Why go vegan? The elevator pitch for the reasons to choose a vegan diet crams several compelling points into just a few seconds. It goes something like this:
A vegan lifestyle prevents a tremendous amount of animal slaughter and suffering. It offers a potent way to shrink our environmental footprint, especially in regard to climate change. And a well-planned vegan diet can fuel the highest levels of fitness, while reducing our risk of various chronic diseases. Plus, the food is insanely delicious and it becomes more widely available every year.
A short paragraph like the above is a nice start, but it doesn’t begin to do the subject justice. Indeed, getting up to speed on every important issue pertaining to veganism would require months and months of reading. You’d have to explore topics like plant-based nutrition, animal rights philosophy, and the exploitation of slaughterhouse workers. You’d also want to look into the damage the meat industry inflicts on human health and the environment. There are a dozen other relevant subjects I could also mention, but you get the idea.
That said, you have to start somewhere, and just a little reading can deliver an enormous payoff. So what I’ve set out to do here is to present the truly essential material in an essay you can finish in less than an hour. I’m confident that the information covered here will inspire you to continue your exploration of plant-based eating. I doubt you can find a topic more worthy of your attention. There is so much to learn about the benefits that arise from cutting animal products out of your life—all of it interesting and of profound importance.
The Virtues of Plant-Based Diets
You can view a vegan diet either in terms of what it excludes or what it includes. Vegan diets exclude all foods produced by or derived from animals: meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, and honey. Alternately, another way to look at veganism is that it’s a manner of eating that is based entirely on plants.
Many vegans go beyond diet to exclude animal use from every aspect of their lifestyle. They’ll avoid clothing made of wool and won’t buy a leather sofa. When purchasing cosmetics they’ll avoid products tested on animals or that contain animal ingredients. While there are excellent reasons to take steps like these, to keep this essay short I will focus entirely on food.
Millions of people who have carefully examined animal agribusiness have resolved to go vegan. But even if you decide a vegan diet isn’t for you, I’m confident that this essay will convince you of the benefits of shifting your diet primarily to plant-based foods. Why am I so sure? Because the reasons to choose a diet that is at least mostly plant-based are so overwhelming that there really aren’t any credible counter-arguments. That may explain why the most prominent food politics writers of our time—including Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Eric Schlosser—advocate a diet based heavily on plants.
Plant-based diets deliver many of the benefits of being vegan while requiring only the slightest effort. Since you haven’t committed to being 100 percent anything, there’s no reason to worry that you’ll cheat, slip, or screw up. You can follow a plant-based diet and still eat Thanksgiving turkey or a summer barbecue. If being 100 percent vegan is something people commit to, being plant-based is more something they lean into.
Maybe the best thing about the plant-based concept is that it often sets in motion a “virtuous cycle,” where one positive change leads to another and then to another. When you regularly try new vegan foods, your favorites tend to automatically become part of your everyday diet. So as time goes by, your diet will likely move in a vegan direction without any concerted effort on your part. Plenty of current vegans got there by gradually sliding down the plant-based slope. After a while spent eating more and more plant-based foods, they realized that they were just a few small and easy steps away from becoming totally vegan.
There are a number of cute and helpful neologisms attached to the plant-based camp: reducetarian, flexitarian, chegan, plant-strong, and even veganish. If any of these terms resonates with you, just grab ahold of it and start thinking in those terms as you begin trying more vegetarian and vegan meals.
Additionally, there are a number of other concepts you might find helpful, including: Meatless Mondays, Mark Bittman’s Vegan Before 6 plan, or taking an entirely vegan diet out for a 21-day test drive. All of these possibilities lead to significant change while imposing zero stress since none of them demands lifelong perfection.
Of the many reasons to go plant-based, perhaps the best of all is that there’s no good reason not to. In all my years writing about food politics, I’ve never once seen anyone (other than a few paleo diet fanatics) make a serious attempt to argue against eating mostly plants, since the advantages are undeniable. Dozens and dozens of studies show that eating more fruits and vegetables can dramatically decrease rates of cancer, diabetes, and circulatory disease. And of course, plant-based diets also keep farm animals from slaughter, while simultaneously protecting the environment.
In addition to the personal benefits you may experience on a plant-based diet, there are substantial benefits to society as well. That’s because large industrialized meat and dairy farms burden the public with all sorts of hidden health costs. One of the greatest of these relates to antibiotic resistance. Through its lobbying efforts carried out alongside the pharmaceutical industry, the meat industry has for decades gotten away with using staggering amounts of antibiotics. While a small portion of these important antibiotics are administered to farm animals in order to treat severe infections, the overwhelming majority are given to healthy animals in order to boost growth and to prevent disease.
In the United States, farm animals are responsible for something like 70 percent of all antibiotic use, a number that has been on the rise for years.1 Worldwide, the meat and dairy industries combine to use more than 100,000 tons of antibiotics per year.2 Many of these antibiotics, like penicillin and tetracyclines, have irreplaceable uses in human medicine.
Confining thousands of animals in one space and dosing them all with antibiotics leads to increased microbial resistance. This in turn renders important classes of antibiotics ineffective for urgent human medical needs. It’s of course exceedingly difficult to definitively pin the emergence of a lethal antibiotic-resistant class of microbes on a specific animal farm, but there’s no legitimate doubt that animal agriculture is one of the main culprits behind the emergence of deadly antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria like the MRSA superbug.
Tragically, lobbyists from the meat and pharmaceutical industries have long stymied efforts to rein in the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. So refusing to purchase meats that are produced using antibiotics remains perhaps our most effective way to avoid contributing to the problem of antibiotic resistance.
Why Go Beyond Plant-Based?
