In-veg-stigation

Around one per cent of Australians are vegan. Although it is difficult to determine whether these numbers have increased in recent times, there has been an increase in the number of American vegans. There has also been increased exposure of vegans in popular culture, with Bill Clinton and Ellen De Generes expressing their enthusiasm for veganism.

Veganism involves not using any products derived from animals. This commonly extends to food, but also can include clothing (eg leather shoes).

Why is it that there has been a sudden curiosity in veganism? Is this lifestyle choice beneficial to the planet and individuals?

Health

Positives

Vegan dietary choices, according to various studies, decrease the likelihood of sustaining various diseases including cancer. One must note that vegan diets vary, and that studies can only illustrate general trends. Vegan choices, like most regular dietary choices, can indeed be very unhealthy.

  • The risk of cardiovascular disease is decreased. Generally, vegans have lower cholesterol, moderate blood pressure and generally lower BMI’s (they are leaner). As a result, the risk of heart disease is decreased.
  • The risk of esophagus, mouth, lung and stomach cancer is decreased.
  • Contrary to popular perceptions, vegans do not necessarily have bone health issues that are much worse than those individuals with other diets.
  • Vegan diets tend to be antidotes to diabetes. A 2010 study by Trapp and Barnard found that “vegan diets present potential advantages in managing type 2 diabetes that merit the attention of individuals with diabetes”.
  • There has also been a study suggesting that vegan diets can improve the help of those with rheumatoid arthritis.

Negatives

It should again be noted that all individual vegan diets are different and that health impacts vary for individuals. Academic findings are general findings, with vegans found to be at risk in certain areas.

  • Vegans have generally low levels of zinc.
  • Vitamin D and Vitamin B-12 is another area where vegans are generally found to be lacking. Supplements are suggested, as well as exposure to sunlight for Vitamin D.
  • Vegans are also prone to iron deficiencies.

Recently, debate has also centred on the implications of veganism for children and pregnant women.

Animal rights organisation PETA campaigned to have school children informed about vegan and vegetarian diets in order to counteract obesity levels. However, a Central Queensland University academic warned that vegan diets could be detrimental to children, with low calcium intake impinging on bone growth.

However, soy milk and vegetable products can be a viable source of calcium. For vegans, these products can form a substitute to cow milk in order to maintain healthy levels of calcium.

A study by Tyree, Baker and Weatherspoon (2012) found that pregnant vegans need to pay particular attention to their dietary choices, considering the needs of the developing fetus. The study advised pregnant persons to be mindful of levels of vitamin B-12, iron and other nutrients.

Sustainability Issues

Sustainable food festivals are increasing in light of environmental concerns around food. Photo by Mosman Council, used under CC BY 2.0.

The growth and killing of animals can contribute to global warming and climate change. Animals such as cows produce greenhouse gases leading to climate change. The feeding and transportation of animals also requires the use of fossil fuels and can have environmentally detrimental impacts. As Steve Koppes notes, in 2002, 17 per cent of fossil fuels produced in the United States came from food production.

Vegan diets look to counteract the environmental impact of products, particularly food products, that derive from animals.

The impacts of food production, specifically meat production, can be divided into three key areas.

1. Greenhouse gas emissions.

Henning Steinfeld estimates that (2006) that animals account for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Furthermore, cows produce 20 per cent of the world’s methane, a significant greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

2. Land and sea use.

Large quantities of land are needed to harvest grain for animals and the animals too. Land degradation can occur and has occurred in Latin America. Deforestation has led to the loss of animal and plant species.

A significant amount of Australian land is also used for grazing. In 2009-2010, about 52 per cent of Australia’s land was managed by agricultural businesses. In that same time period, 88 per cent of agricultural land was used for grazing.

Overfishing and threats to marine biodiversity are also a major international concern with respect to the environment. The United Nations and several countries have discussed issues of marine biodiversity and sustainability, with regard to fishing, to a great extent in recent years.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates 70 per cent of global fish species are fully exploited or depleted. In the north Atlantic, fish populations such as cod and flounder have depleted as much as 95 per cent.

3. Water use.

On average, to produce one kilogram of beef, 16,000 kilograms of water is required. Moreover, for one kilogram of cheese, about 5000 kilograms of water is required. Grain is also required to feed animals. One kilogram of grain requires about 1000 kilograms of water.

A world of vegan eaters could arguably alleviate many of the environmental issues that arise with cultivating animals for food. As the aforementioned data shows, vegan consumption would logically lead to fewer environmental impacts.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/01/VeganRallyEvolve.jpg/320px-VeganRallyEvolve.jpg

Activists from the 2009 “Walk against Warming” advocate for veganism to improve climate change. Photo by Takver, under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Although veganism may be a method in which global environmental issues are alleviated, critics argue that it is untenable to expect a global shift to vegan diets. Research suggests that meat consumption is rising worldwide, correlating to rising wealth in the developing world. In light of the aforementioned data, this will only create increasing environmental strains.

