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Opinion

Sentient Beings: The Case for Veganism

When I began writing this article about veganism at Yale I did not intend for it to be so morbid. Professor and Head of College Laurie Santos often reminds student groups that a positive framing of the impacts of an action works better to motivate long-term behaviour change than statistics that incite fear, guilt or anger.  However, no matter her wisdom, I feel that there is so much that is unknown nor discussed about animal agriculture at Yale that I am compelled to start the conversation with the raw facts, grim as they are.

Today, there exists an undeniable body of scientific evidence supporting the belief in animal sentience. We know that chickens have at least 24 different calls, which other chickens are readily able to interpret. A study at Cambridge University showed that a sheep can remember every face in a flock of fifty other sheep after two years of not seeing them. Some animals that experience sudden relocation or the killing of their peers display human-like symptoms of PTSD. For anyone who has owned a pet, this is probably not a surprise. Although not entirely human-like, animals certainly experience some version of what we consider the range of human emotion.

Once you accept that animals are sentient beings, there can be no real argument that animals are not suffering in our ‘supply chain.’ According to journalist Glenn Greenwald, this is a summary of the typical life of an intensively farmed pig: It is bred, born, then immediately placed into a steel crate fitted to be precisely the length and width of its body. For the rest of its life, it will stand on a concrete floor. It will be force-fed excess food and antibiotics. It will never see the sun. Most likely, it will never even experience the sensation of turning around. Instead, if it is female, it is likely to crush its piglets to death whilst trying to make space for them to feed. Idaho, Iowa and Missouri would not have felt it necessary to institute “Ag-gag” laws making it illegal to film the interior of meat industry operations if the reality inside wasn’t truly abhorrent to witness. It should be clear: the horrific conditions on commercial farms are not a matter of opinion or ‘animal activist righteousness’.

Nonetheless, there are those who are not convinced that animals can feel the pain that I am trying to evoke on this page. Those who have been in a meat factory can attest otherwise. Glenn Greenwald reports that “pigs are so desperate to get out of their crates that they often spend weeks trying to bite through the iron bars until their gums gush blood”. I wish I could tell you that the lives of chicken in the poultry and egg industry are better. They’re not. It is not obvious to me that humans even have the vocabulary to describe the magnitude of the anguish we force upon them.

Some might argue that there exists such a thing as ‘ethical meat products’, such free range eggs, grass-fed cows, and so on. It is true that there are animal farms that are kinder to the animals they use as produce (although many ‘ethical farms’ are not as pristine as they claim). Yet the bottom line remains that an animal must be slaughtered to produce meat. To call meat ‘ethical’ then means that you must believe that the needless killing of an animal is moral, or right. If so-called ethical meat eaters don’t think that it is right for animals to suffer, why should it be permissible for them to be murdered? As long as we see animals as a means to a tasty end, we are blind to see their intrinsic value, assigning them only the instrumental value of our nutritional and gustatory fulfillment.

There is enough anguish in animal agriculture industry to fill the world with utter despondency. According to 2008 UN statistics, humans are responsible for the deaths of at least 56 billion land animals per year, which is eight times the number of people currently estimated to be on the planet. However, even with such enormous suffering, each of us as individuals can make a sizeable difference. The average American directly consumes around 150 animals every year according to Counting Animals. Given the 79 year estimated life expectancy of an American, following a vegetarian diet then means that one can save approximately 11,850 animals in a lifetime. Vegans do even better.

It is important to remember that the animal product industry is first and foremost a business. It responds to our “consumer demand” – our wants, our needs, and our disapproval. We often feel powerless in face of the market’s abstract nature, but it remains a strong tool for us to send a signal and ask for change. Yes, cutting animal products out of your diet can be difficult. I am one of the first to admit that animal products taste great. They are in many upbringings the centrepiece of most family meals. For college students, they are right there in the dining hall, and the Beyond Burger, as my friend commented on his way to an important date, kind of makes your breath smell. Foregoing animal products does mean changing what for many are deeply ingrained habits, but given the violence involved in their production, this is a small price to pay to show our non-acceptance, and to make a change.

Although, because of the way the animal product industry works, the positive externalities of being vegan are admittedly more complicated than that. The supply of any animal product begins at the breeding of the animal. Hence, by becoming vegan, you ensure that those animals that would have suffered through the ‘supply chain’ of big-ag are never born. This might seem like a nit-picky detail, but it has important moral consequences. Namely, it means that animal product consumers are not only responsible for the slaughter of 11,850 animals in their lifetime. Rather, by the forces of supply and demand, it means that they are each requesting that 11,850 animals be put into existence, live miserable lives, and then be executed, for the sake of being put on their plate.

Those who are vegetarians are making a valid attempt, but animals need not be murdered to suffer. To maintain a constant supply of low-price milk, farmers require cows to be pregnant for essentially the entirety of their life after their first menstruation. To achieve this, farmers have invented a device which restrains cattle while a metal “Artificial Insemination Gun” containing bull semen is pushed into their vagina. A commercially-owned cow will be subjected to this treatment every year of its adult life.

The atrocities in the animal product industry are more painful and plentiful than I am able to communicate, and virtually all of them tell the same shocking tale. By and large, the story of the animal product industry is the story of a massacring machine that brings conscious beings into this world for the sole purpose of their subjugation, torture and ultimate murder. Conversations concerning animal rights must begin with an honest admission of this fact.

But the cruelty of animal product industry is also a story of markets, of unscrupulous, profit-maximising supply, and our collective demand for it. If ten college students choose to switch away from animal products to plant-based diets, then their college kitchens will order less animal produce. Yet, when choosing to eat animal products, you are asking for – demanding – all that I have described above. Is this really what you want?