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Veganism - The Conservation Solution?

 The environmental and conservation movements have made great strides in recent years, and the general idea that what we humans do does indeed affect the planet, positively or negatively, is becoming more and more accepted. While the oil industry and millionaires’ private jet usage certainly need to be addressed, matters of the sort can feel out of reach for the average person. We can, and should, vote, but how often do we come away frustrated when our elected representative fails to represent the interests of the people? In this essay, I will share why I believe a plant-based diet and accompanying vegan lifestyle is a multifaceted, personally actionable solution to the issues plaguing the natural world and its inhabitants – including us. I will discuss how its application impacts morality for wild and domesticated, non-human animals alike, human health, and, of course, the natural world as a whole. By voting with our dollar at the grocery, we can choose to make the environmentally sound choice without waiting for a middleman to do it for us. We can take matters into our hands.

 So how can the reduction, and ideally, the elimination of animal products be part of the conservation solution? To understand how the removal of animal products can benefit the environment, we first need to understand how their presence is presently harming it. First, we’ll consider what is perhaps the most pressing issue of environmental concern, which is that of global climate change. What is fueling this warming of our planet? Greenhouse gases, largely methane and carbon dioxide. Astoundingly, animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector, making it one of the leading causes of anthropogenic-created climate change (1). However, there’s more. Cattle ranching alone is responsible for roughly eighty percent of deforestation in the Amazon, and with every 10,000 acres that are lost each day, so are countless plant and animal species (2,3,4). Consider the life of one Peruvian Amazon fig wasp. It is the sole pollinator of one specific fig species, and that same specific fig species is the only place it will lay its eggs (5). Its relationship with one specific fig tree is just one incredible example of an extremely niche relationship among flora and fauna that are endangered with each disappearing acre of land in the Amazon.

This kind of problem is not exclusive to other countries. The familiar plight of the Yellowstone wolves is a classic example of wildlife taking a backseat to human interests. Resident wolves were eradicated from Yellowstone National Park and surrounding national forests in the 1900s to avoid livestock predation, and this had devastating consequences. With their top predator absent, elk populations expanded exponentially, and the problems of overgrazing and following land degradation were born. Additionally, coyote populations increased, and the result was an imbalanced ecosystem suffering purely for human profit.

Wolves, since their extirpation from Yellowstone in 1926 (6), have been reintroduced and this has seen a decrease in elk and coyote numbers while willow, aspen, and cottonwood – no longer at the mercy of a too-robust elk population – have been allowed to rebound. This allowed the songbirds, who had previously used those tree species and disappeared along with them, to return. Beavers, too, which depend on willows in the winter, have expanded once more. This trophic cascade is but one positive example of an ecosystem returning to its ideal operating form when humans let it.

Here in Ohio, we’ve lost ninety percent of our wetlands and droves of specialized species with them (7). Continuing our look at Ohio, animal agriculture is, as it is elsewhere, the largest land usage system on the planet (8). Incredible quantities of corn, soy, and wheat are grown to feed livestock animals such as cows so they can reach slaughter weight and reach it as quickly as possible. In fact, of these monocrops, seventy to eighty percent of soy grown worldwide is used for animal feed (9). Not only do these crops require great space – to satisfy great demand – but also great amounts of water and pesticides. The relationship between glyphosate, a chemical found in Round-up, and the decline of insects such as the monarch butterfly is well documented, but in short, because these crops are monocrops with little genetic diversity, they’re particularly susceptible to disease and pest outbreaks. To help combat this risk, pesticides such as glyphosate are used, but they don’t only kill the insects found on the target crops. The edge habitat bordering the fields are also hit, and because the monarch caterpillar’s host plant milkweed grows well in these edge habitats, monarch populations across the United States have been steadily declining, now with eighty percent of the population lost since the 1900s (10). Bumblebees have also been known to suffer from glyphosate usage (11).  

