Why going vegan in 2019 will be good for your health, the environment and animals

On the 29th of December, Elizabeth Farrelly wrote that going vegan is “likely a lot less healthy – for you and the planet – than is commonly believed”. I believe the evidence strongly suggests that the opposite is true – most people don’t realise how beneficial being vegan is for your health, the environment, and the animals.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines and most major international dietary organisations, including The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, clearly state that a well-planned vegan diet is nutritionally adequate for adults, children and babies. As long as you take a B12 supplement (many people don’t realise B12 in animal products are typically from supplements given to animals, as it is derived from bacteria), you can obtain a sufficient amount of all necessary nutrients for human health from a plant-based diet.

In fact, in addition to being nutritionally adequate, you can thrive on a vegan diet. Vegans have higher blood protein than non-vegans, and have lower blood pressure and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. The World Health Organisation have classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen (known to cause cancer – same category as cigarettes) and red meat as a Group 2A carcinogen (probably causes cancer).

Farrelly is right in suggesting that ‘the food-footprint issue has become emotive and politicised’ (on both sides), but that’s because Australians care. As well as being concerned for the environment, we care about animals. In his book Animal Welfare in Australia, Peter Chen draws on a survey of 1,000 Australians by Essential Media and found that 30% of Australians believe that animals deserve the same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation. A larger number of Australians (61%) believe they deserve some protection.

However, what we do to animals for the sake of taste does not match this belief. Each year, Australians kill some 520-620 million animals to eat them. The vast majority of these are chickens, either raised for meat or for their eggs. Most chickens, even those in ‘free range’ labelled farms, live unimaginably painful lives.

The labels which consumers hold dear, like ‘free range’ or ‘cage-free’ simply don’t mean what people think they do. A series of undercover investigations of Australian farms, consolidated by documentaries Lucent and Dominion, reveal that free range farms are usually as bad or worse than non-free range farms. For example, the high stocking densities and lack of caging in free range farms often results in cannibalism and the spread of disease. One study showed that cannibalism increased by as much as 3,000% in cage-free farms.

Farrelly believes that “killing, however, is not essentially cruel”. Even if the animals we farm in Australia lived decent lives, that doesn’t make taking their lives ethical. There is no humane way to kill someone who doesn’t want to die. If we don’t think it’s ethical to kill a dog or a human for pleasure, we need a very good reason to say why it would be for a farmed animal.

Farrelly asks, if killing animals for food is wrong, why isn’t killing plants? Plants aren’t conscious. They might respond to some external stimuli and be surprisingly complex, but they don’t have a central nervous system or a brain, and aren’t sentient. I seriously question this foray into pseudoscience.

Animal agriculture is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions globally, and in Australia direct livestock emissions account for 11% of national emissions. This doesn’t include the indirect emissions of animal agriculture, such as the growth of crops to feed the animals and the transport of the animals and feedstock.

Animal agriculture is also incredibly inefficient as a source of food. Most animals raised for food globally, and even in Australia, are not grazing, but rather are raised in intensive indoor operations known as factory farms. Animals in factory farms are usually fed grain grown for them and transported to the farm. For cows, it takes 12 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of meat. Typically, this is human-grade grain that could be fed directly to people, but even in the cases where it is not, the same farmland could be used to grow crops that people can eat. It also takes almost 9,500 litres of water and almost 4 litres of fuel to produce 1 kg of meat from cows. Other farmed animals have similar conversion rates.

Grazing isn’t much better when you consider the amount of land required. 26 percent of the land surface on Earth is used for animal grazing. Land is being cleared in Australia and across the world for grazing and feed crops for animals. 82% of agricultural land is being used for grazing, and this is growing by around 9% each year. This land clearance is also putting native wildlife under threat, with three quarters of the 1,640 threatened plants and animals having habitat loss as one of their main threats.

Less demand for animal products in Australia would mean less land cleared for grazing and for growing crops to feed animals. Cutting out animal products can reduce your individual carbon footprint from food by up to 73 percent, and can reduce the amount of farmland required by up to 75 percent. Farrelly appeals to potential for grazing farm animals to be a net carbon sink, however such claims are based on unrealistic scenarios and won’t do much to offset its emissions.

Animals are only farmed because there is demand. As fewer animal products are consumed, suppliers will transition to healthier, more sustainable and less cruel foods. Using figures from the US that account for the effects of less demand on supply (and therefore breeding of animals), moving from an omnivorous lifestyle to a vegan one will result in 7.8 fewer land animals being killed and 35-144 fewer marine animals being killed each year. Given the similarity of Australia and the US in per capita meat consumption, it seems like that the result in Australia would be similar.

Each year, more Australians, and indeed people around the world, are realising that taste alone is not sufficient justification for harming animals, the environment, and one’s health. I invite you to join the growing number of people aligning their actions with their values by trying veganism as part of Veganuary. It’s easier than you might think, and the benefits are enormous.

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