About 3 months ago, after listening to a discussion on a podcast and doing further research around the web, I decided to try eating vegan. I became convinced that my choices mattered more than I thought, and I was unnecessarily harming animals while abiding by the status quo.
Years ago, a friend of mine told me that being a vegetarian isn’t all or nothing. This still strikes me as one of the most insightful points on the issue. You don’t have to sacrifice your own well-being in order to not harm non-human animals. Any time you want to make a vegetarian or vegan choice, you can do that. And for every one of these decisions you make, there will be a corresponding and measurable positive outcome.
First of all, let me give my definition of what it means to be a vegetarian or a vegan.
Vegetarian: someone who wholeheartedly tries to never eat meat.
Vegan: someone who wholeheartedly tries to never eat anything that’s production might involve the suffering of animals.
I’m going to get pretty specific about the reasoning behind making vegan choices. But first, I want to talk about why I was convinced that I should take these issues to heart.
For the first time in my life I became aware that my decision to eat eggs, dairy, and meat had nothing to do with a concern for my physical health. I’m not sure where I got the idea that my body needed animal products, but this was my good reason for continuing to eat them. I think in one way or another, most people are skeptical that being vegan is as healthy as being an omnivore. From what I’ve gathered, this skepticism about eating a vegan diet is not based in evidence, and runs counter to the current scientific consensus. I was even falling victim to one of the oldest and most common myths about vegetarianism, that it might lead to protein deficiency.
After educating myself further on the issue, I realized that a vegan can be as healthy as an omnivore. Moreover, I think that vegan choices actually lend themselves better to physical and mental health than omnivorous ones. The vegan options that are usually available to you tend to be less processed and more free from additives and other artificial substances. Of course, an omnivore can decide to eat vegan any time they want, so there’s no basis for saying that an omnivore can’t be as healthy as a vegan either. But, from the point of view of nutrition, veganism is a totally viable way of eating.
The Impact of Forgoing Meat
I remember a time when I used to think that vegetarianism didn’t make any sense, because if you went to the grocery store and chose not to buy meat, the meat was still there, which means that the animals had already been killed.
This turned out to be a naive way of understanding the impact of vegetarianism. However, I can see why the incorrect notion was easier to grasp than the truth. The truth is, we’re lucky to live in a system where our individual choices in the market will affect what happens both within and outside the grocery store.
Imagine you go into a grocery store and you had planned on buying one of their 1 lb. packages of chicken breast. Then, as you’re walking through the aisle, you remember reading about the effects of vegetarianism, and you change your mind and buy something vegetarian. There is a whole cascade of consequences that arise from your decision to not buy the meat. The impact of making vegetarian or vegan choices is realized in the reduction of demand for those products, which has effects on the economy of meat production as a whole.
Think of a grocery store. In a general sense, the way that a grocery store works is that they purchase products from a supplier, and then make those products available to people who want to buy them. Eventually, the grocery store always either has to restock their products (because they run out, or because the product expires) or decide to stock the shelves with products that they think will do better. Either way, they will be making a decision of how much of that product to put on the shelves in the future.
Lets say that, until today, the grocery store had been selling 50 packages (1 lb. each) of chicken breast a day. Every two days, they sell 100, and then they restock their shelves with 100 new packages of chicken breast.
When you decide not to buy a package of chicken breast, they sell 49 packages instead of the 50 that they usually sell. The next day, instead of having 50 packages of chicken breast left over, they have 51. Again, they will sell their 50 packages. But because one of their regular costumers decided to eat vegetarian on one occasion, when they go to restock, they are left with 1 lone package of chicken breast that was not purchased. They cannot keep this package to use later, because it’s now past its expiration date. So they have to throw it away.
For every package of chicken breast that they buy without selling, they lose money. And every time they lose money, they have to reconfigure their estimations of how much they expect to sell, so they can avoid losing money in the future. Assuming that you are going to continue to stop buying chicken breast, they should only order 99 packages from their supplier instead of 100. Even if you were going to go back to always buying your normal amount of chicken breast, the expectation of how much they would sell will never be 100 again. They might expect to sell 99.9 packages, when accounting for your one arbitrary decision to eat vegetarian, but that number will always go down from 100. Lets say that you decide to only eat vegetarian half the time. They should still expect to do better financially by ordering 99+100 in their next two orders than if they ordered 100+100. Therefore you’ve decreased the number of chicken breasts they want to order by making some vegetarian choices.
