Why Choose Vegan? The Top Reasons Explained
By Erik Marcus
Last Updated: August 24, 2018
The elevator pitch for why people choose vegan diets crams several compelling points into just a few seconds, and goes something like this:
A vegan lifestyle prevents a tremendous amount of animal slaughter and suffering. It offers a potent way to shrink our environmental footprint, especially in regard to climate change. And a well-planned vegan diet can fuel the highest levels of fitness, while reducing our risk of various chronic diseases. Plus, the food is insanely delicious and it becomes more widely available every year.
A short paragraph like the above is great, so far as it goes, but it doesn’t begin to do the subject justice. Indeed, getting up to speed on every important issue pertaining to veganism would require months and months of reading. You’d have to explore topics like plant-based nutrition, animal rights philosophy, the exploitation of slaughterhouse workers, as well as the damage the meat industry inflicts on human health and the environment. There are a dozen other relevant subjects I could also mention, but you get the idea.
That said, you have to start somewhere, and just a little reading can deliver an enormous payoff. So what I’ve set out to do here is to present the truly essential material in an essay you can finish in less than an hour. I’m confident that the information covered here will inspire you to continue learning about the subject. I doubt you can find a topic more worthy of your attention. There is so much to learn about the benefits that arise from cutting animal products out of your life—all of it interesting and of profound importance.
You can view a vegan diet either in terms of what it excludes or what it includes. Vegan diets exclude all foods produced by or derived from animals: meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, and honey. Alternately, another way to look at veganism is that it’s a manner of eating that is based entirely on plants.
Many vegans go beyond diet to exclude animal use from every aspect of their lifestyle. They’ll avoid clothing made of wool, won’t buy a leather sofa, and they’ll often refuse to purchase cosmetics that were tested on animals or that contain animal ingredients. While there are excellent reasons to take steps like these, in order to keep this essay short I’ll be focusing entirely on food.
Millions of people who have carefully examined the issue have decided that a vegan diet is the best way to go. But even if you decide a vegan diet isn’t for you, I’m confident that you’ll emerge from reading this essay sold on the benefits of shifting your diet primarily to plant-based foods. Why am I so sure? Because the reasons for going at least mostly plant-based are so overwhelming that there really aren’t any credible counter-arguments. That may explain why the most prominent food politics writers of our time—including Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Eric Schlosser—advocate a diet based heavily on plants.
Plant-based diets deliver many of the benefits of being vegan while requiring only the slightest effort. Since you haven’t committed to being 100 percent anything, there’s no reason to worry that you’ll cheat, slip, or screw up. You can follow a plant-based diet and still eat Thanksgiving turkey or a summer barbecue. If being 100 percent vegan is something you commit to, being plant-based is more something you lean into.
Maybe the best thing about the plant-based concept is that it often sets in motion a “virtuous cycle,” where one positive change leads to another and then to another. When you regularly try new vegan foods, your favorites tend to automatically become part of your everyday diet. So as time goes by, your diet will likely move in a vegan direction without any concerted effort on your part. Plenty of current vegans got there by gradually sliding down the plant-based slope. After a while spent eating more and more plant-based foods, they realized that they were just a few small and easy steps away from becoming totally vegan.
There are a number of cute and helpful neologisms attached to the plant-based camp: reducetarian, flexitarian, chegan, plant-strong, and even veganish. If any of these terms resonates with you, just grab ahold of it and start thinking in those terms as you begin trying more vegetarian and vegan meals.
Additionally, there are a number of other concepts you might find helpful, including: Meatless Mondays, Mark Bittman’s Vegan Before 6 plan, or taking an entirely vegan diet out for a 21-day test drive. All of these possibilities lead to significant change while imposing zero stress since none of them demands lifelong perfection.
Of the many reasons to go plant-based, perhaps the best of all is that there’s no good reason not to. In all my years writing about food politics, I’ve never once seen anyone (other than a few paleo diet fanatics) make a serious attempt to argue against eating mostly plants, since the advantages are undeniable. Dozens and dozens of studies show that eating more fruits and vegetables can dramatically decrease rates of cancer, diabetes, and circulatory disease. And of course, shifting your diet to include more plants keeps farm animals from being killed, while simultaneously reducing your impact on the environment.
In addition to the personal benefits you may experience on a plant-based diet, there are substantial benefits to society as well. That’s because large industrialized meat and dairy farms burden the public with all sorts of hidden health costs. One of the greatest of these relates to antibiotic resistance. Somehow, in cooperation with the pharmaceutical industry, the meat industry has for decades gotten away with using staggering amounts of antibiotics. While a small portion of these important antibiotics are administered to farm animals in order to treat severe infections, the overwhelming majority are given to healthy animals in order to boost growth and to prevent disease.
