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Frequently Asked Questions about Veganism

What is a vegan?

A vegan is someone who chooses not to eat any food that comes from animals (i.e., meat, dairy and eggs). 

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What are the reasons to be vegan?

Many people are vegan for ethical reasons-they don’t wish to contribute to the suffering of animals. Every year in the U.S., about 10 billion land animals and 15 to 20 billion sea creatures are killed for food. The vast majority of pigs, cows, chickens, and turkeys sold in the U.S. are raised on factory farms, where they are used like pieces of living machinery to produce meat, milk and eggs. Like we ourselves, these animals feel pain and don't want to die. Because people don't need to eat animal products to live healthily, most vegans believe it is unethical to take animals' lives needlessly and against their will.

Vegan diets are also very healthy, and are mostly low in fat and cholesterol yet high in fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. Plant foods are also naturally cholesterol-free, while meat, dairy and eggs have extremely high cholesterol content. Cholesterol buildup in the arteries is the main cause of cardiovascular disease, the number one killer in the U.S., taking more lives than the five next most common causes of death combined.* Scientific research also links over-consumption of animal products with other common (and deadly) ailments, such as cancer, diabetes and obesity. Visit www.pcrm.org/health/veginfo/vegetarian_foods.html for more information on the health benefits of veganism.

A vegan diet uses far fewer resources (e.g., water, land, petroleum, etc.) than a meat-based diet. Factory farms also pollute the air, land and water in our communities, endangering people and destroying habitats for wildlife. To learn more about the environmental impact of industrial animal agriculture, visit www.earthsave.org/environment/foodchoices.htm

In addition, veganism can help alleviate hunger and malnutrition around the world. At any given time, there are about 20 billion farmed animals on the planet, which is more than three times the total human population. These animals eat many times the amount of food consumed by the world's human population, yet they can't produce nearly enough meat, milk and eggs to feed everyone. If people ate the plants now fed to animals, there would be more than enough food to eliminate world hunger. 

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What is a factory farm?

About 98% of the meat, milk and eggs sold in America comes from animals raised on factory farms, also known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Factory farming has been developed over the course of the last half-century to maximize production and profit by crowding the greatest number of animals together into the smallest possible space. Animals on factory farms are treated not as living creatures, but as economic units in a mechanized production system. Illustrating this, one hog industry journal advises, "The breeding sow should be thought of, and treated as, a valuable piece of machinery whose function is to pump out baby pigs like a sausage machine."

Some factory farms are like warehouses with cages stacked several levels high, while others cram animals together by the thousands into a single large area. Without exception, factory farms are designed to limit animals' movement, both to conserve space and so animals don't expend calories and lose weight. Severe overcrowding compounded with poor sanitation causes intense stress and spreads disease. The only way to keep animals alive under such filthy and unnatural conditions is to feed them massive amounts of antibiotics. They are also given hormones and genetically bred for rapid growth so that they can be slaughtered at a very young age, living out only a fraction of their natural life spans.

The majority of chickens, pigs, cows and other animals on factory farms don't have grass to walk on, hay to lie in or even access to the outdoors – ever. Most spend their entire lives confined indoors and only see sunlight when they are driven to a slaughterhouse. 

Animals raised on factory farms live and die in fear, terror and helplessness. By going vegan, you can help end their suffering by refusing to support practices that hurt animals. To learn more about factory farms, visit www.idausa.org/veganism_campaign.html. Also watch Undercover TV to see investigative video footage from inside factory farms. 

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How does eating dairy products (e.g., milk, cheese and ice cream) harm cows?

Like all mammals, cows only produce milk after giving birth to feed their babies. In order to keep them lactating year-round, farmers artificially inseminate dairy cows and force them to give birth every year, which is not their natural behavior. A cow's gestation period is the same as that of a human mother, and each cow is expected to produce milk during seven of her pregnancy's nine months. With genetic manipulation and mechanized production, modern dairy cows produce 100 pounds of milk a day – ten times more than they would produce in nature. While cows can live well into their twenties, they are slaughtered for hamburger when their milk production declines, which usually occurs well before their fifth birthday. 

To prevent baby cows on factory farms from drinking "our" milk, they are taken from their mothers within 24 hours of birth. While female calves are raised to eventually replace their mothers as milk producers, most male calves born to dairy cows are raised for veal. These baby cows are chained by the neck inside crates measuring just two feet wide so their muscles won't develop and their flesh will remain tender. When they grow large enough to turn a profit for the producer, these babies are sent to slaughter.

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How does eating eggs harm chickens?

Female chickens raised to lay eggs on factory farms live their entire lives in wire cages stacked upon one another. They are packed so tightly together that each hen has only a space about the size of a standard sheet of paper, not even enough room to lift her wings. Confined tightly their entire lives, the chickens often lose most of their feathers rubbing against the wire cage walls. Debeaking – in which part of the chickens' sensitive beaks are seared off with a hot blade to prevent them from pecking their cagemates to death in the overcrowded cages – is a common practice on factory farms. 