Further down the supply chain, the supplier of the meat will need to decide how much chicken breast they need to prepare. The grocery store usually orders 200 packages every four days, so that is how much the supplier gets ready to provide. It costs the supplier money to raise, feed, and kill each chicken that is used for meat. But this cost is made up for by the money that the grocery store pays for the meat.
For simplicity, lets say that they have to raise, feed, and kill one chicken for every 1 lb. package of chicken breast. If the grocery store all of a sudden says that they only want to buy 99+100 (199) chicken breasts, because of your decision to eat vegetarian, then the meat supplier will have raised, fed, and killed one chicken that they will not make any of their money back for. Because you have decided to always change half of your meat eating choices to vegetarian ones, the supplier should expect to do better financially if they decide to only raise, feed, and kill 199 chickens every four days.
In this scenario, every four days, you would be saving one chicken from being born into a miserable life. And this life really is miserable. The conditions in factory farms are actually so appalling that I won’t force you to confront them. But if you are interested in or skeptical of how bad an animal’s life can be in this setting, it’s not hard to find out about this online.
Of course, the numbers used in my example were made up for the sake of simplicity. But this post on the Counting Animals blog is a great resource for figuring out how many animals you could save by making more vegetarian choices. The post specifically deals with vegetarianism, so I’m sure the numbers for vegan choices would be even more inspiring. To summarize, here are some conservative estimates that were gathered from Counting Animals’ research:
A vegetarian saves more than 25 land animals each year, about 24 of which are chickens. For sea animals, the average American eats about 12 fish and 137 shellfish per year, but between 144 and 293 wild sea animals are killed annually to feed the fish and shrimp eaten by the average American consumer. In capturing these sea animals to serve the consumption of an average American, between 46 and 104 wild sea animals are unintentionally discarded dead or dying. And finally, when all these figures are added up and consolidated, it is conservatively estimated that a vegetarian saves between 371 and 582 animals annually, which accounts for more than one animal per day.
I decided to focus this post on the direct effects that our eating choices have on the well-being of other conscious creatures, but there are so many other good reasons for making more vegetarian or vegan choices. One of the most important ones is the impact it can have on our environment, which I encourage anybody reading to learn more about.
I also didn’t go deep into the differences in impact between being a vegetarian and being a vegan. The way I understand it, there is a comparable amount of suffering that comes out of the production of eggs, specifically, and if you can go without dairy products, you’re definitely having a positive impact through that venture as well.
Our choices about what we eat have consequences that relate specifically to the way that the food was created. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the consequences of eating eggs, dairy, and meat are extremely undesirable. I think that at some point in the future, people will probably look back on how we treat animals now and be embarrassed about this part of their ancestry.
I’ve been posed the question of whether I would eat meat if the animals that were being killed had great living conditions. What if we cared about the animals we ate the way we cared about our pets? This would be amazing of course, but we have to admit that none of us are close to having access to meat that is being produced in this way. I think the question of what to eat would be a lot different, and many of the current reasons to forgo eating meat wouldn’t apply. But wouldn’t it still be weird to want to eat our pets whenever we deemed that their life had been long or good enough?
For me, the decision is often between, on the one hand, all of the reasons for making more vegetarian choices, and on the other hand, the convenience, comfort, and taste of eating meat. The question would be significantly more complicated if personal health were an issue, but thankfully it is not. Still, this is a personal decision. If you don’t feel compelled to make more vegetarian or vegan choices, then by all means do not force yourself to do that.
If you do feel compelled to start eating vegetarian or vegan more often, that’s also great! I use this handout, which I’ve cross-checked with other resources, as a general guideline of how to stay healthy while making more vegan choices. Furthermore, there are a ton of resources, both in print and online, and a huge community of people that are engaging in the same project. I think you’ll be pleased with the amount of great food you can make, the new eateries you’ll find yourself frequenting, and the general feelings of personal well-being that I attribute to making more vegan choices.