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By Bruce Friedrich
There are probably as many reasons to be a vegan as there are vegans. The five we hear most often at PETA are human rights, the environment, human health, animal welfare, and animal rights. I’ll address them each in a moment, but first, let me tell you why I became a vegan.
In 1987, during my first year of college, I read Frances Moore Lappé’s book Diet for a Small Planet.Basically, Lappé argues that cycling grains, soy, and corn through animals so that we can eat their flesh or consume their milk and eggs is vastly inefficient and environmentally destructive and contributes to poverty and starvation in the developing world. After reading Lappé, I wondered how I could claim to care about the environment and global poverty, if I kept eating meat, dairy products, and eggs. I adopted a vegetarian diet on the spot, purely for environmental and human rights reasons. A few months later, I learned from health and wellness guru Victoria Moran that I didn’t have to complement proteins to be healthy as a vegan, so I dropped dairy from my diet as well.
Before I came to work at PETA, for more than six years I worked in the largest soup kitchen in Washington, D.C., as well as a shelter for homeless families. While there, I read a book about animal rights, and it made the very basic point that animals are made of the same stuff as humans—flesh and blood and bone—and that they suffer just as we do. I grew up in Minnesota and Oklahoma, and it always saddened me to see trucks loaded with turkeys, chickens, pigs, or cows driving through the bitter Minnesota winter or the sweltering, arid Oklahoma summer, taking the animals, through all weather extremes, to what I knew would be a gruesome death. But I’d never met a vegetarian or maybe even heard the word—this is Minnesota and Oklahoma in the 1970s and 80s mind, you, so I just put it out of my mind and kept right on living off McDonald’s and Dairy Queen—which were the two principal food groups for teenagers in the cities I grew up in.
But back to those top five reasons we hear for going vegan: There are very few choices in our day-to-day lives that make a significant impact on the world around us, but what we choose to eat does. Eating meat supports global poverty and worker abuse, harms the environment, supports cruelty to animals, and is bad for our health. Socrates said that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Basically, veganism and vegetarianism are about leading an examined life—really considering the health, environmental, human, and animal consequences of our food choices, and then opting to make choices that are in keeping with our basic values.
So vegetarianism is the self-empowerment diet; at every meal, we have the opportunity to live our values—to cast our vote against cruelty to animals, environmental degradation, and global poverty—and we do this all while eating a diet that is better for us than one that includes meat.
Please know that everything I’m going to talk about in this recording is backed up with citations, science, and a lot more information on our Web site, at GoVeg.com—again, if you want to learn more about anything I say on this recording, please check out www.GoVeg.com, and feel free to send your friends and family there too.
Okay, first issue: health
It’s amazing how many seemingly intelligent people, to justify their meat-eating, open their mouths, point at their teeth, and say something about "canines" as a means of defending a habit that is ecologically devastating, cruel to animals, and likely to kill them. Putting aside how different human "canines" are from the canine teeth of carnivores (I really wonder if these people have ever even looked at the long, dagger-like canines of a dog or a tiger), every natural carnivore has an array of other physiological properties that do not mirror ours. For example, unlike humans, all natural meat-eaters manufacture their own vitamin C, whereas we need to consume vitamin C in fruits and vegetables. True carnivores perspire through their tongues rather than through their skin. Natural meat-eaters have sharp, pointy front teeth, sharp and jagged molars, and a tooth-bone density that’s many times greater than that of humans, which enables them to crunch through the bones of their prey. Carnivores have no digestive enzymes in their saliva at all, and their digestive acids are many times more acidic than those of humans, so the bacteria from rotting flesh won’t kill them. Natural meat-eaters have jaws that move only vertically, instead of in a grinding motion as ours do, and they don’t chew their food—they just rip and swallow. Carnivores have claws to rip their prey apart instead of sensitive fingers for plucking. They have intestinal tracts that are only three times their body length, which enables them to eject rotting flesh quickly. No matter how much saturated fat and cholesterol they consume, natural meat-eaters never develop atherosclerosis, the heart disease that consistently kills more human beings in the industrialized world than any other cause of death. And the list of physiological differences between humans and natural meat-eaters goes on and on.
And let’s also think about this intuitively. How many of us salivate at the idea of chasing small animals, ripping them limb from limb, and then devouring them, blood and all? I hope that no one listening has that reaction, but every carnivore does. How many of us, if we’re walking down the street and see a recently run-over animal carcass on the road, think, "Mmmmmm ... I’d like to eat that!"? No. We think, "Oh, how sad" or "Blech." A real carnivore, if hungry, digs in.