It isn’t just land animals and their ecosystems that suffer as a result of animal agriculture. Commercial fishing practices such as bottom trawling, where a net is dragged across the bottom of the ocean floor, destroy coral reefs and are responsible for staggering amounts of bycatch, where non-target species such as sea turtles (of which, all seven species are currently endangered), dolphins, and sharks are caught, too. As states, “Incidental capture in fishing gear is likely the greatest threat to sea turtles and many other species worldwide. Approximately forty percent of animals caught in fisheries are discarded as trash.” Further, on dolphins, they state, “Despite ‘Dolphin Safe Tuna’ labeling, approximately one thousand dolphins die as bycatch in the Eastern Tropical Pacific tuna fishery each year.” (12). The damage isn’t done after the fishing is over, either. Discarded fishing nets are the largest source of plastic in the ocean and continue to kill animals that accidentally entangle themselves.

Food products are not the only category of animal products causing environmental damage. Leather, while often hailed as a long-lasting but biodegradable or “natural” product, is anything but. Chemicals such as chromium, which is what most leather is tanned with, produce wastewater containing not just solid leather wastes that are destined for landfills, but chromium-contaminated water that seeps into nearby water sources, such as the River Buriganga outside a tannery in Bangladesh (13). Due to chromium’s toxicity and potentially carcinogenic effects, this is a major environmental and human health concern. Tannery workers are known to suffer from “skin diseases, acid burns, and corroded fingers” (14). Further, chromium-tanned leather is nonrecyclable and nonbiodegradable (15).  

There is also the dilemma of what to do with the waste of roughly 80 billion land animals farmed each year (16). Great quantities are stored in manure pits outside the facilities. Not only have workers fallen in and drowned, but in severe weather, such as Hurricane Florence in North Carolina in 2018, the pits have been flooded and millions of gallons of untreated feces spread into nearby streams and waterways. Worse, though it’s illegal to drain manure pits by spraying the manure onto nearby fields to avoid overflow in anticipating of severe weather, in 2016, thirty-five farms were observed in North Carolina before Hurricane Hermine doing just so, polluting the watershed (17).

The last environmental concern we’ll cover is one often overlooked. It can seem extreme, and I’ve received a number of slack-jawed, wide-eyed looks when I share that vegans also do not consume honey. In line with The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism, that 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,” honey is a product of animal labor and an entirely unnecessary one. As a sweetener, it’s a luxury item and easily replaced or omitted altogether. But how does honey have a negative impact on the environment? Aren’t we told to buy and use honey to help save the bees? The unfortunate truth is that the honeybees used for honey production are a domesticated species whose numbers are nowhere near concerning. In fact, in the United States, they’re nonnative and compete with our native pollinators who, as we are all probably aware, are already in trouble. Not only this, but they’ve even begun spreading diseases that previously only existed in domestic populations to native species, further imperiling them (18). This is not the only instance of farmed animals transmitting health problems to wild species. Wild salmon will migrate past sea pens of farmed salmon and become infected with the sea lice that are so prevalent among farmed fish, causing a reduction in adult wild salmon of up to twenty-nine percent (19).

Lastly, as a whole, animal agriculture is simply inefficient. Livestock animals will take in far more calories to reach slaughter weight than will ever produce as food themselves, all the while requiring more space, more water, and more pesticides to grow their food than that which is required for a plant-based diet. A study published in the journal Science in 2018 conducted by scientists at the University of Oxford found that despite meat and dairy taking up over eighty percent of global agricultural land, they’re only responsible for eighteen percent of global calorie consumption and thirty-seven precent of global protein consumption (20). Further, they concluded that a world-wide shift to a plant-based diet could reduce the amount of global farmland by seventy-five percent while still feeding every person on the planet (21). Another analysis found that a meat-free diet could reduce a person’s water usage by nearly sixty percent (22).

We’ve now discussed some of the most pressing environmental concerns inherent to animal agriculture, but we mustn’t neglect to discuss the moral concerns – after all, though domesticated, “livestock” species are still animals, and at this point in time, farmed mammals actually make up more of the earth’s mammal biomass than wild mammals (23). Discussing the morality of eating nonhuman animals can be an emotionally charged topic for both parties. What I’d like to start with, then, is to address and establish a moral baseline based on the intrinsic value I believe and will attempt to prove all animals possess.

