Does Being Vegan Really Help Animals? : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture More people are moving toward a plant-based diet, for a variety of reasons. Anthropologist Barbara J. King asks three animal activists what this might mean for animals — and the world.

Does Being Vegan Really Help Animals?

Mark Hammon/iStockphoto
Root vegetables.
Mark Hammon/iStockphoto

More people are moving toward a plant-based diet, owing in part to evidence about human health and environmental sustainability, and in part to the emerging scientific consensus on the breadth and depth of animal consciousness and sentience.

Full disclosure: I am a pesco-vegetarian — I eat an occasional fish.

But how might choosing to eat fewer animals than ever before — or no animals at all (vegetarian), or no animals or animal products (vegan) — make a difference for animals or for the world?

This question is on my mind this week, as I read a book titled Ninety-Five: Meeting America's Farmed Animals in Stories and Photographs. It suggests that 95 "is the average number of animals spared each year by one person's vegan diet." There are a variety of sources estimating average individual intakes of meat. A story in USA Today Wednesday reported that each meat-eating individual eats 7,000 animals (including fish) over their lifetimes. This number is based on the Vegetarian Calculator.

What does "spared" in this context actually mean? Can veganism — or vegetarianism or cutting way back on meat consumption — really make a global impact for animals, given the number of hungry people in the world who may rely on animal protein?

I decided to pose a few questions, by email, earlier this week to three animal activists and vegans: Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States, Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary, and Alka Chandna of PETA. Here's the first:

Do you find it personally motivating or inspiring to reflect upon the number of animals who live each year, who otherwise would not, because you are vegan?

Paul: Eating fewer or no animals doesn't mean that animals who would've been killed will now live; it means that animals who would've been bred into existence to suffer on factory farms will now not be brought into the world and exploited in the terrible ways that are customary in the meat industry. It's a supply and demand issue. Less demand should mean less supply.

Bruce: As Paul notes, by removing our demand, we're sparing animals suffering that is beyond our worst imaginings. I do find it deeply motivating to realize that I can live my values every time I sit down to eat. St. Paul called on the faithful to pray ceaselessly. I like that every time I sit down to eat, I cast my lot for mercy, and against misery — for compassion, and against cruelty. Every meal becomes a prayer for a kinder and more just world.

Alka: I don't think so much about the numbers of animals who are spared as much as I think about the misery and suffering that I'm not contributing to as a result of my choices. It was learning about the horrific conditions on factory farms — and thinking about the arbitrary cultural lines that determine which animals are eaten and which are spared — that compelled me to adopt a vegan diet; and I feel some comfort in knowing that my actions are not contributing to, or paying for those systems to carry out, their business. Conversely, if I am accidentally served something that isn't vegan at a restaurant (and I know the dish is going to be thrown away), I feel like I have contributed to the torment suffered by the animals whose flesh or bodily products were in the dish. For example, if I'm given something that contains an egg, I think that my miscommunication resulted in a hen suffering in a battery cage for 34 hours (and all of the ancillary suffering inherent in the discarding of the male chicks, the eventual slaughter, and so on). It's [weighing] the time that an animal suffered on a factory farm for that item to come into existence, balanced against the few minutes of enjoyment I might derive from eating that item.

This convergence in Paul, Bruce and Alka's answers underscores the view that animal rescue is not as much about filling up sanctuaries with animals saved from slaughter, as it is approaching our entire food system with fresh eyes. (See also Philip Lymbery's book Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat.)

In this context — the need for changes in our food system — I have been grappling with issues of global inequality, specifically a role for meat (including fish) in providing nutrition for people for who lack access to other good sources of protein. That concern formed the basis of another question for my trio of vegan experts. (Note: With one exception, the links added below are mine.)

What is your response to a person who points out that on a global scale, veganism simply isn't practical because people (including people suffering in poverty) must eat meat to survive?

Paul: That may or may not be true, but we can only control ourselves. Millions of Americans are choosing to eat less meat today for a variety of reasons: to look and feel better, to prevent animal abuse, to protect the planet, and more. It need not be an all-or-nothing endeavor. Whether people are embracing Meatless Mondays, doing Mark Bittman's "Vegan Before 6:00" plan, or are doing, as Ellen DeGeneres does (vegan before 6 p.m. and after 6 p.m.!), we're starting to embrace a saner, more humane and healthier diet.

Bruce: It is certainly not the case that anyone in the United States needs to eat meat in order to survive; I ran a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in inner city Washington, D.C., for six years, and I can say from personal experience that our nation's poor are suffering from bad food, not lack of food. A move toward whole grains and legumes, in place of meat, would be healthier for them (and cheaper), just like it would be healthier for the affluent. On a global scale, I agree with the World Watch Institute that diverting crops to animal feed is causing starvation. This is actually why I adopted a vegan diet in 1987, to combat the vast inefficiency of cycling crops through animals, which drives up the price of those crops and leads to starvation. I discuss that issue here.

Alka: I would point out to that person that my parents raised me and my three siblings as lacto-vegetarians [A vegetarian who eats dairy products]. Through my younger years, my father was a graduate student and my mother worked as a librarian in Canada. But on their rather modest income, they were able to healthfully feed their four young children, preparing meals based on the peasant staples of rice and lentils. My parents didn't buy junk food or convenience foods, so even with their limited funds, they could purchase plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. My experience is a product of my cultural heritage, of course, but if we consider the global population, I think it tends to be the case that the poorer populations, if they eat, are eating grains and legumes — and not meat or other animal products.

If we look at the volume of resources that are expended to produce meat, dairy and eggs, it seems clear that animal products are, in an increasingly crowded world, the fare of the wealthy. And, we can look to some stark examples — the razing of rain forests in Brazil to raise grain for factory farmed chickens in the U.S., and the exporting of grains from Ethiopia during the height of the Ethiopian famine to factory farmers in Europe, for instance — to recognize that reliance on animal-derived foods contributes to inequality.

Thanks to Alka, Bruce and Paul for helping illuminate the relationship between our food choices and the well-being of other animals.

Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape.