Currently conversations about eating animals and veganism are happening countrywide after the recent bold and controversial nationwide animal rights protest. Many questions and comments that arise tend to be commonly held. So below are a list of 18 of the most common ones I come across, with my responses to each.
1. “We should continue eating animals, but only eat ethical/humane meat”
Sadly, there is no such thing. How can we kill someone humanely who neither wanted to, nor needed to die? On average, 98% of animals around the world are factory farmed, which are highly intensive forms of confinement that cause constant psychological and physical torment. Common legal farming practices include castration and teeth cutting of baby piglets without pain relief; keeping mother pigs in metal crates where they have no room to move, can barely stand, and are forced to lie down in the same space where they urinate and defecate; cramming egg-laying hens in cages as small as an A4 piece of paper; and raising chickens for ‘meat’ who have been selectively bred to be so large that they become crippled and suffer various skeletal and metabolic disorders, causing lameness, an inability to hold up their weight and walk, and consequently, an inability for them to reach food and water. So avoiding meat from animals who suffered most of their lives is near impossible.
Regardless, no matter which kind of farming animals endure (free-range, RSPCA-approved, cage-free, gressfed, etc), they all end up in a slaughterhouse where they await in fear for their death while having to hear others around them die. Pigs are put in gas chambers. Chickens are shackled by their feet and brought around to a blade that cuts their necks. Cows are shot with an electric bolt cap to the head, many times ineffectively, before they are dismembered. Male calves in the dairy industry are taken from their mothers and killed because they are deemed useless. Can we switch places with these animals and call it humane? I have seen the insides of countless slaughterhouses and the ‘processing’ of countless animals, and I assure you, nothing humane is happening in a slaughterhouse.
2. “Don’t plants feel pain too?”
There is no evidence to suggest that plants feel conscious or physical pain. They neither have the anatomical structures that are involved in the experience of pain, such as a central nervous system or pain receptors (nociceptors), nor the evolutionary need to feel pain. Studies that show plants use mechanisms that mimic defence and survival (e.g. releasing chemicals, or responding to certain sounds) are often misinterpreted as evidence that they could be sentient. But these are two very different things. We are surrounded by ‘life’ on this planet that has evolved to survive, sentient and non-sentient. Simply because something is living however, doesn’t mean it is also consciously experiencing. Meanwhile, we know with certainty that animals feel pain – physical and emotional. They share the same body structures with humans that allow us to feel pain and they respond with the same body language, for example, crying out, screaming, whimpering, pulling back, retreating, cowering, running, or developing learned helplessness and becoming depressed, or becoming hypervigilant or anxious as a result of traumatic experience. So if we know with certainty that animals suffer, wouldn’t it make sense to aim to stop their suffering, rather than continuing to inflict it in the off chance that plants might suffer?
We also know intuitively that an animal suffers in ways that matter and that we relate to. Consider your own intuitive response to the following scenarios: If you had to save a dog from a burning house, or a pot plant – which would you save? If we had a knife in our hand and had to choose between slicing a carrot, or slicing a living cat, which would we slice? Why? Do you cringe or feel upset when you walk on grass? How about when you see someone kicking an animal?
Now let’s just imagine for a moment that this argument were hypothetically true – that plants do in fact feel pain. What would this mean? In a world where almost everything suffers, it would still make sense to try to minimise our harm – just like we currently aim to do with fellow humans. If we are to do this, then living on a plantbased diet is still the option that makes most sense; we currently feed more grains and crops to animals raised for meat, than we do to humans. It is estimated that for every 1 kg of animal protein produced, livestock animals are fed about 6kg of plant protein. More than 70% of the world’s soy is fed to livestock. Also consider that we have a global population of approximately 7 billion people, of which more than half are living in poverty, yet we raise more than 70 billion animals every year for their meat, dairy and eggs – feeding them with plant foods that if appropriately distributed across humans, could abolish global poverty.
3. “If we stop eating animals, then animals will take over”
Currently we are forcibly breeding animals to kill them. Almost 70 billion (land) animals yearly are killed for food. That’s 10x the human population every year. This isn’t their natural population growth– this is us forcing them into existence. We don’t realise it’s such a large number because we don’t see them in our daily lives. They are hidden away in factory farms (intensive confinement sheds). The world isn’t going to shutdown slaughterhouses overnight. As consumer demand for animal products reduces (this is our role), fewer animals will be bred into existence. This is the classic supply and demand business model.
