From saving animals to supporting workers and the environment, there are so many important reasons to go vegan.
The Vegan Society defines veganism as a 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. As such, vegans try to avoid supporting the exploitation of animals for food, clothing, cosmetics, experiments and entertainment. The question most often put to vegans is why we would choose to live in this way given the fact that eating animals is a socially accepted norm in our society. While not everyone is able to go vegan at this time in their life, there are several compelling reasons to choose a plant based diet and vegan lifestyle for those who are able to do so. What follows is only a small selection of them.
First and foremost, veganism is a movement founded on the belief that animals are not ours to use and they should not be harmed or killed unnecessarily. Considering veganism is so controversial, it is surprising to many that these are our core principles, since most people already agree with these ideas. Most people believe that animals do not exist just to please us, and that it is wrong to kill them or hurt them unless we absolutely have to. When we consider the fact that most people on earth can be perfectly healthy without consuming animals or what they produce, it seems obvious that when we kill animals for food, clothing or cosmetics, this is harming and killing animals unnecessarily, which again, most people are morally opposed to. Veganism then, is simply putting into practice the beliefs which most of us already hold.
You do not have to believe that humans and animals are equal to be vegan, and certainly not that they deserve the same rights. Vegans simply acknowledge the fact that animals are worthy of moral consideration and so should have basic rights, the most fundamental of these is surely the right to live and the right to bodily autonomy whenever it is in our power to grant it to them. Using animals for our own benefit ignores these rights, and treats the lesser interests of humans as more important than the greater interests of animals. This is known as speciesism, an attitude of bias in favour of your own species over any other in cases where your interests and theirs come into conflict. An example of this would be the common argument that eating meat is a “personal choice,” which strongly implies that the other beings effected by that choice do not matter, that our preferences as humans are the only ones that need to be seriously considered when making a decision. Animals clearly do have preferences, preferring not to be in pain, to be free and to have access to comfortable shelter and adequate food. The decision to refuse to take these preferences into consideration has no moral or rational basis whatsoever. You can read my summaries of the main animal rights issues here.
To value animal rights also does not take anything away from how much vegans value human rights, since animal agriculture harms humans, too. Slaughterhouse workers are much more likely than average to have problems with alcohol abuse and with mental health issues like PTSD from working under extremely stressful conditions. These workers have astonishingly high rates of injury due to a high pressure, dangerous working environment. When workers do sustain injuries, The Human Rights Watch reports the industry avoiding administering their workers’ compensation programs by systematically failing to recognize and report claims, delaying claims, denying claims, and threatening and taking reprisals against workers who file claims for compensation for workplace injuries. These are most often poor immigrants with few other choices.
It is not only workers who are effected, industrial animal farming has a severe and devastating effect on their surrounding communities, polluting water, air and driving down land values. Those who try to speak against these corrupt industries either on behalf of these communities or on behalf of animals, are met with legal action and often even criminal charges. These “ag-gag” laws are devastating for the human victims of animal agriculture as well for farmed animals. Animal agriculture corporations routinely trample on humans rights for profit, for example, when Smithfield bought Polish company Prima and gained farming permits on the condition they would provide local jobs, they hired no one from the local area and 5,000 pigs were moved in during the dead of night. The now Smithfield owned Prima began dumping toxic animal waste on local fields and when farmers complained, they were told that the local government was powerless to oppose them. In any such cases, the usual reaction from social justice advocates is to call for a full boycott. It is clear then, that we can make a strong case for the adoption of a plant based diet and vegan lifestyle solely on the basis of advocating for the rights of humans.
Consuming animal products directly funds animal agriculture, which is one of the leading causes of climate change. Animal agriculture is responsible for at least 18% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than the exhaust fumes of every car, boat and plane on earth combined. It is also responsible for 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, and 65% of all human-related emissions of nitrous oxide. Things are set to get worse, with emissions from animal agriculture projected to increase 80% by 2050. The situation is now so dire that even if we completely stop all fossil fuel use now, we will still exceed our 565 gigatonnes CO2e limit by 2030, just from raising animals for food. This is why the United Nations have told us that with reference to climate change, “a substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”
These warnings come from the world’s foremost authorities; from the United Nations and the World Health Institute to the World Watch Institute. Their message is absolutely clear: We simply cannot effectively combat climate change without addressing the problem of animal agriculture. Nor is organic or free range farming an effective solution, since these methods require even more grazing land and thus more deforestation and resource use. There are of course environmental costs associated with a plant based diet too; no lifestyle is completely carbon neutral unless it is off the grid. However, when the choice is between a resource intensive and environmentally destructive diet and one which the data proves has a significantly lower impact, the proper decision should be clear. Since going vegan is undeniably one of the most effective ways an individual can reduce their carbon footprint, any committed environmentalist should seriously consider adopting a plant based diet and vegan lifestyle.
Animal agriculture plays a significant role in the perpetuation of world hunger. With almost 1 billion people on earth malnourished, we still feed over half the world’s grain crop to animals raised for meat, eggs, and milk instead of directly to humans. At present a full 1/3 of the planet’s land surface and 2/3 of available agricultural land is used for farming animals. If we look at cows, for example, it takes 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. That’s 94% more land, and 94% more pesticides than just eating that grain directly. All told, livestock consume 70% of all the grain we produce, 98% of all soy, and a fifth of all water consumed globally. Farmed animals take in far more calories in crop feed than they will ever give out in meat, meaning that they are literally detracting from the global food supply. If the world went vegan, we would add an addition 70% to the world’s global food supply, enough to comfortably feed everyone if it were equally distributed.
