Why go vegan (and why not)?

10-min read • There are more reasons to go vegan than not to.

a pet pig among pet dogs

This article is part of the Vegan Beacon, a series detailing the what, why and how of being a vegan.

Vegans are often misunderstood and have a bad reputation among the wider, non-vegan population, not least for supposedly feeling an urge to declare their vegan status out of nowhere. (While there are obnoxious vegans, they do not represent all vegans⁠—many of whom are just stating their dietary requirements when it comes to social eating.)

Even for people who have a general idea of what vegans are about, they may not understand why vegans have chosen such a lifestyle. In this article, we will walk through the primary reasons of going vegan, reasons why you shouldn’t, and assess for yourself whether you should do the same.

Reasons to go vegan

Ethical

The concept of veganism revolves around excluding, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of human exploitation of, and cruelty to, other animals. This stems from the ethical principle that all animals, human or otherwise, have the right to life and freedom.

a crow using tools to solve puzzles
A crow using tools to solve puzzles | Image credit: Romana Gruber

Animals are sentient and possess the capacity for thought, emotion, sensation, experience, memory and social connection. Pigs, the very ones that end up on your breakfast plate as bacon, are one of the most intelligent animals on Earth.

That’s not to say, of course, that it’s more morally acceptable to eat or exploit less intelligent animals. This assignment of relative value or preferential treatment to certain species over others is known as speciesism. The right to life and freedom is universal; there isn’t such a thing as “greater right” or “lesser right”, be it pigs, cows, monkeys, lizards, fish, dogs, cats or humans. The moral standard of veganism is that where you can avoid harming and exploiting any member of any species, you should do it.

Now that we have established the principle, let’s take a look at what’s happening in reality. Today, 60 billion land animals and a trillion (that’s 1,000,000,000,000) marine animals are used and killed as commodities each year. The overwhelming majority of these are a result of agriculture, specifically the intensive farming methods used in factory farms, and trawl fishing.

Animal agriculture

Just compare the life expectancies of livestock animals when in farms and when in the wild:

Animal Life expectancy in the wild Life expectancy in the farm
Layer chicken 8–10 years 1–3 years
Broiler chicken 8–10 years 6–8 weeks
Dairy cattle 15–20 years 4–6 years
Beef cattle 15–20 years 12–24 months
Pig 15–20 years 6–7 months

But the production of eggs and milk must surely be better, right? Nope.

In the eggs industry—even free range and organic variants—male chicks serve virtually no purpose on a factory farm, and, in their first day of life, are thrown into a macerator (a high-speed grinder), or a gas chamber, which takes up to two minutes to suffocate and kill the chicks.

In the dairy industry, cows need to be pregnant or nursing to produce milk, so they are forcibly impregnated about once a year—gestation, or pregnancy, takes about 9.5 months. Once the calf is born, it’s taken away from its mother, causing both animals severe distress. If the calf is male, it’s raised for 16–18 weeks before being slaughtered for veal. If the calf is female, it will be raised to endure the same fate as its mother in an endless reproduction cycle.

a sow feeding its piglets from inside a gestation crate
A sow feeding its piglets from inside a gestation crate | Image credit: Aussie Farms

Debeaking, branding, castrating, ear notching, tail docking, artificial insemination by hand (all done without painkillers)—I could go on and on about the other inhumane practices carried out on a daily basis within the walls of factory farms. Seriously, look up some of these terms.

Other areas where animal welfare are compromised include stripping the fur of foxes alive and without painkillers, subjecting animals to a life of nothing but fighting, carrying or performing for hours on end, forcing them to comply with orders through cruel training methods and conducting live experiments that puts them through physical, mental and physiological suffering.

Fisheries

Where animal welfare is concerned, seafood is arguably a lesser evil compared to land-based animal agriculture.

pelagic trawling
Pelagic, or mid-water, trawling. | Image credit: Seafish

Having said that, it’s definitely not faultless.

Marine biodiversity is immensely threatened. One-third of world fish stocks are already overfished, with estimates putting 2048 as the year by which global fisheries will collapse.

20–25% of all marine animals that are caught are victims of bycatch—animals that are not the targeted species. Many of these animals get entangled and killed in the process. Both the worst yet the most common occurrence, shrimp fishing, usually done by dragging trawl nets measuring up to 240m wide and 160m deep along the sea. One pound of shrimp nets 20 pounds of bycatch.

Environmental

By sheer scale of impact—both realised and impending—the environment is the single most important reason for veganism, if you consider that anthropogenic climate change will potentially cause the Sixth Mass Extinction.

Just look at these statistics:

  • Animal agriculture is responsible for at least 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, not including its land-use change and supply chain. For comparison, transport is responsible for 14 percent.
  • Animal agriculture occupies 37 percent of land on Earth, and is the reason behind 80 percent of global deforestation.
  • Animal agriculture takes up one-third of all fresh water used by humans, ten times the cumulative amount used in homes.
  • Animal agriculture is responsible for 37 percent of anthropogenic methane emissions, and 65 percent of anthropogenic nitrous oxide emissions.
  • Methane has 34 times the global warming potential of CO2. Nitrous oxide has 310 times the global warming potential of CO2.
  • If cows were a country, they would rank third in greenhouse gas emissions, after China and the United States.

I’ll leave you to eat these up.