In the United States, farm animals are responsible for something like 70 percent of all antibiotic use, a number that has been on the rise for years.1 Worldwide, the meat and dairy industries combine to use more than 100,000 tons of antibiotics per year.2 Many of these antibiotics, like penicillin and tetracyclines, have irreplaceable uses in human medicine. Confining thousands of animals in the same shed and constantly pumping them full of these important drugs leads to increased microbial resistance, making these antibiotics less useful for humans down the road. It’s of course exceedingly difficult to definitively pin the emergence of a lethal antibiotic-resistant class of microbes on a specific animal farm, but there’s no legitimate doubt that animal agriculture is one of the main culprits behind the emergence of deadly antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria like the MRSA superbug.
Tragically, lobbyists from the meat and pharmaceutical industries have long stymied efforts to rein in the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. So refusing to purchase meats that are produced using antibiotics remains perhaps our most effective way to avoid contributing to the problem of antibiotic resistance.
Why Go Beyond Plant-Based?
Now that we’ve covered the benefits of eating mostly plant-based foods, let’s consider the advantages of going further and becoming vegan. The key question here is: what does a vegan diet give you that a plant-based diet can’t?
It turns out that going vegan has several advantages no other diet can match. If you find yourself swayed by the arguments for moving in a plant-based direction, you should know that most of those arguments apply even more forcefully to becoming vegan. Perhaps the greatest thing about being vegan is that it slams the door shut on so many disagreeable things, especially where animal suffering is concerned.
If you are troubled by the thought of animal abuse and slaughter, only a vegan diet can eliminate every last bit of it. It may seem counterintuitive, but the milk and egg industries are as tied to animal slaughter as the meat industries. In fact, the only difference between these industries is that meat comes from animals who have been killed, whereas milk and eggs come from animals who will be killed, guaranteed.
It’s obvious why farm animals must be slaughtered if they are to be turned into meat, but why must dairy cows and layer hens also be killed? It’s because, as cows and hens age, their production of milk and eggs sharply diminishes. At roughly a quarter of their natural lifespan, yields have so sharply declined that these animals are no longer sufficiently profitable. They’re sent to slaughter and replaced with younger, more productive ones. In addition, dairy cows are impregnated annually in order to maximize milk production. This means that millions of baby calves are born each year, simply as a byproduct of the dairy industry. Many of these calves, and the vast majority of the males, are slaughtered when they are only days or weeks old.
Slaughter is gory and disturbing to witness. Most animals are “stunned” before slaughter, and the methods used for stunning can be as troubling to watch as the slaughter itself. The most common stunning method for cattle and pigs involves a “captive bolt” pistol that rams a rod through the animal’s forehead. The resultant brain injury, while massive, is not designed to immediately kill the animal, since the heart needs to keep beating to pump out blood after the throat is cut. There are other stunning methods as well, each flawed and troubling in their own way. Electric shocks are often used to stun chickens and pigs. These shocks are doubtless painful, and it’s difficult to calibrate these devices so that every animal will be rendered unconscious yet not outright killed. Some pigs are stunned with carbon dioxide, which causes the animals severe distress, and is profoundly disturbing to watch.
For kosher and halal meat, the animals are not stunned because they must bleed to death while still conscious. This opens the door to all sorts of deeply disturbing slaughterhouse practices, as one investigationafter another has revealed.
As unsettling as slaughter may be to contemplate, it’s only the starting point for becoming acquainted with the ethical issues surrounding the raising of animals. It’s probable that most of the suffering and cruelty tied to the meat, dairy, and egg industries arises from how the animals are raised rather than how they are killed. I know that thinking about animal suffering is extraordinarily unpleasant, and it’s only natural to want to turn away from hearing the gory details. If you find yourself especially troubled by having to listen to this awful stuff, perhaps that right there is the best reason of all to move towards a vegan diet.
As we’re about to see, if you were handed gobs of money and ordered to torment billions upon billions of animals in a multitude of ways, you could hardly devise a more ruthlessly efficient system to accomplish this goal than modern-day factory farming. Each year, about 50 billion farm animals are subjected to factory farm conditions.3 Let’s now look at what they face.
Farm Animals & Factory Farming
Animal advocates use the term, “factory farming” to refer to the dominant methods of animal farming used in industrialized countries. There are of course huge differences between how cattle, pigs, and poultry are kept, but all of these animals are commonly raised at factory farms.
Prior to World War II, most farm animals lived under comparatively good conditions on small, family-owned farms. These animals were generally given plenty of space, and they could typically venture outdoors when desired. So, by any standard they had the makings of a decent life even if this life was destined to be violently cut short. Farmers of that era didn’t necessarily supply the animals with satisfactory living conditions out of the goodness of their hearts, they did it because mortality rates would be unprofitably high if their animals’ basic living needs weren’t met.4
The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era saw massive changes in America’s system of agriculture, and many of these changes were pioneered by the country’s land grant colleges. Starting in the 1920s, agriculture colleges at these state universities began teaching farming with the same rigor applied to any other academic discipline. And as a new generation of farmers became exposed to disciplines like chemistry and biology, everything about plant and animal farming changed.
