By Maya Shlayen
In our meat-centric culture, it is typically assumed that using animals for food – if it is done humanely – is normal and acceptable. From sentimental appeals to the (allegedly) idyllic farm, to the nostalgic aroma of grandma’s Thanksgiving turkey roast, we romanticize a supposedly “symbiotic” relationship with other animals. We are so committed to this vision of mutuality that we have even created an entire language to re-assure ourselves that it is real: “humane”, “free-range”, “organic”, etc.
Putting aside the fact that there is no animal product to be found in any store that is not (literally) the result of torture, these labels do not in any way address whether or not we can justify the use of animals to begin with. Vegetarianism is rarely discussed except as one (more extreme) of many options along a continuum of fad diets; veganism – that extreme, superhuman feat that is antithesis to all things tasty and convenient – had better not enter the conversation at all.
For all the confusion on the topic, however, this is widespread agreement that it’s wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals. So what conclusions can we draw when we learn that it’s not “necessary” to consume any animal products?
It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.
When we realize that we are killing 56 billion “farm” animals (and several trillion fish) every year just because they taste good (and not because we need to), veganism starts to look like much more moderate and reasonable. It is consistent with the view that we shouldn’t harm animals unnecessarily.
But chickens just lay eggs, right?
Animals are killed to make meat, but milk and eggs are harmless products that the animals just “give” us, right?
All egg farms – no matter the size or type – use a type of chicken known as “layers”, who are bred into existence specifically to lay an unnatural amount of eggs. So what happens to the male layers, who can’t lay eggs, and who can’t grow fast enough to be sold profitably for meat? At hatcheries – where these birds begin their lives – the males are separated from the females and immediately killed. For every egg-laying hen in existence, there is a rooster who had to be killed the day he was born. “Free-range” and backyard hens, who are purchased from these same hatcheries, are no exception.
After millenia of domestication, egg-laying hens have been selectively bred to lay 50-100x more eggs than they would in the wild. Since laying an egg drains nutrients from her body, the extraordinarily high egg-laying rate necessarily presents hens with health problems. Calcium in particular seems to be a problem, which is why poor bone health is common.
This dilemma – our desire to get as many eggs as possible vs. the hens’ health - illustrates exactly why domestication is not the cozy, symbiotic relationship we fantasize about. Our entire relationship with animals is based on the assumption that since we own their bodies, we have the right to use them in whatever way suits us – even if it harms them. They are trapped in a life of perpetual vulnerability (domesticated animals could not live independently in the wild), only to be met with violence and exploitation.
Egg-laying hens are typically kept alive for one and a half to two years, at which point their bodies become too broken down to continue to lay so many eggs. After a short life of physical and emotional deprivation – when the cost of feeding them starts to outweigh their utility as egg-laying machines - they are slaughtered.
But don’t cows need to be milked?
Like all mammals, cows – not bulls – lactate only after they have given birth. In order to ensure a constant milk supply, cows on all farms (including small, organic ones, etc) are artificially inseminated each year on something called a “rape rack”.
Calves are almost immediately separated from their mothers – an event that is extremely traumatic for mother and calf alike. Both of them desperately call and cry for one another for days; some mothers even give up eating and drinking for several days out of grief. The male calves (who can neither lactate nor bear children) are useless to the dairy industry, and so they are sold for veal or for beef. The female calves are raised to replace their mothers as milk machines. They too will be artificially inseminated each year, only to have their children taken away from them, one by one.
After an average of 4 to 6 years of repeated pregnancies and bereavements, dairy cows are considered “spent” – their bodies become too worn down to continue to “produce” milk. At a quarter of her natural lifespan – at an age when, in nature, she would be at the prime of her life – the grieving, crushed bovine mother is sent to a grueling slaughter, and her flesh is turned into low-grade beef. Her only brief experience of life on this planet is one of having her body repeatedly violated; her only experience of motherhood will be one of unspeakable tragedy.
Although some dairy farms treat their cows and calves somewhat differently (for example, by giving them more space), all dairy farms must inseminate cows annually and separate mother from calf in order to stay profitable. If you consume dairy products, you are supporting the veal and beef industries. There is no difference between meat, eggs, or milk; there are no lines to draw.
Veganism as a minimum
Since eating and using animals has been a part of our culture for so long, there is a tendency to label it “natural” and leave it at that. But what does that really mean?
Humans beings are able to digest animal products, but we don’t need them in order to be healthy. Nor are we victims of instinct. We can make choices about right and wrong, and each and every single one of us – simply by being in the world and making day-to-day choices – helps shape the fabric of society. It may seem convenient to think that the way things are right now is the they way they’ve always been, but that’s simply not true. One could barely imagine Italian food without the richness of tomatoes, and yet tomatoes were not commonly used in Italian cuisine until the 18th century, which, in the grand scheme of things, is really not all that long ago.
Human beings are capable of making choices, and consuming animal products is no exception. We must confront the logical conclusion of what we already believe to be true: if it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals, then we cannot justify using any animal products to satisfy our taste buds, convenience, habit, or tradition.