Written for an online green magazine on behalf of the South African Vegan Society
What is veganism?
Although almost all of us know what vegetarianism is, veganism remains far less well understood. In fact, the majority of people have trouble distinguishing between these two terms and even some self-professed vegetarians are unsure of the distinction!
Once you start going into more detail, it gets even worse – there are lacto-vegetarians (‘lacto’ means ‘milk’, or more generally, ‘dairy’), lacto-ovo-vegetarians (ovo means ‘eggs’), ‘strict’ vegetarians, ‘pure’ vegetarians, raw food vegans, fruitarians and even a group of people who call themselves ‘freegans’. To add to this mess, people often mix all these terms together into the single blanket-term, ‘vegetarian’.
Clearly then, vegetarianism can mean many things – from a diet that includes eggs and dairy (lacto-ovo-vegetarian) to a diet that avoids anything that hasn’t fallen from a tree (fruitarian)!
This is where the term vegan comes in.The word comes ‘vegan’ from a shortening of ‘vegetarian’ and it’s inventor, the founder of the UK Vegan Society Donald Watson, explained it as meaning ‘the beginning and end of vegetarianism’.
Unlike vegetarianism, veganism can be conclusively defined as the pursuit of a diet and lifestyle as free from animal products as possible, for the benefit of people, animals and the environment. More specifically, vegans live on a plant-based diet (free from meat, milk, eggs, honey, gelatine or any other animal derivative) and do not wear leather, wool or silk.
Although this choice might seem extreme to some, it is relatively easy to pursue a healthy vegan diet.
Here are three very good reasons why you should give veganism a try:
Veganism and health
Contrary to ‘popular belief’ (or more accurately, ‘old wives’ tales’) a balanced vegan diet provides all the protein, calcium, iron and iodine required by our bodies. Vitamin B12, once the bane of vegans as it was exclusively animal-sourced, is now readily available in vegan-friendly supplement form and is also used to fortify many vegan products such as soy-milk and meat substitutes. Even the short and long chain Omega-3 fatty acids traditionally found in fish oil extracts can be obtained from canola, hempseed, walnuts and leafy green vegetables.
In fact, a growing number of nutritional specialists support the conclusion that veganism is in fact healthier than either a vegetarian or meat-based diet – potential benefits include lower levels of saturated fat, low cholesterol, lower risk for cancer and heart disease, higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, antioxidant vitamins C and E and phytochemicals, and even, according to some new research, a higher IQ!
Another advantage of veganism is not having to indirectly consume artificial substances like growth hormones and antibiotics which are often given to farmed animals; yet another is not having to consume cows’ milk, a powerful allergen for many humans which has been widely misrepresented by the dairy industry as an essential part of a growing child’s diet.
In summary, a vegan diet is at least as healthy, and likely healthier than, either a vegetarian or a meat-based diet. Health alone, however, is not why most vegans make the choice to change their diet.
Veganism and ethics
Clearly, for any rational person, there is unspeakable, unavoidable cruelty inherent in the production of meat and dairy products. The picture of happy cows and sheep grazing in idyllic meadows and filling wooden pails with offerings of creamy lactate is utterly fallacious (even though it is images like these that continue to sell hamburgers and cartons of milk) – a world away from the concentration camp-like conditions of suffering, disease, overcrowding, torture and slow, miserable death captured so powerfully in films such as Peta’s ‘Meet Your Meat’ or the profoundly affecting ‘Earthlings’ (www.isawearthlings.com), a new documentary that examines how, just as they can be sexist or racist, humans can also be ‘speciesist’ in their utter disregard for other sentient beings.
But, while ethical considerations are the primary motivator for most vegans, little has to be said about this, so strikingly obvious is it to any person who cares to consider the contingencies of a meat-based diet that abusing other creatures for our own inessential gains is entirely unjustifiable and bespeaks a pathological violence, one that emerges in other domains of human activity.
In the words of Leo Tolstoy, ‘as long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.’
Veganism and the environment
Towards the end of 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, which is part of the UN, released a report entitled, ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’, an alarming expose of the farming industry that confirms, for many, what environmentalists have been saying for decades: a meat-based diet is killing the planet!
Before you dismiss this bold statement as ‘hippie propaganda’, consider that this is a carefully researched scientific report released by none other than the United Nations. Now consider what the report and others like it are saying:
* The farming of livestock and livestock feed releases so much carbon, methane, ammonia and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere that it has become the single leading cause of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming!
* A meat-based diet requires 10-20 times more land for food production than a vegan diet; a dairy-inclusive vegetarian diet requires 3 times more.
* Vast quantities of chemicals, excrement and corpses are released into the environment by the meat and dairy industry every year, finding their way into the atmosphere and into our water supplies.
* The thousands of species becoming extinct in the Amazon every year owe their fate primarily to the deforestation that accompanies livestock production.
* It takes up to 100 000 (yes, one hundred thousand) litres of water to produce a single kilogram of beef, as opposed to a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand litres to produce a kilogram of potatoes, wheat, corn or rice!
* According to a recent estimate, over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted due to overfishing for human consumption. Some people say there might be no fish left in the oceans in 40 years
* According to some studies, animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than production of plant protein.
There are countless other ways in which a vegan diet can contribute to both the environment and our well-being as a species.
