Katerina (not her real name)
A young writer from Canada
Why is Vegetarian and Vegan Activism so Controversial?
Though vegetarianism and veganism have been accepted into mainstream Western culture, I’ve found that within my social circles, the topic almost never comes up in conversation. I know plenty of vegetarians and vegans, so it is not about lack of exposure; it seems that they are just reluctant to discuss their food choices with me. I’ve always wondered about that, since the decision to avoid meat or all animal products is a deliberate one, and likely part of a person’s identity. It makes sense: there is plenty of publicity on the more extreme actions of vegan activists, as well as the backlash against them. But as a meat-eater who has never understood the bacon craze, I’ve also thought that if someone sat me down and gave me a list of logical reasons to try going vegetarian, I wouldn’t say no. (Though I’ve mentioned veganism up to this point, this article will mainly speak to vegetarianism.)
Because here’s the truth, the way I see it: the reasons to give up meat are more compelling than the reasons to keep eating it. The popular arguments in favour of eating meat are about enjoyment, or that humans are omnivores. My immediate rebuttals would be that we all regularly abstain from things we know would bring us pleasure due to the consequences, like taking ecstasy, and that our biological mechanisms would also have us aligning our sleep schedules with the sun, but nobody insists on bedtime at sunset. Regardless of how much you dislike my analogies, my point is that this isn’t the big-picture rationale upon which we should try to base a major lifestyle decision. In comparison, the two factors that I consider to be most important both happen to favour vegetarianism: eating meat can be bad for us, and is definitely bad for the environment.
When I started looking into the health issues associated with eating meat, I was skeptical. We had been warned against large quantities of red meat in health class, but we hadn’t heard about the empirical evidence linking vegetarian diets to reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and high blood pressure. I hadn’t known that the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified processed meats as a Group 1 substance and red meats as a Group 2A substance, meaning that the former is definitely carcinogenic and the latter probably carcinogenic. If that doesn’t seem concerning, think of it this way: the same sort of warnings that are on cigarette packaging should logically be on bacon packaging. But they aren’t, and I suspect that I’m not the only one who doesn’t keep up with the latest medical news and WHO memos, leaving people like me in the dark. This lack of widespread awareness means there are roughly 34 000 deaths annually due to consumption of processed meat, and 50 000 deaths annually due to consumption of red meat. But wait, what about the health benefits to eating meat? Nobody can deny that it contains essential nutrients, which is why people are sometimes encouraged to incorporate it into a healthy diet, albeit in small quantities. (The WHO does not specify an amount of meat that is safe to eat.) Those benefits are likely why we’ve evolved to be able to eat meat (and consume animal products): doing so ensured our ancestors’ access to nutrients they may not have found elsewhere. This no longer holds true, because, with international trade, most of us have access to all the plants we could want or need to guarantee a healthy diet. Soy, for example, is a complete protein like animal meat is, but without evidence supporting increased cancer risks.
What might be considered the larger problem, however, is the environmental (and economical) impact of raising livestock. I recently read the book Comfortably Unaware by Dr. Richard Oppenlander, and I was appalled by almost every statistic included. (All of the following statistics are from Comfortably Unaware unless hyperlinked.) First, the oft-mentioned carbon dioxide is not the greenhouse gas that should concern us the most. Although carbon dioxide comprises 72% of all emitted greenhouse gases, not all greenhouse gases are equal: methane has 23 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide 310 times the effect. The livestock industry produces 40% of human-generated methane, and 65% of human-generated nitrous oxide, meaning that the meat we eat has more effect than the transportation we take or the electricity we use. In terms of food production, raising livestock is an incredibly inefficient way to feed our growing global population. To produce the same number of calories as plant product, meat requires almost 500 times the amount of water and 10 times the amount of fossil fuels. Livestock takes up 77% of all land used for agriculture, but only produces 18% of our calories. And that’s not to forget that unlike plants, livestock need to be fed. 50% of all crops grown globally are fed to livestock and not people. This yields us less food in the end: in the United States, 157 million metric tons of crops are fed to livestock annually, but the livestock result in only 28 million metric tons of meat annually. What do all of those numbers mean? We can reduce the number of people who die of starvation and free up more land for living space by going vegetarian. Choosing meat also means choosing a major contribution to climate change. And no matter how green we keep our carbon footprints in every other way, this one choice might seal our fate: research suggests that at the current level of livestock production, it will be impossible to fulfill the goal set in the Paris Agreement. The consequences of that are catastrophic to all life on Earth, human or otherwise.
The answer to my rhetorical question at the beginning was obvious: the vegans and vegetarians I know avoided the topic because of the negative connotations sometimes associated with vegan activism. Why people who eat meat created those connotations is basic psychology: we don’t like being told we’re wrong, we don’t like accepting that we’re wrong, and we especially don’t react well to threats to our sense of freedom. Of course, we want to be able to make our own decisions when it comes to what we put in our own bodies. The problem is that choosing to eat meat isn’t just about whether we can live with raising animals only to slaughter them. It's also about diminishing our quality of life. Fine, maybe every meat-eater can decide whether to care about their own risk of cancer, but by helping to silence vegetarians or vegans, one could be affecting the next person's capacity to make the same choice. If that doesn't reek of selfishness, ignoring the environmental factors surely does. What seems like one person’s own lifestyle choice results in less food to go around, which is less than ideal with the increasing number of people affected by world hunger. That statistic is only going to get worse as the livestock industry drives the global temperature up. These huge issues are more affected by the actions of individual people than we might think.
I have no idea whether an article like this would encourage a single person to reflect on their food choices. All I know is that I wish the people around me hadn’t thought the topic too touchy, so my own reflection wouldn’t have to wait until the day I happened to be curious. If we hope to work this out before it’s too late, a couple of things need to happen. Activists need to find a more effective way to get their messages across to more people, and I’m of the belief that this is always through peaceful, nonviolent movements. Credibility and crime don’t go hand in hand. In return, non-activists need to be more open to hearing the messages posed in a reasonable, nonantagonistic manner. When one person stops plugging their ears, the other doesn’t need to scream themselves hoarse. In the end, vegan and vegetarian activism needs to be about respect and compassion, not just eating meat.
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