The petrochemical-based “Green Revolution” that occurred between the 1930s and 1960s boosted crop yields, arguably raising standards of living worldwide while averting numerous famines. But within animal agriculture, the introduction of factory farming methods proved catastrophic in terms of increasing animal suffering to unconscionable extremes.
Adjusted for inflation, the price of animal products dropped significantly thanks to the efficiencies gained through factory farming. This gave rise to people eating more meat, milk, and eggs than ever before—while animal welfare standards were simultaneously collapsing.
Today, the industry’s competitive pressures have become so overwhelming that no opportunity to cut costs can be ignored, and many of these cost-cutting measures are tremendously cruel. The dairy industry offers a good example of the relentless financial pressure that animal farmers face. Beginning in 2013, dairies throughout the Northeast U.S. lost money four years in a row, with milk prices coming in well below production costs. Over that period, one regional dairy cooperative sent out suicide prevention letters after two of its members killed themselves.5
The most obvious component of factory farming pertains to the extreme crowding it imposes onto animals. This is especially true in the egg industry. In countries and states that haven’t yet outlawed the practice, egg farmers keep their hens in “battery cages,” where each hen has less floor space than a sheet of copy paper. On top of that, these hens spend their entire lives standing on wire-bottomed cages. Predictably, the wire wears away their skin and leads to sores and bruises. The birds sleep while being pressed against the cage and literally never have a moment of comfort.
Living conditions are scarcely any better for pigs, especially females used for breeding. These sows often spend their entire lives in gestation and farrowing crates where they don’t even have sufficient space to turn around. Pig urine is especially noxious since the vapors are full of ammonia. In crowded indoor pig farms, the air quality is so poor that not only do the pigs commonly develop lung lesions, and not only do workers have higher rates of respiratory problems, but even people living on neighboring properties show declines in lung function.6
Whether in person or in movies, we’ve all seen dairy and beef cattle grazing scenic hillsides. Cattle are the only farm animals that, even when raised under standard farming practices, often get the chance to be outdoors in good conditions. But even this, when it happens, is only temporary. Cattle raised for beef are invariably “finished” at feedlots, where they spend the final few months of their lives crowded onto filthy, barren plots of land. One such feedlot is the notorious Harris Ranch that’s adjacent to the Interstate 5 corridor of California. Having driven this highway countless times, I have often smelled the stench of the feedlot several kilometers before reaching it. The feedlot covers hundreds of acres, with seemingly every square meter crammed with animals amassed on black manure-coated earth. If you’ve seen one feedlot you’ve seen them all. Any large feedlot is basically indistinguishable from what you can see at Harris Ranch.
Conditions are just as bad, and nearly identical, at many dairy farms. The industry calls the most crowded of these places “dry lot” facilities. Some of these places look indistinguishable from feedlots—the easiest way for an untrained observer to spot the difference is to look at the animals: most dairy cows have spotted coats whereas beef cattle are usually solid dark brown. As with beef cattle at feedlots, many dairy cows have no opportunity to graze and are instead fed silage out of troughs. Twice a day, they’re hooked up to milking machines.
Just as bullying and violence pervades poorly run schools and prisons, the same is true at factory farms. The worse the crowding, the more violence occurs—and since factory farms are unspeakably crowded the animals inevitably take their frustrations out on one another. The problem goes away if you remove stresses and provide adequate living space, but factory farms have found that the infliction of various mutilations can keep animals from injuring one another at a much lower financial cost.
Pigs raised in overcrowded conditions are apt to bite one another’s tails. At factory farms, newborn piglets therefore get their tails cut off and their “needle teeth” clipped.
Hens crowded into battery cages can peck each other to death, so egg producers use a hot blade to sear off the pointy final third of their beaks—rendering it unlikely that a peck can draw blood. While a beak may appear woody on the outside, the hen’s mouth is inside and full of nerve endings. So, the reality is that beak searing is a partial (and no doubt excruciatingly painful) amputation of the bird’s mouth.
Unlike pigs and chickens, cows don’t commonly attack one another when subjected to stress. But in overcrowded conditions, their horns are a threat to workers and each other, so they’re painfully amputated or sawed off. When beef cattle are dehorned they are also branded in order to deter theft. Dairy cows’ tails are usually amputated so that they don’t interfere with the milking machines. That leaves the cows with no way to shoo away flies, which are often legion at dairies and a constant source of misery.
Nearly every male calf and piglet is castrated in order to improve meat quality. I’ll spare you the details of how this is done, but interested readers can follow read this article or watch this video.
All of the mutilations I’ve mentioned here, including castration, are commonly inflicted without anesthesia. A local anesthetic would greatly reduce pain, but factory farm owners regard even the cheapest analgesics as prohibitively expensive.
Even when raised under good conditions, many farm animals still suffer from a number of painful health problems. That’s because decades of selective breeding have been carried out to boost growth rates and productivity of poultry cattle, and pigs. These breeding advances have made animal agribusiness more efficient and productive, but the animals have paid a terrible price.
