On the Biketour, all common meals and all things bought by communal money are vegan. This means that they should not contain neither any animals (meat, fish, chicken, gelatine, shrimps, lobsters, carmine, leather, etc.) nor any products produced by animals (milk, eggs, honey, bee’s wax, wool). On the tour Scandinavia, in Broddetorp in the end of July 2015, we did a workshop about this topic. In case you are wondering why the Biketour is vegan and what veganism has to do with environmental and social justice, here is a summary of what we talked about in the workshop, an overview over the the ethical, social, environmental and health problems that come with the consumption of animal products.
Whether or not people agree with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, most people would still agree that there should be some basic rights that all humans should have, among those the right not to be killed, the right not to be tortured, etc. However, most people would and the law does argue that only humans should have those rights, and other animals shouldn’t. This inequality is called Speciesism (discrimination based on the species). In some places, some animal species (such as cats, dogs and sometimes horses) are seen as pets and have certain rights (for example not to be killed for food), while others (for example pigs and cows) are seen as livestock and don’t have these rights. This separation between humans, pets and animals to be eaten is called Carnism.
Most of us feel more empathy towards humans than towards other animals, and more empathy towards dogs and cats than towards pigs and cows. If we were in a situation where we could either save one human’s life or the lives of 50 dogs, we would choose to save the human of course.
But should we base our ethics, behaviours and laws on the empathy that we feel towards certain groups? If you asked a slave owner about whether they feel the same empathy for their slaves as for their friends, they would all say no, and still we argue that keeping slaves is wrong, even if the people who are doing it feel like it’s okay. We also argue that it is not okay for neo-nazis to set refugee camps on fire, even if they don’t feel any compassion for refugees at all. Basing our ethics on people’s feelings, on what they subjectively think is okay, is dangerous. Instead, when coming up with the rules and morals that we want to live by, we need to try to think objectively, also considering scientific facts.
There are hundreds of differences between humans and non-human animals that seem to justify that humans have the right to live but pigs for example don’t. But when you think about each one of them in detail, you will discover that these differences either don’t exist (or at least there are some corner cases in which they don’t, but in which you would still argue that humans should have the right to live), or that there is no reason why these differences should justify different rights.
- Animals don’t emotionally suffer when feeling pain. Like humans, animals obviously react when they experience pain, so no one would doubt that they feel it. The thought behind this argument is that the reaction of animals is only the reaction to a stimulus (like an oven that turns off when it detects that it is too hot), but they don’t emotionally suffer from it. The answer to this is that we don’t know and can never know for sure, but we can assume based on similarities between us and other animals that they experience pain in a similar way to us. Vertebrates (animals with bones) and particularly mammals have a nerve system that is very similar to ours, and their reaction to pain is also very similar (similar body language, avoidance behaviour, the same brain regions react to it, when experiencing it repeatedly beyond their control they can develop conditions like depression). We cannot even be sure that other humans experience pain in the same way as us, we can only assume that they do because they react to it in a similar way as us, so it makes sense to assume the same about animals. Apart from that, there are some humans who cannot experience pain (congenital insensitivity to pain), and still we wouldn’t argue that they don’t have the right not to be harmed.
- Animals are not as intelligent as humans. First of all, this cannot be generalised. Of course, in an IQ test where you have to read instructions written in English, you would come to this conclusion, but if you test intelligence in a more animal-friendly way, you would come to the result that some animals are actually more intelligent than (some) humans. But apart from that, the question is why this difference would justify different rights. Some humans are also more intelligent than others, but no one would argue that because of this they should have different rights.
- Animals don’t have an imagination (of death). Some people argue that humans have an imagination of what it means to die, or that they have the ability to have dreams and plans for the future, and this justifies their right to live. However, it has been proven in scientific experiments where certain animal species (in particular certain types of monkeys) were taught some simple sign language that they do have an imagination of death. Also, we wouldn’t argue that people who don’t have an imagination (such as babies or people in an unconcious coma) shouldn’t have the right to live.
- Animals cannot speak. It is not even clear how this justifies the right to live, but obviously there are many humans who cannot speak and about whom we would still argue that they should have the right to live.
