Green Party, Extinction Rebellion, and Others: Stop Ignoring the Vegan Solution

It is becoming clear that we are facing an imminent climate catastrophe. The United Nations says that we’ve got about 12 years left to avert that catastrophe which, in case you haven’t noticed, is already rearing its ugly and deadly head.

It is time for the Green Party, Extinction Rebellion, and anyone else concerned about averting that catastrophe (shouldn’t that be everyone?) to stop ignoring the elephant in the room: a massive transition to a vegan diet is necessary for us to survive.

Let me say upfront that I have been a vegan for 36 years because I believe that we cannot justify exploiting animals for food, clothing, or other reasons. So I believe that veganism is necessary for moral purposes. In this essay, I want to argue that a vegan diet is necessary for ecological reasons as well.

We have known for a while that animal agriculture is ecologically very unsound. There is no question that animal foods represent an inefficient use of plant protein in that animals have to consume many pounds of grain or forage to produce one pound of meat. For example, in 2003, Cornell University Professors David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel showed that it takes 13 kilograms (a kilogram is 2.2 pounds) of grain and 30 kilograms of forage to produce one kilogram of beef; 21 kilograms of grain and 30 kilograms of forage to produce a kilogram of lamb; 5.9 kilograms of grain to produce a kilogram of pork; 3.8 kilograms of grain to produce a kilogram of turkey; 2.3 kilograms of grain to produce a kilogram of chicken, and 11 kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of eggs. Livestock in the United States consume 7 times as much grain as is consumed by the entire U.S. human population and the grains fed to U.S. livestock could feed 840 million humans who had a plant-based diet.

Likewise, animal agriculture involves an inefficient use of water. The Pimentel study states that one kilogram of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than does 1 kilogram of grain protein. According to another, more recent study, one kilogram of beef requires 15,415 liters of water (a gallon is 3.78 liters); sheep meat (lamb and mutton) 10,412 liters; pork 5,988 liters; and chicken 4,325 liters. A kilogram of apples requires 822 liters of water; bananas 790 liters; cabbage 237 liters; tomatoes 214 liters; potatoes 287 liters; and rice 2,497 liters. Most estimates vary between 1,000 to 2,000 gallons of water needed to produce a gallon of milk.

A recent study from researchers at the University of Oxford concluded that avoiding meat and dairy is the most effective way to reduce our inflicting harm on the earth. According to an article in The Guardian about this research:

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” said Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.

If I had a penny for every environmentalist who told me that they weren’t vegan but they did not fly, or they had an electric car, I’d have tons of pennies.

One would think that, in light of all of this, serious environmentalists would be campaigning for everyone to adopt a vegan diet. One would be mistaken. The environmental movement has not promoted veganism. It has, instead, focused attention on factory farms and has promoted a whole new industry of “sustainable,” “local,” and “free-range” products.

Factory farms are, indeed, an environmental nightmare for a number of reasons. But the “sustainability” approach is nonsense. Putting aside that the animals who are killed for human consumption might regard “sustainability” in a jaundiced way, from an ecological point of view, it solves nothing. “Sustainable” grazing animals may consume less grain but they drink more water because they are more active; they still produce methane gas; and they require more grazing land. Locally produced animal products have a much greater environmental impact than plants that have been grown somewhere else. According to a study in Environmental Science and Technology, transportation accounts for only 11% of the carbon footprint of food with 83% attributable to production. So the idea that you’re doing more for the environment by eating animal products produced locally than vegetables transported in is just wrong.

In sum: “sustainable” animal agriculture will not — cannot — save the planet.

The environmental movement also supports a “reducetarian” approach.

Greenpeace calls for a 50% reduction of meat and dairy by 2050. Sorry — that’s way too little way too late.

The UK Green Party states: “A reduction in the consumption of animal products would have benefits for the environment, human health and animal welfare. The Green Party will support a progressive transition from diets dominated by meat and other animal products to healthier diets based on plant foods, through the use of research, education and economic measures, coupled with support for more sustainable methods of production such as organic and stockfree farming.”

