• Bryan Dennstedt

VEGANISM, PLANT-BASED & THE QUESTION OF ETHICS

There are many reasons people go plant-based.


For some, it is the influence of a loved one or partner, for others it is health. More altruistically, some will do it for the animals, the planet, or a combination of both. And for some, the choice is taken out of their hands, and health or medical issues dictate the necessity.


Whatever the reason, the actual boundaries, definitions, and ideologies are as personal as they are diverse. The common perception, however, will often raise the question of ethics.

To describe yourself as ‘plant-based’ is, to some degree, avoiding this moral quandary.

By definition, a plant-based diet is just that: a diet based upon almost exclusively plants. There is leeway for a little dairy, even the rare and occasional portion of meat, and the use of any other animal products, such as wool, leather, and fur.

Veganism, on the other hand, “is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” [1]


The chasm that divides these two - with vegetarianism laying somewhere in between - is open to personal interpretation, but invariably once we take our first steps towards a cruelty-free lifestyle, whatever the initial impetus, we begin to question the ethics and the great depths to which they go.


Wikipedia defines a plant-based diet as “consisting mostly or entirely of foods derived from plants, including vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and fruits, and with few or no animal products.” [2] It’s a free pass to do good but has the freedom to do as you please.


I wholeheartedly advocate a plant-based diet. It is a hugely significant step towards better health, a cleaner planet, and less animal cruelty. It also induces far less guilt or pressure than the devoted commitment to go fully vegan and can provide a more manageable transition, if you choose, to a completely vegan lifestyle. When I first opted for a plant-based lifestyle, I threw myself into veganism without first doing the groundwork and was hugely challenged in the first 30 days. Veganism can initially be very hard for the unprepared.

A way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

Yet with each decision you make, whether it is selecting your restaurant meal or doing your grocery shopping, your moral gland begins to tingle, and you soon begin to realize that the journey to veganism is a lot like an iceberg, with only a small percentage initially visible. Our minds expand. We have stepped through the door, tumbled into the rabbit hole, taken the red pill, and we begin to see how vast the issue is.


Take eggs.


Chickens naturally lay eggs. Most eggs are unfertilized, so we are not responsible for the death of an unborn chick. It is, biologically-speaking, a waste product. Yet when you see images of battery farms, row upon row of caged hens crammed into a dark, environmentally-polluting warehouse, you would likely choose to opt for cage-free eggs. But the ethics don’t stop there. ‘Cage-free’ means just that: the hens aren’t imprisoned in individual cages. They are, however, packed thousands-upon-thousands into claustrophobic sheds with little or no light or fresh air. The next step is to move to ASPCA-approved eggs. These are a stage better in the lives of the hens, but those hens have to come from somewhere, and - in case you missed biology 101 in high school - male chickens don’t lay eggs. These ‘useless’ male chicks are simply discarded, thrown in the trash as byproducts of the egg industry, and sometimes their fate is even worse.

“Okay”, you may say, “so any mass-produced eggs are bad. I’ll get my own chickens!” A great solution and yes, this will avoid the many ethical issues associated with eggs...almost.


If left to their own devices, chickens will lay their eggs, roost for a period of time, then break and consume their own eggs if they are infertile. To us, this sounds little short of cannibalistic, but for the chickens, the eggs and their shells provide vital nutrients and minerals lost in the egg-laying process. Added to this, in the wild they would produce a quarter of the eggs as they do in backyard coops. By taking their eggs we are encouraging them to lay far more than they naturally would and this 400 percent increase in egg production puts incredible extra strain on their bodies, without replenishing those minerals and vitamins.


This isn’t to say you should or shouldn’t eat eggs. It is only to illustrate that ethics reach far beyond surface perception. Similar stories can be found in the dairy industry, and the resultant atrocities of milk production alone are almost too horrific to repeat.

Once someone has taken that first step, a whole new world opens up to them, and more often than not, the journey will continue.

Of course, if you have chosen to be plant-based, you have no obligation to take these points into consideration. You haven’t signed a contract, no one has forced you, and the only person you need to answer to is yourself. Perhaps health brought you to where you are now, so the ethics of animal cruelty are of no concern to you. There is nothing at all wrong with this. This is not about judgment or preaching, simply about sharing information. Yet what I have found time and again is that, once someone has taken that first step, a whole new world opens up to them, and more often than not, the journey will continue.