No animal has been revved up more than chickens, and none suffers more as a result. Chickens raised for meat grow more than four times faster than birds raised in the 1950s.7 This rapid growth puts a severe strain on the birds’ cardiovascular system, and up to 4 percent of birds die from “sudden death syndrome.”8 In their brief lives, many of these chickens also suffer from debilitating leg problems brought on by their rapid growth rates. One large study found that more than 25 percent of chickens had trouble moving, with nearly 4 percent, “almost unable to walk.”9 At farms that raise chickens for meat, it is not uncommon to find birds whose immature legs have collapsed under them. Unable to walk to food or water, they will die of thirst or starve to death. No one will notice their plight or take care of them, because the birds are so cheap that it doesn’t pay to do so.
Just like every human pregnancy carries risk, complications can arise every time a hen lays an egg. So the more eggs a hen is bred to lay, the greater the chances that something will go wrong. What often happens is what farmers call a “prolapse.” Here, the egg becomes stuck to the hen’s internal organs. When the egg is laid, the organs can be pushed out along with the egg. Obviously, unless prompt veterinary care is provided, infection will set in and the bird will die. Since the requisite veterinary care would cost at least twenty times the value of a replacement hen, it’s fair to say that none of these afflicted birds get the treatment they need to survive. In typical egg-laying sheds that house tens of thousands of hens, it is unlikely they will be noticed at all. Nearly all hens afflicted with a severe prolapse will suffer a lingering death from blood loss or infection. In many cases, as they take their dying breaths, they’ll endure being stepped on by cage-mates as they’re pressed into the wire cage floor. In the United States alone, millions of hens each year die in this manner as a result of prolapses and other conditions.10
Dairy cows are as victimized by selective breeding as are chickens. Today’s cows may look the same as yesterday’s, but they produce over four times more milk per animal than did cows from 1950.11 There are many health problems attributable to these extreme milk yields, the most common of which is an inflammation of the udders, which is generally accompanied by infection. In cows with infected udders, the number of somatic cells in the milk goes way up. Laypeople have a less fancy word for “somatic cells.” That word is “pus.”
Thanks to their massive milk yields, at least some degree of udder inflammation and subclinical infection is widespread among modern dairy cows. So if you want milk that lacks even a droplet of pus, you need to choose soy milk or any other variety of vegan milk.
Undercover Farming Videos
After having written two books devoted largely to investigating farm animal welfare, I don’t think words can do justice to the topic. You really must see large-scale animal farming facilities for yourself to truly grasp what the animals experience. Of course, factory farm owners have no desire for the public to witness what’s going on, so most of these places forbid visitors. Thankfully, there are people like my friend Cody Carlson.
Cody switched to a vegan diet at age nineteen, and a few years later, he took a job at a large dairy farm in Upstate New York. He worked there for a month, then left to work in a pig-breeding facility in Pennsylvania. After that gig ended, he got jobs at two different egg farms. Cody’s choice of diet was not the only thing that set him apart from his coworkers. The other difference was that, each day when Cody arrived at the job, he was carrying a hidden camera.
What happens when you take people who lack decent employment opportunities, pay them a pittance, and put them in stressful work environments with minimal supervision? All too often, they take out their frustrations on the animals. The atrocities that investigators like Cody have uncovered at factory farms are endless. I’ve seen videos showing turkeys being sexually violated. I’ve seen mother cows punched in the face. I’ve seen sheep kicked, thrown against walls, and laughed at while bleeding to death. I’ve even seen a worker strike a defenseless calf between the eyes with a pickaxe—on the orders of his boss. And all of this barely touches on the things that I’ve seen. I could go on and on with more examples.
No doubt there are few jobs as traumatizing as that of an undercover animal cruelty investigator, but many activists have stepped up to do this work. They’ve collectively shot hidden-camera videos at every sort of farm animal operation imaginable, from chicken hatcheries to cattle feedlots to pig farms. Still other undercover investigators have taken jobs at the slaughterhouses that process chickens, pigs, and cattle. No matter where these investigators show up, staggering cruelties reveal themselves.
Thanks to YouTube, anyone who wants to see first-hand how farm animals are treated can choose from a vast assortment of undercover videos. In one video after another, you’ll see shocking degrees of confinement, appalling conditions, and sadistic behavior by workers.
Typically, whenever a new video goes public, the company that was investigated makes a show of firing the workers who were caught on camera abusing animals. While these firings are invariably well-deserved, they also serve as a distraction that keeps owners and management from receiving their share of the blame. The root of the problem, after all, isn’t with any individual worker—it’s with an industry run by people who find it acceptable to inflict unfathomable amounts of suffering onto animals for the sake of cutting costs.
All the Edges Rough
No matter where you look within factory farming, most of the abuses you encounter can be traced back to the industry’s drive to cram as many animals into as little space as possible, while cutting all expenses to the absolute minimum. This plays out in all sorts of distressing ways, but it consistently means that, no matter where in the system an animal may be, agonies and discomforts suffuse every moment and never once ease up. There is not one softer corner, nothing without an edge, no flicker of respite. Anything decent or worthwhile was squeezed out decades ago in the pursuit of profit.