Many animals are capable of great feats of intelligence, ingenuity, and physicality, from the corvid that can use tools and solve puzzles, to the cheetah that can sprint at speeds of up to eighty miles an hour, to the pig with a better sense of smell than the already-far-superior-to-ours family dog, to the bat that can echo-locate, and to the frogs and fish capable of changing sex as needed. However, it is not these impressive capabilities that allot these animals – and all the others in between – their value, but their sentience – their ability to feel pain and pleasure. Consider the Tropical Boubou of Africa that defends its territory in mating pairs year-round. It is a species where the male and female perform duets, including a particularly loud and extensive victory song after defeating a potential territory intruder (24). Additionally, regardless of species or physicality or intelligence, do not all animals desire to live? Would they not choose life if given the chance? Do they not avoid pain whenever possible? Their consciousness may look different and be expressed differently than ours, and they may perceive the world differently than us, but they perceive it nonetheless, so do they not, then, have a right to bodily autonomy and self-determination? It is this right that the term “animal rights” refers to; vegans and animal rights activists are not suggesting that we afford them the same rights as ourselves, only that we consider their right to a life separate from their instrumental value to us, whether as food or clothing or entertainment. We ask that animals be seen not as commodities or resources to use as we see fit because we have the ability to subjugate and oppress them, but as individuals with their own experiences, own favorite foods, own friends, and own desire to live. It may be a strange thing to hear, especially considering that for many vegans, including myself, witnessing the suffering of animals at human hands is a strong motivator for avoiding animal products, but veganism actually does not require compassion, empathy, or an emotional attachment or investment in animals, just respect – respect for this right, and the understanding that just because we may hold dominion over animals, we are not then afforded the right to dominate them, too. If I were to believe it did grant us such a right, then wouldn’t it apply in such a manner that all who can be dominated, should be dominated? I, as an adult, hold dominion over an infant – am I allowed to do whatever I want to it? On the contrary – I believe it is an extension of our duties as the species with the means to do so to give a voice to the voiceless, to advocate for those whose existences and rights we overlook or deem inferior to ours. How can we ever justify causing pain and ending the life of a sentient being with a desire to live? Perhaps the flimsiest of excuses is taste, but can palette pleasure really supersede all else? Animal products are not necessary for the vast majority of people not only to survive but thrive, and thus are unnecessary, meaning we are killing 80 billion land animals and at least one trillion fish every year for nothing more than a good time for our taste buds (25). One meal to us that lasts minutes requires an animal’s entire life.

From birth, their lives are determined for them. For broiler chickens, they will grow to slaughter weight so quickly as a result of selective breeding that their organs will fail and their legs will not be strong enough to support them, so they collapse under their own weight after only a few steps. Many will die like this, stepped on by their own kind and lying in feces. Their torment begins even before this, however. After hatching, they will be debeaked, often without pain medication or sedatives, which involves searing or cutting off the tips of their beaks so, when living in such cramped and stressful conditions as those routinely found on factory farms, they cannot peck at and injure each other as a way to relieve stress. Egg-laying hens have it no easier. Where their ancestors the red jungle fowl produced 10-15 eggs per year, modern chickens, having been to be as profitable as possible, now lay an average of 250 (26). This extensive use of their bodies takes a massive toll, and in addition to commonly developing reproductive system disorders, they will die early or be killed as soon as their production slows.

The same can be said for dairy cows, who, as mammals, only produce milk to feed their young. Because we want this milk, we forcibly impregnate them time and time again until their bodies fail and they’re killed at a fraction of their natural lifespan for cheap meat products. Along the way, however, we will take their young from them, regardless of the emotional distress this causes both mother and child, and will milk them for about 11,000 gallons over the course of their lifetime (27). Like the hens, they’ve also been bred to produce more milk, such that they have to be milked because it’s such an uncomfortable sensation otherwise. A percentage will also develop the painful condition mastitis, where the udders become infected.

