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 changed my view. Interestingly, the 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.
I have a small child myself, and 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 smart as individuals, it took till 3500 BC for us to come up with things like a wheel. Maybe the rise of artificial intelligence will make us humble again, and maybe it will also show that relative to real computing capability we might in fact be closer to animals than we attribute nowadays.
So why are we using 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 view the confinements that animals live in, which can only be sustained through constant supply of antibiotics to keep diseases in check. Not to mention the violent end they face, which is brutal even in its “humane” form. I have long been more worried about the conditions of animals’ lives than their deaths. But 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 evokes 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, 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.
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…
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.