World Vegan Day: should the world go vegan?

01 November 2021

Since the beginning of the agricultural and industrial revolutions and the more recent intensification of crop and livestock production we have set ourselves on a path of rapid economic and social development.

This development has brought great personal, economic, social and health benefits to many people. Yet it has also come at the cost of the lives of many billions of animals, widespread environmental damage, severe health problems within human societies, the abuse of both animals and people and disregard for whole communities.

As the need for land to grow more crops to feed to livestock increases, land is taken from the natural world and in many cases from indigenous communities that are conserving natural habitats. Workers, often from the lower socio-economic brackets, are exposed to appalling working conditions and low wages within the agricultural production and processing sectors to ensure that food production companies can meet the demand of the population and maintain their profits.

Animals are physically and psychologically abused and have their lives cut short to supply the food which in many cases causes wide ranging human health problems leading to people living compromised and often shorter lives due to their consumption habits.

Crucially, this system of land use for crops to feed animals to be raised in poor living conditions and slaughtered to feed people that suffer due to the effects of their consumption, has become the socially accepted norm.

Animal protein production and consumption is supported at almost all levels of all societies with the vast majority of the world’s population being encouraged to participate from the moment they are born. This behaviour is reinforced throughout our life stages; in our homes, educational settings and within our families and wider social settings.

Due to the societal acceptance of a system that causes great harm to people, animals, and the environment, it creates a huge barrier, built upon historic experiences and cultural backgrounds, for those that advocate for alternative lifestyles to overcome when working towards changing people's personal consumption behaviours.

We must accept that the reasons people eat meat and dairy products are complex and include a multitude of interconnected issues of social and cultural norms, social acceptance, and historical family contexts as well as fundamental issues such as taste, food texture, smell and the overall sense of satisfaction people feel when they eat foods they’ve been raised to eat.

While we have the science to show that animals suffer during these processes, that individual human health can suffer due to their consumption practices, that workers rights are being abused, indigenous communities are losing their lands and that the production and distribution of animal protein products is having a damaging impact on our environment, social acceptance and cultural norms often outweigh the health, welfare and environmental arguments against eating meat and dairy.

Putting this issue into a wider moral framework, we place animals either consciously or subconsciously onto a moral ladder. We sit atop of this moral ladder and non-human animals that are often perceived as being more intelligent or more complex sit higher up our ladder and thus we assign them a stronger set of moral rights.

In this way we assign chimpanzees, for example, a higher moral worth than chickens. Hence the majority of the population happily eat chickens but are unlikely to support the farming and killing of chimpanzees for food.

We place ourselves at the top of this moral ladder and thus justify to ourselves, supported by the indoctrination of this idea from birth, that the suffering of others is ‘acceptable’ for our own personal gain. We all too often dismiss the social and health impacts on the lives of our fellow citizens and the threat our habits cause to the environment. Threats so severe that it becomes all too easy to dismiss the impact that individual actions would have on solving them.

If we are to really tackle these issues of human, environmental and animal abuse we need to drastically change our method of moral assignment, and through education and societal change we need to prevent our children from automatically adopting the same moral position which leads to widespread use and abuse of animals, people and the environment.

We must use our ever-growing knowledge of the complex lives of all animals to generate further respect and empathy, and we must find ever more effective ways to disseminate this knowledge within our communities.

And this knowledge-acquisition and subsequent sharing must include the lives of all animals, including those that we eat such as hens, pigs, and fishes as well as those we often know very little about such as the majority of the invertebrates.

Scientific advancement is demonstrating that many groups of animals that we may have previously not considered able to experience both positive and negative states are in fact sentient. The sentience of fishes, and decapod crustaceans has been recognised and in some cases incorporated into changes in both societal practices and laws.

More recently, evidence for the potential for sentience in insects also grows rapidly. Our current knowledge of the cognitive abilities of bees, ants, wasps, fruit flies and many more insect groups provide a case that many insects are likely to be sentient - this, coupled with evidence of sentience in other invertebrate groups such as crustaceans and cephalopods, should mean that humanity adopts at the very least the precautionary approach to other invertebrates that it is likely they are sentient and therefore we have a moral duty not to harm them where this is possible.

It is only when these messages of scientific fact and rational assumptions are present within the minds of our educators, society leaders and family members will we really see a fundamental shift away from the current path which is leading us to a world where misery and suffering for many millions more people will become a daily occurence.

On World Vegan Day take a moment to think about your personal behaviours and how these influence those around you, and please take time to consider making changes however big or small which could benefit you, local communities, animals and the environment.

Written by Dave Neale, Animal Welfare Director, Animals Asia Foundation

Read more: One Life: Farm Animal Day