Veganism is, by definition, "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 humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals."
In practice, this basically means: Animals are friends, not food (or clothing, etc etc).
But lets dig a little deeper, and lets start with the thing that people are most concerned about whenever they hear the 'v-word': Your own goddamn personal health.
"I've tasted the future, and it is vegan" - NYC Chef David Chang
By all accounts, a plant-based diet is considered to be the healthiest diet around. Without the cholesterol, saturated fat, trans fatty acids, and other harmful properties of animal products, vegans are infinitely more protected against heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cancers, osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases. Vegan lifespan is shown to be longer, with a higher quality of life and less disease. Eating a whole foods plant-based diet is also proven to promote healthy weight loss and in many cases it is proven to actually reverse and eliminate chronic illnesses entirely, without the use of pharmaceuticals.
Historically and biologically speaking, humans are natural herbivores. We do not have claws or teeth that can rip through flesh but we have hands and fingers designed to be dexterous and accurate, for picking plants, fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. We have long intestinal tracts like herbivorous animals do, while carnivores have very short intestines to get that rotting flesh out quickly. We chew our food from side to side like herbivores, not up and down like carnivores. And the best test of all: put a human baby in a room with a strawberry and a bunny, and the baby will never have the instinct to try to chase the bunny down, tear into its flesh, and devour it raw. He may, however, eat the strawberry and play with the bunny. Humans are herbivores, plain and simple. The meat we eat kills us because our bodies are biologically not adapted to eating animal products. Carnivores, (or even true omnivores) do not get heart disease.
See the following resources to learn more about the benefits of eating a whole foods plant-based diet.
- The Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
- Humans Are Meat-Hooked But Not Designed For Meat-Eating
- Shattering the Meat Myth: Humans Are Natural Vegetarians
- Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diet
- Nutrition Facts: Plant-Based Diets
- 8 Smart Reasons to go Vegan for Heart Health
- An R.D. Explains Why She Sticks To A Plant-Based Diet
- 57 Benefits of Going Vegan
It is quickly becoming a well-known fact that the animal agriculture industry is one of the leading causes of global warming and environmental destruction. It is also quickly being known that the single most impactful thing you as an individual can do to help save the planet is adopting a plant-based diet.
A few facts:
- Animal agriculture is responsible for almost a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions - more than the combined exhaust of the entire transportation industry (cars, planes, trucks, boats, etc).
- Animal agriculture is responsible for 80 - 90% of all US water consumption. [!!!! This is insane]
- Over 2,500 gallons of water are required to produce only 1 pound of beef. [The other way of looking at this: You save more water by not eating one hamburger than you would if you didn't shower for 6 months straight].
- Livestock and their feed occupies 1/3 of the earths land.
- Animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, water pollution, and habitat destruction.
- Every minute, 7 million + pounds of excrement are produced by animals raised for food in the US.
- Fishing is absolutely devastating: 90-100 million tons of fish are pulled from the ocean each year, not counting all the marine animals that are unintentionally caught and discarded as by-kill. We could have fishless oceans by 2048.
- Animal agriculture is responsible for 91% of Amazon Rainforest destruction.
A few articles to dig a little deeper:
- Facts from Cowspiracy website
- Eat Less Meat to Avoid Dangerous Global Warming
- NYT: Meat Is Horrible
- News Story: Wild Wolf Pack Killed Because of Meat Industry
The cruelty done unto animals for the sake of food is undeniable, yet it is the one thing most people want to deny the most. [Trust me, I've been there]. We don't like seeing disturbing images of what happens inside factory farms because we are all compassionate, caring beings and we'd rather not know the truth so we can continue to eat our hamburgers and fried chicken without remorse. Its called dissonance, and I'll get into that later. For now, I want to just present you with a couple facts about where your food comes and who you're eating. Years ago I told myself that if I wanted to eat meat, I should at least know where it came from. I hope you'll start there too.