Before slaughter, cows and pigs will be shot in the head with a bolt gun that is meant to stun them so they aren’t conscious for their actual death. However, because the goal of business is profit and time is money, workers move at unsafe speeds and animals are often conscious when their throats are slit and conscious still when dipped in scalding hot water to remove hair and soften skin (28).

Some will say it’s tradition to use and eat animals, that we’ve done it for centuries, even thousands of years. But does tradition or culture equate with morality? Have not ritual sacrifice, cannibalism, and female genital mutilation also been tradition in some cultures? Surely, we won’t attempt to justify such practices under the guise of tradition. Similarly, the occupation of previous human cultures as hunter-gathers is often cited as a reason for eating animal products today, but neither does the necessity of something in the past validate its perpetuation when it is no longer necessary. The food chain, too, is also called to action as a reason for the consumption of animal products, but we must see that a lion, an obligate carnivore, killing a gazelle or a grizzly bear eating salmon to fatten up for winter to survive hibernation  is incomparable to our trip to the grocery for deli meat or to KFC for a bucket of fried chicken – particularly when we have the option not to. Humans are not obligate carnivores, or obligate anything, and neither is a whole foods, plant-based diet monetarily out of reach. Staples of a vegan diet include some of the cheapest items available – rice, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, seasonal or frozen vegetables, and fruits like bananas – as opposed to meat and cheese, which are often the most expensive items at the grocery or in a restaurant.

Then, is it because livestock are livestock? A separate category of animals for which it is morally acceptable to exploit? Aside from the unethical aspects previously established that this stance employs, I also want to acknowledge the cognitive dissonance and selective outrage present within. In the United States, European Union, and other Western nations, we’ve drawn a very clear line between animals we will eat and animals we will not. We see dogs and cats as companion animals we can form bonds with, and cows and pigs as food. However, this dichotomy is not always present elsewhere in the world. In fact, many westerners take great offence to this, in particular the Yulin Dog Festival in China, where dogs are eaten just as we eat pigs. They consider the treatment of dogs as food animals in this manner as animal abuse and sign online petitions to put a stop to it, ignoring the 80 billion cows, pigs, chickens, and other “livestock” animals whose exact same treatment they pay for and whose flesh they consume. In both situations, animals are suffering and dying, but only one they’ll condemn. They’ll say it’s their “personal choice,” but there can be no such thing when said choice produces a victim. Where was its choice?

Where, also, is the choice of the residents of Sampson County in North Carolina who suffer a number of health problems, including nausea, respiratory problems, and premature death, from the fine particulate air pollution from the spraying of manure on fields as fertilizer from the many nearby farming operations? One resident of Duplin County has said of the concentrated animal feeding operations, “It smells like a body that’s been decomposed for a month.” (29). Another resident has said, “We had wells, but the wells [were] contaminated from the hog farm…The smell, you can’t hang your clothes out, you can’t do nothing in the yard, and we won’t even talk about the yellow flies.” (30). This is our last negative aspect of animal agriculture to be discussed: public human health.

Before we talk about the indirect consequences of animal agriculture in regard to human health, we should first address how animal product consumption directly affects the human body. First and foremost, we will acknowledge that cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading killer of US citizens (31). Following, we know that saturated fat is causally linked to high cholesterol, and high cholesterol is associated with an increased risk for CVD. We also know that animal products such as red meat and cheese contain high amounts of saturated fat, and animal products in general contain far more cholesterol than whole food, plant products, which contain none. Instead, plants do contain fiber, adequate consumption of which lowers the risk of colorectal cancers, which after lung cancer, are responsible for the greatest number of cancer-related deaths in the United States (32). On the other hand, red meat has been classified by the World Health Organization as a class 1A carcinogen, meaning it causes cancer, particularly those of the digestive system (33). One study found that seventy percent of ischemic heart disease deaths (which, in 2019, totaled nine million) could be prevented by following a diet more focused on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts (34).

For clarity, the standard American diet has come under more and more criticism recently, and rightly so. Fewer than five percent of Americans are getting the recommended daily amount of fiber (35). When large amounts of calorically dense foods like animal products are consumed, it leaves little room for plant foods, which typically contain fewer calories but a wider variety of and denser quantity of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The importance of fiber cannot be overstated, as it both aids in digestion, helping to protect against colorectal disorders and diseases, and plays a role in satiety in that it keeps you feeling full for longer periods of time – a key to avoid overeating.

