I wasn’t expecting to go vegan. It felt quite a spontaneous decision, almost like it came out of nowhere, although looking back I think I had probably had it at the back of my mind for a while. I had previously described myself as a ‘lapsed vegetarian’ – I had been vegetarian for a while, but slipped out of the habit. Despite being totally convinced by the arguments that it is wrong to eat meat, I still did. For whatever reason (laziness? selfishness?), I didn’t feel motivated enough to turn that belief into action.
I think there are three main motivating factors behind my decision: concern for my own health, concern for animal welfare, and concern for the environment. I don’t think each factor on its own would have been enough – and none on its own is a perfect argument – but together they have convinced me.
Selfish as it sounds, I think this was the primary factor that drove me to go vegan. That’s not to say the other two aren’t important to me (they are, and I’m more convinced by them the more I read), but the health benefits were the nudge I needed. In the past I had probably kidded myself that as an endurance cyclist a plant-based diet wouldn’t give me the nutrition I needed. Then I found out that a vegan friend of mine had run a 100 mile ultra-marathon, and that kinda changed everything. I’ve realised that all the nutrition I need can come from plants, and it simply isn’t necessary for animals to suffer in order for me to be healthy. In fact, I may even be better off without the animal products.
It would of course be wrong to imply that a vegan diet is always healthy, there is loads of vegan junk food! However, as far as possible I am trying to avoid processed foods and excessive amounts of carbs. I’m filling-up on fresh fruit and veg, grains, beans and seeds; I’m trying to make whole-foods my go-to. Could I eat animal products and still have a nutritious whole-food diet? Yes, probably, but being vegan is causing me to be deliberate about choosing nutritious food. The health dangers associated with animal products concern me, and the vegan diet just side-steps all of that.
I have long been convinced that there is no compelling moral argument for eating animals. I have never heard one. Speciesism means treating another species differently to our own, simply because they are not human. We would be disgusted by the idea of rearing humans for food, and yet most of us don’t bat an eyelid at the idea of doing so with other sentient beings. To agree with eating meat requires acceptance of a hierarchy of value, I don’t see how this can possibly be defended and am ashamed of how long I ate meat for.
It took me a lot longer to accept that there was a problem with eating eggs and dairy. I took the view that in principle eggs and dairy could be produced without animals suffering, and that all we needed was high welfare standards enshrined in law. What I didn’t really consider is that it is impossible to produce eggs and dairy at the scale required to satisfy global demand without causing animals to suffer – it can’t be done. They have to be treated as money-making commodities.
I hadn’t really considered the fact that for every hen which lays eggs (even the free-range ones) there is a male chick who is gassed or macerated as soon as its sex can be determined. Male chicks are a waste product in the egg industry: I don’t like what that says about us humans, and I don’t want to support it.
I also hadn’t really considered what it takes for a dairy cow to produce milk, especially at the scale required to meet demand. Dairy cows are no different to other mammals – milk is produced in order to feed their young. To maximise the financial efficiency of this process cows will be artificially impregnated as frequently as possible, and their calves are taken away as soon as is practical. Like every other mammal a cow has a nurturing instinct, distress at being separated from her calf is inevitable. We wouldn’t do this to humans.
The concept of small-scale ‘ethical’ production of meat/dairy/eggs is simply a salve to a guilty conscience. Global demand for these products means that it could never be scaled-up, and ultimately if you’re eating meat the animal is going to die. Again, we wouldn’t do this to humans. We like the idea of a pastoral idyll where merry milk-maids collect creamy milk from obliging cows, and gather eggs from clean dry hay where the hen has been sitting. We need to stop kidding ourselves.
Again, I had long been aware that animal agriculture was bad news for the environment. Deforestation, unsustainable use of water, massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions from cow farts, and so on and so on. If you ignore the animal welfare issue and just consume very locally produced small-scale animal products then of course the environmental impact is low. But do the math – it’s simply not possible to scale that up. Current global demand for these products cannot be met without significant damage to the environment. We need to do things differently.
Animal agriculture is necessarily inefficient. We give nutrition to animals in the form of plants and then eat the animals to get the nutrition. It would be far more efficient to get our nutrition simply from things that can be grown.
We have to be careful here. Just as it would be a fallacy to claim that veganism is always healthy, it would also be wrong to claim that it is environmentally friendly by definition. I’ve read articles recently pointing out the problems of intensively grown crops of soy and almonds. However, the problem here is not veganism but the intensive farming methods. I am unsympathetic when arguments like these are used to divert attention from animal agriculture, the impact of which is worse. Consumer pressure can and will lead to more ethical practices from manufacturers, and these will always be more ethical than animal agriculture.
It is also important to consider the food miles associated with a lot of vegan staples such as coconut. If the whole of the UK started drinking coconut milk then that’s a lot more product being shipped around the globe. But we can make informed choices here. We can choose to limit the amount of products with high food-miles we consume. We can (for example) make oat milk our regular choice, and only have coconut occasionally.
A Mental Switch
As I mentioned above, the arguments I have touched on were not new to me. In fact, I had been convinced of them for a while. Somehow a mental switch got flipped and I felt able to turn theory into practice. Without wanting to psycho-analyse myself too much, I think I just arrived at a point in life where I was ready. I’ve recently had a career change, and it feels like I’m moving to a new stage in life. It feels like I’m wanting to get myself in order. Eating meat was like the pile of papers sitting on the shelf – I knew I needed to sort it out, but I needed the headspace to do it.
If you’re not vegan, I’m not judging. It has taken me a long time to get to this decision, so I totally appreciate that you may not be where I am. However, I can’t pretend that I’m neutral about the subject. I do hope you will reflect on your own choices, and I hope what I’ve written has been thought-provoking. In my own very limited experience, all I can say is that I’m so glad to have made this change. The food I’m eating is delicious, healthy and varied, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.