A reducetarian approach will not be sufficient. Any reduction that is going to be meaningful from an environmental perspective is going to have to be “huge” and represent something much more approximating complete elimination. That is, “Meatless Monday,” “Vegan Before 6,” and a general and vague “reducetarian” directive are not going to cut it. The idea that “every little bit less consumption is a good thing” might be a plausible way of looking things if we had another 100 years to address the problem of global warming. We don’t. And preliminary data suggest that reducetarians do not seem to reduce too much.

Some claim that we can couple reduction with other technologies so as to avoid the necessity of going vegan. Yes, we might couple significant reduction of consumption with other technologies but, again, we simply don’t have the time to develop those technologies and even if all of the technologies are available now, we do not have the time to work out what combinations of strategies will work, and what numbers of people are required to participate in what strategies to achieve what could be achieved if there was a massive shift to a vegan diet.

Moreover, even if a severe reduction in consumption were to be sufficient, we know that not everyone will participate in that severe reduction. Therefore, those of us who completely eliminate animal products are helping to deal with the deficit caused by the non-participation of others in that severe reduction.

How about those radical Extinction Rebellion folks? They’re willing to get arrested for the planet. Surely, they’re willing to go vegan and to promote veganism? Apparently not. I went to the Extinction Rebellion website and spent about 30 minutes reading it. I found much of it pretty vague in terms of what concrete things it is advocating that people do other to attend ER events and to make demands of government to be transparent about climate change, act to deal with carbon emissions, and provide citizen oversight. Forgive me, but I am a tad skeptical that these laudable political goals are going to be recognized much less achieve success in the near future and certainly not in time to avert catastrophe. I found nothing on the ER website about the necessity of veganism. Indeed, I was unable to find any mention of veganism on the site.

I have seen comments from ER people to the effect that ER is deliberately not focusing on individual action but only on collective demands directed toward the government. This reflects the “personal/political” distinction that I thought we all recognized as illusionary a few decades back. Apparently not. The personal is the political. The idea that we don’t see as relevant our own obligation to do the most effective thing that we can do as individuals because that supposedly isn’t political is beyond absurd, and is a transparent way to let ourselves off the hook while we go out and have a good time at a demonstration or student strike. Moreover, even if we assume that the government will respond favorably and will do so before it’s too late, it makes no sense to say that we should pursue a strategy that has a very small chance of prevailing while ignoring a strategy that could work if we aggressively an unequivocally promoted it. Unfortunately, ER appears to be more about appearing to be radical than being radical.

I have also seen comments from some prominent ER people to the effect that ER does not want to judge anyone’s lifestyle or tell people what to do. But that makes no sense. It’s analogous to a doctor saying that the doctor isn’t willing to tell you to stop smoking because the doctor does not want to judge your lifestyle or tell you what to do. It’s not a matter of making judgments or giving normative directives. It is a matter of what one ought to do if one wants to maximize the chances of surviving.

The bottom line is clear: we are facing imminent disaster. Adopting a vegan diet is the one thing we can do right now. It does not involve any technological innovation. It does not involve any legislation or government regulation. If we really want to save the planet from climate catastrophe, we must promote a grassroots effort with a clear normative directive: stop eating animal products and adopt a vegan diet.

We need to see adoption of a vegan diet as necessary. It may not be sufficient — we may have to do other things to reduce our impact on the planet, but adopting a vegan diet is, as a practical matter, necessary given the imminence of disaster. Will those who adopt a vegan diet for ecological reasons “cheat”? Yes, probably. But from an environmental point of view, consuming animal products ought to be considered as something that one does, if at all, as “cheating,” rather than patting oneself on the back because one has consumed just dairy, eggs, and fish on Meatless Monday.

I am not saying that we ought not to engage in political action as well as promote a grassroots vegan movement. I am, however, skeptical to the point of incredulity that government will provide a timely solution. Government will act, if at all, only when it’s too late. I do think that political action has a symbolic value and it helps to educate people, but it is clear that an environmental movement that raises the alarm about global warming and does not aggressively and unequivocally promote a vegan diet is just engaging in hollow rhetoric and grandstanding. Animal-based diets play a major role in climate change and in the mass die-off of species. Animal products provide the common denominator. To not promote a vegan diet as the central focus of environmental activism makes no sense whatsoever.

The time is short. The consequences are catastrophic. We need to act. Now.

