by Sarah Nicol
Veganism has consistently been caricatured as unnecessary, ludicrous and dull for as long as it has existed in the Western world. The media delights in bringing down those who change their eating habits to this most “outrageous” and “eccentric” of diets. They later gleefully publicize former Vegans straying from the lifestyle, welcoming them back as if from a kind of madness, or a war against themselves. But the reality is that becoming a Vegan discourages cruelty to animals; is beneficial for the environment, in a world where this should, perhaps, be our main concern; improves health; and, if it were adopted on a large scale, could even end world hunger.
Veganism, a diet that excludes all animal products for a dairy- and egg-free version of vegetarianism, may sound extreme, but the reasoning behind it far outweighs any difficulty the transition to the diet may present. This is not least because of the negative elements of the omnivore (meat-eating) and pescetarian (fish-eating vegetarian) diets. So why Veganism rather than simple, almost-accepted, “easier” vegetarianism? For one thing, there is much to be said for the argument that vegetarianism is not sufficiently far from being an omnivore to be supporting animals. Simply, being a vegetarian as it is conceived does not really exist – vegetarians still consume parts of an animal (there is blood and pus in mammals’ milk even after processing, for example) and still contribute to their torture. Farm animals used for vegetarian products, especially cows and chickens, will still have miserable lives, to then be killed. To encourage this, and still say that you are for animal rights, is a bizarre dichotomy.
Any other lifestyle or action that could claim the same incredible results as Veganism would be praised endlessly, but there is just something about the “physically weak, self-important, insipid Vegan” caricature that…sticks. Arguably, much of the perceived ridiculousness comes from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal’s (PETA) status in society and culture, especially in the media. Unquestionably, their advertisement campaigns are shocking and sometimes even offensive. An extreme case of this is a campaign that, with the use of graphic photographs, drew similarity between the Holocaust and animal suffering. While such prominent Jewish people as writers Isaac Bashevis Singer and Roberta Kalechofsky (as well as many other groups and people over the years) have made the same case, many Vegans, myself included, would not attempt to defend this particular campaign. But I will remind that only the best intentions were there. After all, it is important to bear in mind that PETA’s main purpose is to attract publicity, and therefore mass attention, to the cause. The photographs of animals being tortured or otherwise horribly abused are real. Regardless, PETA cannot be seen to represent the huge amount of Vegans that choose the lifestyle for animal rights-related reasons. As many Vegans and vegetarians are quick to point out, PETA has “kill” shelters (White), where animals are euthanized after a certain point if not adopted (Blumberg), a practice that many disagree with.
Much more plausible, however, for the cause of snideness towards vegetarianism generally is a bizarre entitlement that we have been socialized into believing is the truth. Because why should we not eat, wear, experiment, and use for entertainment or otherwise abuse any species weaker than ours? Which leads me to another largely forgotten element to being an omnivore. That the omnivore is doing these things to another animal is horrifying enough, but justifying an action simply because the perpetrator is stronger is a spectacularly weak argument. As C.S. Lewis said – “If we cut up beasts simply because they cannot prevent us, and because we are backing our own side in the struggle for existence, it is only logical to cut up imbeciles, criminals, enemies or capitalists for the same reasons.”
Many people become Vegans in an attempt to become healthier. Certainly, undeniably, someone moving to a plant-based diet is going to inevitably consume more plants (unless they simply cut out then-undesirable foods in some form of crash diet). The great healthfulness of plants is well known – although the extent to which many of them are a good source of calcium (tofu, pulses, dried fruit), protein (tofu, pulses), iron (pulses, wholemeal bread, dark-green leafy vegetables), and omega-3 fatty acids (oils such as linseed, walnut or soya bean) is largely not known. Many medical journals and online resources provided by medical institutions recommend a great deal of research to ensure a balanced diet. However, it has been my personal experience that simply ensuring that there is not excess in any particular food or food group, (such as too many carbohydrates, or too little protein), a balanced diet is not something one need endlessly keep in mind, on a Vegan diet.