Battery hens—those raised for eggs—are genetically bred so that each produces approximately 300 eggs per year – about 10 times as much as they naturally would. Yet these devoted mothers never get to raise a single chick. Upon hatching, male and female chicks are separated out. The females are raised in incubators to replace their mothers, and the males are quickly disposed of because they cannot lay eggs and wouldn't grow big enough to be raised for meat. They are usually left in garbage bags to suffocate or ground up alive for fertilizer. 

When hens become "unproductive," they are either "force molted" (i.e., starved for two weeks so that they lose up to one-third of their body weight) in order to shock them into another laying cycle or sent to slaughter. Hens can live well into their twenties, yet they usually become "spent" and are slaughtered at around two years of age.

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What about eating fish?

Scientific studies confirm that fish have a complex nervous system and can feel physical pain.** Like mammals, fish feel pain as part of a biological survival mechanism: pain alerts fish to danger so that they can avoid it. Fish immediately begin to suffocate when pulled from the water into our atmosphere, and the sudden pressure change can rupture their swim bladder. 

Industrial fishing is also environmentally devastating. Commercial fisheries locate schools of fish using satellite-tracking equipment, and cover miles of ocean with gigantic nets that trap everything in their path, killing millions of animals that are not even valued by the industry, such as sea turtles, dolphins, and sea lions. These indiscriminate clear-cutting methods have led to chronic overfishing, which has depleted fish stocks and made intensive aquaculture (breeding fish on "farms") increasingly common. Raised in overcrowded caged enclosures, farmed fish live in water infested with bacteria that forms from a surplus of excrement. When the fish are ready for market, they are dumped into large mesh cages where they suffocate to death.

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Animals aren't intelligent, so isn't it all right to eat them?

It is a common misconception that because animals can't do everything humans can (e.g., speak French, understand physics or build cars) they are not intelligent. However, recent scientific studies demonstrate that farmed animals are at least as smart as dogs and cats, and that they can think, reason and comprehend complex intellectual concepts. They also experience emotions and have a strong need for nurturing relationships. For example:

· Research shows that pigs are much smarter than dogs and that their intellectual abilities exceed those of the average three-year-old human child. Mother pigs sing to their young while nursing, and pigs have more than 20 vocalizations to communicate everything from hunger to courtship intentions. 

· Dr. Chris Evans, head of the animal behavior lab at Macquarie University in Australia, says that chickens are as smart as mammals and even some primates. Research demonstrates chickens' understanding that recently hidden objects have not disappeared, an intellectual capacity lacking in human infants. Hens are dedicated mothers who turn their eggs up to five times an hour. They also cluck to their chicks, who chirp back from inside their shells.

· Research shows that cows have the ability to solve problems and that they enjoy intellectual challenges. Studies done at Cambridge University showed that cows experienced a "eureka" moment upon discovering a solution to a problem. Their brainwaves and heart rate increased, and some even jumped in the air. While each cow can recognize more than 100 other individual members of their herd, they commonly develop close bonds with only a few others. Cows even shed tears when someone close to them passes away.

· Based on a review of over 500 research papers, biologists reported in the August 2003 issue of Fish & Fisheries that fish are highly intelligent and socially sophisticated: they can recognize individual shoal mates, learn from each other, employ long-term memory, and even use tools. Fish have particularly complex spatial memories that enable them to navigate vast areas of ocean using cues such as polarized light, sounds, smells, and visual landmarks.

Recent discoveries about the emotional experiences and intellectual capabilities of farmed animals confirm that we share much more in common with them than most people had previously realized. Naturally, this new knowledge raises important concerns about whether killing and eating farmed animals is ethically justifiable. To learn more about the lives of farmed animals, visit www.goveg.com/amazingAnimals.asp.

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Animals eat other animals in nature, so isn't it natural for humans to eat animals, as well?

Most animals that eat meat in nature do so because they must in order to survive. Animals known as obligate or true carnivores (like lions, sharks and polar bears) have sharp teeth and powerful jaws with which to kill and eat their prey raw, including entrails, organs, fur and all. Their digestive systems (e.g., intestines and stomach acids) are also designed to process raw animal flesh. Other animals, known as omnivores, eat a combination of animals and plants.

Our closest genetic cousin, the chimpanzee, eats small amounts of meat (1% - 4% of total diet) when it is available, but can live healthily without it. The typical human eats far more than this amount of meat as a proportion of total diet. Overall per capita meat consumption has risen in industrialized countries with the development and spread of factory farming. The abuses that take place on factory farms and the enormous amounts of meat that most people eat are both completely at odds with what people normally consider "natural." Furthermore, no animal in nature is known to consume the milk of another species. Likewise, it is unnatural for humans to consume foods made from the milk of cows, goats, sheep or any other animal. About 75% of the world’s population is estimated to be lactose-intolerant, which is common among people of Asian, South American and African descent.

