This article was published in the Jersey Evening Post on 8.1.19
I HAD a penny-dropping moment in 2018. Normally I scroll past YouTube videos on animal rights but for some reason I clicked on ‘The Food Matrix – 101 Reasons to go Vegan’. The speaker was saying that in the United States 300 farm animals die every second. Just read that again. Every second. So in the time it takes you to read just this sentence, that’s about another 1,500 animals slaughtered. (And that’s just the US.)
Are you ok with that?
Personally, I find it unacceptable. No wonder some people are calling it the animal holocaust.
And it’s not just the killing of sentient beings that bothers me. It is the unimaginable suffering that comes with factory-farming.
I had already gone vegetarian last year. This time last year I was telling my sister (she has been vegan for more than 25 years) that I could never be vegan. So what has changed?
Let me tell you about the journey that my husband David and I have been on in 2018.
Our shift to being vegetarian was partly for health reasons as we head towards our mid-50s. But it was also because we were about to embark on a six-month adventure around south-east Asia and we thought it would be prudent to avoid meat.
We set off for Bangkok on 1 July and continued through Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and finishing with three months in India. We sat in restaurants where there was tortoise on the menu (we have tortoises at home – unimaginable!). We saw bodies of small- to medium-sized dogs which had been spit-roasted whole. (Horror on Facebook when mentioning such things.) On a street early in the morning, we saw dozens of freshly removed animal heads in a skip, trotters in another. We saw half a dozen chickens hanging upside down and tied by their legs to a parked motorbike. I looked away when I saw a chicken about to have its neck wrung in the street as I walked past.
But please tell me what is the difference between that dog on the stall in the back streets of old Hanoi and the barbecued hog that you enjoyed at a private function last summer? What is the difference between a tortoise and a lobster thermidor or a crab salad? Why do we wince when we see chickens heading for slaughter but happily eat it when it is cut up and presented in a packet?
It was in Udaipur in India where the shift in my thinking embedded itself in my heart. Here, we spent more than two weeks at the Animal Aid Unlimited animal sanctuary. I thought I was there for the injured dogs. What I wasn’t prepared for was how I felt about the other rescued animals – the cows, water buffalo, sheep and donkeys. (See blog post here.)
Animals are sentient beings, they are full of character, they are social, they have their own needs in their daily habits and interactions.
When you then read about what happens every single day around the world in animal farming, you can’t help but be horrified.* Sows being confined to crates barely bigger than their own bodies until they give birth. They cannot even turn around. They can’t nuzzle their new piglets. When the young are taken from the mother, she will be impregnated again and the whole miserable cycle continues.
We wondered whether we could still allow ourselves prawns. And then we read about eyestalk ablation (many farmed prawns are blinded to make them ovulate).
And don’t think that ethically sourced / organic / ‘happy meat’ is any better. This can actually be less environmentally sound, because grass-fed animals emit significantly more methane (which, as we know, causes global warming) than factory farmed animals and a lot more land is needed to raise the animals. And the bottom line is, those animals did not live out their natural lives and they certainly did not want to die just so that you could enjoy a beef casserole or roast pork.
Can you be proud of a culture which values the taste of a slab of meat on your plate above a sentient being’s life?
I know plenty of vegetarians who have not made the transition to vegan, and several people have said to me that ‘no one gets hurt’ producing milk and eggs. So why me and why now?
When I look back at my year, I like to think of a snow-globe. At the start of the year (and probably the last 30 years too) it was all shaken up, with the busy-ness of full-time work, an extended family and all the pressures of normal family life. Thanks to a career break and travel away from the Island, all that distracting fake snow has settled and my mind is clear. I have time and the emotional energy to read and think.
A documentary about farming practice made me realise just how much suffering there is with the by-products of the dairy and egg industries. We like to think of our beautiful Jersey cows grazing in the countryside and I am pretty confident that we have ‘best practice’ in the Island. But don’t kid yourself about the facts. Simply put, a cow is artificially inseminated to make her have a calf (more times than she would naturally in her life). If that calf is male, it will be slaughtered. It doesn’t matter to my argument how it is slaughtered (though I doubt it will be put down gently the way a loved pet would be). It is a life which is considered worthless. The mother’s natural instincts to protect and love that calf matter not one bit to the farmer or, it seems, to the consumer. We know the mother suffers mentally. And then we humans take her milk, the milk which was supposed to feed her baby.