Health

Regardless of whether it was your main motivation, an undeniable benefit of veganism is its positive effects on health.

Do we need to eat meat?

Contrary to popular belief, humans do not need to consume any animal foods for balanced nutrition. A vegan diet can be fully nutritious and be suitable for every age and stage of life.

The only known nutrient that has no proven plant source is vitamin B12, but today, this is easily provided in supplements and fortified plant foods. Other common nutrient deficiencies in vegan diets are vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acid, zinc and iron—not because they are absent, but because they tend to be left out from our daily lives and eating habits.

Read: How to be a vegan: nutrition and a balanced plant-based diet

Is eating meat bad for health?

red meat

On the other hand, high intake of red meat and processed meat—which contain relatively large amounts of saturated fat—lead to high blood pressure and cholesterol, and elevated risks of heart problems, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer, particularly colorectal cancer.

People who subsist on diets high in animal protein are four times as likely to die of cancer as those who subsist on diets low in animal protein are. For comparison, smokers are three times as likely to die of cancer as non-smokers are.

If you’ve read about the story going around that red and processed meats are not harmful for health, know that its conclusion was this: “Based on the research, we cannot say with any certainty that eating red or processed meat causes cancer, diabetes or heart disease.” That is, meat could or could not cause health harm, we don’t know for sure.

But—do yourself a favour and read this Harvard Health Publishing piece and this NHS piece. Long story short: please still reduce your intake of red and processed meats for the sake of your own health.

Diseases linked to consumption of animals

As animals in factory farms are kept in unsanitary environments, they are highly exposed to bacteria and contaminants. The result is that, today, 70 percent of the global production of antibiotics are meant for livestock. The excessive use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is a public health concern, as bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics and can be transmitted to humans through contact with animals and consumption of raw or undercooked meat.

It then comes as little surprise, really, that the most widespread contagious diseases are zoonotic diseases (transmitted from animal to human). SARS, bird flu, ebola, swine flu and the COVID-19 coronavirus come to mind.

Read: Can global lockdowns help save the Earth? COVID-19 climate questions answered

Should you go vegan?

It’s really not just a simple yes-or-no question. Veganism is not a binary issue where you’re either in, or out, it’s a spectrum. Forget the notion of the label.

If any of the reasons to go vegan resonate with you, that’s great—start with small steps towards it. It pays in the long run not to overreach. If you throw yourself into the deep end and find yourself unable to swim, the bad experience might cause you to give up and write off veganism completely. Instead, ease yourself in at a pace that you’re comfortable with; it’s the start of a lifelong commitment.

Before we go on, however, you should also know that veganism may not be fully suitable for everyone. (There’s no shame in that.)

Let’s look at some of the reasons why you shouldn’t go full vegan:

Why you shouldn’t go vegan

Dietary restrictions

eight major food allergens

Some dietary restrictions can make a vegan diet very difficult, or even simply unfeasible. Examples include soy or nut allergies, gluten intolerance. Likewise if you’ve been diagnosed with vitamin B12 or zinc deficiency, or have irritable bowel syndrome. A vegan diet is typically high in soy, wheat, fibre and nuts, and tends to have lower amounts of vitamin B12 and zinc.

Lack of nutritional information or planning

If you don’t learn about nutrition or read the nutrition labels on food packaging, you’re not ready to fully convert to a vegan diet. Similarly, if you don’t consciously plan your meals, you may miss out on getting some of the needed nutrition. Sometimes, it can be difficult or expensive to find plant-based foods in your area that you enjoy and also give you such nutrition.

I’d highly recommend that you (learn to) cook some of your own meals to keep costs down and variety up.

Societal pressure

For those among you who find that eating plays an inextricable part in your social life, you will come across challenges when switching to a vegan diet. If your family bonds over barbecue sessions or sharing a cold cut platter, you may find yourself having to choose between your relationships and your values at times. Or if you become subjected to some form of bullying because others cannot understand or accept your transforming diet, the mental and emotional anguish wouldn’t be worth it.

“The wrong reasons”

Disclaimer: It’s definitely not for me to judge what’s right or wrong—if you go vegan, the intended effects are achieved, regardless of reason—so this is more of my subjective frowning.

If you’re motivated by holier-than-thou ideals or the association with a certain image or status that may come with a “vegan” label, sure, you do you.

However, personally, I believe that veganism isn’t just principle and practice, it is also advocacy. Be an ambassador of veganism—present a positive image, help non-vegans understand why you do it (not necessarily why they should do it), and don’t brag or preach. Giving veganism a bad name would make people turn away and shut themselves from it without giving it—and themselves—a chance.

… But don’t give it up completely

If you fall into any of the groups above, don’t be disheartened. There are still many forms of plant-based diets you can adopt to do your best in protecting animals, the environment and your health. Besides, veganism isn’t just a diet; it’s a lifestyle.

Ultimately, it’s more important to reduce what you can than to eliminate completely. Boycott animal entertainment. Stop buying leather. If you can’t abstain from meat, try other plant-based diets. Consider cutting your steak consumption from once a week to once every two weeks. Switch out cow’s milk for soy milk. Veganuary. Meatless Mondays. Any of these is a good start.


Whether you’re considering to go into veganism fully or partially, you may be wondering: how do I go vegan? As covered in the next part of the Vegan Beacon series, the first and most important thing you should learn is: nutrition and a balanced diet for vegans.