If you’re reading this, it’s more than likely because you’re curious, intrigued by, or maybe even confused about veganism. Perhaps you’re looking to communicate with someone who is. Whatever the reason, here’s an adaptation and slight extension of a letter I recently sent someone who was interested in my ideas and perspective regarding veganism:
First of all, thank you so much for inquiring and being open. Open minds are truly the ones that will change the world! It’s not that I don’t like talking about veganism, but, rather, it can be a difficult subject to approach. Most of the general population isn’t readily open to dietary and moral change, but I believe that most people already agree with the ideas that veganism promotes (to name a few): extending compassion, creating a world where less harm is perpetrated, protecting the vulnerable, and respecting the planet and its inhabitants. Saying this, I am thrilled that you asked, and I am excited to tell you some of what I know. Some of what I say in this letter may be uncomfortable and that’s okay. Growth and needed change do not occur without going outside of and stretching our comfort zone.
There are three pillars of veganism—animal rights, health, and the environment. People “go vegan” for a multitude of reasons, and I think it is important to remember that it is a process. There are many ways to go about making the change to a more compassionate diet and lifestyle, and people label themselves differently on their journey. Whether plant-based, vegan, or vegetarian, we should worry less about what we call ourselves and more about what we do ourselves. (I talk more about these labels in my blog post “What’s the Difference?”) This process differs for everyone, but it is also the same in some ways. This shared experience allows for those who have made a connection to relate to each other as we progress. Colleen Patrick-Goudreau is a speaker, animal advocate, author, podcaster, and a huge influence in my own awakening process; she speaks of these stages we may go through when we stop eating animals here.
Some people view veganism exclusively as a diet, but it’s much more than that. Veganism is a lifestyle, not a dogma or a set of rules. When advocating for this way of life, I tend to focus on what we can do by speaking up, empowering ourselves and others, aligning our thoughts and actions, making this world a better place, and making healthier decisions and less about what we shouldn’t do—eat, abuse, or use animals for our entertainment or needs. (Of course, I speak on this quite often, as it is important, but I don’t like to fuel people’s perceived limitedness of veganism.) Notice, I didn’t write “can’t do.” We absolutely can do with animals what we please, but just because we can doesn’t mean we should. It is a choice after all. It’s not a personal choice as some might say because personal choices don’t affect others; consuming and exploiting animals most definitely affects someone—the animals themselves. As humans, especially in parts of the world where we have access to fresh produce, long-term scientific data, modern medicine and technology, and even vegan options at places like White Castle, we have the ability to make compassionate choices when we can. This doesn’t mean we are superior even though we distance ourselves as so. We are animals ourselves; in fact, we share 96% of our DNA with chimpanzees! How convenient is it that we believe we are superior? We develop that criteria; we are the judges and the jury in that decision. Yet, we fall behind on many different aspects of physiology when compared to the strength, agility, and resilience of other species. Either way, we are in this world together. Non-human animals aren’t in this world for us; they’re here with us.
Anyway, being vegan isn’t about giving anything up. Instead, we just aren’t stealing what wasn’t ours to begin with. We’re letting go of the conditioning and misinformation that held us hostage and embracing change. To me, that’s the most gratifying thing—empowerment. When fully informed and clear of the misconceptions and excuses surrounding compassionate living, we can restore our autonomy. More people would be on their way to making more compassionate choices if they really knew what went into creating the seemingly innocent products they consume. It’s about opening up our eyes to the suffering of others and knowing that we have the power to lessen it.
In 2014, I made the decision to commit to being a vegetarian after I noticed a vein or something of the sort in the corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day. This was the connection I finally needed between animals and the “meat” that we ate—their flesh. That was the turning point, but it didn’t start there. We slowly learn and tear down the walls that block our unconditional compassion. I had a friend and their family (shoutout to The Gizzi’s) who were vegetarian, and they were a significant source of inspiration for me. I have always loved animals, as I believe many people do, and I thought it was okay to eat them, also as many people do. I used the common excuses that I now find quite repetitive—all misguided justifications that block us from expressing our compassion within. I am relieved knowing that I am making my own informed decisions now and not the marketing of the animal agriculture industry, government subsidies and campaigns, lobbying, my family, or societal pressure. From a young age, we are conditioned to believe that animal “products” are a necessity and that eating animals is okay. However, most people would not kill animals themselves. They either harden their own hearts and distance themselves from the process or pay other people to do it for them (often people who have few options left, find out more and/or read Slaughterhouse).
