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Everyday Ethics: The Challenges of Being Vegan

Monday, 1 June 2015  | Scott Wilson


The term vegan was coined by Donald Watson in 1944. It is defined as

a way of living, which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals.

 

While I was doing my Bachelor of Theology, I became fascinated with ethics. I found books at the local library on the subject and found it was challenging me to rethink my stance on many things. It encouraged me to think through what I really stand for. A turning point in my ethics concerning animal liberation occurred after reading Peter Singer’s book Practical Ethics. My brother-in-law had a copy of Singer’s book that he had never read, but after a conversation with him about my interest in ethics, he offered it to me. A key phrase from the book that stays with me is “equal consideration of interest”. This became a foundation on which I based some of my ethical thinking.

I was into weight training and losing some weight. About twelve months before the Vegan decision, I was pescetarian—an omnivore who excludes poultry, beef, and pork from his diet but includes fish (and usually other forms of seafood like shrimp, oysters, scallops, etc.). Because pescetarians choose to include meat in their diet (seafood is muscle tissue from an animal), they are not vegetarian as vegetarians do not consume meat. I made the choice to go pescetarian not because of ethics but purely based on calorie intake. I found I was managing my weight better. This was the first shock for my family—I was no longer eating any animals except for seafood. They accepted this decision without too much opposition. I was very determined to lose weight and I thought I was onto something. Looking back on my choice, it makes some sense in terms of weight management.

Seafood is not really any cheaper than red meat and some can be far more expensive. Another issue with seafood is that you have to eat the fast-growing variety like blue grenadier because of issues of mercury content. Large slow-growing fish have very high levels of mercury. This is a bigger issue that the public are not made aware of. Since I was consuming a large quantity, it was a real danger.

After reading Singer’s book, I took a long time to think things through and process my thoughts. (Sometimes days, even weeks pass while I think about things before I have a clear view on how I feel about the issue!) The Vegan lifestyle is a decision that needs to be thought through. Also like many significant choices, once we commit, we see the other side and this opens up more ethical questions and more decisions regarding our stance. For example, why doesn’t the Vegan eat honey?  Well, the bees are so precious to our planet’s survival that we should not be messing with them. This is an example of something that I really had to ponder on for a while. So much commodification and cruelty goes under the radar because of big business and clever marketing that hides or disguises the realities of food production. People are just like the fish in a tank—does the fish know it’s wet? When the masses accept clever spin or an outright lie, they look at the person who takes a different approach as though they are insane or some ‘radical’ troublemaker.

I am a Christian. I found it very interesting that being Vegan is often more offensive to some than having a religious belief! I am forty-six and started to follow Christ in my twenties. I remember how some people did not accept my decision. Still, they would say, “It’s your decision.” But when you reveal you are a Vegan, some people just lose it and wonder what the hell you are thinking. “What are you saying?” they ask (often defensively), “That it’s wrong to farm and kill things to eat them? What is wrong with that?!” Sometimes there is an added religious or biblical justification: “Farm animals are here for us to eat and God created it like this.” Actually, if anything, a ‘creation ethic’ might point us back toward eating our ‘greens’ (Genesis 1:29-30).

I’m told, “You are going to end up with iron and protein deficiency!” I have to have blood tests every year for another medical condition. I am in excellent health and certainly not suffering from any deficiency. (For anyone reading this is Vegan or considering going Vegan or Vegetarian, B12 is a bacterium found in animal products and very beneficial to our health. I take a B12 supplement that is inexpensive and Vegan friendly.)

My spirituality and belief in God has strengthened my ethical stance against animal cruelty. God did not create animals to be treated cruelly nor as commodities to be exploited. Our world is tainted by greed: many corporations and individuals profit from cruelty.

I am against the cruel practice of factory farming. There is some strong science supporting that the modern farming methods are very harmful to the environment and contributing to world hunger issue. I am no researcher or I do not have qualifications in this field: my road is to refrain from cruelty of helpless, voiceless animals. I will not willfully participate in such cruel acts; I will not pretend ‘it’s all fine’ because ‘everyone is doing it’. I will stand up for the animals.

Among the challenges of being a Vegan is going out for a meal. There are many Vegan places in the CBD but very few in the suburbs. I always take my lunch to work from home because it’s uncommon to find Vegan food in most cafes. When first becoming Vegan, I spent a lot of time reading packaging. Once you have been doing it a while, you learn all the best places to go and which products to grab. Family can be difficult at first, but once they better understand the rationale and try eating some of your food for themselves, things find their own balance. Considering that we live in a country that prides itself on profane trinities like barbecues, grog and football, I understand the cognitive dissonance people experience when challenged with the ethics of food and everyday socialising. I try to be very gentle when someone asks me about Veganism, not fanatically overloading the curious with information! Like my own journey, I try to give people time to consider things… if they ever do.

But despite the challenges, in the face of serious ethical problems, I strongly encourage you to examine alternatives to the status quo in your consumption of food. Your body will not be the only one to benefit. Give “equal consideration of interest” to others, human and animal.


Comments

Luke Whiteside
June 4, 2015, 8:48AM
Ok, so you got my attention with the honey aspect. I became a backyard beekeeper 18 months ago, coming from a fascination with these wonderful creatures, and out of a desire to help the pollination of my garden and orchard. Since then, my one hive has grown to four, with my 8 year-old daughter adopting the swarm that appeared in my father's compost bin in the suburbs back in September.

Fundamentally; whilst the commercial honey industry is clearly exploitative, there is a growing resurgence of hobby beekeepers who in my experience have an incredible reverence for the insects in their care, who harvest sustainable amounts of honey and wax and make long-term commitments to the bee and other pollinator habitat.

Yet the same can be said for small-scale animal husbandry. In a world of factory farms, there are a growing number of individuals and families seeking to make a difference. As one of my permaculture heroes Mark Sheppard says of the pigs he hand raises - they have an incredible life, being real pigs, then "they have one bad day."

When my great-grandfather was a butcher in a small town in the Mallee the townspeople

Fundamentally, I would argue that the fundamental problem is that the disconnect between production and consumption in our modern life. Perhaps the better solution is to consciously, and prayerfully join in the act of production of some part of your own food, as an act of faith, hope and spirituality. (Trust me; you will look at snails and slugs differently...)

Oh, and P.S. - Are almonds ethical to eat? The modern almond industry relies upon, and is casting incredible pressure on pollination services by commercial beekeepers and their migratory hives...

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