The truth behind the 'healthy' choice

by Tauri Kerr Are vegan and vegetarian lifestyles as ethical as you'd think?

People choose to stop eating meat and/or animal products for several reasons; some feel sorry for the animals, some do it for environmental reasons and others do it because they think the production industry for non-meat products is more ethical than the meat industry.

Photo by Gillian Please for The Economist

Quick clarification: Vegetarianism refers to abstaining from the consumption of meat. Veganism refers to the omittance of all animal products from one's diet. The age-old debate on people's diet choices is a controversial one, to say the least. Everyone has heard about the heart-wrenching ways in which animals are treated before they are slaughtered. We have also been preached to about the health benefits of not eating meat. We get bombarded with facts such as the reduction of blood pressure and lowering one's risk of contracting diabetes. We haven't even glanced over to the environmental benefits yet. It is said that 700 million tons of food that could be used to feed those in need is fed to livestock every year. Also, deforestation and overfishing have led to a lack of land to grow crops on. Sounds bad, I know. Don't worry, there are issues with vegan and vegetarian lifestyles too. Have you ever wondered why the food industry in the vegan and/or vegetarian sector is hardly ever spoken about? Here's why: There are several staple foods that almost every non-meat eater incorporates into their diet. Soya, maize, grains and different forms of oil are essential to the vegan and/or vegetarian diet. However, agricultural practices to grow these are proving to not always be sustainable. The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation brought to people's attention that 25 to 40 billion tons of topsoil have been eroded annually due to intensive ploughing and cropping. The soybean is one of the main perpetrators of this destruction to the environment, and specifically with topsoil. In the Amazon, soybeans contribute huge amounts to deforestation which leads to habitat destruction for many species. Many people focus on the unethical farming of dairy and meat, but the carbon cost is not any better for ploughing. Carbon cost is a term used to refer to the carbon pollution produced to encourage polluters to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The carbon cost for ploughing is exponential and many people fail to see that farming and cultivating in such large quantities is detrimental to the soil and animals that are dependent on that soil. Nature is balanced so intricately and even the slightest shift in the environment's equilibrium will result in an upset for various species. Many people, who choose not to eat meat, think that they are making a huge difference to the environment but if one is not making a conscious effort to eat ethically and organically then the efforts are futile. What I find fascinating is that there is a fixation on the welfare of the animals but hardly any prioritisation on the treatment of the humans who produce the food. We are conveniently ignoring the inhumane working conditions and often undocumented labourers who are responsible for the product that is 'animal cruelty-free'. Due to their lack of documentation, these labourers do not have unions to defend their rights for them. This means that they are subject to sexual, physical and verbal abuse without being able to do anything about it. This exploitation of migrant farmworkers is heart-breaking because hardly anyone acknowledges it. The most violent element in society is ignorance. A part of the South African population has the privilege of sitting in a nice house with many benefits and are free to speak their minds. However, it is important to remember that there are people facing hardships to produce this food. If vegans and vegetarians are against cruelty, then this type of cruelty needs to be brought to the surface too. After reading something like this, it is normal to have some questions and this is when you cannot allow your ignorance to take over – read up on it. There is an informative (and very helpful) group on Facebook called Vegan Society South Africa should you anyone have any further questions about this way of life. It is worth a read! We are now left to wonder what the most ethical route is. To be quite honest, it is difficult to provide a straightforward answer to this burning question. Every lifestyle has an element of unethicality but there are benefits too. The debate between eating meat and refraining to do so will be never-ending and no one will establish a final verdict. In the end, whatever your belief is, you need to remain tolerant and accepting of other people's choice of lifestyle. Regardless of your choice, it is important to be aware of where your food comes from and to maintain an open mind towards others and their choices.

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