What does the word ‘vegan’ really mean?
In recent years, the word ‘vegan’ has come a long way from the relative obscurity in which it once dwelled. As a concept now associated with people as well known as Oprah, Bill Clinton and James Cameron, the word itself has become fairly widely known. But is it really understood?
Contrary to popular belief, vegans do not just subscribe to a plant-based diet or abstain from animal products as a reaction to the treatment of animals in large-scale, industrialized conditions. Vegans object to our use of animals as “resources” in and of itself, whether the individuals in question are being housed in factories, or in small, backyard, family-farm situations.
This includes (but is not limited to) the use of animals for food, clothing, cosmetics, experimentation and entertainment. It also extends to any situation where animals are being used for labor such as in the case of oxen tilling fields, and any situation where animals are treated as commodities such as in the pet industry, which treats ‘companion animals’ as living merchandise to be bought and sold. (Note: Vegans, as a whole, do not object to the practice of sharing one’s home with animals. Many of us take tremendous joy in being able to adopt or rescue the unwanted refugees of the pet trade.)
Vegans do not use or wear leather, wool, silk, down, fur, or any other fabric that come from animals. Nor do we ingest milk, honey, eggs, flesh, or any other ingredients of animal origin, including ‘by-products’, such as gelatin and casein. We also abstain from using cosmetics, toiletries and (as far as is practical) pharmaceutical products that are made using animal ingredients or animal testing. We also do not support or condone any form of ‘entertainment’ that involves the use of animals, including (but not limited to) circuses, rodeos, marine parks, zoos/safaris, animal racing, and hunting.
Is it possible to really be vegan, when animal ingredients are everywhere?
Although it’s true that in today’s world, it is almost impossible to avoid using some non-vegan items or ingredients, it is also true that avoiding most of them is easier than you think. The rising number of vegans each year has created an increased demand for vegan products. So much so that today, there are many incredibly delicious, easily attainable, and easy to prepare substitutes that would have seemed miraculous to vegan pioneers, such as pizza and ice cream! There’s also a growing number of high-quality replacements for non-vegan clothing, toiletries, cleaning products, household items, and anything else we need to live without exploiting animals.
Every time anyone takes a stand for non-human animals and their right to live free from human oppression, he or she moves all of humanity one giant step closer to a vegan world, where animal fat in our tires and crushed insects in our food will be but a distant memory of less civilized times.
In the meantime, we can at least do our very best to avoid animal ingredients and businesses wherever possible.
Don’t we need some animal products in our diet to be healthy?
For those who might be concerned about meeting all their nutritional requirements with just plant foods, rest assured that even the mainstream and conservative Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association, and described by www.eatright.org as “the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals”) confirms that you do not need to eat animal products to maintain your health.
“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and for athletes.
Many people who become vegan report that their health greatly improves as a result. Perhaps, the lighter, healthier body that emerges with veganism is a reflection of a lighter, healthier conscience that comes with taking a stand against injustice and making a commitment to non-violence.
Finally, unlike the Atkins, Paleo, or South Beach diets, which are trendy fads, veganism is neither a fad nor a diet, but a stand against injustice and commitment to non-violence that impacts one’s eating choices because of ethical considerations. Nevertheless, the growing number of strong, active vegans are a testament to the fact that one doesn’t have to sacrifice one’s physical health to embrace a more gentle way of life.
I like the idea, but isn’t it difficult to be vegan?
Living as a vegan, especially for those of us in the developed world, is much, much easier than it is commonly perceived to be. As we wrote back in 2012:
“During the past few years, the call to reduce our consumption of animal products has grown tremendously… Vegan recipe blogs have proliferated into the hundreds, if not thousands. Both the number and the variety of vegan items available in stores and online are increasing annually. New vegan businesses are opening and thriving more than ever, including cafes, bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores, clothing stores, online boutiques, and even retreat centers and B&Bs…”
Yes, there’s never been a better time. And as the demand for vegan alternatives grows, it’s only going to get even easier.