In 2016, after listening to this podcast episode, I realized that I couldn’t be the animal advocate that I wanted to be because vegetarianism wasn’t the answer that I was looking for. I learned, by engaging my curiosities, that animals are still slaughtered when following a vegetarian diet. The cows that produce milk for their calves and the chickens that lay eggs in the hope of being mothers only produce those “products” that we use at their max for so long. Cows can live for twenty years or so, but they’re usually slaughtered after three to four pregnancies. In their pre-domesticated days, as wild jungle fowl, chickens laid 10-15 eggs per year. Now they have been selectively bred and manipulated to lay 200-300 eggs per year. Once they’re considered “spent”, when they aren’t laying as regularly or at all, after only a few years they are killed a good five to seven years short of their life expectancy. That’s another unfortunate and horrific thing; if it’s not bad enough that we unnecessarily eat animals, most of the animals humans are eating are actually babies! I know that may be uncomfortable, but it’s the truth.
This chart doesn’t even include the over 100,000 horses sent from the United States to be slaughtered each year or the wild horses killed by the Bureau of Land Management who compete with livestock that graze on public lands or the fishes (and non-target species like whales, seals, sharks, & sea turtles) killed in such large quantities that they’re measured in tons. Did you know that when they’re rapidly brought to the surface, their swim bladders often painfully explode? Even if they’re different from us and don’t scream as we do, they still have nervous systems and bleed. Now, it is well documented that fish do feel pain. In the end, “there is no way to humanely kill someone who doesn’t want to die.” ~James Aspey
Most people are against killing and suffering of any kind. Yet, we justify it frequently. In fact, we despise suffering so much that we want to tell ourselves what we’re doing is okay. We invent terms such as “humane slaughter” to put our minds to rest, but we don’t consider what those words actually mean. Being humane means to be compassionate, sympathetic, and considerate. Death is inevitable, but slaughter is not. We make that choice. The least amount of suffering we can perpetrate is no suffering at all. When humans artificially inseminate, breed, and domesticate animals, we play God. By bringing animals into this world only to take them right back out of it, we are doing them, our planet, and our creator a disservice. The list of excuses that humans use is so common and predictable that there is a guide to discussing most of them here. Instead of trying to find the right way to do something we know is wrong, we can take into account all of the things that we share with non-human animals and stop treating them like objects here to do with what we please.
Cognitive dissonance is a driving factor in meat consumption. We don’t see the chicken; we see chicken breasts, or legs, or nuggets. We see bacon or pork chops, not the pig. We see a burger or a steak, not the cow. Again, here’s an uncomfortable realization: these are just body parts. Mislabeled, marketed, and physically and linguistically separated from the animals from which they came, these animals are turned into lifeless products—the ultimate processed food. It makes it easier that way though. We totally remove the animal from the equation. The answer is not to reinsert the animal back into the equation via local, “humane” slaughter where you “know where your meat’s coming from”. Rather, the answer is getting to know who your meat is coming from and leave them be. Though there are powerful forces such as marketing, lobbying, societal pressure, culture, and historical persuasions that make us not want to think about who is on the other side, we should. We can make our own decisions when we’re informed and we’re ready. When we know better, we should do better.
People say, as I did, that they “could never be vegan” or that it’s “too extreme”, “hard”, or downright “crazy”. Here’s what I usually quote in response: “Don’t do nothing because you can’t do everything. Do something. Anything.” ~Colleen Patrick-Goudreau
You don’t have to be perfect to show that you care. Steps in the right direction are positive steps nonetheless. Can’t let go of cheese quite yet? That doesn’t mean you can’t stop or reduce your consumption of meat, eggs, or even other dairy products. We can all always improve. Saying that, even being vegan isn’t about being perfect. It’s about doing what we can when we can to inflict the least amount of harm possible. We live in an imperfect world where mice are killed in fields where vegetables grow and products have unnecessary and sometimes unavoidable ingredients that were tested on or contain animals. That doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and give up.
