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My vegan dilemma

Part one of my vegan journey

The new year marked the start of a challenge for over 100 000 people to abide by a vegan lifestyle for a month, commonly known as ‘Veganuary’. If you’re one of those participating, you have my best wishes on a very positive endeavour for both your own and the planet’s health.

My own journey on this path started in the summer of 2016. But it’s one that’s been challenging both before and after the transition, perhaps for reasons not immediately obvious.

I’ll start by pointing out: I was a strict vegetarian my whole life. That’s how I was brought up. But as most adults do, as we grow out of childhood we begin to question the norms instilled within us – whether it’s our religion, lifestyle, or beliefs. Having been raised in a hybrid of Indian and British cultures, there have been many times where the aforementioned attributes have clashed. This has made me very introspective to all aspects of my identity, especially my diet.

The reality of animal farming today

In the past 5 years, I’ve noticed an accelerating movement across the western towards embracing a plant-based diet. In part thanks to social media, animal rights activism and recent food safety scandals, the public are becoming increasingly aware of how animal products are produced.

The curtain is falling on the illusion that commercial livestock live out their lives in their natural environment. In a seemingly endless drive to increase profits at whatever cost, industries have commoditised the lives of creatures who are born and killed in enormous factories, often suffering unimaginable pain in between. I’ll spare you the gruesome details (there’s plenty of documentaries on that).

A typical factory farm

The sad fact is, unlike every generation that preceded us, the western world has become divorced from the reality of how meat and animal by-products ends up on supermarket shelves. We’ve become ignorant and shielded from the widespread suffering of sentient cows, pigs and chickens to holocaust like conditions and not think twice about it.

There’s a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests humans can live a healthy lifestyle from entirely plant-based foods, so in effect the whole practice is unnecessary except solely for satisfying humanity’s taste buds. The irony, however, is that these large scale farming practices are having serious consequences for us humans too.

The UN estimates that about 15% of all global warming emissions, equivalent to transportation industry, come from livestock farming. Hundreds of species become extinct each year in the tropics thanks to destruction of rainforests to make way for cattle pastures. Cocktails of antibiotics administered to animals to keep them alive in unnatural conditions is causing antibiotic resistance to viruses resulting in routine operations killing patients in hospitals. The scientifically-proven health risks of meat and dairy consumption is killing even more. The list goes on.

Switching to ‘organic’ produce may alleviate some – but by no means all –  aspects of animal welfare concerns, however it’s arguably even more destructive to the environment given the significantly increased natural resource intake versus intensive farming.  There are no two ways about it: the scale of animal product consumption at current levels is seriously unsustainable.

A lagoon of animal manure discharged into the environment from a factory farm

My dilemma

About three years ago, through various internet meanderings I was surprised and shocked to discover the widespread misery that dairy cows endure to produce milk, and hens to produce eggs. I saw scenes of cows suffering the mental anguish of having their male calves taken away and shot while enduring a constant cycle of artificial pregnancy. I was horrified to learn that male chicks are routinely shredded in metal grinders while fully conscious just because they’re unable to lay eggs, while the hens that can and are de-beaked and confined to tiny cages for the remainder of their lives.

I had always assumed that since these animals weren’t being reared for their meat, that they would be somewhat immune to the brutality that we’ve inflicted on other livestock destined for the dinner table. Obviously I was wrong.

So, I faced a dilemma. I could no longer justify abstaining from meat but supporting the consumption of animal by-products produced in the same destructive fashion. Being a vegetarian felt like an unacceptable halfway state in my mind, as modern industrial production of dairy and eggs results in equal, if not more, animal suffering than meat production alone.

It became a binary choice. On the one hand, I was considering completely forgoing the personal sacrifice of being vegetarian. Part of me was prepared to overlook the widespread animal suffering because as an already fussy eater, consuming purely plant-based was likely to be a complete nightmare. I felt as though the sacrifices on my part were too great without any meaningful impact given the scale of the industry. And, so I thought, even a vegan diet wasn’t entirely free of suffering which results as a by-product of plant-based food production (e.g. pesticides, fertilisers).

The alternative was to take a step in the opposite direction and transition entirely to a vegan, animal-free lifestyle as best as I could, knowing that it’s not perfect but at the limit of what’s practically suitable for my lifestyle (i.e without growing all of my own food).

For a very long time while in this limbo state, I couldn’t decide which path to go down. My thinking evolved as I travelled and grew increasingly fascinated by nature and wildlife. I began to realise: all of the intelligent animals that I gawked over – in TV documentaries, during visits to wildlife parks, or during encounters in my own neighbourhood – they all had absolutely everything in common with farmed animals that weren’t so lucky. Namely, their sentience, complex emotions and ability to feel pain.

My fascination with great apes, like these orangutans, was an eye opener to the similarities between humanity and the animal kingdom

This fascination with nature became my strongest rationale for choosing a vegan diet. All creatures have sentience, so why love and cherish one but hurt another? Most of us couldn’t possibly imagine killing and eating a dog, monkey, or elephant to satisfy a few minutes of pleasure in our mouth. Yet we make life a misery for billions of livestock because, well, they’re not cute and cuddly?

In short, I couldn’t justify loving animals and inflicting pain upon them at the same time. Along with my other environmental concerns of continued animal farming, this re-enforced my final decision. I was going to eliminate all animal products as practically as possible, and become vegan.

I just needed a push to get there.

The transition

People ask me why I chose to become vegan when travelling through some of the most challenging countries in the world to eat purely plant based. The truth it, while I had decided before leaving on my 2016 Asian adventure to become vegan at some point in the future, the transition during the trip was somewhat unintentional.

Before leaving home, I fondly (and embarrassingly) remember packing milk sachets into my backpack to accompany my morning tea on the train journeys. But when I had exhausted the milk supply by the second day on the trans-Siberian railway, I had no choice but to sip on black tea. And as it turned out, I ended up quite enjoying the pure taste of the tea leaves.

As I continued through South-East Asia, fresh noodle and rice dishes were the staple, with yoghurt, milk and cheese not widely consumed in those countries. Plenty of fresh, delicious fruit and vegetables were readily available, however. Fruit juices replaced milkshakes; peanut butter replaced dairy butter, avocado replaced cheese. There’s plenty of natural substitutes without all that unpleasant mock-meat stuff.

Pizza, though, was a complicated one – after all, cheese is the staple of the dish. That was until I came across ‘By Hand Cafe’ in Chiang Mai, where I was treated to the most delicious pizza ever to grace my mouth. It was totally cheese-less but tasted better than anything I had before. Suddenly I realised that being vegan wasn’t necessarily a compromise.

Before I knew it, I returned home as a vegan, to a city that’s probably most vegan friendly in the world. My friends and family were curious, if not entirely sold on the idea that it was good for my health (“Shonak, where will you get your calcium and iron? Just be normal!”). But over time I’ve won them over to respect my stance, and in fact I’ve inspired a few friends to reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products too.

While I’ve largely kept to the plant-based diet since my return, it’s been far from straightforward at times. In the second part of my vegan journey, I’ll talk about some of the positive changes that have resulted from my transition and also some of the challenges. Check back soon!

-S

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