Neil Smith chose to go vegan as his way to make a difference in the world. He makes the case for why you should consider it, too.
As the evidence of global warming becomes more and more unequivocal, it is clear that the way we live our lives is going to have to change in a big way. But most of us are not really sure what we can do today to begin to make a serious impact. This is uncomfortable, because our lifestyles seem, in many ways, to be dictated by the culture and expectations in which we are born and grow up. How do we honour the planet we live on in such challenging times? We are at least vaguely aware that our consumerist lifestyles don’t fit comfortably with what we are hearing about the limited resources of the planet. But we also want to be accepted in our society in ways which are culturally approved. Giving up our car, for instance, doesn’t seem like a realistic option when it is so central to the way we live. So what can we do?
My wife, Debra and I made the decision early this year, to ‘go vegan’. This, we realised, was one of the best, easiest and most enjoyable, things we could do to make a real difference. For much of my life, I had been a meat eater who was uneasy about our treatment of animals and the ethics and politics of meat production. But meat eating was the norm with which I was brought up. Meat products were easy to buy and cook and were ever present in restaurants. My parents ate meat and as a child I did not know anyone who was vegetarian, let alone vegan.
And undoubtedly meat was (and still is) tasty. So, like many, I went along with it because it was easy. Then about 10 years ago I finally became a vegetarian. But even as a vegetarian, becoming vegan seemed like an exotic and esoteric step too far for a long time. I was not, at that time, clear about the reasons for making the extra commitment to becoming vegan, but as time went on I began to understand what it was that moved people to become vegan. Finally, at the beginning of this year Debra (a life-long vegetarian) and I decided to take the bold step.
But what is veganism? It is the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, both in diet and in other forms of use such as clothing, cosmetics and toiletries, household goods and other everyday commodities. As well as not eating meat, vegans abstain from dairy products. Vegans believe that the use of animals as a commodity cannot be reasonably justified on ethical or moral grounds.
So what is behind why people choose to be vegan, and what is it about being a vegan that responds to global warming and wider concerns for the environment?
There are four main ways in which being a vegan meets my wish to behave responsibly in the world. When we considered all these factors together, becoming vegan became not a lifestyle choice, but an absolute necessity. We realised the benefits of being vegan were so overwhelming that we had reached a point where we couldn’t justify not doing so.
Firstly, a vegan diet is healthier than a diet based on meat and dairy consumption. Many of the recommended dietary habits, such as eating more fruit, vegetables and whole grains and eating less cholesterol and saturated fats are met by a vegan diet. Also. vegan food is often rich in vitamins, anti-oxidants and fibre and can decrease the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some forms of cancer. There is now a huge variety of food available using only plant-based (vegan) produce. Being vegan is not only healthy, but also, with just a bit of practice, it is tasty, fun and creative. Debra and I enjoy cooking and have found that our love of creative cooking has not suffered as a result of our decision.
Secondly, veganism, by and large, supports responsible behaviour towards our environment. It has become clear that the rearing and eating of meat has a huge and avoidable detrimental impact on the planet. For example, according to Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations*, meat production accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than those of the entire world transport sector including aircraft. It is one of the biggest contributors to global warming.
Thirdly, veganism supports responsible behaviour towards fellow humans. It is clear that animal rearing for meat and dairy production is agricultural resource intensive. Plant-based (vegan) diets only require one-third of the land and water needed to produce a typical western diet. Rearing animals is hugely wasteful of land resources. If we used our land to directly produce vegetable and grain for human consumption, we would be able to feed everyone in the world with ease.
Lastly, but by no means least, the meat and dairy industry causes inestimable, unnecessary suffering to billions of animals every year. Most animals raised for slaughter are kept in cramped and filthy conditions with little room to move around or behave naturally. The same is true for most animals raised for dairy production. Many animals suffer serious health problems and even death because they are selectively bred to grow, or produce milk or eggs at a far greater rate than their bodies are capable of coping with. Unfortunately, even the term ‘free range’ is not to be trusted to mean that animals don’t suffer greatly. My belief is that condoning this behaviour, merely to satisfy our desire for the taste of meat and dairy produce, cannot be reasonably justified. One day in the future, I believe that we will look back on the way we treat animals in the same way as we now look back on the way we treated slaves before the abolition of slavery. We cannot continue to live in a world where so much unnecessary suffering is caused, no matter who or what the recipient is when we know that there is a reasonable alternative.
Personally, it is the last of these reasons that provides many people the strongest motivation not to eat or use animal products, but for others, who are not so moved by the suffering of animals, the other factors relating to the wellbeing of the human race and of the planet are very compelling.
It is true that my wife and I made a hop to being vegan from being long term vegetarians, rather than the leap from being meat eaters. When we decided to make the change, we were afraid that we would miss dairy produce, particularly cheese. However, this has not been the case. Over and above everything else, as lovers of animals and nature, it was the ethical considerations that drove our decision. But we have been delighted to discover the wide range of cookery books and web sites providing vegan recipes which are varied and delicious. Earlier the year, on a trip to Berlin, we visited out first ‘Cordon Bleu’ vegan restaurant where a top class chef provided amazing (and yes, it was pretty expensive!) vegan food. It was a real eye-opener. We have been experimenting more and more with our own cooking. Oh and yes, there are some very good and healthy vegan burger and fries recipes, too. It doesn’t all have to be exotic.
For anyone considering ways of responding to any of the challenges I have mentioned, be it relating to global warming, ethical farming, the fair treatment of animals or, nearer to home, the need to eat a healthy diet or to reduce poverty and hunger in the world, becoming vegan is a choice I would urge you to consider.
*Reference: ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow: environmental issues and options.’ – Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations. 2006.