From ethical questions to conflicting nutritional advice, Ruby O’Connor examines the science behind a vegan lifestyle

It seems that everyone is becoming a vegan these days. For those who don’t know what a plant-based lifestyle is– although surely most people have encountered a vegan who likes to talk about veganism by now – being a vegan means abstaining from consuming animal products. There are many reasons why someone may decide to be vegan. Someone may have moral obligations to raising and killing animals for food and clothing, where animal cruelty is common. Others avoid animal products in an effort to combat climate change. Many forgo animal products for their personal health, as a vegan diet is shown to lower cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and certain types of cancer. However, there are potential downsides to the vegan lifestyle. Essential nutrients such as choline, vitamin B-12, iron, calcium, and vitamin D, which are found in meat and dairy products are lacking in the traditional vegan diet.

The Vegan Society of Ireland argues for compassion for animals and believes that animals have a right to life. For them, “being vegan is the next logical step”. In this way, veganism takes moral and philosophical issue with humans taking the lives of animals for their own benefit. In addition, The Vegan Society of Ireland believes that welfare standards will never be met completely and that the processes used to produce meat and dairy are inhumane and cruel. For example, cows on dairy farms sometimes have their tails docked, as it improves efficiency when milking. Tail docking is the removal of an animal’s tail, and the way in which the process is carried out is particularly gruesome. The cow’s tail is pinched with a rubber band to cut off blood from the tail, which causes it to die. In Ireland in 2014, “one-third of beef, dairy and calf-rearing farms inspected for animal welfare by the Department of Agriculture […] were found not to be fully compliant”, mostly due to tail docking. Females are forcibly inseminated so they will give birth and lactate, over and over again.  Calves are also taken away from their mothers as soon as they are born, which is another argument that welfare standards are not met by the dairy and meat industry. What’s more is that in large industrial farms or as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) calls them, “factory farms”, the animals often live in tiny and filthy cages until they are slaughtered. They are also force fed and pumped full of hormones to yield the ‘ideal’ product. The conditions in which meat and dairy are produced is only one reason why someone might become vegan. 

Meat and dairy farms also have other harmful impacts on nature contributing to climate change. Vegans choose not to eat meat and dairy in an effort to do their part in reducing water usage, emissions of greenhouse gases and pollution. Raising farms of cows for milk and meat consumes an enormous amount of water. PETA states the number as 683 gallons of water needed to produce one gallon of milk and 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. PETA argues that by eating a vegan alternative, such as tofu, which only requires 244 gallons of water per pound, we can conserve water.  Farms also take up a lot of land, land which needs to be cleared or deforested to be used. This in turn endangers biodiversity as deforestation takes away animal’s habitats. In terms of emissions one study on livestock based food production in the United States in 2014 found that it causes “about one-fifth of the global greenhouse gas emissions.” Pollution is also a major side effect of farming, contaminating lakes, rivers, air and land with animal excrement. However, sustainable farming does exist on a small scale, which attempts to minimize damage to the environment through increased efficiency, farm redesign or substitution of harmful products (such as fertilizers). 

However, the research surrounding the vegan diet is not one sided. Many studies warn that the vegan diet is sorely lacking in many essential nutrients. One of these nutrients is vitamin B-12, which is absent from the vegan diet because plants do not make vitamin B-12. Another nutrient notoriously absent from the vegan diet is iron. Interestingly, this is not because vegans consume less iron, but because they are not able to store it as efficiently. Vegans have also been shown to have low levels of calcium and iron. These nutrients are relatively well known and easy to supplement. However, a new study questions whether vegans get enough choline, which is an essential nutrient found primarily in meat and dairy products. It says that “choline is critical to brain health, especially during fetal development.” These studies indicate that the Vegan diet needs to be approached with a great deal of thought and research as to decrease the risk of developing nutrient deficiencies.