The ve­gan de­bate

Would go­ing ve­gan help to save the planet?

World of Animals - - Contents - Words Amy Pay

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.

An­i­mal farm

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.

Start­ing out

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.

Cli­mate con­tri­bu­tions

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

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