This essay was originally posted on Medium on 28 February, 2019.

Karl Lagerfeld Had a Point: If You Are Not Vegan, Why Do You Protest Fur?

I am an advocate for animal rights. I have been a vegan for 36 years. I do not eat, wear, or otherwise use animals. Karl Lagerfeld, who died on February 19, 2019, was, perhaps, the most famous fashion designer in the world. He used fur and other animal skin in his designs. That was, without question, morally wrong. And Lagerfeld’s sexist, misogynistic, racist, and Islamophobic comments were insidious.

But Lagerfeld had a point when he said, in an interview in 2015 with the New York TimesThe problem with fur. … For me, as long as people eat meat and wear leather, I don’t get the message.

There is no morally coherent distinction between fur and any other animal products. Indeed, leather is animal skin with the hair removed. Fur is animal skin with the hair still on. The animal is dead in both cases. Meat involves dead animals. Milk and eggs involve dead animals. All of these “products” involve animal suffering.

So if you are not a vegan and you object to fur, you really need to rethink your position. If you think that fur is morally wrong because it involves imposing unnecessary suffering and death on animals, the very same thing could be said about using animals for food or for other sorts of animal clothing. We eat animal products because we like the taste. There is no necessity. We wear leather and other animal clothing because we like the look of it. There is no necessity. Indeed, if you believe that animals matter morally and you are not a vegan, you need to ask yourself why you are not a vegan.

Animal welfare groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), are celebrating Lagerfeld’s death. At the same time, PETA relentlessly promotes a ton of non-vegans. For example (one of many), PETA promotes Paul McCartney. McCartney is not only not a vegan (listen here at 12:55), but he promotes the consumption of animal products through his promotion of Linda McCartney foods, 22% of which contain animal products.

What sense does that make? That’s a rhetorical question. It makes no sense. But McCartney supports PETA. So his animal exploitation is okay. Lagerfeld’s exploitation wasn’t. PETA’s promoting McCartney and other non-vegans while seeking headlines to condemn other non-vegans such as Lagerfeld reveals what a cynical and hypocritical entity PETA is. But PETA is not alone here. Most, if not all, of the large animal welfare charities praise and promote non-vegans — when it is their financial interest to do so.

It is not uncommon for people who are not vegan to have no problem criticizing those who wear fur. But that is like someone who eats beef criticizing someone who eats pork. Or someone who eats meat generally criticizing someone who eats foie gras. Wait. Some people do exactly that!

We should never celebrate anyone’s death. But there is something very troubling when “animal lovers” who are not vegan rejoice at the death of some animal exploiter. They fail to recognize that, if they are not vegans, they are participating directly in animal exploitation.

Originally published on Medium, 21 February 2019.

Morality in the Age of Reality TV: Bribing the Pope to Adopt a Vegan Diet for Lent

Pope Francis chose his name to reflect St. Francis of Assisi, author of the Canticle of the Sun, a prayer in which St. Francis praises God for creation, talking of “Brother Sun and “Sister Water,” and referring to the earth as our “Sister” and “Mother.” In 2015, Pope Francis published his second papal encyclical, Laudato si’An encyclical is a sort of papal letter. Laudato si’, unlike most papal letters that are addressed to leaders of the Catholic Church or to Catholics only, is addressed to everyone. Although not without problems, such as the Pope’s failure to recognize the environmental impact of population growth, Laudato si’ is, without doubt, a radical statement given the extremely conservative nature of the Catholic Church.

In Laudato si,’ Pope Francis raises the alarm about the devastating effects of anthropogenic climate change, and talks about how climate change and “modern anthropocentrism” are having negative effects for all, and particularly for the poor. He criticizes our obsession with consumerism and mindless development, and rejects our “tyrannical anthropocentrism unconcerned for other creatures.”

The implications of Laudato si’ are obvious. As an environmental matter, it is clear that a plant-based diet is the single biggest way to reduce our carbon footprint. And, unlike other measures to reduce global warming, adopting a plant-based diet is something we can all do right now. It is the only thing that we can do that is effective and requires no technological innovation, legislation, or governmental regulation. As a matter of morality, we simply cannot justify using nonhuman animals as human resources, particularly in light of the fact that most of our animal use cannot plausibly be described as “necessary.”