4. “If we stop eating animals, then animals like pigs, cows etc wouldn’t exist”
I can’t predict exactly what a future where we don’t eat animals will look like, but what I can say is that currently bringing animals into a life of confinement and suffering doesn’t justify them simply existing. Would we want to bring ourselves or a child into this world for this purpose?
5. “Lions eat other animals. Should we stop them too?”
Animals eat other animals to survive. We don’t. In fact, eating animals today is doing the opposite of that. Animal agriculture is now the leading cause of environmental damage, a leading contributor to climate change, and is linked to various health concerns including obesity, heart disease, high BP, type 2 diabetes & some cancers (The World Health Organisation has declared processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen, in the same category as tobacco and asbestos, and red meats as Group 2A, increasing the risk of cancers such as stomach and bowel cancer). We must be the only species eating our way into our own demise. More importantly – animals do not have the capacity to think about their choices. We do – & if we have the choice to kill, or to not – why wouldn’t we choose the latter? Choice is one of the most powerful things we have compared to other animals.
6. “We need meat to survive”
Not at all. Now more than ever we need plantbased diets to sustain us. Every major health and nutrition board has stated that we can live healthily on well balanced plantbased diets in every stage of life – from infancy to elderly, pregnancy, and for athletes and bodybuilders, and that these diets can be better for us and the planet in many ways. Meat-centric diets are now associated with some of the world’s leading diseases and killers, as well as major environmental concerns. See question 5 above for more detail.
In addition, another major concerning aspect of meat consumption is antibiotic resistance. Half the world’s antibiotics are being given to animals in farms because of the filthy conditions they are kept in, their close confinement, and for growth promotion, which is drastically increasing the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Experts are warning that the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is increasing the risk of aggressive and drug resistant strains of human diseases. The world Health Organisation have claimed that antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health today. Although there may be some small communities in the world who have limited access to plant foods, there are many reasons to suggest that the current consumption of animals by most people in the world is doing the opposite of helping us to survive.
7. “It’s natural to eat animals” or “it’s unnatural to not eat animals”
What do we mean by ‘natural’? Many things we do today aren’t the same as what we would have done hundreds of years ago – our use of technology, our social securities, the way we access food; the list goes on. What we see as natural is forever changing because that is the nature of change. To me, nature is about adaptation, progress, and moral evolution, not about remaining stagnant and looking to our ancestors or to other species on how to behave today. Our progress in humanity cannot rest on simply doing “what we’ve always done”.
8. “We are meant to eat animals”
Aside from the fact that it is now widely agreed upon by major health boards that meat is not a necessary component of our diet, and that we can live healthily on plantbased diets, what tells us that we are ‘meant’ to eat animals? Some people may point out it’s our supposed “canines”, or something else about our anatomy, but even if our teeth half resembled that of a lion’s, would this be a sign of a meat-eating imperative – with all the other evidence we have today? The idea that ‘we are meant to eat animals’ is a perspective that is sometimes guided by an unintentional belief about a cosmic order to the world, or a particular plan for our species. But these are not answers we have, or at least, we may be inaccurate about any answers we’ve constructed when it comes to how we should treat others (remember we’ve gotten it wrong many times over our history). I used to for example, believe that ‘all women are meant to have children’, but later learned that not only do women not have to bear children if they don’t wish to, but that physiologically not all women can. Very rarely do rules like this fit the intricacies of our more complex world.
9. “I get that eating meat means having to kill animals. But what’s wrong with dairy? You don’t have to kill an animal to take their milk?”
Sadly, dairy does involve killing animals, just not the ones you expect. Currently standard practice in the Australian dairy industry (and most dairy industries) is to forcibly impregnate a cow every year so that she lactates for her calves. However, this milk is taken for human consumption. So what happens to all her babies? If her baby is a male, he is taken away from her and slaughtered to become ‘veal’. Approximately 700 000 male calves are killed every year in Australia because they’re considered ‘wastage’ to the dairy industry. If she is female, she will be taken from her mother and placed in the same milking cycle as her mother – impregnated every year, milked by machines, and then ultimately slaughtered when she is too ‘spent’ to produce milk. As you can imagine, repeatedly giving birth, and being milked, takes an enormous toll on the body. Separation of calves from their mothers also takes a big psychological toll, and video footage has captured cows chasing their calves as they’re separated, and crying out for days after their calves have been taken from them. Calves are also known to cry out for their mothers and sometimes even suckle on the hands of slaughterhouse workers while awaiting their slaughter. The dairy industry is considered one of the cruellest forms of animal exploitation. Read more about dairy farming here.
