Our dietary choices form an integral part of the lifestyles we lead. Veganism has become a part of mainstream culture with more and more people choosing to adopt this way of life. Vegans essentially abstain from using animal products in both diet and lifestyle. They believe that animal cruelty should be prevented at all costs and therefore choose to exclude all animal products (in any form) from their lives.
The International Vegetarian Union defines veganism as a “way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose. In dietary terms, it refers to the practice of dispensing with all animal products, including meat, fish, poultry, eggs, animal milks, honey, and their derivatives.”
What drives people to adopt veganism?
Animal welfare is the driving force that leads people towards veganism. Additionally, the environmental issues that are associated with animal agriculture are also a major contributing factor. Large-scale animal agriculture has consistently contributed to the decline of air and water quality. Therefore, vegans believe that by making these lifestyle changes they can bring about a significant impact to the world we inhabit. Veganism may also be a part of the solution to world hunger because it emphasises the efficient use of our planet’s food resources.
The argument for veganism
There is no doubt about the fact that animal cruelty is an integral part of the meat industry. Large scale industries are involved in rearing cattle and poultry, subjecting them to harsh environments and injecting them with chemicals. No living being should go through the kind of treatment that animals do to fulfil our needs. The meat industry doesn’t just function to cater to meat-eaters, animal products are used in various other forms- for clothes, accessories and skin-care products.
Aside from animal cruelty, the meat industry’s carbon footprint is massive. In 2016, the world’s meat production was estimated at 317m metric tons, and that is expected to continue to grow. A significant study in 2010 found the water footprints for meat estimated that “while vegetables had a footprint of about 322 litres per kg, and fruits drank up 962, meat was far more thirsty: chicken came in at 4,325l/kg, pork at 5,988l/kg, sheep/goat meat at 8,763l/kg. Farming uses up nearly 92% of our freshwater. “
Madhuvanthi, who has been a dedicated vegan for 2 years has this to say: The biggest enemy to earth is carbon. The biggest producers of carbon emissions are the meat and dairy industries. By being vegan, you are one less person contributing to this. The more people drop meat and dairy, the better the change. To cater to vegans, you need to grow more plants. Plants produce more oxygen. Oxygen destroys carbon. Then… well, there won’t be a problem after that. The ecosystem can heal overtime on its own. We don’t have to do anything other than choosing plants.
Further, the meat industry contributes to a lot of water pollution. The types of water pollution includes, nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilisers and animal excreta); pesticides; sediment; organic matter (oxygen demanding substances such as plant matter and livestock excreta); pathogens (E coli etc); metals (selenium etc) and emerging pollutants (drug residues, hormones and feed additives).
So much pollution directly results in the excessive growth of algae and plants in water bodies that use up all the oxygen. Essentially, rearing cattle and poultry for the production of meat leads to wide-scale pollution.
Health benefits of veganism
A major question surrounding the shift to a plant-based diet is if it provides all the essential nutrients for healthy functioning. Animal products are wholesome sources of nutrients that include protein, unsaturated fats, iron, vitamins, and minerals. A vegan needs to find replacements for these nutrients in their diets. Tofu, tempeh, and mushrooms are three of the many alternatives that substitute the nutrients found in meat. This is not to say that plants are incapable of providing a variety of nutrients for healthy functioning. Dietary professionals now agree that meat alternatives – such as nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, and tofu – can provide valuable and affordable sources of protein and other nutrients otherwise found in meats.
Aside from some missing nutrients, a vegan-based diet is supposedly much healthier. A vegan diet can help to protect bone and heart health, and lower the risk of cancer. It also eliminates the risk of consuming any potentially harmful animal fats. While the benefits of a vegan diet are plenty there are also a few drawbacks that are still under study. Vegan diets might increase the chances of hormonal imbalances and increase the risk of anaemia.
Switching to an entirely vegan diet has its pros and cons and many of its long-lasting implications on health are still under study. From the current research available, it is evident that that switching to a vegan diet is beneficial to one’s health.
Environmental implications of vegan food
As elaborated earlier, reducing meat production can significantly impact the environment. While there have been consistent takedowns of the meat industry, are obtaining all vegan products completely ethical and environmentally friendly?
Soya, maize, grains and different forms of oil are intrinsic to the vegan diet. However, agricultural practices to grow these are not always sustainable. A 2015 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization states that, “globally, 25 to 40bn tonnes of topsoil are lost annually to erosion, thanks mainly to ploughing and intensive cropping”. Soybean cultivation is known to lead to huge amounts of deforestation, especially in the Amazon. Additionally, it also causes habitat destruction of many endangered species.
The carbon cost of ploughing is often overlooked since the spotlight has always been on the consequences of dairy and meat farming. People fail to realise that such extreme farming and cultivation has a negative impact on the soil and the animals that are dependent on the soil for their nutrients. Nature is a cycle of interdependence, a small shift in its equilibrium can adversely impact several species.
The importance of sustainable food sourcing
A report in The Guardian, highlights the importance of the right kind of sourcing when it comes to vegan food – “unless you’re sourcing your vegan products specifically from organic, “no-dig” systems, you are actively participating in the destruction of soil biota, promoting a system that deprives other species, including small mammals, birds and reptiles, of the conditions for life, and significantly contributing to climate change.”
Therefore, when vegans believe that giving up meat and dairy is the solution to ending animal-cruelty and helping the environment, it’s not always feasible. Vegans themselves are waking up to the fact that items like soya have begun to serve as substitutes for meat products and can, therefore, be eliminated since they are not very nutritionally important.