- This is nature, survival of the fittest. Some people argue that it is normal in nature that stronger species kill weaker species. The big difference is that a lion would starve if they didn’t kill, but humans wouldn’t, as they can eat plants instead. Also, in many animal species, stronger individuals kill weaker individuals of the same species, so we could argue the same about humans killing other humans.
- Animals do not have emotional bonds. The idea is that when a human dies, there will be other humans (family, friends) who will emotionally suffer from it. Obviously, many animal species also have strong emotional bonds and show similar symptoms of sadness when they lose someone close to them. Also, no one would argue that people who don’t have any friends don’t have the right to live.
You might understand some of the reasons for a vegetarian diet now, but what has veganism to do with it?
Producing milk or eggs is not possible without killing animals.
A cow only gives milk for a while (maximum milk production for about 4 months, after that the produced milk gets less and less) after having a child. So if you keep a cow to get the milk, you have to make sure that she gets pregnant at least every once in a while. Cows usually live for about 20 years, so you can either kill the cow after she had one or two children, or you have to kill the children, because otherwise you will have more and more cows. Both is done on all cow farms, no matter if they are factory farms, small farms, or organic farms. Milk cows are usually killed after 5 years (because the milk production gets lower as they grow older), they are inseminated once a year, and the male children are killed after a few weeks.
About 50% of the eggs that chickens lay would create a male chicken. Male chickens are not needed for egg production, so they are usually killed (in the gas chamber or in a grinder) on the day that they hatch. In addition, like all birds, chickens lay a new egg when you take the egg away that they are brooding. So when you take away the egg every day, they will lay a new one every day, otherwise they would only lay one every month. (Although there are some breeds that have been bred to not brood, so they lay an egg once a day by themselves.) Laying so many eggs is very stressful for chickens, and while usually growing 5–7 years old, chickens who have to lay an egg every day die at half that age. Additionally, in factory farming, most chickens are really unhealthy because of the constant laying and have calcium deficiency. So even if the chickens weren’t getting slaughtered, taking their eggs away still kills them.
Many people argue that they only consume organic animal products, or only buy animal products from a farmer they trust. First of all, if this is at all true, it probably only applies to meat, milk and eggs that they buy directly, but not to all the products that have meat, milk or eggs added to them. Second of all, the conditions of organic factory farming are often only slightly better, sometimes even worse than those of non-organic factory farming. For chickens for example, the space per chicken in battery caging is about half an A4 page per chicken, in floor-raising about one A4 page per chicken, in free-range farming about 1½ A4 pages and in organic farming about 2 A4 pages. In organic farming, chickens have to have a space outside the barn, but often farmers don’t allow them to go out because of the danger of spreading diseases, as they are not allowed to use antibiotics. Despite the differences in how the animals are kept, all methods of dairy and egg farming have in common that they have to kill most or all of the animals that they are keeping.
What about people who live in places where growing plants is not possible and killing animals is the only source of food? In the same way as no one would argue that it is immoral for me to kill someone who is about to murder me in defense, even though I would argue that they have the right not to be killed, no one would argue that it is immoral to kill animals for food if there is no other choice (although some people might argue that in some cases, the people living in those places should consider moving somewhere else). The important part is that in Europe, we are not in this situation.
Environmental consequences of animal farming
A cow can drink as much as 180 l of waters on a hot day. Producing one kilogram of beef uses up about 15000 l of water (pork: 5500, cheese: 5000, chicken: 4000, egg: 3500, rice: 2500, wheat: 1500, potatoes: 130).
A lot of factory farming is happening in places without a lot of water, and animal farming causes huge environmental and social problems there because of its water consumption.
Not eating one burger saves the same amount of water as not showering at all or not flushing the toilet at all for 2 months.
Pollution of water and soil
Related to that, a lot of the water goes back into the ground unfiltered and pollutes the ground water and the soil with nitrates, which lead to eutrophication (too many nutrients, which causes a lack of oxygen in the water) of the water and a high acidity of the soil.
A lot of rainforest is getting cut down to grow soya. Most of that soya is also genetically modified.
While you might associate soya with vegetarian/vegan meat imitations, 98% of all soya production are actually used to feed animals. The rest is mainly used to produce soya oil, and a small percentage is used for tofu and soya meat. The soya used for vegetarian/vegan products in Europe is usually grown in Austria, Belgium or France.