It is imperative that those who see the Pope as a spiritual authority take seriously the very clear implications of Laudato si’ irrespective of whether the Pope has spelled out those implications. It would, of course, be wonderful if the Pope came out and announced that he had decided, for reasons of our moral obligations to nonhuman animals and concerning the environment, to become a vegan. Maybe that will come.

One way of not maximizing the chances that will happen is by offering the Pope money and attempting to turn him into a reality TV star.

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Source: Million Dollar Vegan

On February 6, 2019 a massive PR campaign was launched by a group called Million Dollar Vegan. The campaign has a 12-year old child named Genesis Butler making a “challenge” to Pope Francis to adopt a vegan diet for Lent. If the Pope goes along with this request, Million Dollar Vegan will donate $1 million to a charity of the Pope’s choice.

This “challenge” is accompanied by a Petition, which people are being asked to sign and that asks the Pope to adopt a vegan diet for Lent in light of environmental and health concerns, and because of objections to factory farming.

It is not clear what the goal of Million Dollar Vegan is. Although the group uses “vegan” (including in its name), it is not promoting veganism, which involves not using animals for any purpose. The group purports to be promoting a “plant-based diet” as a “sustainable and benevolent” choice. Their recommended reading list has some non-vegan sources that promote a reducetarian/flexitarian approach and support campaigns for the supposedly more “humane” exploitation of animals. Virtually all of the news reports about Million Dollar Vegan and this campaign state the goal is to “get people to eat less meat and dairy in order to fight climate change.”

Some of the supporters of Million Dollar Vegan are very clear in not calling for the end of animal exploitation. For example, one supporter listed is Animals Australia. When asked by ABC, “Does Animals Australia have a policy of opposing the rearing of livestock for human consumption?,” Lyn White of Animals Australia answered: “No, we certainly don’t. Look, our vision, our work is towards ensuring that all animals, that — especially in human care, have protection from cruel treatment and are treated with compassion and respect. That is what we work towards on a daily basis.”

Million Dollar Vegan is supported by a number of celebrities. The first one listed is Sir Paul McCartney, who is described as “vegetarian.” After 41 years as a vegetarian, McCartney is still not a vegan. That gives “baby steps” a whole new meaning! In this 2018 interview (at 12:55), McCartney says he is not a vegan. And, according to the website, 22% of Linda McCartney Foods are not vegan. So the Pope should adopt a vegan diet but it’s okay for a non-vegan who is also involved in promoting the consumption of animal products to “challenge” the Pope to adopt a vegan diet? Really? A number of other supporters are not vegans or are downright hostile to the idea of veganism as a moral imperative. So it seems that Million Dollar Vegan is yet another group that promotes a reducetarian approach and that rejects the idea that veganism is a moral imperative for reasons either of animal ethics or the environment.

Putting aside whatever else could be said about this group and this campaign, I would like to offer several observations.

First, it seems a very bad idea to offer people — anyone — money (whether as a direct payment or as contribution to their favorite charity) with the goal of changing their behavior on a moral issue or with the goal of getting others to change because the person given the money has changed. That is a very cynical way of looking at morality. And I do not know why anyone thinks it is an effective thing to do if one wants any sort of sustained change.

Moreover, I recognize that, because I view veganism as a moral imperative and as a matter of justice for nonhuman animals quite apart from the importance of a vegan diet for the environment — although I think we have a moral obligation to go vegan for environmental reasons as well — this “challenge” has a distasteful aspect. Morality is not something you dabble in or do for a month or for some period. You don’t make a resolution to stop harming others physically for Lent.

Second, it is particularly problematic to do this sort of thing with the Pope. If he wants to make a $1 million contribution to a charity, he can sell the least valuable piece of art that hangs in the Vatican and probably have more than $1 million to contribute to whatever cause he likes. Moreover, my guess is that the Pope will probably find this “challenge” and the crass attempt to “buy him off” to be less than appealing. And he is also unlikely to want to have Lent — a time of serious reflection for Catholics — to be turned into a reality TV show for the supporters of Million Dollar Vegan where he will be the star. The FAQ section of the Million Dollar Vegan says, in response to the question as to whether it is “bribing a religious leader,” that “bold action” is necessary and that “[t]he offer is made out of respect” for Pope Francis.