You can find dozens of separate sources of misery within factory farming. Wherever you choose to look, a fresh hell opens up. I will now point the flashlight at just three places, each one deserving a lengthy book chapter of its own.
There are specialized facilities called hatcheries that exist exclusively to provide the billions of chicks the poultry industry uses each year. At hatcheries servicing the egg industry, for every female chick produced, an unwanted male chick is also generated. At some of these hatcheries the male chicks are tossed into garbage cans and left to smother, while at others the chicks are promptly ground up alive. In the United States alone, 200 million unwanted male chicks a year die at hatcheries within just a day or so of emerging from their eggs.
Buildings that house cows, pigs, or poultry are virtually never equipped with fire sprinklers, and often go up in flames. Thousands of animals can be incinerated in one fire, with fatalities at poultry facilities often numbering in the tens of thousands for a single incident. Since the year 2000, fires have killed more than 4.5 million chickens or turkeys, 220,000 pigs, and nearly 12,000 dairy cows, beef cattle, or calves.12
On the truck to slaughter, during hard braking or sharp turns, animals are commonly knocked off their feet and badly injured. Pigs and cattle who arrive at the slaughterhouse unable to walk are often abandoned to die from thirst. There’s no financial reason to give them attention, since animals too sick or injured to stand up cannot legally be sold for human food. In the United States alone, hundreds of thousands of “downer” cattle and pigs arrive at slaughterhouses each year.13 Sometimes they linger untended for days before dying.
There’s no room here to address dozens of other comparably important topics. No room to talk about what the animals can see coming as they look down the slaughter line. No room to linger on the experiences of the the dairy cows who get their babies taken away just a day or two after birth. No room to talk about the millions of birds and cattle who have been buried alive in open pits during disease outbreaks. No room to talk about all the runt piglets who have heads slammed into concrete because they’re not growing at profitable rates. Factory farming is a bottomless horror, no matter where you choose to look.
Why Not Just Avoid Factory Farmed Foods?
Unless the animal products you buy are specifically labeled to the contrary, you can assume they’ve been produced using gratuitously cruel factory farming methods. But there is also, of course, a growing industry catering to omnivores who are seeking foods produced with higher animal welfare standards. You can find these specially-labeled foods at natural foods stores and supermarkets, and many small-scale producers rent stalls at local farmers’ markets.
At their best, alternative farms deliver genuine improvements over factory farms by refusing to partake in many cruel practices, particularly with regard to confinement and crowding. And with this reduced crowding, the incentive to perform mutilations like beak searing and tail-clipping can be eliminated, since the animals are far less likely to attack one another.
Unfortunately, the substantial price premium these higher welfare foods command can exert an overpowering temptation on producers to cheat. All too often, animal welfare claims are misleading or grossly exaggerated. Just like at factory farms, every alternative producer faces the strongest financial temptation to push limits. Since the costs of delivering genuinely good animal welfare are so high, there are always farmers willing to cut corners.
The reality is that some so-called “organic” farms are factory farms in every sense of the word, apart from their use of higher quality animal feed and a refusal to use antibiotics. At one point, several of America’s largest “organic” dairies exploited a regulatory loophole that allowed them to keep their cows confined indoors 310 days out of every year. In late 2017, the Trump administration threw out regulations that had required organic poultry and livestock producers to provide their animals sufficient space to spread their wings or turn around.
In order to inject some level of certainty into this field, top food service companies and groceries have implemented a variety of animal welfare certification programs. Much like hotels are rated from one to five stars, one leading program offers five different tiers of animal welfare. That way, at least in theory, the consumer can decide for herself which practices are acceptable, and choose products accordingly. But everything hinges on the expectation that participants will faithfully live up to their claims, and that the certification agency is adequately monitoring conditions at each participating farm. It’s fair to say that such monitoring is expensive, occasional, and unreliable.
Alternately, you can do your own monitoring, by forming a relationship with the sellers of meat, dairy products, and eggs at your local farmers’ market, and visiting their farms personally to check up on conditions. Me, I have better things to do with my time than to spend my precious afternoons driving out to distant farms to verify standards of animal care, and maybe you feel the same way. Much easier, I think, to simply avoid foods where abuses of consumer trust and animal welfare are commonplace. In this respect, laziness surely ranks as one of the strongest yet most underappreciated reasons to consider a vegan diet. You have to ask yourself: are animal products really so special that they’re worth investing so much time and money to reduce the likelihood of abuse, when there is so much delicious high-quality vegan food available for a fraction of the price?
And anyway, no matter how assiduously you devote yourself to buying the highest-quality animal products, there remain plenty of problems either unaddressed or unaddressable. For instance, even the highest welfare producers still kill their dairy cows and layer hens well before midlife, as their yields decline. Additionally, practically none of these farms use heirloom breeds, so the animals suffer the very same productivity-related health problems as their factory-farmed counterparts. On top of everything else, few meat farmers are legally allowed to slaughter their animals, so in many cases their animals are transported to the very same slaughterhouses that kill factory farmed animals.
