A Plant-Based Diet: The Most Sustainable Path Forward
Updated: Sep 18, 2022
I’m vegan. I’ve been vegan for long enough to know that that first sentence is enough to turn people away, but I’m asking you to bear with me. I write this to offer the rationale for my decision and not to be preachy or self-righteous. These stereotypes about vegans can be frustrating, but I don’t blame people for them. I don’t blame people for shutting down when veganism comes up. What we eat is so central to who we are: our family life, our religious culture, our traditions. But what we eat can do more than offer a sense of identity and belonging. It can affect our health, our world, and the creatures with whom we share it.
Adopting a vegan diet can protect against some of the deadliest diseases in the Western World. Heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2019, often occurs in those who eat large amounts of cholesterol. Vegans effectively eliminate cholesterol and reduce saturated fat intake. This decreases their risk of getting heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and Type 2 Diabetes, which affects 10% of Americans. Processed meat is correlated with diabetes and even certain kinds of cancer, threats that a plant-based diet can neutralize. Eating a plant-based diet means swapping out the most dangerous ingredients in favor of more beneficial ones.
Critics point to a number of nutrients that they assume vegans lack. I have heard more times than I can count, “Where do you get your protein?” According to research, vegans are not particularly likely to have protein deficiencies. Iron is another nutrient that people ask about, but as long as vegans eat plenty of green leafy vegetables and legumes, they are in the clear. A more valid concern is B12, a vitamin that powers our nervous systems, but vegans can remedy any deficiency by adding nutritional yeast to meals or taking multivitamins. Fortified plant-based milks contain calcium, iron, and B12. Soy milk, for instance, has as much protein as dairy milk without all of the saturated fat and carbohydrates, making it a healthy alternative. According to Marco Springman, senior researcher of environmental sustainability and public health at the University of Oxford, a plant-based diet is one of the healthiest because it’s “higher in fruit, vegetables, and legumes, and the health benefits from this compensate [for] anything else.” Indeed, the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that a plant-based diet is sustainable for all phases of life.
Some adopt a plant-based diet strictly for their health, but vegan implies something more. I’m wary of saying that “vegan is a lifestyle” because it is a phrase for which vegans have faced ridicule, but it’s true. Veganism is an attitude toward the world characterized by an urge to live sustainably and compassionately. So, what are the sustainability reasons to go vegan?
Factory farms, or industrial animal farms, devastate our waterways. Instead of disposing of animal waste properly, farmers keep it in “lagoons” that leak into lakes and rivers. Fertilizer and manure also make their way into the water, killing marine life; runoff has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico in which nothing can grow or survive. Toxins from factory farms even get into drinking water, which harms everyone, especially members of low-income communities.
Factory farming is the leading cause of deforestation. Relying on animals for food is inefficient, as they eat way more calories than we can get by consuming them. Corn and soy fields take up one third of US farmland, but only 10% of these crops end up on humans’ plates. The rest feed livestock. To access this land, farms must disrupt ecosystems and cut down rainforests, hastening the greenhouse effect.
Cows expel large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas far more harmful than carbon dioxide. According to the Guardian, the 20 largest meat and dairy companies likely emitted more greenhouse gasses in 2016 than all of Germany, the biggest European polluter. Factory farms contribute 37% of methane emissions, so as we discuss purchasing electric cars, we should also reassess our eating habits.
Although health and environmental reasons have kept me vegan, I chose to go vegan when I learned about animal cruelty in factory farms. Here, I’ll give a trigger warning, but I do encourage you to read on. Whether you change your diet or not, it’s important to know about the source of your food.
Nine billion chickens are slaughtered in the US each year. Called broiler chickens, these animals are genetically bred to grow unnaturally large, a strategy that optimizes profit. If one engineered a person to grow at the same rate as a broiler chicken, they’d be 660 pounds by the time they were two months old. Unsurprisingly, these enormous mutant chickens experience heart failure, trouble breathing, and chronic pain. Their legs cannot support them, and they sometimes spend hours on the ground, unable to stand back up. To make matters worse, broiler chickens live in extremely crowded sheds. Ammonia accumulates from their waste -- which they must sit in -- irritating their skin and eyes. With next to no space and grotesquely large bodies, broiler chickens suffer every day.
In the egg industry, hens are crammed in cages with less space per bird than the size of a piece of printer paper. The crowded conditions distress chickens so much that they peck at one another. The industry solves this problem by cutting off the tips of hens’ sensitive beaks without a sedative. Half of the chicks that hens hatch are male and therefore useless to the egg industry, so they are immediately killed, sometimes in large shredders.
Cows, meanwhile, are fed corn and soy, foods foreign to their digestive systems. Farmers choose these crops because they make cows grow fat, but they also create painful ulcers and sicknesses. Cows, sentient beings with familial bonds and social structures, suffer from breathing issues, heat stroke, and painful branding before slaughter. Dairy cows are artificially inseminated every year so that they are always producing milk. As they have nine-month gestation periods, this means that they spend most of their lives pregnant. Farmers separate calves from their mothers immediately after their birth so that the industry has exclusive access to milk, and the mother cows, traumatized by the loss of their calves, cry out for their children for days. This emotional suffering is arguably worse than the physical discomfort they face from udder infections and neck chains.
People think of fish as incapable of feeling; on the contrary, fish are sentient and can suffer. One half of fish live in engineered environments where they are overcrowded and sometimes diseased. Because of misconceptions about fish sentience, there are no animal welfare laws to protect them, which means they are usually not stunned before they’re slaughtered. They might suffocate, bleed out, or freeze while experiencing every second of their painful deaths.
Going vegan is the most sustainable path to maintaining our health and planet, and living by our values. Labels can be misleading and factory farming is too widespread to rely on family farms. We need to tell our government to stop subsidizing these industries by buying plant-based alternatives. If you’ve read to this point, thank you. You’ve already taken the hardest step.