“I know of no more beautiful prayer than [..]: ‘May all that have life be delivered from suffering’” (Schopenhauer, from On the Basis of Morality)
Vegan cuisine has been an amazing discovery for me over the last 10 years. Chefs have come a long way since my early experiences with vegan food in the university canteens of the 1990s which were dismal and off-putting. Not only amazing restaurants such as Vedge, Moosewood, Vanilla Black, Otto Lenghi, Ugly Butterfly or even triple-Micheline-star Arpege (which I did not have the chance to visit but is nicely featured in Netflix) serve delicious vegan food as parts of their menu. But also many run-of-the-mill restaurants and supermarkets now offer a stunning variety of plant-based meals and produce that I did not fully appreciate before my time as a vegan…
Some people seem to expect vegan food to be bland, or to comprise simply of a few pieces of salad. I have been amazed how rich, tasty and satisfying vegan cooking is. And it is not necessary to resort to “vegan meet”, as many traditional options such as nuts, legumes, tofu or seitan are very hearty.
So what led me to all this discovery? I wanted to understand how it feels to abstain from animal products for someone in his late thirties whose life since childhood involved meat at least twice a day. As you can gather from the previous paragraphs, I found surprisingly little costs, which was partially due to the hearty and filling nature of the meals I continued to eat. Despite these types of meals and despite eating at least the same quantity, I saw benefits in terms of health and weight. And I discovered a greater variety of new and exciting foods and flavors than I would have explored otherwise. I even found replacement for my previous favorite cold cut of prosciutto: excellent olive tapenade; and after some experimentation found that even exciting vegan cheeses are being developed, such as this or this one.
But obviously there is some hesitation when asking for the first time for vegan options at a restaurant, or bringing it up with friends where one is invited for dinner. I found out quickly that restaurants are used to this and that friends or quite accommodating. So things went back to a “normal” routine relatively quickly. But there remains this initial inhibition that I had to overcome, and there are some costs that one imposed on friends and family when they adapt their cooking. So the question remains: why bother with all these changes?
Most vegans seem to be motivated by three main arguments: animal welfare, personal health, and environmental impacts. For me, the first one really depressed me and motivated change. There is this suffering among animals – and much occurs during their lives and not “just” during their death – that I could not ignore. This here briefly outlines my personal story:
I became vegan in 2013. Prior to that, I thought factory farms were extreme and not the norm. That turned out be incorrect. Books like “Eating Animals” and videos about today’s ‘normal’ farming practices that can be found anywhere on the internet changed my view. I did not aim to find the videos that outline horror stories. I just looked for the normal things: how are chicken raised, how is milk produced, etc. But I wanted to learn about the norm, about the actual way that the overwhelming majority of food is produced, not about a fantasy or an ideal. The information that I saw surprised me in the disregard for animals as a “being”. Interestingly, this information only changed my behavior when I connected it to what I feel about it.
What is the kind of information that changed my view? For example, little baby chicken being handled like merchandise, being bred in incubators without mothers, automatically thrown on conveyor belts, packaged in cardboard boxes and shipped to indoor feeding operations of a scale and crowding I had not imagined, to be killed soon later. It convinced me that these animals are treated as if they are not beings, but commodities. This seems to be the norm, not the exception.
Another example are the restrictions on the relation between animal mothers and their offspring. Cows carry their babies for nine months, but standard practice is to take away the calf during the first day so that milk remains for us. These animals are very social, bond with their offspring, naturally feed them up to a year, and moan their loss for days. Pigs are also extremely social, and we confine mothers to (farrowing) crates for the entire duration of weening where they cannot move or interact with their offspring. It is disturbing to watch. Watching the subsequent maltreatment of the offspring – like castration of piglets less than one week without castration – and the mothers – like forced impregnation of cows – is making things worse.
The separation of mothers from their offspring is even more obvious for cows. Cows give milk only after birth of a calf, which is the reason are forcibly impregnated. And only if calves are taken from their mothers the cow’s milk becomes available for humans, and so forced separation is intrinsically linked to milk production. Cows are naturally caring for their offspring, and ripping their offspring from them really disturbs me. If people ask me why I am vegan and not vegetarian, it is the suffering in inhumane living conditions and the maltreatment including the forced separations between mother and offspring that lead me naturally there. Even if these animals would not be prematurely killed, there remains all the suffering during their lives.