We all love animals, right? Here are some of my favorite facts about animals traditionally exploited for food:
- Pigs are considered the 4th most intelligent animals on earth. Popularly known to be more intelligent than dogs, and much easier to train than our pets at home.
- Cows are very social and form close bonds with a clique of other cows. They also form extremely strong bonds with their calf and they mourn the loss of a baby for a very long time. Kind of like us!
- Geese are faithful and monogamous and, like cows, humans, or other sentient beings, they mourn the death of their life partner.
- Chickens have been found to enjoy watching TV and listening to classical music, and they also enjoy cuddling with animals (human or non-human) that they bond to. Chickens also have very strong maternal instincts.
- Goats are one of the cleanest animals and contrary to popular belief, they are quite picky eaters. They won't eat anything that is dirty or has been sitting out for too long.
- Cows have a memory of over 3 years and sheep can remember as many as 50 different faces for up to two years.
- Sheep have best friends (! omg this is so cute).
- Cows babysit for others, they bear grudges, and they they have distinctive personality traits like sociability, or shyness.
- Turkeys are highly affectionate, intelligent, and social. They enjoy playing together and it is known that if you toss an apple or a ball to a group of turkeys, they will kick it around for fun like playing soccer.
- Bees have complex cognitive spacial mental maps that allow them to know their way around. They read maps.
Here are some more facts you probably didn't know...
- Over 150 billion land animals are killed every year worldwide by the meat, dairy, and egg industries. [Did you read that number correctly? 150 billion!] [See environmental section for estimates regarding marine animals.]
- All birds (chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and more) are excluded from all federal animal protection laws.
- Most meat-chickens are raised in large sheds with 20,000 or more chickens crammed inside, forced to breathe, sleep, eat in and around the toxic ammonia from their feces.
- Due to selective breeding, most meat-chickens have enlarge breasts that causes broken bones, trouble breathing, heart failure, and starvation (due to an inability to walk to food or water).
- Factory farms keep the lights on 24/7 to keep chickens awake for egg production causing chronic sleep deprivation.
- Chickens naturally exhibit pecking-order behaviors in the wild. In order to prevent this behavior, chickens highly sensitive beaks are seared off without anesthesia, leaving them beak-less, often times unable to eat or drink as a result.
- Pigs are raised in crammed indoor containers, causing these highly intelligent creatures to suffer extreme confusion and distress. This leads to pigs becoming hostile towards other pigs by biting at each others tails. Farmers now cut off pigs tails and teeth without painkillers.
- Beef cattle are branded, castrated, and have their horns removed without painkillers.
- Cattle live on feedlots in the last few months before slaughter. There, they are forced to live their entire time standing and sleeping in their own waste and blood while they are fed corn - a food they are not built to digest. They get sick from this, and are pumped with antibiotics to keep them alive and fatten them enough before killing them.
Ok but whats wrong with dairy and eggs?
Many people experience that moment of realization that their hamburger is a dead animal, and they decide to stop eating animal flesh all together. Vegetarians are contributing a great deal to end the suffering of animals, but there's more to the story. Here are two really great videos that help explain: Video about dairy and video about eggs.
- Cows lactate when pregnant or nursing, like all female mammals. However, due to the demand by humans to drink the milk of another species, cows are raped and artificially inseminated and after giving birth, the calves are stolen from their mothers and sent to the veal slaughterhouse (males) or raised to become part of the dairy production cycle. [One of the most heartbreaking things you might ever see/hear is the sight of a mother cow chasing after her kidnapped calf, wailing and moaning in grief.]
- Once a cows milk begins to run out, she is inseminated again and the process repeats itself until she is 'spent'. At that point, she is sent to slaughter and converted into beef.
- Dairy cows are connected to automatic milking machines that attach to her udders, but in the process of being milked, pus is also excreted into the milk. There is no removal process for pus or bacteria - only a minimum sanitation process that still allows high levels of somatic cells (aka pus) in every liter of milk (or cheese/butter/yogurt/other dairy product).
