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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Our work is fact-checked and referenced.
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