Why go vegan? The elevator pitch laying out the best reasons crams several compelling points into just a few seconds. It goes something like this:

A vegan lifestyle prevents a tremendous amount of animal slaughter and suffering. It offers a potent way to shrink our environmental footprint, especially in regard to climate change. And a well-planned vegan diet can fuel the highest levels of fitness, while reducing our risk of various chronic diseases. Plus, the food is insanely delicious and it becomes more plentiful every year.

The above sentences get us off to a nice start, but they don’t begin to do the subject justice. Indeed, getting up to speed on every important reason to go vegan would require months of reading. You would have to explore topics like plant-based nutrition, animal rights philosophy, and the exploitation of slaughterhouse workers. You’d also need to delve into the damage the meat industry inflicts on human health and the environment. There are dozens of other relevant subjects to consider, but you get the idea.

That said, we have to start somewhere. Learning the essentials doesn’t take long. This essay explains the strongest reasons to go vegan, and you can finish it in under an hour.

As we’re about to see, ridding your diet of animal products delivers remarkable benefits. You may never encounter a topic more worthy of your attention.

Defining a Vegan Diet

Vegan diets exclude all foods produced by or derived from animals: meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, and honey. Conversely, you can define veganism as a diet based entirely on plants.

Many vegans go beyond diet to remove animal exploitation from their entire lifestyle. They’ll avoid clothing made of wool and won’t buy leather furniture. Nor will they visit zoos or purchase cosmetics tested on animals. While such steps deserve consideration, to keep this essay concise I will focus entirely on diet.

The Virtues of Plant-Based Diets

Even if this essay doesn’t persuade you to go vegan, it may inspire you to gravitate toward a “plant-based” diet. While vegan diets exclude all animal products, plant-based diets offer some wiggle room. If you see the appeal of going vegan but don’t feel gung ho about it, plant-based diets offer an easily-reached middle ground.

Pretty much every food politics writer worth taking seriously—including Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Eric Schlosser—advocates diets based heavily on plants. All it takes to go plant-based is to make a point of eating vegan foods whenever convenient. You can follow a primarily plant-based diet and still eat Thanksgiving turkey or a summer barbecue.

Perhaps the best reason to go plant-based relates to the lack of a sensible counterargument. In all my years of writing about food politics, I’ve never once seen anyone (other than a few paleo diet fanatics) deny the advantages of eating mostly plants. Eating more fruits and vegetables can significantly reduce risk of chronic disease. And of course, plant-based diets also keep farm animals from slaughter, while simultaneously protecting the environment.

With all the excellent reasons to cut animal products from your diet, it’s wonderful that there’s an unending supply of spectacular vegan dishes. This one is from INA Restaurante, in Medellin, Colombia.

Shifting to a plant-based diet often initiates a virtuous cycle. By eating plant-based, you’ll inevitably discover one healthy and delicious food after another. And that will in turn trigger a cascade of positive dietary changes.

The Joy of Exploring Plant-Based Foods

All it takes to eat plant-based is to regularly try new vegan foods. Inevitably, you’ll discover delicious possibilities that will become part of your everyday diet. So, as time goes by, your diet may become predominantly vegan without any concerted effort on your part. Plenty of current vegans transitioned by sliding down the plant-based slope.

A number of cute neologisms can inspire easy-yet-meaningful commitments: reducetarianflexitariancheganplant-strong, and even veganish. If any of these terms resonates with you, just grab ahold of it and start thinking along those lines.

Several other related concepts might also encourage you to eat more plant-based meals, including: Meatless Mondays, Mark Bittman’s Vegan Before 6:00 plan, or trying out a vegan diet for a week or a month.

Why Go Beyond Plant-Based?

Plant-based diets make all kinds of sense, but let’s also consider the advantages of going further and becoming vegan. When you eat vegan, you slam the door shut on countless disagreeable things—especially animal suffering.

Animal Cruelty in Agribusiness

Like vegans, most meat eaters recoil from animal cruelty and consider it abhorrent. Unfortunately, extraordinary cruelties occur throughout the meat, dairy and egg industries. And slaughterhouses—even the few that adhere to the best standards—are invariably horrifying.

Countless vegans spent decades blissfully devouring meat and other animal products until, one day, they encountered a slaughterhouse video. Just a minute or two spent watching any of these videos can inspire lifelong dietary change.

Writing cannot adequately convey the horrors of industrialized animal slaughter—the more detailed and accurate the written description, the more overwrought and implausible it sounds. So to truly understand what happens at slaughterhouses, you must actually witness the killing, rather than merely read about it.

