It seems that the majority of people, even steak guzzling ones, understand why someone might become a vegetarian. Although most people don’t like to think about it, they know deep down that meat comes from the killing of animals, and let’s face it, that’s not too nice. If forced to contemplate it, most people can see that a select few find the deliberate terrifying of innocent animals, production line slaughter of those same sentient beings and then the consuming of their flesh to be somewhat less than appetising, or indeed moral. So far, so comprehensible. One in eight people are vegetarians in the UK, fact fans. In polite society, while vegetarians can be viewed as sensitive souls, vegans are often seen as odd or extremists, those who have taken the idea ‘too far.’
The three main reasons for becoming vegan tend to be 1) Health; 2) The Environment; 3) Animal welfare. Many people site all three as great reasons, although personally animal welfare comes top for me, with the other two being fabulous bonuses. I’ll go into detail about that later, but let’s go through the reasons for becoming a vegan in the order above.
Ok, starting with health, one of the things that surprised me when I went vegan was the amount of people who said ‘Well, there are all those elite athletes who are vegan, so there must be something in it.’ I admit I was pretty ignorant about that side of things at the beginning, but the more I looked into it, the more runners, body builders and tri-athletes I found who attributed much of their success to their vegan diet.( For example, the multi Grand Slam winning tennis playing sisters Venus and Serena Williams are both vegans.) I knew of celebrities who endorsed a vegan lifestyle, but I don’t generally turn to faddy Hollywood for health advice. Athletes are a better yardstick I’d say as their careers require them to be fit and healthy, not just thin. Many people cling onto the statistic that vegans tend to be about ten pounds lighter than non-vegans, but most sugar is vegan and take it from someone who knows, when you’re weaning yourself off cheese the sugar monster is ready in the wings to take its place in the unhealthy food fight. If you avoid processed food though, a vegan diet is about the best one you can get for your health.
Environmental issues are not just the concern of tree huggers. The animal agriculture industry is probably the most damaging contributing factor to the production of greenhouse gasses, deforestation and climate change. The recent documentary ‘Cowspiracy’ reveals this in chilling detail. So much land is cleared for grazing and so much methane is released into the atmosphere that it’s pretty hard to justify such a destructive business. Alternatives, like intensive factory farming are still damaging to the environment and the welfare levels for animals are utterly appalling. I’ve even seen cows being fitted with invasive devices, horrible open valves in their sides that supposedly sort out the methane problem. It seems cutting out meat from our diets or even cutting down on meat consumption are mad, extreme tactics compared to these other grotesque plans. The human population is growing, the land available to farm is shrinking and anyone who can put those two facts together will realise that if the world keeps consuming meat at the rate it does now, it won’t be long until the food wars break out.
Here is a fact. If everyone in the world stopped eating meat tomorrow, there would be nobody starving in the world. There’s a sobering thought for you. Did you know that most of the soy grown on earth is fed to farm animals? A staggering amount of grain is consumed by animals that are bred to be killed, when it could be going to feed people who don’t have enough to eat. I find it pretty shameful that just because rich countries have steak challenges in their restaurants and a McDonalds on every corner they force so many people in poor countries into starvation. A billion people go to bed each night with empty stomachs. Vegans get called weird all the time, but let me tell you, many vegans find it weird that meat-eaters are ok with what I’ve just told you.
So, onto animal welfare. It’s difficult to know where to begin with animal welfare. Non-human animals are used and abused in so many ways, not only because they are killed for their meat or skins but also because we put them in so many horrific situations in order to exploit them generally. When all is said and done, animals are alive and they see and hear and suffer, just like we do. It seems though, that people are content to think of farmed animals as alive in the same way a tree is alive. A tree doesn’t have a brain, or eyes, or ears or a heart that beats faster through panic when threatened. And you know that it’s a different thing to go at a tree with an axe than it is to go at a cow with an axe, don’t you? Animals feel fear, discomfort, pain: so why do we put them through these things? There is no moral justification to use and abuse animals in the way that we do, whether they’re on a farm, in a circus or at Seaworld. Check out the movie Blackfish.
It is wrong to hit an animal or confine one to a tiny cage or enclosure that sends them mad and causes them injury. Anyone who does that to a dog or cat here in the UK is shunned by decent people. Just because we don’t directly see the day to day cruelty that is inevitably involved in the commercialisation of animals, doesn’t mean it doesn’t go on. The only reason it does go on is because these abusers are making a fat profit from us, the consumer. If we eschew animal products, then we are going a long way to seeing an end to their suffering. If you vote with your feet, or should I say your wallet, then companies will listen. Factory farming only exists because there is a demand for cheap (and sometimes not so cheap) meat, dairy and eggs. It is up to us, the consumers, to decrease that demand, so that conditions can improve for the animals’ sake.
To produce meat, animals must be killed. That’s a no-brainer. Many feel that this is reason enough to give it up although some choose to kid themselves that ‘high welfare’ farms and ‘humane’ slaughterhouses are ok. I’ve seen enough undercover investigations of such places over the years to realise that that’s bunkum. Forget about ‘organic’ too. Organic meat has nothing whatsoever to do with the welfare of animals, it just means they won’t be given antibiotics if they develop infections.
To produce milk and all its derivatives (cheese, cream, butter etc.) requires a cow to be made pregnant. This is normally done artificially and then once her calf is born, he or she is cruelly dragged away from Mum after a day or so, and we humans start nicking the milk that was meant to feed her calf. As if this wasn’t traumatic enough, she is then often forced into a cramped area for milking until it dries up and then she’s made pregnant again. She will go through this process again and again until her body gives up producing milk at which time she will be shipped off to the meat industry for slaughter. If a cow produces a female calf, she is destined to follow the miserable life of her mother. If the calf is male however, he will be seen as a by-product. This means that if it’s uneconomical to send him to be made into soft leather shoes, or veal, he’ll probably just be shot on sight.
To produce eggs, hens are often kept in barns which are far too cramped to allow them to display any natural behaviour at all, like scratching around or even stretching their wings. Although many people realise battery cage eggs are unethical and avoid them, still more do not know of the hardships suffered even on free range farms. Female chicks are kept for egg laying, but most male chicks are killed, sometimes left in a bucket to die or put in a grinder while still alive. And once the hens’ laying days are over, it’s off on a truck to be turned into nuggets. On an environmental note, chickens and pigs are the largest consumers of fish in the world. They are fed way more than humans are. Check out TheBlackfish.org for more details.
I can’t put it more plainly: as soon as you put a price on what an animal can produce, cruelty and exploitation will follow. Become a vegan and you won’t be supporting any of that. Decreasing demand for cruel products is a very powerful way to help both animals and our environment. It can be a very healthy diet too so who knows, you may lose a few pounds as a cheeky bonus!