The opposite of Veganism – the hugely popular Atkins diet – has succeeded in aiding weight loss. But the diet has been proven time and again to be bad for the body in almost every way other than (inconsistently) resulting in weight loss. Just last Summer, the British Medical Journal reported “Experts warn of significant cardiovascular risk with Atkins-style diets.” The report, which was on a study that had lasted 15 years with a number of subjects, concluded that “any benefits gained from these [Atkins-style] diets in the short-term seem irrelevant in the face of increasing evidence of higher morbidity and mortality from cardiovascular diseases in the long term” (BMJ). Veganism, on the other hand, has been the foundation of such hugely successful diets as The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone that boasts “Feeling Great, Losing Weight and Saving the Planet” (and enabled the creation of the highly popular website www.thekindlife.com, which carries on The Kind Diet so that people can take it into every element of their life).
Much of what enables omnivores to live such a lifestyle as they do (the consuming of another animal’s flesh) is due to Carnism. This is a psychological disconnect which allows people to eat some animals while remaining resolutely sentimental about others (Schott). Rarely, would an omnivore accept others’ consuming of domesticated animals, let alone do so themselves. Part of this psychological disconnect is a level of denial. There is a widely held belief that buying meat that is “free range” or from a farm that the omnivore has visited is overwhelmingly better than other meat. There is some truth to this, largely due to how unbelievably bad the conditions are for factory-farmed animals, rather than how “good” the conditions are for “free-range” animals. However, to examine the conditions further proves much more cruelty than the average consumer would believe (“10 Common Objections” , “Humane Myth”). With certified organic eggs, often the least cruel option, the male chicks are still killed at birth, and hens are sent to slaughter from 18 months old. This is the case with certified free-range eggs as well, and they may even be de-beaked. Debeaking is a spectacularly cruel practice, as summarized by Karen Davis in her essay “Debeaking Poultry: The Need for Federal Legislation Prohibiting the Inhumane Practice”:
Debeaking (“beak trimming”) has been scientifically demonstrated to cause severe pain in the sensitive beak of a bird and lifelong behavioral impairment. Between the horn and bone of the beak is a thin layer of highly sensitive soft tissue. The hot blade used in debeaking cuts through this complex horn, bone, and sensitive tissue causing severe pain and the formation of tumors in the healed beak stump. Behavioral studies show that debeaked chickens are unable to eat, drink, and preen properly, and that they exhibit behavioral disorders associated with chronic pain and depression. Barn-laying chickens (where barn laid eggs come from) are not only allowed to be de-beaked, but have no access to an outdoor range, and only have restricted space to flap their wings or exercise.
The horrible reality is that these animals are existing just to be made into food, and that cannot be right.
Which leads to another important element of Veganism. These animals that are seen only as good as they are sellable (hideously large, with a short life span and “tasty”) would, in the wild, have a family dynamic and social order within their group, play together, and generally show love for one another much like other animals. It is well known by now that pigs are more intelligent than dogs (a species that the Western World has decided is close enough to human not to consume), but very little else is widely known about other farm animals. Just as we want to know where our food comes from, or its caloric content, understanding farm animals leads to research projects every so often. One such project was at the Barbraham Institute in Cambridge, England, and proved there to be much more intelligence to sheep than previously expected. One sheep that got a reward every time she recognized a human face correctly on a video screen scored a perfect 50 out of 50 (Wright). Similarly, chickens can even be taught to run the thermostat of the chicken coop, an intelligence far beyond what most people would believe them capable of possessing.
More than intelligent, all farmed animals are social creatures. They understand when they are split up from those they know and love. Cows will form lifelong friendships and relationships outside of their families, and one study found that they actually show excitement when they’ve learned something new “as if they’re saying, ‘Eureka, I found out how to solve the problem,’ ” said Donald Broom, a professor at the University of Cambridge (Wright). Cows will also scream for their child when it is taken to slaughter–this screaming will continue for some days and recur (although to a lesser extent, as if accepting the horror as a repeating part of life) with each child lost (“Cows Used”). This sort of emotional complexity in farm animals could not possibly be well known, else it is hard to believe anyone could justify their omnivorism. It is simply too close to home for comfort, in how similar mammals all are. And because much of what makes us close to our companion animals is our anthropomorphizing them, to see there are actually even more “human” traits in different mammals should shock most into seeing sense–or, at least, fairness.