We can work to create a better world. One of the ways we can lessen suffering is by reducing, boycotting, and eliminating the use of chicken’s eggs and cow’s milk. I wish that animals didn’t have to die or be exploited for our consumption of eggs and dairy-based cheeses, butter, etc. but that simply isn’t so. There is no such thing as an animal agriculture system that is slaughter-free. It simply isn’t economically viable. There’s no dairy cow retirement home or luscious, green field where all farmed animals can naturally live out the rest of their days once they’re considered unproductive. Instead, they’re sent to a slaughterhouse. Farm sanctuaries play a crucial role in providing safety, lifelong care, and sanctuary for thousands of animals, but we can’t possibly send every “spent” animal to a sanctuary—especially at the rate we breed, slaughter, and consume farmed animals. There isn’t enough space or nearly enough funding to do so. When animals are treated as objects and commodities, the only solution is to stop bringing so many animals into this world in the first place.
Death aside, there are other ways that farming animals harms them besides eating meat. Cows, like all mammals, only produce milk when they’re pregnant. Therefore, they’re artificially inseminated and their babies are taken from them so we can have their milk. Sometimes, their babies are allowed to stay only until they’ve received enough colostrum or more often they’re taken within hours to a few days. Sometimes, they’re allowed to stay briefly but are weaned using a calf “weaner” that they wear on their nose that irritates and pokes their mother and/or prevents natural nursing so humans can take the rest of their milk. All mothers have the ability to wean their young themselves and that includes cows. A bottle is no replacement for the bond between a mother and child. Male calves are either killed for veal or reintroduced into the system as breeding stock, and female calves go right back into the cycle of exploiting their reproductive systems when they are able. Regardless of their use, they all die prematurely when compared to their twenty+ year lifespan. When milk production declines, “dairy cows” are killed to be used as cheap, low-quality meat in things such as hot dogs, fast food items, or the pet food industry. No matter the label of “grass-fed”, “humane”, “organic”, “family farmed”, “100% Angus”…they all go to the same place and suffer the same fate.
Most chickens also live short, grueling lives. However, the shortest life is often lived by male chicks born to egg-laying breeds in the egg industry; they are killed on day one. They’re useless because they don’t lay eggs, so they’re either gassed, macerated, or simply thrown away. Sadly, this just goes to show how humans have viewed certain animals as disposable, unprofitable trash. Roosters, who are sometimes sexed incorrectly at the hatchery, are also bothersome to many backyard operations and are either released on the side of the road, auctioned off, or killed as well. Whether chicken’s eggs are from “cage-free” or “free-range” facilities or even backyards, if they come from hatcheries, the males are killed there. The videos are heartbreaking, but footage such as those videos motivate and expose. After all, different approaches motivate people differently. If we just act like these atrocities aren’t happening or act as if they’re unavoidable, then we’re doing our humanity another disservice. If we can’t even bare or don’t want to see what’s happening, then how can we eat their eggs without putting up a front? In the industry, when chicken’s egg laying declines after just a few years, they’re considered spent and they’re killed to be used in low-quality meat products. Also in the industry, so-called “cage-free” chickens are still crammed by the thousands into warehouses, and the same goes for “free-range” chickens except a small opening or hole may be barely accessible to a few hens. The tips of their sensitive beaks are also seared off with a hot blade so they don’t peck each other when they’re forced to be so close. Not only is this cruel, but it also leads to difficulty eating and preening, neither which matter to the industry when they’re going to be slaughtered shortly anyway. The regulations, monitoring, and desire just don’t exist. It’s much easier to slap a friendly farm sticker or picture on an egg carton than address our exploitative, inhumane practices. Clever marketing and justifications exist to protect our wants because, if everyone really knew what was happening, we wouldn’t be consuming eggs at the rate we are now.