Modern slaughterhouses kill and butcher animals at breakneck speeds. One Tyson Foods facility in Indiana produces three million pounds of pork every day.  YouTube hosts dozens of videos showing the slaughter of every type of farm animal. Many people can only last a few seconds before turning away. But what happens to animals is right there for everyone to see, for anyone willing to look. If we’re going to eat meat, don’t we each share an ethical obligation to see for ourselves how it’s produced?

If you oppose violence, a vegan lifestyle deserves your careful consideration. Nothing that follows can adequately describe the realities of a slaughterhouse, but I can at least lay out the essentials. Cows, pigs, and chickens are each slaughtered using different methods. We’ll start by considering how these animals are stunned prior to slaughter.

Cattle and Pig Stunning

When a beef or dairy cow steps onto the kill floor, a worker puts a captive bolt pistol to the animal’s forehead. The trigger pulled, a steel rod shoots through her skull, instantly inflicting a massive brain injury. A chain then hoists the cow into the air, and another worker cuts her throat. Over the following minutes she bleeds out as her still-pumping heart gushes blood onto the floor.

Although horrifying to witness, captive bolts are the least inhumane slaughterhouse stunning method.

Some pig slaughterhouses also use captive bolts, but many instead render the animals unconscious with carbon dioxide, a gratuitously inhumane practice. Videos taken at these facilities show panicked pigs desperately trying to push their snouts out of the carbon dioxide chamber to breathe fresh air. Still other pig slaughterhouses jolt the animals with electricity, which raises the question of whether the stunning adds to rather than diminishes total suffering.

Poultry Stunning

Chicken slaughter is especially heartless. Chicken producers say they stun their birds prior to slaughter, but they don’t, really. Their so-called “stunning” is actually done to speed up slaughter, and probably only compounds the birds’ misery. Let’s take a step back to look at what’s really going on.

In the United States, chickens are exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act. Anything goes, and the industry has no worries about facing cruelty prosecutions. The birds are hung upside down, with their feet inserted into steel shackles. They then whiz down the line at rates of at least 175 birds a minute. At three birds a second, chickens come down the line far too quickly for workers to be able to cut throats by hand, so it’s all done mechanically.

So how do you get a panicked, thrashing bird suspended upside down to relax her neck to be in proper position for the mechanical blade? That’s where the slaughterhouse’s “stunning” comes in. Just before reaching the blade, the chicken passes through an electrified water bath. The electric shock stuns the bird momentarily, just long enough for the head to hang limply to expose his throat to the blade.

If, however, the blade misses the neck, the chicken will be fully conscious a couple minutes later when he’s dropped into the tank of scalding water used to remove feathers from the carcasses of freshly-killed birds. Considering producers kill tens of billions of chickens a year worldwide, no doubt millions of these birds have scalded to death after a botched slaughter.

Kosher Slaughterhouses Don’t Stun

Not every farm animal is stunned prior to slaughter. Kosher and halal slaughterhouses refrain from stunning, since scripture requires the animals bleed out while fully conscious. This gives rise to all sorts of deeply disturbing slaughterhouse practices, as one hidden camera investigation after another has revealed.

Whether or not animals are stunned, the underlying reality remains constant: all meat comes from animals who arrived at the slaughterhouse desperately wanting to live. When unloaded from the trucks, every cow or pig invariably looks frantically about, seeking a direction to scramble to safety. But their only path forward leads to the blade.

I can’t say it any better than I did in my first book: “I have to believe the knife is as sharp to them as it is to us.”

The Fate of Layer Hens and Dairy Cows

Meat obviously necessitates slaughter, but so do milk and eggs. The only difference is that meat comes from animals who have been killed, whereas milk and eggs come from animals who will be killed, guaranteed.

Why slaughter perfectly healthy dairy cows and layer hens, who still have many years left to live? Because, as these animals age, their output sharply diminishes. By roughly one-third of their natural lifespan, milk and egg yields decline sufficiently to render the animals unprofitable. So they are killed and replaced by younger, more productive animals.

Slaughter methods for “spent” hens are especially troubling since the flesh is of low value or outright unsalable. Egg farms “depopulate” their hen-houses in particularly grisly ways, sometimes even asphyxiating the birds by spraying them with the sort of oxygen-absorbing foam found in fire extinguishers.

Crowding, Confinement, and Cruelty

As unsettling as slaughter is to contemplate, it’s only the starting point for considering the ethical issues surrounding animal agriculture. Most of the suffering that arises from meat, dairy, and egg production relates to how the animals are raised rather than how they are killed.

I know that thinking about animal suffering is extraordinarily unpleasant. It’s only natural to want to tune out the gory details. If you find yourself especially troubled by hearing about this awful stuff, perhaps that right there is the best reason of all to move towards a vegan diet.