In short: the more you care about sourcing animal products from only the most conscientious producers, the messier and more unsatisfying your task becomes.
Animal Welfare & Animal Rights
Now that we’ve gotten a sense of the suffering that occurs whenever animals are raised for food, let’s turn to some ways to productively think about what we’ve learned. The two foundational concepts of the animal protection movement—animal welfare and animal rights—can offer some powerful insights.
Let’s start with animal welfare, a concept so simple and aligned with basic decency that it is impossible to seriously oppose. Animal welfare’s core message is: if you’re going to use animals for food, cosmetics, or whatever, the very least you can do is to make sure that the animals don’t suffer needlessly. As we’ve seen, that’s much easier said than done. A great deal of the suffering intrinsic to animal use is expensive and difficult to remove. And we are generally stuck relying on the good faith and integrity of the person raising the animals to ensure that welfare promises are kept.
Once someone begins to pay attention to animal welfare, some degree of dietary change is generally inevitable. Nearly everyone who engages with the topic ends up eating far fewer foods of animal origin, since that’s the easiest and most reliable way to cut out cruelty. The most inhumane foods, such as eggs from caged hens, are often eliminated and replaced with higher-welfare alternatives. Prolonged consideration given to animal welfare also leads many to decide they can’t make peace with animal slaughter, even if excellent animal welfare could somehow be guaranteed. And if you decide you’re not OK with animal slaughter, that closes the door on eating not just meat, but eggs and dairy products as well.
But animal welfare is only one approach to thinking seriously about the ethics of eating. The most challenging ideas offered by the animal protection movement relate not to animal welfare, but to animal rights. Here, the core assertion is that animals are emphatically not ours to use however we wish, with our only duty to spare them whatever miseries we can easily prevent. Instead animal rights philosophy asserts that animals have interests of their own, which are potentially unethical to violate regardless of whether good welfare standards are maintained.
There are several widely-used arguments within animal rights philosophy. The most common pertains to the word speciesism. To engage in speciesism is to exploit animals purely on the basis of what species they happen to belong to, without regard for their ability to think, feel, or suffer. Speciesism is fundamentally irrational, and yet once you start looking for it you can see it everywhere. Perhaps the most obvious example relates to the fact that by all accounts pigs are more intelligent than dogs, and yet suffer a variety of torments in agriculture that would get the perpetrators jailed if they treated a dog in the same manner.
It doesn’t take much contemplation to recognize that speciesism is cut from the same cloth as other forms of oppression: racism, sexism, classism, and so forth. All of these “isms” violate an individual’s liberties on grounds that are fundamentally arbitrary. The only thing that sets speciesism apart from the others is that it leads to the oppression of animals rather than humans.
Going a little deeper, one point often made within animal rights philosophy is that, just as each of us has our own biography, and personally experiences our own unique “subject of a life,” the same is true for animals. That is, they’ve got their one incarnation that, like ours, is filled with experiences related to eating, family, and companionship. And while those experiences plainly differ from the experiences we have as humans, it’s not within our rights to cut these lives short.
It’s useful to now ask: why is murder the most severely punished of all crimes? When you cut short someone’s life, that bell cannot be unrung. The victim is forever denied the experiences she would have otherwise had, and nothing can ever set things right. Certainly, the underlying reason for punishing murder so sternly gives us reason to think carefully about the ethics of cutting short an animal’s life, no matter how humanely the slaughter may be achieved.
Maybe there’s something to the idea of looking at a pig or chicken and deciding, “It may not be much of a life, but it’s all they’ve got—and it isn’t ours to take.”
There is one final approach to thinking about animal rights that is worthy of careful consideration: the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, which Peter Singer incorporated into his 1975 classic, Animal Liberation. The central idea of utilitarianism is to evaluate a given situation so that the greatest good is enjoyed by all parties. As a simplistic example, it is far better for ten people to each receive one sandwich, than it is for one person to get ten sandwiches, while the remaining nine people go hungry. Sure, the one guy at the top might get a little more joy by being handed ten sandwiches instead of one, but total joy is maximized when everybody gets a sandwich. Utilitarianism is based on the idea that morality accompanies the maximization of joy and the minimization of suffering.
Much like we’ve just seen with our sandwich example, our use of animals carries a strong utilitarian component. We can acknowledge, for instance, that putting pepperoni on pizza tastes good, and that there is added joy that comes with being able to order your pizza with pepperoni. But on the other side of the ledger are the torments the pig suffered to produce that pepperoni. In many cases like these, a careful observer will agree that the animal suffering arising from the production of a given food is massive when set against the joy gained by its consumption, which may be comparatively trivial. In a world where vegan meats, dairy products, and eggs become better and more widely available every year, the argument that non-vegan foods deliver irreplaceable pleasures is increasingly difficult to entertain.
