IMG_5918There’s often a missing link in conversations that occur between vegans and non-vegans. As soon as I say I’m vegan, I get a barrage of questions about why we have canine teeth if we’re not meant to eat meat, and where I get my protein. This results in the real reasons fading into the background as the conversation becomes once again about humans, rather than what veganism is striving to protect and conserve.

In high school I remember proudly declaring myself an animal lover while I shoved grilled chicken down my throat, unaware of the fact that the animals I proclaimed to love had lived a short life and suffered a violent death just for me to eat them. This emotional and mental distancing from the animals we eat is all too common in our society, as most of us have never met or seen the animals that end up on our plates.

I used to openly condemn Japan for slaughtering dolphins and SeaWorld for keeping marine mammals in captivity, while other species silently suffered in our own country. I was living comfortably unaware. Unaware of the fact that the way I chose to eat was itself contributing to a system of oppression and unspoken cruelty.

The Animal Welfare Institute, an organization that works to address animal suffering due to experimentation, farming and other human usages, lists many common factory farm practices affecting species such as cows, pigs and chickens. This includes the fact that female cows are forcibly impregnated to give birth, only to have their calves stolen from them so their milk, intended for their calves, can be sold in plastic jugs for convenient consumption. Male pigs are castrated soon after birth, without anesthesia, because consumers prefer the taste of castrated males. In the egg industry, all male chicks are killed at birth in a “grinder” — which leaves little to the imagination — because they aren’t deemed useful to the egg industry. More than 6 million animals are killed for food every hour. All of this and more I didn’t know, though it could all be accessed through a quick Google search.

When I began to read these facts I was horrified, in denial and outraged all at once. However, many dismiss these facts with the question, “But not all farms right?” Food marketing builds up an image of a happy Old MacDonald farm, but the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about factory farming, reports that 9 billion animals are killed in the U.S. for food every year and 99 percent of those animals come from factory farms.

There’s also the question of whether a person can be healthy on a plant-based diet, but studies show humans don’t need animal products to survive and thrive. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, “total vegetarian or vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” AND also states, “Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life-cycle including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence.”

The pursuit to feed human demands for animal protein is also destroying our planet. In a study conducted by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which works to end world hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition and works toward the sustainability of natural resources for present and future generations, animal agriculture was found to be responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions — more than the entire transportation sector combined — while livestock accounted for at least 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. That’s 51 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

The same study found that the amount of water used annually for meat, dairy and egg production ranges from 34-76 trillion gallons annually, not including the amount of water wasted by pollution from runoff from industrial farming complexes. Animal agriculture was also found to be responsible for 91 percent of Amazon destruction. A 2006 FAO report revealed that animal agriculture is the leading cause of species extinction, water pollution, habitat destruction and ocean dead zones, which are created when pollution leaks into the ocean and kills all or most of the living species in an area.

A person who lives on a vegan diet produces 50 percent less carbon dioxide and uses one-eleventh the oil, one-thirteenth the water and one-eighteenth the land compared to someone who eats meat, according to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

It’s not always easy to break away from deeply ingrained habits, especially ones with cultural and social importance, but we now live in a time when it’s essential that we re-evaluate our everyday choices and the impact that we have on other species and on our environment. With a major dietary shift toward a plant-based lifestyle, we could drastically change the world for the better, making it more compassionate and sustainable.