- In the egg industry there is virtually no use for male chicks, so out of all the babies born, all day-old male chicks are killed off in a number of different ways. The most popular method is throwing the babies into a food grinder and grinding them alive. Others are discarded in garbage bags where they die of suffocation.
- Hens in the wild lay 12-13 eggs per year (similar to the human female reproductive cycle - ovulation once a month) (PS yes, eggs are hen periods). Hens in the egg industry have been genetically manipulated to lay 300+ eggs per year, a process which is devastating to a hens body (broken bones, osteoporosis, paralysis, fatty liver disease, ovarian cancer, eggs stuck in reproductive tract, etc).
- Nearly all egg-laying hens live in battery cages, packed with up to 10 hens, where they can't spread their wings or move around. The ammonia built up from feces of thousands of birds causes serious infections and death.
- Egg-laying hens are also subject to cruel beak trimming like 'broiler chickens'.
- Egg-laying hens, like dairy cows, are sent to slaughter for meat once they are 'spent'. These chickens usually end up in broths, soups, salads, and meals where their mangled bodies can be disguised as 'shredded chicken'.
The egg and dairy industries are the meat industry.
What about humane or organic farming? [Watch this video on humane slaughter to start.]
- It is still standard practice to debeak chicks even on organic farms.
- 20,000 hens in 1 shed still counts as free-range. Free range means poultry has been allowed access to the outside. This can mean just one small opening in the entire shed. Most of the hens will never step outdoors during their lives.
- Egg producers are legally allowed to print images of happy hens in grass on their cartons even if their hens live in crammed battery cages.
- All cage-free and free-range hens are deprived of most natural behaviors, space, fresh airs, and nesting behaviors.
- Even on the best farms around, the female egg-laying birds and dairy cows are still exploited for their reproductive secretions and not granted freedoms and natural behaviors like animals in the wild have. When their bodies no longer generate profits, females are still discarded or sent to slaughter.
- Most of the same cruelty towards animals on factory farms is still present on 'humane' farms for a lot of reasons. They have a huge supply and a demand to crank out their 'product' as quickly as possible, there are few to no laws or regulations placed upon these farms since most of their leaders have a say in the laws being written (deeply corrupt system -- a topic for another day), and the factory workers at any farm are underpaid and undertrained and forced to desensitize themselves to their daily horrors in order to get their jobs done. Training on 'humanely' killing an animal does not exist, and all animals end up in the same slaughterhouses anyway.
- 'Organic' or grass-fed only means that the animal was given feed free of pesticides or hormones, and only during a certain portion of their life. It does not mean that they were fed this way their entire lives.
- There is no federal regulation of the label term "humanely raised" - any farm can use this, even factory farms. It is a buzz word to trick customers into buying a false product.
- "Local" only means that the product came from the state where it is sold. It says nothing about how the animals were raised or slaughtered.
- "Natural" literally has no meaning and no regulation other than stating the product doesn't contain artificial ingredients or coloring.
- There are no labels that legally certify the animals welfare or that shed light into the true treatment of animals.
- See more at humanemyth.org
- Learn about what different food labels actually mean, and remember to distrust what you read at grocery stores: Behind the Labels and Food Labeling for Dummies.
This is a brief and mostly PG-rated version of what actually happens every time a human sits down to eat animal flesh (aka "meat", "bacon", "chicken wings", "ham", "barbecue", "turkey sandwich", "fish tacos"...) or animal secretions (milk, ice cream, yogurt, cheese, omelettes, buttery pastries). No matter the label, no matter how 'humane' a person wishes to think their product is, the truth is, there is no humanity in killing a sentient being that does not wish to be killed. There is no humane way to steal a child from its mother, and there is no humane way to mass-produce hen periods without violence and catastrophic suffering. It boils down to the basic exploitation of animals and a deep and fundamental understanding that it is wrong, and that animals do not exist for our abuse and consumption. Animals have many of the same desires and instincts for freedom and family as we do and we do not have a given right to deny them that. Humans are born compassionate beings. We have the capacity to embrace that and do the right thing.
