Should We All Be Vegans? – Exposing Factual Pros & Cons of Veganism

By Rakhee Sharma

September 7, 2023
cutout of a packet of milk and a bundle of spinach, at opposite ends with a white colored crack in between, set against a radial blue gradient background

Thinking about going vegan for better health, to help the planet, and to be kind to animals? It sounds like a great idea that benefits everyone.

But hold on a minute – What if everyone in the world decided to go vegan? Things could actually get pretty tricky.

To feed everyone plant-based foods, we’d have to turn lots of forests into farmland and that’s bad news for animals like tigers and elephants that call these forests home.

We’d likely end up growing only a few types of plants, like wheat, rice, and corn.

Think about how every meal would be some combination of these three. Boring, right?

Plus, relying on just a few plants means if a disease hits one of them, we’re all in trouble. Remember the potato famine in Ireland?

Something like that could happen again but on a global scale, and to keep up with demand, farmers might use genetically modified (GM) versions of these plants.

The problem? We’re still not 100% sure if these genetically modified plants are completely safe to eat.

If a bug or disease attacks one of these main crops, it could ruin the food supply and hurt people’s jobs.

Imagine if a bug wiped out all the rice, countries that rely on rice would have a big problem.

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So you see, the outcomes might not be as pleasing as you might want to believe.

Veganism In a Nutshell – What it Means to Be a Vegan?

Animal agriculture is the practice of rearing large numbers of animals together in extremely small spaces, simply so humans can eat their meat or their secretions, such as milk and eggs.

Sadly, animal agriculture is also synonymous with animal suffering, since it’s impossible for any farmed animal to be happily living in such inhumane conditions on a factory farm.

Animal farming also defies the golden rule followed by most cultures and societies, which states: Treat others the way you want to be treated

However, the animals confined in slaughterhouses and dairy farms are very conveniently forgotten while applying this rule. 

Most recent data about the breeding and slaughtering of animals for food has revealed that a staggering 92.2 billion land animals are killed every year according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.1

The arousal of tender feelings for these suffering animals in some of the more compassionate humans among us gave rise to the concept of ‘veganism’.

To a layman, veganism can be described as a lifestyle and dietary choice that requires giving a total miss to animal products.

“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarians,” as Linda McCartney, the late wife of Paul McCartney once said.

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Vegans follow a plant-based diet and avoid all animal-based foods such as meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, dairy, eggs, and honey. 

Along with dietary prohibition, many also consciously avoid buying animal-derived products (e.g., leather and reptile skin). 

Generally, veganism rejects any type of animal exploitation, including using animals for entertainment like animals being used in circuses, product testing for cosmetics, and various scientific experiments.

Veganism is gaining in popularity with each passing year with the percentage of vegans in different countries steadily increasing. 

World Vegan Day is now celebrated annually on 1st November with great zeal and pomp.

The countries where veganism is most popular on Google Trends are Iceland, the United Kingdom, Mauritius, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Estonia, Canada, Sweden, Trinidad & Tobago, and the United States.

In 2021-22, Statista Global Consumer Survey carried out in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, to study diet and nutrition, revealed that 3 percent and 4 percent of respondents in the two countries, respectively, were vegan.

Among the respondents, people in the younger generation were found to be more likely not to eat meat.

The online Statista Global Consumer Survey was carried out between January 2022 to December 2022 to determine the percentage of vegans in those countries which could be promising in augmenting the growth of veganism. 

The study revealed the percentage of the vegan population in these countries as given below:

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CountriesPortion of the Vegan population (%)
Indians9
United States4
Germans3
Chinese1
Brazilians1
Mexicans1
A table showing the amount of Vegan population in some countries.

The increasing popularity of veganism also owes a lot to celebrities and high-achieving people like Virat Kohli, Benedict Cumberbatch, Madonna, Beyonce, and many more who are endorsing this food diet. 

There was a 5000% increase in online searches for vegan food near me in 2021 compared to previous years.2

In keeping with the trend, in the U.K., Burger King has committed to making half of its menu meat-free by 2030, in the same direction, Pizza Hut and Domino’s are now using vegan cheese in making those awesome pizzas.

