by Ian Ward
I am often asked how a professional economist came
to be a vegan. This has led me to give some consideration to veganism
as a view of the world, in particular, as an ideology.
At the core of a vegan ideology is a rejection of the animal production
industry, an industry which uses non-human species as a form of raw
material in the production of a range of animal products. While all
goods and services require the use of human labour in their production,
the conditions under which this labour can be used is very highly regulated
by human society. The contrast with non-human species is striking. Thus
death as well as cruelty and suffering is a common feature of the animal
production industry. Veganism rejects this use of non-human animals
as a raw material to be used in the pursuit of the gratification of
If veganism is an ideology, then what is an ideology? It is a view of
the world. An ideology can be separated into two distinct types of views.
First, a view about social reality - about what exists. Such a view
is either correct or false as it is concerned with the facts. For example,
is a vegan diet consistent with good health? Disagreement is to be expected
as individuals and organisations see the facts differently. Second,
a view about what is good or bad, about one’s values. Unlike a
view about social reality, values cannot be confirmed or rejected by
an appeal to facts - it reflects what we believe in.
What are the facts which, in my view, are consistent with a vegan ideology?
And what values am I relying on in my rejection of the animal production
Like humans, the non-human animals that constitute the animal production
industry, the most important of which are cattle, cows, sheep and pigs,
have the capacity to experience pleasure and pain. Natural science has
established this conclusion beyond any doubt. Anyone who has had close
contact with individual farm animals would readily agree. My pet sheep
are as capable as my cats of experiencing satisfaction and dissatisfaction.
How far down the evolutionary chain this applies is a matter of conjecture,
but it is not relevant to a consideration of the animal production industry
Pain and pleasure exist whether the particular non-human animal is raised
using factory farming methods or grazes in the field. Of course, the
suffering of those animals, which are part of the animal production
industry, is increased as a consequence of farms adopting intensive
methods of production which disregard the well-being of the animal in
a search for a competitive advantage over their rivals. The extensive
suffering involved in using these methods is well-do*****ented. While
it is difficult to measure, there is clearly a great deal of pain experienced
by non-human animals. In addition, there is a loss of satisfaction by
some humans who find animal production distressing.
Animal production results in costs being incurred by society over and
above the cost of production of the farms producing the animal products.
Among these additional costs are - erosion caused by large numbers of
livestock; the impact of forest clearing on climate, habitat and soil
degradation and the consequence of the widespread use of chemicals and
waste products on the local ecology.
One factual issue which is the subject of a great deal of controversy
is the question of nutrition. Is the pursuit of a vegan diet consistent
with the well-being or even the survival of the human species? If, as
the defenders of animal production often argue, veganism is inconsistent
with the nutritional well-being of humans, then it can logically be
argued that the cost of veganism clearly outweighs any claimed benefits.
This challenge must, of course, be met. Even here - in the domain of
natural science - differences of opinion are to be expected.
It is not necessary for vegans to claim that their diet is superior
in terms of nutrition, although there is a great deal of evidence pointing
to the benefits of a vegan diet in areas such as heart disease, cancer,
asthma and general healthiness - constipation and indigestion are far
less common for vegans than meat and dairy eaters. All one needs to
argue is that a balanced vegan diet is consistent with good nutrition
and, therefore, does not undermine good health. Thus, a shift away from
reliance on animal products does not lead to high nutritional costs
which outweigh the benefits of adopting a vegan approach to life. Of
course, if animal products are to be replaced in one’s diet, then
care must be taken that the new diet is not unbalanced. Knowledge about
nutrition is essential in a shift to a non-animal diet. Assuming that
vegans are well informed, there is no reason why they should incur any
nutritional deficiencies. Any legitimate concern over iron, calcium
and vitamin B12 can be easily met by consuming certain types of non-animal
products and/or through supplements to one’s diet.
One of the realities facing an expansion in non-animal consumption is
the economic and political power of the farming organisations and lobby
groups such as the Australian Dairy Corporation and the Australian Meat
and Livestock Corporation. In addition to using their extensive financial
resources to propagate a false view of the nutritional strengths of
animal products as compared to non-animal products, they are able to
influence governments, through lobbying activities, to act on their
behalf. Subsidisation of various aspects of animal production is widespread
as are regulations which discriminate against non-animal products.
