Top 20 Questions About Veganism
“BUT WHAT ABOUT . . ?”
There is one downside to being vegan: non-vegans ask you the same questions over and over again.
Here at Viva! we’ve compiled our own list of the Top 20 questions and comments that people make about veganism. If you’re thinking about becoming vegan, you may find the answer to something that’s troubling you here. (If you’re in a hurry, Hitler is at No. 14.)
1a. If we all went vegan, we’d be overrun with animals?
Farmed animals are not allowed to reproduce naturally and farmers only breed animals when they can make a profit out of doing so. As demand for meat goes down over time, so fewer and fewer animals will be bred. That means that we will not be overrun by millions of farmed animals, as some people seem to imagine. Eventually, the few that are left can be allowed to go free: pigs can root around in woodlands as it is natural for them to do, sheep will graze the hillsides like deer and so on. Their populations will find their own natural levels, just like every other animal.
1b. If we all went vegan – all the animals would die out.
The converse of the above question – we vegans hear ‘em all! It’s true that the number of animals will fall as farmers breed fewer and fewer animals as the years go by. Farmed animals live a controlled, distorted life, often filled with pain and fear. The vast majority of farmed animals are kept in indoor units where they never see the light of day. Those that are kept outside are only kept alive for a fraction of their natural lifespans before being slaughtered for meat – often in the most barbaric manner imaginable. All farmed animals are born to die at our command – a disgusting idea. Also some breeds have been so changed from their natural ancestor that it would be kinder to let them die out. For example, broiler chickens and turkeys bred for meat are often so obese that they can barely walk and suffer from crippling leg disorders. However we could set up large nature reserves for the more traditional (now rare) breeds that haven’t been so changed.
There would be much more land available for reserves because most of it is used to grow crops for fattening animals at present. Also, there would be more space for forests and woods and other wildlife reservations where genuinely wild British species of animal and plants could flourish. In other countries we could encourage the breeding of our farm animal’s wild ancestors – the wild pig, turkeys and jungle fowl (the forerunner of the battery hen) by stopping the destruction of their homes.
Many people forget that all farmed animals have been bred from wild animals – and that their natural ancestors need preserving.
In a vegan world animals would not be kept for profit and greed but would be allowed to exist in their natural state and live their life in freedom.
2. Our teeth/digestive systems are designed for eating meat.
No, they aren’t. We can digest meat, but our digestive systems are different to carnivorous animals: our guts are longer (so we can digest lots of plant materials) and our teeth are not designed to slice and tear flesh. Our teeth and mouths are the wrong shape to be able to kill and hold captive struggling prey (compare our jaw shape and teeth to a lion – or your pet cat or dog!). That’s why humans cook meat before eating it and why we’re no good at crunching and munching uncooked bones. As for our sharp teeth, gorillas are entirely vegan – as are almost all primates – and yet have far longer and sharper canine teeth than human beings. The diet of the ancestors of human beings was vegan until they began hunting about one-and-a-half million years ago but even then meat formed just a tiny part of their diet. That’s why people live long, healthy lives on vegan diets but would quickly die if they ate nothing but meat.
To find out more, see our Nutrition Myths.
3. Eating meat is natural.
As we’ve just seen, it isn’t. Humans have only eaten meat in relatively recent evolutionary history and then only through the use of tools like spears and fire. Only when we started farming (hardly natural!) did meat become even a regular part of most human beings’ diets and eating meat on a daily basis is very recent – since the advent of factory farming after the Second World War. This brought the cost of rearing animals down and the meat eating explosion was the result. In 1946, for example, the number of poultry eaten in Britain was 31.9 million and in 2001 it was over 800 million. And what’s natural about factory farming, live exports and slaughterhouses?
4. Lots of animals kill for food: why shouldn’t we?
Animals do lots of things we don’t do and wouldn’t do! Anyway, we shouldn’t kill because we have a choice. Lions and tigers etc have to kill to survive (they are known as obligate carnivores): we don’t. Animals can only follow their instincts but we human beings can think about the consequences of our actions. We can recognise the suffering of other animals and we can choose not to inflict it on them. If we choose to make them suffer, what does that say about the human race?
Eating meat, fish, eggs and dairy is causing mass pain and suffering; it is destroying the earth and is costing the health services millions.
5. It’s alright to eat animals if they’ve had a good life.
Would it be alright to kill and eat people if they’d had a good life? And what do we mean by a ‘good’ life, anyway? In the case of animals, we certainly don’t mean a long one. ‘Meat’ animals are killed as babies in the case of lambs and veal calves or as soon as they become physically mature – the equivalent of human teenagers – and never get to lead any kind of adult life. Animals, of course, want to live just as much as we do. The first instinct every animal has is to survive. By killing them at all, we are taking away from them the most important thing they have; we are denying their intrinsic right to life.
