By Deana Gershuny
Boiled down, the reasons that I eat a plant based diet fall under three main categories:
- health (I tried and failed to think of a word synonymous with health beginning with ‘E’, apologies).
We can let the lack of complete alliteration serve as a linguistic representation for the complexity which I think underlies personal dietary decisions such as these…
The road which has lead me to veganism has been quite long and the reasons, even now, are constantly evolving.
I took my first steps towards a vegan diet when I was twelve and decided to give up eating red meat. My memory is a little hazy as to the exact reasoning or provocation but it certainly fell under the ethical umbrella. It just didn’t feel right to me to eat cute four legged animals with whom I could easily empathise, so I stopped.
Over the next few years I began to feel that it was hypocritical to eat some animals and not others. Just because I found it harder to empathise with chickens, did this mean that they deserved my empathy any less? Did they deserve more to be eaten? I decided not. I also decided I wouldn’t be up for killing a bird myself to eat, so why should I let someone else do it for me. Furthermore, I felt uncomfortable with the idea that I could eat a bird that had been bought from a shop and never have to engage with what it actually meant to be taking a life for my own sustenance. It’s very different to how humans lived even one hundred years ago. It’s also different to what I experienced when living in a small town in India where if you wanted chicken you went to the person with the chickens, picked one out from the flock and watched it be slaughtered before paying. Interestingly in this circumstance meat was eaten much less frequently and was often saved for special occasions.
I think this is an important issue and a question to ponder for those who do eat meat. Leaving the issue of time aside, if you had to kill it or watch it be killed, pluck/skin it, gut it yourself, would you still eat the same amount? Does the disconnection we experience push us to disengage and act in ways which actually, upon reflection, do not align with our values?
Despite my musings on these questions, the fact that I wasn’t totally comfortable with the idea of killing a fish to eat and my awareness of the hypocrisy and inconsistency in my dietary ethos, I still ate fish. They fell even lower down on the scale of empathy and I really liked smoked salmon and tuna steak. I also felt like fish was an important part of my diet, providing me with protein and fats I wasn’t getting from other animals.
Increasingly, however, I learned that it’s perfectly possible to get more than enough protein from other sources like legumes, tofu and grains.
Nuts, seeds and oils are great sources of essential fats found in fish. I also read about how large scale fishing disrupted ocean ecosystems and again was troubled by the disconnection between what I ate and my knowledge and the implications of where it came from. I began to be less able to justify eating fish and eventually, aged twenty-six, I decided to stop including them as part of my diet.
Around the same time that I gave up fish, someone told me that if I ate eggs I may as well eat chicken. I didn’t understand. He explained that once hens stop maximally producing eggs at around two years old, they get killed in just the same way as chickens raised for meat. I was surprised. I knew, as most people do, that the outlook for male chicks born to laying hens was not a good one. For whatever reason – denial, wilful blindness – I hadn’t really engaged with the implications of this knowledge. I hadn’t even thought about what happened to the laying hens.
This interaction compelled me to engage. I started to learn. Turns out both the egg and dairy industry necessarily result, with varying brutality, in the death of many male animals. Female animals need to get pregnant to produce milk. Fifty per cent of their offspring are male and are of no use so they end up being killed for meat. In the egg industry male chicks are often just killed straight after hatching, thrown into a blender of sorts. You’ve probably heard about that. Google it if not. If I thought that having a vegetarian diet meant I was not contributing to or causing the death of animals, I was wrong. The dairy, egg and meat industries are inexorably linked.
Up until this point my dietary decisions had been mainly driven by ethical concerns with taking the lives of animals for my own purposes. I was vaguely aware of environmental and health concerns associated with eating animal products but as I learned more I became more aware of the importance of these concerns.
Most egg, dairy and meat is produced on a large scale in factory farms which have much wider ranging negative impact than I imagined. An attempt to keep prices low and production high results in incredibly cruel treatment of animals (who are sometimes still conscious after being hung up and skinned) and traumatic conditions for workers. Huge pits containing faeces from all the animals held up in the farms, results in sewage runoff to rivers causing widespread pollution of rivers and oceans and disruption of ecosystems. Huge amounts of water is used in the production of animal products and the requirement of land to grow corn for feed results in widespread deforestation and the attendant downsides of growing vast amounts of mono crop corn (fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, top soil runoff).