Obesity, too, is an epidemic among western-eating nations. In the United States, sixty-nine percent of the population is overweight or obese (36). Obesity is associated with a host of health problems such as type two diabetes, CVD, and general all-cause mortality. Fad diet after fad diet has promised weight loss, but only a whole food, plant-based diet was shown to reduce weight without additional exercise (37). To assuage any lingering concerns, I’ll share that the American Dietetic Association has stated that a well-planned vegan diet is safe for all stages of life, including pregnancy and infancy (38).


We must also consider the plight of the slaughterhouse worker. Typically, they are disenfranchised people groups, often immigrants, who are exploited and working in dangerous and unsanitary conditions for poor compensation. They also experience higher levels of depression and PTSD than the average population, which ought to be understandable (39). Killing hundreds, even thousands of animals per day must have an effect on a person’s mental health.

The simple nature of farming animals for food puts us at risk in other ways. On factory farms, millions of genetically similar animals are confined in close proximity (often, literally on top of one another as sick animals spend hours and days dying and being trampled) and in incredibly unsanitary conditions where standing in one’s own waste is common. These are perfect conditions for the development and transmission of disease. Coupled with the preemptive and overuse of antibiotics that contributes to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, we’re playing with fire. Mad cow disease, E-coli outbreaks, and the H1N1 virus which originated in chickens and caused the deaths of over 50 million people worldwide in 1918 are all diseases passed from animals to humans – zoonotic diseases. If we want to protect public health, we need to reexamine our food system.

Finally, because veganism is a lifestyle and not only a diet, there are a number of common objections and questions I’d like to address preemptively. Firstly, there are indeed circumstances and health conditions that make living completely vegan impossible. A great deal of people live in food deserts for example, or must rely on life-saving or quality of life-maintaining medication that contains an animal product. In instances like this, I’d like to emphasize the usage of the words “possible” and “practicable” in The Vegan Society’s widely accepted definition of veganism referenced earlier. Simply put, to be vegan is only ever to do your personal best to avoid contributing to the exploitation of animals. So, in the above circumstances, they are still very much vegan so long as they’re avoiding other forms of animal exploitation, such as not using cosmetics tested on animals and not wearing leather or fur. The mention of leather brings me to my next point.

As discussed earlier, leather is far from sustainable, but many will object to its substitution with pleather, often erroneously dubbed “vegan leather.” The fact of the matter is that very little pleather is purchased by vegans, which make up less than half a percent to six percent of the United States population (40). Rather, its popularity is a result of it being cheap to produce and purchase. This is why cheap retail giants like Walmart and Target are saturated with pleather products. Further, most vegans share the same qualms about its negative environmental impacts. In fact, a number of alternatives such as pinatex and cork are being developed and sold as environmentally friendly alternatives to both leather and pleather. In the meantime, as these alternatives are perfected and made more affordable, second-hand shopping is always preferred to new.

Another example of thinking vegan is avoiding contributing to the exploitation of domesticated companion animals by adopting instead of buying from a breeder. Is it not unethical to deny one of the millions of animals in shelters a safe and loving home simply because we want a certain breed?

In a similar vein is the hotly contested topic of zoos. The purported benefits of these institutions are that they educate the public and support conservation. However, research shows that learning retention rates among children in zoos are abysmal, and that though some zoos may be properly accredited and do indeed have captive rear and release programs that are doing real good, there is still the ethical dilemma of breeding animals for a life in captivity on the grounds of human pleasure. Can our desire to see exotic animals up close really take precedence over their mental well-being (because anti-depressants are commonly used in animals living in zoos) and right to a natural life where they can engage in all their natural behaviors (41)? Couldn’t we just watch a documentary to learn about what these animals are really like in the wild, instead of viewing one confined, stressed, and unhappy individual in captivity? And have we not learned from the recent pandemic what an awful feeling it is to be confined? Does this not beg the question: would you want to live your entire life in an enclosure a fraction of the size of your wild counterparts’ habitat? This brings us to our next matter: anthropomorphism.