Now that we’ve covered the benefits of eating mostly plant-based foods, let’s consider the advantages of going further and becoming vegan. The key question here is: what does a vegan diet give you that a plant-based diet can’t?
It turns out that going vegan has several advantages no other diet can match. If you find yourself swayed by the arguments for moving in a plant-based direction, you should know that most of those arguments apply even more forcefully to becoming vegan. Perhaps the greatest thing about being vegan is that it slams the door shut on so many disagreeable things, especially where animal suffering is concerned.
If you are troubled by the thought of animal abuse and slaughter, only a vegan diet can eliminate every last bit of it. It may seem counterintuitive, but the milk and egg industries are as tied to animal slaughter as the meat industries. In fact, the only difference between these industries is that meat comes from animals who have been killed, whereas milk and eggs come from animals who will be killed, guaranteed.
It’s obvious why farm animals must be slaughtered if they are to be turned into meat, but why must dairy cows and layer hens also be killed? It’s because, as cows and hens age, their production of milk and eggs sharply diminishes. At roughly a quarter of their natural lifespan, yields have so sharply declined that these animals are no longer sufficiently profitable. They’re sent to slaughter and replaced with younger, more productive ones. In addition, dairies impregnate their cows annually in order to maximize milk production. This means that millions of baby calves are born each year, entirely as a byproduct of milk production. Many of these calves, and the vast majority of the males, are slaughtered when they are only days or weeks old.
Slaughter is gory and disturbing to witness. Animals are stunned as they step onto the kill floor. The methods used for stunning are as troubling to watch as the slaughter itself. The most common stunning method for cattle and pigs involves a “captive bolt” pistol. These pistols ram a rod through the animal’s forehead, causing a massive brain injury. The pistols are designed not to kill the animal outright, since the industry wants the animal’s heart keep beating to pump out blood after the throat is slit. There are other stunning methods as well, each flawed and troubling in their own way. Electric shocks are often used to stun chickens and pigs. These shocks are doubtless painful. But beyond that it’s almost impossible to calibrate these devices so that every animal will be rendered unconscious yet not outright killed. Some pigs are stunned with carbon dioxide, which causes the animals severe distress, and is profoundly disturbing to watch.
Kosher and halal slaughterhouses don’t use any sort of stunning, since the animals must bleed to death while still conscious. This opens the door to all sorts of deeply disturbing slaughterhouse practices, as one investigation after another has revealed.
As unsettling as slaughter may be to contemplate, it’s only the starting point for becoming acquainted with the ethical issues surrounding the raising of animals. It’s probable that most of the suffering and cruelty tied to the meat, dairy, and egg industries relates to how the animals are raised rather than how they are killed.
I know that thinking about animal suffering is extraordinarily unpleasant, and it’s only natural to want to turn away from hearing the gory details. If you find yourself especially troubled by having to listen to this awful stuff, perhaps that right there is the best reason of all to move towards a vegan diet.
As we’re about to see, if you had gobs of money and wanted torment billions upon billions of animals in a multitude of ways, you could hardly devise a more ruthlessly efficient system to accomplish this goal than modern-day factory farming. Each year, about 50 billion farm animals are subjected to factory farm conditions.3 Let’s now look at what they face.
Why Go Vegan for the Animals?
Animal advocates use the term, “factory farming” to refer to the dominant methods of animal farming used in industrialized countries. While there are important differences between how cattle, pigs, and poultry are kept, all of these animals are commonly raised at factory farms.
Prior to World War II, most farm animals lived under comparatively good conditions on small, family-owned farms. These animals usually received plenty of space, and they could often venture outdoors when desired. So, by any standard they had the makings of a decent life even if this life was destined to be violently cut short. Farmers of that era didn’t necessarily supply the animals with satisfactory living conditions out of the goodness of their hearts, they did it because mortality rates would be unprofitably high if their animals’ basic living needs weren’t met.4
The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era saw massive changes in America’s system of agriculture. Land grant colleges across the United States pioneered an entirely new form of farming of both crops and animals. Starting in the 1920s, agriculture colleges at these state universities began teaching agriculture with the same rigor applied to any other academic discipline. And as a new generation of farmers became exposed to disciplines like chemistry and biology, everything about plant and animal farming changed.
The petrochemical-based “Green Revolution” that occurred between the 1930s and 1960s boosted crop yields, arguably raising standards of living worldwide while averting numerous famines. But within animal agriculture, the introduction of factory farming methods proved catastrophic in terms of increasing animal suffering to unconscionable extremes.
Adjusted for inflation, the price of animal products dropped significantly thanks to the efficiencies gained through factory farming. This gave rise to people eating more meat, milk, and eggs than ever before—while animal welfare standards were simultaneously collapsing.
The collapse in welfare standards directly arises from the industry’s fierce competitive pressure. Thousands of meat, dairy, and egg producers quit business every year. To stay afloat financially, farmers cannot ignore any opportunity to cut costs. Tragically, many of these cost-cutting measures are tremendously cruel.
The dairy industry offers a good example of the relentless financial pressure that animal farmers face. Beginning in 2013, dairies throughout the Northeast U.S. lost money four years in a row. In each of those years, wholesale milk prices came in well below production costs. Over that period, one regional dairy cooperative sent out suicide prevention letters after two of its members killed themselves.5
The most obvious component of factory farming pertains to the extreme crowding it imposes onto animals. This is especially true in the egg industry. In countries and states that haven’t yet outlawed the practice, egg farmers keep their hens in “battery cages,” where each hen has less floor space than a sheet of copy paper. On top of that, these hens spend their entire lives standing on wire-bottomed cages. Predictably, the wire wears away their skin and leads to sores and bruises. The birds sleep while being pressed against the cage and literally never have a moment of comfort.
