It’s not necessary to look very far to find the inspiration behind the Society of Legal Vegetarians and Vegans (SoLVe). As I see it, we formed the group to recognise the obvious connection between veganism and better laws governing animals.
Over the past seven years, I’ve consistently propounded the idea that we cannot simply rely upon the law to protect animals from cruelty. As drafted, our laws offer lots of window dressing, but in reality are little more than a series of loopholes and exemptions, all designed to allow us to express outrage at those who beat up dogs and cats, and simultaneously exculpate those responsible for the vast majority of animal suffering: people involved in the industrial production of animal products.
While there is certainly much that can be done at the legislative and judicial level to improve our laws, I am a huge believer in the notion that obtaining better conditions for animals in New Zealand – not to mention the rest of the world – requires an enhanced focus on getting people to go vegetarian, or better yet, vegan. [Incidentally, going vegan is better for the effects listed below because it constitutes a dramatic change in a person’s individual demand away from animal products. A new vegetarian may only shift demand from meat to dairy and eggs, or reduce it marginally, whereas a vegan shifts demand entirely away from animal products]
Why? It’s because the battle over animal rights is primarily an economic one. Our current system of farming is premised on a model of animal production that concentrates on economic efficiency, and low per-unit cost. Producers almost invariably resist change premised on welfare concerns because of the cost involved in treating animals more compassionately, complaining that imposing constraints will increase expenses and render their businesses unprofitable. Faced with lobbying from powerful primary industries, governments tend to capitulate, allowing cruel practices to continue in one form or another (see, for example, battery hen cages, sow stalls, etc), even while expressing public concern for animal welfare.
Dramatically increasing the number of vegans in New Zealand would have three noteworthy effects to help counteract these concerns. First, and most obviously, increasing the vegan market reduces demand for the products in question that impose the suffering most directly. Having too big of a supply of animal products will cause incremental pain for the industries in question, and eventually cause them to scale back operations. Obviously, this is a long-term goal, but one to aspire to. Less animals farmed equals less animals harmed.
But convincing people of the merits of going vegetarian or vegan has two spill-on effects that should not be neglected. One is that the larger market of vegans creates a good deal of demand for alternative products. Thus, it increases the choices available for those who wish to become vegan, but are scared of what they will have to give up to do so. I have complained for some time about the food options available in New Zealand, comparing these to what I can get when I travel to North America or Asia, where there are some amazing vegan products on offer. Much of the scarcity here stems from the relatively low purchasing power of vegans. Is it any wonder that buying a package of Tofutti ice cream sandwiches from the SAFE shop costs $30, instead of the $6 it costs in North America? With so few of us purchasing, the cost of getting these products into the country remains scandalously high on a per-item basis. SAFE isn’t ripping us off. It’s just that bringing food into the country in small quantities is horrendously expensive, and the costs have to be passed onto the consumer.
Obviously, I’d rather have more options, but the relative lack of good vegan food choices doesn’t just make my life more difficult; it inhibits people from making the choice to come on board. If going vegan is really a challenge, and the only way to do it is by giving up everyday food without reasonably affordable and comparably tasty alternatives, people are less likely to make that choice. It’s just that simple. The good news is that more vegans equates to greater demand, which is inevitably going to lead to better options down the road. It’s just how the market works. As crazy as it sounds, we need to have more vegans in order to get more vegans.
That’s not the only impact, of course. Increasing the number of people who are concerned enough about animal use to change their diet will have long-term effect in the political arena as well. Building our numbers will give animal advocates a good deal of clout. When we comprise a small percentage of the population, it’s easy to be ignored. But as our numbers grow, the impetus for change will become too loud for politicians to easily overlook. Being vegan will become ‘normal’, ‘acceptable’ and something for people to think about. Now that’s a change worth aspiring towards.
The whole point of SoLVe was to create a place where those who were concerned about the poor state of the law affecting animals could find a useful outlet for their emotions. Let’s show lawyers, law students, and others that going vegan is not ‘hard’, ‘freakish’ or ‘unusual’. At the end of the day, it’s the only sensible way to make a difference to the millions of animals caught in the industrial meat and dairy trap.