Content warning: This article contains descriptions of violence.
There’s a contradiction stewing within much of Amherst’s population. During Wellness Wednesdays, when the college brings out the animals, people gather to pet the goats, pick up the bunnies and piglets (although the pigs really do not like being picked up) and feel some of their stress fade away. Then, without skipping a beat, they go to Val and ask, “can I get the pork?” You’d be ostracized if you picked up the little piglet, slit its throat, and started eating it at the wellness event, but the reality is that you’re engaging in the same kind of behavior (in fact, much worse) at dinner.
Why are people so endeared by certain animals — such as dogs, cats, or rabbits — but still willing to eat animals of equal or greater intelligence — like cows, pigs, or chickens? How are these views compatible? I’m going to make the argument for why we should all consider going vegetarian (abstaining from eating meat) or vegan (abstaining from all animal products), though I want to preface the rest of this article by saying that I do not think less of anyone who eats meat or animal products (my reasoning for this position will become clearer later in the article). Considering the meteoric rise of veganism and vegetarianism right now (in 2022, 500 percent more people are vegan now than in 2014) there is clearly something significant to consider.
I used to think I could never stop eating meat, or that I wasn’t the type of person to go vegan, but you don’t have to be a certain type of person to go plant-based. You might hold stereotypes about who is vegetarian or vegan, but you don’t need birkenstocks, tie-dyed socks, and a spot on the Outing Club mailing list to make a choice to stop eating meat. People are often surprised when they meet me as a gym-bro first and a vegan later. All it takes is a pretty simple decision to alter your dietary habits for the sake of yourself, the planet, and the animals. I hope you’ll approach this article with an open mind and a willingness to examine our often unquestioned behaviors.
The first reason to go plant-based is personal health, as it will reduce your chances of various health complications. Cardiovascular disease is one of the biggest health problems facing the U.S., accounting for a daily death toll of 2,300 a day. Meat, dairy, and eggs “contain large amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat,” and higher levels of cholesterol are linked to heart attacks. The high levels of fiber in a plant-based diet can help “wash away” excess cholesterol. Research has shown that vegans have a significantly lower risk of dying from heart attack (and a lower risk of dying in general).
Other people who have gone plant-based like to emphasize weight loss, lower blood pressure, general feelings of increased well being, higher energy levels, and improved athletic performance. According to one Business Insider article, many “top athletes — including world champions ... don't seem even slightly worried about getting enough protein from their vegan diets.” Just a handful of these athletes are tennis star Venus Williams, former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, basketball player Kyrie Irving, and professional bodybuilder and Mr. Universe in 2014, Barny du Plessis, who is definitely more jacked than all of us.
Some worry about nutritional deficiencies when switching off meat. But going vegan or vegetarian mostly just makes us more mindful of what we’re putting into our bodies — certainly not a bad thing. It’s not a bad idea to include some supplements if you go plant-based — especially if you go completely vegan — in order to make sure you get enough of certain vitamins or minerals such as Vitamin B12 (which, interestingly enough, modern factory farmed animals don’t “naturally” have due to their unnatural diet; instead, they are fed cobalt in order to synthesize it. So, taking a vitamin B12 supplement is more like cutting out the middleman). So contrary to popular belief, you probably make nutritional gains by going plant-based.
The second reason to go plant-based is for the environment. Climate change is a devastating force that is currently displacing countless people and upending many lives. It’s easy to be discouraged dwelling upon how futile our day to day actions can be — what can one person recycling or using a reusable bag do for the planet? But we shouldn’t feel hopeless, and thankfully, saying no to meat can add to the list of things you can do on a daily basis to curb climate change.
Raising animals to kill them for their meat is incredibly resource-intensive. Forests have to be bulldozed in order to make more farmland for animals as the world’s craving for meat climbs ever higher. Of all agricultural land in the U.S., “80 percent is used to raise animals for food and grow grain to feed them.” Imagine how much food we could have if we instead used that land to grow crops to feed humans. To get a pig to gain 140 pounds in its final stages before its slaughter, it if forced to consume “more than 500 pounds of grain, corn, and soybeans.” Considering that people don’t even eat all 140 pounds of the pig (ie., the hooves, intestines, bones, eyes, intestines, etc.), this is just an inefficient way to create food. Just by virtue of that, more resources have to be dedicated to meat production — more trucks to drive grain to feed animals, more packaging and processing (killing animals, draining their blood, chopping up their bodies and packaging them), and more trucks to drive the dead animals to stores in refrigerated cars. To drive home the inefficiency, meat and dairy provide 18 percent of calories and 37 percent of protein, but use 83 percent of farmland and make up 60 percent of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
Factory farms, beyond directly shrinking our forests by clearing land for raising animals, are also among the most significant industrial polluters. Managing animal waste gets messy, and it ends up polluting the water and air. When manure runs off into rivers, it can boost algae populations to levels so dangerous that other life forms are killed off.