But where does it stop?


A true vegan won’t wear fur, leather, or wool, but most vegans weren’t born that way and, before deciding to make the change, will have bought, owned, or been given clothing made with animal products. So what should they do with them now they have decided never to wear animal fabrics again?

Goodwill is a great solution. You are standing by your moral values, raising funds for worthy charities, and giving someone affordable clothing. Yet not everything can go to charity stores. Sometimes you will have products that are unsellable or turned away from Goodwill. Though threadbare or stained, they are still usable by you, but now you’re vegan and you don’t wear animal products. You can’t give these garments away, so what should you do? It’s an ethical dilemma.


When a friend of mine decided to move from vegetarian to vegan he owned a pair of UGG boots. Made of sheepskin, they were definitely not vegan. But the worn soles, tattered seams, and ‘personalized’ aroma meant they couldn’t be sold or given away. Despite his newfound veganism, he decided to wear them until they fell to pieces. Rather than throw a still-usable pair of boots in the bin, he concluded that it was more ethically responsible to wear them out than waste them.


Another predicament is with food ingredients. Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based, you will likely analyze the ingredients of your groceries, looking for animal fats, eggs, or that hidden foe of many a vegan, milk solids.


This isn’t so easy when you are eating out, and sometimes you will be three mouthfuls into a meal when you realize it contains cheese, for example. Should you complain? If you have stated that you are dairy-free, then yes, of course, but often that isn’t an option. If you can slide the offending ingredient to one side, great, but again this is sometimes impossible. As with my friend’s UGG boots, to simply throw the meal away is incredibly wasteful. If you have allergies or medical issues related to the ingredient then, of course, you shouldn’t eat it. Likewise, if you find the offending product nauseating. But if you hadn’t even noticed it and have no option of eating around it or returning it, is it more ethical to eat it anyway or throw it in the trash?

This is an ethical dilemma that only the individual can answer.

As you can see, this is an ethical dilemma that only the individual can answer. A die-hard vegan might suggest that you absolutely should not eat it, but food waste causes methane emissions and environmental damage, so which action causes the least harm?


Oreo cookies are another ethical challenge. Oreos are ‘accidentally’ vegan, manufactured without animal products, but with no direct intention of being vegan. Yet Oreos, like many other mass-produced food items, contain palm oil.


In and of itself, palm oil is 100 percent vegan and ethically neutral, but the mass-production of palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia, which accounts for some 90 percent of global palm oil production, is poorly governed and an ethical and environmental disaster.


Palm oil ranks among the U.S. Department of Labor’s top four worst industries for forced and child labor. Up to 300 football fields of rainforest are cleared every HOUR for palm oil plantations, resulting in massive habitat loss, environmental damage, elevated climate change and many creatures - among them the Sumatran orangutans - now facing extinction. [3]

A victim of the palm oil industry. Photo: Greenpeace Australia

So, whether you are plant-based, vegetarian, or vegan, can you eat Oreos and palm-oil dependent products? Sure - no problem. Should you consume palm oil in any form? That comes down to your personal ethics and how deep you wish to dive into the dilemma.


As I mentioned earlier, this article isn’t about causing guilt or even suggesting that you should devote yourself to a committed vegan lifestyle.


Ethics are a question of questions. When you have an ethical standpoint, you must continually question your lifestyle to be sure it meets your moral position. So consider your life. What do you truly believe in, how do you want to live your life and what impact do you choose to have on the world around you?


Whether you are plant-based, vegetarian, vegan, or even just beginning to explore these choices, keep your mind open, your questions flowing, and your moral compass pointing in the right direction.


[1] https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plant-based_diet

[3] https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/top-10-facts-you-need-to-know-about-palm-oil/

Bryan is a 'self-taught' plant-based activist, discovering the benefits of eliminating animal products from his diet over 10 years ago. Since that time, he has advocated not only for a social shift in dietary and environmental awareness but also to reverse the construct that meat consumption is somehow tied to manliness and machismo.


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