There certainly is an initial learning period, during which new habits are established, and the vegan newbie might be surprised or even shocked to learn where certain animal products find their way into our lives. But each time we pass up a non-vegan item in favor of a vegan alternative (or even in favor of no alternative, as many of us have done many a time) we can feel strengthened by our knowledge that we have not sacrificed our covenant with the animals for something as trivial as taste, habit, comfort, or convenience.
I love animals, and would never want to hurt them. But why does that mean I should become vegan?
Much like the cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, and other animals that many of us consider to be our friends or companions, each animal who is made to suffer and die for our pleasures is an individual with his or her own personality, purpose and emotional life.
All of the uses we have derived for our fellow animals are unnecessary and involve at least some harm or suffering – both emotional and physical, and often severe and/or lasting.
With this one simple decision (to eliminate your support for anything that perpetrates exploitation of any sentient being) you will be acknowledging not only your concern for other species, but the obligation we all have to not cause them unnecessary harm, whether directly or indirectly.
I’m already a vegetarian, and I avoid products that involve extreme cruelty, such as veal and foie gras. Isn’t that enough?
Many vegetarians still wear leather, wool, and silk, along with eating dairy, eggs, honey, and other items from the same industry that produces meat. All of these animal products cause unnecessary harm, which we must avoid in order to live consistently with our values.
Milk and other Dairy Products
Production of dairy requires female cows to be repeatedly impregnated, so that lactation will occur. But mothers and babies cannot be allowed to stay together, or there will be no milk to take. Each generation, the female calves born from this breeding cycle follow their mothers into a lifetime of repeated forced insemination, resulting in annual mourning for their stolen infants. While these girls are milked dry by mechanized systems, their male sons and brothers are sold for their tender flesh (known as veal), with a small few kept aside to be used for the same artificial insemination endured by their sisters and mothers.
As only female chicks are capable of laying eggs, those identified as male are considered a ‘waste product’ that must be disposed of using the most cost-effective methods available. What this often means is that 50% of all chicks born in hatcheries are ground alive or thrown into trashcans and smothered. Many chicks end up incorrectly sexed, meaning that males are sold as females and end up filling farm sanctuaries when their owners discover that they are actually roosters. Hens raised for meat and egg laying generally come from the same hatcheries. The hens that make it out alive are de-beaked; an extremely painful process.
Many bees are killed during the extraction of honey. But even prior to this, they are forced to live in unnatural and unhealthy hive structures so that we can take their winter reserve of food (honey) and be shipped around the country to pollinate crops (crowding out native pollinators in the process.)
No matter their “quality of life,” unnecessary harm is always involved when we exploit another animal for his or her reproductive system, flesh, skin, or regurgitated food. Thankfully, there are good vegan alternatives to all of these.
A Call to Vegetarians
Waking up: Vegetarian to Vegan
Bruno: A New Perspective on Happy Cows
Life Lessons from a Goat
A Hen’s Relationship with her Eggs
What’s Wrong with Backyard Eggs?
Backyard Farming Leads to Abandoned Chickens
Cage-Free? Not Free Enough
Isn’t it okay to eat animal products if they’re free-range, cage-free, or locally-raised?
Using free-range, cage-free, organic, grass-fed, local or “humanely raised” animal products may seem like a more responsible alternative. But these terms have been developed by marketing professionals to put a positive spin on an industry whose primary purpose is unethical, regardless of the scale or specific practices of “production.”
Not only are the terms themselves highly misleading, they are irrelevant to the fundamental issue of the right of sentient beings not to be exploited. No matter the relative “quality of life” an animal is given while in captivity, they are still unnecessarily imprisoned, terrified, harmed and ultimately killed.
The Truth About Free Range Turkeys
Bruno: A New Perspective on Happy Cows
Humane? Ask the Animals
Making a Killing With Animal Welfare Reform
What’s Wrong with Backyard Eggs?
