Choosing a healthy diet is one of the most self-centered actions a person can take, and there’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, when weighing the costs and benefits, no diet should be seen as a sacrifice.
For this reason, no one cares that you’re single-handedly saving the planet by choosing to get your protein from quinoa rather than quail. As someone who once worked on a farm with (free-ranging) livestock, the ethical argument seems more valid, especially knowing about the practices commonly followed on industrial farms.
However, equating the value of a human life to that of an animal seems suspiciously facile, especially when considering how large a part predation plays in nature. Not allowing chickens to die for your dinner may be praiseworthy, but it is hardly on a par with volunteering to clear landmines in Angola, or blowing the whistle on massive corruption.
The Real Benefits of Veganism
That being said, there are plenty of reasons besides a delicate conscience for choosing to be a vegan or vegetarian. Despite what some people have claimed, it’s perfectly possible to remain healthy on a diet that contains no animal products whatsoever, with numerous societies historically eschewing meat or all animal products. If that is not convincing enough, the stereotype of skinny, anemic vegans just isn’t accurate.
Most people, particularly in developed countries, eat way more meat than their bodies need in any sense whatsoever. The first objection to this will come from people who equate protein with meat, dairy, and eggs, but this is totally false. Leafy green vegetables, legumes, and whole grains all contain a surprising amount of protein. A person’s micronutrient requirements can be met by eating a small portion of meat every few months, or from a well-planned, entirely vegan diet.
Some of the proven health benefits of veganism include weight loss, improved heart health and a much-reduced risk of developing diabetes. Assuming that a vegan diet is designed to include enough of those vitamins and minerals plant-based foods tend to be low in, it will generally be far richer in nutrients than most others.
However, depending on what is eaten and how it’s prepared, also allowing yourself a small amount of meat and other animal products, seem to have little negative effect.
Ethical Alternatives to Veganism
If a person truly believes that it is morally unacceptable to kill animals for human benefit or convenience, they’re as much entitled to their opinion as anyone. Starting senseless arguments about this matter is, however, obnoxious and fruitless.
If someone is truly concerned about the treatment farm animals suffer, though – and most people will be if they bother to find out more about the subject – spending a few dollars per month more on free-range products is a step anyone can take. Although, something that will weigh more heavily on most people’s minds is starvation and malnutrition among humans in poorer countries.
It’s been well established for a long time that world hunger is not the result of a lack of production capacity, but of how food is marketed and distributed. Barring the possibility of a major shift in the political and economic landscape, this situation can only be expected to grow worse as the global population increases.
While there are already too many manifestos out there explaining what different individuals think needs to be done, simply eating less or zero meat may have a larger effect than most of us realize.
In most settings where productivity is what matters most, herbivores are often fed on grain rather than grass. This means that they will consume around ten pounds of food, often already acceptable for humans to eat, to produce one pound of flesh.
Around a quarter of all grain grown in the Third World is destined for animal consumption, meaning that local prices get pushed up beyond the reach of the poorest families living there. At the same time, overeating in richer countries is one of the most prominent avoidable causes of spiraling healthcare costs.
With the effective torpedoing of the Paris Agreement recently having been in the news, it’s also worthwhile considering that a large portion of greenhouse gas emissions may not be the result of SUVs and Chinese coal plants, but of eating too many cheeseburgers.
Ruminants, such as cattle, naturally produce methane while digesting. A methane is a gas which traps 80 times as much solar heat as carbon dioxide. If a large proportion of those living in developed countries could be persuaded to give up meat for one or two days a week, several birds might be killed with one stone.
The only problem seems to be that this requires actual effort, unlike signing an online petition or making a donation to an NGO. This means that those who follow the vegan lifestyle (without crowing about it at every opportunity) can play a valuable role in educating the world about the damage their daily choices may be doing.
Everybody has a Part to Play
Initiatives, such as the Fair Trade label, go some way towards helping people understand the eventual consequences of the money they spend as consumers. Still, many of us will be horrified to realize whose pockets we are lining and what kinds of practices we actually support.
A whole range of products, from gold to electronics, or cacao to petroleum, are the result of processes that include political corruption, actual slavery, and offshoring business operations that would never be accepted in any modern democracy.
Vegans are doing a world a favor by their choices, but so are people who prefer to buy local, organic produce, or those customers who take the time to research a company’s ethical track record before writing a check. Many small actions combined may be enough to help create a world worth living in.