As children, our "natural" response to seeing a dead animal is revulsion, and most children who find out that meat comes from dead animals are horrified. In general, animal flesh is only palatable to humans when it is cooked, and eating raw meat poses serious (and sometimes fatal) health risks. Only through long-term cultural reinforcement (from other people, schooling, and the media) do we learn to "outgrow" our initial disgust with the idea of eating dead animal flesh and develop a taste for it. 

Finally, humans have the ability to reason about ethical concerns and to refrain from needlessly harming or killing other living, breathing creatures for food. People can make this choice without jeopardizing their own survival because we don't need to eat animal flesh to be healthy and live naturally. 

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What would happen to all the farmed animals if people stopped eating them?

Some meat eaters express concern that if people stopped eating meat, all the farmed animals would die of starvation or be set loose in the wild to destroy natural habitats. However, the economics of supply and demand make this scenario extremely unlikely. 

Each individual who goes vegan both reduces the overall consumer demand for animal products and leaves the meat, dairy and egg industries less money to raise and slaughter animals. Industries must respond to consumer demand in order to remain profitable, so fewer and fewer animals will be raised for food as the demand for meat, dairy and eggs gradually diminishes. 

In addition, since the 1980s, sanctuaries have been established around the world for farmed animals. Many of the animals at these sanctuaries were rescued from factory farms and now greet visitors as ambassadors for their species. As people's concern for farm animals grows, sanctuaries will have greater support and more resources to help farmed animals. For more information and to find a farmed animal sanctuary near you, visit www.farmanimalshelters.org

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Don't plants feel pain, too?

Unlike animals and humans, plants do not appear to have pain receptors, neurons or other types of physiological structures that would enable them to experience pain. In fact, plants do not even have a brain, which in animals is the organ that "interprets" pain coming from the senses. Given our present scientific understanding, it seems unlikely that plants feel pain. If they do, it may be a very different kind of "pain" from that which humans and animals feel.

However, even if it were proven that plants felt pain, a vegan diet would still cause much less suffering to both plants and animals. The animals used to make meat, dairy and eggs eat many times the amount of plant matter of the entire human population, yet converting plants into animal flesh uses resources inefficiently, so they don't produce nearly enough food to feed everyone. In addition, millions of acres of forest are cleared to grow food to feed farmed animals, but we wouldn't need to grow so many crops if people ate the plants themselves. Anyone who is truly concerned that plants feel pain should go vegan to reduce the number of plants they indirectly consume by eating meat.

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Do vegans get enough protein?

Yes. Many vegan foods are high in protein, including soy products, nuts, beans, legumes, grains, and even many vegetables. You do not need to combine these foods in any special way to provide "complete" protein, and you can easily get all essential amino acids from plant-based foods. You will not suffer from a protein deficiency so long as you eat enough calories from a variety of sources. 

People in affluent societies generally eat too much meat and therefore too much protein. Research shows that excessive protein consumption contributes to kidney disease, cancer and osteoporosis. For more information, visit www.pcrm.org/health/veginfo/vsk/protein_myth.html

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Is a vegan diet healthy for children?

Yes. Research shows that a vegan diet can support children at any stage of life, and that vegan children are generally healthier than their meat-eating counterparts. According to the late Dr. Benjamin Spock, in the latest edition of his book Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, “Children who grow up getting their nutrition from plant foods rather than meats … are less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and some forms of cancer.***

Visit Keep Kids Healthy to learn about raising vegan kids.

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What is the meaning of "animal rights"?

Animal rights is a philosophy and movement founded on compassion for animals and the right of all beings to live free from exploitation. Animals, like humans, experience pain and pleasure. Whatever happens to an animal – whether she is confined or free, neglected or nurtured – means a world of difference to her, even if it matters to no one else. Recognizing this, animal rights advocates maintain that animals exist not for our use but for themselves, and that we do not have the right to intentionally exploit, hurt and kill animals simply because we are able.

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How can I help farmed animals?

The best thing you can do for animals in your everyday life is to go vegan, or at least begin reducing your consumption of animal products. As a vegan, you automatically withdraw your support from industries that profit off of animal suffering and death. Factory farms will supply animal products cheaply for as long as people pay for them. Fortunately, the number of vegans has grown in recent years, and more people are starting to question the ethics of eating animals.

For all the progress the vegan and animal rights movements have made, there remains a very long way to go towards winning respect for animals. In order for a vegan future to be possible, people who care about animals must take organized action today. It is crucial that vegans engage in outreach and other types of activism to educate people about animal abuse on factory farms. There are many things you can do to help animals, from subscribing to IDA's writer's group to handing out leaflets at fairs or festivals. Please visit www.idausa.org/ir.html for more ideas, or contact IDA at idainfo@idausa.org.

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* American Heart Association. Heart and Stroke Statistical Update: 2004 Update. Dallas: American Heart Association.
** Rose, J. The Neurobehavioral Nature of Fishes and the Question of Awareness and Pain. Reviews in Fisheries Science, 101-38 (2003).
*** Benjamn Spock, M.D., and Steven J. Parker, M.D., Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, 1996 (New York: Pocket Books), p. 333.



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