There are often arguments for omnivorism that disregard ethics of any kind, giving incredibly simplistic reasons that can be refuted by basic logic and information. I will frequently hear ludicrous claims such as “they’d eat us [if they could]” (Wright). Let us analyse this odd statement. Aside from the fact that all farm animals are naturally herbivores (aside from pigs, which are largely herbivorous, but are occasionally omnivorous), they are also considerably less violent. The idea that they would eat us just couldn’t be true, by any stretch of the imagination. Then there is often the argument that as the “dominant species” humans have the right to do as they wish, including how they eat. Certainly we enjoy incredible freedoms that other animals do not. We have controlled our environment so that, unless we choose to put ourselves in dangerous circumstances, we are only endangered by each other. One of the fantastic freedoms that we enjoy is that we can use logic and reasoning more than any other mammal. We can look at the facts–what we consume makes a huge difference to our world, our bodies, and whether a living, breathing animal has to be sacrificed for a meal–and make the fair, kind decision. Darwin suggested that we have evolved to become less selfish, that natural selection meant that the more vicious tribes would kill each other (Connor), and we absolutely have evolved to be brighter, stronger, and more capable. So how can we justify a lifestyle that is not indicative of these traits? We absolutely cannot. As the ancient Greek historian Plutarch pointed out in The Eating of Flesh (First Discourse):
You call serpents and panthers and lions savage, but you yourselves, by your own foul slaughters, leave them no room to outdo you in cruelty: for their slaughter is their living, yours is a mere appetizer. It is certainly not lions and wolves that we eat out of self-defense; on the contrary, we ignore these and slaughter harmless, tame creatures without stings or teeth to harm us, creatures that, I swear, Nature appears to have produced for the sake of their beauty and grace.
All of which is absolutely true–and, it seems, even then, tradition ruled over logic for no reason other than habit and a lack of questioning the world around us. This attitude needs to change.
Sadly, the fact of the matter is people do not want to be told that they are wrong, let alone that their family and friends are all wrong, that they have all always been wrong. No one wants to hear that an incredibly simple and easy way to be healthier while improving the environment exists, and has been ridiculed. Oddly enough, this is what is hardest to swallow. But I genuinely do not believe that the public is to blame. After all, each new generation is more aware of what they consume on every level–more conscious of which companies are bad for the environment, or invest in morally questionable projects. As with any case of mass ignorance, it is partly the media’s fault. We have been taught that cow’s milk is best, without stopping to consider what it really is–another species’ breast milk. Something that we regularly consume, and have done for thousands of years, is more bizarre than still drinking our own species’ breast milk.
As Alice Walker remarked: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.” When it comes down to it, animals should have the right to be left alone and not be used as resources for human profit and pleasure.
Blumberg, Ayelet. “What is a Kill Shelter?” The Dogs. The Dogs, 18 May 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://thedo.gs/2012/05/adoption/what-is-a-kill-shelter-89476/5898/>.
Connor, Steve. “War, what is it good for? It made us less selfish.” The Independent. Independent Print Limited, 5 Jun. 2009. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/war-what-is-it-good-for-it-made-us-less-selfish-1697321.html>.
“Cows Used for Food.” PETA, n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/cows.aspx>.
Davis, Karen. “Debeaking Poultry: The Need for Federal Legislation Prohibiting the Inhumane Practice” UPC Online. United Poultry Concerns, Inc., n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://www.upc-online.org/debeak.html>.
“Experts warn of significant cardiovascular risk with Atkins-style diets.” BMJ. BMJ Publishing Group. 25 June 2012. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://www.bmj.com/press-releases/2012/06/25/experts-warn-significant-cardiovascular-risk-atkins-style-diets>.
“Humane Myth Glossary: Happy Meat.” Humane Myth. n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://www.humanemyth.org/glossary/1030.htm>.
Schott, Ben. “Carnism” Schott’s Vocab. The New York Times, 11 Jan. 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://schott.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/11/carnism/>.
“10 Common Objections To Going Vegan.” Watchxmexrise [The Things We Carry]. Tumblr. 10 Nov. 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://watchxmexrise.tumblr.com/post/35410569327/10-common-objections-to-going-vegan>.
White, Elizabeth. “Merits of no-kill shelters questioned.” USA Today, 12 Aug. 2007. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-08-12-no-kill-shelters_N.htm>.
Wright, David. “Was Your Meat Smarter Than Your Pet?” ABC News. 22 May 2005. Web. 5 Nov. 2012. <http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/Science/story?id=771414&page=1>.