A Hen’s Relationship with her Eggs
Backyard Farming Leads to Abandoned Chickens
Cage-Free? Not Free Enough
Bill & Lou
Don’t welfare regulations protect animals from unnecessary cruelty?
Animal welfare is based on the premise that inflicting harm is unacceptable only when it goes beyond what is considered reasonable. By contrast, any harm considered necessary for an established use (e.g. food, clothing, entertainment) is acceptable.
In other words, kicking and beating animals because you enjoy doing so is not okay. Dehorning and castrating farmed animals (without anesthetic) because it makes them easier to manage is okay. This definition of “high standards” in animal welfare explains why the industry can legitimately make such ludicrous claims in the face of cruelty so severe that most of us refuse to even look at it.
Welfare measures give consumers a false sense of security that it is possible for sentient beings to be treated well during captivity, confinement, and slaughter. This mistaken (but prevailing) belief has led to increased consumer confidence in animal products, while diverting discussion from the main issue, which is that all uses of animal products are inherently harmful and unnecessary.
If we all became vegan, wouldn’t farmed animals overrun the planet?
If the world’s entire human population goes vegan, it will likely be a gradual process, beginning with the reduction of farmed animal populations, just by our ceasing to breed them into existence.
As it is, farmed animals are already overrunning the planet. We intentionally breed over 50 billion animals into existence each year, and at any given time, there are over 20 billion farmed animals in the world; almost three times the human population. These animals are displacing natural species, emitting huge amounts of waste, using huge amounts of natural resources, and polluting our waterways.
The only chance we have of finding a solution to this problem is for each one of us to be willing to veganize the choices we make in our everyday lives. This alone will make it possible for us to phase out the forced breeding of animals and ultimately free the planet from this unnatural burden.
Fruits and vegetables are expensive. Isn’t being vegan a privileged position?
Having economic access to fresh fruits and vegetables should be the right of every human being, but it’s true that for some, it is seemingly unaffordable. While it is completely possible to be vegan even on a tight budget, as many people are, the food inequality that is prevalent in our country and across the globe is worth noting.
We must recognize though that a large part of the reason meat and dairy is so cheap (and vegetables and fruit more expensive) is because of gigantic subsidies that the meat and dairy industry receives from the government. If these subsidies were funneled towards sustainable plant based agriculture, animal products would be unaffordable for the vast majority of the population, and we would have access to inexpensive fruits, vegetables and grains instead.
The natural high cost of animal products and low cost of vegan alternatives is grossly inverted only because our current political and social systems are set up to make it so. By becoming vegan we become part of the growing movement of people fighting not only for animal rights, but also for food equality.
Also see: How can we grow enough fruits and vegetable to feed everyone?
Other animals prey on one another, so why shouldn’t we? Isn’t it a natural part of life?
Although other animals cannot necessarily be expected to uphold ethical standards, this is not true for human beings. Since animal products are both unnecessary for us and harmful to animals, and since there is widespread agreement that inflicting unnecessary harm is wrong, we have a moral obligation to be vegan.
A more specific answer to this question is that we are not physiologically designed to eat other animals. Amongst other differences, carnivores have sharp teeth that can bite through skin and strong muscles to slaughter their prey and eat them whole, entrails and all. Fresh blood and raw flesh make them salivate and kill to satisfy their hunger. When we humans contemplate things such as fresh blood, raw flesh and entrails, there is a sickening guttural reaction.
Imagine catching a deer without weapons (no guns, arrows, spears, knives, or similar items – just your flat teeth, dull nails, and hands) and then eating this animal whole, fresh and raw. Does that sound or feel natural to you?
Unfortunately we do live in a world where some animals prey on others. While these animals don’t have a choice (they must either kill or starve to death), we can be grateful that we do have a choice as to whether to participate in these acts of violence; acts which are, for us, entirely unnecessary.
