Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Why We Are All Secretly Vegans

Almost every one of us is a vegan lying dormant. I’m sure of it. And if you hear me out over the next few paragraphs I’ll explain why.
The argument begins with the fact that there are very often some serious misconceptions about why people choose not to eat meat or any other animal based products. All too often omnivores tend to think that vegetarians and vegans are dreamy hippies or who think it’s fundamentally wrong to exploit living creatures or militant activist that want to enforce their morals upon you.
Clearly, it’s true that many of the vegan’s amongst us have chosen to consume in this way for the perfectly legitimate reason they don’t wish to play any part in the unnecessary exploitation of animals in any form. It’s also true that some vegetarians and vegans can on occasion be too aggressive in their condemnation of omnivores.
However, it is unrealistic to expect everyone to care enough about the suffering of animals to do away with certain foods, when for many of us the eating of animal products has become a deeply ingrained habit and something to derive satisfaction from. After all, although not in itself a justification for eating animals, meat may have been a part of the human diet many generations before ours (albeit not in the excessive, obscenely unhealthy quantities currently consumed in the West.)
But the methods by which we have come to raise animals for our use have developed to be staggeringly unnatural and they have an abundance of socially and environmentally destructive side effects. Consequently, there are numerous reasons for cutting out, or cutting down on the quantities of animal based products from our diets that have little to do with animal rights but instead rely upon morals and beliefs that are shared almost universally.
Some beliefs that I think (or at least hope) that the majority of us on this planet share are that we shouldn’t compromise other peoples access to an adequate supply of food and clean water, we shouldn’t forcefully remove people from their native lands, and we shouldn’t damage and pollute the environment others live in so that it becomes hazardous to their health. In addition, it seems only fair that future generations should be able to live free of these injustices too.
Unfortunately however, nearly a billion people around the world are currently malnourished [1], over a billion don’t have access to clean water [2], and it’s been suggested that 40% of deaths worldwide may be attributed to environmental pollution [3]. And as our excessive demand for highly processed foods, electronics, and everything in between spirals aimlessly and mindlessly upwards, these numbers are set to rise as it becomes increasingly difficult to satisfy the basic needs of the planets rapidly growing population.
It turns out that the high meat and dairy diets we’ve become accustomed to play a central part in all of these issues. In fact, in our complex, entangled world food system, even eating British beef can exacerbate poverty on the other side of the world.

Avoiding meat is as much about respecting people as it is about respecting animals
We can begin to understand why this is the case by considering some simple numbers:
·         It takes 10 kg of feedstock (cereals, grains and beans etc) and 15,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of beef [4,5]
·         According to the United Nations, globally, a third of land suitable for growing crops is devoted to growing these feedstocks and 8% of fresh water available to humans is sucked up by livestock [4]
·         In fact, livestock grazing and the growing of animal feed is spread across 30% of the entire land area of the planet [4]
The result of this extensive, inefficient system is that while 1 billion people around the world starve, enough human-edible food to feed over 4 billion people is instead fed to livestock [6]. In return we get only a fraction of the original amount of food in meat and dairy form, and I mean we: most of this meat is consumed in the industrialized world where our per-person consumption of meat and dairy is over twice the world average [4, 7].
And to make matters worse, in South America the expansion of soy plantations to provide the world (particularly the EU which imports a third of Brazilian Soya [8]) with animal feedstock has had a devastating effect upon local communities who are often forcibly removed from their homes, poisoned with agricultural chemical runoff and conscripted into slave labour (children and adults alike) [8, 9]. Even if they escape these fates, it’s quite likely that the local environment that provides them with their food will be destroyed [8, 9].
Then there is the role of meat and dairy products in climate change: livestock is responsible for nearly a fifth of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions [5]; more than the entire transport sector. And it’s well known that the first and hardest hit casualties of global warming are the poor, who are the least able to prepare for increasingly chaotic weather events, or secure adequate supplies of food and water under crop failures and prolonged droughts [10].
With all this considered, it’s quite clear that reducing our intake of meat and dairy is a hugely effective way of reducing our personal contributions to poverty [11, 12].

Those crazy vegans
The strange thing is that vegans and vegetarians are very often assumed to have some alien set of values, even though so many of the reasons advocating veganism are about respect for the basic rights of other people. Consequently they’re often accused of being all self-righteous about these alien values and of forcing them upon others.
But clearly it’s not really about forcing these values on others at all: It’s about informing them of the impacts of their behaviour, which they may not be aware of, so that they can see that these actions may in fact be at odds with the values that they already hold.
In this sense, spreading the word about the benefits of veganism isn’t at all like missionary’s trying to expand the faith in their God, as that involves persuading people to embrace new values and beliefs. Rather, imagine you are sitting with some friends in the pub and one of them sits down and starts accidently drinking a drink that’s not theirs but that actually belongs to someone sat at the table next to them, you’d probably tell them, as if they were aware they were stealing they’d probably stop. Very often, spreading the word about veganism is exactly like this.
Yet it seems as if being vegan or vegetarian is seen as some genre of personality, identifiable by a specific manner of thinking and set of values. It’s as if being vegan is being this person, while omnivores may simply be any one of the countless other types of human personalities that exist.
Consequently, rather than the dietary choices of a vegan being what defines them, it’s as if this diet is just an artefact of the personality that they are alleged to have.
Well in this case, if the values that can underpin much of veganism are simply the consequence of a manner of thinking which involves caring about the basic needs of other people, isn’t practically every omnivore, whether they know it or not, actually a vegan, that as yet is either unaware or in denial of the facts?

[3] Ecology of Increasing Diseases: Population Growth and Environmental Degradation (see
[4] Livestock’s Long Shadow,
[6] United Nations; The Environmental Food Crisis,
[7] Meat Consumed
[8] Friends of the Earth, What’s Feeding Our Food?
[10] IPCC Fifth Assessment Report; AR4 - Climate Change 2007


CrowJake said...

Food is about so much more than belief. It's about psychology, cultural and yes identity.

For as long as was eating a predominantly vegan diet, as far as I'm concerned I never "became" a vegan. I simply appealed not to my conscience by my wants, and came to find preference in the eating of vegetable options over meat options. For every meal, this is a slight distinction.

But I was constantly hassled for my identity, "Are you vegetarian?" etc etc. I'd say no, I just haven't eaten meat in a long time.

I don't think we need to stop eating meat. I think we just need to practise a preference not have it for our next meal, in practise the one after that becomes the next meal immediately after, but the difference is we haven't made a claim to stop being something.

So yeah I agree, we shouldn't need to change people's beliefs. But nor do I think we need to get them to "become vegan".

I think the skill we need is to be able to take ownership of our preferences, and to honestly account for ethics in the same category as taste.

We like to imagine morality as an external prohibiter, rather than internal desire. Ethical hedonism for the win.

CrowJake said...

I also think underestimating the cultural significance of traditional meals etc is something to avoid. I have other things to deal with than just my impact on the environment. Sharing someone's choice of meal, which often means meat, means something very important to me. As does tasting food and smelling smells that allow me to process my aging and relationships to ethnicity and cultural background.

It's not something to be dismissive of, and I maintain my resistance to meat, it's much more often overwhelmed by other issues. Until I have time on working to make it easier, I'm cool with that.