Meera, a practising vegan for 3 years now, said: “Soy products are fantastic alternatives to dairy or even meat but ultimately the purpose they serve is sentimental and not nutritional. They are not the greatest for one’s health on account of being processed so thoroughly. Additionally, they can cause indigestion for the part of the population that is soy-intolerant. They could easily be omitted from the vegan diet. Alternatively, if soy agriculture can be regulated and made sustainable, it could continue to be a functional alternative to dairy and meat.”
The socio-economic impact of veganism
In principle, a vegan lifestyle is a lot more beneficial to the environment as compared to a meat-eating lifestyle. Veganism promotes eating ‘clean’ which is always good for the body. However, it is commonly known that supporting a vegan lifestyle is not easy. The cost involved is significant, you have to source specific kinds of organic foods, which is an expensive affair. Since vegan products are not readily available, accessibility is low.
This brings us to an interesting questions-is veganism inherently elitist? Can it only sustain the upper class because of their access and privilege? From a practical standpoint, this does seem to be the case. For people belonging to a lower stratum of society, food is hard to come by. In such a situation, they will consume whatever is available, irrespective of it being meat or vegetables. The bottom line for a large section of society is getting access to any kind of food. They strive to get the most number of nutrients from any food they can. Meat is also more filling than vegetables, making it an obvious choice because people would have to eat it fewer times in a day and spend less money. Yes, veganism is good for people, but it is not a viable option for everyone given their financial background.
Is it enough to simply give up meat and dairy?
The convenience of being a vegan is demographic-specific. For a country like India, our staple food is largely vegan. Vegetarian dishes don’t rely on dairy products too much, which makes it easy for an Indian to adopt a vegan lifestyle. There is no substituting required because the food consumed is largely vegan. When substituting meat and dairy in a vegan diet becomes a priority, many ethical considerations come in to play. Procuring these substitutes could involve importing them, which directly has an impact on the environment in terms of increasing one’s carbon footprint.
Meera says, “Life has become very limited in terms of food and quite stressful for me now that I know unethical practices are so rampant among even vegetarian industries. It was disheartening to know how little thought so many people put into the sourcing of such an important aspect of their lives.”
For a vegan to be completely environmentally ethical, it is not enough to simply shift to a plant-based diet. How they source their food is also very crucial. Local sourcing is always a better option as opposed to purchasing items that are imported, cooking one’s own vegan food as opposed to only ordering outside or buying processed food makes a difference. There are many layers to environmental conservation that don’t simply begin and end at forsaking meat and dairy products.
Madhuvanthi says: “Veganism is not just a diet, it’s a lifestyle. Many confuse veganism with a plant-based diet. The two are different things and should not be thrown about loosely. Yes, it extends to all areas of my life. I try to cause minimal harm to the earth and its beings. Recently, I have been looking for ways to reduce plastic, including buying products that use plastic packaging. I prefer to buy from bulk stores where you can simply refill.”
The philosophical underpinnings of veganism
The practical applications of veganism aside, there seems to be a philosophical understanding of the concept of veganism and its impact on our lives. Vegans believe that the choice to free animals of pain and suffering is important in the grander scheme of things. Every living being deserves dignity, and consuming meat strips that dignity away from animals.
The philosophy of Utilitarianism “is that only pleasure matters and that the right action or approach is the one that produces the most pleasure. From this point of view, the pleasure of both humans and animals matters, and the right outcome is the one that produces the most pleasure, on the whole, both groups included.” Does this imply that veganism is the best option? Not necessarily. If we attempt to understand the concept of interconnectedness in nature, it symbolises the fact that every living being is indirectly dependent on the other.
Large-scale crop production is responsible for the death of several habitats. An Aeon article elucidates a similar train of thought: “In larger-scale crop production, I saw prairie and forest habitats disrupted across North America. I saw birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects maimed and killed by machinery and pesticides.”
Just because we see clear demarcations in our day to day lives, between meat and non-meat, it does not indicate that the distinction ends there. To plant a crop, you’re possibly harming a living organism in the soil. Therefore, in this justification, there seems to be no singular way out of choosing a meat-free existence that supposedly does away with animal cruelty. The article adds, “We can — and should — advocate changes in those systems, promoting both animal welfare and ecological health. Our efforts, however, will be most effective if people of all dietary persuasions can collaborate, remembering that we, like the foods we eat, inhabit an integrated whole, not isolated kingdoms.
Veganism and travel
While being a vegan is a full-time job in one’s daily life, it also becomes difficult to maintain a vegan diet while one is travelling. A lot of countries have cuisines that have a lot of meat, making it very inconvenient for vegans to eat comfortably. Vegan options are often limited and people have to go out of the way to look for outlets that cater to their needs. Further, if there are vegan options they are overpriced and hard to come by. Countries like India, Italy, Jamaica and Vietnam are good options for vegans and vegetarians in terms of the accessibility of non-meat food products.
The duality of veganism
Becoming a vegan is undoubtedly beneficial in many significant ways to our environment and to our health. However, while many vegans assume a sense of superiority because of their choices, they have to realise that they can only hold a moral high ground if they have been able to successfully eliminate animal products in every product they use and consume. Further, they also have to be wary of the kind of practices that are carried out to provide them their food. Staying a 100% ethical is a task and one that we must work towards every day. Therefore, it is important to understand the many aspects of veganism and being ethical before labelling it either good or bad.