I should also mention the inherent harm in continuing to bring chickens into this world. Because of the before-mentioned domestication of chickens from jungle fowl and further genetic manipulation and controlled breeding to enhance egg production, they suffer a number of health issues. They often die prematurely due to reproductive cancers and tumors, osteoporosis, uterine prolapse, egg binding (where an egg becomes impacted and is difficult to pass), and egg yolk peritonitis (when fragmented, ruptured, and/or deformed eggs begin to rot in the chicken’s abdominal cavity). When these issues go untreated, these chicken’s die slowly and painfully if they’re allowed to live long enough at all. Unfortunately, the only time most chickens receive adequate, thorough, individualized care is at farm sanctuaries. Even at such sanctuaries, it’s difficult to treat and resolve these illnesses caused by their breeding history.
Chickens are going to lay eggs anyway! Right? Plus, not everyone’s going to stop eating eggs. (Well, you know what I might say, “Don’t do nothing because you can’t do everything…”) Can we instantly stop this vicious cycle? Nope. However, by boycotting the egg industry and supporting egg alternatives, we can encourage a decline in the number of chickens brought into this world only to be used as machines. When farmed animals are treated as objects and profit is the number one concern, it’s all about supply and demand. When the interest in animal products goes down, their production decreases little by little. When demand for plant-based products go up, the industry takes notice (hence why Tyson and other big names are investing).
Alright, I’m wrapping up here! Thanks for hanging in there. I’m sure it may be overwhelming, but thank you for reading this far. Though there’s always more to discuss in regard to ethics (the circus, wool, leather, zoos, etc), I’d like to move towards health. There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding veganism and health in general. However, there isn’t one nutrient or mineral that comes from the Earth or the plants that inhabit our grounds and seas that we need to get from animals. Iron and Calcium are minerals that plants absorb from the soil. Dairy products, often touted for their calcium benefits, and meat, often touted for its iron levels, only have these minerals due to the plants or supplemented feed the animals’ digest. Dairy and meat products may also be associated with prostate and breast cancers; all cows’ milk is filled with hormones after all. Hormones like excess estrogen promote growth in our reproductive systems because this milk is meant to help calves rapidly grow. Well, what about protein? Protein is made up of amino acids some of which our bodies can produce and the rest that are sourced from our diets—even plants! The Protein issue really isn’t so; we should really be focusing on fiber and phytonutrients instead. Without being calorie deficient, protein deficiency is mostly a non-issue. B12 is from bacteria and not from plants or animals, though it is present in their digestive tracts as well as ours. As for Omega 3’s, nuts, flax, and chia seeds are all great sources! Fish flesh only has them because of their diets as well—algae, sea vegetables (which are also great sources of iodine), and the fish that consume those sources. Speaking of fish, they’re filled with microplastics and mercury, PCBs, and other pollutants from their environment. Being that we eat higher up the food chain, these contaminants bioaccumulate and end up in us. Farm-raised fish aren’t much better and are raised in crowded, disease-ridden (and therefore antibiotic filled) areas. They are also fed feed that contains wild fish that leads back to the issues asserted above. Fish flesh is hardly health food.
In America and most of the western world, we have diseases of affluence that are mostly associated with high saturated fat, high cholesterol, overconsumption of highly processed foods, and poor vascular health—cardiovascular disease, obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes… Many of which can be prevented and reversed with a whole foods plant-based diet. Even eating more fruits and vegetables can help ease some symptoms and lead to a healthier life. See, our parents were right! We sure do need to eat our veggies and so do they. I could go on to talk briefly about each of these epidemics and topics such as the plague of diet culture and our consumption of “food-like substances” as Michael Pollen likes to say, but I’ll leave some great links to these issues below instead. Of course, there’s so much information out there and we need to look for a few things when evaluating it—studies should be long term, follow large groups of varied people, and end with conclusive endpoints like cancer, death, or disease development/reversal. The pharmaceutical, sugar, alcohol, beef, egg, and dairy industries all have millions of dollars invested in lobbying. Therefore, it is also important to investigate who funded the study, possible motivations they may have, ways they could manipulate information, and attempts to mislead. If only companies and the government had our best interest in mind and not profit, right?!
Best of luck,
Here are some further resources if you’re interested:
Masculinity & Erectile Dysfunction
Cholesterol: Dietary Cholesterol and Cancer
Type 2 Diabetes:
Cravings & More: