Exploring the Ethics of Plant-Based Lifestyles

By Martina Facchin. Image from thebitingtruth.com.

Many believe a vegan lifestyle is the most ethical lifestyle. While a vegetarian diet means one does not contribute to the slaughter of animals for consumption and avoids the pollution associated with this process, a  vegan lifestyle goes one step further – by avoiding all animal products and byproducts. This includes our favourite milk chocolate bars or cheese omelette. By avoiding byproducts like milk, one avoids contributing to the forceful impregnation of cows, often referred to as either “artificial insemination” or “rape” depending who you talk to. In addition, there is a significant environmental benefit to decreasing the amount of cows raised, as this process requires lots of land, food and water and releases a lot of methane. However, the source of soy, avocados and other vegan staples is often unsustainable and unethical. This article will explore the potentially lesser known consequences of a vegan lifestyle, and look at veganism through a critical lens. It will not, however, make a judgement on what diet is the most ethical or healthy.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, meat consumption was responsible for 14.5% of anthropogenic gas emissions in 2013.[1] However, raising livestock also plays a fundamental role in maintaining arable land and bringing nutrients to soil in the midst of desertification as well as employing those who work on farms.[2]

When looking at super-foods like avocados or soy, there are some large environmental costs. For example, Mexico, where 40% of the world’s avocados are grown, has experienced rapidly increasing deforestation, at 2.5% a year.[3]  In addition, the pesticides sprayed on avocado farms have been linked to health issues for the local residents in areas like Michoacan. Not only are pesticides and deforestation harming both the environment Mexican citizens, the avocado has becoming increasingly profitable. According to the Independent UK, avocado exports increased from $60 million to $1.5 billion from 2003-2015. With such high returns, organised crime in Mexico has moved into the avocado business resulting in the term, “blood avocado.”[4] Other than avocado, soy, which is used tofu and soy sauce, and vegetable oil has been condemned by the WWF for its role in increasing deforestation, decreasing biodiversity, and displacing indigenous peoples. However, while soy is definitely a superfood for vegans and vegetarians, a large portion of soy production goes toward feeding livestock.[5] The ethical concern extends to other products, like almond farming in California, which was partially blamed for the 2012-2017 water-drought.[6] Further, Human Rights Watch has labeled cashews from Vietnam as “blood cashews” as drug addicts are forced to shell them.[7]

According to a study by Carnegie Mellon University, eating basic fruits and vegetables along with “superfoods” like soy or quinoa requires more resources per calories than pork or chicken.[8]

Since some doubts about the ethical and environmental benefits of veganism and vegetarian diets have been raised, some people have tried to find other alternatives. One example is the ethical omnivore movement. This means consuming animal products but only eating local, organic and humanely-raised meat while championing soil health and biodiversity. Hence, ethical omnivores do not support mono-crops of vegetables raised with pesticides.[9]

Overall, there are still some environmental and ethical concerns even within a vegan died. There is much to consider, from greenhouse gas emissions to loss of biodiversity and deforestation to the displacement of small farmers or indigenous peoples. We must also acknowledge that not all vegetables, fruits or legumes are farmed by legal, well-paid workers, which is an issue that begs further exploration.

Ultimately, due to increasingly competitive market pressures and the drive to make a profit, any food industry, whether it be almonds or dairy , is likely to raise some ethical concerns. However, we all have to sustain ourselves, and the moral responsibility of choive rests on each of us as informed. However,  the question of how much agency an individual, perhaps even more so a university student with little to no income, has to change this problematic production  system remains to be calculated. It is imperative to note that having choice regarding what to eat is a luxury that many do not have, and that angle of the vegetarian/vegan lifestyles is additioanlly a pertinent topic of exploration.


[1] Lucy Siegle, “Is Being Vegan the Most Ethical Way to Live? | Lucy Siegle,” The Guardian, March 29, 2015, sec. Environment, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/29/should-i-go-vegan-lucy-siegle.

[2]Lucy Siegle, “Is Being Vegan the Most Ethical Way to Live? | Lucy Siegle,” The Guardian, March 29, 2015, sec. Environment, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/29/should-i-go-vegan-lucy-siegle.

[3] “Stop Eating Avocados. Immediately,” The Independent, November 4, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/why-you-should-stop-eating-avocados-immediately-mexico-environmental-damage-chemicals-a7397001.html.

[4]“Stop Eating Avocados. Immediately,” The Independent, November 4, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/why-you-should-stop-eating-avocados-immediately-mexico-environmental-damage-chemicals-a7397001.html.

[5]“Soy | Industries | WWF,” World Wildlife Fund, accessed February 12, 2019, https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/soy.

[6]“California Almonds, Partly Blamed for Water Shortage, Now Dropping in Price | The Sacramento Bee,” accessed February 12, 2019, https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/water-and-drought/article57432423.html.

[7]Andrew Marshall, “From Vietnam’s Forced-Labor Camps: ‘Blood Cashews,’” Time, September 6, 2011, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2092004,00.html.

[8]“Are Plant Based Diets Destroying the Planet?,” Epigram, February 14, 2018, https://epigram.org.uk/2018/02/14/are-plant-based-diets-destroying-the-planet/.

[9]“Why Eating Vegetarian May Not Be the Most Ethical Diet | The Star,” thestar.com, accessed February 12, 2019, https://www.thestar.com/life/2017/04/10/why-eating-vegetarian-may-not-be-the-most-ethical-diet.html.

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