Vegans are regularly accused of anthropomorphizing animals – giving them human characteristics, and while it certainly is dangerous to believe a snarling dog to be smiling, I’d argue that the real danger is denying that animals are capable of any emotions. It allows us to turn them into objects and treat them as unfeeling, almost unliving commodities, ridding us of our responsibility to treat them as moral agents deserving of moral consideration. We ignore the mother dairy cow bawling for her missing child, we think of insects such as wasps as mindless drones (never mind that they have facial recognition), and we take it upon ourselves to kill whatever snake crosses our path because they make our skin crawl. So, in granting – or acknowledging – nonhuman animal sentience, do we really risk anthropomorphism, or do we risk an uncomfortable feeling in the back of our minds that the thing we’re hurting and killing isn’t actually a thing at all?

You may have noticed that many of the critiques in this essay reference industrialized or factory farming (where 99.9 percent of chickens in the United States are sourced), but do not be mistaken: while the negative aspects of animal agriculture are typically exacerbated on factory farms, they are not exclusive to it (42). For example, smaller, free-range farms are often touted as the solution, but not only does free-range not necessarily mean access to fresh air and sunlight – just a certain amount of space per animal and lack of cages – but, in the instances where cows are pasture raised, more land is actually required to graze. And, of course, the animals are still going to die a needless death. Neither, it must be said, is hunting the solution. Aside from it being a costly endeavor in terms of equipment, time, and effort, there simply aren’t enough wild animals (even white-tailed deer) to feed the whole world this way.

The last matters of consideration concerning objections to veganism are logistical. “I love cheese too much,” or “How will I get enough protein?” are perhaps the two most common responses vegans hear upon the mention of veganism. Aside from taste preferences having no say in morality as discussed earlier, the fact of matter is that tastebuds change over time – about every two weeks – and that after a while, cravings for old comfort foods will be a thing of the past (43). Luckily too, veganism has exploded in the past five to ten years with a wider gamut of veganized meats, cheeses, butters, and condiments to choose from every day. Gone are the days of salads being the only option at restaurants; even fast-food establishments have vegetarian and vegan options available. Transitioning to a vegan diet and loving what you eat has never been easier. The question of protein is also largely a matter of logistics, meaning, if you’re following a whole food, plant-based diet and are consuming enough calories, it’s unlikely that you’ll run into a protein deficiency. But, if you want to be sure or are an athlete, foods such as nuts, beans, lentils, and other legumes as well as whole grains like oats are going to be higher protein options.

As lead author Joseph Poore of Oxford University said of the 2018 most comprehensive meta-analysis on the environmental effects of animal agriculture to date, “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.” (44). So, if we want to combat the biggest challenges our planet and its inhabitants are facing, the time to act is now, and the thing to do is go vegan – for the health of the planet, for the health of ourselves and our fellow humans, and for the sake of our fellow earthlings.
























  9. Fraanje, W., Garnett, T, “Soy: food, feed, and land use change”.|










  19. Thorstad, E. B., Finstad, B. “Impacts of salmon lice emanating from salmon farms on wild Atlantic salmon and sea trout”, NINA report 1449: 1-22 (2018)

  20. Poore, J., Nemecek, T. “Reducing food’s environmental impacts”.

  21. Poore, J., Nemecek, T. “Reducing food’s environmental impacts”.

  22. Mekonnen, M., Hoekstra, A. “The green, blue, and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products “, (Unesco-IHE-Institute for Water Education, 2010).


  24. Gill B., Frank. Prum O., Richard. Ornithology Fourth Edition. 2019. Pg 232










  34. Dai, H. . “Global, regional, and national burden of ischemic heart disease and its attributable risk factors, 1990z-2017: results from the global Burden of Disease Study 2017”, (2020)

  35. Quagliani, D., Felt-Gunderson, P. “Closing America’s Fiber Intake Gap: Communication Strategies from a Food and Fiber Summit”, 11, 1: 80-5 (2016)










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