Pigs face equally appalling living conditions, especially females used for breeding. These sows often spend their entire lives in gestation and farrowing crates. Standard crates forbid nearly any sort of normal movement. In fact, they are so narrow that the sow lacks sufficient space to turn around.
Pig urine produces vapors full of ammonia. In crowded indoor pig farms, the air quality is so poor that not only do the pigs commonly develop lung lesions. On top of that, workers have significantly elevated rates of respiratory problems. In fact, even people living on neighboring properties show declines in lung function.6
Whether in person or in movies, we’ve all seen cows grazing scenic hillsides. Beef cattle are the only farm animals that nearly always live a portion of their lives outdoors in good conditions. Some dairy cows also spend much of their lives outdoors. But many dairies are factory farms that intensively confine their cows at all times.
Even for the lucky cattle who spend time outside, this experience is only temporary. Beef cattle are invariably “finished” at feedlots. There, they live out their final months crowded onto filthy, barren plots of land.
One such feedlot is the notorious Harris Ranch that’s adjacent to the Interstate 5 corridor of California. Having driven this highway countless times, I have often smelled the stench of the feedlot several kilometers before reaching it. The feedlot covers hundreds of acres, with seemingly every square meter crammed with animals amassed on black manure-coated earth. If you’ve seen one feedlot you’ve seen them all. Any large feedlot is basically indistinguishable from what you can see at Harris Ranch.
Conditions are just as bad, and nearly identical, at many dairy farms. The industry calls the most crowded of these places “dry lot” facilities. Some dairies are nearly indistinguishable from beef feedlots. The easiest way for an untrained observer to spot the difference is to look at the animals: most dairy cows have spotted coats whereas beef cattle are usually solid dark brown. As with beef cattle at feedlots, many dairy cows have no opportunity to graze and are instead fed silage out of troughs. Twice a day, they’re hooked up to milking machines.
Just as bullying and violence pervades poorly run schools and prisons, the same is true at factory farms. Since there is unspeakable crowding at factory farms, the animals inevitably take their frustrations out on one another. More crowding inevitably means more violence. The problem goes away if you remove stresses and provide adequate living space, but factory farms have found that the infliction of various mutilations can keep animals from injuring one another at a much lower financial cost.
Pigs raised in overcrowded conditions are apt to bite one another’s tails. At factory farms, workers cut the tails cut off and clip their “needle teeth.”
Hens crowded into battery cages can peck each other to death. So egg producers use a hot blade to sear off the pointy final third of their beaks—rendering it unlikely that a peck can draw blood. While a beak may appear woody on the outside, the hen’s mouth is inside and full of nerve endings. So, the reality is that beak searing is a partial (and no doubt excruciatingly painful) amputation of the bird’s mouth.
Unlike pigs and chickens, cows don’t commonly attack one another when subjected to stress. But in overcrowded conditions, horns endanger both workers and other cattle, so they’re painfully amputated or sawed off. During de-horning, the cattle are also branded in order to deter theft. Dairy cows’ tails are usually amputated so that they don’t interfere with the milking machines. That leaves the cows with no way to shoo away flies, which are often legion at dairies and a constant source of misery.
In order to improve meat tenderness and also eliminate the “boar taint” stench in pork, farmers castrate nearly every male calf and piglet. I’ll spare you the details of how this is done, but interested readers can follow read this article or watch this video.
Every mutilations I’ve mentioned here, including castration, typically occur without anesthesia. A local anesthetic would greatly reduce pain, but factory farm owners regard even the cheapest analgesics as prohibitively expensive.
Even when raised under good conditions, many farm animals still suffer from a number of painful health problems. That’s because decades of selective breeding have boosted egg yields, milk yields, and growth rates to staggering extremes. These breeding advances make animal agribusiness more efficient and productive than ever, but the animals pay a terrible price.
When it comes to genetics, no animal is more revved up than chickens, and none suffers more as a result. Chickens raised for meat grow more than four times faster than birds raised in the 1950s.7 This rapid growth puts a severe strain on the birds’ cardiovascular system, and up to 4 percent of birds die from “sudden death syndrome.”8 In their brief lives, many of these chickens also suffer from debilitating leg problems brought on by their rapid growth rates. One large study found that more than 25 percent of chickens had trouble moving, with nearly 4 percent, “almost unable to walk.”9 At farms that raise chickens for meat, it is not uncommon to find birds whose immature legs have collapsed under them. Unable to walk to food or water, they will die of thirst or starve to death. No one will notice their plight or take care of them—a chicken who is going to die anyway isn’t worth the added labor costs.
Just like every human pregnancy carries risk, complications can arise every time a hen lays an egg. So the intensive the breeding to increase egg productivity, the greater the chances that something will go wrong. What often happens is what farmers call a “prolapse.” Here, the egg becomes stuck to the hen’s internal organs. During laying, reproductive and digestive organs can come out along with the egg. Obviously, unless prompt veterinary care is provided, infection will set in and the bird will die. Since the requisite veterinary care costs at least twenty times the value of a replacement hen, none of these afflicted birds get the treatment they need to survive. In typical egg-laying sheds that house tens of thousands of hens, it is unlikely they will be noticed at all.
Nearly all hens afflicted with a severe prolapse will suffer a lingering death from blood loss or infection. In many cases, they take their dying breaths trampled by cage-mates while lying pressed against a wire floor. In the United States alone, millions of hens each year die in this manner as a result of prolapses and other conditions.10
Dairy cows are as victimized by selective breeding as are chickens. Today’s cows may look the same as yesterday’s, but they produce over four times more milk per animal than did cows from 1950.11 There are many health problems attributable to these extreme milk yields, the most common of which is an inflammation of the udders, which is generally accompanied by infection. In cows with infected udders, the number of somatic cells in the milk goes way up. Laypeople have a less fancy word for “somatic cells.” That word is “pus.”
