There are a few reasons as to why people change to a vegan diet/lifestyle. The main one is because Ellen DeGeneres is vegan, also Meghan Markle, Stevie Wonder, Serena Williams, and Albert Einstein. The other, less exciting but more important reasons are for the environment, health reasons, the animals, or the trend. Whatever it may be, it’s your journey and for all of the above reasons- it’s a good one.
When becoming vegan, one needs to legally change their name on their birth certificate. This is why you’ll find vegans introduce themselves as “Hi, I’m vegan.” There is however an alternative option and that is to keep your original name. This way when you introduce yourself to people you can play a solo game to see how you can creatively sneak the word ‘vegan’ into any conversation: “How’s your wife Gary? She vegan yet?” or “Could you pass me the vegan… sorry! salt”. Even with the admin of becoming vegan, the reasons behind still weigh heavily.
There are some incredible academic research papers available today, and let’s get real- Google is our best friend- that is packed with relevant facts and proven results on the vegan diet. It has almost become impossible to create a counter-argument with the vegan trend. There are a few factors that the vegan diet can contribute to the eco-conscious trend. Take a look at this infographic to put the diet comparisons into perspective:
My personal choice to transition to a plant-based diet is because of the cruelty inflicted towards animals. A friend at varsity once asked me after hearing me complain about the Yulin dog meat festival with dramatic passion- presumedly with a Woolworth’s iced latte in hand, “but Rebecca, what’s the difference between dogs and cows?”. This moment has stuck with me since. Besides the visual differences, although my dog, Tess, highly resembles a cow at the moment due to her obsession with her food and other dog’s food… and human food. I began to ask myself questions like “why do I eat cows but not dogs?” and “why do I get angry about the cruelty inflicted on dogs and not chickens?”. The simple answer is because we’ve domesticated certain animals. Why does this mean other animals have to suffer? Why don’t we walk around with chickens on leashes- “fetch Clucky!”.
There seems to be a large disconnect between humans and animals as food. When we shop at stores, the meat section often holds shelves of meat that is sliced into perfect shapes. Anything relatable to the human is removed such as eyes, fur/feathers, teeth, ears, feet etc. To find these items, you’d have to go to a specialist butchery or seek for them in the freezer sections of stores. The reason this is done is that it makes us feel less guilty. We see the meat as an inanimate object. The item on sale lacks any recognition that it was once a living sentient being. The icons of animals on meat packaging or dairy products often resemble cartoon-like animals smiling from cheek to cheek. They also often show green pastures and a picture-perfect farm scene out of a children’s book. All of these techniques do a great job of providing the consumer what they want to see. Butcheries in the past have stopped hanging carcasses in their window fronts as they lost customers due to disgust or guilt.
I had to go view factory farms for myself. I felt that if I ate meat – I had the responsibility to know and experience where the meat comes from. At first, I thought maybe it wouldn’t be that bad, maybe I’d meet a happy Babe and Charlotte. A slight warning in advance that the following paragraphs may describe some gruesome details of the factory farming system.
I started with a dairy farm in the Eastern Cape – one that’s considered “good” and “friendly.” When I arrived I realized the entire milking system was all mechanized. The cows are chipped and when reared into the rotating milking carousel, a computer scans and releases the exact amount of grain the cow needs. The cow eats this grain as the workers put suction caps onto their udders and their udders are emptied within one full rotation. The cows get excited about the grain, however bad for them it may be, they are hesitant to go through the scanning entrance. If one holds up the queue, it gets slapped on the side and screamed at until the frightened cow moves through the scanner. The cows are milked twice a day, morning and night, every day. They are forced to live with pregnancy hormones for most of their life. The calves are removed from their mothers at only 2-5 days of age. This is quite a tragic experience for the mother and child as cows build bonds and relationships throughout their lives. The day I visited, I experienced a calf barely big enough to hold its own head up, moaning for its mother as she was taken away to be milked for human consumption (the calf would now feed on grain). She escaped to try and reach her mother but got lost under a tree. I found her laying there and sat with her for a while giving her as much comfort as a stranger can. The farmer then found me with the calf, picked her up and put her back in the pen. She again attempted to escape to get to her mother. The rest of the calves older than 5 days, were in small concrete pens, now terrified at the presence of a human like myself. When the cows reach an age when they aren’t producing enough quality milk, after about 5 impregnations and the age of 7 years (a domesticated cow lives to roughly 20 years), they are transported via trucks to the slaughterhouse. Transportation is extremely stressful for animals. They often panic, and in fear hurt each other as they are packed tightly. I once drove behind a transportation truck filled with cows and the one cow in fear kicked her legs out and her one back leg got stuck in the gap of the truck wall. She struggled for long, even after honking and screaming at the driver, I was unable to stop him to help the cow. After all, who cares since they are on their way to be killed anyway. This sort of thing happens all the time, sometimes the animals die before reaching the final destination.
