Friday, May 4, 2012

Why Being Vegetarian is Not Enough

More and more people are becoming vegetarian as a result of their belief that animals shouldn’t be mistreated on factory farms, or that they simply should not be killed and consumed for food. However, many individuals who avoid meat out of concern for the interests of animals, continue to consume and use other animal products. Many vegetarians, in fact, upon eliminating flesh from their diet, actually increase their consumption of eggs and dairy, two products that are the result of tremendous animal abuse. 

It is a common belief among vegetarians that drinking milk and eating eggs does not kill animals, but nothing could be further from the truth. Commercially raised cows and egg-laying chickens, whether factory-farmed, or "free-range" are slaughtered when their production rates decline and they are no longer a valuable "commodity".

Vegetarians who eat eggs contribute to the death of 200 million male chicks each year. Since there is no such thing as a "layer rooster," these animals serve no purpose in the egg industry and are killed moments after hatching. Each year, millions of male chicks are gassed, crushed, ground up, or thrown into garbage bins to die of dehydration or asphyxiation. Most layer hens are kept five to a tiny battery cage, where they must stand and sleep on a wire floor 24 hours a day. Living under these horrendous conditions, a hen needs about 30 hours just to lay one egg. Even though a chicken can live five years, most hens are killed before their second birthday, because their egg production declines with age.

With cows, the story is similar. Just as hens lay fewer eggs as they age, dairy cows produce less milk, as they get older. Even though a cow can live twenty years, most dairy cows are sent to the slaughterhouse at age five. Additionally, the veal industry could never exist in its present form without the existence of the dairy industry. Each dairy cow produces about five calves during her lifetime, only one of which on average will become a dairy calf and replace her mother in the milking herd. The rest, (mostly male calves, since they can not become dairy cows) are taken from their mothers, sold for $5.00 each, and to be turned into veal. Imagine having each of your newborn baby stolen, only to have them chained inside a tiny crate for a few months before being slaughtered and eaten, all so that another species could consume milk and cheese from your lactation.

The flood of cheap calves created by the dairy industry allows the veal industry to survive in its current form. It may seem counterintuitive that milk, which is associated with birth and life, is also so connected to slaughter and death. The animal agriculture industry, however, is not in the business of feeding and housing animals who are not profitable. Many vegetarians are not aware of these facts. Once you become aware of the truth, it's hard to justify consuming animal by-products even if you do not eat the animals themselves.

Unfortunately, eating milk and eggs, and using animal by-products all comes down to the same thing: cruelty, exploitation, and death for animals. A compassionate person, who does not eat meat because of an ethical concern for animals, can not avoid the reality of their other choices or the consequences they have on the lives of animals. By refusing to purchase or use these products, we send a strong economic message that profiting at the expense of our health, our environment, and the lives of animals will not be tolerated.

If you're vegetarian because you care about nonhuman animals, you must stop eating, wearing, or using them and products made from them. If animals matter morally, we can not justify treating them as resources. Becoming vegan must be the moral baseline for taking those interests seriously. It's the only way to align your values for justice and fairness.

Vegetarians: Don't hide from the truth. Becoming vegan is the next step in your personal liberation, and it is a source of joy to spend your life living up to its ideal. 

By the way, pictured up top are male chicks falling into a grinder. Representing no monetary value to the egg industry, they only lived for a few moments, but they were not trash. 


  1. Your argument would certainly be persuasive to readers of this blog, because we all share a similar worldview and ethical framework. But, as an educator, I'm more concerned with how to spread this message to people who are quite happy, not only to eat ice cream and drink lattes topped with milk, but also eat the occcasional hamburger and chicken nuggets.

    From my own experience teaching enviromental ethics over the years, I've found that veganism is almost impossible to "sell" to the typical college student. The idea of giving up ALL animal products strikes them as simply too extreme. So I encourage them to start with vegetarianism and progress from there. After discussing the horrors of factory farming and watching PETA's "Meet Your Meat" or "Food Inc.," many of them are definitely ready for this step. A very small percentage eventually decide to go vegan, but many more are content to practice vegetarianism. As far as I'm concerned, this is still a dramatic improvment over the standard American diet, even though it is far from being morally ideal.

    I think that this is a discussion that those of us who are concerned with the issue of animal cruelty need to continue to have. The gold standard of moral behavior, as far as I'm concerned, will always be veganism, but in the real world sometimes we have to settle for the good in place of the perfect.

    I'm going to be writing a piece on this issue in the next few weeks and I'd definitely welcome feedback.

  2. Mike,
    Lacto - Ovo vegetarianism contributes to less animal cruelty only if the person is not eating more eggs or dairy to replace the meat they are cutting out.

    Many who become vegetarian do end up relacing meat with an equal portion of dairy. And dairy is actually more cruel in it's production than meat, many would argue.

    This article is for more than a small portion of college students that you have interacted with. I am sorry that you seem to have such little faith in the ability of others to make what is quite literally the only ethical choice, when it comes to not directly funding the confinement, abuse, torture and theft of life of our fellow earthlings.

    Vegan is the only ethical option in the case of those who truly care about animals, period. For those who are reading, you can take baby steps, or you can do this all the way.

    Dairy and egg industries are slaughter industries. They specialize in killing baby animals, the exploitation of the female body and reproductive system, and the sacred bond between mother and baby that would have been, but was not allowed.

    1. Great insights. I definitely agree with you in principle. The gold standard for moral behavior would definitely be veganism. But in practice I think that we should try to reach people where they are in life rather than where we would like them to be.

      I recently wrote a piece called the "80% Vegan" where I lay out my arguments on this issue:

      I agree with you, however, that the position that I am advocating is far from optimal.


  3. I agree with Mike.

    I don't think shoving veganism down people's throats is the solution in making any progress. We need to educate people with these issues so that they can make their own decisions in regards to what they feel is right to eat.

    Saying that veganism is the "only ethical option" is unethical in itself. You're basically saying that if someone is not a vegan then they don't care about animals at all.
    I care about my pet dog. You don't see me torturing her for fun. I'm not keeping her in cage where she can't move so that I can kill her and eat her for my enjoyment. That must mean I care about this non-human animal. I also speak on daily meat-eater's behalfs because you don't see them personally making hens and cows suffer.

    I, personally, just recently decided to stop ignoring these issues and am becoming a progressive vegan. In certain circumstances I feel like you can't avoid eating meat, but that does not mean that I still can't try to contribute as less as possible to the issues concerning the suffering among these non-human animals.


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