Thanks to their massive milk yields, udder inflammation and subclinical infection are widespread among modern dairy cows. So if you want your milk to be free of pus, you need to choose soy milk or any other variety of vegan milk.
Undercover Farming Videos
As the author of two books devoted largely to investigating farm animal welfare, I don’t think words can do justice to the topic. In order to truly grasp what the animals experience, you really must visit factory farms yourself. Of course, factory farm owners have no desire for the public to witness what’s going on, so most of these places forbid visitors. Thankfully, the world contains people like my friend Cody Carlson.
Cody switched to a vegan diet at age nineteen. A few years later, he took a job at a large dairy farm in Upstate New York. He worked there for a month, then left to work in a pig-breeding facility in Pennsylvania. After that gig ended, he got jobs at two different egg farms. Cody’s choice of diet was not the only thing that set him apart from his coworkers. The other difference was that, each day when Cody arrived at the job, he wore a hidden camera.
What happens when you take people who lack decent employment opportunities, pay them a pittance, and put them in stressful work environments with minimal supervision? All too often, they take out their frustrations on the animals. The atrocities that investigators like Cody have uncovered at factory farms are endless. I’ve seen videos showing turkeys being sexually violated. I’ve seen mother cows punched in the face. I’ve seen sheep kicked, thrown against walls, and laughed at while bleeding to death. I’ve even seen a worker strike a defenseless calf between the eyes with a pickaxe—on the orders of his boss. And all of this barely touches on the things that I’ve seen. I could go on and on with more examples.
Few jobs are as traumatizing and all-around awful as that of an undercover animal cruelty investigator. Yet many activists have stepped up to do this work. They’ve collectively shot hidden-camera videos at every sort of farm animal operation imaginable, from chicken hatcheries to cattle feedlots to pig farms. Still other undercover investigators have taken jobs at the slaughterhouses that process chickens, pigs, and cattle. No matter where these investigators show up, staggering cruelties reveal themselves.
YouTube hosts a vast assortment of undercover videos that expose the poultry and livestock industries’ widespread cruelties. In one video after another, you’ll see shocking degrees of confinement, appalling conditions, and sadistic behavior by workers.
Typically, whenever a new undercover video goes public, the guilty company makes a big deal of firing the workers caught abusing animals. While these firings are invariably well-deserved, they conveniently shift blame away from ownership and management. The root of the problem, after all, isn’t with any individual worker. The real problem stems from ownership and management. Factory farms are run by people willing to inflict unfathomable amounts of suffering onto animals in order to cut costs.
All the Edges Rough
Many of factory farming’s worst abuses arise from overcrowding. Every farmer has a tremendous financial incentive to cram as many animals into the smallest space possible. On top of this intensive confinement, the industry strives to cut expenses to the absolute minimum.
These efforts play out in all sorts of distressing ways. No matter where in the system an animal may be, agonies and discomforts unrelentingly suffuse every moment. There is not one softer corner, nothing without an edge, no flicker of respite. Anything decent or worthwhile was squeezed out decades ago in the pursuit of profit.
You can find dozens of separate sources of misery within factory farming. Wherever you choose to look, a fresh hell opens up. I will now point the flashlight at just three places, each one deserving a lengthy book chapter of its own.
- Specialized facilities called hatcheries churn out the billions of chicks a year for the poultry industry. At hatcheries servicing egg companies, one unwanted male chick hatches for every female chick. These males are useless to the industry, as they aren’t of the breed that can grow profitably for meat. At some of these hatcheries the male chicks are tossed into garbage cans and left to smother, while at others the chicks are promptly ground up alive. In the United States alone, hatcheries kill about 200 million newly-hatched male chicks every year.
- Buildings that house cows, pigs, or poultry rarely have fire sprinklers, and often go up in flames. When a fire strikes a poultry farm, the fatalities commonly number in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. Since the year 2000, fires have killed more than 4.5 million chickens or turkeys, 220,000 pigs, and nearly 12,000 cows and calves.12
- On the truck to slaughter, during hard braking or sharp turns, animals can be thrown their feet. Once knocked down they’re often trampled by other animals. They often arrive at the slaughterhouse too badly injured to stand back up. Pigs and cattle who arrive at the slaughterhouse unable to walk often perish from shock or thirst. There’s no financial inventive to give them attention, since animals too sick or injured to stand up cannot legally be sold for human food. In the United States alone, hundreds of thousands of “downer” cattle and pigs arrive at slaughterhouses each year.13 Sometimes they linger untended for days before dying.
There’s no room here to address dozens of other comparably important topics. No room to talk about what the animals can see coming as they look down the slaughter line. No room to linger on the experiences of the dairy cows who watch their babies taken away just a day or two after birth. No room to talk about the millions of birds and cattle who have been buried alive in open pits during disease outbreaks. No room to talk about the runt piglets who fail to grow profitably, whose heads are slammed into concrete. Factory farming is a bottomless horror, no matter where you choose to look.
Why Not Just Avoid Factory Farmed Foods?
Unless specifically labeled to the contrary, you can assume that every animal product came from a factory farm. As we’ve seen, these places consistently practice a variety of gratuitously cruel factory farming methods.
Fortunately, there is a growing industry catering to omnivores who demand foods produced with higher animal welfare standards. You can find these specially-labeled foods at natural foods stores and supermarkets. Additionally, many small-scale meat and egg producers rent stalls at local farmers’ markets.