Yes, human beings learned, "Hey, if we kill all the bacteria and viruses with fire, this stuff probably won’t kill us." And a long time ago, at times when there was little vegetation for us, we started eating meat. But it’s still not good for us, and in fact, it’s so bad for us that it kills many of us.
Every once in awhile, someone will tell me that their doctor suggested that they eat meat, or that their doctor says there’s no link between eating chicken and getting cancer. I suspect they’re making it up, since any doctor who said that would be offering advice that is contrary to every nutritional body in the world. There is not a single prominent medical or dietetic group that will tell you eating meat is good for you. On the pro-vegetarian side, we have an array of prominent medical groups and physicians, including Doctors Andrew Weil, Dean Ornish, Caldwell Esselstyn, T. Colin Campbell, Neal Barnard, and the list goes on. On the pro-meat side, there is literally one guy (seriously, just one)—Robert Atkins, who keeled over dead at 260 pounds in 2003, and whose company went bankrupt shortly thereafter.
So on the side that says you should eat some meat, we have not one medical or dietetic group in the world, but one guy who dropped dead at more than 260 pounds (and he was under 6 feet tall, by the way). On the other side we have some of the most prominent doctors and nutritional researchers in the world, and all the scientific and medical bodies that exist. So if your friend says that her doctor told her to eat meat, if it’s true, she really needs to find another doctor.
And Atlanta Hawks guard Salim Stoudimire reports that his veganism, quote, "does amazing things for my basketball game. I essentially never get tired [so] I have certainly became much more of a pain to guard because I have a lot of energy. And at the end of games, when everyone is not jumping as high, I now get a ton more points in the paint and rebounds. And I don't get sick very often. I can't shake the feeling that more athletes should try eating this way," unquote.
Vegetarianism is also the ultimate weight loss diet, since vegetarians are one-third as likely to be obese as meat-eaters are, and vegans are about one-tenth as likely to be obese. You can be an overweight vegan, of course, and you can be a skinny meat-eater. But on average, vegans are 10 to 20 percent lighter than meat-eaters. Anyone who has questions about this might want to read Dr. Neal Barnard’s Food for Life or Dr. Dean Ornish’s Eat More, Weigh Less. Of course, we also have more information on our Web site, www.GoVeg.com.
Beyond the short-term benefits of vegeteranism and veganism—energy, weight control, and the like, America’s two biggest killers—heart disease and cancer—are inextricably linked to meat consumption.
Let’s touch on heart disease first. Heart disease kills more people in North America than does any other cause of death. Up until the 1980s, it was assumed that as people get older, their arteries inevitably become clogged. If you didn’t get hit by a bus or die of cancer or something else, your arteries would eventually close, causing either your brain or your heart to give out, and that would be it. Enter Doctors Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn, two doctors with 100 percent success in preventing and reversing heart disease, using a vegan diet. If you know someone who has had a heart attack or suffers from heart problems, please stop listening right now and buy them Dr. Esselstyn’s book, Prevent & Reverse Heart Disease, which details his work at the top heart clinic in the world, The Cleveland Clinic. He details both the skepticism of his colleagues, and also his 100 percent success taking people with advanced stages of heart disease, people who were told by their cardiologists that they were going to die, and stopping the disease in its tracks. The book will change their life—I promise.
The average vegan cholesterol level is about 133, while the average vegetarian cholesterol level is 161. And the average meat-eater’s cholesterol level is 210. Although the medical establishment may say, "Well, you’ve done your best," at 210, people are still dying in droves. As Dr. Charles Attwood pointed out, this is insane: If people were being run down by trucks at the same rate that they’re dying from heart attacks induced by meat, eggs, and dairy products, drastic steps would be taken.
Finally, because many people care more about quality of life than about longevity, let’s look at sex. Vegans tend to be much lighter than ovo-lacto vegetarians and meat-eaters, and they tend to have more energy, need less sleep, and so on. Clearly, these aspects of veganism can be good for a person’s sex life. But clogged arteries will block the blood flow to your extremities before they cut off the blood flow to your heart and kill you. This results in poor circulation and, for guys, impotence. And while we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting that many cholesterol-cutting drugs have, as one of their side effects, reduced sexual desire and potency. So toss out the Viagra, gentlemen; a vegan diet is natural Viagra.
