Most people hold the view that veganism is an unnecessary act of deprivation, as if vegans were fanatics only able to attain happiness by playing a game of dietary exclusion one-upmanship, and elitists critical of the rest of the world.
This view also seems to be widely held by many within animal welfare and conservation groups, so afraid the effect the dreaded “V-word” may have on the public that they do everything in their power to distance themselves from it.
But veganism matters. This is why:
Because the environment matters
The environmental crisis is one of the greatest threats to our survival, and a non-vegan diet is perhaps the single biggest contribution you can make towards perpetuating it.
The contribution of animal agriculture to this crisis is enormous: at 18% of all green house gas emissions, it is a larger contributor than the world’s entire transport network (every car, bus, plane and cargo ship). This alarming figure wasn’t the work of a granola-eating think tank; it comes from Livestock’s Long Shadow, a report from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation.
While the report's title is telling, this quote from its conclusion is more so:
The livestock sector is a major stressor on many ecosystems and on the planet as a whole. Globally, it is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses and one of the leading causal factors in the loss of biodiversity while in developed and emerging countries it is perhaps the leading source of water pollution.
In addition, huge areas of forest are felled (and their irreplaceable biodiversity lost) to make way for animal agriculture. In the past 25 years over 3.2 million square kilometres of forest, an area the size of India, has been cleared for this purpose.
Now before you start feeling good about yourself for shunning the evil factory farm and its devastating environmental practices, remember that free-range farming could be worse for the environment in many ways: consider, for instance, the larger areas needed to support free-range animals. Grass-fed cows may produce up to 50% more greenhouse gasses than those confined to feedlots.
With all this in mind and all the attention the environment and climate change gets in the media, is it starting to sink in that veganism matters? You can get rid of your old light bulbs, drive a Prius and install a solar geyser, but the single greatest thing you can do as an individual to lower your carbon footprint is to stop eating animal products.
Because there should be enough food for everybody
The ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa is once again highlighting the importance of food security on our planet; with increasing populations and dwindling resources, this is being brought sharply into focus.
Here too, veganism is important. A huge percentage of cereals grown are fed to livestock instead of to people; by 2050, that percentage will be 40-50%. It takes, on average, 8kg of feed for a cow to increase its body mass by 1kg. This means that instead of people eating grain, it’s being eaten by animals who are then eaten by people who can afford such luxuries as steak. It’s about as close as you can come to the rich taking the food out of the mouths of the poor.
There's actually enough food for all of us; there just isn’t enough for all of us and all the world’s livestock. A non-vegan diet contributes to global food shortages and perpetuates poor farming practices that hit the poorest hardest.
Because your health matters
Veganism has been endorsed by some of the world’s leading health bodies and, despite a lot of media bias and misunderstanding, vegans aren’t all pale, weedy or anaemic; some of them are tri-athletes and body builders.
Ask the World Health Organisation or the American Dietetic Association (ADA, the world’s largest organisation of nutrition experts) and they'll tell you veganism is an excellent diet. As the ADA puts it:
...appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.
Because being vegetarian isn’t enough
Vegetarianism as an ethical choice is fatally flawed because it decides which animals it is ethical to harm in order to eat, and which it is deplorable to harm in order to eat. For example, eating a chicken pie is deplorable, but eating an egg produced by a hen confined in horrible conditions its entire life is somehow not. A fun fact for vegetarians: many of the hens that make the eggs you eat will eventually be slaughtered and made into those deplorable chicken pies as soon as they are no longer able to lay.
The same connection can be made with the dairy industry, where vegetarians support the confinement and torment of cows for their milk.
Again, even if you are getting your eggs and milk from free-range sources, remember that in many parts of the world the term “free range” is only loosely statutorily defined, not defined at all, or determined by industry self-regulation (shiver).
Being vegetarian is an excellent step but it simply cannot be a goal.
If you think the environment, food security or your health matter, then you must make veganism your baseline. Free range and others are a stop-gap that do more to ease your conscience than address any of the issues raised above.
Don’t buy into the greenwash, or the idea that you are just one person who cannot change anything. Your dietary choices are probably one of the most profound statements you can make against what you know to be intrinsically wrong.
This is why veganism matters.
- Adapted for Health24, November 2011, by Olivia Rose-Innes, from Why veganism matters, by Matthew Clayton. Get the full original text and references here.