At their best, alternative farms deliver genuine improvements over factory farms. That’s mainly because they refuse to partake in the cruelest farming practices, particularly with regard to confinement and crowding. And with this reduced crowding, the incentive to perform mutilations like beak searing and tail-clipping can be eliminated. That’s because animals unstressed by crowding the animals are far less likely to attack one another.
Unfortunately, the substantial price premium these higher welfare foods command can exert an overpowering temptation on producers to cheat. All too often, farmers exaggerate or outright lie about standards for animal care. Just like at factory farms, every alternative producer faces the strongest financial temptation to push limits. Since the costs of delivering genuinely good animal welfare are so high, there are always farmers willing to cut corners.
The reality is that some so-called “organic” farms are factory farms in every sense of the word. Sure, they use higher quality animal feed and a refrain from using antibiotics, but animal welfare remains deplorable. At one point, several of America’s largest “organic” dairies exploited a regulatory loophole that allowed them to keep their cows confined indoors 310 days out of every year. In late 2017, the Trump administration threw out regulations that had required organic poultry and livestock producers to provide their animals sufficient space to spread their wings or turn around.
Many consumers are aghast at this sort of cruelty, and will pay a premium for better welfare. So top food service companies and groceries have implemented a variety of certification programs. Much like hotels are typically rated from one to five stars, one leading program offers five different tiers of animal welfare. That way, at least in theory, the consumer can decide for herself which practices are acceptable, and choose products accordingly.
Every welfare certification system depends on farmers having the integrity to live up to their promised standards. For these programs to succeed in their mission, it’s imperative that they quickly catch any farmers who cheat. This in turn demands careful monitoring and strict enforcement by the certification agency. It’s fair to say that, in the real world, such monitoring is expensive, occasional, and unreliable.
Alternately, you can do your own monitoring. This requires meeting the sellers of animal products at your local farmers’ market, and then visiting their farms personally to evaluate the conditions. Me, I have better things to do with my time. I don’t want to spend my precious afternoons driving out to distant farms to verify standards of animal care. Much easier, to simply avoid foods where egregious abuses of consumer trust and animal welfare are commonplace.
In this respect, laziness surely ranks as one of the most underappreciated reasons to consider a vegan diet. You probably have more interesting ways to spend your time than investigating animal welfare compliance. And why expend all that effort when there is an abundance of delicious high-quality vegan food available?
And anyway, no matter how hard you strive to purchase only the highest-quality animal products, numerous problems remain either unaddressed or unaddressable. For instance, there is simply no way to eliminate slaughter. Even the highest-welfare producers kill their dairy cows and layer hens well before midlife, as yields decline.
Diving a little deeper, the use of heirloom breeds is all but unheard of in commercial agriculture. So even at the very best farms, the animals suffer the same productivity-related health problems as their factory-farmed counterparts. On top of everything else, it’s often illegal for animal farms to slaughter their animals on-site. So, in many cases, “free-range” and “pasture-raised” animals end up at the very same slaughterhouses that kill factory farmed animals.
In short: the more you care about sourcing animal products from only the most conscientious producers, the messier and more unsatisfying your task becomes.
Animal Welfare & Animal Rights
Now that we’ve seen how brazenly the food industry exploits farm animals, let’s explore some ways to productively think about this. The two fundamental concepts of the animal protection movement—animal welfare and animal rights—can offer some powerful insights.
Let’s start with animal welfare, a simple concept arising out of common decency. Animal welfare’s core message is: if you’re going to use animals for food, cosmetics, or anything else, you are obligated to eliminate needless suffering. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. A great deal of the suffering intrinsic to animal use is expensive and difficult to remove. Verifying acceptable welfare is unreliable, since we must generally depend on the integrity of the farmer.
Once someone begins to pay attention to animal welfare, some degree of dietary change is virtually inevitable. Nearly everyone who thinks carefully about animal welfare ends up eating fewer animal-derived foods, since that’s the easiest and most reliable way to cut out cruelty. In order to eliminate additional suffering, people also switch to free-range and pasture-raised animal products.
Many omnivores who pay careful attention to animal welfare ultimately decide they can’t make peace with animal slaughter. Objecting to slaughter doesn’t just close the door on consuming meat, but eggs and dairy products as well.
But animal welfare is only one approach to thinking seriously about the ethics of eating. The most challenging ideas offered by the animal protection movement relate not to animal welfare, but to animal rights. Animal welfare condones virtually any use of animals, as long as we strive to minimize suffering. Animal rights rejects this world view and emphatically proclaims that animals are not ours to use however we wish. Instead animal rights philosophy asserts that animals have interests of their own. And there’s nothing special about the status of humans that gives people the right to violate these interests.
There are several key points at the core of animal rights philosophy. Perhaps the most important of these relates to speciesism. This word applies attempts people make to use an animal’s particular species to justify his or her exploitation. Such justifications based on species inevitably ignore facts of far greater relevance. The question of whether rights are unjustly violated should start by evaluating each individual animal’s ability (or lack thereof) to think, feel, and suffer.
Speciesism is fundamentally irrational, and yet once you start looking for it you can see it everywhere. Perhaps the most obvious example relates to the fact that by all accounts pigs are more intelligent than dogs. Yet the pork industry’s standard farming practices would yield felony cruelty convictions if they raised dogs in the same manner.
It readily apparent that speciesism is cut from the same cloth as other forms of oppression. How does racism, sexism, classism, and so forth relate to speciesism? All of these “isms” violate an individual’s liberties on grounds that are fundamentally arbitrary. The only distinction between speciesism and the others is that it justifies the oppression of animals rather than humans.
