The vegan debate
Would going vegan help to save the planet?
Something remarkable has happened in the food industry over the last few decades that shows no signs of stopping: the march of veganism. The meteoric surge in this relatively new way of eating isn’t the result of one single catalyst, but more the consequence of a number of factors. Nearly a third of British people have cut down their consumption of meat since a World Health Organisation report issued in late 2015 confirmed the links between eating processed meat and developing certain types of cancers.
Another big driver behind the rise in veganism is the increased amount of information, and thereby public awareness, that has come about as a result of various documentaries and undercover reports into the realities of meat and dairy farming. When this is combined with the power of social media, celebrity vegans and global vegan campaigns, an incredibly strong mix develops into a compelling argument. Or does it?
There are, after all, two sides to the story of veganism, and many meat eaters have posited numerous, similarly well-structured counter-arguments in support of their choice of diet. As with almost anything in life, there are pros and cons to both sides.
We like to think that factory farming, where millions of animals are reared for meat in cramped, dark, dirty and miserable conditions, isn’t something that happens in the UK. However, a 2017 investigation revealed there are almost 800 mega farms like this in the UK, churning out millions of animals for the meat industry each year. So, while there are many farmers who do what they can to provide a good quality of life for their animals on open fields, a huge percentage of meat and dairy animals don’t have that luxury.
While a dippy egg and soldiers might seem appealing, the things that happen in order for it to end up on your plate aren’t so palatable. To keep up with the demand for eggs, hatcheries have to produce millions of purposely skinny hens. If a hen gives birth to a female, this chick will become another egg-layer. If a hen gives birth to a male, he is deemed useless – too skinny for meat production and unable to lay eggs. As such, all male chicks of this kind (including organic and free range) are gassed in chambers, suffocated or minced alive in a macerator.
Thankfully, this cruel practice may soon come to an end. United Egg Producers, an agricultural cooperation that represents virtually all egg producers in the US, has announced plans to stop culling male chicks by 2020.
The alternative solution that it has proposed lies in using modern technology to determine the sex of an egg before it hatches, thereby preventing males from being born. While the ethics of such a process remain highly questionable, it is at least a step towards a less ruthless method of production.
As for dairy calves, they are taken from their mothers in the first two days after being born. They are fed a milk replacer while we get the mum’s milk for our own consumption. Dairy cows are then artificially inseminated two to three months after giving birth to begin the whole process again, and this cycle continues until they are worn out and replaced by a younger female.
The argument for removing calves from their mothers is that as young calves are highly susceptible to disease, it is safer for both parent and offspring to be separated. Farmers have also argued that the logistical problems presented by keeping calves and mothers together would be so insurmountable as to prove the death of the entire dairy industry and therefore spell the end of countless livelihoods across the world.
Animals often suffer before they are killed
According to Viva! (Vegetarians’ International Voice for Animals) there are nearly 300 licensed slaughterhouses in the UK. The majority of farm animals in them are killed by slitting the main arteries in their neck. However, practices vary in each slaughterhouse. Some ensure their staff take time to check the animals are unconscious before killing them so as to decrease their suffering. Others pay staff by the number of animals they kill. Rushed staff may not check so thoroughly, meaning some animals may not be unconscious when their throats are slit, and as such they have to endure the pain.
Stunning is common in the UK as a way to make cows, sheep and pigs unconscious before slaughter, and it comes in many forms – all of which can cause pain and suffering. It can be done by administering a bolt to the skull to cause brain damage or a concussive blow, by gassing them, or by electrocuting them into a cardiac arrest (either using tongs to the head, prods, or by submerging them into an electrified water bath). It’s not always successful though, meaning that animals might be fully conscious during the ordeal or that they may still be able to feel while they are knifed, hanging upsidedown during blood draining or being skinned. No current method is fully effective in preventing this.
Chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese and other birds farmed for their meat are also stunned, either by being shackled and having their heads submerged in electrified water baths or through electric shocks. If they raise their heads, they may not receive a proper stun, in which case they are meant to be decapitated by hand, but some are missed and face the neck-cutter fully conscious. Once their necks are cut, they are drained and submerged in a scalding bath, a tub of hot water that quickly scalds the birds so that they are easier to pluck.
Can you be a meat-eating animal lover?
We put animals through all of this pain, suffering and distress for the sake of our own tastes, treating them as a commodity and only really thinking about what we fancy off a menu, rather than what the intelligent creature that’s now an ingredient has had to go through. Even the nicest, kindest farmers have to wave their animals off to slaughter.
The truth of what has to happen to keep up with our demand for meat and dairy is unpalatable, and as more people find out about it, the number of vegetarians and vegans increases. However, this isn’t to say that all people who eat meat are thereby indifferent to the needs and feelings of animals.
The United Nations says that raising animals for food is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems”. No matter how many low-energy light bulbs we install in our homes, the amount of meat, eggs and dairy that we consume is holding us back from our eco goals. All along the processes that lead to meat or dairy end products there are detrimental effects on the planet.