I have a small child myself, and all these practices horrify me. We are told not mix our view of humans with that of animals. But science points out that animal’s physical machinery to feel pain, suffering, and bonding to others is not very differently developed from ours, and their pain response is very similar. (In case you are wondering, there does not seem to be evidence or reason to believe that this is same in plants.) My own view is that humans just barely surpassed the closest animals. Alone in the wild without teachings from ancestors we would not look or behave so differently. And for all our self-attributed idea that we are amazing smart as individuals, in the 300000 years of existence of homo sapiens it took 290000 years for basic civilizations and inventions as basic as the wheel to arise. Maybe the rise of artificial intelligence will make us humble again, and maybe it will also show us that relative to real (machine) computing capability we might in fact be closer to animals than we attribute nowadays. Yes, we are a little bit smarter, but are still in the same class of beings that experience fear and pain.
So why are we using and arguably exploiting animals? It developed out of necessity in times where nutrient-rich food supply especially in winters was scarce. This has changed in modern times through farming, storage and trade. Animal exploitation continued out of habit, a strong social component to eating, and belief that it is necessary for our health. The latter science can discuss (see the quote at the end), the rest we have to deal with ourselves.
Modern farming increased the suffering of animals as our understanding of mass confinements increased. Just watch the confinements that most animals live in. They are tiny and overcrowded, with lack of natural spaces or natural interactions anmong the animals. This can only be sustained through constant supply of antibiotics to keep diseases in check, and therefore increased with the advent of modern medication for animals. Traditionally, animal husbandry required some respect for animals during their lifetime (even if not during slaughter) to secure their survival: e.g., shepherds protected their sheep and brought them to new pastures. The more “efficient” our factory farms get, the more we loose sight of animas as living beings and treat animals even more as objects. I find this a scary development that has led to extremely cruel living conditions for most farm animals.
I have long been more worried about the conditions of animals’ lives than the circumstances of their deaths. It has been the biggest driver for my decision to become vegan. But I do not want to trivialize the violent end they face, which is brutal even in its “humane” form. We know that animals are sentient beings who experience fear and pain, and footage of the final days of their existence in crowded mass transport without food or water and of their end in gas chambers or other equipment does evoke horror in me.
Reading this might not make much of an impact. Watching it, and spending even short amounts of time considering how it feels, is different. I turned to eating fish as they at least have a decent life (if they are not farmed). But seeing fishing practices and the state of our oceans made that an impossible choice. So I became vegan.
How does it feel? Interestingly, as outline in the beginning of this blog, it feels good. Once I realized that beans, lentils, tofu, seitan and nuts take the role of meat in providing protein, it is not difficult to provide balanced nutrition. It feels satisfying, though I feel lighter and I returned to weight levels I had at half my age. I quote below the full abstract of the article laying out the position of the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which is reassuring and even encouraging because of the health benefits.
I also realized aspects of our industrial food production that I thought implausible: that meat production uses vast amounts of plants and water, is responsible for most of the deforestation in the amazon, and its total production generates more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire global transport sector together. Crop production could be substantially reduced if humans ate crops directly rather than first feeding animals and then eating those, reducing pressure on resources and – in principle – allowing us to easily feed everyone. And if humanity wanted to, this could free up substantial areas of land that we as humans could choose to leave as wild habitats (which is also my natural answer to the question whether it would not be a shame if animals would no longer be bread for us humans and therefore ceased to exist: well, let animals have wilderness to spread it rather than a life of torture).
The longer I am vegan and the more I read and watch about animal farming, the happier I am to have left this behind. Initially I was content with that. The more I think about billions of animals being subjected to (what I now consider to be) criminal conditions, the more I hope that system ends. This prompted me to write this, and I believe that those who spend any time to read or watch will end up feeling somewhat similar…
If this motivates you, maybe some documentaries about animal farming will interest you. I do not provide recommendations as they tend to look as if I selected them to specifically highlight particular problems. A simple search for factory farming that showcases today’s industrial farming will allow you to pick your own source. Apart from this, let me end with linking a little light-hearted self-made video to read-along to motivate change, and – maybe most interesting for those of you who came to this blog from within the academic community – a really clear and engaging talk on the role of science for the discussion of animal welfare.
As an end-note, a short citation about the nutrition of vegan cuisine: It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes. Plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products because they use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage. Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. Low intake of saturated fat and high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds (all rich in fiber and phytochemicals) are characteristics of vegetarian and vegan diets that produce lower total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and better serum glucose control. These factors contribute to reduction of chronic disease. Vegans need reliable sources of vitamin B-12, such as fortified foods or supplements.
Full abstract of: Melina, V., W. Craig and S. Levin, 2016: “Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets”, J Acad Nutr Diet. Vol. 116(12): pages 1970-1980.