Intervew and written feature by Hanna M., Concordia Applied Journalism
There are approximately 375 million vegetarians worldwide today, and approximately 3.5 million vegans. A vegetarian is someone who does not consume meat products, and a vegan doesn’t consume anything produced from the animal industry. What is this community, and why do they choose this lifestyle?
For some it’s for their health. The World Health Organization has classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen. This means that consuming sausages, salami, ham, bacon, or beef jerky poses the same risk for cancer as smoking or asbestos. Red meat is a Group 2 carcinogen, equivalent to active ingredients in many weed killers. Some people switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet to help stop animal cruelty, for some it’s about the environmental impacts of the animal industry, and for some it’s all of these things. Emma MacArthur switched to a vegetarian diet seven years ago and inspired her younger sister to do the same.
Emma initially became a vegetarian to stand up for animal rights. “What ultimately made me actually stop eating meat completely was after I watched some documentaries about slaughterhouses and what the animal industry really entails,” she recalls. She further cites the existence of freely available documentaries as supporting her decision-making process. For example, “Earthlings” is a popular documentary within the vegetarian and vegan community. It is a film narrated by the actor and vegan activist Joaquin Phoenix about humanity’s use of animals for food, pets, scientific research, and entertainment. Emma says that she also recognized “the environmental effects that the agriculture and animal industry has on the world.” Animal agriculture alone contributes 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and the Environmental Protection Agency stated that agricultural runoff is the number one contaminant of water in the United States.
Adapting a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle comes with its struggles. Although some may think it would be extremely difficult to eliminate entire food groups from one’s diet, Emma says “I didn’t personally think it was all that hard to actually cut out meat from my diet.” She explains that, “it was something I genuinely, genuinely believed in.”
Emma was, at first, surprised at the wide range of opinions she encountered. “My biggest struggle was definitely judgement from other people including my parents who had a really traditional view about this kind of thing,” she says. “My mom actually thought that me being a vegetarian meant that I was in a cult.” Vegetarians and vegans have yet to be fully accepted by society, explains Emma, and it can be especially challenging when those who don’t understand it are people in your family or friend group.
Where do you get your protein? Are you trying to lose weight? These are some of the most frequently asked questions a vegan or vegetarian gets. Emma says, “I feel like protein deficiency is just a really easy way for someone to say that a vegetarian or vegan diet is not healthy, when in reality there’s so many vegetables and plant-based options that give you protein.” She goes on to say that “protein is actually not something that you can be deficient in, unless you are already deficient in calories. An average American consumes approximately 100 grams of protein daily, which is roughly twice the recommended amount. Simply put, protein is overrated. Emma prefers to think of weight issues as represented by a simple equation: Calorie output subtracted from calorie input. No matter what diet a person has, if they use more energy that they consume, they will lose weight, she insists.
“Personally, I think that the meat industry has normalized animal cruelty and institutionalized animal captivity by putting some label over it of ‘oh this is just food,’” insists Emma. Accepted estimates suggest that about 200 million animals are killed for food every day. This adds up to 72 billion animals killed for food annually even without seafood being considered. Emma explains that “these animals were born and brought into the word for the sole purpose of being killed, that’s no longer a life.”
A widened view also considers the dairy industry valued at $38.1 billion in 2017. It produces all milk, cheese, yoghurt, and other dairy products. Emma insists that “the dairy industry is just as bad, or even worse and more inhumane than the meat industry.” She explains that “cows are mammals just like humans, and just like all mammals, they don’t produce milk unless they are pregnant, because that milk is meant to be given to their babies.” Dairy cows do not just naturally produce milk their entire lives. Workers are artificially inseminating these cows thus, in Emma’s words, “keeping them pregnant for their entire life until they are no longer useful for human consumption, and then they are slaughtered.”
“I personally just don’t think it’s necessary for humans to be taking another mammal’s milk to consume when there are so many other alternatives,” says Emma. She cites many alternative options for plant-based milk, including almond milk, oat milk, rice milk, cashew milk, coconut milk and soy milk.
After seven years of vegetarianism, Emma’s advice for those considering a switch is “to do your research from trusted sources.” She says, “if you feel like you can’t stop eating meat completely, maybe one day or two days of the week is a meat-free day.” Meatless Mondays are one example of trending social movements that incorporate this kind of thinking.
Emma says well-meaning people “feel like they have to go full force, like full vegan activist to make any sort of difference, but every single person can make a difference by eating one vegan meal a day out of your three meals.” She insists, “You can make a difference.”
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Hanna M. is a student of Concordia Applied Journalism