PRIHODA: Decoding veganism

For some people who care about animals, why is vegetarian not enough?

When I first told my grandmother that I was transitioning to being vegan, she enthusiastically asked me for recipe recommendations. I was surprised that she showed interest (my grandparents are very much the meat-and-potatoes types), but I was more than happy to give her a recipe for ratatouille with pasta. Her next question came quizzically: What kind of pasta doesn’t have gluten in it? It hit me that what she was really looking for was something gluten-free.

Dietary buzzwords abound in our popular culture because food is an immutable part of our collective human experience. Unfortunately, the dissemination of dietary buzzwords can muffle the original goal behind such deliberate food choices. For example, when I worked at a chain restaurant and people would ask for a dish to be made gluten-free, I had to ask if the request was a preference or an allergy. About 50% of the time it was a non-medical preference. No judgement here, but I understand that by presenting gluten-free as a fad diet, we risk diminishing the severity of gluten allergies.

When I was a vegetarian, people would ask me if I “could eat fish”, or as a vegan, if I “could eat eggs”. I find these questions a bit curious in their phrasing. I certainly could eat something with eggs or fish in it; it’s not as if eating such things would get me sick. It just that for ethical reasons, I chose not to.

What is veganism?

Aside from my grandmother’s misunderstanding, I have often seen and heard of veganism as a lifestyle being misrepresented or mischaracterized. The definition of “vegan” originally comes from an organization called The Vegan Society. In 1979, they came up with the word, declaring that “veganism is a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose.” While some people may chose to follow a vegan (or “plant-based”) diet for environmental or health reasons, veganism as a lifestyle is predicated on a dedication to not harming animals.

Why not just vegetarian?

A compelling follow-up question to this information is: chickens lay eggs anyway, and milking doesn’t hurt cows, so what’s the big deal?

First, there is the reality that animals do have to be killed in the egg and dairy industry (and keep in mind that 99% of animals raised for food come from factory farms, so these animals additionally face the same life of factory living conditions). The main difference is that the actual bodies of these animals are not sold as consumer goods. An important trait of the egg and dairy industries is that they require the bodies of female animals – hens to lay eggs, and cows to produce milk. In the egg industry, male chicks have essentially no purpose, so they are “culled” very early on. In the dairy industry, male calves are obsolete in the same way, so they are also killed very young. And of course, the female animals are similarly disposed of at the end of their productive lives.

There is then, the broader concern of exploiting animals. When placed in an industrial, high-efficiency setting, it is difficult to ensure that welfare standards are observed. There is also the question of whether legal welfare standards are good enough. Others may believe that it is actually more cruel to force an animal to live in the conditions of an industrial farm for many more years than an animal whose end is often met much sooner, at the time of slaughter. We understand that animals want to avoid suffering – both from an empirical, scientific standpoint, and from simple observation. Most people would feel outraged to see a cat or dog confined to a cage for their whole life, or a polar bear kept in miserable conditions in a zoo – why should this sense of injustice stop with pigs, goats, cows, and birds?

Aside from dietary implications, veganism implies a commitment to avoiding consumption of non-food animal products. This includes things such as fur, leather, and ivory. Industries where animals are used for entertainment are also avoided, like circuses that use exotic animals as performance props. These things, however, are highly visible examples of animal exploitation and account for a very slim percentage of animals directly harmed by humans. The vast majority of animals that are so gravely and directly impacted by humans are those involved in our food system, which is why the dietary aspects of a veganism are so central to a vegan lifestyle.

What is practicable?

We must invoke the idea of “practicable” when speaking about a lifestyle commitment that goes against the norms of our society. Practicable means “able to be done or put into practice successfully”. This is worth distinguishing from “possible”, because it contextualizes the real very difficulty of  avoiding animal products in a world where the abuse and killing of animals is not questioned when done behind closed doors. The invisibility of suffering does not, however, make the pain and suffering of animals any less real.

Humans evolved to be opportunistic omnivores, but being purely opportunistic is fortunately in the past for many people in the world today. Now that we have free time and expendable resources as a population, we have a moral obligation to use that freedom to reduce suffering in some way or another. Making better consumer choices is a relatively easy way to contribute that almost anyone can do, and our dietary choices in particular are often relatively easy to change up – you don’t have to give up your day job and become a full-time activist to make positive change. Simply opting for a veggie burger instead of a hamburger is better for the animals, the environment, and quite possibly your health. Change will come if we collectively will it, and change is already on the horizon – lab-grown animal products (or “clean meat”) that completely remove animals from the supply chain is a project that is becoming more economically viable every year.

As individual beings in a mob of consumers, we understand that one person’s choices have perhaps a small impact on “the big picture”. In isolation, an opinion or a boycott means almost nothing – but boycotting animal suffering and the unnecessarily rapid polluting of our natural world is a movement, and it has a name. That movement is made up of individuals who care enough to act for it.

Christina Prihoda is a senior in the College of Arts and Science. She can be reached at christina.e.prihoda@vanderbilt.edu.

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