On February 13, during a Congressional hearing on performance enhancing drugs, Congressman Bruce Braley, a Democrat from Iowa, asked Roger Clemens if he had ever been a vegan. Clemens replied, “I don’t know what that is. I’m sorry.” I can’t imagine how anyone in this day and age could not know what a vegan is—or at least have some inkling of an idea—but just in case there is anyone else who is unsure what a vegan is, or wants more detailed information on veganism, here is a primer:
Vegans (pronounced VEE-guns) are people who choose not to eat any animal products, including meat, eggs, dairy, honey, and gelatin. Vegans do not wear fur, leather, wool, down, or silk, or use cosmetics or household products that were tested on animals or contain ingredients that were derived from animals. Most vegans also do not support industries that feature captive and/or performing animals, including circuses, zoos, and aquariums.
The American Vegan Society defines veganism as “an advanced way of living in accordance with Reverence for Life, recognizing the rights of all living creatures, and extending to them the compassion, kindness, and justice exemplified in the Golden Rule.”
The word “vegan” was derived from “vegetarian” in 1944 by Elsie Shrigley and Donald Watson, the founders of the UK Vegan Society. Shirgley and Watson were disillusioned that vegetarianism included dairy products and eggs. They saw “vegan” as “the beginning and end of vegetarian,” and used the first three and last two letters of vegetarian to coin the new term.
There is no conclusive estimate of the current number of vegans in the United States. An American Dietetic Association (ADA) report indicated that, in 2000, approximately 2.5% of the U.S. adult population (4.8 million people) consistently followed a vegetarian diet, meaning they never ate meat, fish, or poultry. Slightly less than 1% of those surveyed were considered vegans.
A poll published in Time magazine on July 7, 2002 showed that 4% of the 10,007 American adults surveyed consider themselves vegetarians, and 5% of those who descibed themselves as vegetarians also considered themselves vegans.
Retail sales of vegetarian and vegan food have more than doubled in the U.S. since the late 1990’s. In 1998, the total sale of vegetarian and vegan foods was 729.6 million dollars. In 2003, that amount increased to 1,558.9 million dollars. A 2005 Mintel survey indicated that U.S. sales of vegetarian food increased by 64 percent from 2000 to 2005 and predicted that the vegetarian food market will continue to grow in the next few years.
Many schools and universities now offer vegan options. A 2005 nationwide survey conducted by ARAMARK, a company that provides food to universities and school districts, indicated that approximately twenty-four percent of college students say vegan meals are important to them.
Although most people go vegan for ethical reasons, health and environmental concerns are also motivating factors.
Ethical Reasons for Veganism
Approximately 27 billion cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, fish, and other animals are killed for food each year in the United States. Our modern factory farming system strives to produce the most meat, milk, and eggs as quickly and cheaply as possible, and in the smallest amount of space possible.
Cattle raised for beef are fed high-bulk grains and other “fillers,” which can include expired dog and cat food, poultry feces, and leftover restaurant food. They are branded, castrated, and dehorned—all without pain killers. They are crowded into metal trucks and taken to slaughter; they are generally not provided with sufficient food, water, and veterinary care. Many are trampled during the long journey. At the slaughterhouse, cattle may be hoisted upside down by their hind legs and dismembered while they’re still conscious.
“Dairy” cows are typically kept in feces- and urine-saturated “dry lots” of dirt and mud. They are impregnated every year in order to keep up a steady supply of milk. Male calves are taken away within a day or two of birth and sold to veal farms where they are chained in stalls only 2 feet wide and 6 feet long with slatted floors. Their mothers’ milk is used for human consumption, so the calves are fed a milk substitute designed to help them gain at least 2 pounds a day. The diet is purposely low in iron so that the calves become anemic and their flesh stays pale and tender. They are normally killed when they are between 16 and 18 weeks old. Female calves are raised to be milk producers like their mothers.
Nearly 9 billion chickens are raised for meat each year. They are crammed by the tens of thousands into filthy warehouses with no access to fresh air or sunlight. They typically do not have enough space to stretch even one wing. Undercover investigations into the “broiler” chicken industry have repeatedly revealed birds who were suffering from dehydration, respiratory diseases, bacterial infections, heart attacks, crippled legs, and other serious ailments.
Birds are not protected under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, the only federal law that offers any sort of protection to farmed animals. At the slaughterhouse, they are hung upside-down, their legs are snapped into metal shackles, their throats are slit open, and they are immersed in scalding hot water for feather removal. They are often conscious through the entire process.
Ninety-eight percent of the egg industry’s hens are confined in wire mesh battery cages stacked tier upon tier in huge warehouses. They are generally confined seven or eight to a cage, and don’t have enough room to turn around or spread one wing. Conveyor belts bring in food and water and carry away eggs and excrement. To prevent stress-induced behaviors caused by overcrowding, such as pecking their cagemates to death, hens are kept in semi-darkness, and the ends of their beaks are cut off with hot blades (without anesthetics).