The worldwide vegan food market has also been growing by leaps and bounds from $14.44 billion in 2020 to $15.77 billion in 2021 and can be expected to continue growing shortly as well.3

Veganism in the History

The earliest records of vegetarianism are from ancient India, where Hindus and Jainis, following the principle of non-violence, distanced themselves from any activity which might result in animal suffering.4

As early as 500 BCE, Greek philosopher, and mathematician Pythagoras promoted benevolence among all species and followed what could be described as a vegetarian diet. 

Around the same time, Buddha renounced the world and preached the philosophy of non-violence and love for all living beings.

18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham believed that animal suffering could not be justified just as human suffering was unacceptable.

In 1806, Dr. William Lambe and Percy Bysshe Shelley became the first Europeans to declare that dairy and egg consumption should be prohibited for ethical reasons.

My reason for objecting to every species of matter to be used as food, except the direct produce of the earth, is founded as may be seen in my last publication on the broad ground that no other matter is suited to the organs of man, as indicated by his structure. This applies then with the same force to eggs, milk, cheese, and fish, as to flesh meat.5

Dr. William Lambe

The first vegetarian society was formed in 1847 in England. In 1944, Donald Watson, a British woodworker, coined the term ‘vegan’ to distinguish from people who ate eggs and dairy.

He, along with five more like-minded people founded the vegan society in August 1964.6

The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism is:

Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans, and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

Why Should You Turn Vegan? The Pros

Turning to a vegan diet can have several advantages:

Animal Welfare

Veganism highlights the fact that animal products should be proscribed to minimize harm to animals.

It aims to promote compassion and respect for all sentient beings.

The premise behind this belief is that since ‘demand decides supply,’ and therefore a decline in meat consumption would automatically reduce the demand for animal farming and the resulting animal exploitation.

The factory animals are subjected to tremendous suffering. 

They are deprived of living and reproducing naturally in their habitat, are injected with hormones to promote rapid growth and lactation that ultimately render them deformed and useless, and are also subjected to atrocious tortures before being slaughtered.

Environmental Impact

The authors of IPCC’s Climate Change 2022 reports state that transitioning to plant-based diets rich in pulses, nuts, fruits, and vegetables could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions as compared to current dietary patterns which involve more meat-based products in most industrialized countries7

Studies have found that 57% of global greenhouse gas emissions from food production come from meat and dairy products.8

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The food consumption cycle typically involves steps like extraction of raw material, processing and packaging, transportation, consumption, and disposal of food waste.

Each of these steps contributes to increasing the carbon footprint but transportation of food was found to be the biggest contributor, accounting for almost 50% of the total carbon emission.

The food mile gives an idea of the distance that the food travels from its site of production to its site of consumption.

The longer the food travels, the greater the energy expenditure and hence more carbon emission.

Meat or animal-based food products need to be transported at a regular temperature which further ups the emission.

Studies carried out to compare the carbon footprint between animal-based food and plant-based food, taking all these steps into account, revealed that animal-based food emitted more carbon for GHG than plant-based food by a huge margin.

Vegan diets rank the lowest in footprint level, with the equivalent of 6.4 pounds of carbon dioxide emission per day.9

The average vegan diet’s CF was around 60% lighter than the average meat eater diet in the UK. 

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Therefore, packaging and transportation of vegan food products is still low on carbon emission as compared to animal-based products.

A global shift to a plant-based diet could reduce mortality and greenhouse gases caused by food production by 10% and 70%, respectively, by 2050.10

Animal agriculture, in particular meat production, can cause pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and disease, and large amounts of critical resources like land, water, and food are used to sustain the practice of animal farming.

During digestion in the stomach of cattle, a significant amount of methane is produced by the process of enteric fermentation. 

When cows burp this methane is released into the atmosphere.

When animal dung is stored in lagoons or holding tanks for storage purposes or the production of manures, or fish excrement decomposes in the fish ponds, it also leads to the production of considerable amounts of methane according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Methane is 80 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, and it accounts for up to 30% of global warming since pre-industrial times.11

It is imperative that global warming is limited to 1.5℃ and transformation in the food sector has to play an important part in achieving this goal. 

Carbon Sequestration

Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis and store it in their biomass. 

A plant-rich diet can indirectly contribute to mitigating climate change by supporting the growth of more plants and thus enhancing carbon sequestration capacity thereby reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases and preventing global warming.