Even if the calf is female (and kept for future milking), the mother and calf will be separated early – so that humans can have her milk.
When there are so many excellent alternatives these days, we don’t have to keep drinking this stuff. It’s all marketing. Just because we have always done it, doesn’t mean that we always should. There was a time when slavery was ok, when women didn’t have the vote, when people smoked cigarettes in workplaces, when homosexuality was illegal. All of it is unthinkable now.
There are all kinds of different exciting flavours of non-dairy milk in mainstream supermarkets and soya milk is certainly better than it was 25 years ago.
Eggs, we thought, maybe we can still eat eggs, especially if the hens are happy and spend their time in lovely sunny fields. And then we read about what happens to male chicks, which are of no use to the egg farm. They get macerated live in a grinder. Live! And what I find even more distressing is that this is legal in many developed countries.
I am fully aware of how people will want to take issue with anything I have chosen to report here. For example, they may say maceration does not happen in the UK, where the chicks are more likely to be gassed. Does that make it ok? Oh baby chick, how would you like to die today – maceration or gassing?
You can probably detect that vegans do start to get angry, and sad, and frustrated. Because they have learned what is going on. Because animals can’t speak for themselves. Because, actually, we don’t need to eat animals any more.
Everyone cares about the planet these days. Or at least they say they do. On Facebook everyone shares a David Attenborough post about climate change or the state of our oceans. But they fail to see the link to what they are doing in their own homes – for example, the fish that they are eating for dinner.
Some scientists claim that, at current rates of decline, the oceans could be devoid of fish by 2048. And, as I see it, every meal is part of the problem, however your fish was sourced, caught and killed.
So it is that as a journalist of 30 years I have decided that I need to write about it and hopefully I will make a few people question what they put on their plate.
The start of the year is a great time to give it a go, even if you just commit to it for a month. It could certainly be a challenge – partly because you will realise what family and friends have to say about it. And at least that opens the discussion.
(Hell, even Piers Morgan is into creating the discussion, but enough about him.)
There are many more good reasons for going vegan (health, deforestation, pollution, water resources and the fact that animal agriculture contributes more to climate change than all the cars, planes, ships and trains on the planet) – but there is no space here.
I have entered a world of reading labels, insisting I have vegan options at restaurants, learning how to cook new things. There is so much to eat, all of it so much more exciting than what I used to cook, that I don’t feel that I am missing out on anything.
In 2019 I would love to see more cafes and restaurants taking part in Veganuary by coming up with interesting vegan options (not just risotto!). Even better, offer vegan options as standard because more and more people are going to choose them. I am looking forward to the day when vegetarian is the norm – and it’s the meat eaters who are the ones who are considered odd and have to make special requests.
Corporate caterers could start by dropping meat to get in line with businesses’ environmental and ethical standards. School dinners, hospital food, all of it could be vegetarian and perfectly nutritious. You just have to change your habit and your thinking.
Personally, I feel that after 31 days of Veganuary, my habits will have changed sufficiently for it to become second nature. Yes, I will make mistakes, yes, I know that there will be animal products hidden in all sorts of things like medication, cosmetics, toiletries. I am still educating myself on those matters. And I know there will be other burning questions, like do I wear wool, will I drink non-vegan wine, what do I feed my dog?
But for now at least now I can sleep at night knowing I am doing what I can – and I will be able to tell my grand-daughter what I did when she asks me about the ‘animal holocaust’.
I wish you a thoughtful and compassionate new year.
PS Just in the time it has taken to read this article, that’s approximately another 360,000 animals slaughtered – and that’s just in the United States. Just click on to vegancalculator.com to see how many thousands of animals are being slaughtered worldwide right now.
What is Veganuary?
Veganuary inspires hundreds of thousands of people around the world to try a vegan diet for a month. It takes place all year round, but most people take part during January. Run by a UK-registered charity, it inspires and supports people to go vegan. It is dedicated to changing public attitudes and behaviours, while providing all the information and practical support required to make the transition to veganism as easy and enjoyable as possible. More information at veganuary.com