Utilitarian thinking applies not just to food, but to every animal product from cosmetics to fur to leather. And while it’s obviously not possible to calculate joy vs. suffering with the precision of crunching numbers on a spreadsheet, utilitarianism nevertheless offers perhaps the most helpful framework available for evaluating the ethics of animal use.
While nothing can ever guarantee a long and healthy life, a well-planned vegan diet can improve your odds. One reason for this is obvious: a vegan diet eliminates all consumption of a number of unhealthful foods, including red meat and cured meats—both of which are strongly linked to colon cancer.14
Vegans usually eat significantly more vegetables and fruits than the general population. Studies have consistently shown that diets rich in these foods are associated with better health.15 Research also suggests that vegans have a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes.16 This reduced risk is partly due to the fact that vegans tend to be leaner and much less prone to obesity than the general population, but this isn’t the whole explanation. Additional benefits probably arise from low saturated fat intake and from the healthful compounds in plant foods.
A surprisingly large number of vegans will tell you that quitting dairy changed their lives. Milk products have been implicated in all sorts of chronic health ailments, from nasal congestion to acne to migraines to digestive problems. Many people suffer from these conditions for decades, yet never suspect that dairy products are to blame. I can personally attest to the health benefits that can accompany going dairy-free, having seen my lifelong severe nasal congestion vanish forever once I cut milk products from my diet. With all this in mind, I think that even if a vegan lifestyle isn’t of interest, it’s still worth going dairy-free for a couple of weeks given the potential rewards.
Some people fret that a vegan diet might be incompatible with serious athletic training, but these worries are easily dismissed. A well-planned vegan diet can in fact support the highest levels of fitness. Both Rich Roll and Scott Jurek, two of the world’s most acclaimed ultra-endurance athletes, are long-time vegans. In 2017, eleven members of the Tennessee Titans switched to a vegan diet, and the team made it to the NFL playoffs.
Written by Frances Moore Lappé all the way back in 1971, Diet for a Small Planet was the most influential book on food politics of its generation. The book awakened the public to the merits of eating lower on the food chain. That means basing your diet directly on plants, rather than on animals who in turn eat plants. In Diet for a Small Planet, Lappé demonstrated how plant-based diets shrink your environmental footprint in several important ways.
Why, environmentally speaking, does eating lower on the food chain have such a profound effect? It’s primarily because when food is cycled through animals instead of being fed directly to people, you end up with mountains of manure. This manure represents a tremendous amount of protein, calories, and nutrients that have gone to waste. All too often, this manure taints local water supplies and regional ecosystems. The Gulf of Mexico contains a dead zone averaging more than 15,000 square kilometers, that has primarily been caused by runoff from factory farms and from crops grown for animal feed.17
The environmental problems linked to animal waste are so widespread because, contrary to popular belief, only a tiny percentage of manure is used productively as fertilizer. Its high water content makes manure too expensive to truck to distant farmlands where it would be valuable fertilizer. Instead, animal waste tends to be treated minimally and then sprayed onto neighboring fields, ultimately fouling local waterways and causing severe environmental damage wherever it is allowed to accumulate.
Of all the environmental reasons to embrace a plant-based diet, the strongest did not become apparent until several decades after the publication of Diet for a Small Planet. As once-hypothetical worries of climate change evolved into a serious threat in the 2000s, researchers discovered that animal agriculture is a leading source of atmospheric greenhouse gases.
Given their gentle dispositions, it may seem absurd that cows, pigs, and chickens could possibly surpass automobiles as a driver of climate change. But the 55 billion farm animals raised each year collectively spew massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere. And when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere, methane is roughly seven times more potent than an equal quantity of carbon dioxide.
Estimates vary about the exact percentage of climate change attributable to animal agriculture, but a comprehensive United Nations study pegged the industry’s contribution to the problem at about 14.5 percent.18 That figure is for livestock only, and doesn’t include the far smaller but still massive methane contribution of the poultry industry.
Now, it’s important to acknowledge that greater efficiencies in livestock production have caused emissions per animal to decline somewhat over time. But regardless, by all accounts, animal agriculture remains one of the top sources of greenhouse gases, and it is one of the easiest to eliminate. Society can’t do without motor vehicles and we don’t yet have the ability to affordably switch electricity generation worldwide to clean energy sources. Eliminating animal products from our diet, by contrast, saves money, and is also likely to reduce health care costs. Given the severity of the threat that climate change poses to humanity and wildlife alike, diet deserves to be acknowledged as probably the most effective way for most of us to protect the environment.
A Word About Seafood
Most writing about animal rights and vegetarian lifestyles either glosses over the issues related to seafood or ignores the topic outright. That’s probably because fish are, by any standard, very different from the cows, pigs, and birds that people eat. Given their scales and their oddly shaped eyes, and the fact that they live out their lives out of sight of people, it’s harder to extend empathy to fish than it is to other animals.
But the reasons to avoid seafood are nevertheless compelling. Studies definitively prove that fish are indeed capable of suffering, both when hooked through the mouth and when suffocating after being pulled from the water.19 And there is overwhelming evidence that the fishing industry, both farmed and wild-caught, is among the world’s greatest environmental menaces.