Water Conservation

Agricultural use consumes about 70% of global water which is much more than used by any major global industry. 

A study published in Water Resources Research estimates that 41% of the water used for agriculture goes toward growing livestock feed for the meat industry.12

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725.6L of freshwater is needed to produce 100g of protein from beef, whereas tofu requires eight times less freshwater (92.9L). 

Switching to a vegan diet can reduce water consumption by up to 55%.13

The greenhouse gas emissions that warm the atmosphere also raise ocean temperatures leading to a process called ocean acidification. 

Acidification can make water uninhabitable to marine life and kill off entire reef ecosystems.14

Health Benefits

A well-planned vegan diet can provide numerous health benefits. 

It tends to be rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, which are nutrient-dense and high in fiber.

Several studies have reported that vegan diets tend to provide more fiber, antioxidants, and beneficial plant compounds. 

They also appear to be richer in potassium, magnesium, folate, and vitamins A, C, and E.15

Vegan diets are excellent sources of dietary iron too. 

However, the form of iron that plants provide is not as efficiently absorbed by the body as the form found in animal foods.

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Shifting to a vegan diet can not only help us fight obesity and lose excess weight but also provide ample other benefits like preventing and controlling diabetes, protecting kidney function, providing immunity against certain types of cancer like colon, prostate, pancreatic cancers, and also lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Vegan Diet is Better than Keto or Paleo Diets

A recent 2023 study evaluated the nutritional quality of other well-known diets like the paleo diet and keto diet with a vegan diet and compared their carbon footprints.

The Paleo diet involves consuming food that was available only during the Paleolithic era, including vegetables, fruits, and meat and excludes dairy, grains, processed sugar, etc. available after the invention of agriculture. 

The Keto diet, on the other hand, involves consuming a very low amount of carbohydrates and focusing more on eating fat to help your body burn fat for energy.

The findings showed that Paleo and Keto are among the highest in carbon emissions and lowest in nutrition quality.

Researchers estimated these diets produce about 2.6 and almost 3 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every 1,000 calories consumed, respectively. 

Meanwhile, a vegan diet was the best for the environment, which generates about 0.7 kg of carbon dioxide for the same number of calories.16

Plant-only-based diets are also much more effective in keeping us satisfied for a long time so that we refrain from binging in between meals, decreasing caloric intake, and resulting in fat and weight loss when compared to high-fat diets like the keto diet.

Sustainable Food Production

We use millions of acres of land to grow massive amounts of crops just to feed animals in our food system. 

Meanwhile, growing crops for direct human consumption is a much more straightforward process.

It requires less processing, less land, less energy input, and less water than raising and killing animals for food. 

In short, plant-based protein is more efficient and easy to produce than animal protein.

If the whole world shifted toward a plant-based diet, we could free up 75% of global farmland that’s currently used to graze animals and produce animal feed. 

That land could go toward growing healthy, plant-based protein to feed more people and alleviate world hunger.

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Limitations of Veganism – The Cons

While there are numerous advantages to veganism, it is important to acknowledge that there can be potential challenges or perceived disadvantages associated with this lifestyle. 

Nutritional Deficiency

A lack of essential nutrients in the vegan diet can lead to certain nutritional deficiencies. 

Vitamin B12, iron, calcium, iodine, zinc, and omega-3s are found only in animal products. 

An absence of these critical minerals and vitamins can lead to anemia, vitamin B12 deficiency, osteoporosis, nerve damage, and disruptions in hormone synthesis. 

People on vegan diets may suffer from neurological disorders and depression due to an insufficient supply of omega-3 fatty acids. 

Legumes and dark, leafy vegetables provide iron and calcium, while tofu is an excellent source of protein, calcium, and zinc.

Lastly, omega-3s, such as DHA and ALA, can be found in walnuts, canola oil, soy products, and ground flaxseed.

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Social Challenges

Eating a vegan diet may be challenging due to the unavailability of suitable options while dining out or attending events. 

Non-vegan friends and family members might have limited knowledge or accommodation for vegan meals, leading to potential social isolation or discomfort.

A vegan lifestyle takes planning and preparation. 

The preconceived inconvenience associated with time-consuming meal-planning and grocery shopping can deter individuals who prioritize convenience and time efficiency.