It is commonly argued by consumers that non-animal products, such as
soya milk, are more expensive to buy than their animal based substitutes.
This would not be so if the level of demand was greater and the discriminatory
actions of government were removed. Over time, with improvements in
technology and a greater scale of output of non-animal products, non-animal
products are likely, at worst, to be no more expensive than comparable
animal products. One additional advantage of growing sales and profitability
is the ability of vegan producing firms to advertise their products
in competition with non-vegan products. The advertising campaign of
Vitasoy to combat the scare program by the Australian Dairy Corporation
with respect to calcium deficiency is an encouraging example.
If I explain to someone what it is to be a vegan, they will usually
reply that they could not adjust to the taste of vegan food and, as
a consequence, the cost of moving away from animal products is too great.
In the short term, it is true that one’s taste buds will react
negatively. However, taste buds are a variable. They adjust over time.
It is clear to everyone that one’s likes and dislikes are not genetic
but are environmental. Just think about the diversity of food in our
multicultural world. Thus, there is a cost to be considered but it is
only, potentially, of a short duration and, therefore, should be placed
in proper perspective. With the growing variety of non-animal food associated
with new technology and the exposure to different cultures, the cost
to an individual in Australia of a change to a vegan diet is minimal.
A final factual issue which needs to be addressed is the claim by defenders
of animal production that a change to a vegan diet will lead to a mass
slaughter of tens and tens of millions of farm animals. This is a false
view of social reality. Changes in human diet occur very slowly with
a consequence that the demand for animal products and, therefore, the
number of farm animals will diminish only gradually over time. The decline
in the number of horses as a source of horse power as machines were
adopted is a meaningful example of the likely process of change.
So much for the case for veganism based on a view of the facts, about
‘what is’. Now we turn to matters of value, about ‘what
ought to be’. Values reflect what we believe is a good society
rather than about what we believe exists. As with factual issues, vegans
can differ about their values.
It is quite consistent for a person to base an adherence to vegetarianism
simply in terms of factual issues; for example, some vegetarians see
nutritional weaknesses of animal products as a sufficient reason for
embracing a vegetarian diet. If so, they are unlikely to reject all
animal products, such as clothing, watchbands and footwear. For a vegan,
issues of nutrition, while important, are not enough, nor are other
areas of social reality. To understand fully the case for veganism as
an ideology we need to consider values.
To a vegan, not only are non-human animals capable of experiencing pleasure
and pain (factual), but their feelings ought to be considered, along
with humans, in determining what is good both for human and non-human
species (values). That is, it is not sufficient to give consideration
only to the well-being of human animals in determining what is desirable
or not. All life, which is capable of experiencing pleasure and pain,
ought to be considered. Thus it is not enough to be concerned about
whales because they may be an endangered species. Whales deserve consideration
because they themselves are capable of satisfaction and dissatisfaction.
To simply focus on a species which is endangered is to place one’s
sole emphasis on the satisfaction of present and future generations
Of course, this does not mean that all species should be given equal
consideration by humans. Clearly, humans themselves are more capable
of experiencing satisfaction and dissatisfaction than are farm animals.
But they should be given some weight in the human calculation of the
costs and benefits of the pursuit of animal production. While it is
humans who are making the calculation, the interests of animals as well
as humans should be taken into consideration. To recognise the difficulty
of measurement and comparison does not justify the failure to give non-human
species any consideration at all.
What I am arguing, from my own perspective, is that the benefits of
gradually replacing animal production with a vegan pattern of consumption
are significantly greater than any benefits derived from treating non-human
species as something to be exploited for human needs. From our earlier
view of social reality, there are costs both to many humans as well
as to non-human animals from the pursuit of animal production. At the
same time, the costs of a vegan approach are, given time for the taste
buds to adjust and resources to be reallocated as well as an informed
approach to nutrition, minimal and clearly less than the benefits. The
benefits would be enjoyed not only by the non-human animals but by the
considerable, although a clear minority, of humans who suffer through
the knowledge that human society is exploiting our fellow inhabitants
on the planet, particularly as it is unnecessary.
