Ethics and Eating

David Welsh grew up in Edinburgh, and first went along to the Edinburgh Buddhist Centre at the age of 17. After doing a degree in Norwegian at Edinburgh University, he moved to Cambridge in 2003 to work at Windhorse. In 2006 he moved to Oslo to continue his studies and support the burgeoning FWBO centre there. David has a blog called Field of the Gods.

Like a lot of people, it was only when I started to get more involved in Buddhism that I gave the question of eating meat any thought at all. Eating meat was just something that almost everyone seemed to do, and very few seemed to question. But when I started to give the ethical questions involved a little serious thought, I knew I couldn’t justify the killing of innocent animals just to satisfy my tastes. For me, going vegetarian was a liberating and exciting experience. I started thinking more about what I was eating, and exploring new foods and cuisines. Above all, I enjoyed eating more, because I was doing it with a clearer conscience - one of my first tastes of the positive effects of acting more ethically.

But it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I gave veganism any thought. It was much the same pattern - I didn’t know any vegans, and eating animal products like eggs and cheese was something that almost everyone seemed to do and very few seemed to question, even at the Buddhist Centre.

Like most people, I had just assumed that, as cows naturally make milk and chickens produce eggs, there couldn’t be much of an ethical issue in humans harvesting these products and using them. When I discovered the truth about how these animals are treated, I was shocked.

Like all mammals, cows only produce milk to feed their young. Therefore, the only way to keep the supply of milk coming is to make the cows continually pregnant. After a cow gives birth, her calf is taken away from her and usually killed. These days, through selective breeding, cows produce a lot more milk than they would naturally, which results in lameness and painful diseases of the udders. When their bodies start to get worn out from the continual cycle of pregnancy and over-milking, it’s off to the slaughterhouse, and a terrifying and painful end to their short lives. Cows have a natural lifespan of about 25 years, but most dairy cattle are slaughtered at the age of five.

The plight of battery chickens is a little better known than that of cows, but you might be surprised to know how little progress has been made towards eradicating the battery system. In the UK, 78% of laying hens are in battery cages, and only 16% are “free-range”. You might buy free range eggs at the supermarket, but what about all the other things you buy that contain eggs? If they’re not specifically advertised as “free-range”, you can be sure that they came from hens who spend their short, miserable lives in wire cages so small that they can’t even stretch their wings, let alone walk around.

The term “free-range” can conjure up idyllic images of hens scratching around a farmyard, living relatively free and peaceful lives. Unfortunately, the reality is usually quite different. The hens are often kept in huge, crowded barns with up to 16,000 other hens. They have access to an outside area, but often less then 50% of the hens actually go outside regularly. The stress caused by the unnatural conditions they are kept in cause them to attack and peck at each other. Rather than improving the conditions that lead to this behaviour, the factory farmer’s solution is simply have the hens’sensitive beaks cut off with a hot blade. And, like cows, when production starts to drop off, it’s off to the slaughterhouse - most laying hens only live for one year.

Another problem with egg production that applies to “free-range” just as much as to caged hens is the issue of the male chick. Some eggs, naturally, are allowed to hatch to replace the chickens that get sent off to slaughter - but only the female chicks will produce eggs, the males are worthless. Normally they’re either tossed, still alive, into a mincer, or just thrown into a bin liner - the weight of the ones at the top slowly crushing the ones underneath to death.

All of this makes for pretty unpleasant reading, but as Buddhists we strive to be aware of the consequences of our actions, and to act in a way that avoids causing harm to other beings. At first, it’s difficult to associate the pain and suffering cause to cows and chickens with the egg sandwich and the latte we had for lunch - just as for most meat-eaters, it’s difficult to see a sausage or a steak as a bit of dead animal. The companies that sell you eggs, milk and meat don’t want you to be confronted with these facts. Information is power - and it’s also responsibility.

To the uninitiated, going vegan might seem complicated, limiting and time-consuming but in fact, I’ve found I much easier than I would have imagined - and it doesn’t involve subsisting on raw seeds and vegetables! There are good animal-free replacements for just about anything you could want - sausages, cheese, ice-cream, chocolate. Pop into a health food shop and you’ll be amazed at all the vegan goodies they have on offer. Even eating out isn’t much of a hassle these days. More and more cafés are offering soya milk, and if you go into any Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai or Italian restaurant, you’ll have no problem getting some good vegan fayre.

Healthwise, there’s little you can do that’s better for your body than going vegan. You’ll increase your life expectancy by up to 10 years, and dramatically cut your chances of getting diseases like heart disease and cancer.

Also, producing animal food uses up a huge amount of energy and resources compared to producing the same number of calories of plant food. Factory farming is making a big contribution to ruining the planet, and going vegan is one of the most effective things we can do to help protect our environment.

Choosing not to consume animal products is a powerful practical statement of our belief, as Buddhists, in the overriding imperative of non-violence - and it’s something each and every one of us can do. As a vegan, I know that every time I sit down to eat, I’m making a decision based on my deepest values of compassion and non-harm, and that I’m helping to making the world a better place for all the living beings I share it with.