Given all the above reasons for the pursuit of a vegan diet, there are still some who, due to vested interests, lack of conviction or fear of change, choose to defend their habits with a number of tenuous excuses. Here are some common ones, along with rebuttals:
* I cannot be a vegan because of my blood type.
Response: The idea that you should ‘eat for your blood type’ is now widely regarded as inaccurate, faddish mis-information. Anybody can pursue a healthy vegan diet, regardless of blood group.
* I tried eating vegan food for a week once, but I felt really weak and light-headed so I stopped.
Response: Clearly a sudden shift in diet will not come without some transitional symptoms, although in the case of a move from meat-based to vegan such symptoms are usually mild to unnoticeable. Persistence is certainly rewarded, however, as many vegans attest to the perceived increase in well-being and mental clarity accompanying a balanced, long-term vegan diet.
* It’s okay because I support Free-Range or ‘humanely farmed’ meat.
Response: Terms such as these are no more than meat and dairy industry propaganda. The only regulatory body governing the use of the term ‘Free Range’ is the industry itself and although some Free Range providers might attempt to be truly ‘humane’, Free Range sometimes means little more than a small window in the factory wall and 20 minutes of outdoor grazing time.
Then again, even if a particular provider is pursuing truly ‘humane’ farming, the very notion thereof is logically and ethically questionable – is it possible to be humane in world genocide? How about humane capital punishment or humane rape?
Clearly such terms as these are an affront to human intelligence, not to mention the total inability of such ‘humane’ farming techniques, given the vast expanses of land and resources they require, to service anything larger than a tiny niche-market.
* I protest against the use of fur and foie gras and I campaign for animal welfare, so I’m doing enough already
Response: If you protest against such things, you almost certainly do so because they are cruel and because you wish to mitigate the suffering of animals. If this is the case then surely it makes sense to also protest the use of animals for food and clothing in a broader sense. Why focus solely on niche issues that affect less than 1% of all exploited animals when you’re still complicit in the exploitation of the other 99%?
* It’s too difficult / expensive to be vegan where I live.
Response: A balanced vegan diet is almost always cheaper to maintain than a meat-based one. Unfortunately though, people assume veganism is pricey because of the high cost of inessential luxury items like dairy free cheese and vegan ice-cream. If your diet consists of such novelty items then sure, it might be costly going vegan; it would be an ethical travesty though if your need for a low price vegan toffee custard outweighed the right to life of another living being, don’t you think?
But isn’t vegetarianism enough? Isn’t veganism just a radical fringe group?
Almost everybody knows a couple of vegetarians – people who don’t eat meat but usually still eat eggs and cheese, drink milk and don’t worry too much about things like ‘E Numbers’ or leather shoes. Because vegetarianism has been around for thousands of years, forms the dietary basis of several ancient cultures and belief systems and has hundreds of millions of practitioners around the globe, it is widely accepted and catered for in modern society. Few people would be confused, or even ask you questions, if you said you were vegetarian and most supermarkets, even in countries like South Africa, have a wide range of branded vegetarian products available.
And when you consider that many vegetarians, when asked, will explain that they’ve stopped eating meat for the same ethical and health reasons as vegans, it’s easy to see how people can be confused into thinking that vegetarianism is ‘far enough’.
However, there is no substantial difference between vegetarians and meat-eaters.
While vegetarians might not eat meat, they still consume either dairy products (lacto-vegetarians), eggs (ovo-vegetarians) or both (lacto-ovo-vegetarians). If this sounds okay to you, consider that the life of a dairy cow is still a horrific life and that to keep dairy cows pregnant (and thus giving milk) you have to produce young male calves, almost all of whom are turned into veal at the ‘tender’ age of roughly 6 months. Eggs come from hens and, for every female chick born into a life of egg-laying, the law of averages dictates that a male chick will also be born. These male chicks are killed almost instantly as they serve no purpose in egg-laying factories.
In other words, dairy and egg-farming are abhorrently cruel and vegetarians are still directly responsible for the deaths of cows and chickens when they choose to consume these products! When you also consider that vegetarians aren’t usually all that fussed about leather or wool, it becomes clear that all vegetarianism amounts to is a choice to exploit animals in different ways.
Indeed, even though vegetarians might cause a few less deaths than meat-eaters, ‘ethical vegetarians’ could hardly justify such frivolous, inessential consumption of eggs and dairy when confronted with the facts.
So, while many people, even some vegetarians, inaccurately label vegans as ‘extremists’ or ‘fundamentalists’, veganism is in fact a courageous and dedicated lifestyle choice that is not hypocritical about how it manifests its own ethics; it is the only lifestyle consistent with a desire to live without inflicting unnecessary cruelty on members of other species.
If we are to survive as intelligent, compassionate stewards of a sustainable, living planet, it is essential that we change some of our habits in our own lifetimes.
Of all those bad, destructive, nihilistic patterns of behavior that we have accumulated as a species over the last few thousand years, consuming meat, dairy and other animal products is perhaps the easiest to break and indeed, thousands more people are electing a cruelty free diet every year. We owe it to ourselves and our fellow Earthlings, especially those to come, to make an informed and honest decision about our lifestyles.
“Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” - Albert Schweitzer