Going deeper, animal rights philosophers often point out that every human and every animal experiences an individualized “subject of a life.” We all have a unique biography and set of experiences. No matter what sort of body we’re born into, we’ve got one incarnation filled with moments related to companionship, family, and interactions with others. While animal experiences plainly differ from our experiences as humans, it’s not within our rights to cut these lives short.
Let’s now reflect on why, across all cultures, the punishment for murder is invariably severe. The answer is undoubtedly because cutting short someone’s life is a bell cannot be unrung. The victim is forever denied the experiences she would have otherwise had, and nothing can ever set things right. Certainly, if we agree that murder demands severe punishment, we become obliged to examine the ethics of animal slaughter. To cut short an animal’s life is the ultimate violation of that being’s liberty. And to do this for culinary pleasure, when abundant delicious alternatives exist, seems especially problematic.
Maybe there’s something to the idea of looking at a pig or chicken and deciding, “It may not be much of a life, but it’s all they’ve got—and it isn’t ours to take.”
There is one final approach to thinking about animal rights that is worthy of careful consideration: the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, which Peter Singer incorporated into his 1975 classic, Animal Liberation.
Utilitarianism seeks to evaluate every situation in order to maximize joy for all parties. For instance, it is far better for ten people to each receive one sandwich, than for one person to get all ten sandwiches. Sure, that one guy at the top might be happier receiving ten sandwiches instead of one. But there’s no denying that maximizing total joy demands everybody gets a sandwich. Utilitarianism is based on the idea that morality accompanies the maximization of joy and the minimization of suffering.
Much like we’ve just seen with our sandwich example, our use of animals carries a strong utilitarian component. We can acknowledge, for instance, that putting pepperoni on pizza tastes good. There is consequently some added joy that comes with being able to order your pizza with pepperoni. But it’s not right to value this added joy without simultaneously considering how the pig suffered to produce that pepperoni.
In such cases, the animal suffering associated with a given food doubtless far outstrips the joy derived from its consumption. We live in a time when vegan meats, dairy products, and eggs become better and more widely available every year. Day by day, the argument that non-vegan foods deliver irreplaceable pleasures is increasingly difficult to entertain.
Utilitarian thinking applies not just to food, but to every animal product from cosmetics to fur to leather. Nobody would pretend it’s possible to calculate joy vs. suffering with the precision of crunching numbers on a spreadsheet. But even so, utilitarianism probably offers the most helpful framework available for evaluating the ethics of animal use.
Why Go Vegan for Your Health?
While nothing can ever guarantee a long and healthy life, a well-planned vegan diet can improve your odds. That’s largely because a vegan diet eliminates the consumption of a number of unhealthful foods. For instance, vegans eat neither red meat nor cured meats—two foods strongly linked to colon cancer.14
Vegans usually eat significantly more vegetables and fruits than the general population. Studies consistently show that people who eat the most fruits and vegetables tend to enjoy better health.15 Research also suggests that vegans have a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes.16 This reduced risk is partly due to the fact that vegans tend to be leaner and much less prone to obesity than the general population, but this isn’t the whole explanation. Additional benefits probably arise from low saturated fat intake and from the healthful compounds in plant foods.
A surprisingly large number of vegans will tell you that quitting dairy changed their lives. Milk products may cause all sorts of chronic health ailments, from nasal congestion to acne to migraines to digestive problems. Many people suffer from these conditions for decades, yet never suspect that dairy products are to blame. I can personally attest to the health benefits that can accompany going dairy-free. My lifelong severe nasal congestion vanished forever within weeks of eliminating milk products from my diet.
With all this in mind, even people unswayed by environmental and animal rights concerns might consider going dairy-free. Given the potential rewards, it’s well worth trying out dairy-free diet for a couple of weeks.
Some people fret that a vegan diet might impede serious athletic training, but that’s not a valid concern. A well-planned vegan diet can in fact support the highest levels of fitness. Both Rich Roll and Scott Jurek, two of the world’s most acclaimed ultra-endurance athletes, are long-time vegans. In 2017, eleven members of the Tennessee Titans switched to a vegan diet, and the team reached the NFL playoffs.
Why Go Vegan for the Environment?
Written by Frances Moore Lappé all the way back in 1971, Diet for a Small Planet was the most influential book on food politics of its generation. The book awakened the public to the merits of eating lower on the food chain. That means basing your diet directly on plants, rather than on animals who in turn eat plants. In Diet for a Small Planet, Lappé demonstrated how plant-based diets shrink your environmental footprint in several important ways.
Why, environmentally speaking, does eating lower on the food chain have such a profound effect? It’s largely because raising animals to produce human food is extraordinarily inefficient. Cycling grain through cows and pigs and chickens produces mountains of manure. This manure represents a tremendous amount of protein, calories, and nutrients that have gone to waste. All too often, this manure taints local water supplies and regional ecosystems. The Gulf of Mexico contains a dead zone averaging more than 15,000 square kilometers. How did it form? Primarily from nitrogen-rich manure and fertilizer runoff from factory farms and from crops grown for animal feed.17
Why does animal waste cause such far-reaching problems? There’s no denying that animal waste makes excellent fertilizer.
Unfortunately, its high water content makes manure too expensive to truck to distant farmlands for use on crops. So instead of putting it to productive use as fertilizer, factory farms commonly get rid of their manure by spraying it on nearby land. This method of disposal tends to foul local waterways, especially during heavy rains or flooding.
Of all the environmental reasons to embrace a plant-based diet, the strongest was unknown until recently. Scientists did not reach broad consensus about the risk of severe climate change until the 2000s. Around this time, researchers began serious work to identify the primary sources of the greenhouse gases. They discovered that the livestock industry is a main culprit behind climate change.