Animal products require a larger amount of land than plant-based products.
Grazing occupies 26% of the earth’s ice-free terrestrial surface, and feed crop production uses about one third of all arable land. 40% of all harvested crops is fed to animals. This equals the food needed to feed 8.4 billion people.
Producing 1 kg of beef per year takes 27–49 m² (pork: 9–12, poultry: 8–10, wheat: 1.5, potatoes: 0.25). Because in factory farming, animals are fed crops instead of grazing, the production of 1 kg of beef actually uses up 5–25 kg of food (depending on the type of food) (pork: 4–6, chicken: 2–3).
Depending on which statistics you look at, animal farming accounts something between 10% to 50% of climate change. According to a UN report, cows are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and are thus the biggest contributor to climate change, more than cars, planes, trucks and ships added together.
While about half of those greenhouse gases are produced producing fertiliser to grow the animal feed, transporting it, clearing vegetation to make space to grow animal feed and to let the animals graze, and transporting the animals and the meat, the other half is actually caused by cows farting. Digesting grass is a complicated process and causes cows to fart a lot of methane, a gas whose warming effect is 20 times stronger as that of carbon dioxide. Cow farts are responsible for 9% of climate change.
Another type of emissions produced by animal factory farming is smell. Wherever an animal factory farm is about to be built in Europe, local residents try to prevent it due to the unbearable smells that the farm will create in a radius of several kilometers.
Social consequences of animal farming
Because of the catastrophic conditions under which animals are kept in factory farms, the only way to prevent diseases from spreading is to pump all the animals full of antibiotics. 80% of all antibiotics produced are given to animals.
There are many different types of antibiotics, but each one becomes useless after a while, after bacteria have evolved to be resistant to them. We are already at a point where for some diseases and for some patients, there are no functional antibiotics left, and in the future, there will be less and less available. Factory farming plays a major role in this.
In Central Europe and especially in Germany the mass meat industry managed to create a low wage hell for migrants from mainly Eastern Europe without the public noticing it.
Organized and extreme exploitation of those people is happening every day. There is a systematic misuse of contracts for work labour and an intransparent system of sub- and subsub-corporations. That means the majority of workers is not employed directly in the meat factory but works for corporations who make money by lending their workers to other corporations so, there´s hardly any control of the work conditions possible. And this phenomenon is now also increasing in the dairy industry.
The workers earn between 2 and 4 Euros per hour and often receive their wage late or sometimes even not at all. They have unbearable working hours: between 12 and 15 hours, often with no or few breaks. There is a lot of time pressure: in average the workers have only a few seconds to kill or trench an animal. That often leads to injuries on the side of the workers and a longer suffering for the animals because of the unclean work. The work places are either very hot or very cold, covered in blood and fat and there’s a high risk of infection.
Workers from abroad mainly live with many people in very small rooms near the factory grounds and have to share a bed with persons who work different shifts. And for those small rooms and shared beds they often even have to pay quite a high percentage of their wage.
Also, the people working in the meat industry often suffer from psychological consequences not only of the hard work conditions but also of the brutality and violence they have to see and commit every day. Some people develop post traumatic stress symptoms, many get short tempered and aggressive, especially against the animals but also against other people and often people start drinking to forget the pictures in their minds. People also report that they got emotionally numb after a while and that you can`t survive, if you don`t become hard inside.
The animal industry is highly subsidised in Europe. Because of this, European animal products can be sold cheaply all over the world, keeping local farmers poor and destroying local economies in countries of the Global South.
At the same time, the high demand from Europe and North America for animal feed raises the prices for crops on the world market, making food even less affordable for many people in the Global South.
The health aspect of veganism is getting more and more popular, but should be seen critically. Emphasising the health benefits of a vegan diet is often part of capitalism making profit of the veganism (you should be vegan because it is good for you → you should always try to get the best for yourself, what impacts your behaviour has on others is irrelevant; vegan food is healthy → you should pay more money for it). Also, the argument that a vegan diet makes you thin is not only not generally true, but is often used in a sexist and lookist way (women should be thin). Recently, some people have even started to advertise veganism to men as something that will make you strong and thus more masculine, as more and more people who do body-building or extreme sports are switching to a vegan diet.
