This holiday season you’re bound to encounter a vegan or two at a dinner or function, so let’s explore what a vegan is and why they’re abstaining from the turkey and home-made butter-toffee
Vegan. To start, it’s not a rare skin disease. It’s a lifestyle choice. Many have heard about veganism by now thanks to Oprah’s “vegan week,” athletes Brendan Brazier (founder of Vega) and Mike Zigomanis, as well as vegan celebrities like Woody Harrelson. But what exactly is a vegan? It is someone who chooses not to eat any animal products (all animals, including sea animals, dairy products, eggs, and honey as examples) and also not to use any products derived from animals (leather boots, certain make-ups, shampoos, etc). This is all fine and good, but why would someone want to abstain from eating animals and animal by-products, especially at Christmas when Nan has made special cookies? There are a multitude of truths that may bring someone to veganism, but I will explore three of them: health; the environment; and ethics.
There are a variety of plant-based, nutrient-dense items at our finger tips: lentils and beans to supply us with iron and complete proteins; squash and sweet potato for vitamin A; fruits for potassium and magnesium; soy, almonds, broccoli, and dark leafy greens for calcium; quinoa, rice, barley and other grains for silicon, extra protein, and fibre; not to mention avocado, hemp seed, flax, and other nuts and seeds for essential fatty acids, vitamin E, and minerals. With these nutritional profiles, it’s possible not only to thrive on a vegan whole-foods diet, but also to lower your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and risk of type-II diabetes, as well as some cancers and other health concerns. These benefits are in part attributable to the reality that most vegan diets are higher in fruit and vegetables than their omnivorous counterparts, and thus reap the benefits of increased phytochemicals, fibre intake, antioxidants, folic acid, vitamin C, and so on (of course, a vegan could also survive on Oreos and white bread, so don’t be fooled into thinking that being a vegan automatically means being healthier). Traditionally, vegans also consume more beans and lentils, which along with fruits and vegetables provide potent cancer-fighting properties. (As this article is about the reasons someone would go vegan, I’ll abstain from going in-depth into vegan nutrition.)
To explore other health reasons for adopting a vegan lifestyle, check out the recent documentary Forks over Knives. It makes the case, rooted in decades of research and case studies, for adopting a vegan diet.
Many individuals who are concerned about the planet and the threat of climate change adopt a plant-based diet as a way to reduce their individual impact on the environment. This choice is backed by the United Nations Environment Programme, which released a report in 2010 suggesting that a global-shift towards a vegan diet is a must if we want to feed our growing population and curb climate change – handy, considering our population is expected to reach 9 billion in less than 40 years (how old will you, or your children, be in 2050?).
“Animals are my friends… and I don’t eat my friends.” – George Bernard Shaw
The impact of raising animals for food on both water and air pollution, as well as on forests and climate change, is powerful when we consider the full life-cycle of the “production” of animals: from the cow or pig being kept on a farm, to the supermarket or farmer’s market. Water pollution has been cited by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) as one of the most significant issues associated with conventional animal production outside of climate change, as it is affected by the growing of feed (where pesticides are used) to the slaughterhouses (where tonnes of toxic by-products run-off into our waterways). EWG has also cited the fact that choosing organic, pasture-raised animals can have less of an impact on the planet if proper farming practices are utilized. Still, not using animal products at all is the environmental choice for some.
Along with health or environmental concerns, someone may adopt a vegan lifestyle for ethical reasons. Someone may choose not to eat animals or use their by-products – like milk and leather – because they are opposed to putting a price tag on a living being. Or, perhaps they believe that every creature has a right to live out their life free from unnecessary pain or suffering. To this point, with industrialized farming practices and the demand for leather, sheep skin, and fur products, animals are subjected to treatment unimaginable by many: de-beaking; electric shock; crowded and confined environments with no room to flap a wing or move around. In the age of the internet, numerous undercover operations are circling online whereby people pose as workers to collect evidence of animal abuse, and then ultimately bring forward legal action. Arguably the most famous of these is the treatment of chickens by a Kentucky Fried Chicken supplier. Although these horror stories often garner a lot of media attention, cruelty to animals is not the only reason someone may adopt an ethical vegan stance. Without ever seeing or witnessing any of the abovementioned treatments, a person may, at some deep, personal level, have an aversion to the consumption of animals for their own pleasure, no matter how humane or “free” the animal’s life is or was. To these people, it just is not okay, in their mind, to eat or use another animal.
Talking about veganism, we cannot forget to mention fish. Concerns over the consumption of fish blur the boundaries of health, the environment, and ethics. “Edible” sea animals may no longer exist in 2048 thanks to over-fishing and poor ocean management. Currently, of the ocean’s big fish – like Bluefin tuna and halibut – only 10% of their populations remain. Of the fish that humans consume on a regular basis, over half come from fish farms (also known as aquaculture). In Scotland, aquaculture is believed to produce nitrogen pollution equivalent to 3.2 million people’s untreated sewage – that’s nearly 7 times the population of Newfoundland and Labrador. Meanwhile, wild fish are susceptible to genetic “contamination” from escaped farm fish, not to mention sea lice and other parasites.
In Scotland, aquaculture is believed to produce nitrogen pollution equivalent to 3.2 million people’s untreated sewage…
In terms of human health, fish are found to contain heavy metals and dioxins at levels highly toxic to their human consumers. In and around the realm of ethics, new studies have proven that fish do indeed feel pain and their bodies release cortisol into the bloodstream after a stressful event, just like our human bodies do in response to pain or stress. (Crustaceans, like lobster and crab, also experience pain and its related stress.)
What I’ve provided here is an overview of three of the most popular reasons someone may adopt a vegan lifestyle. The reasons explored are by no means exhaustive, as there are many other reasons why someone may choose to adopt a vegan lifestyle. Choosing to talk about veganism in a culture that for generations survived on animals like fish and seal isn’t always a crowd pleaser, but it is a topic that needs to be explored and discussed with openness and respect as people begin to reflect more heavily on the health, environmental, and ethical considerations of the food they choose to support and consume. What’s more, the holiday season is upon us, and with that there will be many opportunities for shared meals and conversations among loved ones and strangers alike.
Rejoice in the shared company that the holidays bring! And be sure to leave a vegan cookie option out for Santa! (along with a Jam-Jam or two…)