The take-home message is this: if you’re worried about climate change, reduce the amount of meat you eat. Ideally, eat none at all. Authors of a study analyzing more than 40,000 farms across the world concluded that going vegan is “probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.”
Finally, I’d like to turn to the ethical side of eating meat. Simply put, slaughterhouses are hell on earth; every year, billions of animals are killed for the U.S. food supply alone and are largely kept in horrific conditions because of the profit-seeking motivations of companies. How many animals? In the U.S., 55.4 billion animals are killed every year, including both land and aquatic animals. Experts estimate that around 117 billion people have ever lived on Earth, so so in two years we kill almost as many animals as there are people who have ever lived, just in the U.S. alone!
Animals are torn from their families, crammed into over-crowded and filthy cages with wire floors, where they often don’t have space to even turn around. They’re deprived of sunlight, overstuffed with corn feed, and killed at a ridiculously young age, all in order to maximize the output of animal flesh and minimize the cost of production. Pigs can have their tails cut off and chickens can have their beaks clipped, both as cruel band-aid fixes to structurally horrific factory farming conditions. (Having a beak clipped involves a searing hot iron blade slicing the tip of it off. This is analogous to slicing off our fingers right in the middle of our nail beds, but more painful.) In a capitalist system where companies’ profits are their bottom line, most neglect any concern for animal welfare — they only care about how much flesh they can churn out at the cheapest cost.
But how bad are factory farms, really? Below are some quotes from a video interview of a chicken farmer to illustrate:
“This isn't farming, this is mass production like an assembly line in a factory.”
“When they grow from a chick and in seven weeks you have a five-and-a-half pound chicken, their bones and their internal organs can't keep up with the rapid growth. A lot of these chickens here, they can take a few steps and they plop down since they can't keep up with all the weight they're carrying.”
What is this “rapid growth?” A normal chicken’s average lifespan is seven years, while a conservative estimate of a broiler chicken’s lifespan is seven weeks. In these seven weeks, chickens are fed nonstop to fatten them up as much as possible before they’re killed. Taking the average human lifespan to be 72.6 years, if we factory-farmed people like we do chickens, we would be killing people at 1.4 years old.
Why and how do we let this practice happen on a daily basis? Most people discount the suffering of animals, consciously or not, just because they are from a different species, which some philosophers have described as the prejudice of speciesism. Humans are animals too, and there is no reason to privilege our fellow species members over those from another species, just because they look different than us; they can still feel pain and suffer.
Many factory-farmed animals are probably smarter than your dog or cat. Pigs play games in exchange for treats, get bored if they don’t get enough stimulation, and can recognize and understand themselves in mirrors — something human children can’t even do until about two years old. Cows recognize and remember faces, form friendships, and create social hierarchies. Chicken mothers love their chicks, who have shown object permanence (again, something human children don’t have until around six months). Beyond all of that, every single one of these animals can feel pain, and that is undeniable. They suffer when they are kept in a dark room, filled with their own excrement, unable to stretch their limbs and play, socialize, and form connections. Is it really worth it to condone this daily, ongoing atrocity, just to satisfy our palette? People often justify their beliefs by saying that animals are just less intelligent than humans, but this line of thought is morally bankrupt. A thought experiment: imagine there is a person born with some severe complications, and they will never cognitively develop past the intellectual ability of something even less than a pig. Let’s say they would be able to feel pain (they would grimace or scream when hurt), want to be in comfortable conditions (they would dislike being out in the cold without a jacket), but they wouldn’t be able to communicate using language — just to give a broad sketch. Would you be fine killing them to eat their flesh? Probably not, as you should be. So why do we feel fine killing and eating even more intelligent beings from different species? It’s unjustified.
Beyond suffering, other philosophers have reasoned that if an animal has the capabilities to grow familial bonds, explore, and lead a “good life,” it should be able to do so, and should not be relegated to a short, miserable existence where it is slaughtered for its own flesh. This seems to align with certain moral intuitions we hold, in that we generally approve of people self-actualizing. If someone wants to be a brain surgeon and master the art of a delicate medicinal practice, or if another wants to master the piano, we’re inclined to encourage them to do so. Why can’t we afford the same consideration to other beings with thoughts and feelings? I’m not saying we need to give cows piano lessons, but there is something obviously wrong about separating mother from calf at a brutally young age in the name of meat-producing efficiency.