It is also naïve to imagine that any farmed animals lead good lives: the overwhelming majority of them are exploited, neglected and frustrated on factory farms – forced to lead lives of misery by a farming system which sees them only as ways of producing a profit. They then face a violent, frightening death in the slaughterhouse: despite supposedly humane stunning, millions of animals are still conscious when their throats are cut. Even free range and organic animals suffer on farms (see Question 6) and they face the same shocking death at a young age as factory-farmed animals.
6. I only eat organic/free range/fish/chicken/dairy anyway
Good. Any choice that people make which reduces animal suffering is a welcome choice – but why stop at some kinds of animal or some kinds of suffering? Fish and chicken feel pain and have an instinct to preserve their own lives in just the same way as cows and pigs. They may be less attractive animals to you but that doesn’t mean that their lives and suffering are less important to them.
Similarly, although free range and organic animals usually (although not always) lead better lives than factory farmed animals, they still suffer in many ways. For example, so-called free range egg farms may involve thousands of hens being kept in a shed with limited access to outside and to limited land. Even in the better free range/organic egg farms, all male chicks are killed within hours – useless by-products as they do not lay eggs and are too scrawny for meat. All animals kept for farming are prevented from mixing in normal social groups, and ducks never see their ducklings; hens their chicks; pigs have their piglets taken away much too young; dairy cows have their calves ripped from them at one day old. Even on free range farms the male calves are shot as they don’t give milk and are the wrong breed for beef. All farms prevent animals from living natural lives. And all are sent for slaughter as soon as there is more profit in killing them than in keeping them alive.
There is no need to farm or to slaughter any animal. Eating any kind of meat contributes to animal suffering – and to the environmental and world hunger problems caused by the meat industry. The less meat people eat the better and many people find that cutting out meat gradually works best for them – but ultimately, the only truly consistent and ethical choice is to eat no meat, dairy or eggs at all.
7. Plants scream when they’re pulled out of the ground or are cut up for food.
Yawn, yawn! This question is usually seen as a bit of a joke, but if you want a serious answer here goes!
Plants do not feel pain. They do not have pain receptors, nerves or a central nervous system. The ‘screaming’ that sensitive equipment has detected when plants are damaged is thought to be caused by movement of gasses. The cut releases the pressure allowing gases inside the plant to move towards the cut, making a noise as they do so. And even if plants did feel pain, the average meat eater is responsible for ten times more plants being killed than the average vegetarian (see Question 10) – because all the animals that meat-eaters consume, eat huge amounts of plants themselves.
8. If you were stuck on a desert island, you’d have to eat meat.
Maybe – but if you were stuck on a desert island you might have to run around naked, never take a shower and wipe your bottom with leaves: that doesn’t mean that you should do those things the rest of the time.
9. God put animals on earth for us to eat
Most of us in the UK do not follow religious rules in our lives – but even amongst people with strong religious faith, there is considerable disagreement about whether God wants us to eat animals. No major religions command their followers to eat meat and many devout Christians, Moslems, Buddhists and Jews are vegetarian as are all Hare Krishnas and Jains. Most Hindus, of course, eat no red meat. For most religious people the question remains one of individual judgement. Most religions, however, celebrate compassion, kindness and mercy. The abattoir and the factory farm do not seem consistent with that.
10. If we all ate vegetables and crops, wouldn’t we need more pesticides?
No. Setting aside the question of whether pesticides are needed at all, if everyone were vegan we would use less pesticides because we would actually grow less crops. Meat animals all eat plants and they convert them into food very inefficiently. On average, a farmed animal has to eat 10kg of plant protein in order to make 1kg of meat – in other words, if the same land was used to grow crops for people to eat, it would be ten times more productive. To put it yet another way, 90% of the crops we feed to animals are wasted. If we didn’t eat animals, we wouldn’t need to grow those crops or use chemicals on them.
11. Eating fish doesn’t cause suffering.
Yes it does. Numerous scientific studies have confirmed that fish do feel pain. Industrial fishing causes them immense suffering because they are killed either by being crushed in the net, having their swim bladders explode when they are brought to the surface or by asphyxiating (being starved of oxygen) on the decks of trawlers. Many fish, especially salmon, are also now intensively farmed and suffer from infectious illnesses, parasites and overcrowding.
12. What would happen to the countryside if we stopped having animals grazing on it?
As we’ve already seen, we would need to use less of our countryside for agriculture if we were all vegan: that means that more of it could return to a natural state. Britain has less woodland than any other northern European country – we could change that if we didn’t need to use land to grow crops like soya and rape for animal feed.