If you care about your health, if you want to live with as much vigor as possible, look as good as possible, and do as much good as possible, it would be wise to move toward adopting a vegetarian diet.
Of course, anyone who reads the papers knows what factory-fishing trawlers are doing to our sea beds and ocean floors. One super-trawler is the length of a football field and takes in 800,000 pounds of fish in a single netting. Trawlers scrape along the ocean floor, destroying coral reefs and everything else in their way, and hydraulic dredges scoop up huge chunks of the ocean floor to sift out scallops, clams, and oysters. Most of what the fishing fleets get isn’t even eaten by human beings. Half is fed to animals who are raised for food, and about 30 million tons each year are just tossed back into the ocean, dead, which greatly disturbs the natural biological balance. Commercial fishing fleets are destroying sensitive aquatic ecosystems at a rate that is beyond comprehension. A major study found that in just the last 50 years, commercial fishing has reduced the populations of all large fish species by a staggering 90 percent.
Animals are shipped to slaughter without any food or water, often through severe weather extremes. Conditions are so bad that some animals arrive at the slaughterhouse crippled or dead. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 200,000 cattle per year—mostly dairy cows—arrive at slaughterhouses unable to walk off the backs of transport trucks. According to the National Pork Board, more than one million pigs arrive dead or crippled from the harsh traveling conditions. Imagine how bad the conditions must be for so many animals to become injured and killed. But the meat industry accepts that some animals won’t make it to slaughter if it means that it can make a higher profit. It’s cheaper to let some pigs die in transport than to buy more trucks and give animals more space and better conditions. One industry expert explained the cold-hearted calculation used by the egg industry when it crams so many hens into tiny wire cages—causing many to die—by stating that "chickens are cheap, cages are expensive."
Of course other animals are made of flesh, blood, and bone, like we are. And of course a dead animal is, like a dead human, a corpse. So in my opinion, it makes a lot more sense to ask someone why they eat animals’ corpses than to ask someone why they don’t. Since "why are you a vegetarian" is the same question as "Why don’t you eat rotting animals’ corpses," wouldn’t it make more sense to ask someone why they do?
Basically, Linzey’s view is the animal rights perspective. The animal rights perspective holds that animals have a right, just as human beings do, to be free from pain and suffering. Back in the 18 th century, Jeremy Bentham, the father of the Utilitarian movement, stated that if we’re talking about a being’s right to be free from pain and suffering, then the morally relevant variable is not whether that being can think or talk or how we relate to that being’s life, but rather his or her capacity to feel pain and to suffer. Of course, any introductory physiology course will teach you that birds, mammals, and fish all have the same basic capacity to suffer. We share this capacity with all animals.
The best musician of the past 100 years in my opinion, Sir Paul McCartney summed it all up saying, quote, "If anyone wants to save the planet, all they have to do is just stop eating meat. That’s the single most important thing you could do. It’s staggering when you think about it. Vegetarianism takes care of so many things in one shot: ecology, famine, cruelty," unquote.
Please, as you listen to the following questions and answers, note that none of these questions addresses the fact that meat-eating is the worst thing you can do for the environment, supports human injustices both in the U.S. and globally, and harms your own health. Nor do any of these questions address the gratuitous animal abuse on factory farms and in slaughterhouses. I often think that eating meat must be an addiction, because defending it causes normally rational people to come up with questions that have nothing to do with the essential arguments and then to pose them as though they justify continuing to eat meat. If you are a vegetarian and someone asks you a question, before you answer ask yourself, "Does this question challenge my fundamental opposition to causing animals to suffer needlessly?" In 99 percent of cases, the answer will be "No," and you may wish to explain that to the person who asked it.
Question 1: Animals eat one another in nature, so why shouldn’t we eat animals?
Variations on this question include, "Aren’t humans at the top of the food chain?" and "Aren’t humans omnivores?" Please really think about what we do to animals on factory farms and in slaughterhouses, denying animals everything that is natural to them and then killing them in gruesome ways, and try to tell me that this is moral. Nature’s law is, without a doubt, Darwin’s "survival of the fittest." But some animals may procreate by rape and other animals may fight territorial battles to the death. But the fact that those things occur in nature does not mean we say they’re acceptable for humans. We hold ourselves to a higher standard in our interactions with one another. We even hold ourselves to a higher standard with regard to animals we often form special bonds with, such as dogs and cats—readily granting them some basic protections. What animal welfare advocates suggest is that we should be compassionate toward all animals, not just those who we know a bit better.
