Today’s topic might be nauseatingly familiar to my fellow vegans out there, because it’s a conversation we frequently find ourselves in. It’s the age-old retort most people level when the discussion turns to veganism – “But we’re meant to eat meat!” It’s incredibly easy to go down this rabbit hole in a conversation, and before long you’ll find yourself googling digestive tracts and arguing over photos of different animals’ teeth. (Really though, carnivore teeth? We have two front teeth that have slight points at the end.) Although it is tempting to argue about the evolution of human nutrition, given all of the incredible health benefits of a plant-based diet, this debate is a red herring. My entire outlook on the evolution topic changed when I realized that the fundamental conversation around veganism has to do with morality much more than anything else. Vegans don’t need to prove that humans evolved to eat only plant products. We don’t even need to prove that a plant-based diet is the most healthy. All we need to prove is that eating animal products is not necessary.
Veganism makes the moral claim that causing unnecessary suffering is wrong – and that animals are sentient beings who suffer and are thus worthy of our moral consideration. When people argue that humans evolved to eat meat, they are really trying to get at the “necessity” aspect of this claim. Causing needless suffering to animals is obviously wrong. Most of us condemn pet abuse and were rightly angered to learn about whale abuse at Seaworld. But what if farm animal suffering is necessary? After all, is it wrong for the lion to kill the gazelle?
Here’s the thing. We’re not lions. It is completely unnecessary for us to eat meat. The argument that our evolution requires us to exploit and kill 60+ billion animals a year would hold more weight if a plant-based diet significantly degraded our health – if it was linked to diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and was found to shorten our lifespan. A plant-based diet does none of these things, however, and it has actually been found to have profoundly positive health effects.
Some more science-savvy meat-eaters may reply that eating meat is necessary for our health because it supplies specific micronutrients. There is actually only one micronutrient that cannot be found in meaningful quantities in a vegan diet, and that is B12. B12 is found in meat and eggs, but it is actually produced by bacteria in the soil and stomachs of many animals, provided that cobalt is available in soil or animal’s diet. Today’s factory-farmed animals (that represent 99% of the farmed animals in the U.S.) are rarely if ever fed an optimal diet, so they are supplemented with B12 to produce meat that is rich in this necessary nutrient. Vegans supplement B12 because it cannot be found naturally in our diets; we just skip the step of supplementing animals and take the vitamin ourselves.
So no, it does not matter that B12 is not found naturally in a vegan diet. If all you have to do to stay healthy while not contributing to the mass suffering of billions of animals is take a vitamin every couple of days, it seems that this suffering is pretty needless. The ease and availability of B12 supplements renders animal product consumption completely unnecessary.
I’m a huge proponent of the health benefits of a plant-based diet. I myself have seen such an improvement in my health since starting this lifestyle, including weight loss, clearer skin, increased energy, and a huge improvement in digestion. So many doctors are starting to catch on to these advantages and recommending that their patients transition to a plant-based diet to reverse certain lifestyle diseases and improve overall health. These benefits are only compounded with a focus on whole foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. I truly believe that a whole foods plant-based diet is the healthiest way to eat. But all the health improvements caused by this lifestyle are only the cherry on top of the vegan sundae. Even if a plant-based diet had exactly the same health implications as a standard diet (or even if it were a little bit worse but not detrimental!) going vegan would still be the moral thing to do, because we can be perfectly healthy without animal products.
So while it is a happy coincidence that a whole foods plant-based diet is the healthiest way to eat, it doesn’t necessarily have to be. As vegans we don’t need to prove that our diet is the best there is. All we need to prove is that the suffering of 60 billion farm animals and 100 billion marine animals every year is not needed, because we can be perfectly healthy living in a way that does not contribute to this violence. The millions of vegans leading vibrant lives worldwide show that we do not need animal products to thrive, so the mass exploitation of these sentient beings cannot be necessary.
The next time someone tries to tell you that eating meat is justified because we evolved to do so, our ancestors did it, or that it is healthy, know that you don’t need to bother with circular nutrition or physiology arguments. We’ve already shown that a person can live a long and healthy life without animal products, so whether our ancestors ate them or not doesn’t really matter.