Far from being a loss to the countryside as some people imagine, ending livestock farming would mean a huge toll of suffering would be eliminated and wildlife allowed to recover (see 1b).
13. Why not do something for people instead of animals?
Veganism does help people. The meat industry causes environmental degradation through things like deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution and the production of greenhouse gases – we would live in a cleaner, better world if we were all vegan. Secondly, because meat production is such an inefficient way of producing food it consumes resources which should go to human beings. In the developing world, land is increasingly being devoted to the production of animal fodder for export to the rich world instead of being used to grow food for the local population. Finally, veganism improves human health, which brings rewards for individuals and also to society as a whole which needs to spend less on health care and lost working days through ill health.
Compassion towards animals is not in competition with compassion towards people. Veganism is a choice each individual can make which improves the lives of animals and human beings. It is also a choice about what people eat – not where they work, what they do in their spare time or how they vote. Many vegans dedicate their lives to human welfare – Gandhi is the classic example of that.
14. Hitler was vegetarian.
No he wasn’t. He ate meat – just like Himmler, Goering, Adolf Eichmann, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Attila the Hun, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Harold Shipman, Timothy McVeigh, Myra Hindley and almost every other killer in history. So even if he had been vegetarian, it would prove nothing. But he wasn’t.
15. All the farmers would be unemployed if we stopped eating meat.
People will still need to eat when we are all vegan so there will still be plenty of jobs for farmers! (In fact the intensive farming of animals has caused severe unemployment in agriculture as so few people are employed to look after so many animals. A vegan world would mean more employed in sustainable methods of farming.)
However, even if farmers did become unemployed that is no reason to keep farming animals for food. Eating meat is harmful to animals, to the planet and to ourselves – if it is right to stop it, the employment prospects of those who work in the meat industry are no reason to keep it going. As has been pointed out, if we got rid of all crime, the police would be out of work and if we got rid of all illness, doctors and nurses would be out of work: that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to get rid of crime and illness.
16. I don’t mind you being vegan – but you shouldn’t try to impose your views on other people. It’s a matter of individual choice.
Trying to persuade people to change their minds is not “imposing your views” upon them. It is the kind of healthy disagreement which democracy depends on and which is essential for change to take place.
What we eat is also not simply a matter for individuals. Meat-eating and veganism are not two sides of the same coin: one brings death and suffering to animals, damages the planet and harms human health and the other doesn’t. The reason that vegans try to change the minds of non-vegans is because their “individual choice” affects countless other beings, human and non-human.
17. What difference will one person giving up meat make?
A huge difference. The average British meat eater consumes, in the course of their lifetime, 5 cattle, 20 pigs, 29 sheep and lambs, 780 chickens, 46 turkeys, 18 ducks, 7 rabbits, 1, geese and half-a-tonne of fish. That is a lot of lives saved. Just as importantly, the best advertisement for veganism is a healthy and happy vegan: if you turn vegan you will be able to influence others to become part of the movement towards a more compassionate and rational world.
18. We’ve eaten meat since we were cavemen.
We’ve lied, stolen, killed one another and made war since we were cavemen too. That doesn’t make those things right. (See questions 2 and 3.)
19. Why do vegans always look ill?
They don’t. That’s like asking why toupees always look bad – it’s just that you only notice the bad ones. If you know someone (who knows someone….) who was ill they do not represent vegans! People like Martin Shaw, Venus Williams, Natalie Portman, Liam Hemsworth, Pamela Anderson, Joanna Lumley and Carl Lewis, winner of 6 Olympic Gold medals look pretty good on their vegan diets. And you should see the Viva! staff: we’re like gods and goddesses here…
20. If the animals weren’t happy and healthy, they wouldn’t grow/lay eggs etc.
Just not true. People don’t grow big because they’re happy and neither do animals. Meat chickens today grow almost twice as fast as they did 50 years ago – yet they live in far worse conditions, crammed into stinking, windowless broiler sheds by the tens of thousands and suffering from lameness and other problems. They don’t grow big because they’re happy but because they have been selectively bred to gain weight quickly, are given growth-promoting drugs and are fed on special diets.
Similarly, dairy cows have been bred to produce far more milk than is natural to them. In fact, the dairy industry relies upon making animals unhappy – by taking their calves away so that humans can drink their mothers’ milk – in order to function. Laying hens have been bred to produce so many eggs that they lose calcium into the shells and suffer from brittle bones and fractures as a result. They don’t lay eggs because they’re happy: they have no choice.