Nonetheless, it is important to mention the positive health impact of a vegan diet that was found in many scientific studies, and to talk about potential risks of a vegan diet. What of this you believe and what you decide to do to your body is your own choice in the end.
Because factory farm animals are usually fed antibiotics for their entire lives, many bacteria become resistant to different antibiotics. If these bacteria somehow end up in your body (for example because you eat some meat that was not cooked properly), it might be more difficult to treat than if you got them from a different source.
Some studies have discovered a strong correlation between certain diseases that are increasingly common in the Western World (cancer, diabetes, heart diseases, osteoporosis, etc.) and the consumption of animal products.
Many people are sceptical about a vegan diet because they are afraid of a lack of vitamins or nutrients.
Vitamin B12 is essential for the nerve system. A lack of B12 can have a lot of effects, such as reduced brain capacity, depression and psychoses.
The B12 content of plant-based food is much lower than what the human body needs. This is partly due to our hygienic standards: B12 can be found in the dirt that covers unwashed vegetables and in dirty water. Even our shit contains it: The human body produces B12 in a part of the bowels that is behind the part where B12 can be absorbed.
B12 needs to be supplemented in a vegan diet. However the body can store B12 for several years, so you don’t have to think about it every day. B12 is added to some deliberately vegan products (some soya milk brands for example), you can get it in the shape of pills, and there is even B12 toothpaste now where the vitamin gets absorbed in your mouth.
Statistically, the percentage of people with a lack of B12 is the same among vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters. Usually a lack of B12 is not caused by a wrong diet but by the inability to absorb B12, which 40–50% of people develop as they get older.
There is a hype about protein (and in particular animal protein) in our society. Actually, a lack of protein is really uncommon in Europe, but there are many people who eat too much protein, which can damage your kidneys and cause a lack of calcium (and as a consequence lead to bone diseases like osteoporosis).
Plants contain a lot of protein, particularly pulses (beans, peas, lentils) and nuts, but also wheat. Different foods contain different types of proteins, and some of them can be used better by our body than others due to their composition of amino acids. The biological value of a protein indicates what percentage of it the body can use (chicken eggs have a reference value of 100, but there are some foods that have more than 100). Combining two different types of protein can actually increase the biological value (because the composition of amino acids changes). Beans and corn each have a biological value of 72 for example, but when eaten in combination, the value increases to 101.
A lack of protein is very unlikely with a vegan diet. Paying attention to eating enough protein is usually only relevant when building up muscles.
Iodine is only contained in animal products and iodised salt (salt where iodine was added). When using only iodised salt in cooking, you normally get approximately the recommended amount of iodine per day.
The reason why iodine is contained in animal products but not in plants (even though animals cannot produce it) is that it is added to the animal feed (by EU law). If iodine wasn’t artificially added to animal feed and to salt, the majority of people in Europe would have a lack of iodine.
Iodine is needed by the thyroid (the organ in your neck that produces hormones). Both a lack and an overdose of iodine can have effects on your emotional well-being and can cause depressions and a lack of energy.
The amount of iodine that each person needs differs greatly. While some people have to avoid iodised salt completely, others have to supplement iodine.
A lack of iron can cause weakness and tiredness.
Some people start having an iron deficiency when switching to a vegan diet, some people actually stop having one. It again highly depends on the individual. Some people always have to watch their iron levels, some people barely eat anything high in iron and still don’t have a deficiency.
Iron is contained in pulses, grains (whole-meal) and many vegetables (particularly green ones).
Calcium is needed for the bones. A lack of calcium can lead to bone diseases like osteoporosis.
The reason why many people think that calcium is a problem is that animal milk has the reputation of being the main source of calcium. Actually, drinking milk does not provide you with any calcium, it might even take calcium out of your body (depending on which scientific study you look at), as calcium is used up digesting the milk protein. Many people actually stop having a calcium deficiency when stopping to drink animal milk.
Calcium is contained in seeds, nuts, pulses, grains (whole-meal) and many vegetables (particularly green ones).
- Wikipedia: Environmental impact of meat production
- Movie “Earthlings” (available online, for example on YouTube)
- Book “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows” by Melanie Joy