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From Million Dollar Vegan

Respect? I missed that. It appears rather clearly intended to embarrass the Pope. After all, no one really thought that the Pope could respond favorably to this sort of “challenge.” I would have thought it transparently clear that this was a rather cheap shot intended to use a religious leader and a holy time of year for that religion as an opportunity to embarrass that religious leader — and get publicity and a visible position in the hierarchy of groups who are in a constant struggle to see who can engage in the most outrageous and often offensive antics in order to favorably compete for donations. In a sense, Million Dollar Vegan is simply the latest iteration of a “movement” (actually more a collection of businesses) that will use anything — racism, sexism, misogyny and joking about physical violence to women — to get attention and donations. You start with “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” and you get to “challenges” to the Pope accompanied by offers of money. The result, of course, is that the extremely important issues raised by animal exploitation have been trivialized and turned into cheap entertainment.

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A PETA ad. This really helps animals, right?

I confess I may be wrong about how the Pope will react. I was raised a Catholic but to say that I am a lapsed Catholic would be a hyperbolic understatement. I would have thought that anyone who took the Pope and the Catholic Church seriously would be mortified by all of this. But maybe I have called this wrong. I see that Catholic Concern for Animals is listed as one of the organizations supporting Million Dollar Vegan. They are undoubtedly closer to the Church and the Pope than I. Maybe they know something I don’t. Maybe this “challenge” is the first of many. After all, the Church has a number of issues plaguing it. Maybe they can all be solved with a series of million dollar “challenges.” Perhaps next we could have a campaign devoted to “challenging” the Pope to allow women to be ordained priests for a month to get people used to the idea. It could be called Nunanuary. (UPDATE 2/12/2019: Catholic Concern for Animals is no longer listed on the list of supporters of Million Dollar Vegan and claims that it never supported Million Dollar Vegan or the “challenge” to the Pope.)

Third, many of us spend a great deal of time trying to convince people that veganism is not a “sacrifice.” So why couple a vegan diet with Lent — a season of sacrifice and deprivation? Enough of the population already thinks that a vegan diet is the culinary equivalent of a hair shirt.

I quite agree that we ought to be encouraging people to stop consuming animal products for environmental reasons in addition to the animal rights reasons on which I generally focus. Indeed, as I said above, I believe that we also have a moral obligation to adopt a vegan diet for environmental reasons. It is clear that animal agriculture is destroying the planet and the science is crystal clear that a vegan diet is the single best thing we can do for the planet. It is bewildering to me that environmental groups are not all vigorously promoting a vegan diet.

I maintain that adopting a vegan diet is, in effect, necessary for environmental reasons in that, given the short time we have to address the problem of climate change, it is the only thing that we can do without technological change, and without legislation or regulation. Yes, we might couple reduction of consumption with other technologies but, again, we simply don’t have the time to work out what combinations of strategies will work, and what numbers of people are required to participate in what combinations of strategies to achieve what could be achieved if there was a massive shift to a vegan diet. Telling people to reduce their intake of animal products is vague — and too little too late. Telling people that we must stop is not only a clear message; it is, as a practical matter, the only sensible message to promote if we want to survive. From an environmental point of view, consuming animal products ought to be considered as something that one does, if at all, as “cheating,” rather than patting oneself on the back because one has consumed just dairy, eggs, and fish on Meatless Monday.

The science that points in the direction of a vegan diet is getting a great deal of traction without yet another group with a “donate” button promoting a hopelessly confused and inconsistent message. I understand that advocacy groups often avoid taking an absolutist position for what are, in effect, business reasons — they want to keep their donor pools as broad as possible. But we are killing approximately 70 billion land animals and one trillion sea animals annually for food alone.

The moral and environmental crises are just that — crises. We need an absolutist message for both moral and environmental reasons.

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I hope that the Pope, leader of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, will decide not only to adopt a vegan diet but to go vegan in terms of recognizing that we ought not to eat, wear, or use animals as resources because it is immoral and unjust with respect to nonhuman animals, as well as inconsistent with planetary survival and food justice as far as humans are concerned.