I'll leave the animal section with a beautiful video that changed my life profoundly: Maxine's Dash For Freedom
* I've spared you many of the gory details of what actually happens to animals, but I would encourage you to search for videos to properly illustrate the cruelty. These videos are hard to watch - if you find yourself unwilling to go there or to keep your eyes open, just take a moment of reflection to ask yourself why. Thats all I ask!
For those who think veganism *only* helps animals, or our own health, or the environment (all incredibly noble causes in their own right), you may also be surprised to know that choosing a plant-based lifestyle is also incredibly important for other humans. Currently, we are producing enough food to feed 10 - 11 billion people. We have almost 1 billion people suffering from hunger and starvation, and more than enough food to feed them, but the majority of the worlds food is fed to animals, who are then fed to a small percentage of people in first-world countries. 82% of starving children live in countries where this misdirected food system is taking place. A few more statistics to take in:
- 80% of antibiotics sold in the US are for livestock.
- A meat-eater requires 18x more land per year than a vegan to be fed meat, dairy, and eggs.
- The average American consumes 209 lbs of meat per year. 1lb of meat = 12 pounds of grain, so the average american consumes 2,508 pounds of grain a year just through meat. That amount of grain could mean life or death for a community of starving people in another part of the world.
- At least 50% of all grains produced worldwide are used to feed livestock instead of starving humans.
World hunger is one of the many causes affected by the meat/dairy/egg/animal product industries. The humans that work inside slaughterhouses, farms, and food production factories are some of the worst-treated people in the world, suffering injuries, illness, and mistreatment by their employers. Many of those working in these dismal working conditions are undocumented, as farming corporations can keep wages low and are not required to pay for health insurance if and when something inevitably happens to them. An unsettling number of workers suffer serious injuries, impairment, or permanent disability and an even more unsettling number of workers actually die as a result of their work, whether through deadly workplace injuries or longer term disease. The health effects of being exposed to toxic particles from animal waste are devastating (which also, by the way, causes a strain on our health care system) and the psychological tax these people pay to work in violent, cruel, dangerous, high-stress, low-pay, unstable environments is equally devastating. In many factories, it is not uncommon to find employees urinating and defecating in their own pants, or forced to wear diapers, due to the long hours and lack of even one bathroom break during their 10-12 hour shifts. Many of the female workers also experience sexual harassment or assault by their superiors who manipulate them with threats of deportation or lower pay. Even in the best farms around, workers and farmers are still subject to the psychological torment of routinely slaughtering living creatures. Humans are not built to sustain such psychological trauma and thus the emotional and mental well-being of these individuals is seriously compromised by the nature of their work.
- Factory Farm Workers
- Slaughterhouse Workers
- The Overlooked Plight of Factory Farm Workers
- The Human Victims of Factory Farming
- 'I Had To Wear Pampers': The Cruel Reality The People Who Bring You Cheap Chicken Allegedly Endure
The consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs comes with a heavy price - for many, it may mean their life, their health, their wellness, or their dignity for the sake of your carnitas tacos. So many of these issues are interconnected, which leads to this final point...
Intersectionality is the idea that issues of oppression do not exist in a vacuum - rather that oppressions intersect with one another and the only way to truly elevate and systematically serve justice to one oppressed groups is to do so for all groups and causes. Intersectionality is when you see LGBTQ people protesting for Black Lives Matter, or when people of color fight for Feminism. It is the empathy that comes with being in a marginalized or oppressed group and the comprehension that, as Dr. Martin Luther King put it, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". The progress and hope for the success of all social justice movements is connected by a fundamental link in human behavior: compassion.
Compassion, according to Wikipedia, is defined as: "the response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help. Compassion is often [...] the key component in what manifests in the social context as altruism." Compassion is the expression of 'The Golden Rule': Treat others how you wish to be treated. This is a baseline belief of nearly every world religion and one of the first things all children are taught in school. Its simple common sense as a human being, to be kind and compassionate and have empathy towards others.