While a reduction in the extreme cruelty associated with methods of
production that are associated, particularly, with intensive factory
farming, is to be welcomed, this is a token approach which fails to
come to grips with the enormity of what we are doing. In fact, it tends
to ease many human concerns - a bit like treating the slaves a little
better. Of course, the slave-owners in the American South would have
argued that life could not have functioned without the slaves and they
were not our species. The same arguments resound all across Australia
if you raise the case for phasing out reliance of animal production.
What to Do?
What prospects are there for the animal production industry to be phased
out and for vegan views and practice to prevail? What, if anything,
can be done to encourage it? This is, again, a very complex issue about
which vegans disagree. It is, nonetheless, a key element of a vegan
view of the world.
First, it needs to be seen as a long term struggle much like the struggle
against slavery, racism and sexism. Encouragement can be drawn from
the present successful campaign against smoking on the grounds that
the costs to all of human society, not just the smoker, are far in excess
of any benefits enjoyed. Of course, the struggle against animal production
is more difficult than the campaign against smoking as it involves benefits
which are primarily enjoyed by non-human species. However, it is similar
to the extent that it is being achieved in the face of powerful vested
interests and lobby groups. The level of false information propagated
by the tobacco industry is only rivalled by that produced by the animal
production industry and its supporters. What is required is a fundamental
change in the way humans view the planet. It requires a comprehensive
rather than a partial view of the total environment.
How should the struggle proceed? Clearly research into vegan food and
nutrition and the propagation of vegetarian and vegan views is a positive
factor. Much is already being done by organisations such as the Australian
Vegetarian and Vegan Societies. Particular efforts need to be made to
demonstrate to those who support an environmental ideology that a total
environmental view requires a vegan approach to consumption.
Over time there is a growing awareness and, with it, a growing demand
for vegan products. In addition, technological progress is bringing
improved variety and quality of non-animal products while, with increased
consumption, firms are able to lower cost of production in response
to the achieving of economies which are associated with a greater scale
of output. Accessibility at supermarkets is a logical response of this
process. Firms seek profit and profit is linked to providing consumers
the products they demand. Each and every individual by altering his/her
pattern of consumption can contribute to this overall change.
What of government? Should we rely on State and Federal governments
to encourage the change to vegetarianism and veganism? Given the dominant
position of the animal production industries and the power of the variety
of vested interest and lobby groups, ranging from the National Farmers
Federation, the Australian Dairy Corporation, the Australian Meat and
Livestock Corporation, pharmaceutical companies, the Australian Council
of Trade Unions and so on, it is naive to believe that any major political
party will act positively to undermine the animal production industry.
Powerful vested interest groups also have a disproportionate influence
over political decision making. At present, given the reality of power,
it is more likely that governments will defend the animal industry against
any attempt to undermine it. It is difficult enough to induce governments
to tackle serious areas of animal cruelty. The retreat by the Blair
Government in Britain from formerly strong election commitments is not
really surprising given political reality.
One strategy worth pursuing today is to lend support to the broad momentum
which now exists in favour of ending many areas of government regulation
with a view to moving to a more even playing field between different
industries. In particular, moves toward reducing the power of agricultural
marketing boards and the widespread nature of agricultural subsidies,
for example in the dairy industry, are promising. In this way, the non-animal
production industry will be able to compete more successfully in the
marketplace as its cost and price becomes more competitive. With greater
competitiveness, vegan product producing firms will increase their profitability.
With improved profits they will be able to allocate greater resources
to the area of research and development as well as more extensive advertising
in an attempt to offset the essentially negative information emanating
from the animal production industry. By supporting general deregulation
of industry, some progress can be achieved.
One area where government has and will continue to play a significant
and helpful role is in the area of information provision. In response
to general consumer pressure, governments in Australia have acted to
require detailed information regarding ingredients and nutritional value
on the labels of the products. This is essential both for vegetarians
and vegans. It is impossible for consumers to make an informed choice
if the sellers fail to specify this detailed information and without
this information, vegans are open to attack on nutritional grounds.
Of course, more action is required. Once again, by joining in a more
general movement, this time the consumer movement, vegans can assist
the course of non-animal production.
In time, as the consumption of non-animal products grows, a direct appeal
for government assistance is likely to be more effective. This is reflected
in the experience of the campaign against the tobacco industry. However,
in the case of non-animal production, this possibility remains in the
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