These kinds of vast numbers can be difficult to make sense of, but using a more concrete example, if we take a 2.5 acre piece of farmland the number of people whose food energy needs can be met by this land would be 23 people if producing cabbage, 22 for potatoes, 19 for rice, 17 for corn, 15 for wheat, 2 for chicken, and just 1 for eggs and beef. Though capitalism and market forces mean that world hunger is not simply a matter of not producing enough food, it is undeniable that by any reasonable measurement we could feed far more people using far less land if the world moved towards a vegan diet. When we factor in the massive deforestation required to create grazing land for farmed animals and to grow the crops to feed them, and that 91% of formerly forested amazon cleared since 1971 has been used for cattle grazing, the impact that this would have not only on humans but the environment and endangered species cannot be overstated.
As well as disproportionate food use, animal agriculture is highly resource intensive in other areas, such as energy and water. Global water consumption ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons annually. Approximately a fifth of that water consumption is from animal agriculture alone. It has been conclusively demonstrated that the water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of a wisely chosen crop product with equivalent nutritional value. To demonstrate this, 1L of soya milk has a water footprint of about 300L, whereas the water footprint of 1L of cow’s milk is more than three times bigger. The water footprint of a 150g soya burger appears to be about 160L, while the water footprint of an average 150-g beef burger is nearly fifteen times bigger.
In terms of energy use, it takes the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of grain-fed beef in the United States, and that is not including any imported meats. On average, it takes approximately 28 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of meat protein for human consumption, whereas it takes only 3.3 calories of fossil- fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of protein from grain for human consumption. Intuitively, this makes sense, since the energy cost from crops directly from humans involves only the growing process itself and the transportation of the grain. Animal products however, require energy use to fertilise the feed grain used to grow the animal to slaughter weight, to house and feed the animal at the feedlot, to transport the animal to slaughter, and finally to transport and cold-store the meat to get it to the consumer. Eating crops directly cuts out most of these processes, and so is generally speaking considerably more energy efficient than the average omnivorous diet.
Despite popular opinion, a plant based diet and vegan lifestyle can often be significantly cheaper. This is surprising for many people, since people associate veganism with faux meat and soy products, though these are still comparable in price to the products they imitate. However. a healthy plant based diet does not have to include any of these items. Vegan staples include pastas, rice, noodles, beans, quinoa, lentils, chickpeas, breads, nut butters, oats, grains, frozen fruits and canned vegetables. These represent some of the cheapest, most filling and most nutritious foods in most supermarkets and they are widely available. Many of these items also have the advantage of a very long shelf life, meaning that it is possible to make them even cheaper by purchasing in bulk. The fact that plant foods are cheaper should make perfect sense economically because the lower on the food chain you eat, the less work has gone into the final product and thus the cheaper it is.
Meat is a luxury, this is why the poorest people in the world generally eat plant based. The only reason it is not seen as a luxury in the western world is because we heavily subsidise it with taxpayer’s money. A full 63% of all food subsidies go to meat and dairy, compared to <1% towards fruits and vegetables. 62% of your average American farmer’s earnings come from the United States government, meaning people pay for less than half of the real terms cost of their meat. If full ecological costs -including fossil fuel use, groundwater depletion and agricultural-chemical pollution were factored in the price of meat would double or triple. The rest is paid for in tax dollars; this is the case in most western countries.
Health and cost are side-benefits rather than actual reasons to go vegan, given that veganism is an ethical position; however, both are worth discussing. It is often said that eating animals is a necessity, however, The National Health Service and the American Dietetic Association, both world health authorities, tell us that vegan diets are nutritionally adequate and healthy for all stages of life, including infancy. A growing body of research also suggests that a vegan diet appears to be useful for increasing the intake of protective nutrients and phytochemicals and for minimizing the intake of dietary factors implicated in several chronic diseases. Vegans also have lower serum cholesterol and blood pressure, have reduced rates of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and a substantially lower risk of cancer. Even when compared with other vegetarian diets, vegan diets tend to contain less saturated fat and cholesterol and more dietary fiber. This may be because vegans generally consume substantially high quantities of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, soy, and nuts, which are rich in fiber, folic acid, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, which are associated with lower blood cholesterol concentrations, a lower incidence of stroke, and a lower risk of mortality from stroke and ischemic heart disease. Current data also suggests that diets lower in meat consumption are also associated with greater longevity.
It is difficult to prove anything in nutrition however, and there may well be other factors involved to account for these benefits, such as vegans generally being more active and living healthier lifestyles. However, what is absolutely clear is that it is possible to be extremely healthy while consuming no animal products whatsoever. It is not just personal health we should be concerned with, since antibiotic resistant superbugs which could potentially cause a global health crisis are on the rise due to the fact that we feed half of our antibiotics to farmed animals. In addition to this, recent studies indicate that a global shift towards plant based eating could save somewhere in the range of 8 million lives and a trillion dollars due to health costs associated with the consumption of animal products alone.
In all my years of advocating and meeting other vegans, I always hear the same thing: “My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.” Veganism is good for the animals, good for the planet and good for you. Going vegan is one of the most profoundly and unequivocally positive decisions I have ever made, and it could be for you too if you are willing to give it a chance. There are many things about this lifestyle that are difficult, and there are things you will have to sacrifice, but no taste, no habit, no tradition, no item of clothing, no moment of pleasure is worth taking someone’s life for. So in the words of the poet and activist Benjamin Zephaniah, when people ask “why are you vegan?” perhaps the question should be: “Why aren’t you?”