When I traveled to a pig farm I went to a sperm pig farm in the Eastern Cape. The farm was ironically built on the same plot that my grandparents used to own. I grew up on that field, picking fruit off of the trees in my Nana’s beautiful garden. I arrived and the grass was freshly cut and green as ever. There were the sounds of birds singing but no sounds of pigs. I thought about how nice it should be for a pig to live there, “how can it be bad? Where are the pigs anyway?” A clean concrete building large length-wise sat. It was surrounded by a high-quality security fence with barbed wire and electric fencing. I told the farmer that I was doing a thesis on modern farming practices and the advances of machinery. This was obviously a fat lie but gave the farmer an idea that my camera was not to be of threat. I asked if I could go inside the building but he said no as there are strict cleanliness regulations. He asked me if I would like to see a pig. I said yes of course with a large helpless smile. He called for his worker to fetch a pig. The worker pulled out this massive animal by the tail – I had never seen a pig so big in my life. The pig squealing and tearing at his tiny eyes that seemed blinded by the sun. After acting impressed and saying words like “wow” and “Jeepers, it’s so big!” the farmer took a liking to me and felt I was no threat anymore. He Kindly allowed me to enter the building. Those strict cleanliness measures turned out to be just a step of my shoes into disinfectant liquid – no hair net, no overall, no hand sanitizer, nothing else but the bottom of my shoes were cared for. This made me think about how farmers use cleanliness and safety security as an excuse to keep people from seeing the inner contents of their factory farms. As I walked through the doors, what I saw was chilling. A cold block of concrete, pens lined up within. Ceilings with rows of white fluorescent light bulbs. Now my face was struggling to twitch even a slight smile. The farmer asked me “Would you like to see our biggest pig?”. He walked me over to a pen right in front of me, inside was a pig. He made the previous pig look like Piglet. This pig was about 3 meters in length. He had to lay, on his side, diagonally to fit into the pen. I’d be surprised if this pig was able to stand and hold his own weight. At this point, my face lacked any emotion. I think the farmer noticed my change in personality. He guided me out of the building and I said thank you and goodbye. Before I got in the car, I asked him, “how often do these pigs go outside?” He replied, “Once a month, to get cleaned”. I got in the car, burst into tears and didn’t stop for the entire day. This was a sperm farm. The farmer breeds massive “prize-winning” pigs, manually forces them to ejaculate and extracts the sperm. He then sells the sperm to other pig farmers to breed their own unnaturally large pigs.
One of the biggest chicken factory farms settles in the Eastern Cape. I emailed and tried hard to convince the farmers to allow me to see inside the factory. I had no luck all due to the same reoccurring excuse of health risks. I managed to drive into the farm and up to the factory buildings. It looked like a concentration camp. Long and identical, narrow buildings lined up. Again, no sound of animals except the chirps of wild birds flying outside. From online videos, books, and articles, I knew what was inside. This was a free range farm. Free range means that the chickens run free within the confined space. The factory floor is packed brim to brim with chickens. Many die in these conditions and get trampled on by the living chickens. The floors build up a layer of feces, dead chickens, and feathers and get cleaned only roughly once a term usually.
Just before my journey of visiting farms ended, I decided the last experience would be a hatchery. I phoned a few hatcheries and one eventually agreed to speak with me. They told me they kill roughly one hundred day-old chicks every morning. The reasons being if they aren’t the correct yellow, they are slightly deformed, they walk funny, or their umbilical cord hasn’t healed properly yet. They quickly snap the neck and discard the dead chicks. The living chicks get sold to other chicken farms.
With all of these horrifying experiences and knowledge I gained in my early 20s, I realized that I was blessed enough to be able to live on a plant-based diet. It became easier to make the transition when I learned the environmental impacts of eating meat and animal byproduct. “Together, emissions from enteric fermentation, manure left on pastures, manure applied to soils, cropland devoted to feed production, and manure treated in management systems contribute more than 80 percent of total emissions. Meanwhile, emissions related to the direct human consumption of food crops represent less than 20 percent of the total” (Reynolds, L. WorldWatch.org).
In saying all of this – veganism can also have a negative impact. Agriculture farming for vegetables can be bad for the environment in that is causes major deforestation and spreads the use of harsh chemicals. The most ideal way to eat a vegan diet with the least amount of impact on the environment would be to grow your own vegetables and legumes or buy from organic and local farms who follow sustainable methods of farming. You’d be surprised how many local initiatives are out there that you could be supporting.
The health benefits of the plant-based diet are a bonus. A lot of people don’t know this but meat has been clarified as a carcinogen on par with tobacco. Let’s talk numbers. Eating 50g of processed meat per day (2 rashers of bacon) increases the risk of bowel cancer by a whole 18%. Vegans also have a 62% lower risk of developing type two diabetes than meat-eaters. Studies have shown vegans to have a 20% lower risk of cancer than meat cancers. Personally, I experienced changes in my health as soon as I changed diet. My hay fever disappeared, I stopped getting the flu, my bowels seemed to work better, my energy was up, and I even felt a positive change in my moods. I must say though, that this is after following a healthy plant-based diet – lacking in refined carbs and sugars.
There is only so much we can do as individual beings. Sometimes this can all be so overwhelming and so my advise is to do what you can in life. Try to leave as little a mark on the planet as possible. There are many who, due to poverty, unstable economies and societies, or even unstable ecosystems, cannot live on a plant-based diet. Spread your knowledge to as many people as possible and support the communities that dedicate their lives to make the world a better place to live in for other human beings and animals.