What’s more, the crowding and welfare standards at fish farms are every bit as deplorable as at any factory farm. Antibiotics are often used in massive quantities, with many fish plagued by gruesome parasites including “sea lice.” Deformities and even deafness among farmed salmon are widespread. Perhaps most disturbing, farmed fish routinely escape into the ocean where they can breed with wild fish, causing unpredictable but potentially ruinous consequences to the gene pool.
The worldwide appetite for fish is insatiable, and the amount of seafood taken daily from the world’s oceans, rivers, and lakes has more than tripled since 1960.20 As a result, fish populations around the world are in steep decline.21 There simply isn’t enough fish to go around, and in some parts of the world, populations are utterly dependent on fish for survival. So a strong case can be made that seafood, if it is to be eaten, ought to be reserved for people who would face hunger without it.
If regulating farm animal welfare is burdensome, imagine how difficult it is to prevent abuses by fishing boats that carry out their work far out of sight of land. Fishing boats commonly switch off their electronic tracking equipment in order to fish in protected waters and to evade the enforcement of catch limits.22 In many cases, overfishing has already led to environmental catastrophe. One prime example involves the coastline of Newfoundland, which was once among the world’s most abundant cod fisheries. Overfishing so ravaged the ecosystem that the cod have forever vanished, replaced by scavenger species like crab and lobster.
One of the great unacknowledged costs of the world’s fishing fleet involves the inadvertent but massive slaughter of wildlife and unwanted fish species. At any given moment, there are thousands of miles of nets being pulled through the sea, ensnaring every animal in their path. Countless dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, and seabirds suffocate in these nets, and are dumped overboard dead after being emptied onto the decks of fishing boats. The problem of non-targeted species being killed by the fishing industry is known as bycatch. The shrimp industry in particular is notorious for its bycatch—four to six kilograms of non-targeted marine life can be killed for every kilogram of shrimp scooped up by nets.23
For most people moving gradually towards a vegetarian diet, seafood is the very last food they’ll stop eating. But a close look at the topic offers strong arguments that fish deserves to be among the very first foods eliminated rather than the last. This is especially true for crabs and lobsters, since these animals are generally killed by being dropped fully conscious into boiling water. By all evidence available, being boiled alive is an excruciating ordeal that’s indefensible to deliberately inflict on another being.24
Every Little Step Matters
If there’s one point that I hope this essay convincingly made, it’s that our food choices are profoundly important. The way we eat has enormous impact on animals, the planet, and of course our quality of life. Your appreciation for the magnitude of this issue will only grow as you continue exploring the topic, and I hope I’ve inspired you to dive deeper into learning about food politics.
Many people succumb to all-or-nothing thinking when it comes to contemplating dietary change. That is, they’ll decide that since they aren’t ready to go vegan, they won’t take any action at all. But even the smallest steps can deliver important results, while laying the groundwork for more progress in the future. So do the easy stuff first. If there’s something animal-based in your diet that would be easy to quit, why not cut it out today?
Know that the experience of transforming your diet can be exciting and fun. It emphatically should not involve feelings of deprivation and sacrifice. To the contrary, it’s all about making an effort to regularly eat more vegan and plant-based foods. You won’t love everything you try, but you’ll certainly like a lot of it, and you’ll doubtless discover new foods you absolutely adore. Every time you find another delicious new vegan food, it’ll displace some of the animal-based foods that were previously part of your diet.
The key point to remember is that just by trying new foods frequently, your diet will automatically move in a positive direction. If you’re not enjoying the process, or if you’re feeling like your diet requires willpower to stick to, it’s a clear indication that your approach is focused on sacrifice rather than on discovery. The most successful people transitioning their diets don’t do it by cutting out foods, they do it by crowding out inferior choices by finding superior alternatives. The more often you sample new vegan foods, the more quickly you will gain ground.
As someone who has followed a vegan diet for more than thirty years, I hope you’ll take my word: as you continue down the road of eating more vegan foods, the amount of pleasure you derive from eating won’t decrease—it will grow by leaps and bounds. You’ll be experiencing a wider variety of delicious and healthful food than ever before, and you’ll probably feel better as well. On top of everything else, one of the great satisfactions of choosing vegan meals is that it feels fantastic to see your money flow into the hands of people offering food produced to high ethical standards. Nothing beats how it feels to support a business run by people with the most honorable intentions.
So, when transitioning your diet, give yourself every advantage. You don’t have to figure everything out on your own. There are a number of fabulous resources that will help you on your way, and a little reading will pay off big time. My essay on how to go vegan will teach you more useful information in thirty minutes than you’d learn from months of following a vegan diet. After reading it, consider getting ahold of a couple vegan cookbooks devoted to quick and easy recipes. And above all, enjoy yourself. Food is one of life’s great pleasures, and you’ll enjoy it more than ever as you bring your diet into greater alignment with your core values and beliefs.