What about the plants you kill or harm by eating vegan? (AKA: Can’t you hear the carrots screaming?)
Most people find genuine pleasure in the experience of harvesting fruit and vegetables, but few would find it enjoyable to watch an animal being killed. If you don’t share this perspective, try watching any one of the myriad of videos exposing the reality of animal slaughter.
From a purely scientific perspective, animals (including humans) process information with neural networks. But plants process information hormonally, which is orders of magnitude slower than neural network processing. Given the extraordinarily slow information processing rate that occurs in plants (hundreds of billions of times slower than in animals), it is unreasonable to believe that plants are capable of actually experiencing pain, which is an evolutionary adaptation intended to provide animals with cues to escape danger, something plants are incapable of doing.
That said, we should be concerned with the essential role plants play with regard to the ecosystem and environment. Vegan choices actually do more to protect plant life than eating an animal based diet, which wastes vast quantities of plant food and other natural resources such as fresh water.
It is impossible to live on this earth without doing some damage, but becoming vegan is the first step towards significantly reducing that damage. Animals are net consumers, not producers. This means that every animal raised for his/her flesh, eggs, milk, hair, skin or byproducts consumes more food and resources than he or she produces. For example, it can take up to 16 pounds of grain (plant material) along with 2500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef.
As you can see, while vegans may directly eat more plants than the average non-vegan, the damage to plant life caused by the production of animal products is far, far greater than that caused by eating vegan.
How can we grow enough fruits, vegetables and grain for everyone to be vegan when so many people are already starving?
There is already enough food to feed the world many times over. The reason so many people are starving has to do with political injustice and instability, access to resources, and other factors including the amount of food that is fed to farmed animals instead of people. Millions of tons of grain are fed to animals used for food, instead of being fed to the people who grow it. The same developing nations where people are starving grow the grain that is exported to wealthier nations to be fed to the animals we use.
If we started growing more fruit, vegetables and grain as opposed to raising animals for food and clothing, world hunger would be greatly reduced!
1.5 acres can provide 37,000 lbs. of plant-based food, and only 375 lbs. of meat.
Why should I care so much about animal suffering when there are so many other important issues to focus my attention on?
Just as you don’t need to be a human rights activist to avoid contributing to human rights violations, you don’t need to be an animal activist to be a vegan. Being vegan is simply a matter of changing your habits to conform to your values. While becoming vegan may take some additional time in the learning phase, it is no more time consuming than having a good habit replace a bad habit. You can still focus your time on other important issues while simply leaving animals alone.
Every animal, both human and non-human, has the inherent right to freedom from unnecessary harm. Veganism is not the end of all harm. It is the beginning. Right this moment you may not have the power to stop a woman from being stoned to death or children from being forced into slavery, but you are empowered to stop your own participation in the harm that is caused by the production of all things non-vegan.
Doesn’t becoming vegan mean others will see me as extreme? Will I be isolated from my friends and family?
Again, you don’t have to be an animal activist to be a vegan. Of course, like other social justice issues, the more outspoken you are for veganism or against animal exploitation, the more pushback you’ll generally receive. But there are many vegans who refuse to debate the issue with others, preferring to simply disarm questions or comments with a polite statement that they care about other animals.
More and more, as information about veganism becomes more widespread, vegans are finding that their friends and family are much more supportive and accepting than they used to be. When we set an example of being kind and gentle, we are able to use conversations about veganism as opportunities to inform and discuss instead of arguing.
It is also worth noting that the abolitionists who fought to free human slaves may have been seen as extreme, yet no one would fault them today for speaking out.
If you are outspoken, some people may see you as extreme and some friendships may fade, but true friends will respect your desire to better yourself and the world. You can also make use of the myriad of vegan meet-up groups, social networking sites and support groups online to connect to others who have the same core ethic as you.
For those who are truly concerned about the possibility of feeling isolated, we suggest that you ask yourself what is more important to you: being accepted by a society that doesn’t share your values, or living according to your principles?