10. “Everything dies eventually. Why does it matter?”
Yes, death is inevitable to life. Does that mean we should choose when others get to live and die, or how they should live? The argument for animal rights isn’t necessarily an argument that death is inherently bad. Some animal rights supporters may also support notions such as allowing assisted euthanasia for people who live a life of suffering. Death is not the focus in animal rights, rather it is unnecessary suffering and choice. One way to answer the question is by considering how we would feel in the position of the animals if someone asked this question – If we are to die eventually anyway, why should we care if someone attacks us? Why should we care if someone holds us hostage or locks us in a cage? Why should we care if someone kills us?
11. “You should respect my choice to eat meat, just like I respect your choice to be vegan. I don’t force my decision on others”
Actually, we do. We force our decision on an animal every time we eat them. When we pay for animal products – we support a system that forces them into confinement and slaughter. When we choose to eat animals, we take their choices away. If veganism was just a lifestyle preference e.g. “I prefer blue pants over red pants” then people wouldn’t be advocating so passionately for it. Vegans are vocal because they want to remind consumers that eating animals is causing harm. Change doesn’t happen from staying silent and keeping to ourselves about issues of injustice. Most of us would be just as vocal if we were to see someone else being oppressed. In fact, most of us would be vocal if we saw someone harming an animal in front of us (would you intervene if you saw someone beating a dog on the street? Or even a piglet?). For vegans, the difference is that animals being harmed out of sight matter just as much as those being harmed in sight.
12. “But you kill insects every time you walk down the street”, or “but animals die incidentally during crop harvesting”
Wouldn’t it be great if all beings lived in peace and died on their own terms? But of course, that’s not the reality we live in. Veganism doesn’t make someone superhuman, and it’s certainly not asking people to be. Our existence will inevitably cause harm to someone. But just because we can’t avoid causing some harm, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make an effort to minimise our harm. It would be a very black and white way of looking at the world if we were to say “you must be perfect in causing no harm to any creature ever, or you may as well go on killing and eating all animals”. Also, when it comes to animals we eat – we are harming them actively and intentionally, not accidentally. This is definitely avoidable.
13. “I don’t really care about animals. Why should I stop eating them?”
You don’t have to care about animals to give them your moral concern. Most of our behaviours towards other people are not motivated by our care for others. Consider the fact that we don’t particularly care about strangers, but that doesn’t mean we intentionally hurt them (unless they try to hurt us!). We avoid harming others in most situations because we know it is just.
Not eating animals is about levelling the playing field. It’s about treating all animals with the same respect as us, because of the simple principle that they, like us, can suffer. It is about not treating them differently based on whether they’re big or small, ugly or cute, human-like or alien-like. In fact, selective care for animals is what causes us to eat animals. It is because of selective, biased care of animals that most people eat chickens or cows, not dogs or cats. Or that most of us get upset when we hear about whaling, but not about farming, or the shooting of one famous lion, rather than the slaughtering of millions of sheep, or the extinction of an endangered species, rather than the mass execution of another more abundant species.
You may think you don’t care about animals, but chances are, you already hold a bias in favour of some animals. Regardless, even if you truly believe you don’t care at all about animals, an absence of care is not the same as the presence of harm. As stated by famous actor and animal advocate Joaquin Phoenix, “it takes nothing away from a human to be kind to an animal”
14. “I care more about people than I do about animals, I’d rather fight for them.”
It’s okay to care about humans more than animals. But does caring more about one, negate the adversities of the other? If caring more about people drives you to advocate for human rights causes, then that is a great thing. But currently our involvement in the suffering of animals goes beyond simply choosing which cause we’d like to support, because our behaviours as consumers are the direct cause of the suffering of animals (I.e. buying their products means we fund their slaughter). You don’t have to make animal rights your number one priority in order to save animals – in fact it’s one of the greatest things about the animal rights movement – we can make a change in the lives of animals simply in the way we eat, and in the products we buy when we go to the supermarket or restaurant.