Given their gentle dispositions, it may seem absurd that cows, pigs, and chickens could pose a catastrophic threat to anything. Yet together they probably surpass automobiles as a driver of climate change. But the 55 billion farm animals raised each year collectively spew massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere. And methane traps about seven times more heat in the atmosphere than an equal quantity of carbon dioxide.
Estimates vary about the exact percentage of climate change attributable to animal agriculture, but a comprehensive United Nations study pegged the industry’s contribution to the problem at about 14.5 percent.18 That figure is for livestock only, and omits the much smaller but still significant contribution of the poultry industry.
Now, it’s true that greater efficiencies in livestock production have, over time, decreased emissions per animal. But regardless, animal agriculture is still a top emitter of greenhouse gases—and is undoubtedly the most sensible source to prioritize. Society can’t do without motor vehicles, nor can we abruptly convert to predominantly clean energy sources for electricity. But switching to a plant-based diet is easy, and in most cases actually reduces costs. Diet therefore deserves acknowledgment as the most realistic opportunity to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
A Word About Seafood
Most writing about vegetarian lifestyles either insufficiently covers the issues related to seafood or ignores the topic outright. For most people moving gradually towards a vegetarian diet, seafood is the very last food they’ll stop eating.
But there are strong reasons to cut out seafood right away. This is especially true for crabs and lobsters, since these animals are generally boiled alive. By all available evidence, this is an excruciating ordeal that’s indefensible to deliberately inflict on another being.19
What about fish netted for food, or caught on fishing lines? Are they capable of suffering at all, and, if so, how severe is this suffering?
Studies definitively prove that fish are indeed capable of suffering, both when hooked or netted.20 However they’re caught, death usually occurs either through suffocation or through organs rupturing from depressurization.
What’s more, the crowding and welfare standards at fish farms are every bit as deplorable as at any factory farm. Fish farms often use antibiotics in massive quantities. And the crowding at many fish farms commonly causes infestations of gruesome parasites called sea lice. These parasites attach themselves to the fish and eat away at the skin, causing open lesions.
Genetic modification produces widespread deformities and even deafness among farmed salmon. Perhaps most disturbing, farmed fish routinely escape into the ocean where they can mate with wild fish. This interbreeding causes unpredictable but potentially ruinous consequences to the gene pool.
There is overwhelming evidence that the fishing industry is among the world’s greatest environmental menaces. Yet the worldwide appetite for fish is insatiable. Since 1960, the amount of seafood taken daily from the world’s oceans, rivers, and lakes has more than tripled.21 As a result, fish populations around the world are in steep decline.22 There simply isn’t enough fish to go around, and in some parts of the world, populations are utterly dependent on fish for survival. Perhaps, then, if people must eat seafood, it should only go to populations that would face hunger without it.
If enforcing farm animal welfare sounds hard, imagine trying to monitor fishing boats that operate in distant oceans. Fishing boats commonly switch off their electronic tracking equipment. This enables them to fish undetected in protected waters and to evade the enforcement of catch limits.23 In many cases, fishing fleets have caused environmental catastrophe. One prime example involves the coastline of Newfoundland, which was once among the world’s most abundant cod fisheries. Overfishing so ravaged the ecosystem that the cod have forever vanished, replaced by scavenger species like crab and lobster.
The world’s fishing fleet decimates species of every sort. The industry uses the term “by-catch” to describe non-targeted marine life killed by fishing nets and lines. The world’s fishing boats are constantly pulling thousands of kilometers of nets through the sea. These nets don’t discriminate between targeted and non-targeted species, and ensnare every animal in their path. Countless dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, and seabirds suffocate in these nets. Every kilogram of shrimp scooped up by nets results in 4 to 6 kilograms of by-catch.24
Choosing a Diet that Aligns with Your Values
Here then, is what I think is the crux of the matter: are you okay taking a healthy animal who clearly wants to live, and cutting her throat?
Is this a violation, or is this part of the circle of life? Whatever your answer, this question certainly deserves the most careful reflection from each of us. If vegans have any reason to object to how others eat, it’s that this question rarely receives the consideration it deserves.
Counter-intuitively, it’s omnivores who face the greatest inconvenience when it comes to conscientious eating. That’s because they face a barrage of tasks and expenses to ensure acceptable welfare standards. By contrast, aspiring vegans have it much easier. Their primary tasks are to read up on nutrition, pick up a few pointers, and constantly try delicious new foods.
Every Little Step Matters
If there’s one point that I hope this essay convincingly made, it’s that our food choices are profoundly important. The way we eat has enormous impact on animals, the planet, and of course our quality of life. Your appreciation for the magnitude of this issue will only grow as you continue exploring the topic, and I hope I’ve inspired you to dive deeper into learning about food politics.
Many people succumb to all-or-nothing thinking when it comes to contemplating dietary change. That is, they’ll decide that since they aren’t ready to go vegan, they won’t take any action at all. But even the smallest steps can deliver important results, while laying the groundwork for more progress in the future. So do the easy stuff first. If there’s something animal-based in your diet that would be easy to quit, why not cut it out today?
Know that the experience of transforming your diet can be exciting and fun. It emphatically should not involve feelings of deprivation and sacrifice. To the contrary, all it takes is an ongoing effort to regularly eat more vegan and plant-based foods. You won’t love everything you try, but you’ll certainly like a lot of it. And the more vegan foods you try, the more you’ll discover that you absolutely adore.
The key point is that just by trying new foods frequently, your diet will automatically move in a positive direction. If you’re not enjoying the process, it probably means your approach is focused on sacrifice rather than on discovery. Done properly, the switch to a vegan diet requires zero willpower. A successful transition to a vegan diet doesn’t demand cutting out foods. Instead, it’s wisest to crowd out non-vegan foods from your diet by finding new vegan foods you prefer. The more often you sample new vegan foods, the more quickly you will gain ground.