Increased Cost

Fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, nuts, and legumes may cost more, but the benefit that they accrue is worth the money. 

Depending on the location and unavailability of some of the vegan items, it may act as a deterrent from turning to a vegan diet but the bucks that it will save later during health care management should also be logically considered here.

Understanding the Paradox of Veganism

Despite all the advocacy prevailing around veganism and its growing popularity, the global number of animals raised and slaughtered by humans, yearly, is on the rise as well.17

To give you a perspective, If the population of the UK was killed at the same rate as farm animals are killed around the world, the population of the UK would be exterminated in just 11 hours.18

Veganism in the United States jumped from only 1% in 2014 to 6% in 2017 while during the same period, there was a 7.8% increase in meat consumption.19

Similarly, as of 2023, about 25% of the Indian population is strictly vegetarian while 9% is vegan, with 574 million Indians following a meat-free diet, India has the highest number of vegans in the world.

However, since 2017 the demand for meat in India has simultaneously risen by 0.5% each year, raising a question mark on the acceptance of veganism wholeheartedly by the people.20

Therefore, no matter how many documents featuring animal exploitation are screened in media, activists carrying out marches and processions for the ‘Save Animals’ campaign, advocacy of animal rights by various ethical groups like PETA, education through online platforms, talks in festivals, campaigns through billboards, all these efforts have failed to garner the favorable response from the people and veganism still seems to be sitting on the fence.

While the specific reasons and motivations for adopting veganism can vary among individuals, the common goal is to live in a way that reduces animal suffering and promotes a more compassionate world.

However, no matter how much we visualize veganism through rose-tinted glasses, it is a paradox in itself. 

A paradox, by definition, arises when there is a seemingly contradictory statement that defies common sense but in reality, expresses a possible truth. 

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Consider the paradox of happiness which states that if you strive for happiness by direct means, you end up being less happy than if you forget about happiness and focus on other goals.

Similarly, the paradox of veganism might be stated as ‘the more we try to ameliorate the living conditions of the animals by stressing on the consumption of plant foods, the more we are moving towards harming life on earth’. 

Lifestyle Minimalism Is Necessary

Veganism has been widely popularized as avoiding eating animal products, but a closer look at the vegan definition reveals that veganism is not only about not eating animal food but restraining the use of any product or activity that might be exploiting animals in any way.

For instance, after an animal is slaughtered, its byproducts are sorted into edible and inedible parts. 

Approximately 55% is considered an edible byproduct, while the remaining 45% is classified as inedible.21

These inedible animal byproducts are used in a variety of industries, including cosmetics, fabrics, pharmaceuticals, and more.

Plastic shopping bags, one of the worst pollutants and disruptors of the normal food chain, use animal fat to reduce friction.22

Car and bike tires, glue used in woodwork and musical instruments, fireworks, fabric softener, shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste are some of the other products that we use daily and all of these are manufactured using animal byproducts in some way. 

When we are using these luxuries, we are contributing indirectly to their sufferings. This way the vegan paradox looks more like pseudo-moralism.

What starts as a noble goal of not causing harm to any living being, is very conveniently sidetracked as soon as our luxuries get implicated.

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Giving up on eating meat is no veganism at all until you decide to give up on using a car or bike, stop using all cosmetics and toiletries, not buy or even listen to musical instruments, or most hilariously not take any pills if you fall sick.

That’s why a minimalistic lifestyle along with forsaking meat can actually go a long way in practicing actual veganism.

Threat to Survival of Species

Dietary evolution has ensured that we remain dependent on nutrients for our survival and a big part of the nutrient comes from none other than meat.

Though the vegan concept believes in allowing all species to flourish,  ironically another aspect of the veganism paradox states that the vegan philosophy wouldn’t be saving cattle; it would be eradicating them.

The domestication of wild animals began around 15,000 years ago, due to this, artificial selection rather than natural selection played an important role in their evolution over the ages.

Natural selection allows an organism to adapt to a wide variety of adverse environmental conditions and ensure the continuation of the species.

Artificial selection, on the other hand, breaks these combinations and creates new gene combinations better suited for a sheltered life and which could not ensure survival in the wild. 