How, then, do you define "others" or "beings"? Most of us would include all sentient beings in our worldly idea of who is worthy of our compassion and love. We have pets and we fall in love with animals in millions of different ways throughout our lives and we as children and adults can grasp the idea of sentience. We know when a being is suffering - we can understand pain and fear because we have felt it ourselves - and we understand the desire for freedom because we have either felt freedom or had our freedom taken away from us. We see oppression because our internal compasses are strong and our gut instinct tells us what is right and what is wrong. So when we see a dog, a cat, or an animal we love being abused, feeling sick, sad, lonely or in pain, we suffer with them, and similarly, when we see videos of animals in slaughter houses, we suffer deeply. So deeply that we force ourselves to look away, to forget, to completely dissociate from the truth, because we are just that compassionate - seeing their suffering hurts us deeply and profoundly. We don't act like we don't care about the animals we eat because we actually don't care about them; we act that way because we know killing them and eating them is wrong but we haven't yet aligned our values with our actions so we create excuses and justifications to make our dissonance go away. Humans, like many other animals, have the beautiful ability to feel what others are feeling and to see the world outside of our own world view, which gives us a unique power to help others who may not have the voice or power to fight for their own freedoms. Rather than hide from our own truth, we should embrace that beautiful, tender part of our hearts that knows how to be loving and peaceful and use that to bring goodness into the world.
In the context of intersectionality, this means that since we have the capacity and desire to help our fellow oppressed people, whether they are women, LGBTQ, people of color, people with disabilities, refugees, people of a lower class, or any other oppressed group, we also have the same capacity to extend our compassion to all sentient beings. Speciesism is much like any other -ism. One group believes they are more worthy of power/freedom/rights/liberties/love/etc than another group, based on mostly arbitrary rationale, history, and distorted cultural norms, or simple blind privilege, and thus the group of power seeks to oppress those with a 'lesser status'. The belief that one species is more important than another is the systematic oppression of living, sentient beings based on archaic caste systems to maintain the status quo.
The painful truth about speciesism is that it is absolutely arbitrary and culturally-derived. In America, cats and dogs are pets, but in Korea they are food. In India, cows are sacred but in most of the world, they are hamburgers. Most of us adore horses, but many French people adore eating horses, and most of us are outraged by that, but not by the rape, abuse and slaughter of cows (who are not all that different from horses at all). We are devastated when a hunter kills one lion but we don't think twice about paying for a system that kills hundreds of wild endangered animals to clear land for cattle to be raised as food. We love Free Willy but many people in Asia eat shark and whale meat as a delicacy. A chicken in Portland crosses the road and we fiercely protect its path, while billions of chickens just like her are slaughtered every year for our dinner plates. We have no logical explanation for why we humans think we are superior to animals, or why some animals are superior to other animals, other than the comfort it gives us to maintain our human-privilege and to maintain a false sense of inauthentic compassion. But if history has taught us anything is that oppressors and oppression do not last, and the tower of privilege will eventually crumble, exposing a better, more unified, more compassionate society. We have the ability to see the world clearly, to see our actions and our thoughts for what they are, and we have a moral obligation to question the standards passed down to us. All beings are created equal and we do not have a right ethically, morally, religiously, biologically, or culturally to deny anyone of their own rights to be free. Connecting with our deepest and most compassionate selves is the key to not only achieving peace for animals, but for humans as well. All social justice causes require us to dig deep for that better self, and unlocking our compassion for one cause allows that compassion to be unlocked for all causes. The future of our planet and our society entirely depends on it.
Some more articles to get you thinking and asking lots of important questions:
Being vegan, or plant-based, or whatever you want to call yourself, isn't about sacrifices or restrictions. It is a joyful choice to make the world better for others and for yourself. The path to liberation is in front of you. What choice will you make?
Check out my Resources section for plenty more websites, videos, documentaries, books, podcasts and more on all the benefits of a vegan, whole foods, plant-based diet and be sure to check out my personal journey for more inspiration.