It should be noted that in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, we are told that God created the world and gave “dominion” over it to humans but — and here’s the surprise — no one was eating anyone in the beginning. God told humans “I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.”(1:29) And then God told all the animals and birds, “I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.” (1:30)

So in the beginning, before Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree and were driven from the Garden of Eden, everyone — humans and animals alike — ate only plant foods. It was only after God destroyed the world with a flood that he told Noah that humans are allowed to eat “[e]very moving thing that liveth.” (9:3)

We started off in harmony with God as beings who consumed plants. When we fell out with God and were driven from Eden, God permitted us to kill animals as an accommodation to our imperfect state. The Old Testament at least suggests that we should be moving in the direction of getting back to the ideal state.

When the prophet Isaiah talks about the coming of the Messiah and the re-establishment of God’s kingdom on earth, how does he describe it? First of all, there will be peace between humans, who will “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4) But peace will also extend to and amongst nonhumans: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent’s meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord.” (65:25)

I think that the Pope is heading in the direction of promoting a plant-based diet for environmental reasons if not primarily for reasons of animal ethics. I hope that this sort of cheap gimmickry does not delay his move in that direction.

Originally published on Medium, 10 February 2019.

If You Are Not a Vegan, I Have a Simple Question for You: Why Not?

You may think that it is peculiar that some people are vegans — that is, they don’t eat, wear, or use animals. You may even regard veganism as extreme.

But, if truth be told, what is peculiar and extreme is that, given what most of us believe about our moral obligations to animals, more of us aren’t vegan. To put the matter another way: what most of us already believe should make veganism the normal position.

Before you dismiss as extreme my claim that veganism is not extreme, think about what it is that you think about animals. You probably don’t think that animals are just things that do not matter morally at all or you wouldn’t be reading this essay.

You probably subscribe to the view that is so common and uncontroversial that we might call it our conventional wisdom about animals: animals matter morally, but they don’t matter as much as do humans, and we may use animals for human purposes as long as we do not inflict unnecessary suffering and death on them. Part of this view is that, if “necessity” is going to have any meaning in this context, it must be the case that pleasure or amusement cannot justify inflicting suffering and death on animals.

Because we reject imposing animal suffering for pleasure, we excoriate people like American football player Michael Vick, who operated a dog fighting ring; or Mary Bale, who tossed a cat into a garbage bin in Coventry; or Walter Palmer, the dentist from Minneapolis who shot Cecil the lion.

Our widely-held belief about not imposing suffering and death on animals for reasons of pleasure or amusement explains polling released in May 2017, which showed that almost 70 percent of British voters were opposed to fox hunting, and half were less likely to vote for a pro-hunting candidate in the general election. Opposition is not limited to fox hunting. A 2016 poll indicated that, in addition to major opposition to fox hunting, significant numbers of people in the UK were also opposed to deer hunting (88 per cent), hare hunting and coursing (91 percent), dog fighting (98 percent), and badger baiting (94 percent). Most Britons object to the fact that the Royals blow away scores of birds on Boxing Day (December 26) just for fun.

If you are in agreement with the position that it is morally wrong to impose unnecessary suffering on animals and you are not vegan, then, I have a simple question for you:

Why not?

We kill 70 billion land animals and an estimated one trillion sea animals annually for food. And the only justification for that is that they taste good. We get pleasure from eating animals and animal products.

There is no necessity.

Although, in the not-too-distant past, we thought that we needed animal foods to be healthy, there was never any medical support for that position and, in any event, no one any longer maintains that it is necessary to consume animal products to be optimally healthy. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that vegan diets “are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” The UK National Health Service says that a sensible vegan diet can be “very healthy.” Mainstream health care professionals all over the world are increasingly taking the position that animal products are detrimental to human health.

We don’t have to settle the debate about whether it is more healthy to live on a diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds (although the empirical evidence certainly points in that direction). The point is that a vegan diet is certainly no less healthy than a diet of decomposing flesh, cow secretions, and chicken ova. And that’s the only point relevant to the issue of whether suffering and death are necessary or not.

