Guest Post: Why isn’t the world going vegan?
Written by Catia Faria
Universitat Pompeu Fabra
Last month, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, one of the world’s most influential organizations in its field, published an updated version of a paper concluding that animal-free diets are absolutely healthy (Cullum-Dugan & Pawlak 2015). The article presents the official position of the Academy on this topic, according to which, when well designed, vegetarian and vegan diets provide adequate nutrition for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence.
It would be reasonable to expect that such conclusion had a significant impact on people’s dietary choices. If adopting a vegan diet imposed great costs on the health of human beings, then doing it might not be what we are required to do. Yet the health argument has been, again, debunked. So, why aren’t people going massively vegan?
The first answer to this question might be that people just don’t know. Or, at least, people ignore to a large extent the relevant facts of animal exploitation. It is estimated that over sixty billion land animals and one to three trillion marine animals are bred, or captured, and killed every year so that they can be processed into food (FAO 2015; Mood & Brooke 2010). Going vegan implies abstaining from participating in this scenario by ceasing to consume all animal-derived products. Of course, veganism is not all about diet. It’s about rejecting any practice that involves the infliction of unjustified harms to nonhuman animals, and these practices extend well beyond the food industry. Similarly large numbers of animals are fished and hunted for sport. Hundreds of millions are killed in the clothing and the so called “pet” industries, as well as in worldwide experiments, after enduring painful and distressful experiences, such as incarceration and vivisection. Many others are in agony or desolation, confined, forced – and often, killed – to entertain human populations. Thus, adopting veganism means refusing to take part or support animal exploitation in any of its forms and working towards its abolition.
Ignorance may partly explain the widespread consumption of animal products. However, some people are clearly aware of the reality of animal exploitation and yet do not adopt veganism. A plausible explanation for this might be that they can’t get rid of speciesist attitudes. That is, they hold the belief that because animals do not belong to the human species, their interests are morally irrelevant or, at least, they are relevant to a much lesser extent than human interests. If that were the case, then benefits to human beings should always (or almost always) be favored over benefits to nonhumans. Thus, it would be justified to satisfy human interests over the interests of nonhuman animals. But animals are sentient beings. Accordingly, they have an interest not to suffer and in enjoying their lives.
These fundamental interests are systematically frustrated for the sake of even the most trivial human interests, such as experiencing a pleasant flavor. As it has been extensively argued in the literature, whatever normative position one may endorse, no sound reasons can be provided to consider similar human and nonhuman interests differently. There is no justification for this harmful treatment of nonhuman animals, as there wouldn’t be one if human interests were at stake. Speciesism must be rejected.
Some might say that even if we should abolish factory farming, there are other more “humane” ways of raising animals for food which do not imply a disregard of their interests not to suffer. Such would be the case of the so-called “free-range” animal products (e.g., meat, eggs, milk). Thus, the consumption of these products would be justified. However, this view doesn’t stand up to the facts. First, most of the animals consumed for food are fished and suffer terrible deaths by, for example, suffocation or decompression. Second, even land animals who are raised for food products without being caused significant suffering eventually end up undergoing terrifying deaths in slaughterhouses. Finally, it is economically impossible to meet the current demand for animal products in ways that do not inflict substantial suffering on animals.
But most importantly, the argument for “humane” exploitation assumes a particular view about the badness of death which many would find unacceptable (e.g., Nagel 1970, Kamm 1993, Broome 2004, Lazari-Radek & Singer 2014). According to most contemporary philosophers, what makes our lives more or less valuable are the positive and negative experiences that occur in it. Thus, all beings with the capacity to harbor such experiences (human and nonhuman) can be harmed by death, insofar as death deprives them of the good things they would have otherwise experienced if they had remained alive. From this it follows that we should abstain from consuming animals not only because exploitation causes animals to suffer, but also because it causes their death. And this applies to both so-called “humane” and inhumane forms of animal exploitation.
Another reason often put forward not to go vegan has to do with costs. Vegan diets, for example, have systematically been accused of being unhealthy, tasteless and expensive. The beginning of this post addresses the first of these concerns. Regarding the other two, it must be stressed that taste and financial costs are minimal compared with the gains in terms of nonhuman well-being. At any rate, considering the latest developments in vegan alternatives to animal products these worries seem ungrounded. Vegan food is now as affordable and tasty as its animal-based counterparts, and the advent of ‘in vitro meat’ suggests spectacular breakthroughs in the near future. The same applies to vegan clothing. Moreover, the exploitation of animals for entertainment purposes is increasingly being opposed to, and animal-free alternatives are already in place.
Veganism is about refraining from inflicting animals any kind of unjustified harms. The vast majority of these harms is caused by our using animals for food. In a very conservative estimate, adopting a vegan diet amounts to around 36 animals being spared from exploitation and death each year. As we have seen, the costs of changing to an animal-free diet are absolutely trivial compared with the huge benefits for nonhuman animals. Even without factoring in the additional benefits of not participating in other instances of animal exploitation, it is clear that becoming vegan is one of the most cost-effective ways of doing good. Therefore, we have overwhelming reasons to go vegan and to urge others to do so.
Broome, J. (2004). Weighing Lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cullum-Dugan, D. and Pawlak, R. (2015). “Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 115 (5): 801-810.
FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2015) “Livestock Primary”, FAO Statistical Database.
Kamm, F.M. (1993). Morality, Mortality, vol. I, Death and Whom to Save from It. Oxford : Oxford University Press.
Lazari-Radek, K. & Singer, P. (2014). The Point of View of the Universe. Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mood, A., and Brooke, P. (2010) “Estimating the Number of Fish Caught in Global Fishing Each Year”, Fishcount.org.uk.
Nagel, T. (1970). “Death”. Nous 4 (1): 73-80.