Vegetarianism versus Veganism: A harmful or helpful debate?

Vegetarianism versus Veganism: A harmful or helpful debate?

Credit: Maddison Fantillo via Unsplash

Most humans know little about the daily oppression and suffering of other animals. Few ponder the sentience or experience of life of other animals; most are too busy trying to make ends meet financially, or merely to survive day to day. Even among the relatively few human animals who do consider, grieve, and even protest their circumstances and those of the other animals on the Earth, even fewer consider the underlying roles played by the capitalist system and patriarchy.

-David Nilbert, Animal Oppression and Capitalism


On hot summer days, some of us beat the heat with an ice cream cone from the shop around the corner, which seems harmless, right? You may be surprised to learn that your few minutes of pleasure are someone else’s lifetime of horror. Although many ice cream parlours are starting to offer vegan options, most people are not willing to change their habits. A reason for this is because many think that consuming dairy isn’t bad since it is only an animal product, and extracting milk from a cow doesn’t kill it. Sadly, this could not be further from the truth. 

As a result of growing awareness about animal products over the years, more people are choosing plant-based alternatives. That being said, there is an increasing divide between vegetarians (those who do not eat meat, but eat dairy) and vegans (those who don’t eat meat or dairy). While some vegans consider vegetarianism “better than nothing,” many vegans think that it’s still morally wrong to consume dairy products. This debate raises a few questions. The first is, how does dairy consumption affect the animals who forcibly produce it? Second, as vegans, is it helpful or harmful to condemn vegetarians for consuming dairy? 

Dairy is Scary: How Dairy Production Impacts Cows

Most people don’t know the consequences of something as seemingly innocent as a cone of vanilla soft serve ice cream. Like humans, the body of a female cow begins producing milk during pregnancy to nourish their babies once they are born. According to Tracy Harris, author of “The Problem is Not the People It’s the System: The Canadian Animal Industrial Complex,” cows do not get the opportunity to engage in this natural, bonding activity on dairy farms. Instead, female dairy cows are separated from their calf within days, if not immediately, after giving birth, resulting in severe distress for both the mother cow and her calf. But why do dairy farms do this if it causes such high emotional stress to the animals? 

Because a calf drinking its mother’s milk would interrupt the production necessary to create the dairy products we buy at the grocery store. 

What Happens to the Calves? 

When a mother cow delivers a male calf, he will be sent to a veal farm typically within 24 hours of birth. Within just 4-5 months after reaching the veal farm, he will be slaughtered for veal meat. According to a study conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2008, male calves are usually chained up in tiny stalls, and often suffer from diarrhea, pneumonia, and lameness. This could be, at least in part, due to their diet, which is purposely kept low in iron to maintain a pale pink color to their flesh. 

When a mother cow delivers a female calf, she will be forcibly impregnated not long after her 1st birthday, starting the same abusive milk-production cycle over again. For cows, this life is nothing short of horror. Since cows are often portrayed as passive and emotionless, it might be surprising to learn that cows experience a wide range of emotions, as humans do. Mother cows are known to chase the trucks that are transporting their babies away from them, and sometimes go as far as trying to hide their babies, demonstrating a fear of their baby being harmed or taken away. In a 2019 interview, a dairy farmer admitted that mother cows will cry out for days after their baby calves are taken away from them.   

Cows’ suffering continues to be passively accepted by society because their emotions are not valued at the same level as human emotions are. Rather, cows are seen as nothing more than an object to be used for human benefit, instead of gentle, sentient beings who deserve to live in peace. 

Vegetarianism versus veganism: is division harmful or helpful?

In recent years, we have seen changes in people’s mentality regarding their relationship with food and animals. Over the past few decades, more and more people are asking themselves if meat is an essential part of their diet. In even more recent years, people have begun asking themselves if dairy products are a necessary part of their diet. 

Asking ourselves these questions matters because it shows that, as a society, we are starting to think critically about what we consume, and who it affects. More and more awareness about animal suffering on dairy farms continues to be presented, and as a result, people are starting to take action to help end it. In saying this, some vegans, and well-intended animal-rights activists criticize vegetarians for consuming dairy, which raises a few concerns in the fight for animal liberation. The first is that, does pointing the finger at vegetarians encourage veganism, or does it polarize the animal-rights movement altogether? And if it does polarize the animal-rights movement, can animal liberation still be accomplished? 