I’ve followed a vegan diet for more than thirty years, so I hope you’ll take my word for this. As you continue down the road of eating more vegan foods, the amount of pleasure you derive from eating won’t decrease—it will instead grow by leaps and bounds. You’ll experience a wider variety of delicious food than ever before, and you’ll probably feel better as well. There’s one more benefit of eating vegan meals you may have never considered. Nothing beats the feeling you’ll get from supporting a business run by people with the most honorable intentions.
So, when transitioning your diet, give yourself every advantage. You don’t have to figure everything out on your own. There are a number of fabulous resources to show you the way, and a little reading pays off big time. My essay on how to go vegan will teach you more useful information in thirty minutes than you’d learn from months of following a vegan diet. After reading it, consider getting ahold of a couple vegan cookbooks devoted to quick and easy recipes. And above all, enjoy yourself. Food is undeniably one of life’s great pleasures. You’ll doubtless enjoy it more than ever as you align your diet with your core values and beliefs.
For further reading, see my regularly-updated list of recommended books.
If you found this essay of value, I need your help getting it into more hands. Would you please consider sharing it via email or social media? I need your help to get this essay read by as many people as possible. Thanks! —Erik Marcus
- Thomas P. Van Boeckel et al., Global trends in antimicrobial use in food animals, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 May 5; 112(18): 5649–5654.
- Thomas P. Van Boeckel et al., Global trends in antimicrobial use in food animals, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 May 5; 112(18): 5649–5654.
- Compassion in World Farming, Strategic Plan 2018-2022, p. 6. https://assets.ciwf.org/media/7432824/ciwf_strategic-plan-revise18-lr2.pdf
- Bernard Rollin was the first person I found to rigorously explore the origins of factory farming. His 1995 book, Farm Animal Welfare: School, Bioethical, and Research Issues, expertly covers the development and spread of factory farming methods. A more recent recounting of the origin of factory farming can be found in Philip Lymbery’s Dead Zone—Where the Wild Things Were (2017).
- Associated Press, “Milk co-op mailing highlights suicide risk for dairy farmers. Saturday, March 03, 2018. https://www.bostonherald.com/news/national/2018/03/milk_co_op_mailing_highlights_suicide_risk_for_dairy_farmers
Jim Kinney, “Information on suicide prevention arrives with checks for Agri-Mark’s dairy farmers; milk prices expected to keep dropping,” Feb. 7, 2018. MassLive.com https://www.masslive.com/business-news/index.ssf/2018/02/agri-mark.html
- Floor Borlée et al. “Air Pollution from Livestock Farms Is Associated with Airway Obstruction in Neighboring Residents” American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, Vol. 196, No. 9. Nov 01, 2017. https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1164/rccm.201701-0021OC
- M. J. Zuidhof et. al. “Growth, efficiency, and yield of commercial broilers from 1957, 1978, and 2005,” Poultry Science, Volume 93, Issue 12, 1 December 2014, Pages 2970–2982. https://academic.oup.com/ps/article/93/12/2970/2730506
- Stephen R. Collett. “Overview of Sudden Death Syndrome of Broiler Chickens,” https://www.msdvetmanual.com/poultry/sudden-death-syndrome-of-broiler-chickens/overview-of-sudden-death-syndrome-of-broiler-chickens
- Knowles TG, et al. (2008) “Leg Disorders in Broiler Chickens: Prevalence, Risk Factors and Prevention.” PLoS ONE 3(2): e1545. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0001545
- Erik Marcus, Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, & Money, Brio Press, 2005. page 20-21.
- https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/47162/17864_sb978_1_.pdf?v=41056 (page 2.)
- Laura Dilley et al. “Farm Animal Deaths by Fire (Years 2000 to 2018)”
- Aykan NF. “Red Meat and Colorectal Cancer.” Oncology Reviews. 2015;9(1):288. doi:10.4081/oncol.2015.288. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4698595/
- Dagfinn Aune, et al. Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality, International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 46, Issue 3, 1 June 2017, Pages 1029–1056, https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyw319 https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/46/3/1029/3039477
- Francesca L Crowe et al. “Risk of hospitalization or death from ischemic heart disease among British vegetarians and nonvegetarians,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 97, Issue 3, 1 March 2013, Pages 597–603. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/97/3/597/4571519
- Gerber, P.J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., Falcucci, A. & Tempio, G. 2013. Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigationopportunities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome.
- The ethics of boiling lobsters to death is explored in minute detail in David Foster Wallace’s magnificent essay, “Consider the Lobster,” which I regard as among the greatest pieces of animal rights writing ever created.
- Marc Bekoff. “Science Shows Fish Feel Pain, So Let’s Get Over It and Do Something to Help These Sentient Beings,” Huffington Post, Dec 28, 2016. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-bekoff/fish-feel-pain_b_8881656.html
- Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2018) – “Meat and Seafood Production & Consumption”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/meat-and-seafood-production-consumption [Online Resource]
- Gaia Vince, “How the World’s Oceans Could be Running Out of Fish.” BBC. Sept. 21, 2012. https://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120920-are-we-running-out-of-fish
- Scott Neuman, “Fishing Boats ‘Going Dark’ Raise Suspicion Of Illegal Catches, Report Says.” NPR. March 12, 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/03/11/592802471/fishing-boats-going-dark-raise-suspicion-of-illegal-catches-report-says
- Oceana. Wasted Catch: Unsolved Problems in U.S. Fisheries, March 2014. p. 24. https://oceana.org/sites/default/files/reports/Bycatch_Report_FINAL.pdf