Does Going Vegan "Save" Animals' Lives?

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A white woman cuddles a baby lamb.

Hinterhaus Productions / Getty Images

I took issue before with an argument from a "conscious carnivore" that going vegetarian would not stop factory farming. After all, whether you eat more humanely reared meat, or eschew meat all together, both options clearly reduce demand for intensively-raised factory farm products. Vegetarianism and veganism have a huge impact on the food system. But, as with any important debate, it is vital that we define our terms. And there is one meme that I keep struggling with from the vegan camp—that veganism somehow "saves the lives" of the animals that are currently raised for food.

Surely it just eliminates them? As I noted in my post on what a vegan world actually looks like, there are plenty of good reasons to go vegan, vegetarian, or at least to reduce the amount of meat you eat. From making sure your lifestyle is as cruelty free as possible, to stopping the very real environmental impacts of animal farming, many of us who do believe that animal husbandry is an important part of truly integrated sustainable farming are cutting back significantly on our meat and dairy intake too. (Even culinary bad boy Anthony Bourdain says society would be better if we eat less meat.)

Do Vegan Advocates Evoke a False Utopia?

A white hand touches the chestnut fur on a farm animal.

Roman Donar / EyeEm / Getty Images

Of course committed vegans who have thought long and hard about what their lifestyle entails probably do not harbor a vision of happy pigs and lambs, frolicking in fields, being kept alive purely for the joy of living. Most vegans I know actually envision a world where domesticated animals are a thing of the past—much like we look back on slavery and shudder. Yet I meet others who do hold a fairly naive view of a utopian coexistence between humans and those cute little piggies—and I can't help but feel that this naivety is fueled by some of the rhetoric coming from veggie advocates.

Maybe I am just interpreting them wrong, but from claims that vegetarians "spare the lives of 50 animals a year", to this recent guest column on Meatless Mondays from a PETA activist, "saving lives" crops up again and again in the arguments for animal-product free lifestyles:

While going vegan is the best way to save the planet and to save lives - our own and those of animals - people who aren't yet willing to stop eating meat entirely can still help by not eating meat for at least one day a week.

The truth is that all domesticated farm animals exist today in the numbers they do because they are useful to humans in one way or another. And where we to stop raising them for meat, dairy or other products, most would pretty quickly cease to be. (Either that, or we would have gigantic animal sanctuaries that would completely negate the environmental benefits of veganism.)

Is Preventing Birth Saving a Life?

Young farmers working in a misty field together picking vegetables.

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Yes, such a reality would technically "save" billions of animals from slaughter—but only by making sure they never existed in the first place. And if sustainable veganic farming really can be made viable, it may also create more room for other species to exist happily in the wild as farmland returns to its wild state. But the reality of a vegan future is a little more complex than can be summed up with the simple notion of "saving lives."

As I say, most committed vegans will most likely see nothing new in my observations. And I hope they will not take offense—a vegan lifestyle remains a very valid response to our screwed up food systems. But if we're going to advocate for animal-free farming systems, let's do so with a clear vision of what that world might truly look like.