Question 2: Do you care more about animals than humans?
Variations on this question include, "With so much human suffering, why don’t you focus on human issues?" The interesting thing to me about this question is that none of my friends who run shelters or soup kitchens or who work on famine relief ever asks it. The people who ask this question invariably have not dedicated their lives to alleviating suffering—human or animal. And, of course, a vegan diet is the only environmentally responsible diet, it’s the healthiest diet, and it’s the diet that is the best for U.S. workers and the global poor. So a vegan diet is good for both animal and humans. Regardless, shouldn’t all suffering be addressed? Princeton bioethicist Dr. Peter Singer said: "When nonvegetarians say that ‘human problems come first,’ I cannot help wondering what exactly it is that they are doing for human beings that compels them to continue to support the wasteful, ruthless exploitation of farmed animals." One great thing about veganism is that it allows you to take a stand against suffering without doing anything that requires any real time or effort.
Question 3: Didn’t God give us dominion over animals?
As a Roman Catholic, this is the one question that most unsettles me, because it is such an obscene rationalization. Dominion doesn’t mean domination and exploitation. All of the world’s prominent religions teach the importance of compassion, the importance of mercy. But the choice to eat meat, dairy products, or eggs is a violent one; it supports cruelty. Even if their religious beliefs allowed people to eat these products, they would certainly not be required to do so. Leaving aside the environmental and human consequences, which should be anathema to any kind or ethical human being, God created animals with needs, wants, desires, and species-specific behaviors, and all of these things are denied the animals who are turned into food by the farmed-animal industries. God created animals with a well-developed capacity for pain. Chicken, pigs, cattle, fish and other farmed animals—they are individuals. If you get to know a chicken or another farmed animal you find that they have personalities, intelligence, and social structures. They love their families. The Bible talks repeatedly about a hen’s love for her children, and that’s the metaphor Jesus uses to describe his love for humanity. Anyone who has ever seen a hen with her children or protecting her nest, knows this to be true. Farmed animal industries abuse animals and deny them the expression of each and every natural behavior God created for them. For more information on this topic, please check out JesusVeg.com.
Question 4: Why are you imposing your will on me?
This is sometimes put as, "You choose to be a vegan. I choose to be a meat-eater. Live and let live." The problem here is that meat and dairy consumers are supporting the gratuitous abuse of an animal who had no choice in the matter. They are not putting into practice a "live and let live" philosophy. Just as child abuse involves the child who has no choice, eating meat, dairy, or egg products involves an animal, or many animals, who have had no choice. And just as you can choose to beat your child, you can choose to eat meat. But if you do, you’re hurting someone who is powerless to stop you.
Question 5: Don’t plants feel pain?
Pain requires a brain, a central nervous system, pain receptors, and so on. All mammals, birds, and fish have these things. No plants do. Really though, we all know this to be true: We all understand that there is a fundamental difference between cutting your lawn and lighting a cat’s tail on fire and between breaking up a head of lettuce and bashing a dog’s head in. Birds, mammals, and fish are made of flesh, bones, and fat, just as we are. They feel pain, just as we do. I may not know quite where to draw the line. For example, I’m not sure what a roach or an ant experiences. But I do know with 100 percent certainty that intentionally inflicting suffering because of tradition, custom, convenience, or a palate preference is unethical. And if we’re eating meat, dairy products, or eggs, we’re intentionally causing suffering, for no good reason.
Question 6: Aren’t vegans deficient in protein, calcium, or other nutrients?
The American Dietetic Association and the World Health Organization, among other groups, point out that vegan diets provide everything we need and that, in fact, they cut out a lot of the stuff that’s horrible for us, making vegans healthier. The diseases that are killing us are not deficiency diseases. We’re dying from heart disease, cancer, and stroke. We’re plagued with diabetes and obesity. You can be an unhealthful vegan, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to be an unhealthful consumer of meat, dairy products, and/or eggs. Dr. T. Colin Campbell argues that animal products are like tobacco—a little bit probably won’t hurt you, but why risk it? They’re bad for you. Of course, you can be a vegan, technically, and do nothing but drink soda and eat French fries. One should make an effort to eat a variety of foods and to be as healthful as possible.
Question 7: Wasn’t Hitler a vegetarian?