That means allowing these farm animals to breed and roam freely would now result in their extinction in the game of ‘survival of the fittest’. 

They are simply not equipped for the boundaries beyond human-controlled pastures.

Ethical Consideration for Plants

Another dimension of the paradox involves the moral status of certain organisms. 

Vegans argue that animals possess inherent value and deserve ethical consideration, which is why they avoid consuming animal products. 

However, plant-based diets still involve the consumption of plants, which are living organisms. 

Since the 1970s, the line of thinking about animal rights, not about plant rights, has been invigorated. 

However, both plants and animals strive for maximal reproductive success in the most intelligent way and both suffer under adverse circumstances. 

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In animals, a certain coherent complex of neurons branching throughout the body is necessary to coordinate all bodily functions. 

On the other hand, plants do not have neurons, but their cells are covered by glutamate-like receptors (GLRs). 

Cornichon proteins in Arabidopsis thaliana have been found to regulate these GLRs for regulating the entry of calcium ions just as glutamate plays a significant role in the transmission of electrical impulses in neurons.23

Therefore, many researchers have advocated broadening the definition of the nervous system to include plants. 

Despite showing growth development and coordination just like animals, plants are rarely given due recognition mainly due to their ‘slowness’.

Critics of veganism contend that if animals have moral worth, then plants should also be granted some level of ethical consideration.

Sparing the animals and just eating the plants is just as wrong as the reverse, plant eaters may be free from “speciesism”, but they are guilty of “neuronism”. 

According to these advocates of plant life, just because plants do not have brains or even interconnected single neurons like ours, it is highly unjust for humans to consume plants freely while letting go of the animals. 

In other words, if humans were to be compassionate about all lives, it would lead to the abolition of the human race.24

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Blowback of Extensive Agriculture

One aspect of the paradox of veganism is also related to agriculture.

An increase in the consumption of plant-based diets will consequently demand intensive cultivation of crops, which in turn will require more land and water resources.

Large-scale agriculture often involves the clearing of natural habitats, leading to deforestation and the destruction of wildlife habitats besides reducing soil fertility and structure. 

Deforestation has increased the likelihood of extreme weather events ballooning into man-made disasters.

Expanding food production and economic growth have often come at a heavy cost to the natural environment. Groundwater sources are being depleted rapidly.

Almost one-half of the life-sustaining green cover of the Earth is now gone, and the incidence of natural disasters has increased fivefold since the 1970s.

Extensive industrial processes are required in the production of some vegan products such as plant-based meats. 

These processes may have a large-scale negative impact on the environment. 

Thus, while veganism is supposed to save animal lives, it would instead lay the ground for the large-scale destruction of plant and animal ecosystems.  

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Finding Balance Amid the Vegan Catch-22

The paradox of veganism explores both sides of the coin and fosters critical thinking. 

It provokes our intellect and makes us wonder how a seemingly harmless and benevolent initiative to reduce animal exploitation may also lead to the decimation of human life.

The paradox of veganism arises from the potential conflicts or inconsistencies between the principles and practices of veganism and the broader ethical, environmental, and health concerns.

It is important to note that the paradox does not undermine the core ethical arguments made by vegans. 

This certainly does not mean that since there is ambiguity, we should discard the concept, this broader philosophy aims to reduce animal suffering which in itself is a very noble thought. 

Being vegan is a great baseline to contributing to a better world, people should now open their minds about what being a ‘vegan’ truly means.

It’s equally important that whenever we preach about justice for animals, it is not just lip service but involves taking some hard decisions too which involve offsetting our carbon footprints to the maximum extent.

Many of the perceived disadvantages can be mitigated with proper planning, education, and access to resources.

Sustainable and environmentally friendly farming practices, promoting organic agriculture, supporting local and seasonal food production, and emphasizing the importance of a well-balanced vegan diet that meets all nutritional requirements can all go a long way in navigating through the paradox.  

As awareness around veganism grows, it is sure to gain acceptance among the general masses and plenty of food options will be available for vegans to choose from in the future thus bringing an end to any apprehensions regarding the social acceptability of the individual.

References

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  11. UNEP, ‘Methane emissions are driving climate change.Here’s how to reduce them, 20 August 2021, https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/methane-emissions-are-driving-climate-change-heres-how-reduce-them[]
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