Even beyond that, if you imagine a world in which factory farming was not so grossly cruel (which it is), I’d argue there is still something wrong with killing for no reason other than for our taste. For example, imagine if an alien species that is vastly more intelligent than we are comes to Earth. They then start picking us out and killing us, just because they think we are tasty. They could go on without having to eat us — and in fact, it would be much more efficient and better for the environment if they did so — but they choose to end our lives, thinking, “these humans aren’t as smart as us. Who cares? I like eating humans!” That would be outrageous.
Why are we all eating meat in the first place? The simple answer is tradition. Since we were hunter-gatherers, eating some forms of meat has been a distinct part of most cultures. At first, you could argue that hunter-gatherers were in a position where they had to eat meat to survive, to get proper nutrition, etc. That is not the case anymore for most of us in these privileged positions; we have overwhelming access to plentiful food and no need to eat meat. What has remained for us, though, is the tradition of eating animal flesh for its own sake.
For one, we are socialized from a young age to see eating animal flesh as normal and animal farming as fun. We internalize children’s stories of farm animals living happily on vast, green acres with a red barn in the background. That’s not what modern factory farming is like. Traditions usually involve eating animals, like turkey on Thanksgiving. In this sense, we’re indoctrinated into thinking eating dead animals is normal, and it takes a large reckoning many years later to switch off.
Secondly, the process of meat-production and slaughter is far removed from us and sanitized as much as possible. Consider what we call various kinds of meat: “bacon” instead of “pig,” “tenders” or “nuggets” instead of chicken, or “beef” and “sirloin” instead of “cow.” We’ve come up with euphemisms to distance ourselves from the reality of our actions: eating animal flesh. I’ve used terms like “animal flesh” intermittently instead of just “meat” throughout this article to more accurately represent what’s actually happening. If that makes you uncomfortable, maybe it’s time to reexamine your beliefs.
Besides language, factory farms are usually located far away from where we would see them, and the operations are often very secretive. We’re kept from seeing the horrors inside because we know we wouldn’t like it. Paul McCartney, former member of the Beatles, famously said "if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian." But slaughterhouses don’t have glass walls. Hence, I can’t really blame most people for continuing to eat meat when we’ve been basically indoctrinated into doing so our whole lives. But after being exposed to something like this article, you have less of an excuse to continue eating meat.
Third, “big meat” companies have a grip on congressional lobbying because of their immense wealth. In fact, meat and dairy companies seemingly “act collectively in ways similar to the fossil-fuel industry.” Almost none of them commit to net zero emissions, and they spend millions lobbying against climate change legislation that would require limits on the amount of meat they can produce. And meat-based interests are actively trying to deceive people about all sorts of facts about eating meat and going vegan. A lot of money from people up top is being spent on trying to get you to buy and eat animal flesh.
So by now I hope the argument for going vegan or vegetarian is pretty clear. It may feel daunting to immediately cut out a lot of your diet, but there are some great practical guides for going plant-based (Sentient Media, WorldOfVegan), which are filled with on-the-ground eating and nutrition tips, food groups to be mindful of, and other great support.
On the other hand, you do not have to go vegan right now (although that would be awesome!) Instead, you can start small. You can try the Beyond Burgers at Val (which are often served on Thursdays at lunch), the pakora wraps, an eggplant parm, or the sesame nuggets. You can try to eat one meal a day without meat. You can try going vegetarian, vegan, or pescetarian for a week, or a month, which really helps because you find out how easy it is. You can make it a “big event” marking some date/time: Personally, I went vegetarian as a sophomore in high school as a New Years Resolution, and it stuck. I recently went vegan this March. The catalyst for my switch to vegetarianism was reading “Animal Liberation” by the philosopher Peter Singer in my ethics class. Many vegans or vegetarians describe having some “catalyst” moments in their lives. If this article is the catalyst for you, then great! If it is your first, second, or third exposure to these ideas, that’s also great!
Probably the most common response to going vegan or vegetarian is that “meat is tasty.” First, I’d say you should see the ethical arguments I already mentioned. If you engage in some sort of behavior that is primitively gratifying but ethically unsound, you should just stop. Second, you just get used to not eating meat, especially once you accept the ethical arguments and realize how morbid it is to eat dead animals. If you ask most vegans or vegetarians what they feel about eating meat, they’d probably say it sounds repulsive. They’re not some otherworldly beings that somehow have the discipline to give up something so tasty, and whose lives are permanently less fulfilling because of that.
Obviously, I can’t cover every aspect of vegetarianism or veganism in one article for The Amherst Student. So, if you have any other questions, feel free to reach out to me, and I’ll be happy to talk to you about any aspect of the process. Or, if you’re vegan or vegetarian and you want to just chat with me about that, I’d be happy to talk.