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Vegetarians, unlike meat eaters, face regular questions about their reasons for becoming vegetarian. Many of the reasons fall into the broad categories of ethics, opposition to animal cruelty, sustainability, health and human rights. Each deserves some explanation.
The descriptions might offer food for thought or possibly help a vegetarian save the effort of repeating the same rote speech. Some vegetarians even have a hard time articulating their reasons, having spent so much time around like-minded peers who need no explanation beyond "for human rights."
Granted, this is not a comprehensive list of reasons people become vegetarian. Others become vegetarian because of their religion, family traditions, economics or various other reasons.
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Ethical opposition may be the top reason people choose to be vegetarian. Vegetarians argue anybody who really cares about animals should not eat them. Chickens, cows, pigs and other animals are sentient and intelligent. Many believe they can be slightly inconvenienced to avoid killing animals. Some, including Mahatma Ghandi and Loe Tolstoy believe avoiding the consumption of animals is one path toward world peace.
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2. Animal cruelty
Other vegetarians have less of a general ethical concern with consuming animals, but they are uncomfortable with modern factory farming methods and slaughterhouses. Many animals are crammed into small, filthy enclosures, sometimes too cramped to turn around or lay down. There are few legal limitations on cruelty toward animals in slaughterhouses and feedlots.
Laying hens are kept in wire cages too small for them to move their wings, and they are made filthy by the droppings of the chickens in cages above them. The broilers, or chickens that will become meat, are drugged enough to regularly induce heart attacks, organ failure and crippling leg deformations.
Cattle are also pumped full of drugs, and moved to filthy feedlots at the age of one. As a drive past a slaughterhouse will indicate, the concentration of manure causes a dangerous buildup of methane and other noxious chemicals. Young cattle raised for veal are kept from moving and fed a liquid diet with barely any nutritional value to produce the distinctive flavor and color of veal meat.
Turkeys’ beaks are cut off to keep them from pecking at each other in crowded sheds, and their feathers are typically burned off while the birds are still alive. And don’t even ask a vegetarian about foie gras.
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Other vegetarians have more broad environmental reasons for their decision. Large amounts of finite water and fossil fuels are used to raise animals for meat. An estimated one calorie of oil is used to create one calorie of soy. The rate for beef is 78 times higher, and the rate for chicken is 22 times higher. Likewise, at least 3 to 15 times as much water is used to produce a pound of meat as a pound of vegetable protein. Of course, most animals that are eaten are herbivores, so the energy and water inputs for plants must be added to the energy and water inputs for raising animals and producing meat.
Meat production is also an inefficient use of land. More people can be fed on a smaller plot of land with plants than meat. Similarly, the Amazonian rainforest is rapidly being destroyed to raise livestock. Finally, people can do more to reduce the threat of global climate change by cutting out meat than by not driving. Raising animals for meat production is estimated to create 40 percent more greenhouse-gas emissions than all the cars, trucks, and planes in the world combined.
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4. Personal health
Two of the other main reasons to adopt a vegetarian diet are about humans, not animals or the earth. One is personal health. Vegetarians are less likely to be obese, and are proven to be generally more fit than meat eaters. Every necessary nutrient found in meat is also found in plants, and meat largely has no vitamins.
Plant foods are lower in fat, and contain no cholesterol, which is found only in animals. Meat is also more likely to contain chemicals, hormones and other unnatural additives. Any pesticides and herbicides found in plants are also found in the animals that eat the same plants.
Eating meat is closely connected with heart disease, one of the major killers in the developed world. Likewise, researchers have found connections between meat consumption and cancer. “No chemical carcinogen is nearly so important in causing human cancer as animal protein," said Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a leading epidemiological scientist.
Overall, a vegetarian diet can be financially healthier. Less is spent on health care and the food budget.
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5. Human rights
Several other reasons to become vegetarian would fit under the umbrella of human rights. Roughly 16 pounds of grain is diverted to produce each pound of beef, adding up to and estimated 760 million tons of grain fed to animals raised for meat. The grain could more efficiently feed people directly.
Worker rights are another concern for many vegetarians. Slaughterhouse jobs are notoriously dangerous, and the industry fights most attempts to make safer working conditions for meat industry workers. Factory farms and slaughterhouses are also major sources of pollution, poisoning the air and water for miles surrounding the facilities.