Furthermore, ubiquitous use of antibiotics to prevent animals getting ill creates the ideal breading grounds for antibiotic resistant strains of infective organisms which is a huge public health issue. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 which killed more people than WW1 originated in a farm animal as did the more recent swine and avian flu (hence the names). All of this has been plenty to convince me that I do not want to support this industry in any way, certainly by trying not to buy any of it’s products.
I do think that there are ways of using and eating animal products that are more ethical and less environmental damaging. It’s possible to buy meat, eggs and dairy that is free-range, grass-fed, organic, local etc. This goes may go some way to reduce the suffering and environmental impact. Still, however, in terms of land use and energy it does not seem to be sustainable for the majority of the world’s population to have a heavily animal product based diet. The energy which goes into producing it is far lower than the energy we get out. Furthermore, animals are still being raised and slaughtered for our own sustenance when, in the more economically developed countries at least, it is not necessary for our nutrition. In fact, studies seem to suggest over again that those who adopt a plant based diet have lower incidence of health problems such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, etc.
I also think it’s important to note that keeping kosher in fact has very little to do with eating ethically. Kosher meat often also comes from factory farms which use inhumane and environmentally damaging practices. But this is a whole other blog topic.
My intention is not to be a ‘preachy vegan’. I recognise that my diet reflects my personal preference and that it is not black and white, not without conflict and contradiction. In some circumstances it may be more environmentally friendly to get necessary protein from eating local organic meat than from eating lentils which have been shipped half way across the world and perhaps caused problems with lentil availability to the local population in the country of origin. I also recognise that humans have domesticated animals over many years and that cows, goats and chickens as we know them today only exist because of our relationship with them (i.e. they can’t exist as they currently do without us).
This year I spent some weeks looking after and milking goats. I was troubled by having to separate the kids from their mothers so we could collect the milk in the morning, by having to secure them so they wouldn’t fight against or run away from us milking them and generally by having a relationship with another living being where there is such a clear imbalance of power. However, most didn’t seem to mind too much (as far as it is possible to goat mind read). I had no desire to drink the milk but I did feel like if I were to drink milk, this would be the best way to do it. We fed them, kept them safe from predators, looked after them when they were ill, gave them shelter and bedding. Even though there was an imbalance of power, it was a reciprocal relationship. I also can’t ignore the fact that I loved my time with the goats – just as I enjoy having a pet dog – and I do think that some degree of human-animal interaction is a good thing.
We all live on this planet together after all.
Often I feel overwhelmed. It’s not black and white and often I feel conflicted. There is so much information, how should I know how is best to act? If I really care about this stuff, surely being vegan isn’t enough. Surely I should become an activist, give up flying, stop driving my car, only ever by local organic produce, only produce compostable or recyclable waste…the list goes on.
Here’s what I do know.
What we do has an impact. How we behave as humans in this world has a huge effect on everything around us, on the earth which sustains us. We are part of it. We can either engage with this and recognise our responsibility and ability to act with respect, awareness and compassion or we can ignore it and cause harm.
If we buy animal products from factory farms we are supporting the continued existence of inhumane and environmentally damaging institutions. If we buy non-organic vegetables in non-recyclable wrappers shipped over from the other side of the world we are supporting farming and commercial practices which have a negative impact on our environment. If we eat lots of animal products, processed foods and sugar it will harm our health. When we eat animals, we are taking life.
I try to buy local organic ingredients and to minimise waste but I don’t always succeed. I do find I am able and happy to stick to a plant based diet. I don’t find it restrictive or difficult. I feel it reflects my values, provides me with all the nutrients I need, makes me be more mindful of what I am putting in my body and more aware of my connection with all that is around me.
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It doesn’t have to be veganism. There are endless ways to act more consciously. I think it’s up to each individual to engage, recognise the impact of individual action and make informed decisions for themselves.
A few select books, articles and videos that have shaped my views:
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
‘The Agrarian Standard’ by Wendell Berry
Some blogs and recipe books I love to cook from:
Plenty and Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi
Favourite vegan eateries:
Campbell’s Canal Cafe, Camden
Wild Food Cafe, Covent Garden
By Deana Gershuny