Although chickens can live for more than a decade in natural surroundings, laying hens are usually “spent,” exhausted and unable to produce as many eggs by the time they are 2 years old. More than 100 million “spent” hens die in U.S. slaughterhouses every year.
Mother pigs live most of their lives in individual crates 7 feet long by 2 feet wide. Their piglets are taken away three weeks after birth and packed into pens to be raised for breeding or for meat. Many display neurotic behaviors such as cannibalism and tailbiting, so farmers use pliers to break off the ends of the piglets’ teeth and chop off their tails—with no anesthetics.
According to the pork industry, more than 100,000 pigs die en route to slaughter each year, and more than 400,000 arrive crippled from the journey. They often freeze to the sides of the transport trucks in top pig-slaughtering states like Iowa and Nebraska or die from dehydration in states like North Carolina.
At the slaughterhouse, pigs are frequently stunned improperly and are still conscious when they reach the scalding water intended to soften their skin and remove the hair. United States Department of Agriculture inspection records documented 14 humane slaughter violations at one processing plant, including finding hogs that “were walking and squealing after being stunned [with a stun gun] as many as four times.”
Health Reasons for Veganism
Animal products are generally high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and concentrated protein. Numerous studies have linked the consumption of certain animal products to serious illnesses, such as heart disease, strokes, diabetes and breast, colon, prostate, stomach, esophageal, and pancreatic cancer.
Unlike animal products, plant-based foods are cholesterol free and generally low in fat and high in fiber, complex carbohydrates, and other vital nutrients. Researchers from the University of Toronto have found that a plant-based diet rich in soy and soluble fiber can reduce cholesterol levels by as much as one-third. According to David Jenkins, professor of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Toronto, “the evidence is pretty strong that vegans, who eat no animal products, have the best cardiovascular health profile and the lowest cholesterol levels.”
Studies have shown that, on average, vegetarians and vegans are at least 10 percent leaner, and live six to 10 years longer, than meat-eaters. The ADA has reported that “vegetarians, especially vegans, often have weights that are closer to desirable weights than do non-vegetarians.”
In Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, the late Dr. Benjamin Spock, an authority on child care, wrote, “Children who grow up getting their nutrition from plant foods rather than meats have a tremendous health advantage. They are less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some forms of cancer.”
According to a joint statement by the ADA and Dietitians of Canada, “well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.”
“Quite simply,” says T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., the author of The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health, “the more you substitute plant foods for animal foods, the healthier you are likely to be. I now consider veganism to be the ideal diet. A vegan diet—particularly one that is low in fat—will substantially reduce disease risks. Plus, we’ve seen no disadvantages from veganism. In every respect, vegans appear to enjoy equal or better health in comparison to both vegetarians and non-vegetarians.”
Environmental Reasons for Veganism
The process of turning cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys into “meat,” “pork,” and “poultry” takes a toll on the environment. According to E: The Environmental Magazine, almost every aspect of animal agriculture—from grazing-related loss of cropland and open space, to the inefficiencies of feeding vast quantities of water and grain to cattle in a hungry world, to pollution from factory farms—is an environmental disaster with wide and sometimes catastrophic consequences.
The United Nations report Livestock’s Long Shadow concluded that the livestock sector is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” The report suggested that the livestock industry should be “a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.”
According to the U.N. report, raising animals for food generates more greenhouse-gas emissions than all the cars, trucks, trains, ships, and planes in the world combined.
Researchers at the University of Chicago determined that switching to a vegan (pure vegetarian) diet is more effective in countering global warming than switching from a standard American car to a Prius. The researchers compared the amount of fossil fuel needed to cultivate and process various foods, including running machinery, providing food for animals, and irrigating crops. They found that the typical U.S. meat-eater generates nearly 1.5 tons more carbon dioxide per person per year than a vegan does. By comparison, if you traded a gas-guzzling vehicle for a state-of the-art hybrid, the CO2 savings would only be slightly more than 1 ton.
Raising animals for food also requires massive amounts of water and land. It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat, but only 60 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat. A meat-based diet requires more than 4,000 gallons of water per day whereas a vegan diet requires only 300 gallons of water a day.
On the subject of water, the Environmental Protection Agency has reported that factory farms pollute our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined. Animals raised for food produce approximately 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population—87,000 pounds per second.
In the U.S., animals are fed more than 70 percent of the corn, wheat, and other grains we grow. The world’s cattle consume a quantity of food approximately equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people. Instead of funneling food through farmed animals, we could feed it directly to hungry, malnourished people.
Go Green: It’s Easier Than You Might Think
If you’re thinking about going vegan—but aren’t sure how to get started, go to GoVeg.com and read the tips on making the transition to a vegan diet. You can also order or download a free “Vegetarian Starter Kit.” With many supermarkets, health food stores, and restaurants offering vegan options, you’ll quickly see how easy it is to be green.