I dare say all of us have at least one friend or acquaint who strongly believes that eating meat is murder. While the debate on whether humans as moral beings should consume meat has been going on for centuries, it still pops up every now and then in media, as no resolution seems to emerge. As someone who has tried both ends of the spectrum, it has become clear to me that the utopia of all God’s creatures living in perfect mutualism isn’t as easily achievable as many vegans would have you believe.
When talking about vegans and their near opposites (a.k.a. carnists) one easily forgets that there exists a middle ground. In between you find people who have given up red meat, people who have given up all meat except fish, vegetarians, vegans who eat honey, vegans who wear second-hand leather shoes, etc. There’s a whole range of people who do not identify with either of the extremes. And the closer one gets to the vegan end, the more uncomfortable one might feel for not being “good enough person”. However, one might still easily condemn those “not doing enough”, people who feel that their eating habits are perfectly justifiable.
Evidently, not all vegans practise veganism for ethical reasons. There are cultures in which vegetable-based lifestyle is much more prominent than in others, e.g. in India. While some Indians choose veganism or vegetarianism for economical reasons, there are also others who wish to give up meat for their religion (especially Buddhism) or simply because it is very convenient as their friends and family are already on the diet. I’ve also met people who do not condemn carnivourousness while they prefer not to eat meat themselves; usually they have chosen to do so for health reasons or simply because they do not find it suitable considering their profession. (One of them was a sea biologist).
It is the ethical vegans that most people seem to be having trouble with. They’re much like Jehova’s witnesses (or representatives of any other religion you might disagree with) that come knocking on your door and tell you to change your ways or else.
Therefore it is perhaps hilariously ironical that there’s a study by Alan Levinovitz (Prof. of Religion at James Madison U and the author of The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths about What You Eat) claiming that food and religion are actually quite similar and that diet enthusiasts are more likely to be “prone to irrationality and they were susceptible to promises that in other contexts they’d be more critical (of)”. Obviously, it also does not help that there is plenty of misguided information on nutrition as well as on veganism to be found, which is sometimes further spread by individuals you’d imagine to be credible (e.g. the documentary film Forks Over Knives (2011), which at times uses arguments for veganism that would be more suitable for advocating the pesco-vegetarian diet).
But there are also vegans who are prone to imagine things about their diet, which are simply not true. Usually problems begin to rise if a vegan believes his lifestyle is the way of living ethically solely because he doesn’t “exploit animals”. But the truth is that a simple switch to veganism could be as bad for ecosystem as omnivorous lifestyle depending on what you eat as a vegan. If you’ve been blessed with cold winters you might find it surprisingly difficult to sustain a vegan diet that is good for you and the environment. Take soya, vegan’s “best” friend, for example: not only does it have to be cultivated in the vicinity of the equator but it poses many threats to environment by destroying the living habitat of the locals (meaning all the creatures, men and animals). While it is true that majority of the crops goes to feeding of livestock, a good vegan should not touch tofu with a bargepole. Then add all the other vegetables and fruit that will have to be imported and you’ll be surprised at the size of your carbon footprint.
Levinovitz mentions that by changing one’s diet one might be granted an access to a whole new society. As an example he mentions his own experiences with vegetarianism and the new friends he has gained through the switch in diet. However, if one lives in a culture where vegetarianism is not common, the opposite might be true instead. In urban environment, where a vegan/vegetarian restaurant could be found at every corner of the block, the switch might be relatively painless. On the other hand, if one lived in a more rural area, a vegetable diet might prove more difficult to maintain as one may have issues finding others who share or, at least, understand it. This could result in one distancing himself from a community instead of actually joining one.
The fact is, one doesn’t need to be vegan in order to be ethical but this would mean we would have to reduce our meat consumption drastically and turn Farmville into reality. The key is to buy local, grow what you can on your own and educate yourself on more ethical options. Vegan might be an option but it’s not a solution on its own but merely a basis on which a sustainable lifestyle can be built on. Eventually you might notice that certain principles can in some circumstances be broken. (Honey from spring harvest, eggs from rescued hens, etc.).
Perhaps you might even belong to the group of people who discover that a plant-based diet simply does not suffice, in which case you may have to abandon the idea of veganism altogether. This should not be taken as a discouragement; there are other options available to ensure your and the environment’s wellbeing. But in the end, it’s your life; you choose what to do with it.