What about my animal companions? Would I have to give them away?
It is completely possible to be vegan and give shelter to animals traditionally used as pets. Ideally, all animals would not be dependent on humans and would be able to live out their lives naturally, but many domesticated and injured animals are unable to do this. Giving sanctuary to an animal in need is completely supported by the vegan ethic.
However, buying an animal (including those seen as ‘pets’) perpetuates the belief that animals are commodities, and any animal breeding (whether intentional or otherwise) contributes to the overpopulation of domesticated animals who are living unnatural lives by definition. For this reason, spaying and neutering animals (or taking other, adequate steps toward ensuring that they’re not able to reproduce, such as separating females from males) is also an important issue.
If you’re looking for a nonhuman friend to share your life with, there are millions of homeless animals being killed in “shelters” every year who would love to be part of a caring family.
And thankfully for those of us who love them, there is more and more information becoming available to help cats and dogs enjoy a healthy vegan diet alongside you. Rabbits, guinea pigs, gerbils and hamsters are naturally vegan animals, and there are many of them in shelters as well.
You mean, you don’t even use wool, or silk?
Common practices for obtaining wool and silk are cruel and cost the life of both animal and insect. Even if the wool or silk is obtained without “harming the animals” they are still kept as commodities and bred at excessive rates using land and resources to fuel these unnecessary practices. There are a number of natural fibers being used today and more being discovered each year that can be used instead of participating in this cycle of abuse.
What do I do with all the items I already own that are made from leather, wool, silk, etc.?
If you found out that the leather you own was made from human skin (like the items that were made from holocaust victims’ bodies) would you simply use it until it wore out? If you believe it’s wrong to use animals as commodities, would you feel comfortable profiting from the sale of your non-vegan clothing and bedding? If you knew that the lambs had been sold for meat and the mothers deprived of raising their young, would you feel comfortable giving someone clothing made from the hair robbed from the backs of sheep?
There is a good deal of debate in the vegan community over what to do with non-vegan clothing, bedding, etc. after becoming vegan. Often people go with the easiest and most socially acceptable option, rather than the choice that respects the lives of the animals that were taken or harmed. Allowing their continued circulation in the market perpetuates the perception that animals are resources, rather than acknowledging the reality that these items are made from someone’s skin or hair, a mother’s milk, or feathers taken from a dead bird’s body. They were never ours to take in the first place.
But I LOVE cheese!
You would probably be surprised to learn how many people are addicted to cheese, and we don’t use the term “addicted” lightly. In fact, milk has casomorphines in it that act like mild opiates to calm the nursing infant and help bond mother to child. As the liquid from milk evaporates, these casomorphines are concentrated, making cheese a literal “comfort food.” If you give yourself a month off cheese, your opinion may begin to change. After several years of being vegan, cheese becomes repulsive to many.
Just think about what cheese really is! Another animal’s breast milk, inoculated with enzymes from the stomach lining of their dead calves, the same calves who were deprived of their mother’s milk so that we could make it into cheese.
There’s nothing natural or healthful about that.
What about animals in entertainment?
Rodeos, horse racing, dog shows, trained dogs, circuses (and all other forms of ‘entertainment’ that exploit animals) reinforce the idea that animals are here for us to use for anything that provides us with pleasure, regardless of the physical, mental and emotional harm, sometimes severe, that is always the result of any form of slavery.
When questioning the right and wrong of animal use, we must remember that animals cannot give us permission to use their bodies. Therefore, using them for our purposes constitutes a harm in and of itself. When the question arises as to its necessity, the realists among us know that all institutions of animal use involve unnecessary harm, even if we can find specific instances in each that don’t appear to be harmful.
As long as we don’t know for certain, it is unjust to assume that any animal wants his or her body to be used in service to our pleasures. True justice toward all sentient beings can be achieved only by following the golden rule.