As we’re about to see, factory farms carry out a multitude of indefensible cruelties. Each year, about 50 billion farm animals worldwide are subjected to the conditions I’m about to describe. (Note 1)

The human brain simply cannot wrap itself around the magnitude of a billion animals suffering, let alone 50 billion. To gain some sense of the scale of suffering we’re about to consider, here’s an innovative chart that assigns a tiny dot to each of the 1.6 billion chickens subjected to factory farm conditions at this moment in the United States.

The Inhumanity of Factory Farming

Animal advocates use the term, “factory farming” to refer to the dominant methods of animal production used in industrialized countries. While there are important differences between how cattle, pigs, and poultry are kept, most of these animals are raised at factory farms.

Prior to World War II, farm animals lived under comparatively good conditions on small, family-owned farms. They typically received reasonable amounts of space. And most had at least some access to sunlight and fresh air. So, they enjoyed largely acceptable conditions even if their lives were destined to be violently cut short. Farmers of that era didn’t provide this level of care out of the goodness of their heartsthey did it because mortality rates spiked to unprofitable levels when their animals’ basic living needs weren’t met. (Note 2)

The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era ushered in massive changes to America’s system of agriculture. Land grant agriculture colleges across the United States pioneered new methods of farming both crops and animals. Starting in the 1930s, these colleges began teaching farming with the same rigor applied to scientific disciplines. And as a new generation of farmers studied subjects like chemistry and biology, everything about plant and animal farming changed.

The petrochemical-based “Green Revolution” that occurred from the 1930s to the 1960s massively increased crop yields. Standards of living improved worldwide while surging agriculture productivity doubtless averted numerous famines. But within animal agriculture, the new farming methods introduced during this period brought animal suffering to unconscionable extremes.

Meat, Milk, and Eggs Get Cheaper than Ever

The gigantic facilities that took over animal agribusiness are called “CAFOs” (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) by industry, and “factory farms” by activists. Factory farming created efficiencies that significantly decreased retail prices. People responded by eating more meat, milk, and eggs than ever before—while animal welfare standards simultaneously collapsed.

As meat, dairy, and egg production switched to factory farms, only facilities that slashed costs to the bare minimum could survive. Starting in the 1930s and continuing for more than a half century, thousands of meat, dairy, and egg producers went bust every year.

The dairy industry offers a prime example of the relentless financial pressure that farmers face. Between 1980 and 2020, the number of U.S. farms with at least ten dairy cows dropped by about 75 percent. In 2017, one regional dairy cooperative sent out suicide prevention letters after two of its members killed themselves. (Note 3)

To stay afloat financially, meat, dairy, and egg producers cut expenses wherever possible. That meant packing more animals into tighter spaces than ever before.

Crowding at Factory Farms

No farming cruelty exceeds those carried out by the egg industry. In countries and states that haven’t yet outlawed the practice, egg farms keep their hens in “battery cages” that provide less floor space per bird than a sheet of printer paper. These cages are too small to allow the hens normal movement or even to spread their wings. Worse yet, the flooring of these cages is widely-spaced metal rods. The hens sleep pressed against this rods or against the wire sides of their cages, commonly developing open sores and extensive bruising. They never enjoy a moment of comfort.

Here they remain confined with at least four other hens in this cage for the rest of their lives. And each egg they lay robs their skeleton of more calcium. One survey of “spent hens” revealed 85 percent have at least one broken bone.

Pigs are likewise kept under appalling living conditions. The sows kept to breed piglets have it especially bad, and often spend their entire lives in gestation and farrowing crates. Standard crates impede any sort of normal movement. In fact, they are so narrow that the sow lacks sufficient space to turn around.

What about cows and cattle? Whether in person or in movies, we’ve all seen cows grazing scenic hillsides. Beef cattle are the only farm animals that nearly always live the majority of their lives outdoors.

Although they graze freely outdoors for the first part of their lives, beef cattle are invariably “finished” at feedlots. There, they live out their final three or four months crowded onto filthy, barren plots of land.

One such feedlot is the notorious Harris Ranch that’s adjacent to Interstate 5 in Southern California. Having driven this stretch of Interstate countless times, I have often smelled the stench of the feedlot from several kilometers away. The feedlot covers a vast expanse of land, with long stretches crammed with animals amassed on black manure-coated earth. If you’ve seen one feedlot you’ve seen them all. Any large feedlot is indistinguishable from what you can see at Harris Ranch.

Conditions are comparably dreadful at many dairy farms. There are two kinds of confinement-oriented dairies. One kind keeps the cows under roofing, and chained in stalls. The other kind is nearly indistinguishable from beef feedlots, with the cows fenced onto land coated with blackened trampled manure.

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