To have somewhere to keep animals and grow the huge amounts of grain needed to keep them fed, vast areas of land have to be cleared. It happens all around the world, from the northern and eastern parts of America to the Amazon. Rainforest Concern estimate that for each pound of beef produced, 200 square feet (18.6 square metres) of rainforest land is destroyed. Clearing trees is a two-fold
“Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the total from all transport”
problem; trees are good at absorbing greenhouse gases, but by cutting them down we lose this helping hand in our fight for a better climate.
It’s not just the animals that need making room for. While we are used to thinking of soya as something that humans eat (such as in soya milk, soya beans and tofu), most of the soya grown globally is used to feed animals. Growing soya requires vast amounts of land, but as space is limited people are destroying some of our most precious ecosystems to make way. This mass deforestation destroys the habitats of many species, impacting on their entire ecosystem. Take the Cerrado in Brazil, which is the most biodiverse savannah region on Earth. It’s a wonderful haven of wildlife, home to around 60 vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered species. Sadly, it is shrinking faster than the Amazon because of the demand for land used in beef production, soya and other crops. With the land goes the animals that call it home.
Even so, livestock farming is not entirely responsible for deforestation: logging is the main culprit. It is estimated that half of the world’s 223 most important sites for plant diversity are threatened by the industry, with over 1.2 million acres of forestland cleared every single day.
The carbon hoofprint
Once animals move onto the cleared land, they need vast amounts of water and food every day, all of which has to be gathered and transported to them. The animals eat then excrete, releasing copious amounts of methane into the atmosphere. On average, 11 times more fossil fuels are released in the production of a calorie of animal protein than in one calorie of plant protein.
Animal farming is the worst culprit for methane emissions and the cause of 65 per cent of global humanrelated nitrous-oxide emissions, both of which can be even more environmentally damaging than carbon dioxide. A study by Oxford University found that meat-eaters are twice as bad as vegetarians when it comes to their dietary greenhouse gas emissions per day and two and a half times worse than vegans. One study found that adopting veganism is more effective than switching from a normal car to a hybrid in terms of tackling your carbon footprint.
However, a study by Robin White of Virginia Tech and Mary Beth Hall of the US Department of Agriculture has predicted that were the whole of the US to go vegan, the resulting 28 per cent decline in the nation’s agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions would only translate to a 2.6 per cent drop in its overall carbon output. While tackling the damaging effects farming has on the climate is imperative, it will not solve all of our problems.
What about us?
One of the main arguments made against going vegan is that humans have evolved to become omnivores over
thousands of years and that eating animals is good for us, providing us with essential nourishment that can’t be found in a plant-based diet. Meat and dairy are good sources of calcium, vitamin D, iron, vitamin B12, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which are harder for vegans to obtain from their diet. On top of this, there is also the argument that many people on low incomes would find it incredibly difficult to source their required nutrients from a vegan diet.
However, with careful planning and strategic, balanced eating you can be a healthy vegan without it taking a hit on your wallet, but it certainly requires more effort and thought to get things like protein and calcium into your diet. Studies have revealed proven links between meat and dairy consumption and a much-increased likelihood of developing cancer, heart disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes. On a health level, it’s a case of whether the effort of going vegan is worth it for the reduced risk.
Earning a new living
Some anti-vegan campaigners say that if farming were to stop there would be a lot less animals around. This is true in places where animal agriculture is visible, such as on hillsides in the country and in city farms. With this, there is the very real threat of mass unemployment that ending farming would present.
With around 570 million farmers globally, the loss of such a vast industry would need to be replaced with expensive and time-consuming retraining programmes if mass unemployment, starvation and unrest were to be averted. That said, this is by no means impossible.
Many vegans argue that farmers would need to reskill over time, picking up horticultural practices that were once more common. Fortunately, vegetables, cereals and fruits could be grown on land that’s currently used for meat production, so we have the space. As people alter their eating habits, farmers could adapt their practices.
Is it all or nothing?
It’s more common now to hear of people moderating their meat and dairy intake but not completely scrapping it. The idea of eating meat from a factory-farmed pig is much harder to swallow than the thought of eating one that’s had a life running freely in fields.
Small-scale organic farming can be good for the environment. It keeps soils fertilised, and often the presence of herds and roaming animals deters pests and predators. Due to the more controllable size of the group of animals, they can be fed off food waste rather than feed made from problematic crops, or in the case of cows and goats, provide a free lawn-cutting service.
This style of smaller-scale, organic, non-factory farming seems like one of the few ways in which the industry can be more environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, this method wouldn’t keep pace with our soaring demand for meat and dairy given that it requires much more space per animal and a much slower turnover of product.
Row upon row of recently killed pigs at a slaughterhouse The reality of overcrowded factory farming Deforestation of rainforest land to make room for agricultural crops
Workers picking soya from crops in Africa Recent estimates claim that fisheries throw 6.8 million tons of unwanted sealife overboard