I have joined quite a few Facebook groups dedicated to environmental causes. Very often, I see posts that claim all our environmental problems come from people who eat meat. The vegan ideology claims that a world-wide meatless diet is both more sustainable and more ethical than any non-vegan diet.
Indeed, social trends seem to be moving, at least a little bit, in that direction.
According to a study published in 2020 by Vegan News, about 290,000 Americans followed plant-based diets in 2005. By 2020, that number had grown to more than 9.7 million, nearly 3% of the American population. The article doesn’t explicitly equate plant-based with vegan, but that’s the implication.
In any case, even non-vegan consumers are choosing to eat less meat and more fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. An interest in sustainability drives these trends. The public is coming to realize the negative effect industrial farming has on the environment.
Indeed, sustainability requires that we eat less meat than we have gotten in the habit of eating. However, the ideal of a world where no one eats meat or uses any animal-based product for any reason is neither sustainable nor ethical. And unfortunately, the rhetoric of some vegan activists amounts to hate speech.
What is veganism and where did it come from?
The Vegan Society offers the following definition of veganism:
Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
The Vegan Society was founded in 1944 but claims that the concept of veganism is much older. “It could be said that there have always been vegans—people who have chosen to live as far as possible without the use of animal products.”
The earliest date mentioned in the society’s 70th anniversary history, however, is 1838. In that year, English educational reformer James Pierre Greaves founded Alcott House. Among other things, Greaves disapproved of consuming meat or alcohol and advocated a diet of raw fruit, nuts, and vegetables. He coined the term “vegetarian,” The word first appeared in print in 1842.
He was not, however, the first to advocate what we know as a vegetarian diet. Reverend William Cowherd began to preach abstinence from meat to his congregation in 1809.
The Vegetarian Society, founded in 1847, allowed its members to eat dairy products and eggs. Apparently, though, some members considered the definition of vegetarian to exclude those foods. I have not been able to find if the society’s opposition to meat extended to opposition to such products as leather and wool. In other words, early vegans did not espouse today’s vegan ideology.
A traditional vegetarian society
In the English-speaking world, therefore, vegetarianism and veganism have only been around for the blink of an eye in comparison to all of human history. I have not seen any historical references to veganism in the rest of the world until very recently.
It seems a curious omission that the vegan literature I have seen doesn’t place a greater emphasis on India and its longstanding Hindu tradition of vegetarianism.
Ancient Hindu sacred writings extol the virtues of a vegetarian diet but never make it an absolute requirement. Today, according to the Hindu American Foundation, about 80% of people in India identify as Hindu.
Yet according to the most recent survey of dietary habits, only about 29% are vegetarian. Geography largely determines who does and does not eat meat. A significant majority of those living in the provinces bordering Pakistan are vegetarian. In the south and east of the country, on the other hand, vegetarians comprise a tiny minority.
I haven’t looked for historical data. It stands to reason that centuries of British colonial rule and other Western influence accounts for the small percentage of Indians today who follow a vegetarian diet. The percentage of vegetarians in pre-colonial India must have been significantly higher. On the other hand, since Hindu scriptures do not mandate abstaining from meat, surely not everyone did.
In other words, there is no grounds for assuming that Hindus on the whole ever practiced strict vegetarianism. And strict vegetarianism includes eating eggs and dairy products. Certainly, not all Hindus today abstain from eating some kinds of flesh.
There is no one Indian cuisine. Hindu civilization covers a vast area, and each region bases its food choices on what is available locally. The list of popular Indian dishes published by CulinarySchools.org includes plant-based foods, dairy foods, fish, chicken, and, to my surprise, even one pork dish! Evenhe strictest Hindu vegetarianism does not support vegan idology.
What is the vegan diet?
By definition, vegans can’t eat anything derived from animals. That includes not only meat, eggs, and dairy but also honey and mayonnaise (which contains egg yolks). That leaves plenty more they can eat: fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, plant-based dairy alternatives, and vegetable oils.
People who follow a vegan diet are less likely to have high cholesterol or high blood pressure. Therefore, they are less likely to be obese or suffer from heart disease or diabetes. Also, since a vegan diet is rich in fiber and antioxidants, it offers protection against various cancers.
On the other hand, it is difficult to obtain adequate protein, calcium, zinc, iron, vitamin D, or omega-3 fatty acids from plants alone. It is impossible to obtain vitamin B12 without consuming animal products. There is a synthetic vitamin B12 called cyanocobalamin. It does not exist in nature. What, then are the environmental costs of manufacturing it?
And what, for that matter, are we supposed to think about vegan meat substitutes, vegan ice cream, and other highly processed foods? They turn the vegan diet into the same chemical feast that vegan ideology claims to oppose.
Veganism as ideology
Vegan activists go beyond touting the health benefits of a vegan diet. They disapprove of any use of animal products. That means they do not approve of furs or leather goods, which require killing animals. But they also disapprove of wool. In part, that is because they oppose what they call speciesism.
An article in The Vegan Review describes four out of “numerous vegan ideologies out there.”
- Environmental veganism, the most popular vegan ideology, focuses on the environmental impact of meat production—not only factory farming but also hunting.
- Feminist veganism draws parallels between treatment of women and animals in a patriarchal society.
- A lot of religions, the article says, promote vegetarianism and many promote veganism. These especially include Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. The article also claims connections to veganism in the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and (not mentioned) Islam.
