthetes, mystics, scholars, monks and other spiritual practitioners have eschewed animal products since at least the advent of what we now call Hinduism, in around 1700 BCE, but if these people lived today whether they would subscribe to the philosophical and ethical position of veganism is anyone’s guess. There is no real understanding of what these people considered “animal products” to include, or how they felt about animal rights generally. They may have been their time’s equivalent of vegans, but what they practice cannot be referred to as veganism according to our modern understanding of it as an ethical position and political movement.
9) Humans are herbivores.
This is probably the one I see repeated most often, and is usually followed by descriptions of human anatomical features like teeth, our large intestines and lack of claws. Herbivores feed exclusively or mainly on plants, but the classification of herbivore/omnivore relies on what diet an animal actually eats, as opposed to what it can eat, and humans undeniably generally consume both plants and animals. The descriptors of our teeth, intestines, claws etc. attempts to paint the picture of a frugivore, but as any biologist will tell you, most frugivores don’t just eat fruit, most incorporate insects and other small animals into their diet. It may be that we are best suited to eating mostly plants, but that does not make us herbivores. Getting into this debate when advocating veganism is usually a bad idea regardless, since what we are naturally adapted to do is not a good moral argument for doing it. What is undeniable is that humans can be perfectly healthy on a purely plant based diet, and that is all we need to be able to defend.
10) Honey is vegan.
This final point is not something I see repeated by vegans in the same way as the others listed here are, but it is vehemently defended by enough people who at least consider themselves vegan for it to be worth discussing. Veganism is about avoiding animal exploitation as far as is practicable, and since honey is an animal product which is undeniably sourced from animal exploitation, it is absolutely, unequivocally not vegan. The only difference between farming honey and any other animal product which doesn’t necessarily require the deaths of those producing it is that honey is produced by insects, not birds or mammals. Regardless of the species however, there is just no good reason whatsoever for humans to take what an animal produces for our own gain, and arguments that taking and selling a bee’s honey is somehow “helping” them will not stand up to any sustained scrutiny. If veganism is to be a consistent ethical system, then the reasons why we boycott meat, dairy, wool and eggs should apply equally to all other cases of animal exploitation, irrespective of the species being exploited.