We don’t have to call ourselves an animal activist or vegan to reduce animal suffering, but we certainly can continue to cause harm to animals if we ignore the issue altogether. Refusing to eat animals or advocating for animals doesn’t mean you have to drop the importance of another cause – in fact you can do something about both. You can call yourself a humanitarian, while choosing not to fund animal slaughter. A friend once told me that every time he learned of a new social justice issue that resonated with him, he did what he could do make a change in each of those areas. No single one of those areas trumped the other for him, that’s pretty cool huh?
15. “There are children/women/etc suffering in this world too. Why don’t you do something for them?”
There are lots of issues that deserve our attention – how do we decide on which to fight for? To shine a light on this question, I’ll tell you my personal reasons for dedicating my time to animal rights. Currently we breed and kill animals (sentient beings who feel pain and emotions) at such a rate that we can’t even quantify the number. The number is so large it exceeds all humans who have ever died of any war in history. This is astronomical. And it is not happening because of one corrupt government or tyrannical leader somewhere on the other side of the world, it’s happening because of a system that all of us are a part of. It’s not happening because of a few evil people, it’s happening because of masses of indifferent people who don’t realise the impact of their everyday behaviour. We are all responsible for driving this system, and ultimately for breaking it apart. Purely for effectiveness, I stand for animal rights because it is the area where I believe having an impact will mean reducing suffering in the area where it is most rampant.
I also stand for animals because they are among the most vulnerable and dehumanised beings. They have little to no legal protection (particularly the ones we eat). They have become so demeaned that they are not even given status of sentience, meaning legally speaking – they are considered objects and property, not living, feeling creatures with their own desires. They are placed so low on our scale of moral consideration, that the work to help animals is going to take all the voices we can possibly get, even just to be considered worthy of some of the basic rights we expect of our companion animals at home, our children, or ourselves.
Animal activists are also often intersectional, meaning they consider a lot of issues of injustice, not just that of animals, and often integrate these issues into their activism. So I encourage you to commend activists for what they are doing, not condemn them for what they’re not. It can take quite a mental toll and a lot of courage to take any stand for an oppressed minority, especially a minority that most people don’t think twice about. Those advocating for animals deserve our respect and encouragement, not our criticism that they should be doing more. Whether or not you are vegan is a different story, but we all ought to support vegans, veganism, and animal rights. It takes nothing away from us to support those supporting animals.
16. “Do vegans hate farmers?”
Vegans don’t hate farmers. There may be some who let out their feelings of horror, anger or grief on farmers after witnessing farming practices on animals. But underlying this, vegans understand that farmers are just part of a wider problematic system of animal exploitation. Remember, vegans ate animals once too. Vegans want to support plant farmers, and animal farmers into transitioning into plant farming – because this kind of farming isn’t confining and killing animals. It is also much less harmful on the environment and requires far less resources. Just like any industry whose time has come, we want to see animal agriculture industries phase out and transition into sustainable farming of products that don’t rely on the suffering of vulnerable beings. This is how change works – we wouldn’t protest against the introduction of Blurays & home film streaming services so that we can save the jobs of video rentals right? Change is inevitable when it comes to systems that are flawed or outdated.
17. “Is veganism a religion?”
No. There is no religious agenda and no belief in a superior being or higher power in veganism. Simply put, veganism is a social justice movement and moral philosophy that aims to reduce harm to animals. Anyone and everyone from any background or any religious identity (including nonreligious people) may follow the vegan lifestyle in order to live more ethically, healthily, or sustainably. In fact, reasoning in veganism is more aligned with that of secularism as moral behaviour is encouraged on the basis of empathy, moral intuition, and logic, rather than spiritual guidance or scripture.
18. “I like meat/cheese etc too much”
Try alternatives as much as you can. There is an abundance of delicious and diverse plantbased foods available. Explore! I liked animal products too before ditching them. But a lot of that was just habit and familiarity. Eventually I could no longer justify taking someone’s life because I liked the way they tasted. So give it a go, take steps to replace your meals, start with something easier (like buying plantbased milk instead of cow’s milk to start with) then work your way up to other products, talk to people, and google all your favourite recipes. Even though the habit of eating animals can take time to shift, if your mind and heart are on board to protect animals, then you’ll be able to conquer those habits too.
If you have any questions you’d like to add to this list, or questions that you’d like a response to, please comment below. Check back in for any additions, as this page will be kept updated.