- Ethical veganism ideology claims that all animals have fundamental rights, the same as humans. Not only eating meat, but clothing or using any other products derived from animals—or even keeping pets—leads to animal suffering and is therefore wrong.
On closer examination, however, veganism is neither sustainable nor ethically superior.
Problems with vegan ideology and sustainability
The food industry has been quick to notice the growing interest in plant-based foods. So it has given us Impossible Burgers and other heavily processed foods. These require all the same practices in land-use, manufacturing, shipping, warehousing, etc. that they use for their meat production.
How is factory farming to feed vegans any more sustainable than factory farming to feed cattle?
In fact, cattle often graze on land unsuitable for growing other crops. Where, then, are farmers to grow all the plants that form the basis of vegan meat and dairy substitutes? One obvious solution is to cut down trees.
Vegan ideology boasts that these products do not have the environmental or ethical baggage of meat. But instead, it ignores that they follow all the same manufacturing and shipping practices of the food industry.
And, in fact, vegans point to how much water the meat and dairy industry uses. Have they ever read about how much water it takes to make almond milk?
But let’s suppose for a while that everyone in the world agrees to go vegan, keeping in mind that it requires not only adopting a vegan diet but giving up leather and wool clothing and, for that matter, pets. By the way, most vegan “leather” is plastic.
What happens to farm animals and pets? Most of them can’t survive in the wild. The ones that can survive would become nuisances, much like feral cats and dogs are now. We would not see cattle contentedly grazing in fields along the road. Farmers would not have any reason to raise them, and therefore no reason to let them breed. Wouldn’t they have to go extinct after a while?
So deforestation and loss of biodiversity would seem to be among the consequences of mass adoption of veganism.
Problems with vegan ideology and ethics
If India has long been home to a vegetarian society, there has never been a vegan society. Why? Only the affluent can afford to pass up animal protein.
Recently, the EAT-Lancet Commission recommended veganism as a “universal diet for the health of humans and the planet.” But more than a billion people worldwide, including 75% of the population of India and South-Asia cannot afford it.
Just as one example: almond milk, soy milk, and other plant-based milks cost twice as much as dairy milks. And that’s only comparing retail costs. American and European poor people have trouble enough affording the difference.
Many impoverished people worldwide depend on keeping their own animals. They don’t pay retail for dairy, wool, or the manure that fertilizes subsistence farmers’ crops. Take away their animals, and they would starve.
Vegan ideology and interest in animal rights are fairly recent intellectual products of Western civilization. What does it mean, then, when animal rights activists attack the hunting practices of the indigenous people of northern Canada? It means, among other things, that they are perpetuating colonialism and suppression of non-Western societies. It means that they are unaware that most plants do not grow well in the Arctic. Farming is impossible.
Transporting plant-based food to Arctic regions would bring heavy costs, not only in the price of food, but also in environmental damage of the shipping. Therefore, not only would forcing Arctic people to stop hunting and fishing destroy their civilization, it would also make it prohibitively expensive for them to eat at all.
It’s one thing to challenge factory farming and quite something else to harass societies that practice sustainable traditional farming methods, which all include animals.
The special case of PETA’s unethical behavior
In 1980, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) burst on the scene. It quickly became known for such acts of vandalism as throwing red paint on people wearing fur coats, dumping manure on the doorstep of a restaurant, and comparing meat eaters to the cannibal serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer.
What possible definition of ethics considers such antics morally superior to wearing leather or eating cheese?
I can’t find where PETA explains its definition of ethics. It appears to consider its behavior ethical simply because, well, it says so.
Vegan ideology and religion
I cited an article earlier that describes religious veganism as a common vegan ideology. Certainly Hinduism and some other religious from the same part of the world advocate vegetarianism, which isn’t quite the same thing. But what about the Abrahamic religions?
I can’t speak for the Qu’ran, but in the Bible, the first instance of killing an animal for the sake of humans occurs right after the fall, just outside the Garden of Eden. And who killed the animals?
He made leather clothing for Adam and Eve to replace the plant-based clothing (fig leaves) they had made for themselves.
Much later, Moses led descendants of Israel (that is, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson) out of Egypt. God intended to establish a society that would stand in contrast to all other societies. A lot of Mosaic law seems strange today, but much of it can be summarized, “don’t live like the Canaanites now living in the land.”
The Canaanites offered a variety of sacrifices to their gods, including human sacrifices. If there were any connection between the Abrahamic religions and veganism, the Mosaic law would have prohibited any killing of animals. Instead, it mandated an elaborate system of animal sacrifices.
Christianity departs from the Mosaic law in many ways. But not a syllable of the New Testament hints at vegan ideology. The only way to make Abrahamic religions seem vegan-friendly is to take a few isolated scriptures out of context and completely ignore the rest.
In short, if you’re a vegan, eat and wear what you want. I’m not criticizing your lifestyle choices. But if you are among the vegans who indulge in hate speech against people who eat meat, wear leather, or own pets, you are espousing an ideology that is neither sustainable nor ethical nor even honest.
The problem with promoting global veganism / Grace Manning. The Borgen Project
Ripened by human determination: 70 years of The Vegan Society / Donald Watson, Vegan Society. August 11, 2004
“Vegan” shouldn’t be the last word in sustainability / Maria Keselj, Harvard Political Review. October 1, 2020
What is a vegan diet? / Stephanie Watson, Nourish by WebMD. September 6, 2021