Is veganism the ethical ideal?

Finley Kidd 14 October 2017

Dietary ethics are a regular feature of conversation in my kitchen. I am vegetarian, my housemate mostly is too, unless someone else doesn’t want their meat at formal, in which case waste reduction prevails, but we both worry that this isn’t enough. The main subject of debate tends to be dairy — soya yoghurt and almond milk are often to be found in our fridge. We both keep dairy milk as well though, because tea just isn’t the same without it (and Asda doesn’t sell “that special type of oat milk which doesn’t curdle in hot drinks”). 

My concern about the dairy industry is relatively recent — arising from watching Simon Amstell’s excellent mockumentary Carnage, in which the vegan citizens of 2067 look back on the now-extinct meat and dairy industries.  The film highlights the brutality of artificially inseminating cows and requiring them to be both pregnant and lactating simultaneously, a practice which also occurs in organic farming. The poor treatment of dairy cows, especially in comparison to those bred for meat, is something which my vet friends have pointed out to me before. This, and the associated culling of male calves at birth, suggests that the moral high-ground in terms of animal welfare isn’t achieved simply by not eating beef – the milk would have to go too. This argument also applies on environmental grounds. As David MacKay discusses in “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air”, drinking a pint of milk a day and eating 50g of cheese is approximately equivalent to employing 1/16 of a cow — better than eating the meat as well, but hardly environmentally friendly.  

So far, then, veganism looks like the most ethical option — unsurprisingly, perhaps, a diet excluding animal products is likely to minimise the exploitation of animals. The discussion in our kitchen, however, is only just beginning." For instance, which dairy substitute—since we would still like yoghurt and milk for our breakfast—is the best ethical choice? This subject is fraught with environmental issues. 

 One concern is the amount of water which goes into producing milk substitutes, often in water-poor regions. Almond milk is a prime example – with each almond requiring 5 litres of water to produce, and UK production coming mostly from California, which has experienced a series of droughts in recent years. As it turns out, this might not be such a big problem; since most almond milk is only about 2% almonds, the average litre probably contains no more than 10 almonds. This puts the water use per litre around 51 litres (adding one for making up the rest of the bottle). A litre of dairy milk, however, takes around 1000 litres of water to produce, according to research by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. This research reveals some additional unpalatable information — chocolate requires 17,196 litres of water per kilogram to produce, higher even than a kilogram of beef. 

Many of the elements needed to replace meat and dairy in a vegan diet, such as soya, lentils and chickpeas can’t be grown in the UK, requiring food to be transported long distances, with associated carbon emissions. Soya and coconut milk both have this issue. Pulses also come with the snag of packaging. Who really has the time in today’s hectic world (and certainly in a Cambridge term, with hobs that have to be turned back on every 10 minutes) to soak beans overnight and cook for hours the next day? But aluminium, as well as being a finite resource, is the most energy intensive packaging material in common use for foods and a modern UK vegan seems likely to use more tins than the average omnivore. 

Another issue is land use. Pulses tend to have a low energy value per unit area of crop, so require large areas to farm. Soya in particular has received bad press, as increasing global demand is leading to deforestation in South America analogous to that due to cattle farming. Moves towards mono-cultural farming also tend to reduce soil quality over time, reducing productivity and requiring ever greater areas to be used for agriculture. Increasing demand from countries like the UK, which can’t grow their own pulses, can also lead to supply issues in the countries where they do originate. Quinoa has been a key example of this, with yummy mummies and clean-eaters pricing Peruvians out of their staple food. 

Vegans, though, are hardly the only consumers of quinoa. The same can be said of ethical concerns relating to the treatment of workers involved in food production around the world. Reports of “blood cashews” and child labour in the agricultural sector are issues that we all need to face up to, irrespective of our diets, as a common, unethical feature of modern food production. The salient point here is that no diet can be called “cruelty free”, even without cruelty to animals. 

Similarly, no diet has zero environmental impact. And so my housemate and I conclude, rather sadly, that whilst we should probably ditch the dairy… and eat local… and only buy food with minimal packaging… the whole business of eating ethically and sustainably is so complicated that for now aiming for these ideals will have to do. If everyone were to reduce their intake of meat and dairy as much as they feel they can that would have a significant impact. Indeed, a recent study reported that if US citizens changed from their current high calorie diet to a “normal” calorific intake they could reduce the associated greenhouse gas emissions by 9%. Some food for thought.