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My beef with veganism

By David Wilson

Toronto writer David Macfarlane submitted the first draft of this month’s cover story on veganism in late February. At an editorial meeting in early March, everyone working on the piece confessed they’d either gone off meat or cut back dramatically since reading it.

It’s that convincing. Given the militancy of some vegans, you might expect Macfarlane’s piece to be something of a diatribe. But Macfarlane is no evangelist for the vegan cause. Rather, his article (“Are vegans right?”) is a clear-headed account of his own experience with a strictly plant-based diet. It begins with curiosity and culminates in wisdom. I defy even the staunchest carnivore to read it and not feel a little drawn to the conclusion that our appetites often get in the way of our ethics.

The case Macfarlane makes for his transformation from meat- to plant-eater is persuasive on many levels: it’s better for the planet; it’s better for animals; it’s better for our health. He makes it seem so logical, almost self-evident. But even the most compelling ethical positions are rarely unblemished. Contemplate a transformation like Macfarlane’s on a global scale and you encounter a new set of ethical problems.

I spent some of my formative years in rural Ontario, among farmers who mostly earned their living from raising cattle. These are proud, good people who love farming and toil very hard to make a go of it. I still have close ties to the area. The farmers I know are among the 1.3 billion people worldwide whose livelihoods, according to a 2006 UN study, depend on raising and selling animal products, and who would face financial ruin if everyone suddenly changed to a plant-only diet.

Obviously the world isn’t going to go vegan, or even vegetarian, overnight. But at least in the developed world, where we have the luxury of picking and choosing what we consume, eating habits are changing — just ask anyone who has planned a dinner party recently. When I was in my 20s, I knew exactly one vegetarian, and she was regarded as a bit of an oddity. Today, vegetarians (who eat some animal products but not meat) are commonplace, vegans more and more so. A survey conducted in 2003 by diabetes researchers found that four percent of Canadians were vegetarian. A similar poll commissioned in 2015 by the Vancouver Humane Society found that 33 percent were either vegetarian or making a conscious effort to eat less meat.

Where once we craved animal products, now we’re rejecting them. Since 1999, beef consumption in Canada has declined by about 20 percent, pork by more than 30 percent, and the trend is gathering momentum. (Leading water scientists say that the whole world will need to go vegetarian by 2050 due to water shortages caused by climate change.) Farmers who obliged our carnivorous cravings by going bigger and bigger into livestock are feeling the pinch of changing eating habits. Those whose acreages are suitable for growing plant foods will be able to adapt, but others won’t. It’s going to hurt, and they’re going to need help. It’s not enough simply to dismiss them as being on the wrong side of history.

It’s been weeks since Macfarlane filed his story. At a recent staff lunch, not a single colleague ordered anything resembling meat. At home, our fridge is stocked with fewer and fewer animal products and more and more plant-based foods. We’re not certified vegetarians or vegans, but we no longer discount the possibility that we might be someday. We’re being persuaded. However, thinking this through, I’m persuaded of something else: yes, what we choose to eat has ethical consequences; but what we choose not to eat has consequences too. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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