The Student News Site of Punahou School

Ka Punahou

The Student News Site of Punahou School

Ka Punahou

The Student News Site of Punahou School

Ka Punahou

Reasons for a Plant-Based Diet

Serene Kim ’24

Perhaps going vegetarian or vegan is something you have always wanted to try. You may already be practicing a meatless diet, or working towards one. Or maybe a plant-based diet is an unfamiliar, intimidating topic for you like it was for me four years ago. I understand if that is the case, since I used to think it was impossible to live without meat and other animal products. I never questioned my omnivorous diet until I learned about its staggering impact on my health, the animals, and the planet. 

According to The Vegan Society, veganism is a lifestyle that aims to benefit animals, humans, and the environment through abstention from animal-based food products, including meat, dairy, eggs, fish, and honey, and through not purchasing leather, silk, or animal-tested products. I used to wonder why anyone would go out of their way to save the lives of animals they have never even met. After all, where is the harm in sacrificing some animals for our needs and health benefits? 

Unfortunately, it is not just “some” animals. You may be surprised to learn that over 2 billion animals have been killed for food in the past two weeks in the United States alone. Altogether, more than 55 billion sea and land animals die annually to support the US food supply. The number is even higher with the addition of the annual bycatch (caught and discarded sea creatures). 

However, the cruelty that the animals have to go through is even more horrifying. Factory farms, also known as CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), maximize profit by packing cows, pigs, and chickens in small, confined spaces the sizes of their bodies. The crowded, unhygienic environment often leads to disease-related deaths. Female cows, sows, and hens are artificially impregnated to produce milk and eggs, and only minutes after giving birth, their babies are taken away from them. Baby male chicks that cannot lay eggs are ground up alive; 250 million male chicks die this way in the US each year. The oppressive environment causes stress and depression in these animals, who may become aggressive toward each other. The industry solves the problem by cutting off the beaks of chickens—a process called “debeaking”—and clipping the teeth and tails of pigs without giving them painkillers.

Other forms of animal abuse are not uncommon in slaughterhouses. In one of their many investigations, Mercy for Animals discovered that workers in US factory farms grabbed piglets by their back legs and killed them by repeatedly slamming their heads against the ground. The practice is shocking, especially considering that pigs are intelligent beings who have the cognitive abilities of a three-year-old child and can even play video games!

About 250,000 factory farms in the US raise nearly 99 percent of all farmed animals for food. Despite their enormous presence and impact on millions of consumers, the animal industry remains behind closed doors for the most part. Efforts to hide the inner workings of factory farms on the state level through legislation like the “ag-gag law” only seem to reinforce the fact that animal agriculture is rarely humane.

But animals are not the only victims. Human workers in the animal industry are often exempt from labor protections set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) because of a rider attached to OSHA’s budget, which aims to protect small farms (with ten or fewer employees) from onerous government oversight. The enforcement fails to recognize that it has become the norm for a single worker to tend thousands of animals or a farm to staff ten or fewer employees in the highly automated US animal industry. To prove this point, 85 percent of animal-agriculture-related deaths went unreported to OSHA during the past decade. The reports that OSHA did receive are alarming: people have died after being attacked by cows, crushed or amputated by heavy machinery, exposed to toxic chemicals, or accidentally injecting themselves with vaccines intended for animals. Although labeled as “accidents,” many of these cases were easily preventable through proper training, safety equipment, and stricter protocols. The agriculture lobby, however, opposes regulation to promote the deceptive image of farming as a natural, morally-good practice led by self-reliant Yeoman farmers who do not need government intervention. 

Employment conditions in the animal industry are not just physically dangerous—their violent nature also poses risks of psychological health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder. Writing for the BBC, one former slaughterhouse worker told a gruesome, disturbing account of their personal experience. The anecdote mentions, “As I spent day after day in that large, windowless box, my chest felt increasingly heavy and a grey fog descended over me. At night, my mind would taunt me with nightmares, replaying some of the horrors I’d witnessed throughout the day.”

Many people think that meat is essential for their health and well-being. However, evidence suggests the opposite. A study conducted by Oxford University concluded that compared to regular meat-eaters, the risk of developing cancer of any type was much lower in vegetarians and fish-eaters. Processed meat has been classified as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO)’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the National Institutes of Health and Harvard School of Public Health has linked red meat to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Meat has also been associated with obesity, diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, higher mortality rates, and other conditions. Numerous organizations today support a diet that limits red meat and includes more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and plant-based protein sources like beans. 

A lot of people adopt a plant-based diet for environmental benefits. Cattle raised on pastures created by clearing forests contribute significantly to emissions, producing large amounts of methane. Studies have found that meat production worldwide causes twice the pollution of plant-based food production. According to Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change, a report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a shift to plant-based diets can substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions, inefficient land use for feed crop production, and nutrient run-off. A report published in The Lancet agreed that vegan and vegetarian diets were associated with the highest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and a dietary shift away from animal products was critical for the health of our planet. 

Going vegetarian or vegan is not a single resolution for all the global problems we face today, but merely being aware of the potential changes we can create through our diet is taking a big step forward. If any of the points above resonated with you, I encourage you to try Meatless Mondays! Missing out on meat does not mean you have to miss out on your favorite dishes. There are recipes for plant-based alternatives for all kinds of food on the internet: pizza, quesadilla, lasagna, orange chicken, tacos, spam musubi, and even roast beef! They may not taste identical to their meat-based counterparts, but they usually are much healthier, greener, and humane.

Of course, plant-based dishes can be delicious, too! And – this may be unexpected – in high-income countries like the US, a plant-based diet is cheaper than a typical Western diet. Current western-style diets are not only unhealthy, but they are unsustainable and unaffordable in lower-income countries. Vegan and low-meat diets will have to become more widely adopted for a sustainable future.

If you are interested in talking more about this topic, the author invites you to contact [email protected].

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