Moreover, animal agriculture constitutes an ecological disaster. It is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the burning of fossil fuel for transportation, and results in deforestation, soil erosion, and water pollution. The grain fed to animals in the United States alone could feed 800 million people. Against this background, what is the best justification we have for inflicting suffering and death on animals?

The answer is simple: we think they taste good. We derive pleasure from eating them. Eating animals and animal products is a tradition, and we have been following it for a very long time.

But how is that position any different from the justification offered for animal uses to which most of us object? How is palate pleasure any different from the pleasure that some people derive from participating in blood sports? Fox hunting, badger baiting and dog fighting are all traditions. Indeed, almost every practice to which we object — whether involving animals or humans — involves a tradition valued by someone. Patriarchy is also a tradition that has existed for a very long time, but its longevity does not mean that it is morally acceptable.

Many people oppose hunting foxes because they can see no morally significant distinction between the dog they love and the fox who is chased and killed. But what is the difference between the animals we love and those into whom we stick a fork and a knife? The dogs and cats we love are sentient — just as are the chickens, cows, pigs, fish, and other animals we exploit. They all feel pain and experience distress; they all have an interest in continuing to live.

So, if you believe that we should not inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals, and you object to dog fighting, fox hunting, and other blood sports, why aren’t you a vegan?

There are four responses that I usually get at this point.

The first response is to note that people who engage in fox hunting or who enjoy watching dog fighting or bull fighting are participating themselves in the harmful conduct whereas the person who simply consumes animal products innocently goes to the store and purchases those products.

There is no moral difference between the person who fights dogs or hunts foxes and the person who purchases chicken at the local supermarket and roasts it. In all three cases, the suffering and death of the animals is unnecessary. In all three cases, the only reason for the suffering and death is pleasure. Those who fight dogs or hunt foxes do what they do because they enjoy it; it brings them pleasure. Those who buy and eat chicken do so because they enjoy it; it brings them pleasure.

There may be a psychological difference in that the dog fighter and the hunter enjoy participating in the lethal activity — just as there is a psychological difference between the person who pays to have another person murdered and the person who actually commits the murder. But, in the latter case, both the person who pays for the murder and the person who commits the murder are punished as murderers because the law recognizes no moral difference between them.

The second response goes something like this: “yes, I see what you’re saying but I only buy the more ‘humanely” produced animal foods, such as cage-free eggs or crate-free pork.”

That response is both delusional and substantively unsatisfactory.

It is delusional because the most “humanely” treated animals are still treated in ways that would easily qualify as torture were humans involved. If you are eating supposedly “happy” animal products and thinking those animals had reasonably pleasant lives and relatively painless deaths, you are kidding yourself.

The response is substantively unsatisfactory because the moral principle that most of us embrace is that we should not inflict any unnecessary suffering and death on animals. Sure, less suffering is better than more suffering but that misses the point. No one who objects to dog fighting says that it would be an acceptable activity if the dogs were treated better before the fight. No one who objects to fox hunting would think it okay if the amount of time that dogs were permitted to attack the fox were better regulated and limited in duration.

If animals matter morally, we should not be imposing any unnecessary suffering on them.

The third response is that animals are killed in the cultivation of plant foods.

It is certainly true that animals are incidentally and unintentionally killed when, for example, crops are harvested. But humans are incidentally and unintentionally killed in the process of manufacturing things. That does not mean that we cannot distinguish incidental and unintentional human deaths from murder. Moreover, if we all consumed plants directly, there would be many, many fewer acres under cultivation and many fewer unintended and incidental animal deaths.

The fourth response is to claim that plants, like animals, are alive and, therefore, sentient.

Plants are certainly alive and they have developed often complicated reactions to their environment. They react; they don’t respond. In this sense, plants are like cancer tumors. No one maintains that that plants have any sorts of minds that result in their having interests. Indeed, no one even thinks to raise this until they are at a dinner party with a vegan and they don’t think the “Hitler was a vegetarian” argument is going to get much traction.

In sum, if we really believe that animals matter morally and that we are morally obligated not to impose unnecessary suffering on them, it makes no sense not to be vegan. Given what most of us claim to believe, it is not being vegan that represents the extreme position.

Originally published on Medium, 26 December 2018.