Academics such as Dr Jimmy Smith, Director General of NGO the International Livestock Institute, have argued that more sustainable farming and grazing practices are required, rather than seeking an impossible shift to global veganism.

Dr Smith argues that veganism is not a solution, but rather sustainable practices whereby farmers create greater output from fewer numbers of animals. Smith says this is particularly important as world population increases, as well as demand for meat. For Dr Smith, increased cattle productivity will alleviate issues of sustainability.

Sustainable farming practices being taught to Kenyan farmers. Photo by ARC – The Alliance of Religions and Conservations, used under CC BY 2.0.

Smith advocates for sustainable farming and greater animal productivity, particularly in Africa and Asia.

As Smith notes, worldwide veganism is an untenable goal. However, many activist groups and individuals have sought to tackle issues of meat and animal consumption by encouraging consumption of less meat.

Campaigns such as “foodwise” in Australia look to raise awareness about the implications of food consumption. The foodwise website is one of many that provides information about sustainability and eating and advice to consumers.

Foodwise advocates the “Meat Free Monday” concept (whereby individuals do not eat meat on Monday), which is supported by high profile individuals such as Paul McCartney.

Moral Considerations

Veganism is closely linked to concepts of animal liberation and recognition of the value of the life of animals. Animal liberation, and consequently veganism, can be understood from two dominant and prevailing ethical perspectives (although there exist more), as suggested by Emma McGrath (2000).

Photo by Volgar, used under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The first perspective is utilitarianism. Peter Singer is a key advocate of this view. This view suggests individuals should aim for a “greater good” for the greatest number of individuals. Animals can suffer pain and as a result a greater good can be achieved by minimising the pain of animals.

The second perspective is deontological. This perspective suggests animals are a means in themselves and their lives have value and therefore be treated accordingly. Animals are used as a means to and end, rather than an end in themselves – a point that the deontological standpoint looks to illuminate.

Both the ethical standpoints of deontology and utilitarianism could be used to argue that veganism is a morally desirable lifestyle choice.

McGrath (2000) also argues that by accepting slaughter of animals that humans engage in what she terms “speciesism”. That is, just like sexism and racism, animals are arbitrarily being discriminated against and their value is not being fully appreciated.

Animal cruelty has become a prominent matter in recent times. The Australian government temporarily suspended live exports to Indonesia in 2011 following a Four Corners documentary on Australian television. The documentary showed particularly gruesome treatment of animals and created public outrage in regards to animal rights.

Public and political backlash followed Four Corners’ documentary on animal exports to Indonesia in 2011.

McGrath thus asserts that animals should be given rights. She notes that animals effectively have no voice in human discussions about what should be done to animals. Francione (2010) goes as far as stating that veganism is the only position that is compatible with the ethical treatment of animals, on the same level as humans.

However, there have been moral arguments against those proposed in favour of veganism. Wayne (2013), writing in direct opposition to Francione (2010), says that using animal products is entirely ethical.

Wayne (2013) argues that relationships are often “asymmetrical”, that is, one person or party (such as an animal) may be dependent on, or independent of the other party. She suggests that just because there is no moral equality in some relationships, this does not mean that the relationship is unethical. Wayne argues that often humans use other humans (such as patients using carers), but those relationships are not viewed as unethical.

Wayne continues by stating that, much in the same way that humans use other humans, animals could be used by humans and this might be considered ethical.

Wayne (2013) goes on to argue that for society to indeed function, that some relationships will sometimes be unequal and that one part may have power over another.

Conclusion

From a health perspective, veganism can be regarded as a tenable dietary approach. Research, although not entirely definitive, suggests that veganism has positive health impacts. Moreover, with prudent dietary choices, risk areas of Vitamin D deficiency, zinc deficiency and iron deficiency can be avoided. Pregnancy and childhood may pose problems for those wishing to adopt vegan diets.

A vegan approach also shows consideration for environmental and sustainability concerns. However, for sustainability issues to be addressed, a vast majority of the world population would need to adopt a vegan approach. As Dr Smith notes, a more tenable avenue would be to increase food productivity of animals.

From an ethical standpoint, there are various justifications for veganism, mostly couched from deontological and utilitarian perspectives. There exist arguments against such ethical views.

By Fabian Di Lizia.

Our work is fact-checked and referenced.

References

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2013). Land Use and Agricultural Activity. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Retrieved from: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Products/4627.0~2009-10~Main+Features~Land+use+and+agricultural+activity?OpenDocument.

Craig, W. (2009). Health effects of vegan diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 89(5), 16275 – 16335.

Dee, J. (2013). About Foodwise – The Campaign. Foodwise. Retrieved from: http://foodwise.com.au/about-foodwise/the-campaign/.

Edwards, A. (2013, June 3). Parents Warned Against Vegan Push. ABC. Retrieved from: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-06-03/parents-warned-against-vegan-push/4728934.

Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. (2005). Cattle Ranching is Encroaching on Forests in Latin America. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Retrieved from: http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2005/102924/.

Foodwise. (2013). Meat Free Mondays – What is Meat Free Mondays. Foodwise. Retrieved from: http://foodwise.com.au/meat-free-mondays/what-is-meat-free-monday/.

Francione, G. (2010). Animal Welfare and the Moral Value of Non-Humans. Law, Culture and the Humanities. 6(1), 24 – 36.

Hoekstra, A.Y. (Ed.) (2003). Virtual Water Trade – Proceedings of the International Expert Meeting on Water Trade – IHE Delft, The Netherlands. Value of Water Report Series No. 12. Retrieved from: http://www.waterfootprint.org/Reports/Report12.pdf.

International Livestock Research Institute. (2013). Home. Retrieved from: http://www.ilri.org/home.

Koppes, S. (2006, April 16). Study: Vegan Diets Healthier for Planet, People than Meat Diets. Medical News Today. Retrieved from: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/41660.php.

Kruszelnicki, K. (2013). Methane Myth Gives Cattle a Bum Steer. ABC Science. Retrieved from: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2010/09/28/3023670.htm.

Locke, S. (2013, September 17). Going vegan to save the planet is unrealistic. ABC News Rural. Retrieved from: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-09-17/nrn-small-livestock-producers/4962520.

McGrath, E. (2000). The Politics of Veganism. Social Alternatives. 19(4), 50 – 61.

Medical News Today. (2008). Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients Benefit from Vegan Gluten-Free Diets. Retrieved from: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/101017.php.

News on ABC. (2011, May 31). Australia suspends live cattle exports [Video file]. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=irma-GJsBvk.

Paul McCartney Blog. (2013, March 18). Meat Free Monday – Check Out the New Website [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from: http://www.paulmccartney.com/news-blogs/news/27465-meat-free-monday-check-out-the-new-website.

Steinfeld, H. (2006). Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

The Ellen Show. (2012, May 3). Bill Clinton on Going Vegan [Video file]. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9N6SbPolnd4.

The Sydney Morning Herald. (2011, November 18). The rise of veganism. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from: http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/diet-and-fitness/the-rise-of-veganism-20111118-1nlwh.html.

Trapp, C. & Barnard, N. (2010). Usefulness of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets for Treating Type 2 Diabetes. Current Diabetes Reports. 10(2), 152 – 158.

Tyree, S., Baker, B. & Weatherspoon, D. (2012). On Veganism and Pregnancy. International Journal of Childbirth Education. 27(3), 43 – 49.

United Nations. (n.d.) Overfishing: a Threat to Marine Biodiversity. United Nations. Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/events/tenstories/06/story.asp?storyID=800.

Wayne, K. (2013). Permissible Use and Interdependence: Against Principled Veganism. Journal of Applied Philosophy. 30(2), 160 – 175.

Worldwatch Institute. (2011). Global Meat Production and Consumption Continue to Rise. Worldwatch Institute. Retrieved from: http://www.worldwatch.org/global-meat-production-and-consumption-continue-rise-1.

3 thoughts on “In-veg-stigation

  1. Pingback: 4 Ways a Vegan Diet Can Save Your Life | Chas Stevens

  2. Hi Fabian,

    I just came across your blog and found that you had appealed to my article in your discussion of moral considerations in favour of and against veganism. I have taken a quick look around and it looks like you and your team are doing good work. But I felt the need to clarify my position, in response to what I read as your somewhat mistaken interpretation of my argument. While I do argue that there is nothing in principle that is morally problematic about taking from others (and expecting contributions from others), even in cases where the contributor is dependent, I did not claim that it is in fact “entirely ethical” to use animal products. I tried to show that the fact of dependence should not be viewed as precluding just and mutually beneficial relationships with a variety of dependent and (more) independent others. In practice, I also concluded, veganism is almost always demanded.

    Perhaps you disagree on whether I was justified in drawing these conclusions, but I hope to have clarified what precisely I aimed to accomplish in the paper. Thanks for your time and for drawing attention to these important issues.

    Katherine Wayne

    • Hi Katherine,

      First, can I say how impressed and appreciative I am that you have encountered our blog and engaged with the material. A large part of the aims of this blog were to foster a discussion on the matter and it is impressive that one of the leading scholars in the field has engaged and responded to the material.

      Thank you for your comments and your well wishes.

      In relation to your clarification, it is much welcome and I have published it here on the website as a means of ensuring the accuracy of the piece and the website. Readers should take note of it and we thank you for adding to the piece and clarifying the material. I apologise for the mistaken interpretation.

      On the issue of agreeing or disagreeing with the argument, we leave that to the readers. The aim of the website is to educate and inform with the goal of allowing readers to make their own conclusions without the imposition of our own ones.

      Once again, thank you for your comments. Our website was actually developed over a period of time last year but we appreciate your comment, which has in some respects updated the information and website to have a more authoritative edge.

      Thank you for your time.

      Fabian.

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