Vegetarians: Friends or foes?
Part of the vegan experience is being occasionally confused with or mistaken for a vegetarian. That’s understandable, as the words look similar and there’s definitely some overlap between the two. But, what’s unknown to most outsiders is that many vegans actually have a strong dislike for vegetarians. I’m going to explain why that is and give my take on whether or not it’s justified.
What’s the difference?
You might genuinely be unaware of the difference, so let me start off with a quick explanation:
Simply put, vegetarians don’t eat animals, but they will eat their secretions. So, no to meat and fish, yes to dairy, eggs and honey. And also yes to leather shoes, wool sweaters, horse riding, zoo visits and any other product or activity involving animals.
Vegans, on the other hand, eat neither animals nor their secretions, don’t wear any products made from and by animals, and also avoid all other forms of animal exploitation. Veganism extends to all aspects of life.
I used to be a vegetarian
So, the difference is pretty significant. However, there are many vegans who were vegetarians before they went vegan. As a matter of fact, I’m one of them. I was actually a vegetarian for two decades, longer than I’ve been a meat eater or a vegan.
I was born into a family of meat eaters, but at the age of five I was hit with the realization that innocent animals were being killed for me. It horrified me, I couldn’t stomach it anymore, and my mom realized something had to change. So, she consulted a dietitian, who told her it was safe for me to become a vegetarian, and then gave me a choice. I made my choice immediately and never ate meat or fish again. That’s how I became a vegetarian on the same day I found out vegetarianism existed.
Vegetarianism made sense to me. I avoided all products for which animals were killed and didn’t avoid products for which no animals were harmed, or so I thought.
As I got older, I found out the backstory of more and more ingredients. I learned gelatin is made from skin and bones, I learned some red food dye is made from insects, I learned a key ingredient in cheese comes from the stomachs of slaughtered calves, I learned whey is a byproduct of that same process, et cetera. I cut out all products that contained those ingredients the moment I found out animals were killed for them. And over time I also consumed less and less of the animal products for which I thought no animals were killed. For years, almost everything I ate was plant-based. But, all in all, it took me two decades to realize that all animal products and all forms of animal use were, by their very nature, exploitative and that virtually all animals ended up getting killed. That’s when I went vegan.
The truth about eggs and dairy
One of the main reasons vegetarianism even exists is because most people genuinely believe that collecting the eggs of chickens and the milk of cows are harmless processes. I used to believe that too. But nothing could be further from the truth. Allow me to give you a short overview:
The egg industry is inherently cruel for three reasons. The first reason has to do with the fact that the industry constantly needs to bring new chicks into this world. Half of those chicks are males, who will never lay eggs. So, the industry has no use for them and kills them all on their first day of life. Please pause and think about this for a moment. They kill half the chicks they bring into this world on their first day of life. It’s often not a painless death either, but even when it is, it’s still beyond words that one-day-old chicks are being killed.
The second reason has to do with how chickens have been bred over time. The ancestors of chickens were just regular birds who laid ten to fifteen eggs a year, a reasonable number given that they also needed to hatch their eggs and raise the chicks. But our fellow humans have bred them in such a way that today’s chickens lay over three hundred eggs a year. They’ve been robbed of any kind of normal life. Their eggs don’t even contain chicks, and they’re just laying them all year round purely because people like to eat them. This is incredibly taxing on their bodies, even in the best of circumstances, and 98 percent of egg-laying chickens actually live in the worst of circumstances.
The third reason is directly linked to the second reason. Because today’s chickens lay far more eggs in a year than their ancestors did in their entire lives, their bodies can’t keep up and their egg-laying capacity goes down after only a year. They still lay eggs, just not as many as before. But it’s more profitable for the industry to kill and replace them than to keep them alive. And that’s why egg-laying chickens get killed many years before they’ve reached the end of their natural lifespans.
Dairy cows are also exploited for what should be a natural part of their reproductive process: breast milk. You see, cows are mammals, like us. They produce milk in the same situation and for exactly the same reason as human women produce milk: after they’ve given birth, to nurse their children through infancy. The fact that we are the only species on earth to drink breast milk past infancy is strange, the fact that we drink breast milk from another species is even stranger, but the way we obtain that breast milk is downright cruel.
In the dairy industry, young cows are artificially inseminated. The cows go through nine months of pregnancy and then they give birth. Their newborn calves are usually taken away from them within a day. Then the cows get hooked up to machines to be milked for their breast milk multiple times a day for ten months straight. During that time they’re artificially inseminated again, so they can give birth two months after the milking has stopped. When they give birth again, their second child is taken away from them as well and the whole year gets repeated. After four or five pregnancies and forty months of producing breast milk for the very people who sold their children to the meat industry, their milk production starts to go down and they get killed as well.
Vegetarianism shouldn’t exist
Once you know all of this, you understand that the whole concept of vegetarianism is just based on ignorance. If you’re against the exploitation and killing of animals then you should have just as big a problem with eggs and dairy as with meat and fish. And the same goes for every other animal product and all other forms of animal use. I can’t address all of those in just this article, but if there’s any form of animal use you still think might be okay then I invite you to do a search on Bite Size Vegan.
Vegetarianism has no grounds for existence because it’s morally inconsistent. It’s like being against shoplifting, except for the shoplifting of cosmetics. Although I’m sure there’s someone out there who holds that position, we can recognize that it’s irrational. You’re either against shoplifting or you’re not, and you’re either against exploiting and killing animals or you’re not.