No. People who ask this have fallen victim to the very effective Nazi propaganda machine that wanted to frame Hitler as an ascetic, focused only on the needs of the German people. There is ample documentation of his meat-eating. If you want more information on this, do a Google search for "Hitler vegetarian," and you’ll find an article by historian Rynn Berry. Even if he had been a vegetarian, though, this would be an absurd argument against ethical vegetarianism, because even had he been a vegetarian, it would clearly not have been for ethical reasons. Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein were meat-eaters, but so what?
Question 8: What do you think is the strongest argument for veganism? How do you convince someone who does not want to be convinced?
I would like to suggest that anyone who is interested in being an activist or convincing a friend or loved one to become a vegetarian read an essay that I wrote called, "Effective Advocacy." You can find it online by googling "Effective Advocacy Bruce," and it should be the first thing to come up.
The most critical point is that we have conversations with people, rather than ramming our views down their throats. Everyone opposes cruelty to animals, so it’s important to remember that anyone who eats meat is doing something that conflicts with one of their basic values. It helps tremendously if you can have a conversation with them, rather than ramming your views down their throats, so you can help them to convince themselves that this is a problem.
So if you can ask them, "Why do you eat meat?" and then really listen to the answer, that will probably help you to have a conversation with them. And then I suggest moving into a discussion of some basic points about being a human being with integrity.
I suppose that it boils down to Socrates’ adage from 2,600 years ago: "The unexamined life is not worth living." It seems to me that what it means to be a person of integrity is that I try to ask questions, that I try not to support things that I oppose, and that I try to make my life mean something. So for example, I could take part in every aspect of getting vegan foods to the table—picking them, trucking them to the plant to turn them into bread or whatever, and so on.
But I wouldn’t want to take part in any aspect of getting meat to the table—castrating pigs without pain relief, chopping birds’ beaks off, trucking them through all weather extremes to slaughter, slitting their throats open. There are moral qualms involved in all aspects of getting chicken flesh, pig flesh, dairy products, and eggs to the table.
So challenge yourself, or your friends and family, to really grapple with these questions: Would you want to work in a factory farm, cutting the sensitive beaks off chickens or castrating pigs and cows without any painkillers? Would you want to work on a factory-fishing trawler? Of course the answer is no. So why pay others to do these things for you?
Are there other areas of your life where you participate in practices that would repulse you if you had to watch them happening? Most of us could watch the tilling of grains or even spend an afternoon shucking corn or picking beans, fruits, or vegetables. But how many of us would want to spend an afternoon slitting open animals’ throats?
What about so-called "Humane" meat?
And finally, Question 10: How can you compare animal abuse to the Holocaust, slavery, etc.?
Many great thinkers, from Tolstoy to Harriet Beecher Stowe, to Gandhi, to Albert Schweitzer, to Alice Walker, to Dick Gregory, to Holocaust victim and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer have made the point that the same justification is used to support both animal and human exploitation—the moral paradigm of "might makes right"—I can do this to animals, or people, so I’m going to.
It’s worth considering, why do people eat animal products? It’s for some inconsequential reason, such as convenience, tradition, or taste, and because they can—because the animals can’t defend themselves. No one argues that the animals want to be raised this way, transported this way, killed this way. Most people understand how gruesomely violent slaughterhouses are. But they don’t want to bother making the change, even though it’s easier than ever. They eat animals because they can. Well, that moral paradigm is no more justifiable when applied to animals than when applied to people. In fact, Isaac Bashevis Singer held that speciesism—bias on the basis of species—is the epitome of this "might makes right" moral paradigm, because animals are the weakest and least able to speak up for themselves.
Although it’s easy to see how this is a challenging notion, since no one wants to think that they might be contributing to a moral wrong on the level of slavery by something as basic as eating, some historical memory is a good idea. The Rev. Dr. Andrew Linzey explains in his groundbreaking book, Animal Theology, quote, "[G]o back about two hundred or more years, we will find intelligent, respectable and conscientious Christians supporting almost without question the trade in slaves as inseparable from Christian civilization and human progress."
And Dr. Richard Dawkins, the foremost Darwin scholar alive, has consistently challenged the human "speciesist arrogance," suggesting that our horror at the justification 150 years ago by most people of slavery is similar to the justification today of speciesism. Both Dawkins and linguist and political scientist Noam Chomsky have suggested that concern for animals is likely to be the next great moral battle.
So we have many THE intellectual heavyweights of our generation and previous generations in agreement that bias against animals on the basis of species is similar to bias on the basis of race, gender, and so on.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that one of the great tragedies of history is that so many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. I’m convinced that we’re in one of those periods.
Thanks very much for remaining awake.