Having explored the animal welfare, environmental and health implications of vegan and omnivorous diets, within the context of the modern world, one stands as a clear winner in terms of having less of harmful impact upon the planet.
Leave that animal alone
Were we all to take on board the lesson that a parent teaches a child when telling them to “stop chasing that pigeon”, then our relationship with nature would be transformed.
By abstaining from the exploitation of animals veganism would, in theory, provide a compelling solution to the lion’s share of the world’s animal welfare issues. If humans no longer took an interest in animals as a commodity and left them to roam the earth, then this would massively reduce the amount of harm that comes to them. Even the potential for humans to cause unintentional harm to animals by way of such factors as oil slicks or de-habitation through building development would be reduced in a truly orthodox vegan world as greater preventative measures would be taken.
Natural omnivorism (i.e hunter-gatherer behaviour), remains true to nature in the intrinsic order of the natural food chain with the apex predator residing at the top, whilst the position of vegans stands to circumvent this. But in the context of the modern world, it is neigh-on impossible to maintain an omnivorous livestyle in perfect balance with nature unless you live on a nature reserve or as part of an indigenous tribe.
Organic free-range farming has the potential to provide animals with happy lives but in some cases (e.g chicken and egg production), a huge number of unnecessary animal deaths are unavoidable under any system. The fact of the matter is that the priority for most of the population are factors such as taste, quantity and cost, which funds a factory farming system with interests centred purely on profit margins and reducing the costs that higher welfare standards demand. Until omnivores universally reject factory farmed food and accept the cost for free-range organic, there can be no progress on animal welfare.
“Saving” the world
With the announcement that the planet’s atmosphere has crossed the 400ppm carbon tipping point, there has been a bleak shift in how environmental conversation is discussed. Future strategies seem to no longer focus on saving the planet but rather slowing the rate of decline as perpetual climate change now seems an inevitability. But in the meantime, as we remain optimistic that science might yet find a solution, how can we act to slow the rate of environmental decline?
As with animal welfare, our dysfunctional relationship with nature is central to the damage we have caused to our environment. As hunting and gathering became farms and then factories we have lead ourselves down the dead-end of our own demise. The systems designed to feed the world’s exponentially growing population are amongst its biggest polluters using up water, energy and land resources whilst simultaneously pumping out billions of tonnes of CO2 into the air as well as animal waste and chemicals into our rivers and oceans.
Side by side comparison places veganism as hands down winner when it comes to the environmental impact. Livestock production uses many times more resources and generates many times more pollution than plant-based agriculutre. There is no denying that a reduction in the consumption of animal products would reduce human impact on the environment.
The nutritional chasm
Comparing vegan to omnivorous diets is a no brainer. To eliminate completely highly nutritious foods that offer an abundance of health benefits, many of which that are exclusive to animal products, puts vegans at a disadvantage. Vegan campaigners often claim that nutrient quantities can be matched but on closer inspection, the macro-nutrient quality is not equivalent. Certainly, there are benefits from eating more vegetables but this is not something veganism offers exclusively as omnivores can eat anything vegans can.
Aiming to get as much of our nutrients as possible from whole, minimally processed food sources is a universal recommendation and for vegans where this isn’t always possible, supplementation is recommended to fill nutritional gaps in one’s diet. Whilst it is not impossible to get all the nutrients one needs from a plant based diet, it can be difficult to achieve optimum nutrition on plants alone.
What we learn from examining and comparing these lifestyles is that there are many ways can move forwards both individually and as a whole.
Vegans could aim to adopt a less aggressive attitude in how they adopt the lifestyle, eating more local and seasonal foods whilst avoiding soy and “fake” processed food. The use of supplements to fill dietary gaps is also recommended.
For omnivores there must be more emphasis on taking responsibility for the food we eat, prioritising quality, animal welfare and environmental credentials over cost.
Universally the common threat is factory farming and eating foods which either due to design, production, transportation or processing causes cruelty to animals, environmental destruction and damages our health.
For all of us combating the overeating of meat choosing instead to eat meat of a higher quality, as well as local, organic and GM free foods would be a step in the right direction.