As vegans, could we instead start a conversation with vegetarians and educate them about the horrors of the dairy industry they may not be aware of or sensitive to? Furthermore, could we demonstrate why veganism is important as a solution to mitigate these problems? As a community that encourages open-mindedness, it is counterproductive to be gatekeepers to others wanting to join the fight. I believe that, even if the choice to be vegan is for animals, it should not lead us to ostracize those questioning their habits and seeking to reduce their consumption of animal products. Instead, as vegans, let us unite with vegetarians to focus on educating people who lack awareness about animal cruelty the most. Aren’t they the ones who demand considerable attention, and not those already on our side at least part way? 

Stevan Harnad, researcher, and advocate for vegetarianism, previously discussed in an article how ashamed he is of having been a vegetarian for so long when he thinks of the speeches he has given to help animals while at the same time consuming dairy. While Harnad was somewhat conscious of animal cruelty in the dairy industry, it was during a conference that he finally questioned his dairy consumption and decided to change his lifestyle to be completely vegan. This example demonstrates how education and awareness are important for people to stop consuming dairy and end the suffering of sentient beings, and why veganism needs to be understood as an accessible lifestyle for all. 


What You Can Do 

Change Your Dietary Habits

Learning about the lived reality of dairy cows and how your consumption of dairy harms animals may not be easy. Fortunately, there is a lot you can do moving forward. Many of us enjoy milk in our coffee, tea, cereal and other foods and beverages, but did you know there are several replacements? Try soy milk in your coffee or cereal, coconut milk in your smoothies and desserts, and cashew milk in soups and curries.

Soy, coconut, and almond-based yogurts are all excellent alternatives to add to fruit in the morning. Tofu, cashews and almonds make delicious vegan cheeses, dips, and spreads. The possibilities are endless and there are so many alternatives out there without ever having to compromise flavour or vital nutrients. If the temptation for dairy arises, ask yourself if the few minutes of pleasure you get from a piece of cheese is worth a cow’s lifetime of pain and suffering.

There is no longer a reason to continue consuming dairy, given several existing affordable, delicious, and healthy vegan alternatives. It is possible to eat well without making a real sacrifice. Restaurants, cafés, grocery stores and ice cream parlours adjust their products to meet consumer demand. We are now seeing once entirely dairy-based creameries offering up dairy-free soft serve. Let’s continue encouraging businesses to go vegan now and participate in this long-overdue change. 

Educate Others 

While communication with non-vegans can be frustrating if you are vegan, there are effective ways to educate and raise awareness. Talk to your friends and family about why you chose a vegan lifestyle. Share research with them that makes them aware of the realities of dairy farms. Host a dinner party and introduce your friends to all of the incredible vegan products and recipes out there. Host a movie night for your friends, and watch a documentary that exposes animal abuse within the dairy industry. Organize a book club and lead discussions about dairy farms to get people thinking about ways they can help end animal cruelty. Join an animal-rights group in your community, like the Society for the Protection of Animals (SPA Canada). You could even start an animal-rights advocacy group yourself! The opportunities for educating and raising awareness to others are truly endless.

 Unite for the Cause 

Veganism is in many ways a political fight. There is a clear problem that exists, one that most people either are not fully aware of or are made to feel that it is justified. For a long time, many of us have thought that the dairy industry was not as bad as the meat industry. Advertising and marketing leads us to believe that cows live happily on farms. Today, in 2020, we know this is not true. But most of us vegans wouldn’t have arrived at this understanding had we not had a patient friend answer all of our questions and continually share research with us that invited us to question ourselves. Most people have some sense that dairy is problematic, but they don’t know how bad it truly is, or how they can change. Often, it takes education and awareness derived from conversations, research, and documentaries to change that. 

For these reasons, vegans should leave the door open for people to enter. Shouting insults at vegetarians or people who consume dairy will not change their minds. Instead, it will push them away and make them think that this fight is not accessible to them. By informing non-vegans in a way that makes them question themselves and their consumption of dairy, we can make this fight everyone’s fight, and make a real change for the animals who so desperately need it.