Two types of vegetarians
Of course, there are two types of vegetarians. The ones who are genuinely unaware of the cruelty they’re supporting and the ones who are aware. Since veganism is getting more and more mainstream media attention and there’s a growing amount of easily accessible information online, vegetarians who are genuinely unaware and not just willfully ignorant are becoming increasingly rare. I still assume every vegetarian I talk to is genuinely unaware, though, until they tell me otherwise.
As vegans, we don’t want anyone to contribute to animal exploitation, but if we inform uninformed vegetarians and they change their behavior then we obviously don’t blame them for having been uninformed before. It’s only the vegetarians who refuse to go vegan after being informed who are disliked by many vegans.
Three reasons to dislike them?
A lot of vegans actually dislike those vegetarians more than they dislike meat eaters, and they have three reasons to dislike them: One, those vegetarians willfully promote the false belief that animals don’t suffer and die for eggs and dairy. Two, unlike meat eaters, they are fully aware of the cruelty and pay for it anyway. Three, by eating more products from industries that are arguably even crueler than the meat industry they actually cause more harm than meat eaters.
Although I think it’s completely justified to dislike people who knowingly support cruelty, I don’t think all three of these reasons are valid. Let’s go over them one by one.
Promoting a false belief
The first reason is valid, and it’s absolutely inexcusable. Animals in the egg and dairy industries live some of the most horrible lives imaginable and the average person is completely unaware of it. The last thing we need is for people who claim to care about animals to actively pretend that eggs and dairy aren’t also the products of cruelty. There are a lot of meat eaters who take steps to reduce their meat intake and many of them think they’re eating cruelty-free when they replace meat and fish with eggs and dairy. This is a direct result of vegetarians promoting this falsehood.
Knowingly supporting cruelty
The second reason is only partly valid. Of course, those vegetarians are knowingly supporting cruelty, but to act like that’s not the case for meat eaters as well is ridiculous. Meat eaters are fully aware that meat doesn’t grow on trees. They know they’re eating the bodies of animals who used to be alive and were killed in slaughterhouses. Just ask them if they want to see a video on how the meat they eat was “produced” and most of them will say no because they know exactly what happens in the meat industry and they don’t want to see that, not because they’re unaware. We should hold vegetarians accountable for knowingly supporting cruelty, but we shouldn’t act like they’re worse than meat eaters for doing the exact same thing as meat eaters.
Causing more harm than meat eaters
The third reason requires a little more explanation. If you compare the lives of chickens in the egg industry and cows in the dairy industry to the lives of chickens and cows in the meat industry, it’s easy to make the case that the former have it worse. They suffer a lot more before ending up in the same slaughterhouses as the others. Because of that, many vegans think that vegetarians are actually causing more harm, as they’ve cut out meat and fish and are eating crueler products instead. But I don’t think this is an accurate way of looking at it.
I fully acknowledge that people can increase the harm they do by cutting out certain types of animal products and replacing them with others. Pescatarians do this. They stop eating cows, pigs and chickens and instead eat more fish and other aquatic animals who are much smaller, thereby eating a lot more animals in total. Pescetarianism is clearly a step back, but I don’t think we can say the same about vegetarianism.
Of course, there are huge differences between individual vegetarians. There are plenty of vegetarians who don’t eat more eggs and dairy than they ate before they went vegetarian. Those vegetarians are definitely causing less harm than they did before. But even the ones who are eating more eggs and dairy are likely causing less harm than before.
The reason for that comes down to the fact that individual animals produce a lot of eggs and milk. If every chicken lays 300 eggs before she gets killed and the industry kills one male chick for every egg-laying chicken, then one animal is killed for every 150 eggs. That means that if you eat one egg a day it will take you five months to be fully responsible for the suffering and death of one animal. Compare that to someone who eats a piece of chicken meat every day and you can see how it would take that person significantly less time to eat an entire chicken.
A cow in the dairy industry produces 125,000 glasses of milk in her lifetime. If she also gives birth to four calves during that time, then drinking 25,000 glasses of milk makes you fully responsible for the suffering and death of one animal. That means it’s simply impossible to consume so much dairy that you cause more harm than a meat eater.
Given that the average American eats 25 land animals, 12 fish and 137 shellfish a year and is responsible for hundreds of wild aquatic animals that are captured and killed to feed the aquacultured fish and shrimp they eat, it’s just wildly inaccurate to say that vegetarians cause more harm than meat eaters because they possibly consume more eggs and dairy.
Where does that leave us?
The takeaway from all of this depends on your starting point. If you’re already vegan, then I hope you will make vegetarians aware of the cruelty they still contribute to and urge them to go vegan. But I also hope that if you run into a vegetarian who’s unwilling to change, that you won’t waste a disproportionate amount of energy on them. Not because they should get a pass, but because our activism should be effective. Vegetarians cause significantly less harm than meat eaters, so we can save more animals by focusing our efforts on reasoning with meat eaters than with defensive vegetarians.
If you’re reading this as a vegetarian, then I assume you’re not of the defensive kind. So, please go vegan. Right now, you’re still causing unnecessary harm. You’re still actively paying for animals to get exploited and killed, and if you want to live in alignment with your values then you should stop doing that immediately. Going vegan is a lot easier than you might think, many of us have gone before you and we’re happy to help wherever we can. All you need to do is sign up for Challenge 22.
And if you’re a meat eater, then you have the greatest opportunity of all! You can skip the morally inconsistent vegetarian diet and go straight to veganism. There are actually a lot of vegans who went vegan overnight, it’s very doable. If you need help or motivation, I recommend reading my free e-book Questioning Meat, watching the documentary Dominion, signing up for Challenge 22 and, of course, reading more articles on our website. We’d love to welcome you to the vegan community!